The Annual List of Slightly Strange Things

For Which I am Thankful

  • I don’t remember when I have ever written so little, nor had the well of word-love run so low, but it is for a good reason. I have been learning to influence clay instead of wrestling with it. The absorption has been nearly complete some days. My sister-in-law thought I must have a lot of spare time these days and if you want to know the truth, it’s often the time between children’s bedtime and when my husband gets home at midnight that I am using for this pursuit. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t really, really badly want it. More than sleep. More than words and books for a while. I have a warm place to work, light-filled windows, a space outside the house. I am truly grateful.
  • Along with that, I am glad for an activity that keeps me humbled. “I am such small potatoes,” I kept muttering to myself when a rash of difficulties tempted me to quit trying and be normal again and sit down sometimes. I looked at my Instagram feed that ordinarily inspires me to try new things in the pottery realm and I saw all the beautiful perfection and my hardest work fell- not only short- but tipped over the edge into the trash can. It’s okay to feel small and inadequate, so here’s to the hard work of others that has brought them to excellence!
  • This has also been a summer, no, more like an entire year of more cloudy skies than sunny. Endless opportunities to rise above the feelings of apathy that threaten the spirit when there is so little that shines. This is a metaphor, of course. When I get bogged down I think of those words that it is my highest aspiration to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your Lord.” There is no tunnel too long or hill too steep for that joy to break through in the end. I am grateful for how Light always triumphs over darkness in the end.
  • We have just come through a round of minor health issues, mostly colds and allergies. My son’s healthcare is paying for immunotherapy and my daughter’s inhaler gave her respite from the rasping wheeziness that was making her life miserable. Our sore throats were cured with hourly gargling with grapefruit seed extract (available here, free shipping today, you’re welcome) and our headaches soothed with peppermint oil. In the middle of the night when the croup cough barks out, I am glad I can plug in the nebulizer instead of boiling onion poultices. Our minor ailments remind me to be grateful every day for wellness and excellent healthcare.
  • The children and I made a startling discovery about living in our age versus when the settlers first came to America. We concluded that probably none of us would be alive anymore, with the possible exception of the first-born if he had made it through his earliest hours without oxygen and never suffered infections from cuts that required stitches, etc. My second son would definitely have died without an emergency C-section and his mother likely would have died at that time too. That would eliminate the girls’ chances to ever even be born, but if mother had lived, the first girl would not have made it past her adrenal crisis. That leaves us with father, whose life is fairly normal through careful treatment of an autoimmune disease that would have likely killed him 7 years ago when it flared really badly and required a bowel resection. Yes, we will all die someday; our times are in God’s hands. And we are grateful that we get to live! Maybe you think that a weird sort of gratefulness exercise, but you should try it.
  • I am glad these days for grammar rules and commas and language that makes sense. My children kick against the instruction, but I am adamant and they get no choice. We usually start and end our days with stories, with heroes and conquests and visions for higher things. They lap it up and then I tell them what they don’t like to hear: this pleasure of written words is why we have grammar, my children. The bulk of my reading in the last half year has been juvenile fiction. It is my favorite genre and I am over-the-top grateful to have a crew of little people who love it too. When I get too busy to read, they haul me back short with no exceptions. “But WE HAVE TO have story time!”
  • There is a craze of coloring going on around here. The small girl who never stops wiggling holds still to color. She spent her money on a set of fine-tipped sharpies and this is what she does during quiet time nearly every day while she listens to Henry Huggins or the Boxcar Children. I don’t know what this is doing in her brain, but it is a good and settling thing.
  • We have too many eggs again, every day 2 dozen of them to sell and to eat. It’s pretty nice not to ever have to haul them home from the grocery store. There is a barn full of chores for the teen son who needs things to do that take him outside pestering his sisters and moaning about grammar lessons. Aside from the tax break we receive from small scale farming, we do not come out ahead financially. We see our barn full of hungry critters as training in a skill set that may actually help our children survive some day, as well as teaching them responsibility. I remind myself to be grateful when I am going to the farm supply store for chicken feed, and it doesn’t take too much effort to feel it. Of course, there are exceptions like Sunday afternoons when we are chasing pigs instead of napping, but even those make great stories.
  • We have abundantly enough and I am thankful to report that I do not have any needs that require me to be out jostling through stores today for things I can’t afford otherwise. I may search for an online sale of really excellent sheets, but other than that, I don’t need anything. I can’t quite fathom the richness of that statement.
  • This is such an interesting season, which is what I say when it isn’t my favorite. We have stretches of days for light jackets and rubber boots, occasional flip-flop weather respites, and blitzing cold days when the children drag every warm thing they own out of totes in the attic and here we go again. But we have the gear, or we go buy it, and we stay warm. My ornamental cabbages still bloom, tenaciously happy in all weathers, and that is what I aspire to be.
  • My sons are into forging hooks out of scrap metal. For all those coats and snowpants, we now have an endless supply of hooks to hang them up. We hang towels on hooks in the bathroom. We put purses on hooks and mugs on hooks, and even our scissors have hooks where they are supposed to live when they are not under the sofa cushions. Here’s to the lowly inventions that enable us to stumble less.

That’s my slightly strange list. I compiled it hurriedly with care for your amusement and now it’s time to pack up for family thanksgiving a day late. My husband had to work yesterday, so we celebrate with turkey and all manner of good food today. Parents, siblings, fellowship, connections, support… they truly are the top of the list.

Happy thanksgiving!

The Pig That Forgot it Was Sunday

I left church early that day with a headache. I planned on a nap as soon as I had fed the children leftovers for lunch.  As we walked in the door, a note fluttered to the floor.

IMG_20181001_180534381

Well, that was that. Maybe it was impaired thinking due to the ache in my head, but I didn’t change out of my church attire or require Gregory to change. Alex and Gabe weren’t home, so we did what they would have done. After all, Petunia has channelled her Guinea hog ancestors before and gone on long ambles through the countryside. Always she amiably followed a bucket of corn back to her pen, no problem. Gregory fetched a scoop of cracked corn from the barn and reported that Petunia had gotten out through the wooden gate, tipped over the barrel, and eaten about half of the corn. This should have been a warning: Petunia was not even remotely hungry.

