On nourishing what I love, and consuming less of what I don’t

NOURISHThis year, I chose “nourish” as my One Little Word. Like last year’s word, “breathe,” it feels a little bit out of character for me. I’m an excellent planner and project manager. I’m hyper-organized. I’m on top of everything. I am not a particularly warm and fuzzy person. You can tell when I’m starting to fall apart when I lose details, as when we were preparing to leave the States for this your in late November.

I’m very outcome focused. It’s not hard for me to tackle a big project and break it down into small achievable steps. SMART goals? Not a problem. I do, however, tend to get lost in the planning and the achieving and the getting things done aspect of Being Theresa Carpenter Sondjo. I’m very proud of how good I am at my job, but I’m less proud of the sacrifices my family and my soul have to make in order to sustain my type-A personality, not just in the Foreign Service, but at home at before I joined State as well.

I can be a difficult person to live with.

So “nourish.”

Part of that, is nourishing the relationships that I love. Part of that is nourishing my body (developing a consistent workout habit was the best thing I did for myself in 2014). Part of that is nourishing the hobbies that I love: writing, paper crafts, cooking, running (!!).

You know what doesn’t nourish anything at all? Hanging out in the living room, iPhone in hand, browsing Facebook. Endless, mindless consumption, particularly in terms of my paper crafting hobby, but also in our home. Stuff. Neverending piles of junk we ship around the world because we can’t bear to admit that we have purchased paid for accumulated consumer goods that we don’t need.

I found this article by Caylee Grey (expat and fellow lover of paper) to be excellent food for thought as I reflect on how I can best nourish my relationships in the coming year. She lists 70 days to produce more than we consume. Some of the highlights for me:

Throw away fears of making embarrassing things. Make them anyway. My theory, that I keep repeating, is that we have a certain number of things that we make that will be rubbish. Best to get them over and done with as soon as possible so that you can move onto the great things.

I dislike intensely being not-good at anything.  I don’t like being bad at CrossFit.  I don’t like creating stuff that I’m not proud of. I don’t even like scrapping mediocre photos, even when they tell a great story.  If it doesn’t look good, I don’t want to waste hours on the process of creation. That’s pretty dumb. I need to focus more on the process, and less on the final product.

You don’t not have supplies. If you have a pen and paper you have supplies. If I can have supplies in a third world African country, you can have supplies.

So true! If I could create in Freetown, there’s no excuse for me not to do so in Jerusalem. It’s very easy for me to use shopping for creative supplies or blog themes or kitchen goods as a substitute for actually sitting down and creating. Especially in a developed city like Jerusalem, I need to glue my ass to a chair and just MAKE STUFF.

Record your creative time and hone it. Just like you would if you were embarking on a new exercising program, keep track in a notebook, or with Lift.

This is a new idea to me, and I think one that will be very useful. How much time am I spending doing the things I love, vs. how much time am I wasting futzing about online?

Go read the whole list. It’s really good.

I’m not explicitly focusing on minimalism this year, but I’m interested to hear how other folks are limiting their consumption and focusing on the things that are important to them this year. How are you doing it? Do you have any suggestions?

Jasmine holding her first hand made card.

On being a working mother

Jasmine holding her first hand made card.

Jasmine holding her first hand made card.  She picked out the paper and the embellishments and the letters, helped cut, then glued everything on herself.  She was SO PROUD of herself.  I was pretty proud of her too.

The good news is that my work hours are far more reasonable than during my last tour, and that both kids are capable of entertaining themselves for a few minutes at a time now. I’m not spending hours at FSI studying Arabic after class because I can’t get any studying done at the house. Even while going to CrossFit a few evenings a week, I’m getting in more time with my kids here in Jerusalem than I have since Jasmine was born.

The bad news is that as they get older, they’re increasingly and visibly hurt by the fact that I leave for work every day. Sure, toddlers are naturally manipulative assholes, but it still breaks my heart when my three-year-old clutches my trousers and begs me, “Maman, please don’t go! You don’t have to! You can stay home and play with me today instead!” And when my one-year-old breaks out into tears while she’s in my husband’s arms, as I quietly disarm the alarm before walking out the door? Ouch.

I don’t get to hear Grace trying out new words for the first time. I don’t get to calm her tears when she falls. I don’t get to ask Jasmine’s teachers how she’s doing, and make sure that they know that when she says she needs to pee, she really really really needs to pee. Increasingly. both kids are going to their father when they need things, anything at all.  I am often the second best solution.  When Dad’s busy, they come to me.

