Of Popsicles and Weeds

It’s glorious summertime, with the solstice past and the year waning. How is that for jerking around your feelings in the first line? The ebb and flow of life is mostly wonderful in June. With a house full of tweens and teens, someone is constantly checking the cupboards or the fridge. My oldest son goes to work and he and my husband both pack a lunch, although Gabe eats his at midnight and Alex has his at the regular time. I pack one lunch in the morning and one in the evening. When I don’t do it in a timely manner, Alex packs a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some chips and calls it enough. Gabe grabs a granola bar and some cheese and calls that enough. I make a point of staying ahead of them so that there is lettuce on the sandwich and nourishment in the snacks.

Meanwhile the garden is not quite producing what the little girls like to pack in their daily picnics. I let them pack whatever they want, provided it’s marginally healthy. (That means no, not popsicles,) and every time I want to make a salad, I hold my breath that the veggies are still there in the crisper drawers. I buy prodigious quantities of Ranch dressing which they pour into personal containers for dipping.  (I also buy saltines; those cheap ones for 98 cents a box are the preferred variety. As long as they have salt, the kids are happy.) I am excited to see the first peppers setting tiny fruits and the cucumbers are starting to put out blooms. This past week the girls have been grazing off the pea patch. Finally I told them they have to stop or we will never have enough for a meal. There are still a few strawberries ripening. The patch is old, so the berries were all small. I was thinking about how long it takes to cap such little fruits when I heard Rita gushing about how cute they are and how much fun it is to cap them. I did not disrupt their fun.

Last year with all the rain, most of Gabe’s raspberries gave up in a despairing shower of yellowing leaves. There is still one row that is producing berries this year, so I was walking along, deep in thought while I looked for them in the tangle of canes and weeds. I kept hearing a hissing, but couldn’t place it until I nearly stepped on a duck that is sitting on a huge nest full of eggs. She was flattened out in her effort to keep them all warm, and she meant business! I tiptoed away quickly. The girls informed me that there are two other expectant mother ducks in the field. It looks like the slugs and bugs had better beware this summer.

On the poultry side of things, there are a bunch of baby guineas sprouting feathers and attitudes in the barn. They were only 3 days old when we observed them fighting over food and running dizzily hither and yon. “Showing their true colors already,” Gregory observed sagely.

We’ve had a brilliant social life recently. Last week there was either an event involving our family, or we had visitors here at our house every day except one. It was a blast! I literally went for one day at a time. Actually, make that one meal at a time. One morning recently I went down to the laundry room to sort the hampers. Both my sons’ towels and entire wardrobe from the previous day were on the floor of their bathroom (which doubles as our laundry room) and there was one shirt in the hamper. It belonged to Gregory’s friend who had spent the day here. When I texted his mother that little story, she replied that when my son was at her house, he alone brought his mug to the kitchen after it was empty. I feel that an identity crisis would be in order: if they only do what they are supposed to do when mother isn’t there to remind them, what is a mother for? (I jest. I hope you know that. Recently I witnessed some incredible thick-headedness when a friend made tongue-in-cheek comments that left her back-peddling for dear life. It made me nervous!)

A few days ago the boys and their cousins were swimming in the pond and wishing the cousins didn’t have to use precious time to take showers before continuing their journey. One of my children said, “You’re plenty clean! You were just swimming!” He replied, “I must take a shower. Dad’s orders. But I only need 30 seconds for that, so let’s play until the very last minute.” I was not terribly surprised to find his swimming trunks and other sundries on the bathroom floor after they left, but he was as clean as 30 seconds under a stream of water could make him.

So many times, with teaching children line upon line, precept upon precept, you take the victories as they come. They really do wash their dirty hands. You can easily see that by the dirt smears on the hand towel. We have a rule around here about popsicles. If you don’t dispose of the wooden stick or the wrapper or the plastic tube, as the case may be, you don’t get a popsicle the next time. I have discovered a flaw in the rule. Short of forensic science, it is pretty difficult to isolate the trash-offender, especially if there have been non-family members around also eating popsicles.  It’s as if no one ever deliberately says, “Now I will toss this in the lawn so I can do other things.” So the rule is kind of useless unless I personally observe the offense. I amended it to “go pick up any trash in the lawn. If it is big enough to get hold of with your thumb and finger, it counts as trash. And no, it doesn’t matter if it was or wasn’t you.”

Addy whined a little today, “Why do I have to do dishes?” and my wise answer was, “Because you live here.” I noticed recently that the very thing that annoys me is often an indication of a great blessing. The refrigerator is needing repairs. Well, glory be, I don’t have to go to the spring house to keep the milk cold, although running downstairs to the egg fridge every time we need milk is probably the modern equivalent. And who has an egg fridge, anyway? People with so many extra eggs they can eat them every day and sell them too.

I have a few bits of advice for those who like to stay alert to potential problems.

  1. Never have a yard sale on a rainy day, even if you have it under a roof. People simply don’t believe the signs.
  2. Don’t throw things away. It may be exactly what the person who does stop at your yard sale was looking for, and they will feel so very happy about that. Also, the lace on the old curtain might be precisely what your daughter needs for edging on her colonial dress that she made out of an old sheet. See concluding picture below. (pattern bought at a yard sale.)
  3. Do throw away ratty stuffed animals. Nobody wants them. Sorry, Velveteen Rabbit.
  4. Don’t wear flip-flops to the doctor’s office if you expect to wait an hour in the refrigerated tomb that is an exam room. You will be so chilled by the time you actually see the doc that she might mistake you for a corpse and order a post-mortem.
  5. Don’t worry too much about preserving yourself. It’s not natural. I quote from The Last Battle: “Susan’s whole idea was to get to the silliest time of her life as quickly as she could and then to stay there as long as she could.” (Speaking of her absorption with lipstick and invitations.)
  6. {Edit} Weeds. I just looked at my title and remembered that I was going to mention that this is the weather where “weeds go mental,” in the words of a British gardener. Here is what you do: you pull them out, compost them, use what is nasty and messy for the benefit of all.