We drove down the road, looking in all the back yards. Finally at the bottom of the hill we saw a cluster of neighbors in the woods. Sure enough, they were trying to entice a portly black pig into their barnyard with some grain. Petunia appeared to be enjoying the attention, leisurely chewing and swinging her head around from person to person. Gregory waved his scoop of grain under her nose and she began to follow him through the briars at the edge of the woods. When he got to the road, she veered and scuttled back into the woods, Gregory hard on her heels, rattling his corn scoop and trying to persuade her back out to civilization. The neighbors watched, amused, and offered to fetch a rope. I thought maybe a leash would work better and drove home quickly to fetch one, as well as to pick up Rita, our best animal catcher. She had boots on, but I still didn’t think about changing out of my slip-ins from church. Back I went in my long navy blue dress, not intending to be involved in any way except to encourage the young fry.

Greg is the most defeatist of all the children when it comes to animal husbandry, and this was no exception: This will never work. She isn’t hungry. There is no way we will ever get her to follow me all the way home. Can’t we just shoot her?

At this point I should have listened to him. The corn was all in a little pile beside the road where Petunia obliged us by trying to eat a bit, but as soon as the leash got close to her head, she scooted for the briars. Unlike us, she didn’t give a patooie about the prickles and poison ivy. I looked down at my brown flex-soles, sighed, and resigned myself to a long , arduous chase. Only you don’t chase pigs. They will not be herded and any gap in a string of people trying to do so is the first place they will spy. As portly as the average adult pig is, they are amazingly agile. “Just stay with her, keep her in your sight!” I hollered to Greg. The undergrowth was so thick I couldn’t see either of them, but I heard him reply, “She’s in their pasture!”

These neighbors have a horse pasture with one strand of shocking wire at waist height. It had no meaning to Petunia, but at least she was in an open area where we could see her. Gregory and Rita joined her to try to persuade her toward the open barn doors near the horse corral. Meanwhile the horses went nuts, galloping round and round, snorting in agitation at their porcine visitor, who gave every evidence of thick-headed enjoyment of the situation. I ran down their lane, hoping to direct her between a swamp and the house. Petunia took one suspicious look at the dark barn doorway and slithered neatly between all the people into hog heaven, the gooshiest, pooey-est barnyard in the vicinity. She was not interested in giving up her Sunday afternoon field trip, keeping right on course, due west toward a much deeper woods where I had no hope of ever finding her again.

I looked at that barnyard and stepped in on a hummock of grass, figuring if I stayed on the more stable looking tufts, I could stay reasonably clean. The second hummock betrayed me and I lost my shoe. It was ridiculous anyway. Why not be ridiculous barefooted in ankle deep poo? I tossed my shoes and the girls tossed their boots and Gregory tossed his sneakers. We were getting just a little bit miffed, but we had learned a few things from Petunia, and we acted like we also were on an unconcerned, although thinly-veiled-anxiety-ridden stroll westward. She changed course and came back toward the barn.

“There’s pellets in that barrel inside the barn doors,” the lady of the house bellowed down the hill. I squelched into the dim interior, moved the whiskey bottle off the top of the barrel and opened it. Down at the bottom was a small layer of pellets for horses, sure enough. It was such a vast barrel and I am a short woman. I barely managed to keep one foot on the ground as I dived down to scoop up the food. As I attempted to entice my pig into the barn again with the scoop of pellets, she took a sniff, disdainfully turned up her snout, and trotted up toward their house. Incongruously, just then we were joined by a spotted fawn frisking around. We only lacked a clown on an elephant to make the circus complete.

There was a small stand of trees and bushes up there where Petunia decided to go for a break from pesky humans. “Hey,” Gregory said, “I think we could pen her in there if we had a portable fence.” I was considering driving home for ours when the elderly neighbor suggested using the chain link fence that was precariously draped around a small garden. He cut the twines that held it upright against some aged posts and we proceeded to drag it out of the weeds. Chain link fence is much heavier than one might expect and I was afraid he would drop with a heart attack. The girls kept vigil close to Petunia while Gregory and I helped to haul the fence up the hill.

The bushes were planted next to an antique tractor, a snow plow, some assorted children’s swing set parts, etc. etc. We managed to get the fence upright and tightly joined together at the seams with red baler twine. Where there was a gap I set a folding table that was leaning against the tractor wheel, apparently there for lack of storage in the house. Petunia now had shade, grass to nibble when she felt like it was time for a little something, and a playground. I doubted it would keep her in for long, but maybe it would work until Alex got home. The back up plan was to take the trailer down and attempt to load her onto it, but there was no way my crew of children and I were going to try it on our own. We were hungry, muddy, and frankly, we were making sausage in our minds. We promised the neighbor some if we ever butcher the troublemaker.

I kept apologizing for infringing on their Sunday afternoon relaxation and they assured us that they had nothing better to do, it was no problem, etc. etc.

Retrieving all our poo-caked footwear, we went home and cleaned up. I made lunch, and when I had time to think about it, the headache had not improved with so much fresh air and exercise. I had that nap and was brought back to earth by excited shouts at the next door neighbors a few hours later. “Your pig is in our backyard!” they called.

I looked where they were pointing. There was Petunia, belly swaying gracefully, heading due east toward her pen. Maybe she missed the security, or maybe she missed her husband, but she was coming home. Gregory opened the gate and she trotted straight to her wallow, easing into it with the exact familiarity of any weary human coming home to the recliner at night.

I drove down the road to her makeshift chainlink pen at the other neighbor’s house. There was the spot where she had easily nosed  up a hole big enough to squeeze under. The only fence a pig respects is shocking wire, so I wasn’t surprised, but my neighbor was. We visited for a while, making small talk. I was glad, because I had never connected with these folks except to wave as I walked past. Before I left, the lady of the house dug out a volunteer Rose of Sharon bush for me. I have never especially liked those bushes, but I planted it in a corner where it should do well and serve to remind me of surprising friendships in unlikely circumstances.

But I still want sausage.

Want to see the culprit?

