Ten Years and Text Prayers

Ten years ago I prayed very short prayers, mostly in the form of an S.O.S. “Jesus, help me,” or “Your patience, Lord.” There simply wasn’t time for long, theologically impressive prayers.

One day I went to my bedroom, left the door open so nobody would think I was in there, lay behind the bed out of sight, and this is what I prayed: “Please, don’t let me hurt anybody, Jesus.”

I finally set up our desktop computer this week. Yes, a whole year after we packed it for our move. We can access our photo library now, an endless source of amusement.

This was our family on my husband’s thirtieth birthday. He was in nursing school, working part time to support us. Addy was one week old. Alex was eight. Rita was two, going on twelve. It was a sweaty eyeballs time, as Rachel Jankovic would say. It’s a good thing that breathing can be done without conscious effort, else we both would have gently expired for lack of oxygen at some point.

I thought back to this time last week when we went out to eat for Gabe’s fortieth birthday. We used a gift card Alex gave, and everybody had dressed themselves, including footgear. We ate at a steakhouse, and we didn’t have to clean up any spills, or take anybody to the potty, or even cut up their meat.

I thought about it again a few days ago when we ambitiously planned a full day of cooking for the freezer, seeing as the kitchen redo is coming right up and we will be limited in the kitchen for a while. Rita mixed up a triple batch of bread rolls for VBS, her lifelong fascination with patting and shaping yeast doughs having at last come to fruition. Then she mixed up four pounds of meatloaf, again digging in with no qualms because she loves to knead and stir. Addy made monster cookies, also for the upcoming VBS. For some reason those are always huge batches in the Amish cookbooks, but she nailed it perfectly. Olivia assembled beef and bean burritos for an easy future supper, and Gregory peeled 5 pounds of potatoes in less time than it takes to bake a pan full of tater tots. Then he lit the grill and cooked a bunch of pork, both chops and sausage. I floated on the periphery and did quality control. Olivia had been doing laundry all day, and about the time we put away the clean dishes, she was putting away the stacks of folded clothes.

This level of house help wasn’t even imaginable to me ten years ago. I had help: generous, constant help, and I was grateful for it. I just had to be careful not to trip over anybody, and that can be so, so trying. Many of those days felt like it was one step forward, two steps back.

“Don’t let me hurt anybody.” Somewhere in Elizabeth Elliot’s wise writings, I picked up the concept of communicating with short prayers and I continue the practice even now. They are kind of like texting a friend, not nearly as satisfying as a sit-down conversation, but still a way to stay connected.

These days the most frequent snippet is a simple, “Into Your hands.” I don’t even bother to name the concern/fear. I just verbalize the relinquishing and then I (try to) leave it. Sometimes multiple times in a day.

A friend on Instagram (@heartofthebison) has blessed me with her phrase, “I see You, God,” when her eyes light on a beautiful thing in creation. That perfectly tender cucumber I just picked. The folds and folds of a dahlia opening out of a tight bud. The soft edges of the clouds at sunrise. The coincidental arrival of a note in the mail on the very day I need to read it. “I see You, God, and You see me.”

Do you “text” God?

July, what?

I have too many irons in the fire. On the writing front, I scratch out a daily diary entry and hope I don’t forget the big events. On the blogging front, some things are just too nuanced to write for public consumption. I feel that if I put my private life online, I should not be surprised when the general public wants to get a better grasp on the details, help me fix my private life. Of course, God can speak to me through complete strangers, but by far the most effective work in my life has been like bits of yeast in dough, caught locally. It’s quiet, and it affects all the dough eventually.

Sometime I will have courage to talk about how hard it is to relocate when you were firmly rooted and less adventurous than you knew. I might describe the blindsided feeling of watching your child struggle with an epilepsy diagnosis that changes all of his life. I might be able to unpack parenting young adults who have their own choices to make. For now I don’t have words, so we’ll stay carefully on the surface. Just so you know, there is nothing like perplexity to give a backdrop to the new mercies. Every. Single. Morning. I know a safe place. It’s mostly quiet there. Even God is quiet. I listen for the still small voice and some days I don’t hear a thing. But I believe and He helps my unbelief.

Since we’ve finished school, I’ve been spending most of my spare time in my gardens or outside the house somewhere, either sowing grass seeds in places where only weeds were growing, or mulching around baby trees, or making The Stinkiest Fertilizer Ever with comfrey leaves. I’m prioritizing gardening because it feels good. That’s all. I do it for fun, and I haven’t exactly been rewarded with stellar crops so far, but at least the plants are no longer just sitting in my new garden doing nothing. The comfrey tea seems to have helped them shake off their lethargy. I’m also daily angered by the critters that keep destroying large areas, as in entire rows of green beans nibbled off in a night, or all my beautiful stems of allium that were just starting to turn purple, felled by some sharp toothed rabbit that isn’t even supposed to like oniony things. Ever since I planted them in November, I have been looking forward to seeing their graceful orbs floating above the other plants on slender stems, and now they’re in a vase in my house floating above the table.