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The Goings On

I sense that in the sphere of lame titles, I have just hit the jackpot, but it does give you an idea as to the intent of this post. I have written many articles in my head this spring, but I never had a computer accessible to type it out. One daughter uses my laptop to stream her arithmetic instruction and the other daughter uses the desktop computer for her schoolwork. I also turned my beloved reading/writing room into an extra bedroom. The girls were having daily drama with 3 in the bunk beds and just simply too much stuff in one little room. I moved my desk and chair out and set up a single bed and dresser for Olivia. She is ecstatic to have a place where no one throws nighties on the floor willy-nilly every morning. Her orderly soul delights in fixing the bed every day, arranging the teddies just so, and having a place to read early in the morning.

I miss having a place where I can go to shut the door and think or read or write, and yes, extroverts have needs like this too. This winter I spent a lot of quiet time just making stuff in the pottery shed. Some of my experiments turned out hilariously funny (teapots), some are mildly disturbing (pedestal bowls that sagged just a little), and some were great triumphs (new glazes). It really did help me to be so absorbed in making stuff and doing glaze tests during the long dark of winter.

The biggest project so far this spring was a massive clean-up on our property, trash bags in hand. Living with so much road frontage and in a valley where the wind sweeps through, we end up with a lot of junk from the un-classy motorists who chuck beer cans and go-cups out the windows, as well as our own blown-away bits and pieces. We have also cleared out the playhouse, and I confess to burning a few things when the girls  weren’t looking. (Have you ever watched a massive, ratty teddy bear burn? One that was given generously at a yard sale after you told your child “no”…)

I have been washing and stowing snow clothes in the attic, one load at a time. My huge capacity HE washer started struggling with bulky loads again, so I was limited to smaller, normal clothing loads, no rugs or blankets or even heavy coats. Gabriel decided he was done fixing it. We did some research and found an appliance store with the Speed Queen of our dreams (simple dials, no computerized nonsense), but then we experienced sticker shock and went on Craigslist. To our delight, there was a listing for an even more advanced Speed Queen for almost half price of new and it was only a few minutes’ drive from a conference Gabriel was attending. Funny… the single lady who was selling due to a move just happened to work for the same employer Gabriel does. She hasn’t told her boss about the move yet, and didn’t want us to leak it, so don’t tell anybody! The poor appliance salesman went from licking his chops over a customer almost in the bag to admitting that we found a tremendous deal.

That nudged me into painting the laundry room white: ceiling, trim, and walls all the same. People Who Know are doing this. It makes for simple painting and makes my eyes feel a little skinned by the stark cleanliness every time I do a load of laundry. I do enjoy it. I’m sure it won’t stay so pristine for long. It took Alex and me an entire Saturday forenoon to do the painting. I trimmed, he rolled, and we listened to 99 Percent Invisible podcasts. Then he hooked up my new washer and I just want to say how handy it is to have a capable young adult hanging about with all sorts of muscle and skill. I look at him sometimes and think, “How?”

I ran 6 loads of laundry through that blessed machine in the time it used to take my very intelligent load-sensing washer to do two, (and even then it might have found an issue in its heart). I am not into low-water use situations in this season of many children covered in great dirt. And seriously, folks, this is the washer for the people with children. Yes, it is. How do I know? A lady with 12 of them told me so. She knows what she is talking about. Then my mother-in-law, who is the cleanest person I know, also said so. Now I have been using it for half a week, and I am sold. It is heavy, American-made, quality. I feel so blessed! I might even start washing everything in the house, now that spring is here.

I planted just a few starter garden things last week. Since we couldn’t start the tiller to prep for peas, (yes, peas! What can I say? I love them so much I am willing to do the work.) we spaded a corner for red potatoes. I also sowed some lettuces and radishes, and got basil going on my kitchen windowsills. The asparagus bed had an astonishing amount of hearty dandelions in it. When I saw the size of the roots, I decided that this is the year we try for dandelion coffee. It turned out to be delicious, in a non-coffee sort of way. Especially when we added cream and sugar. We have been drinking a lot of Dandy Blend, an herbal drink with no caffeine that is a great “iced coffee” for children. Also it is expensive. So now we know why it costs a lot. It took a good bit of time, scrubbing enough roots to cover a cookie sheet, chopping them up into half inch pieces,

roasting them in the oven for an hour, running them through the coffee grinder, doing one final roast, and the all-important taste test. We got about 1 cup of dandelion grounds/ersatz coffee for our trouble, but it only takes a teaspoon to make a cup. And it is good! Now we know we can do it, which was the whole point.

The general consensus: this is a drink that all of us enjoyed. We brewed it like coffee, with water. When we make Dandy Blend, we mix it in sweetened milk and drink it cold, sort of like a chocolate milk substitute. I did a taste test plain, beside black coffee. It tasted more earthy (surprise!) with hints of mushrooms. If we ever hit a time when we cannot buy coffee, you can expect to see me out in the yard with a weed digger for my substitute.

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Here we are a day later. I found me a block of quiet space and brewed a cup of Earl Grey. Looking out of the kitchen windows this morning, I see two bright yellow kayaks on the pond bank, a fleet of paper airplanes on the lawn, some ropes, and a goat cart that the girls rigged with better success pulling it themselves than hitching up Betsy or Horny. (Oh, yes, that is her name.) I also see bike ramps, a sagging teepee, a bunch of play dishes, an incongruous snow shovel, and some abandoned flip-flops . It does not look pretty, but it is a beautiful sight to me!