IMG_20171014_145302036_HDR.jpg

 

 

Stream of Consciousness

Our outdoor activities were just interrupted by the 137th gulley washer of the year. The girls screeched and threw all their dolls and snacks and purses onto blankets and skittered into the house as the big drops began to splash. I was in the process of washing the algae off our white deck railing because with 136 rainstorms in the recent past we are growing moss in unusual places. My aunt said if I spray a solution of Norwex detergent onto the railings and wait five minutes, it will hose off like nothing. It’s true; it really does just wipe off. I sprayed a few sections of railing quickly before the storm, just in case it would rain hard enough to hose off the green. The boys yelled and stowed construction materials from the back yard into the shed.

As soon as the lightning subsided, the children whooped and danced in the rain as if they were welcoming a monsoon after a prolonged drought instead of getting themselves doused by the 137th rainstorm of the year. I wish I could be just a little more like that. Besides, when have we ever had so many rainbows in a year?

IMG_20181006_175432895

Last week the little girls brought me enough ground cherries from their garden so that I could make a pie. Then they politely declined to eat it because I put raisins in the pie. Ordinarily they love raisins, but I suppose the rehydrated ones do look a bit odd.

I am happy that the end of the gardening season is here. We will gladly pay for fresh lettuce and cucumbers raised by someone else during the winter season. Modern shipping, while controversial in terms of effects on the ecosystem, is still a wonder I applaud. Oranges in winter? Yes, please! Tomatoes raised in the south with an astonishingly long shelf life? I won’t sneer at them either. I try to imagine how the “eat only local food or die” movement would look to the pioneers who survived on prairie chickens and salt pork for months at a time, with no option of fresh food shipped to their supermarkets. I suppose it is a modern luxury like tiny houses. Ma and Pa would probably shake their heads at the kids these days.

********************

IMG_20181005_150336131_HDR

We celebrated our 17th anniversary yesterday. By that I mean we didn’t forget it in a day full of normal things to do. Probably this would have seemed a tragedy of middle age when we were newly-wed. No roses? You forgot the card? What? Not even going out to eat? We did squeeze in a coffee shop stop on our way to Gabe’s dad’s birthday party. “Are we even any further ahead now than we were then?” was the rhetorical question as we were discussing our starry-eyed honeymoon love and now. The answer is, “Yes! Yes, indeed!” Neither of us feels like we know everything, but we would not prefer to go back and start over.

The hard-won lessons of living and loving have given us perspective and courage for the future. Sometimes that thing you just can’t see past or through, that just stands there in the path so that you face it down and figure it out? That is the thing that you might not even be able to remember what it was, but it stretched you and wisened you up in the processing of it. It’s kind of hard to explain to a newly-wed, but when you refuse to retreat from the impasses of marriage (what? are you saying you don’t just love to talk everything through while sipping fancy coffee and gazing into each other’s souls?) you come through feeling safer and stronger. You learn to like each other better, and you learn to like yourself more. Funny how that works.

We are dead opposites. It’s what makes life so hilariously interesting and undeniably annoying. He is careful and quiet. I am impulsive and chatty. We are both opinionated. Can you see how that could produce some jolly times? He is a perfectionist. I am a rip-into-it-and-see-what-happens person. When we talk about a project on the house, I am ready to do demo day tomorrow and he makes plans on paper for years.  He uses graphs to plan his trees and berry plots. I like volunteer sunflowers cropping up everywhere in the garden. When we shop, he never ever buys anything without fitting it on. I have been known to say, “I can always return it if it doesn’t fit.” He keeps our finances carefully, accounts always balanced, bills paid on time. I keep my receipts in my wallet and wait to enter them into our budget until I can’t ignore them anymore. He wears Converse and I like my Flex-soles.

We each have our systems, how we like to do things. Neither one of us is always right or better than the other. Both systems work pretty well by themselves; the great work of our marriage is blending them.

When it comes to the sanctifying that God wants to do in our lives through each other, there is no question that our opposite-ness is by design. I am learning to be more patient, do research, read the reviews, think ahead. He is learning that life can be pretty great even when it is messy and flinging us in circles. It’s really an amazing plan God had, and we look forward to figuring it out as we go for many more years.

************************

We have a project going on that is pretty exciting. I moved my pottery paraphernalia outside into what used to be a garden shed this spring. Raw clay cannot freeze, so we were trying to decide what to do about winter. My skills are tentative enough that I was afraid I would have to relearn everything if I took the whole winter off. The basement was not a good option, because we do so much living down there. Gabe decided that wiring, insulating, and heating the shed is a viable option. That’s what is going on now. This was his first post-and-beam construction project and I have always felt affectionate about the braces and rough wood. It’s too bad that the insulation will cover it up, but there are plans in motion to make it cute again once the wiring is complete. At least the outside will remain the same, including the rounded doors.

I am delighted with this upgrade! The broken window will be replaced and the wrens will no longer be able to squeeze in through knotholes in the siding. This should also fix the carpenter bees that dribbled sawdust onto my workbench every day, and possibly discourage the field-mouse family that remained unfazed even when the father drowned in my bucket of water.

****************

School has gotten off to a strong start. Alex is still working/doing school in the evenings and on weekends. The rest of us power through the basic lessons every day. I have learned that things just go more smoothly when I stay right there in the school space with the children, even when they know exactly what their assignments are. I don’t know how other people turn out conscientious little students who diligently do all their lessons without a hitch, but that just isn’t the reality here. I have figured out a strategy that works pretty well for the child who just can’t resist poking a sibling: disturb another intentionally and you get to do their next main task, which is likely to be dishes or laundry.

This year I am not letting my checking accumulate. Yet. And our daily read-aloud is a delight for us all. I say it again, this is So Much Easier without toddlers.

A friend of ours just sent her only child off to college, and then packed up totes and totes of craft supplies/ toys/ books for our children. It has been like Christmas for them! And it has been like mid-winter for me, with that choking feeling of being up to the neck in projects and not-always-successful results. The window clings that just went wrong?… I peeled them off and dropped them into the trash as soon as they were dry. But the fresh stack of woven potholders is great!