We’re still working on some house projects. Just before the 4th, we got our upstairs bathroom functional. I really wanted to have it done before Gabriel’s family came to surprise him for his birthday, so I dropped hints and finally just said that somebody is coming and I want the bathroom ready for guests. That worked, but he also figured out who was coming. I learned a few things through that project, like how to grout tile and lay vinyl plank floor, and even how to install wainscoting while my husband is at work. How am I in my 40’s and never knew that I could do this stuff? Probably because my man is the one who does anything DIY in the house. But with YouTube tutorials, and proper tools, there are few projects that a woman can’t tackle. I do know my place; I left the plumbing strictly alone, and I won’t be installing the door or the trim. I’m not detail-oriented enough for work like that.

The toilet was flushing, the sink was working, and we hung a curtain for a door just hours before his family pulled in the lane. Gabriel’s 40th birthday is in a few weeks, but it worked better for his parents and three youngest brothers and one sister and their families to come over the 4th. There were 14 extra people in our house, and in tents and hammocks outside. We had a ball, and Gabriel was quite blessed.

Addy hit a milestone too. She is ten years old! I have a tradition of doing a little overnight jaunt with the girls when they turn ten, which is where I am right now, in Pittsburgh at an Airbnb. We have a few more hours before we have to check out and go home. Of course, this begs the question: how is my baby so grown up already?

Early this spring our children were complaining that we didn’t camp at all last year. We concluded that last year we camped a large part of the year, and primitive conditions outside our house just didn’t seem appealing. But we’ve gone twice this spring, first to a campsite where we had to canoe across the lake to access it, and then to a campsite with a bathroom just up the hill. They were equally fun and relaxing, although it’s not my favorite thing to be in a canoe full of gear, paddling across the wake of the big boats, in the middle of a wide lake. It felt like they didn’t even see us, and might run over us.

Once we got to our site in a small cove, life was peaceful, optimum for fishing, reading in hammocks, and eating everything out of the food bag until there was nothing left but limp cheese sticks and granola bars that nobody liked. It’s funny how much we love camping, yet how much we rhapsodize about having showers and real beds when we get home. For us to see our children recharge by appreciating a sunset over water, or admiring tiny snakes and shiny beetles, or smacking their lips about campfire oatmeal without any milk… Well, it makes slightly deflated air mattresses feel just fine.

In our efforts to raise them differently from the technology-addicted norm, the easiest way to do that is to get them off-grid occasionally and show them some mountains. Of course, the first thing we do when we get back to WiFi is check our messages. 🥴

I just looked back over my photos to see what else has been happening. I reupholstered some chairs, an activity I don’t think I’d recommend. The jury is out until we see if my amateur job holds up. They look better at a little distance, and they do look better than they did, for sure. I’m planning a post all about newbie mistakes and how to cover them up, because I discovered that there’s a lot of bluff in the upholstery world.

We made a quick trip back to Bedford County for homeschool evals in June. There was time to connect with friends and to stop in at our old place, which is being rented to own. They gave us a hefty down payment that we get to keep, should they abscond on the contract (which includes property maintenance). We don’t sign over the deed until the place is paid in full. I’ll just tell you, it looks nice inside the house and horrible outside. Nine months of neglect is all it takes for nature to cover the work of years with weeds. I mourned over it, then I moved on, because what else can you do? Also I rescued my blueberry bushes out of the jungle and replanted them at our new property.

That’s the highlights of our headlong dash through June, which felt like it lasted about four days. I saw back to school shelves in stores yesterday, so I think I’ll log off and live July now.

Blessings all! May your watermelons be luscious!

These are the Days…

… of looking back to a year ago and seeing that progress has indeed been made, although in our ignorance of what the year would hold, the spirit within us might have failed.

May, 2020
May, 2021

… of having fresh flowers for our vases every day if we wish, both wildflowers and last year’s transplants that we hoped would make it through the winter, and lo! they did.

… of closing the school books for the season, everybody passed (only homeschooled kids don’t ever give this a thought, but the teacher does), and whew! how about we slow down for a bit? Every year the deep exhaustion surprises me at the end of the term, and I am grateful for a rest that is a shift to other pursuits and just lots and lots of books to read over the summer.

… of planting the garden full, as full as it can be, with the enthusiasm of spring hitting us and the idea of fresh cucumbers and melons whenever we want them an irresistible siren call.

… of begging old hay off the neighbor to mulch the garden for my no-till experiment, and while he doesn’t care about my gardening ideas and refuses payment, he is happy to clear the rotten hay out of his field, so I barter with loaves of fresh bread and promises of extra produce in the future.

… of maintenance within and without, because rot and weeds come out of nowhere and require attention or they take over, hence new metal on the shop roof, new windows in the kitchen, and fresh mulch in the flower borders.

… of family reunions, admiring the cousins’ children, being a little surprised at all these childhood playmates that look sort of middle-aged, and old stories of hilarity that our children love to hear. “You did that? And your parents didn’t care???” So then we admit that our parents didn’t know.

… of rethinking the stuff that is still in storage, having found no home for it, and wondering how it would feel to donate it to Salvation Army without even looking in the boxes. But then what about those cake decorating supplies when the birthdays roll around? And what about the pretty dishes that will have a home when the new kitchen is done?