Guilt’s a terrible word laden with all sorts of baggage when we talk about working moms, and it’s not terribly accurate to describe my feelings on being a working mother as “guilty.”  I suppose I’d call the sentiment wistfulness. Certainly, envy. In the long term, I know I’m doing the right thing. The smart thing. The best thing for my family and the best thing for me.  And blah blah blah privileged enough to have one spouse stay at home blah blah blah can afford good private preschools blah blah foreign service lifestyle blah blah blah.  Yeah, I know.  Believe me.  I know.

That knowledge doesn’t make heading out in the mornings any easier, though.

Buying an oil painting in the shouk (market) in Jerusalem

Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem with Kids

We finally had a spare moment to be tourists in Jerusalem, and we took advantage of the free afternoon by visiting the Mahene Yehuda market in downtown Jerusalem. We spent the afternoon shepherding our kids (the only kids at the market who weren’t in  strollers) between vendors and trying to keep other shoppers from tripping over them.

View of Shouk Mahene Yehuda in Jerusalem

Inside the market


I’d been trying to figure out where Jerusalemites do their grocery shopping—certainly the grocery store by our house is outrageously expensive, and I was delighted to find that the market prices were more than reasonable compared to what we’d been purchasing. The whole market was a sensory overload for me and the kids, but a wonderful one!

We walked past this oil painting stall several times, and we finally decided to stop so that Bertrand could browse.  While he was looking at paintings, Jasmine charmed the vendor, and then was charmed herself.  After he took out some kid sized paintings for her to look at, we were charmed too.  We didn’t see anything we had to buy right then and there, but Jasmine was so fascinated by the artwork, we decided to let her pick one out for her room.  She knew exactly what she wanted, and picked out the painting below.  For $13, it was s steal.

Buying an oil painting in the shouk (market) in JerusalemBefore and after painting purchasing, we loaded up on vegetables.

And olives.

Olive vendor in Shouk Mahene Yehuda (market) Jerusalem


I bought a lot of olives. My favorite flavor right now is a little sour and a lot spicy (they’re hidden behind the scale).  I asked this vendor if I could photograph his stand, and he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be in the photo or not.  Finally, he decided to stand stoically behind his wares.

After wandering around for an hour or so, we were all hungry, and the kids were getting tired.  Bertrand spied a schawarma stand, and we quickly bundled the kids into a corner table.  I wish I’d thought to take a picture of their sign, even though I don’t read Hebrew.  The food was fantastic, and the wait staff were truly kind to our children.

Grace digging into some fresh pita

Grace wouldn’t stand for just part of a pita.

One thing I really appreciate about living in Jerusalem is how child-friendly most activities are.  Jerusalemites have a lot of children, and they’re integrated into everyday life here in a way that I, and the kids, are really enjoying.

Fat Crossfitter - too tired to shower, can't to to bed sweaty

Diary of a Fat CrossFitter – CrossFitting in Jerusalem

Fat Crossfitter - too tired to shower, can't to to bed sweatyI went to CrossFit Jerusalem for the first time earlier this week. After a month off, I’d forgot how wonderfully exhausting lifting + a WOD can be. Folks were very welcoming, although the athletes and coaches totally made fun of me for being so American about introducing myself to everyone.

Habits die hard.

It was a relatively deceptively simple workout. Warm up. Back squats 5×5. Then a metcon that focused on the core: box jumps, L-sits (or N-sits, in my case), back extensions (which I did on the ground because who the fuck has time to get on and off the damn machine when you’re doing 20 second tabatas?), and ab mat sit-ups.

It was wildly different from the workouts I’d been doing in Virginia, and I liked it a lot. It’ll be wonderful to get home at 1830 after a workout instead of 2100. Instruction is in English and Hebrew.  The location is also excellent.

And since I’ve already bitched about the hills of Jerusalem, I can say that I definitely prefer CrossFit Jerusalem to the hills (although I prefer hills to burpees, so I guess I’ll have to wait and see how often burpees are programmed).

Diary of a Fat CrossFitter – I live on a hill and it is THE WORST

I was planning on going for my first Jerusalem run n Saturday morning to take advantage of the quiet Shabbat morning when just about no one is out and about. My toddler, however, had a terrible terrible night on Friday.  It was so bad, in fact, that when I finally just crawled into her bed with her at 3 in the morning, I turned off my alarm and put it off for another day.

If you think that I was procrastinating about that run and was happy to use my daughter as an excuse, well, my loyal readers, you are correct. Jerusalem is full of hills. Hills with grades of 7-9%. Steep hills. And I am still a fat crossfitter and novice runner who’s used to shuffling along in delightfully flat Crystal City, VA.