*********************

Well, I see it’s time for my husband to return from work. I will save my best pig story of the summer for tomorrow. Have a nice night!

Something to Make

We are in rainy season here in south central PA, days and days of drenching with no sunshine in sight on the forecast for 10 days. It’s incredible, a little disconcerting, and cozy as midwinter. I turned on the heat today to cut through the damp and we sip hot drinks just like midwinter. There is muddy water streaming across the roads where the creeks can’t drain the mountains fast enough, and the happiest creatures on this farmlet are the ducks. The cats hate it, because they can’t sit outside the windows, looking in covetously. They are stuck in the barn. Maybe they will finally catch on that they should be catching rats.

M garden is reduced to some watermelons, a patch of broccoli and sweet potatoes, and small tomatoes that hang onto the blighted stems and ripen slowly in the cooler weather. Recently I had a bite of a stuffed tomato appetizer at a restaurant when a friend kindly shared hers. I became mildly obsessed with replicating that flavor at home, and googled for recipes, trying for the flavor until I think I nailed it pretty close. This is a mash-up of many different recipes and my own trial and error. If you want to hang on tenaciously to summer for a bit, to its tastes and textures, you will want to try Basil Stuffed Tomatoes. You need:

  • 8 to 10 small tomatoes
  • 8 ounces Neufchatel cheese
  • 3 T. pesto
  • 2 cups Italian bread crumbs
  • a few sprigs of fresh basil
  • 4 T. butter

img_20180909_131331825

  1.  Cut out the core/stem area of the tomatoes and use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and wetness from the center of each.
  2. Set them upside down to drain a bit more while you mix up the other ingredients.
  3. Soften the cream cheese in the microwave if you’re like me and forgot to get it out 2 hours ago. Mix in the pesto. This amount is variable. I could roll in basil everyday and feel happy with the flavor, but not everybody is like that. I add enough pesto to turn the cream cheese quite green.
  4. Melt the butter and toss it into 1 1/2  cups bread crumbs. Save 1/2 cup of crumbs out dry.
  5. Turn the tomatoes right side up in a baking dish and spoon about 2 tsp. of dry crumbs into each one. This is to help soak up the damp in the tomato.
  6. Spoon 1 T. of cream cheese mixture into each tomato, squooshing it down on top of the crumbs pretty solidly.
  7. Stick a layer of basil leaves on top. In fact you can put basil in layers wherever you please during this process.
  8. Top each tomato with buttered bread crumbs. I used a cookie scoop and pressed them down firmly, then topped them with a scoop of looser crumbs for a prettier presentation.
  9. Bake, uncovered, 350, for 30 minutes.

This may sound fiddly, but it is oh, so worth it! It made me feel so happy to figure it out. If you don’t have fancy bread crumbs, you can just blend some toasted rustic bread and add extra Italian spices or you can pulverize up salad croutons like I did one day. The parmesan garlic was really good! You can use regular cream cheese, of course, or even ricotta. I tried fresh mozzarella once, but it got too rubbery. At any rate, you owe it to summer to give it one last hurrah!

As I write, my girls are playing Great British Baking Show, accents and all. They are using Silly Slime for all their bakes, trying for the “perfect icing drip” on their cakes, sitting on the floor beside the “oven” while they wait for their bakes and having all the calm drama of any of the baking challenges. “I love that bubble on the side…”

I spent an hour writing out assignments for the middle schoolers this next week, and now that I have that handle on Monday morning, I feel like maybe another cup of tea would be in order.

Have a great week! And don’t neglect your tomatoes while you have them.

 

 

 

 

My Suburban Smells Funny

and other tales of August worth.

“May I have an apple in bed?” Addy asked, since she knows that there isn’t much chance of me saying yes to anything that could rot her teeth after she brushed them, and apples are practically toothbrushes anyway. There were no apples in the fridge, so the next up was, “Or how about some pieces of dried chicken?” I was startled out of my absent-minded washing of yesterday’s dishes that had stayed on the counter all day because we got home late last night and went to church this morning. Sure enough, she had found a baggie of very dry chicken bits, saved from our roasting/canning operation of 20 old hens last week. “Maybe a pepper. I could eat a pepper,” she hedged when she saw that I wasn’t excited about her choices. My two little girls make up for any vegetable deficit in the older children. Same parents, same parenting style, only less “now eat your broccoli” fuss, and here they are, regular veggie devourers. It does make you wonder. This is Rita with a legit bedtime snack that makes her just as happy as milk and cookies.

IMG_20180815_205801647

I wasn’t going to plant regular tomatoes this year because I have a good source where I can buy a couple boxes of Romas and make a big batch of sauce all in one day instead of having them trickle in over the course of a month. When my neighbor gave me plants he had nurtured in his sunny windows, I had to plant them, so I am hauling in a bumper crop all month. The vines are blighted and ugly, and still the babies swell and turn scarlet. It’s astounding! I planted some pineapple tomato plants that are luscious for sandwiches, and shiny purple “Dancing With Smurfs” cherry tomatoes that aren’t good until they turn red, which I think is a little bit of false advertising.

August is all about harvesting and preserving bushels of stuff for winter. Have you ever had tiny, tender green beans that you just picked an hour ago and lightly sauteed with a bit of garlic and olive oil? If you did, then you know why I garden. Or a slice of tomato so huge that it hangs out over your toast, sprinkled with sea salt and freshly ground pepper? How about crisp cucumbers sliced into a vinaigrette? There is no farmer’s market that can yield that sort of freshness, although it’s better than vegetables shipped across the country, for sure! August turns me into a food snob, because I can. It’s when all the endless hovering and ministering to the plants yields fruit, and does it taste good! So that is what we are currently eating. (Too many melons, a funny problem to have.)

Tomorrow starts our third week of school. Olivia was looking at old pictures and said, “Mama, you used to play more.” It’s true. Somewhere things got too heavy and much. I quit going outside for recess and impromptu soccer games in favor of throwing some laundry into the washer or starting dinner. I am working to change that. We bought some new games and are back to starting each day with a read-aloud before we hit the math books. My Consumer Math guy is still working his summer job, so he is not included in this picture.