… of laughing with a touch of derision while listening to “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up” because I will not be thanking my inanimate objects for their service before letting them go, even though I did actually donate some clothes that were much beloved, but sadly too small. Since I am not shrinking and they are not enlarging, I have said goodbye with a cheerful heart.

…of having children who grow out of their clothes and shoes from one weekend to the next, so that on Sunday morning we suddenly discover they have nothing to wear for church. I look at my own wardrobe of sweaters and knits and it is inexplicably 85 degrees when just two weeks ago it was snowing, and I want to howl with them that I have nothing to wear.

… of girls who puddle in the creek with long socks on their feet to deter the leeches, and make huts in the woods, and build fires to cook their own lunch. And the neighbor’s kids come over and are astonished because they are never allowed to build fires and have not ever picked anything in the wild to make tea or soup, but somehow our place has become the favorite hangout as they nibble daintily on violets and drink mint tea with undertones of smokey fire.

… of discovering a trove of Wendell Berry audiobooks free on the local library app, and listening to them all, one after the other, watching the thread of faithfulness weave through each story in that masterful narration by a truly great storyteller.

… of reading the story of Job as a family, then studying it in Sunday school, and then finding an email devotional about feeling disillusioned with God who could spare us all the hard things and doesn’t. When these all come together, I start to grasp a little of what it means to be entrusted with hard things because God says I will not curse him, take that, O Enemy.

… of large mercies in the middle of stormy times, and I can see them when I look for them, but if I focus on the circumstances coming at me, I only feel the bite of the gale force winds.

… of knowing that the laundry we have ever with us and the people are always going to get hungry again, so the washer and the stove become altars where sacrifices can be cheerfully offered out of the abundance that has been given to me, or where I can stand sighing grudgingly. The choice is mine, and I own it. Then I teach my children to own it as well, and am blessed to the marrow when I get up from a nap on Sunday afternoon, expecting to clean up the kitchen from lunch but it is already spotless because they are growing up like that.

… of everyday faithfulness, no grand heroics or large gestures of extravagant love, just simple faithfulness in the here and now. And there you have the hobby horse of my life.

Blessings! and tell me what these days are like for you. I would love to hear!

Brighter days

March 20

We did a very normal thing this week: We went to the library for the first time in over a year, and it felt amazing! They didn’t quarantine every book we touched, and although the librarian wore two masks and stayed safely behind a clear shower curtain, everything else seemed fairly normal.

It’s spring now, and even though we still expect frost or snow, for sure mud, and maybe all three together, it has been gloriously sunny for a week. We feel as though we have made it through the worst, and we are giddy. We go barefooted. We scope the yard for the bulbs that we planted last fall. We ride bikes. We whoop and holler when we find a pussy willow on our property. Brighter days.

New life around us includes our friends who have a brand new baby and her name is Addy.

We’ve been hosting some company, and it is really nice to have a little more space for visitors. The trampoline has been set up in the yard, drawing neighbor kids like a magnet. And we did a fun thing because everybody else seems to be making maple syrup and we don’t have any big maple trees or the equipment to tap them. What we do have is enormous shagbark hickory trees, and one day Rita noticed a section in our Backyard Foraging book that mentioned making syrup with shagbark hickory trees. So that’s what we did.

You don’t tap for sap like you do traditional syrup. You simply peel off a piece of loose bark, wash it thoroughly, break it into little pieces, and roast it in the oven for about 20 minutes until it smells deliciously nutty with hints of vanilla. I got that description off a website. It’s a good one.

The next step is to make a bark tea. I used 1 lb of bark to 4 pints of water. Once the tea is a nice dark shade, you strain the bark and all the bits you don’t want in your syrup out of the tea, then you add pure cane sugar to make a simple syrup. Again you simmer it slowly until it reduces. The syrup is done at about 217 degrees Fahrenheit. It has a lovely hickory flavor, and maybe it’s just me or maybe it’s the cane sugar, but there’s a definite hint of vanilla in it as well. If you want more detailed directions, here is the tutorial we followed.

We tried our syrup on waffles and they were quite yummy. So if you don’t have maple trees and you happen to have shag bark hickories, give it a shot. You too can have fabulous syrup that you made yourself.

March 24

We continue to be amazed at the benevolent rays of sunshine day after 70 degree day. A year ago we came to scope out this property, and it was miserable, wet, muddy, cold, and by all appearances, dead. This March there are buds popping on trees, bulbs poking out of the ground, (both the ones we planted and some we didn’t know were here) and it’s not normal at all, but I am loving every minute!

If my kitchen were a tadpole, it would now be in the stage of sprouting little legs and just about losing its tail. Gabriel removed the electric stove top and wall oven, and installed a gas range that we were happy to find at a local appliance store in their scratch and dent room. It is a lot more stove than we were even looking for, and I love cooking on a gas range! Apparently new stoves have a long wait time because of covid shutdowns last year, so I am thanking the person who scratched this one and knocked a cool grand off the price. The appliance store did get our dishwasher in stock very quickly, so that has been a great blessing. I’ll include some photos of the progress we have been making.