I haven’t told the children yet, but we’re taking the day off school. We are actually ahead of schedule, a rare feeling indeed! It’s a big week at Keystone Vinyl, my dad’s deck and fence business. The annual open house is coming up this weekend, so my job is to get things looking pretty outside. A local nursery has agreed to let us borrow plants and shrubs for curb appeal in exchange for free advertising. Alex and I will be hauling them in our Suburban, as many as we can cram in.

I live the high life with a student-driver chauffeur willing to take me anywhere I want. It’s pretty nice to sit back and read or check out the scenery while we go places.

Okay, the Peightlets are up, and I am off. Have a lovely day!

 

Slow and Steady

We have emerged from what was called a Polar Vortex into what felt like a spring chinook today, with more sunshine and warmth called for tomorrow. Those who do not know could assume that it isn’t necessary to go South this year, that maybe we are through with winter now. The groundhog said an early spring, whatever that may be worth. Some remnant of my ancient nomadic DNA kicks up at this and says, “No, no, you will freeze, starve, shrivel, die, if you do not follow the sun. You should have gone long ago! The seeds in the larder are running low!” Of course, my sensible Swiss ancestry cranks up the thermostat, brews more tea, settles in for the long haul and knows we’ll be just fine, thank the Lord. (P.S. I don’t know whether I have nomadic DNA, but I assume we all share it at some distance.)

I think I know why people quilt in the wintertime. It only requires tiny movements, small efforts that string together to make bedcoverings, where we all want to be on dark days of cold. It’s almost as good as hibernation. (Actually, I can’t stand quilting, for starters because it makes me antsy to hunch over and take small stitches, but also because you can’t do it with a mug in one hand. )

Writing is my version of small movements of creativity which is why I have a goal to do a lot of it this February again. Not every day, but more than I have been. I can set my mug beside me and take reviving sips when I need to think out a phrase. I am a little embarrassed at my coffee consumption these days. Since I trained myself, one painful day at a time, to drink it black, I no longer feel like the calories matter. I am even drinking my tea unsweetened and uncreamed. Early Grey is still better with embellishments, but the discipline has been good for me. I make exceptions for bitter coffee. If the first sip reveals an inferior pedigree, I happily cream it up. And please, I buy Aldi’s coffee beans, so it’s not like I am snobbish. Still, I thought this year I should maybe give up coffee for Lent. I am glad that Jesus has not asked that of me yet.

Like I mentioned, we tend to conserve our motions and lose a lot of our motivation these short days. Occasionally (like yesterday) we rally and do a great big thing like join in on a 4 hog butchering spree. There were five of us families working together, lots of children, babies, toddlers, camaraderie. Cutting the meat off the bones is always the speedy part, as well as grinding and seasoning sausage. About the time everybody is wishing to be done already, there are the more tedious aspects of rendering the lard, cooking the bones to make broth and picking off the cooked bone meat for scrapple. Just when everybody really really wants to call it quits, there are the greasy dishes to be washed and the tired children to round up for the ride home in a sausage scented car.

Last night when we fried sausage patties for a bedtime snack, we were glad we put in the effort. This morning my girls and I fried scrapple and were doubly happy with our work of yesterday. You can buy scrapple, but you don’t really know what’s in it. From all the reports, there’s some weirdness that goes on behind the scrapple making scene similar to the weirdness that goes into hotdogs. We don’t do weirdness in ours, so everybody’s happy.  (If you don’t know what scrapple is, I am sorry for you. Maybe google it. I didn’t have a clue until our family moved to Pennsylvania from Kentucky. Around here, it’s common fare.)

Hey! They tell me spring is right around the corner!! But right now isn’t so bad either. I want to show you a sprinkle of pictures from my phone. This first one is ice crystals that formed on cattail fluff blown across the surface of the pond one day. Gregory took the photo.

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The state of the ice is of consuming interest to the small fry. Once it was finally thick enough to be safe, they work to clear it whenever it snows so that we can have skating parties. My children have no notions of hibernation. They get this happy trait from their father. Also, he believes in good gear to stay warm and dry. It certainly helps!

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They love skiing so much. I love it too- the idea of it, that is. I love that they do this while Gabe and Alex are patrolling. I love that they get out and enjoy the mountain. I love staying home in the quietness, picking up the yarns and knitting needles, putting away the coloring/painting/snibbling projects, cooking up extra food, planning for the next week. I love that they will have developed better winter muscles as adults than I have because they have so much fun in it.

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I have no plan for my writing this month.  I could use a little help here to sharpen me up. Instagram has a questions feature that says, “Ask me anything.” This is your chance, if you would like to do that in the comments. Feel free to be anonymous if you want. I’ll see what I can dredge up.

 

The End Cap

I did not get a Christmas letter written this year, nor did I send cards, except to my mom and my grandma, so this is an attempt at a summary. Condensing a gift that is 365 days big is a difficult assignment. Thinking back over this year makes me think of elastic. The Year of Elastic? Not really the sound of wonder and music, or the kind of word one chooses for a theme for a year, but more the sound of stretching and rebounding, maybe sometimes even bungee jumping. I cannot even tell you how far down on my un-bucket list bungee jumping is, but there are other versions of plummeting and rising that give one’s innards a jolt. When all quiets down a bit, you know you might have had the courage to try this stunt when you were 20, but you probably wouldn’t have had the fortitude to stick it out and learn from it. And at 60 it might kill you, so this is the time!

For us this is the time to parent people who are finding themselves and spending a good bit of their own time beating around in the bushes beside the trail to see if there is a better trail and sometimes there is and you concede the point as graciously as you can. This is the age of also parenting people who still require a bit of training not to yell and hit when they are mad, or throw their cursive practice page into the trash can when they get frustrated. Then there is the teaching about doing random acts of kindness for someone who does not even deserve it and doing dishes when it isn’t your turn. This is also the age of vigilance to notice when the quiet people are being steamrolled and those who are less needy should be given a timely love pat on the back for work well done.