IMG_20180814_085256367

I don’t buy reading curriculum. We just read and read and read. If you ever wonder who really funds the libraries, it’s people like me who suddenly realize that August 23 is past and I have a humongous pile of books overdue. Hey, at least it goes to a good cause. Each year the children also get books as gifts when school starts and again when we celebrate our finish. I buy them second hand, at library sales, on Thriftbooks, or Ollies. Making sure my children love to read is the ace up my sleeve for success in education.

Last week we finished Kate Seredy’s The White Staga fascinating tale of the Huns in the days when they were sweeping across the world after their ancestor Nimrod died. It’s historical fiction/fantasy, so we did web searches and verified Gregory’s trivia bit about Attila the Hun dying of a nosebleed. The thing about reading aloud is that the children really don’t suspect that they are learning, but I am guessing they will always remember that choice bit.

Addy’s book, Poppy is by one of our favorite authors, Avi. It is the story of a very brave mouse. The book I got for Rita is one of Cynthia Rylant’s stories, Gooseberry Park.  It has been a great success because Rita is not an avid reader yet, and she says this is the best book ever. I personally have not found a Cynthia Rylant book I didn’t like. Of course, there are over a hundred of them, and I haven’t read them all. Olivia reads all the time, and fast. Thimble Summer didn’t last more then a few days before she was whining about not having anything to read. We agree that Elizabeth Enright’s stories about Gone Away Lake are actually better than this one, but she is another solid author.

The boys are more into non-fiction. Alex is reading Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff.  I might just mention that the title describes the appeal of the book for him. I stood in Barnes and Noble, staring at the $25 price tag, then I looked up a used copy without a dust jacket on the web for 3.99 and left the store empty handed because I am cheap like that. Gregory received a copy of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage He and I shared story grip on this book and had to keep swapping out turns to read it. Then we discovered all the youtube videos about Shackleton and were astonished anew. We are also working our way through the New Testament during the summer months. Our favorite way to do this is listening to Max McLean on audioBible. And that is what we are currently reading.

The animal population here on the farmlet thinned out briefly. We sold Lamb, who was now big enough for Mutton. Rita worked her charm on him and got him into a pet carrier for the ride to join a herd of other sheep going to market that day.

IMG_20180818_090512383-1

We also hauled 20 chickens to the chop. They were old and no longer laying eggs except on good days, when they felt like it, if the light was mellow and the grain fine. I was grateful I didn’t have to butcher them; all I did was roast them, pick the meat from the bones for canning, and then make bone broth. I feel quite happily fortified for soups and stews this winter. Yes to collegen! No to leaky gut! (I just googled that.) We also sold a bunch of fat leetle rabbits, which makes me feel like my name should be Mrs. McGregor, because I know they get eaten, but at least not by me. I thought it was a good thing, emptying a few of the gobbling horde out of the barn, but my husband came home from the salebarn with a flock of ducks and my son bought different rabbits and more chickens.

My mom used to say I shouldn’t get married until I could butcher a chicken and bake a pie. I couldn’t do either when we set up housekeeping, but it seems to have worked out all right. I can bake a pie now, but I have to admit to a secret feeling that someone should commend me every time I do. “Come on,” I chide myself. “You’re a forty-something Mennonite housewife. You’re supposed to be able to bake a pie.” Here’s a really good thing to do with peaches, super easy, super un-fussy, without a ton of prep and dishes.

  • Buy or make a pie shell, with enough pastry to put a lid on it.
  • Peel peaches until you have 4-5 cups of slices.
  • Gently toss them with 1/2 cup sugar, 1 T lemon juice, 4 T minute tapioca.
  • Pour the peaches into the pie shell and top with pastry.
  • Seal the edges, cut a few decorative slits in the top, give it a wash with milk and then dust with sugar for a pretty sparkle.
  • Bake at 350 for 45 minutes

The tapioca does all the work of thickening the juices and holding the peach slices together when you cut the pie. It tastes fresher than cooked peach filling because it wasn’t cooked, obviously, until it went into the oven. Mom had minute tapioca variations for apple pies (2T tapioca and some cinnamon) and other fruits too. We children loved these the best of all the pies she made and that was a lot!

In my spare time, hahaha…. goes off in fits of giggles…

When I have some minutes or an hour, I play with clay. Since I have a kiln, I find my mind constantly veering toward what I could make next. My first firing was full of wobbly pieces that took me 6 months to accumulate. When I saw how the glazes made even lowly pinch pots pretty, I got down to it and filled the kiln again in a month. I had a few big bowls that made my heart sing proudly, but then I had some issues with firing too hot, too quickly and the moisture in the bowls shattered them into thousands of worthless shards. This sight was what greeted my eyes when I opened the lid. I learned a valuable lesson about patience in letting my pieces thoroughly dry out before doing the first firing, as well as double checking the switches when I turn on the kiln.

IMG_20180807_052408664

This shattered mess happened the morning before I went to the funeral of a dear family friend, the person who actually first introduced me to a love of pottery. It felt like an underscoring of the sadness of losing Karen.

Thankfully most of the pieces were fine, but they were all small bowls and mugs. The next kiln load only took 2 weeks to fill. I must be getting better! Sometimes I watch potters on Instagram and see that they could easily throw enough pieces in a day to fill what looks to me like a cavernous kiln. Then I don’t know whether to power on or laugh at my struggle, so I do both. That would be the current events on the creative stage.

What I haven’t been doing is writing, and this bothers me. I feel the urge to not forget all this wonderful mix of stories in the mad whirl that is August, which is really too much and just right. One steamy day I got into the Suburban to run errands and was greeted by a rush of super-concentrated air. It was the weirdest blend, like dirty socks (there actually were some under the seat) and fishing tackle mingled with wool and a cloying overtone that I couldn’t place, like very ripe peaches. “Oh, that’s Rita’s air-freshener. She put clove oil on a tissue to smell good.” That’s August in a nutshell here.

My letterboard pep talk to myself goes like this:

IMG_20180808_082556264

IMG_20180817_091019116

Parting shot: I like my Gregory’s pinch pot better than most of my attempts at symmetry, but I do really like this mug. I get a lot more than coffee out of it. It feels exactly like a smooth egg in my hands, and try as I might, I haven’t been able to make another just like it. Yet.