It was a little bit claustrophobic, this original kitchen. And it was carpeted, never a good sign.
This was a kitchen that was built with a lot of convenient features, back in the day. The appliances were JennAir and Maytag, top of the line. It would have been fine for a 2 person household, but the room was tiny and dark. The photo was taken from the doorway into the living room area.

We took out the dividing wall and lifted the ceiling up to the rafters, but we saved the lights as a nod to the way things were. And yes, this was the state of the kitchen the week we moved. It was frontier.

For quite a while I prepared meals with only a stovetop and a toaster oven. Eventually Gabriel brought in the section of cabinets that was formerly the island, and set the wall oven on top of them, where the shelf is on the left of this photo. Apparently I didn’t take a photo of that set-up.
The trestle table and the white countertop on the left are old doors. I have everything where I want it, within reach for when I’m cooking, for this stage of the kitchen, and I quite like it.

So now you see why I am cheering for the small legs on the tadpole. What we have in ample supply is space! There are not a ton of cabinets, but we can be cooking, mixing, baking, and loading the dishwasher simultaneously without constantly whacking into each other. Of course, it doesn’t take a beautiful kitchen for it to be the heart of the home and fellowship and hospitality, but it does help to have elbow room! I am very grateful.

Let me conclude with one photo of the first blooms of the bulbs we planted last fall.

Glory, Hallelujah!

The thing about coffee…

… is that it’s just so good.

Occasionally I challenge myself to go 24 hours without a cup of coffee, and I do admit to getting a headache every time. On the days that I find myself drinking too much of the caffeinated stuff, mindlessly chugging along, I do not feel good about my dependence. So this year of 2021, I started a thing where I choose my mug carefully, I bring my water to the proper temperature, I grind my beans from Aldi’s with precision, I use a small French press, and I add some cream. Then I savor just one cup. Most days.

The problem arises when I have visitors. For many years I have had a drip coffee maker in storage that I pull out to make 12 cups. The last two times I have used it, it has let me down badly by deluging the water over the grounds, breaching the filter, and flooding my countertop with grounds and coffee as it overflows the filter basket. This is not a fun problem to have when you have company waiting for coffee with their apple cake.

I decided that the 12 cup coffee maker needs to retire, so I cleaned it well with white vinegar and it holds the place of honor in the girls’ play area in the basement. They use it to brew tea, and it works great.

I thought round and round about the need to be able to make large amounts of coffee for my visitors, since that is such a loving thing to do and I like my visitors. I honestly don’t care how it’s made, just as long as it’s there and tastes reasonably smooth. (Actually, I do care. But not so much that I won’t accept a cup of gas station coffee offered in a loving way.) Considering that it’s a pain to store a machine I don’t normally use, and that every time one of the children fetches it from its basement storage I am sure they will drop the glass carafe on the way up the steps, I looked into the options.

I was considering getting a fancy machine with a delayed brew timer so that I could keep it on my countertop and maybe have coffee ready for me when I get up. I could just retire the French press. Meanwhile we had lunch with old friends and they got out this massive stainless steel, double-walled press.

Ah. That was the deciding moment. I searched the interwebs and ordered the biggest one I could find, which is still only fifty ounces, but big enough that I can serve a number of people with one press. I like things that work without being plugged in. I like things that don’t break easily, but still look nice. And I do like French pressed coffee.

The potential to make 12 cups… If I use both of them

I just realized. My tea kettle isn’t nearly big enough to heat 50 ounces of water. Hm. I’ll have to be resourceful with that. There is also a 30 cup urn that I bought at a yard sale, so I think we’re set for serving the masses. Come on in and welcome! Would you like cream or sugar with that?

It’s kind of funny. This tiny bean that God made and saw that it was very good, and then he made some people with enormous brains to figure out how to roast it and grind it and brew it. It sure can get you. That’s the thing about coffee.

If you are one of those strong souls who do not like it, or need it, and refuse to taste it, I’m sorry.

I’ll get the girls to bring you tea when you come to my house.

The Thing About Walmart…

…I know it’s the monster that swallows up the little guys. I know this, and I still go there sometimes. The thing is, it’s just so local and convenient. I can even get there without tripping over a Dollar General.

I needed white vinegar and pure cane sugar, toothpaste and mouthwash, and some peat pots for starting seeds. We had projects lined up for this afternoon, so I decided to drive the strenuous two miles up the hill to Walmart and buy the stuff we needed before we started the projects.

I found the things on my list, plus a yellow calla lily in full bloom, a variegated fern, and a pobby pink cactus. Also some deli chicken and a couple umbrellas.

The thing about Walmart is that it’s such a melting pot of Americana. I saw a lady overflowing her jeggings, loudly upbraiding the manager because the frozen ground turkey was outdated. Her son calmly played on his phone, not even noticing his mother’s upset. There was a middle-aged couple who had heaped their cart with clearanced children’s clothing, and then piled groceries on top of that, working as a team to push the cart and keep things from falling out of it. I waited in the aisle behind a guy who was selecting organic produce and lots of jugs of Naked juices, leaving in his wake a highly natural smell of one who avoids deodorant. My favorites were the nattily dressed elderly ladies who were making an occasion of their shopping excursion, savoring getting out, being careful to buy exactly the things they needed and no more. My vote for most incongruous went to the Amish gentleman with a beard flowing around and under a dirty blue surgical mask, and his wife dressed all in black from her bonnet to her shoes, except for a bright red bandanna tied over her face.