I have made a career of wifing/mothering ever since I got married and had my first baby. Granted, there were varying degrees of dedication, yet always it has been my conviction that this is my life-work because God gave me children. Let me tell you, there is a lot of scope for the imagination and plenty of use for any talent if you get over not being noticed all the time for your good work. There is just so much to keep track of and grow and learn, and anybody who thinks being a stay at home mom is boring has not leaned into it hard enough…ahem.

Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought in the toddler years, if I just felt sure I knew what I was doing? Well. Here I still am, thinking that would be nice. Still learning.

This year our last booster seat left the car and our first child turned 16. We are squarely in a season that is strange and fun and did I mention stretching? Everybody can buckle their own seat belts for the ride, but they don’t all want to go to the zoo with equal passion. Dad is driving the car, making sure the correct address is in the Google Maps so they can actually get to the zoo, navigating the traffic and the gas tank. Mom is up there in the passenger seat, passing out snacks and untangling arguments about whose water bottle the green one is, saying it’ll be fun! Just stop pestering each other and have fun… and thinking secretly that the zoo is always with her.

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Gabriel finished his bachelor’s degree in nursing this spring. He is still working in the Emergency Department in the trauma center in Altoona, although he also got his paramedic’s certification in case he ever decides to join a flight nursing team. He loves his work, but there are nights when the shift is so crammed with patients that he finds it hard to care about people anymore. One of the best stress relievers for him has been to start collecting antique woodworking tools, crafting workbenches, carving spoons, shaving curls of hardwood off planks in the methodical old ways with block planes. I have an impressive collection of wooden utensils in my kitchen, all carefully hollowed out of greenwood with spoon knives. We joke about buying stock in  Band-Aid and there have been a few suturing episodes, but the more the guys work with their sharp instruments, the less they cut themselves. Here’s a photo of his workshop in the barn loft, a happy place until the weather turns freezing.

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Aside from my usual homemaking stuff this year, I spent most of my spare hours with my hands in the clay. Slowly I have gotten to feel confident with making mugs and smaller pots on the wheel. I have endless ideas to try in the new year, but I think I will work at one new thing per month. My sister gave me a gorgeous planner where I can even write out what I want to learn each month. Shall it be teapots in February and plates in March? Hmm? It is wonderful to have my heated shed where I can work for a few hours, leave the mess, pick it up again the next day. For the duration of the winter, Gabriel has his antique tools in half of the shed, so our dream of working companionably in the same space has come true.

Over the Christmas hustle when I was trying to stock my Etsy shop, I would go outside after the girls’ bedtime story and work until Gabriel got home from work at midnight. One can only keep that up so long, though, and I am taking a goodly break. (For those who want to know: my Etsy shop is HomesteadHighlights because we all make stuff around here, so there will be listings that are not pottery related. I also have an Instagram page under (lame name alert, because I cannot pin down a name I love) deep8_ceramics where I chat about the process of learning to make pottery. I don’t know anything except what someone taught me, mostly from Youtube, but it’s fun to figure it out as I go.)

What I have not done much is read and write. I am going to have to figure out a way to juggle better. My soul shrivels when I don’t read, and I feel like I am dropping chunks of life when I don’t write. Maybe that planner… Every new year I feel hopeful about my abilities to be organized and start strong with one. I love the feel of chipping at my goals and checking off lists, then I start winging it again when life gets too busy to pick up a pen and jot a list. I have learned to keep my shopping list in GoogleKeep. It works great because I am less likely to forget my phone than my list. I can’t decide whether I should just embrace this idiosyncrasy or continue to fight it. Maybe I could develop a planner that spans January to June for people like me. It would be half the normal price and they would not have to feel guilty about the wasted blank pages at the end of the year.

This year I discovered the app Libby by Overdrive, which gives me access to library audiobooks. My favorites list of podcasts is growing as well. This is what I do to stimulate my mind while I do mug handles. Last January I deleted the Facebook app on my phone. I find that I do not miss anything except the sorts of things that everybody knows because they saw it on Facebook and I am totally clueless. It’s not really that bad. I have found plenty of things to fill those scrolling distracted minutes. Ask me how I control my Instagram habits? It takes carefulness, no matter what, to avoid falling into wormholes that have nothing to do with what God wants me to do right now.

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Alex is working on his last high school credits. With only 7 to go, he is hoping to graduate in the spring. This fall he spent a few weeks helping an uncle with a house renovation project in South Dakota. It was his first flight out of the nest for that long and we really missed him. He also did an Outdoor Emergency Course in preparation to do ski patrol with his dad. It was a fairly rigorous course, with quizzes or tests every weekend. I was amused to see how much more seriously he took those deadlines than the ones I give him for his lessons. Now that it’s time to study for a driver’s permit, he is out of ambition and taking his good old time. That’s all right by me, although I will be glad when he can drive himself to work. I keep being startled by this tall child of mine when I see him out of the corner of my eye. Most times this happens when I’m working in the kitchen and he sidles past the fridge to see if anything jumped in there since he last checked it a few minutes ago. It is a very handy thing to have such a strong young man hanging around when furniture needs to be moved, or feed bags have been hauled home from the store, or stacks of boxes need to go to the post office.

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Gregory has spent hours, days, doing research on forging methods and drooling over blacksmithing tools. The obsession lasted so long that Gabriel decided to build him a forge and buy hims some sacks of coal for his 14th birthday. He has been hammering out hooks and key rings from old porch railings. My favorite is a plant stake that looks just like a heron. His favorite is a knife he forged out of an old door hinge, then carved the handle and epoxied the two together. I hear him whistling to the tune of the hammer blows and tease him that he should start a business called Great Guns. Since Alex has a job, Gregory is our barn worker. He feeds the animals and takes care of the egg gathering/washing. It has done more to teach him focus than any other daily chore. A hungry creature doesn’t care how interesting your book is. It just wants to be fed. On time. And watered. Every day.