IMG_20180816_120142500

 

Toting all the Camping Stuff

We camp a lot; it’s usually our vacation of choice. Gabriel frequently has stretches of 5 days on, 3 days off work, so it’s easy to skedaddle off to the wilderness. Nobody cares if the children yell and get dirty in the woods. They can forage and explore in the good clean air. The dog can go along. There are no deadlines or ticket lines or even restroom lines. We eat simple food cooked on sticks and drink tea all day long. And it’s quite affordable.

There is a thing though… you women know what I am going to say. It’s the packing up of such a lot of small details that can sabotage the fun. If you have ever planned to have canned baked beans and forgotten the can opener, you know how frustrating it can be to hack open a tin with a sharp rock. Or maybe there were some leftovers at lunch that someone will surely eat later, but you have nowhere bug-safe to put them. It could even be the unbearable clouds of gnats that swarm when you stir the grasses on your walk, made even more miserable because there is no bug spray. Remembering everything– that is the key to a fun camping trip. I have 36 white hairs that attest to the truth of that statement.

A few years ago I noticed that I was making the same lists over and over, every time we decided to take off to a state park for a few days. I even noticed a smoky hue on my roll of aluminum foil and some campish looking stains on dishcloths. I decided to get smart and store all the essentials in a Rubbermaid tote that can easily be grabbed and loaded into the Suburban. It has made camping about 73% easier and spared me a further 49 white hairs. (Those are hanging onto their brown pigment until more of my children hit adolescence.)

I shelled out the money for really sturdy totes with no regrets. We have a cargo rack that attaches to our hitch, and these totes have seen mud, sleet, snow and blazing sun, not to mention thousands of miles. My husband uses one for sleeping mats, tarps, tie-down straps, first aid kit, etc. Another one is assigned to non-perishable foods and packed fresh every time. The totes are stored in a shed and ready to go. While mine is labelled “kitchen camp stuff,” it would be more accurate to say “herein lies the balance between delight and despair.”

IMG_20180627_105639301

Here’s the list of what I consider essentials:

  • dishpan
  • small bottle of soap
  • scrubber and old dishtowels and cloths
  • clothesline and pins to hang up wet towels
  • potholders
  • plastic tablecloth with clips for picnic table corners
  • plastic cutting mats (for butchering freshly caught fish)
  • sharp knives and scissors
  • cooking utensils, including can opener
  • plastic tumblers and bowls
  • real spoons and forks (1 set per person… Goodwill sells them cheaply)
  • mugs (we hate drinking out of styrofoam around the campfire)
  • coffee strainer
  • salt and pepper shakers, cooking oil
  • toothpicks

Then there are the things that I replace promptly as they get emptied out. It is very important to keep these stocked.

  • Germ-X
  • sanitizing wipes
  • bug spray
  • citronella candles
  • flashlight
  • matches/lighters
  • strong ziplocs
  • heavy duty aluminum foil
  • plastic grocery bags and a roll of trash bags

It all packs in neatly, and that canvas roll on top is a design of my husband’s that I sewed up for him before he took the boys to the Adirondacks for a week. He thought it out carefully, and it works great to keep the cooking utensils organized and clean.

IMG_20180627_111328343

IMG_20180627_111037048

The red canvas flaps fold in over the utensils so that it can be rolled up and nothing falls out.

When we decide on our menu, I stick the appropriate cooking vessels on top of the tote, along with a stack of paper plates and napkins. With this array, I have peace of mind that I can feed my crew reasonably well with not too much effort. I remember the time years ago when my mom forgot the frying pan and we tried to make scrambled eggs over the campfire in a deep stock pot. It made great memories, but the cook was a little flustered. I also remember trying to clean a hopelessly scorched iron kettle with nothing but a bit of rag. These small trials sprinkled through life have shaped my ideas of what I must have to function in an outdoor cooking situation. Minimalism is a nice idea, but there are limits. I try to strike the sweet spot between too much and too little. If I were carrying this all in a pack on a trail, there would be a lot of dumping out cargo, but at this point we do cabins with rubber-coated foam mattresses and water hydrants.

Do you go camping? What would you add to the tote?

Maybe you hate camping. Maybe this would fix it. 🙂

How to Sew an Athletic Skort

IMG_20180714_094224697

My active little girls love skorts. They are tree climbers, hikers, pig riders, bikers… For the sake of modesty they usually wear bike shorts or leggings under their skirts when they are tearing around, but those can get very hot. I looked at the prices for ready made athletic skorts and thought about how quickly my small heroines could ruin a $30 garment in a tangle with greenbriars or on a slide down a rocky path. I decided there has to be an easy way to make a skort (skirt/shorts combination, for those of you who haven’t heard of this).

I found knee-length athletic shorts in the boys’ section at Walmart for 4.44. I wanted the mesh fabric ones, but those were wiped out because July. My fabric was just about the same feel as the shorts, stretchy, yet sturdy. It was swimsuit fabric I got on clearance at JoAnn for $3 a yard. I laid the shorts onto a fitted skirt pattern so that I could see how long to cut the skirt part. As you can see, I left about an inch at the top to fold over the shorts elastic and enough at the bottom for a hem.

IMG_20180714_195329

I sewed the sides of the skirt with a lightning stitch to keep the stitches from breaking when the fabric stretches. If you don’t have this stitch option, you can use a small zig-zag. It is also helpful to use polyester thread and definitely a needle for sewing knits.

IMG_20180714_195537IMG_20180714_194845385

This is a detail of the stripe I sewed on top of the side seams just for fun. Later I realized that it really does reinforce the seam.

Now let’s backtrack a little to the process of sewing the skirt onto the shorts. I did not use my overlock machine since this fabric didn’t fray at all, but you could neaten it up if you wanted to be picky. This is the skirt top arranged over the top of the shorts. How else could I say that so that it makes more sense? Basically you hold the shorts inside the skirt and double the top of the skirt down over the elastic. Make sure to match the side seams and centers of each piece. I pinned it down to the second seam on the elastic and stitched it about 3/4 inch down. The skirt part was just about the same width as the shorts, but since the elastic was already sewn in once, I had to stretch it gently while pinning the skirt and also while I was sewing.