I could people-watch all day at Walmart, vacillating between hilarity, distress, and admiration. I hate how much money I spend there, and I like how organized the shelves are, and I hate how much planned obsolescence is part of their model, and I like that I can buy sea salt and socks at the same store.

That’s the thing about Walmart… there is just so much of it.

Do you shop there?

What I Didn’t Do Today

We’re in that stage of the wintertime where, quite frankly, torpor has set in. We move slowly, only stepping it up to a hustle when there is some sort of deadline. Yesterday I had a friend coming over for tea, and I hustled to make a sourdough apple coffee cake that never disappoints. Somehow I skipped adding one cup of flour to the one cup of sourdough starter, yet nothing looked amiss until I pulled it out of the oven a few minutes before my guests arrived. As it sank lower into a flat round in the iron skillet where it normally plumps out the top, I knew instantly what I skipped. It tasted surprisingly normal, but was just missing that certain crumbiness one expects out of coffee cake.

Taking a quick squint around the living space at the end of this day, I see plenty of evidence that we have been selectively industrious. There are a lot of projects littered about the living room where the girls listen to Audible stories while they craft. This includes embroidery, beading, knitting, and some fabric scraps that appear to be hanging out just in case they are needed. There are stacks of storybooks, as well, and some fifty states worksheets that Addy is working on with colored pencils. We have numerous school books strewn about, because we have not finished out our week of lessons and will conclude them tomorrow.

Surreptitious photo taken while I read story

We are behind. The preposition dangles there, needing an object. Behind in our housework? Our obligations to keeping our floors clean? Our educations? Maybe it is that we have gently released our normal expectations of what staying ahead looks like, so that the “behind” feeling only niggles at us a little bit. After all, who makes the rules?

Early on in the week I picked up large bags of produce so that they would last awhile. Today we discovered that a huge bag of carrots, and a quantity of pink grapefruits and navel oranges got stowed in the freezer section of the extra refrigerator downstairs. Oh dear. Nobody remembers who put them away. I suppose the thing to do is to learn a lesson, but I am not sure what. PAY ATTENTION? FOCUS?

We are also ahead.

On Wednesday we ladies had a field trip in Erie while the guys went skiing. We checked out some of the mom and pop places including a crepery with no dine-in facilities, but the coffee shop next door welcomes people to eat crepes at their tables. It seemed an interesting arrangement, but preferable to eating crepes out of styrofoam shells in our vehicle. We visited a 3 story ramshackle thrift store that was recommended by a friend, and we discovered a candy factory that was established over 100 years ago. In pre-Covid days one could watch the process of candy-making on equipment that dates to the early twentieth century. So now we know a few places we want to revisit, as well as some we didn’t have time to explore.

We are a tiny bit ahead on the domestic scene. Addy and I did all the laundry today, even folded and put it away. We are ahead by a number of felt animals that the girls are cranking out as fast as their clever little stitching hands can make them. Gregory is getting ahead by ripping out the tile in the upstairs bathroom, and if you know about demolition therapy, you know that this is a good thing for a young man with excess energy. I got ahead by twenty-five pounds of clay thrown into forms that are not mugs, which is a special therapy for me.

I am working with three different clays currently, finding which kind I prefer.

So today I didn’t do any rushing. I just lived. The sun shone briefly and I thought that would be the time to take a walk, only it was so cold that I quickly walked back inside the house.

Alex has moved back to Bedford County and is working at the job he had before we moved up north. In a funny twist, he is renting an apartment in the house where Gabe lived before we were married. He talked me into downloading Snapchat before he left, and we have a streak going, if you know what that means. I am ever so grateful for technology to be able to stay in touch.

The pandemic seems to be giving us a bit of a break in this area. The crowding in the hospital is not as acute, and the stress on the nurses is letting up a little. Since the beginning of the year, Gabriel has been assigned to a blessedly normal cardio ICU.

I don’t follow the news much, expect for scanning the titles for oddities that make me laugh or shake my head, which is almost the same thing. In the past week I saw that a company in Hong Kong is planning to mass produce humanoid robots to “safely” care for the ailing/elderly in these unprecedented times. If I were an elderly person in a care facility, and a plastic person came into my room to help me, I would run straight to Jesus right then. That isn’t even a little bit funny.

There are some on the Safety First Front who are suggesting that double masking may be better than single masking, unless it makes it too difficult to breathe, in which case you should always choose adequate oxygen as the safer way to live.

There was an article about mulching that I read with interest. Apparently in Washington state you may not legally bury loved ones on your own property. Unless they are composted, that is. Once they are mulch, you may spread them around your shrubbery, but you cannot bury them to compost naturally. Who thinks these things up?

I also noticed that the earth is warming up, probably because the air is cleaner since the pandemic lockdowns. Never mind that this is a not-so-charming about-face from the narrative only a year ago when the earth was warming due to pollution.