I try hard not to hover and be solicitous with these boy-men. I try to be suitably impressed by their accomplishments but not too gushy (aw, it’s not a big deal, Mom, nothing to it). I try not to get discouraged that they still mercilessly tease their sisters and I try to think instead about how they generously buy Pringles and candy corn to share with everybody.  I admit to bewilderment with what to do when the adult is right there around the corner, just about fully fledged, and yet the child is cavorting around in full sight. One thing I have been learning: one cannot hitch one’s wagon to the feelings and whimsies of one’s growing-up children. It just ain’t a good practice.

The girls are easier to understand. Olivia is domestic and reliable in the house. She is a peacemaker at her core, and usually asks if anyone else wants the last cookie before she takes it herself. When it’s clean-up time, it is easy for her little sisters to dawdle while she scurries around putting things away.  Occasionally I am happy to see spunk in her that won’t be taken advantage of. (See steamrolled reference above. Actually, if Gabe and I ever had a child who had no opinions, we would worry it was a foundling.) This year Olivia sewed about a dozen dolls with big ideas of selling them. Every time she has a fresh batch, she decides to give them away. The latest ones have hip-length yarn hair that can be styled, so she wants to keep them all. She struggles to keep them all decently clothed out of fabric scrap dresses.

Rita is sailing blithely through 3rd grade and I am so grateful that I waited until she was seven before she started first grade books. She is plenty smart, but not bookish at all. Her best learning comes from making stuff and observing closely what is around her. She knows the habits of individual chickens and how to make a village with acorn caps and some good ways to make soup when you feel like you might want a little something to eat. The day before Christmas I found her in the basement, stripping dried cattail fluff into a bag to stuff a pillow for our trip to Ohio. That’s Rita in a nutshell. Need a pillow? Make one. Why bother somebody else? Just use the stuff at hand. Any stuff. There is a slight conflict in that last philosophy that the discerning among you might understand.

Addy is now 7, and learning to come to terms with always being the little one. It doesn’t matter that it makes more sense for her to have the bottom dresser drawers. “It’s just because I am the shortest” and she is prepared to take offense at that. Her huge store of affection gets lavished on people and pets alike. She likes things to be fair and getting dibs on the top bunk has been her latest great happiness. Recently we were baking cookies together and I made an accidental flour mushroom that showered gently over the counter. Addy had an epiphany: “I get it from you, Mama! You make messes too!” I grinned at her and said, “Yes, you do get it from me! But we get a lot done in life, you and I.” We embraced our idiosyncrasy together and just had a good time with our cookies while I told her about my own days of scraped knees and skinned hands.

I suppose the year was fairly ordinary, but the days were full of struggle and triumph and occasional headers into mud, quite literally. Normally our area gets about 40 inches of precipitation a year and this year we had 60 inches by mid-December. It seems fitting that we had a downpour all day on this last scrap of 2018. If this keeps up, I’ll be looking toward Arizona.

Looking ahead, I know there is a lot of potential for character development and opportunities for repentance involved in daily interaction with needy humans. I don’t have any profound aspirations other than to start new every morning with coffee and those mercies that rebound daily and keep the strains of life from completely fraying me into a frazzled, useless mess. It’s a good life, after all.

How about you? Would you like another year like the one you just had, or are you grateful to move on to a fresh one?

 

 

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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.”

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

Alive Again

It is finally here. Benevolent sunshine. A few tentative blooms. Newborn lambs. Jubilant spring peepers. Dancing children.

Okay, I will try not to rhapsodize to the point of boring you. It’s the season I wait for all year, so it’s a pretty big deal to me. This year it has been taking it’s sweet time in showing up. There came a point where the best I could do when it snowed again was to avoid looking out the windows and just light all the candles. My soul felt chilled into lethargy that had forgotten how to rejoice, plodding through the daily activities with as much grace as plodding normally brings to mind. Not so pretty, but useful for staying alive. Barely.

A friend asked me, “Are you just being dramatic, or do you really feel that way about winter/spring?” (What? Me, dramatic? I am enjoying a moment of private amusement here. But I do not exaggerate my feelings. They are quite real, as they say, and this winter was a humdinger.)

Toward the end of March, we had the opportunity to travel south to sunshine and white sands beaches. We had just gotten the biggest snowfall of the winter, and seemed locked in endless days of grey. It was wonderful to pack up and leave the dirty snow piles behind. Of course, before we could actually leave, we had to make arrangements for the animals. The dog went to a friend, the lamb went to a sheep-raising friend, the goldfish went to Grandma’s house, and all the rabbits and pigs and goats and chickens and cats stayed in the barn to be tended by a friend.

We knew it was a lot of traveling, something we don’t do much when Gabe is in school. Our children are not used to hours in the car, so to ease the pain, I let each one pack a backpack with books and things to amuse them. The boys took survival gear in anticipation for a weekend with cousins. One of them took two inflatable pillows, in addition to a normal one, just in case he needed to pad himself somewhere. The girls, whose packs were small, crammed an astounding array of goodies into them, One took a doll and accessories to keep it happy, as well as books and a crochet project. Another took a menagerie of little stuffed animals, a sewing kit, and her most special mini figures to play with. The third took coloring supplies, loads of picture books, an extra pillow, a portable DVD player and some DVDs. You know what happens when you overstuff a backpack, every time you try to pull something out? Yeah, a lot of the treasures ended up on the floor, temporarily lost, the cause of weeping. So… now we know what doesn’t work to pass the time. More mom-involvement in the packs would have been helpful. Shew. More than once I thought of discreetly dropping some treasures into a service station garbage can.