Don’t use lightning stitch for this! If you have to pick if open for any reason, you will find yourself buying more shorts at Walmart for 4.44 rather than wielding a seam ripper through all those layers. Ordinary straight stitches are much more forgiving in the event that something wonky needs to be altered.

IMG_20180714_195205

I hemmed the finished garment and behold, it was a skort!  It took about one hour of sewing and $8 worth of fabric, trim, and ready made shorts. The girls asked me if I could figure out how to open the side so they can access the shorts pockets. I said, “Not today, girls.” But I would like to try that on the next pair.

IMG_20180714_200553-1

Who would like to know how many days they can wear these without washing?

 

 

Linky Love for Monday: Beeyoutiful

It’s been awhile since I did this. No, wait, there was the link for the Kitchenaid ice cream bowl just last month. Insert monkey covering eyes emoji here:

But you know me. I really like to pass on a good thing; it’s what friends do. I received an email from one of my favorite companies for herbal products and essential oils.  Beeyoutiful is having their annual summer free shipping spree  or is that free shopping spree? No, not free shopping, I guess, unless you consider not having to get into the car to get to a store, and free shipping is just sweet! The deal lasts from today, July 9, through Wednesday, July 11. The company kindly provided me with affiliate links, and I heartily endorse their products. There is a wealth of information on the website, as well as hundreds of reviews. You can do your research very thoroughly if you are a skeptical sort of person. Here are a few of my favorite products.
Beeyoutiful

This is where I get ProMiSe Blend, the essential oil that contains it all in the name. I love it, and it is 50% off for 3 days! If you have ever used Clary Sage oil for the delicate condition known as PMS, you know that it has a rather strong aroma. As in, your husband can smell it when he walks into the kitchen and then he knows what’s up with you. This blend, however, is delightful, fresh and invigorating even with the clary sage in it. I don’t think your husband will hate the smell and it won’t make you feel even more grumpy. It’s the geranium and peppermint and all the other good stuff in with the sage. And it works! Better days ahead, as they say.

Beeyoutiful makes SuperMom, the only prenatal vitamin I ever took. It’s not just a prenatal, of course, but that was when I started taking it. I never had trouble with iron levels while taking it, and I could usually tell the days that I forgot to take my vitamin in the morning.
Supermom

Then there is SuperKids, a multi-vitamin I buy for my children. When they were little, they begged for spoonfuls of the orange flavored liquid every day. There is a chewable form available as well.
Superkids

We went through a lot of Chew C as well, especially the winter that my 3 year old developed a crush on it to the point where I had to hide the bottle. I am a huge fan of preventative care when the bugs are flying through the air, but 6 vitamin C’s daily is probably in excess.

Of course, my very favorite product of all time is Berry Well, the flu-fighting elderberry syrup that has served our family so well. This stuff works! When the boys were little, I used to get the 6 bottle deal for the winter just so I wouldn’t be caught short. If our friends had flu plaguing them, I would offer to sell them a bottle from my pantry. The price ($20) never seemed too high where there were kids lying all around the living room with puke buckets beside them. This is the original of the recipe that I try to replicate when I make my own with dried berries. Beeyoutiful also sells a kit with the dried berries and other ingredients you need to make your own, if you wish to do that.
BerryWell

I can personally vouch for the good folks behind this company. One year I met them at a Mother Earth News fair, sampled the teas they were graciously handing out, and chatted for a bit before I bought a whole pile of stuff. Ha. I have also called in with questions about my order and always received stellar service.

I think you will love Beeyoutiful. Maybe you already do. What products do you love? Why not share the love and leave us a comment so we can all get it shipped free? 😉

…and that concludes my linky love for today.

 

How to Cope With More Than You Can Handle

6:17 AM. Seven years ago, right at this time, I was on the way to the hospital in the last stage of labor. The fibroid tumor alongside my chubby baby’s head was giving us problems with her position, so even though the baby wasn’t stressed, we headed to our back-up plan. (Insert my opinion here, because I know this: Home birth is amazing, but never try it without doctor backup and make sure you are close to a hospital.) It’s 20 minutes of my life I don’t ever want to do again, and I remember moaning about just wanting to die while my husband was driving. “Well, honey, that’s not an option,” he told me cheerfully. He had just finished the first semester of nursing school and as always, he was an amazingly supportive birth coach, keeping me focused on the moment. So, dying was out. I would just have to do this. Seventeen minutes after we were escorted to OB  by an orderly who talked too much in the elevator, Addy came flying into the world. It was so sudden I laughed my relief out loud in the delivery room.

A few hours later, my parents brought the rest of the children to see their baby sister, proof for the chatty orderly that no, this was not our first baby. My oldest son was 8, the next one was 6, and the girls were 3 and 2. I look back at these photos and think that they were all babies.

IMG_2543.JPG

My burning question was simple. How? How am I going to do this? When we bring this baby home from the hospital and my husband goes back to work/school, how will I cope? I was reminded of these feelings recently when a friend with 5 small children asked me what one thing I would say to a mom in the daily, hourly, minutely role of raising small children. “I am living the life I used to fear,” she told me, and I knew exactly what she meant. The answer that came was simple.

You do this one day at a time, faithfully doing the next thing. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for successful mothering, because our lives are all different, but this is a formula that will grow and change you in your own heart toward your children. It will give you backbone and strength when you are so tired you are cross-eyed in a tunnel lined with milky sippy cups and poo-stained onesies. Are you ready for this?

This is the time when it is okay to die. This is the time to slay the whiny, “BUT what about ME?” and just pour it out for others. You know you won’t actually die, but selfishness and grandiose ambitions and pride of accomplishments will. Just chuck them out and allow yourself to settle into a very small, hardly noticed place of service. Nobody says, “Wow, did you see how neatly she wiped up those squished peas under the highchair? Isn’t she accomplished? And just look at how amazing she was with that baby wipe.” And yet in that moment with a rag on the floor you gave your life for another. You’ll get it back someday and the more freely you give it up now, the happier you will be.