On the food front: Kraft made a limited edition pink mac and cheese for Valentine’s Day. You could enter to win some, but I wasn’t really tempted. Also, hot chocolate bombs really are the bomb. We know because we tried them. Messy, not nearly as easy as the tutorials look, but delicious. Probably that would be a great thing for you to try this weekend, and you can pick one of the thousands of tutorials to coach you.

I just read God Knows My Size to my girls for our read-aloud. They are old enough to process hard things, and it brought us face to face again with a God who knows us all personally. When we read the chapter where Sylvia’s family received a box of clothes in exactly the right size for her, I kept choking up as I read. Rita finally marched across the room and set the tissue box beside me.

I bought a fat notebook full of writing prompts to boot me in the rear this year. It is a sort of memoir, and it makes me squirm a little with the preoccupation that is All About Me. Still, it is a good way to bring up reams of stories from my not-so-long life. It’s funny how random things come to the surface and suddenly connect to other random things, as if Someone was in charge.

In fact, that is where I am staking it all. Pandemic, fallen humanity, robots and all that mess cannot separate us from the LOVE that is holding all things together.

Going into the new year…

… Not quite like a boss.

As an overwhelmed, dearly-loved friend of mine said, “It will take years for me to catch up from this last year. How am I supposed to ‘pick a word’?” Incidentally, her past year was hard in an ongoing, dragged-out fashion that had only a little to do with Covid, and mostly was just a series of unfortunate events similar to the Biblical account of Job.

I read through some of my recent writings and found too many times that I used “weird” to describe a thing. My writing teacher repeatedly instructed us to use the Thesaurus and never to use the same descriptive word twice in a paragraph. He pushed us to vary sentence structure and to find exact and vivid ways to express our thoughts. I’m sure he would not approve of so much “weird”.

So. That’s a somewhat-resolution I made. Stop saying “weird” so much. Thesaurus, don’t fail me now.

I need this reset to help me look for God in the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up parts of life. He is there. All I have to do is observe, and maybe tell Him that I see Him so that it becomes a habit to notice. Maybe this situation I think is odd isn’t so weird at all, but Providential.

Recently I read how Mr. Rogers’ mother taught him to cope with scary things in the news. “Look for the helpers,” she would say. “You will always find people who are helping.”

Those are the two attitude shifts that I am working toward. I don’t have a specific word, but I do have the assurance of the kindness of God and His good intentions toward me.

I bought a cheap planner yesterday, four days late, but my old one finished out the week until Sunday, and I found I could cope. I jest. My planner is mainly my events diary, and the place where I write appointments that may or may not happen. (Some, like the filling and crown I was supposed to get yesterday, I do not mind rescheduling due to “staffing issues”. That’s code for The Dentist Has Covid.) The most important requirement is that my planner is big enough to write about three sentences every day, and small enough to fit into my purse. I like to have a month-at-a-glance page for appointments, (although my husband and I share google calendars so that we know who is coming and going). Having waited too long into the new year, the stock was very picked over, and I came home with thinner pages than I prefer to write on, and a nondescript blush cover with golden polka dots. Last year’s planner had a floral theme with wise sayings sprinkled through, and a thick notes section in the back that I hardly used except to feel glad that it was there in the event that I wanted to write notes. I have tried elaborate organizers with weekly meal planning sections and grocery lists and fitness goals all in one lovely book. In fact, I was looking at a simply gorgeous one online, with a reading plan, Scripture memory section, liturgical prayers, etc, and then I saw that it cost $48, so that deflated the optimistic moment that had me thinking I could compartmentalize my life so neatly. I want to be that kind of person, but I usually end up feeling like a failure at strategy, so I do not actually want it badly enough.

I find myself on a schedule to take my vitamin D, because my doctor was alarmed at how low my levels were and prescribed a mega-dose twice a week. I put that on my google calendar with a reminder that repeats obnoxiously until I do it. That is a goal I have set: swallow the pills.

In that same vein, I have determined to step outside if there is any sunshine at all. I find they were not kidding when they said that winter is cloudy here. Last week there was one day in the forecast with a window of partly sunny. I told the girls we would take scooters and bikes to the park as soon as schoolwork was done, then I looked at my weather app again and amended the plan to “let’s go right now.” It took us fifteen minutes to load up, and would you know, the clouds beat us to the park. I learned my lesson, because that was the only sunny hour in the 10 day forecast. From now on, kids, if the clouds crack, we are out of the house!

One of the most obvious ways I can feel that it is January is in my cravings for bright flavors. Living so close to a lovely produce section or two, I am buying a lot of fresh herbs and lettuces and citrus. We are having broth-based soups, or tacos and purple cabbage slaw sprinkled with lime juice, or cucumber sandwiches and ginger tea. It’s weird strange that the general malaise of wintertime energizes my cooking, but I consider it a good antidote to all the holiday feasting. Every year I wake up on January the first and just want to eat pink grapefruit for a month. If you have a recipe for some exciting dish you love in wintertime, please do share. Bonus points if it doesn’t include flour, but I’m open to anything you have.

Also, I would like to share an inspiring view with you, a frontier yet unconquered here on our property. The contractor who was going to put in a natural gas line from our house meter to the shop had a window of time to bring an excavator two days before Christmas. This is now what we have off our porch. Be jealous.