Today, I got up and faced The Hills. They were about as awful as I expected.  In fact, the run was so difficult that instead of the 3 mile loop I’d planned, I cut the run short and ran a much shorter 1.5 mile loop instead.

Stairs in Jerusalem

I should probably try running up the many stairs in my neighborhood … Nah.

Despite the hills, running is still better than burpees.  And with the hills and stairs I’ve got in my neighborhood, I’ll have glutes of steel by the time I head out to my next post in two years.

Yep.  We sure do live in Jerusalem.

5 Things I’m Loving about Jerusalem after 2 weeks

Yep.  We sure do live in Jerusalem.

Yep. We sure do live in Jerusalem.

GSO and Facilities actually solve problems. Seriously. I wish I’d been able to get landlords to respond as quickly in Freetown as GSO seems to be able to here. And Motorpool! Always on time! OK, mostly on time. Great great great customer service. It may be helped by the fact that my husband keeps offering them beer when they come to fix things. If anyone from GSO or FAC is reading this: FREE BEER FOR FIXING OUR HOUSE. If you don’t partake in beer, we also offer cake and cookies. No, I didn’t bake them myself. Don’t be silly.

People are really friendly (to me). I’m not going to get into the awful racism that my husband has already experienced (that’s a long and angry post for another day), but I’ve generally find people to be very friendly. Very forthright and direct, which after a decade in West Africa, is both strange and familiar at the same time.

Taxi drivers are awesome. I know, taxi drivers everywhere are great to talk to. Here, especially so. Everyone, and I do mean everyone has a story here. This is a city that has seen a great deal of conflict and sorrow. It touches everyone, no matter your origin, religion, or nationality. Life is very hard here, if you’re poor, again, no matter who you are or where you come from. All the Hebrew I know, I learned from taxi drivers. And the Arab taxi drivers have been very helpful in getting me up to speed in Palestinian (as opposed to Modern Standard Arabic, which is what I learned at FSI).

Work is good. Really good. I don’t write about work a lot here, but I’ll briefly say that the working environment in the consular section is adult and professional, and that I actually like my hours at the window interviewing visa applicants. As predicted, I’m really enjoying consular work so far.

People are great about kids. Kids are EVERYWHERE. EVERYWHERE. I love it so much. It helps that my kids are so outgoing, of course,

And one thing that is not awesome: the hill that I live on has a 7% grade and I have been avoiding going out and running because I’m just not excited about facing the hills of Jerusalem. I am a big baby. I know. TOMORROW, I promise.


Christmas with the Sondjos

Christmas was pretty great, here in Jerusalem.  The Consulate hosted a Christmas party for the kids, and I was able to take a few hours of leave to go see my kids make a mess while making cookies and meet Santa Claus.
Jasmine telling Santa what she wants for Christmas

Jasmine telling Santa what she wants for Christmas (“I want …. PINK!”)

Amazingly enough, we didn’t get any great pictures of the two girls in their matching dresses.   The girls had a great time, though, especially afterwards, when we took them outside to play in the Consulate courtyard with other kids from the Mission.

Grace is learning to walk down steps.

Grace is learning to walk down steps.

Christmas itself was a quiet affair.  Bertrand went to Bethleham for the midnight mass, while I stayed home to stuff the stockings and wrap presents.

Bertrand in Bethlehem.

Bertrand in Bethlehem.

I’m sure many other Foreign Service families have faced the problem of where to hang stockings before our household effects arrive with our hooks and our drill and necessary Christmas hardware.  I bought these tiny stockings at Target to stuff into our suitcases, and we hung them on our Drexel China cabinet.


Stockings hung on our Drexel with care.

Christmas morning was again, quiet.  I woke up early to start on planning for 2015,  and let Bertrand and the kids sleep in.  When everyone finally woke up, we opened presents, then let the kids dig into the chocolate in their stockings.


Christmas morning sugar rush.

Christmas morning sugar rush.

 One of the things that living abroad for so long has taught me is that making Christmas about the decorations and the music and the stuff is a sure path to disappointment.  We celebrated only with the decorations I could fit into our suitcases, and I wrapped presents with a local newspaper. The kids didn’t care.  And we didn’t care.  We had a wonderful day celebrating what it means to be family.
Happy holidays, everyone!

Wrapping up 2014, and planning 2015


I have spent the last couple of weeks looking for a good year-long online class to keep me focused on my priorities for 2015. In 2014, I participated in Ali Edward’s One Little Word, and chose “breathe,” instead of making new year’s resolutions and setting goals in January. I focused on stopping to ask myself, “Is this really what I want to be doing?” in a given moment, and I worked very hard to stop worrying about the five-year plan.