Don’t be afraid of the narrowness. I think of it like water flowing through a hose. You aren’t a river, satiating the thirst of an entire county. You are responsible for that hopping, squirming row right there in front of you clamoring for a drink. Keep them hydrated. Just concentrate on that. This is not the season to crusade for world peace. Your contribution to the world is nurtured children and it is a huge contribution even while it kills you repeatedly, day after day.

I can’t say you will always feel your “high and holy calling.” It is intense and hot and sticky and there are all these clingers-on every time you do venture away from home territory. You will fight the urge to run to a place where nobody calls you “Mama.” There will be times you feel like you simply cannot get off the couch to deal with the children who are scrapping madly in their bedroom.

But you will be all in, freely investing your talents in this hidden place. You will be lavishly working to make life happy, saying “yes” when you dread the mess your consent will create, reading the same storybook 3 times a day, listening to endless rewinds of an alleged dream, thinking endlessly about what to feed the people. You will be teaching your children how to say sorry, how to wash their hands and their dishes and their clothes, how to make life sweeter for others. Your books will languish, unread, and your prayers will be profound phrases like, “Help me, Jesus.”

You will repent and apologize when you fall, and then you will get up for another round, knowing that Grace is holding you and you are in a good place. You will find Joy in this spot, like looking through a cardboard tube at your life and when you block out all the peripherals you zero in on the loveliest vignettes in the middle of the chaos.

It is simple, but I didn’t say it is easy. “I’ll do hard things for love of you, Jesus,” I promised in my youth. Hear me. It was impossible for this impatient, goal-oriented, ambitious girl to settle into that narrow life and flourish. I wasn’t a nurturer by nature. I wanted to do big things, broad strokes that would change the world. Something had to give and it was me. I just didn’t know how hard it would be to live small, contained, in one little place, with just these same little people every day. I needed to learn the glory of small things, a little leaven, a grain of mustard seed. The dying was excruciating and it continues on. How can one person have so much selfishness?

I am currently in a season where I am able to zoom out, pick up dreams to pursue, walk in a wider place. My baby just cooked her own breakfast while I hovered anxiously in case the eggs spilled onto the stove. Wow, that happened fast, I think.

 

IMG_20180706_091054494

If you feel stifled, smothered by neediness, afraid to let go of who you are, take it from me. Things become richer when you condense them, even souls.

Homemade Ice Cream in 15 Minutes

I started hankering after an easy ice cream maker a few years ago. We have a large churn type that takes ice and a few hours and makes phenomenal ice cream. It is great for a crowd, but not for a quick summertime treat. The thing I needed was a countertop version. I also needed something compact, and when I discovered that Kitchenaid makes a bowl that simply attaches to the stand mixer, I was hooked. I just needed an excuse to get one, and Father’s Day last year was perfect. It wasn’t any more lame to get my husband something I wanted than it would have been to get him something he didn’t want or need. 🙂 I figured he would be benefiting from this insight pretty often.

This is what I got:

 

It attaches by a twisting motion onto my mixer but is also fitted for the bigger models that have a lifting lever for the bowl. The whisk attachment has two sizes as well, so that it is interchangeable with sizes. Just do your research if your mixer is very tiny or very huge.

Here’s how it works. You store the bowl in the freezer. When you want ice cream, you get it out, pour in a quart of ice cream mix, and start it up. Typically it takes about 15 minutes to freeze and do that amazing expand-y thing that ice cream does when it is just about finished. It is a good practice to stand there at the bowl with a spoon so that it doesn’t expand too far out over the edge of the bowl or anything like that.

I have tried many recipes and simplified one way down to 5 ingredients and no cooking. That way I can take a sudden notion to make ice cream on a Sunday evening and it is no hassle. I will put in a disclaimer here: if you cannot stomach raw eggs, you should just skip on to the cooked custard recipes on Pinterest. I got this blender ice cream mix idea from a mom who raised a dozen children on it and nobody ever got an e.coli infection. Just be sure you use fresh eggs without any cracks.

I prefer the ice cream made with a cooked custard mix when I have had the foresight to get it ready 12 hours before we want ice cream. For a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-skirt person, that doesn’t happen very often.

IMG_20180623_181657033

The ingredients list is simple:

  • 3 1/2 cups of milk/cream/almond milk, etc.  …We are looking for milky liquid. You can be as health conscious or as fatty as you want. I used 1 1/2 cups half and half (because cream can form little butter lumps if it hasn’t been cooked into custard) and 1 1/2  cups milk.
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar  …Again, you can do whatever sweetener you want. This is not sweet compared to regular ice cream. It is just how I like it, a hint of sweet decadence without the brain numbing sugar high. Sometimes I use part maple syrup, or even alternative sweeteners.
  • a pinch of salt …Trust me on this. You want a little bit of salt in there.
  • flavoring   …I used a TB of instant coffee dissolved in a TB of water. Sometimes I use vanilla or caramel flavoring with flakes of salt at the end for you know what!

Put all ingredients into your blender, or if it is broken like mine, into a deep bowl for the immersion blender treatment. (I have tried many and varied  immersion blenders. This one isn’t expensive, but it is by far the most powerful one I have owned. Bonus: it comes with a mini food processor. Make sure to keep the stick blender down against the bottom of the bowl! You have been warned. Whip up the mix until it is thoroughly blended, but not so long that it gets warm. You want the mix to be as chilled as possible. If at this point you don’t quite have a quart of mix, just add milk until you do. You can also add a bit of xanthan gum. It helps thicken and smooth the finished product.

IMG_20180623_181811675

IMG_20180623_182109553

 

IMG_20180623_182118592

This is how the beater attaches to the mixer. (Just pretend you don’t see that flour that I should have wiped off the mixer.) You pop it on, then put the whisk part down into the bowl, start the blender on low and pour in your mix. Go cook the hamburgers and toast the buns while this mixing is going on. The ice cream will be ready by the time you have the supper made. 😀IMG_20180623_182136316

IMG_20180623_192602320

Riddle: What is better than dessert?  Answer: Dessert that is coffee flavored.