The first leg of the trip was to Savannah, Georgia, a city I have long had a fascinated desire to see. The city was designed with broad streets and garden squares up on a bluff above the riverfront. When Sherman marched through the South on his destructive rampage, he was so impressed by the charm of Savannah that he couldn’t destroy it. Instead he telegrammed Abraham Lincoln, offering the city to him as a Christmas present. It really is that beautiful. We only scratched the surface with a chilly walking tour. The azaleas were blooming, the Spanish moss was doing it’s lovely drooping thing, the birds were singing. Of course, there was a reluctant walker with a sore foot who loitered behind, sighing. But I saw enough to make me want to go back for a week.

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(Photo credits to my husband and his cell phone. The steps are one flight of many leading from the riverfront up to the residential area. And can you guess whose feet were hurting? )

Our first sight of the ocean was on Jekyll Island, where we enjoyed the astounding scenery of Driftwood Beach. The island is eroding from the north end, where the trees die and become nature’s sculptures. It was relatively cold and windy; I saw people in wool coats and caps, and there were our kids, scampering barefooted on the beach, wading delightedly. IMG_20180327_145302168

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The shell collection started. Addy’s pockets were sagging low with her loot when we left the beach to resume our drive south to Florida. We had a few minutes of hilarity, trying to wash the sand off the bare feet with water bottles. A few people had to be changed entirely due to wading with more abandon than wisdom. There were no public hydrants or changing rooms where we were parked, so that was interesting.

My parents have a trailer in Sarasota which they kindly offered to us for lodging. They weren’t there anymore, but it was a great landing strip for us. With the exception of ice cream at Big Olaf’s and some shuffleboard games while Gabe worked on an assignment, we did none of the other typical Pinecraft activities. Actually, I did get in a visit with my Uncle Leroy and Aunt Betty. There were not a lot of people around. We spent our time out on the barrier islands.

The first day we woke to brilliant sunshine, a cool breeze blowing off the water, just a bit chilly. We were pale as potato sprouts, and promptly burned ourselves crisp. Gabe had made sure to stock up on some really good sunscreen and he told the children, “Don’t forget to put some on the tops of your feet and on the back of your neck.” Whereupon they all diligently applied sunscreen in those places and not a lot else. I wasn’t watching closely. It was a little like the backpacks, I thought they are big enough to take care of themselves. Alex thought he would tough it out, keep a shirt on and apply it later if he started feeling a burn. Gregory did a pretty good slathering job on his exposed skin, then he took off his shirt and swam for 3 hours. He had a perfectly inverted farmer’s sunburn. Olivia didn’t want to get sunscreen in her eyes or mouth, so her burn was confined to a circle around her face and on her knees. Rita somehow skipped her entire face and her fair skin is the most prone to burning of all of us. She swelled up with blisters, poor child. I did take care of Addy’s skin myself, but even she got a dose of burn. We just plumb weren’t prepared for those direct rays, but oh, it was heavenly. And our necks and the tops of our feet were in great shape, whatever the rest of our assorted sore places were screaming.

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This (above) was our favorite beach, on Longboat Key. We had to drive the entire length of the island before we found a very small public parking lot with beach access down a slender trail. There was no life guard and very few people on it, but the shells! The big ones were all in pieces, which did not deter the girls in the least. And then there was the sunset over the Gulf, with a sailboat on the horizon and my son gazing out at the birds swooping and diving for fish. This is my favorite picture of our time in Florida.

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That was our first day, and when we got back to our spot for the night, we were all exhausted and touchy. You couldn’t even brush against another person without them yelping at the pain you probably intentionally caused them by accident. We went through copious amounts of aloe vera after-sun and took ibuprofen. Our sun-fest cost us. There was no way the boys were going to be able to paddleboard or kayak in the mangroves when every movement that caused their skin to wrinkle was agonizing. We drove around Anna Maria Island the next day, looking for a fishing pier that would rent gear. No joy. We had some of those anti-climactic vacation moments, “What happened to feeling close and loving while happily exploring a new place together? This was supposed to be fun.”

On the upside, the weather was made to order, perfection for our hibernation-starved senses. It was worth all the digging through the attic in March to find our swimming clothes, snorkels, flip-flops, and short-sleeved shirts. And it was worth the aloe vera gel and broad brimmed hats we bought too late. It was worth the sand in the vehicle and the snack papers littered throughout and way too many pillows for the amount of bodies.

On our way north again we spent time with old friends and our siblings in North Carolina. It was cousin city for the children. There is never enough time to spend satisfactorily with everyone so we condense and cram in as much as we can in the time we have. We decided to drive the last stretch home in the night. At 1 AM, after a few hours of sleep, Gabe and I roused the kids and packed them in with their zillions of pillows. We spelled each other with driving, switching every 2 hours. It was a much more efficient way to go places. No snacks necessary for the conked out tribe in the back seats. One potty stop where we forced people to go whether they had to or not. We actually made it home in the time Google Maps had predicted.

I thought up a blog post titled “An Irreverent Look at a Sacred Idea: the Family Vacation.” But I didn’t write it, because if I had to choose six people to be stuck with me in a tiny trailer and then again in a vehicle for hours and hours, I would choose the ones I was with. When you have teenagers who are advanced beyond little kid interests, it becomes more challenging “when we all play together, how happy we’ll be…” Oh, the things we learn from living in close proximity with the fallible humans we call family.