When it snows we have this outside. The light strings I had on hand didn’t reach very far, but I love them in the snow. Oh Lord, please let it snow!

I have a quick concluding story of the week before Christmas. Our elderly neighbor brought a plate of cookies to our door and in tentative 2020 fashion I invited her inside if she felt comfortable with that. She was happy to step in and chat while I brewed tea and showed her around. She told me about her family and how she has decided not to have any medical intervention if she gets sick, because she is ready to go. “There are things that are worse than dying,” she declared. And she is right. So that’s my final aspiration for this year: to live all in, with my home open to anyone who cares to walk the blue carpet to the door.

You are welcome!

Not Afraid

Please bear with me as I enlarge just a little more on the “struggle bus” as my children call it. I won’t do it again for awhile, and I actually am doing all right. The past year was good in a cathartic way. Lots of weird and yucky stuff came up and I dealt with them as they came to light, so that is always good.

If I may point out some generalizations first:

  • There is nothing to be afraid of, and there are things that terrify me.
  • Hard times are a catalyst for growth, but I cringe when they come.
  • Tender-hearted people are usually those who have been flayed by difficult situation.
  • Reaching for the next thing is the best way to live, but forgetting the things that are behind is not so easy.
  • Believing lies stunts growth, and stress is fertilizer for lies.
  • Knowing who is right and who is wrong may not be as important as we think it is.
  • Worrying is the quickest way to waste an opportunity to run to Jesus.
Mixed signals

That’s just a quick list that comes to mind. I would guess that some of you can relate. Repeatedly in the year past I have asked myself, “What is real? What do I actually know, without a shadow of a doubt? What matters for my assignments today?”

I have been reading Psalm 145 on repeat.

[The LORD is faithful in all his words
and kind in all his works.]c
14The LORD upholds all who are falling
and raises up all who are bowed down.
15The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
16You open your hand;
you satisfy the desire of every living thing.
17The LORD is righteous in all his ways
and kind in all his works.
18The LORD is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
19He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;
he also hears their cry and saves them.
20The LORD preserves all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.

I’m staking everything on that. This is what is real. This I know. This is my place to stand for the next year, squarely in the kindness of God.

I am not afraid (when I stay there, in that spot).

Christmas Letter, 2020

Like many others, I enjoy a good reflective hour or two at the end of a year. This year, though, I can’t seem to process in my usual style. “Well, that happened and then that, and now it’s suddenly over and I will tie a bow neatly on it and get on with the next year.” Without a doubt we have been recipients of great mercy and kindness this year. We have not gotten what we deserved and we have gotten more than we deserved, and a few things we do not feel like we deserved at all. That’s normal enough. It simply feels more obvious when one is looking into a past that doesn’t make sense and a future that is hazy with unknowns. Again, this seems a silly way to try to explain the feel of the past year (isn’t it always this way?), but I am trying to express the vague hunger, the unease of a world that is shaken out of ordinary into unrelenting weirdness. It’s a sort of mourning for things we love that are dying, and a desperate hope that they will be restored to us at some point, but not having any certainty of it.

I wish I could say that I soared gracefully through the “impossible” situations of 2020, but it was more like slogging one foot in front of the other. The mud required hip waders this year, and it is still sucking on my boots, to be honest. Moving this year turned out to be shockingly hard. I can play a cheerful Pollyanna pretty well, especially when someone else is being annoyingly grumpy, but this summer I found a latent strain of wimpiness that I didn’t know was in me. The joy of the Lord is strength, and what do you know? — it has little to do with outward circumstances and depends more on pegging everything on what it actually true. I have a separate post on that for the year-end wrap-up.

I thought I might as well post my Christmas letter this year, written in November. To those of you who got a copy in the mail, please forgive the repetition and skip down to the photos, if you wish.

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November 19, 2020

It’s a sunshiny day, a brilliant gift in November. I caught the little girls outside, barefooted, and quickly assured them that it isn’t that warm! In fact, we have had 2 snowfalls already here in northwest Pennsylvania. The children are thrilled with the prospect of more snow at our new house, and I too find it much more cheering than the mud-brown that our recent winters have been.

   It has been a year, hasn’t it? When we say, “The Lord has sustained us,” it carries more meaning than it does when times are untroubled. The same goes for, “The Lord willing, we will do this or that…” It feels like a lovely bonus this year when plans do work out. Through all of the upheaval, we have Great Faithfulness to rely on utterly.

   Our 2020 started with normal life on the farm, tending a few pigs and chickens, doing our daily schoolwork, crocheting endless reams of yarn into hats and scarves, and making as much pottery as I had heart for after the busy Christmas season. In February my brother Kenny and his family came to help us butcher our pigs. The guys slaughtered and skinned them, letting them hang for a day while they took all the older children skiing. The next day we made whole hog sausage, scrapple, and lard, all of which turned out exceptionally well and made us feel like good homesteaders.

   Gabriel and Alex did ski patrol at Blue Knob whenever there was enough snow on the slopes to open them. They put in lots of effort to pass all the training requirements and Alex was thrilled to be able to assist on a few mountain rescues. He wrote an essay that won a scholarship to Young Adult Patroller camp in Vermont. This was going to be one of his graduation hurrahs.