It was actually frightening for this neurotic type-A planner to sit back and say, “I am not going to make a plan.” “I am not going to make detailed packing lists for EVERY SINGLE TRIP.” (I cheated on this one. The templates were already drafted from traveling in 2012 and 2013.) “I am not going to make fitness goals.” “I need to stop wishing I could lose some weight.”

Amazingly, my family survived the year (so far). We moved (twice!). We traveled. Somehow, my husband and I got food on the table every night. And, the biggest surprise for me, I am considerably healthier now than I was at the beginning of the year. Not setting goals allowed me to focus on the process. I could just say, “I want to go to the gym because I like going to the gym,” instead of lamenting, “I’ve been going to the gym four times a week for two months and I haven’t lost a pound!” I could say, “We are donating money to {whatever} because it’s the right thing to do,” instead of focusing on how it would affect our long term goals. I could say, “I’m OK with just sitting on the couch and cuddling with my two-year-old while watching TV because family time is more important than, say, hitting my weekly blogging goals.”

2014 shepherded in a lot of big changes for me, and I like them a lot.

Now that I’m a little bit less goal focused, it’s time to sit down and reorient myself. What are the most important things in my life? How am I nourishing the people and habits and talents that I love? What’s the best tool for me to use to make sure that I’m focusing on all of these things throughout the year, and not wasting time on projects and activities that don’t bring joy to my life?

Tools for planning and self-reflection in 2015

I’m going to continue my weekly reviews. I use a combination of Getting Things Done, Bullet Journaling, and my own processes to plan and reflect each week. Every Sunday evening, I sit down and catch up on our family bookkeeping, update my todo lists, send emails and make phone calls, and write out any memories I’m going to want to scrapbook later. It’s been a very effective way to 1) get an hour or two to myself each week and 2) grind through necessary paperwork in a consistent and systematic way.

I’m using the wish list and mind mapping tools in the Passion Planner. The planner itself doesn’t suit my workflow; however, I like the beginning-of-the-year planning process. I also like the idea of determining areas of focus at the beginning of each month, week, and day. I’m going to incorporate this prioritization into my weekly reviews.

I’m going to participate in One Little Word again this year; however, I’m over the scrapbooking part of the class. I’ll just journal in the notebook I carry everywhere with me (planner, bullet journal, weekly review, and TODO list all in one). This class was incredibly helpful last year in terms of creating opportunities for regular and active reflection on the type of person I want to be. I will be using the class similarly this year, although I haven’t yet settled on my word.

I’m going to join the Simple Scrapper community for a couple of months, particularly for the Start Fresh class. I’m suffering from “too much to do” paralysis in my crafting, and need to sit down and focus for a bit. I also need to simply my weekly layouts, and I haven’t come upon the best (and prettiest) way to do that yet. Membership in Simple Scrapper comes with a great exercise for working on crafting priorities, and I’m going to use that to figure out what’s most important to me scrapbooking wise.

When am I going to sit down and do the preparatory work for all of this?

December 26 is a Federal holiday. We are not celebrating much for Christmas this year (we don’t usually anyway), and all I’ve asked for is the morning of 12/26 to take my laptop and my planner and my preprinted thought exercises to a cafe in the Old City so that I can spend the morning figuring out 2015.

And that, my friends and loyal readers, will be that.

I don’t make any money from this blog.  There are no ads and no affiliate links.  I have not been paid to review any of the products listed above.  I like these planning and reflection tools, and I’m comfortable recommending them to my blog readers to help find a bit more happiness in 2015.


We made it to Jerusalem! Here’s a photo dump of our adventures!

Plane trips were awesome. Jasmine is slowly inheriting my love of books and reading.  Also, a huge  shout out to the amazing recommendation we got from some FS friends to buy her Sammy’s Next Move, by Helen Muffini.  She loved it, and was able to draw all sorts of great parallels between Sammy the Snail’s moves and her own.


Jasmine got to enjoy her two favorite things in the world in the American Museum of Natural History in NYC: Frozen and dinosaurs.  Check out her Elsa dress in the background.  ;)


Somehow, folks over here didn’t get the message about eight suitcases, four carryons, a stroller, two carseats, and a partridge in a pear tree. Never-the-less, Bertrand and our incredibly patient and helpful expeditor were able to pack all of it into the Consulate minivan.


This was on the doorframe of the girls’ room. So sweet.


Jerusalem at sunset.  No filter on that image, amazingly enough.


Bertrand was thrilled to find Tuborg at a mall cafe. Tuborg was his favorite beer in Benin (yes, beating out Castel and La Beninoise), and finding it in Jerusalem made the city feel a little bit more like home for both of us.


We made it!