It was raining hard, cold, sleety stuff that day we came home. This was a test especially made for me because of how annoyed I have been in the past when someone posts tons of tropical vacation pictures on Instagram in the dead of winter, then they come home and belly ache about wishing to go back. And then we had three weeks of mostly frigid temperatures and snow bits and flurries and just plain old winter. There were a few balmy days in the mix, enough to give our faith glimpses of sight. Mostly it was walking by faith for me, and living what I believe… that it is displeasing to God when I whine.

I think it is over now, for real. The forsythia hedge is doing this:

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Three years ago it looked like this:

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I would like to point out a thing that causes me pain. Road maintenance crews responsible for trimming trees and hedges in this area are brutally going about murdering beauty with their ridiculous long-necked bush hogs. First they sprayed the bottom half of the forsythias across the road, the entire length of them, not just the corner by the intersection. Then this winter they came and spent at least an hour going back and forth with their machine that chaws trees and branches. I could have done a much better job with a chain saw. This is now all that is left from a once glorious forsythia hedge. I know it’s not so much in the whole scheme of tragedies, but I mourn the hedge that was so ineptly and ignorantly shorn of its glory.

Still it blooms! The cardinals flit in and out of it on nest building errands as though nothing happened. That is the marvel of spring. It’s all new and hopeful around here! Gabe and I have been sagging with the weight of the last year. He is working on his last class for his bachelor’s degree, more specifically on the fourth to last assignment. There were about 40 assignments total in these 18 months, which will give you an idea of how tantalizingly close we are to that degree. I say “we” because I have been travailing with him and we are equally weary. Some days he looks at me and says, “Do you have any idea how little I feel like studying all day?” and I say, “But you are so close. Please, just quickly get it done!” This is not the most empathic thing to say, but I hope if I accompany it with a nice latte and some chocolate, it is an okay form of encouragement. The thought of free time makes us giddy.

We made it through the long dark! We are alive and well! Oh joy!

 

 

 

 

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: Book Review

I drew a total blank on which book to review today, until I remembered an audio that we listened to this winter. I asked Gregory to fill me in on the details of the audiobook. My brain, being typically crowded with details, latched on to the big ideas but I was vague on the details. Some of this is because I usually do some work while we listen to audios. The children just sit (quiet time, anyone?) but now that Gregory has filled me in, I am thinking I should have quiet time with them. When I used an Audible credit for An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield, everybody moaned and thought it looked boring, but it wasn’t long until the silence descended that means an absorbing story is being narrated.

This isn’t a typical memoir, with a baby being born, and what happened next and next. It is more a memoir grouped around life lessons. Mr. Hadfield, who is Canadian, recounts stories from childhood right along with lessons he learned in his rigorous training. The tales of life in Russia, training with cosmonauts for the ISS are fascinating, as well as the stories about living in space and coming down to Earth again.

Here are the highlights my son helped me to remember.

  • Most of life is ordinary hard work. The months in space took a lifetime of training and discipline.
  • Being willing to be a zero is very important. If you try and try to be viewed as a plus 1, people will think you are a show-off. If you really are a plus-1, they will know it. You don’t have to tell them.
  •  A zero is helpful, willing to do the tasks that nobody wants to do. Good leaders are willing to be zeros. If you aim to be a zero, you will most likely soon be viewed as a plus-1.
  • The best way to neutralize your fears is to face them. It isn’t good to just ignore your fears. There is a reason for fear, otherwise you wouldn’t be alive. Prepare for the things you fear; if you are trained for the things that could possibly happen, you will know what to do if it comes to pass.
  • If your biggest dreams are not fulfilled, as in the case of an astronaut who trains for years and is not chosen for space flight, you do not have to be known as “the person who almost went to space.” You can decide not to mope and be a victim of your circumstances. You do not have to be defined by your losses and mistakes.

That is just a sampling of down-to-earth (get it?) advice, seasoned by life experiences that few of us will ever have, yet it is easy to relate to what the author is saying. He writes (and narrates) humbly.

I love memoir as a genre, but often there are adult themes that are not safe for little ears. This is one that is clean, without bad language, just wholesome. I think you would like it.

July On the Farmlet

It’s really good, July is.

Every day brilliant sunshine, and this year the rains have come at precise intervals to keep the greens vibrant. On the farmlet there is a bit of a lull as we take a moment to appreciate how having access to animal poo and straw has changed the gardening scene. There is very little hoeing and tilling going on because the weeds are stifled under mulch that the chickens have already sifted for all seeds. The entire garden has been fenced off so that they stay out of it. We wait for the tomatoes to redden and we pick the cucumbers as soon as they are sliceable. You may notice in the photo below that there is a trellis for the cucumbers, but they are not having it and sitting sulkily at the bottom. I don’t know what is up with them, but at least the Black-eyed Susan vine is flourishing. We have just enough produce to spruce up our meals with freshness. Along the front where my boys put up a picket fence with scraps of barn battens, the dahlias are just bursting open in crimson and pink and yellow. The girls bring in sturdy zinnias, gripped and wrenched off their tough stalks by small hands that never seem to have a scissors when they need it. The only harvesting I am doing is blackberry picking, but they are thornless and such a pleasure, dripping warm, dead ripe in the sunshine. The squash already succumbed to the enemy beetles. Oh yes, the green beans are just ramping up to do their abundant green bean thing. I did not replant the two rows that died with some inexplicable disease, and yet it looks like there will be plenty for the year’s supply in the freezer.

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In July we celebrate both Gabe and AddyMaddy (I call her this, because she is such a madcap child, but it really is an endearment). Addy is 6 now, and no longer “too low” to do all the things she wants so passionately to do. She got a kitty for her birthday, something that she can lavish her kindness on.

