The Forest for the Squirrels

I subscribe to Jane Friedman’s Electric Speed newsletter for writers, and in a recent post, she made the following point: In the Great British Bake Off annals, chefs often fail in one of two ways. One pitfall is a tendency to revisit failures. If a week went badly because the challenge involved souffle, and a given chef simply did not get the souffle gene, almost without exception that same chef will feel compelled to try another souffle and another later in the season, without notably unimpressive results.

There’s apparently a part of us that thinks, “If at first you don’t succeed, keep tilting at that windmill until you, Sancho Panza, and his donkey, just can’t even even…”

For writers this might mean forcing yourself to write in first person because some writing coach said the young adult genre works best that way, though you don’t like working first person and don’t much like reading it either.

The other recipe for failure noted among the chefs was the compulsion to go, “over the top.” To do more than the challenge required, to go big and go bust. In an effort to impress the judges, the actual goal–a good chocolate cake with only six ingredients, a dish that will feed four for less than $20 total–slips out of sight.

I’m feeling some tendency to play to my weaknesses and miss the forest as my sister’s visit comes closer. I well remember our mother’s houses, which were never showcases, but always wonderful. Bright colors, big windows letting in lots of light, comfy furniture in the right configurations… Mom kept a clean house and usually had wonderful smells coming from the kitchen. She had a knack for everything domestic from traffic patterns, to throw pillows, to African violets.

I did not get that gene, or if I did get it, the window for its expression was taken up with single parenting, paying bills, and going to the horse barn. My house is functional, mostly, but no sibling has visited here for twenty years. I want my sister to at least find the place adequate. Better if she thinks I dwell in a cool little farmhouse well suited to my needs.

Lady Violet Says I Do by Grace BurrowesThe temptation to go overboard–matching towels, curtains, rugs, and place mats–when I can’t Marie or Martha–is as ridiculous as it is real. The color of a towel doesn’t matter if it’s clean, and I haven’t used place mats for… have I ever used place mats? But here I am in the home stores–for the first time in years–looking at place mats.

I am having talks with myself about reasonable expectations, and “You are not your house, thank the merciful powers,” and, “Sister is not Simon Cowell…” but the tug, the wish that I could be more and do more as a home maker and hostess… it’s still there.

Are the looming holidays tugging at you to fret over any figurative place mats? Does this time of year call for genes you didn’t get? I still have some Lady Violet Says I Do e-ARCs if anybody’s interested (email me at and I’ve also made a little short story–Love Disguised–available for free on the web store (previously published in the anthology A Midsummer Night’s Romance).

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11 comments on “The Forest for the Squirrels

  1. Oh, oh, oh… our work-scarred, world-weary adult children are trekking home for the holidays. We’ve rarely spent one here. Because we’re usually elsewhere, I don’t cook, decorate… and I’m looking at the stuff to make the event special. And that isn’t why they’re coming.

    I do not have ducks. Or a row. I have squirrels and they’re at a rave.

  2. Even though I rarely entertain as I don’t have the right gene (my 3 sisters all got it but it skipped me somehow) and I don’t have much in the way of decor, I still want all the pretty holiday decorations I’m seeing all over the place these days. I always think I’m going to have a well put together house but if I manage to get the red and green tablecloths out (my partner is a tablecloth person though I prefer placemats) in December, I count it a win. I did get out the tablecloths and the few decorations I had purchased for my office desk before I retired (little ceramic snow people) are set up on the coffee table so I’m good.
    I know it’s easy to say but I suspect your sister is more interested in interacting with you than worrying about your placemats, or lack thereof. But we can’t get rid of the impulse, can we? Hope you both have a great visit!

  3. I am glad I popped in & read your words!
    The holidays are looming !! We are in the midst of our long awaited kitchen addition. My kitchen & family room& dining room are a mess! The addition is weather tight and rough plumbing & electrical are expected this week. I have a stove & fridge for now…
    I did not host Thanksgiving and can’t host Christmas. This makes me sad- I have the place mats, tablecloths & napkins but don’t have a table and may not have an oven!
    I didn’t realize that people counted on spending time and sharing meals with us. It’s a nice to know.
    Plus, I fell & broke all 4 fingers on my left hand- so cooking is out of the question. Surgery was last Monday & am hoping to be 100% in 2023
    Your sister won’t care about placemats or matching towels- she’s spending time with you. If you want to spruce up the house go to HomeGoods! It’s fabulous and one stop shopping! Bring her with you!
    I hope you have a wonderful holiday!

  4. I recognize the problem. In my case my mom was the worst housekeeper in the world. She was a “legend”in her own time. I didn’t want to be her. I would work myself into complete exhaustion trying for the perfect house, perfect food etc for company. Eventually I realized that was exactly what brought on my grandmother’s series of small strokes–the need for perfect. I decided to treat the problem by deciding ahead of time what I would not do. I planned to not be perfect and let a chosen thing slide. Gradually planned imperfection helped keep the high anxiety under control. People come to see you and enjoy your company not the perfection of your setting. Give yourself a break.

  5. This year, I have the opposite problem. My genes say to send cards and buy more and bigger gifts than I can afford. This year, I feel like I want to crawl into a ball in a dark room and not come out until June.
    I will fight that tendency this year!

  6. Fortunately I did get the gene for entertaining and it’s my favorite thing to do! I love to cook and come up with special menus that make our friends ooh and ahh over the meal. My mother entertained friends and family often and, while she was not a fantastic or daring cook, she did manage to feed everyone well. The gene that I didn’t inherit (much to my Mom’s dismay) was the cleaning gene. Don’t misunderstand, my kitchen is immaculate; everything that touches food or is near food is perfectly clean and sparkling. But don’t check out the fireplace mantel, or the rocking chair, or pretty much any surface outside of my kitchen because it is frankly appalling! I just don’t really know how to, or much care for dusting…it just seems like a massive waste of time and energy. I ascribe to the thought that “True Friends don’t care if your house is clean, they care if you have wine!” (And good food!) Stay safe. Stay well everyone! And Happy Holidays!

  7. It has taken me SO MUCH TIME to start letting go of those artificial ideas of how my house should be when I have company!! I cried he Ortho I how many decades I killed myself to have everything perfect- WHY does society give us so much toxic cultural crap to fill our heads needlessly?!
    I still struggle with it, but I’ve noticed ‘I’ am happier when I relax my standards. That leads to more relaxed guests and better visits/dinner parties/etc.
    good luck, Grace. Enjoy the company of your sister, and let the less important things go. Hugs!!

  8. Let’s see; I don’t have the tidy gene, I had a flood in July and the repairs are still not completed. My daughter & her family are coming in on the 17th. My house is full of boxes to unpack and much other unfinished business including BOTH bathrooms. This is not even a cute little farm house.

    My goal is to clean up the kitchen/dining/sitting room and make sure one of the bathrooms is clean and accessible. The kids have a hotel reservation near by. The dogs have “Carte blanche” at doggy day care the week the kids are here. Will this be fun?? Mmmaybe

  9. I missed the hosting, cleaning, and even the group socializing gene. It is not my favorite season. I just try to breathe, never host, and try to be a considerate guest (as considerate as you can be given invitations will not be reciprocated I suppose) then enjoy a quiet January.

    Your sister will be happy to see you and I’m sure pleased with any clean towel available. Have a great time!