The death of two friends sent Julieta Kendall searching for a more intentional life for her family. Sharyn McCowen interviewed the blogger who has boldly shared with the world her adventures in decluttering, parenting, and redefining priorities…
To her friends and family she is Jules Kendall. To her two young sons she is Mama. But to tens of thousands of readers around the world she is the beaming brunette behind Pancakes and French Fries, a blog not about food but living simply and intentionally.
The blog began as an unconventional birthday present from a friend for the self-confessed “introspective and analytical” Jules, an Argentine-born, California-based former lawyer.
“It takes me eons to make a decision because I spend so much time weighing options and trying to predict outcomes,” she told The Catholic Weekly.
Ultimately, she says, “a friend forced me”.
“I’ve always enjoyed writing, especially creative writing, but the idea of blogging was intimidating.
“I hadn’t written creatively in a very long time and blogging – at least, the blogging I considered doing – required openness and vulnerability I wasn’t sure I could reveal. I debated; I analysed; I prognosticated.
“In the meantime, my friend designed and coded a blog for me and gave it to me for my 35th birthday.”
Jules addressed that first blog, in November 2007, to the one person she knew would read it – her mum.
The topics varied greatly as she wrote about life with her husband and their sons Mikey and Nico, until a tragedy helped her clarify the direction of her life – and the blog: the sudden death of her friend Helena’s parents.
She was, she wrote at the time, “completely changed, absolutely and forever” by the loss.
“One minute her dad is at a birthday party for my son and husband looking a little off, and the next he has aggressive pancreatic cancer,” Jules told The Catholic Weekly.
On hearing the diagnosis, Helena’s mother took to her bed in grief. She died within a fortnight, followed days later by her husband.
“In 22 days we went from diagnosis to death,” Jules says. “Everyone was completely blindsided, but no one more than Helena’s parents.
“They had just enough time to realise how unprepared they were, which I suppose is expected when you die relatively young.”
With this her first encounter with the loss of a loved one, Jules was unprepared for the “minutia of death”.
“We leave so much behind, and so much of it says nothing about our true selves,” she says.
“Pope Francis recently said ‘I have never seen a moving van following a funeral procession’, and he is so right.
“I remember walking around her parents’ house, seeing little bits of life and becoming very overwhelmed.”
Instead of being free to grieve her parents, Helena had to sort through their 50 years of possessions.
Jules was haunted by the image, and re-evaluated the clutter lining her own cupboards and drawers.
“When I got home later that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the perfume bottles, the clothes, the little scraps of paper,” she says now.
“I opened my make-up drawer and saw a stack of eye shadows, one of them a tacky, glittery green the colour of mashed peas.”
These were expensive gifts, unused, unwanted, but kept out of guilt.
“I imagined my family going through my drawers and finding that eye shadow. I don’t wear eye make-up, let alone green eye shadow,” she says. “I realised then that what we keep in our homes becomes our material remains, what archaeologists in the field use to piece together past human lives.
“I didn’t like the idea of an item telling the story of my life if it didn’t reflect the truth.”
Spurred on, Jules committed to blog daily for a month as she shed layers of clutter.
“I am often most successful when I don’t give myself time to over think, so I jumped into the challenge feet first and started blogging my progress as I decluttered and my attempts to create a more intentional home.”
While Pancakes and French Fries includes unapologetic references to her Catholic faith, Jules does not brand herself as a Catholic blogger.
“I have misgivings about the current trend in blogging that suggests we package ourselves like frozen dinners,” she says.
“I am a woman, a wife, and a mother. I am a Catholic. I am not a brand.
“I set about to write about my life, and since I’m a practising Catholic, my faith will naturally weave itself into my writing.
“I don’t write about just one thing because I am not just one thing.”
She does not proselytise, or kid herself – or others – into believing Catholicism is perfect, she says.
“How can it be, when the rock upon which our Church was built denied Jesus three times? Humans are fallible, and that’s OK. In fact, I think that’s the point.”
Instead, she writes about purging her jewellery drawer to better appreciate her favourite pieces and rosary beads, and decluttering her car after encountering her parish priest while shopping with her son.
As she wrote at the time, her son called the priest over and “it hit me”.
“My car was a disaster. A total mum car.
“The mountain of toys, clothing, and baseball gear did nothing to speed up Mikey’s exit, so to my great dismay Fr Paul approached our car and … opened Mikey’s door to help him out.
“Out came Mikey, stumbling over a Hot Wheels, followed by a trail of detritus rivalled only by the trash vortex of the North Pacific.”
This life is a far cry from Jules’ days as a research attorney for a family practice and criminal law firm.
Her blog entry Favourite Moment: The Mister is an unflinching account of her journey from a master’s degree and a decade of work in health care administration to law school to working as an attorney..
“I never intended to be a stay-at-home mum. My career path, while circuitous, promised to be fulfilling and financially rewarding.”
But her relationship with Mikey suffered and, after years of study and sacrifice, she gave up a six-figure salary to stay home.
“Although the decision to stay at home was, ultimately, an easy one, the actual practice has been difficult,” she wrote.
“After being so focused on my career for so long, it took me a while to adapt to the change in my identity. I would be lying if I said I didn’t still struggle every now and then.
“And, of course, we made a huge financial adjustment to our lifestyle. We had to scale back until we didn’t think we could possibly scale back more. And then we scaled back again.
“There are times … where I wonder if I made a mistake staying home. If, maybe, I should be working in a firm instead of eating popcorn with boys, beagles, and dinosaurs.”
But then she is reminded of the value of the time with her sons.
She agrees with an article she read recently that said there is no such thing as balance, only choices.
“I think that’s a fair assessment of life,” she told The Catholic Weekly.
“Balance results when everything is in equal and correct proportions, when everything is perfect.
“Going back to my ‘humans are fallible’ argument, finding balance sounds a lot like finding the land of ice cream while riding a golden Pegasus. It sounds lovely; it’s likely impossible.
“The cultural change we need is basic. We have to realise we can’t have it all, and that a lot of our needs are really wants. We have to prioritise our lives and make choices that align with those priorities.
“Then, we have to accept that our priorities may not match those of our neighbour.
“It’s okay to be different. It’s okay for a woman to work outside the home and love her job. What benefit does a stay-at-home parent bring to a family if that parent is miserable and can’t engage?
“I admit this is one of my biggest personal challenges, since my 41 years as the eldest child has me somewhat convinced I know it all.”
She is candid about her own fallibility but does censor herself where appropriate.
“My children are getting older, and their story is not always for me to tell,” she says. “I have family members who are private about their personal life, so I respect their wishes and leave them off the blog, even when writing about them would be cathartic for me and possibly someone else.”
While traffic to her blog has levelled off recently, Jules is pragmatic about the number of online distractions vying for readers’ attention.
“There is a lot of noise to tune out – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, Snapchat – for a blog to keep growing these days, and I’m not comfortable doing a lot of what is needed for me to be louder than the rest.
“I’m not interested in contributing more noise.”
Unable to shake the mindset of a lawyer with required billable hours, Jules pushes herself with goals, walking every day for a year or eating all meals at home for 30 days.
Much of her journey towards a simpler, more intentional home and life has been guided by the William Morris quote: ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’
“I used to think the kid with the most toys won, but I’ve found my happiness is inversely related to the number of possessions I have in my home,” Jules says.
But her house is “far from Spartan”.
“You won’t find an expanse of white with a single orchid artfully placed on a Zen-like coffee table.
“Just last night I almost broke my ankle stepping on a pile of Minecraft Lego and I have no idea where my youngest son put my favourite pink stapler. It’s been missing for months!
“We live in our home, and it shows.”