One weekend we went to a family reunion in Ohio where we sat around in limp lawn chair circles under relentless humidity. It was too hot for the crowd to eat baked beans, so I gave the leftovers from my crockpot to the pigs when we got home. On that journey, we spent a few days with my sister’s family. They built their house big enough to host a crowd; when we come it feels like it opens its arms and gathers us in. I would love to have that sort of hospitable space sometime, but I don’t know if I could keep up with the cleaning. We touristed in Holmes County with them one day, where we could taste over 40 varieties of cheese at Heini’s Cheese House and then we checked out an Amish petting zoo where my girlies acted just like all the other little tourists and begged for $5 horse rides around a ring. We also wandered the aisles in the wonderful Zincks of Berlin fabric store. Cheese and fabric. What else is there? Well, one could mention coffee.

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I worked at some huge household projects in the past month. The bathroom cupboards were my paint project guinea pigs, to see if I would have the stamina to tackle the kitchen cabinets. Someone said they would sell a kidney to hire a professional before they ever try painting cabinets again. After my experiment in the bathroom, I decided I won’t blow my whole summer with a paintbrush in hand, but I got a really fresh bathroom out of the deal. Sometimes I just go lock the door and stand in there when the rest of the house is a wreck. Actually, as all good mothers know, the bathroom is sanctuary. It’s perfectly acceptable to lock the door.

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The deck boards were about 2 years overdue for a sealing job and finally I just did it. Last year my husband was building a barn and this year he is studying for his BSN, so I knew it was not going to happen unless I Little Red Hen it. It was a trying sort of thing that took me a week from pressure-wash to finished trimming. I felt quite cross a few times, especially when a half gallon of stain slipped out of my hands and splatted straight down before arcing into the air to an amazing distance. If you have noticed the paint spills in Richard Scarry’s books, it’s true: it really does splatter like that. But the satisfaction when it was done was what I was going for.

I am not investing in any of my chicken-scratched flower borders this year. The only things that survive the dust bathing and incessant pecking are the perennials, volunteer gourds, and the weeds. Last week I did an Instagram photo collage of the contrast between the flowers I take care of and the ones I have abandoned. Then I looked closely at the state of things and went out and tore out the gourds and the tallest weeds. At least I can do that much. The flowers in pots are at their peak, happily slurping up their weekly Miracle-gro potions and rewarding me with much for little. We spend a lot of time out there on the deck. Currently the girls are setting up a tea party right outside the window and Addy is weeping noisily because someone didn’t let her pour the tea. Not to worry, she will be warbling happily in a minute.

In this last week of July the sensation of freedom from flash cards, essays, and spelling tests has been replaced with a nagging sense that it would be wise to thoroughly clean the classroom from last term’s mess, even though the large boxes of text books are still stacked away in a corner of denial. I haven’t even cracked open one teacher’s guide. We are making one big change. After 4 years of DVD school for the middle graders, I feel ready to take back the classroom. I really love to teach. It’s the strain of balancing all the other house stuff with school that I dislike. We still have arithmetic courses that we will stream for 2nd and 4th grades because learning math facts is a huge deal for homeschoolers and without competition, flashcards and drills are a d.r.a.g. Can I get an amen?  But I get to teach all the language arts. Yippee! Alex has a grade 10 Biology course with an instructor, because Biology and I are not on friendly terms. I prefer just to let it happen, not study it.

I can’t help but cringe a little about August coming up, when everything yells and comes out to get me. It makes me feel panicky, not sure if I will make it.

I need some checks and balances in my life, because there is an endless array of things to do/learn/accomplish and I have a habit of flying high, then fizzling out when I run out of fuel. This is why I still am debating about getting a potter’s wheel, even though it is a lifelong dream and I even got to go to my friend Allison’s studio and play with her clay and make all the mess I wanted. I haven’t written my book either, because just as I was sure that I was supposed to do it, I lost three years of writing, and if that isn’t a sign, I don’t know what it is.

I have had recent conversations with friends that gave rise to conversations in my head. “What would I do all day if (1.) I wouldn’t garden, (2.) I wouldn’t homeschool my children, (3.) I wouldn’t clean or cook?” It sounds really appealing to the weary part of me that wants to just sleep and read and have cold drinks served to me while I sit in an Adirondack chair in the shade. Notice how unselfish that sounds? Closely related to this question is the obvious, “How can I simplify my TMH (Typical Mennonite Homemaker, aren’t I clever? 😀 ) life so that I actually feel like I am living it, not just skating through, taking precarious corners as fast as I can without wiping out?”

One day when I was frustrated with the endless pile of stuff that I need to do and the bucket list of dreams that seemed to be receding, my husband said, “You just can’t be everything.” In that one pithy observation, he helped me to quiet down and focus. I plan on writing a post with the questions I ask myself when I am trying to decide what in the world to tackle first. At least I hope it bubbles up to the top of the pot insistently enough to write it soon. Not making any promises, because August comes tomorrow.

Meanwhile, back at the farmlet…

I look at the railings swathed with wet beach towels. We have flip-flop tan lines on our feet and farmer’s tan lines on our arms. Occasionally we take time to fish or hike or bike long distances. There are homemade popsicles in the freezer because I got so tired of wooden popsicle sticks and plastic pop-ice wrappers laying around. I want a magic bullet to train children to have the class to walk to a trash can without first offering me the privilege of holding their empty wrapper. We eat cold lunches, lettuce sandwiches, banana soup with graham crackers, lots and lots of peanut butter. I make cold-brew coffee by the gallon.

At dusk the mosquitos emerge and the swallows swoop over the pasture for bedtime snacks. There are abundant honeybees in the clover and occasional wails of grief when a barefooted child steps on one. Japanese beetles devour the blackberries, but we pick the beetles off and feed them to the fish. The rain showers are warm enough for children to dance through the gushing runoff of the downspouts.

Still, it’s mostly sunshine.

So much happy, yellow sunshine.

What have you been doing with yourself this summer? Did it make you happy? Do you think it is important to feel happy, by the way?

Catch you up later!