   Unfortunately, the weekend of the camp, Gabriel was in the hospital with a perforated bowel, and Alex had to catch a ride with an elderly patroller who drove extremely carefully for 12 hours. When they got to Vermont, they discovered that the event was cancelled that very day because of Covid lockdown. They had supper, slept there one night, and travelled home again the next day. Alex calls it “That Time I Went to Vermont for Supper.”

   Gabriel healed up without any surgery or further problems and came home the day before lockdown. I had laid in a stock of bulk foods at the beginning of the year, and we had all that meat in our freezers. We hunkered down hard and ate a lot of sourdough.

   In early March we had made an offer on a 1930’s era fixer-upper in northwestern Pennsylvania. Our choice of location was influenced by a school close to Erie with a nurse-anesthetist program that Gabriel is hoping to get into in the future. Our offer sat on the table while real estate stalled entirely. Meanwhile, our farm was listed on Zillow, and we showed it at least a dozen times. Lots of people were interested in a place with an established orchard, stocked pond, barn, etc, but seemed nervous about the economy, with good reason.

   After two months, we got a closing date on the property in Conneaut Lake, and in the third week of May we took the family north in my dad’s old motorhome to start renovations. The house was structurally sound, but not configured like we needed it for our family. We opened up the main living area, reframed the interior walls, tore out floor coverings and drop ceilings, and removed two spiral staircases. We tried to salvage/repurpose as much as we could from the demolition. Fortunately, there is a large shop on the property where we could store our salvaged lumber, hardware, etc. After a week, we went back home to Bedford County so that Gabriel and Alex could work, and we could start packing up the house. 

   That was when my dad got sick and ended up in the hospital with Covid19 (June 1). It was a very serious illness, and we were not sure he was going to survive, but by the mercy of God, he came home from rehab the week before we had to move (August 1).

   The summer remains a blur of stresses we would rather not face again. Gabriel’s work transferred him to the northwest PA hospitals in the end of June. We had planned for the children and I to carry on with the remodel while he put in his three shifts a week. In the end, I decided to stay in Bedford County, try to support Mom as best I could, and focus on packing. Needless to say, the house was far from ready by our August 1 deadline when the new owners wanted to move to our farm. We simply unloaded our household stuff in the shop and kept right on with the camping, air mattresses, folding chairs, incomplete bathroom situation. As we finished rooms, we rooted through our stack of belongings and brought in the appropriate furnishings. Some of us did better with this set-up than others. I can give some good tips for how not to move, if anyone is interested.

   We have lived here almost four months now, and the house feels like home. We ran out of steam and quit before we did the kitchen, having left the biggest project until last. It is functional, and for now that is good enough. We have hit our stride with school again, and last week we celebrated finishing first quarter in the books.

   In October we took a week to travel to North Carolina, see family, (so many cousins in one place!) and celebrate our 19th anniversary at Myrtle Beach. It was just the sort of trip we needed, and a few days after we got home, my brother Nate and his family came to our house for a few days, so we got to host guests and show them our favorite places around here.

   Next week our firstborn turns 18! At some point during the mad rush this summer, Alex finished his school credits and got his diploma. We managed a graduation celebration with friends two days before we moved, and it poured rain the whole evening. It has been a hard year for him, with changing jobs twice, trying to make new friends, having so many plans cancelled, etc. He has been spending a lot of hours in the shop where there is a pneumatic lift installed, tinkering with the dirt bike, go-cart, his trusty little Kia that finally got fatal hiccups, and the Volvo that replaced it.

   Gregory is working through tenth grade this year, nose in books a great deal of the time. He has set up his forge in a lean-to and beaten out a bunch of useful things like towel holders and hooks for the house. As of this week, he is happy to be driving on a learner’s permit. As soon as he is able to drive, he’ll be going to the lake to fish every chance he gets.

   Olivia is 13, and has learned to do laundry with excellence this year. It has been a great blessing to delegate this chore to her and know that she will be responsible to get it done. She has a servant heart, and a great need to keep her hands busy. Her favorite creative outlet is sewing, knitting, or crocheting: anything with textiles and fibers.

   Rita remains our dreamy, outdoorsy, adventure girl. She started up a new series of places to play here, including teepees of sticks in the woods, on the creek bank, and even in the basement. Her favorite school subject is science, and she begs Gregory to teach her all he knows about skinning animals or filleting fish.

   Addy is baking a treat for supper as I write this. What she lacks in finesse is made up in enthusiasm. I just heard the unmistakable splat of an egg on the floor, but she is always willing to clean up her messes. This year she no longer felt like a little child. We were surprised at her endurance in the long days of work. In typical youngest child fashion, she keeps us all cracked up at her ability to mimic accents and quote entire lines from books and movies.

   Gabriel has been working a stat travel nurse position for UPMC. This means they move him every 6 weeks to places that are understaffed. It also means that he gets into some stressful situations, especially with the recent surge of Covid19 in our region. At his current hospital, ICU nurses are being assigned 3 to 4 patients per shift. Seeing so much suffering and death, he is absolutely exhausted after those 12 hour shifts. We have gotten our shop cleared of the household things so that he can organize his power tools and install heat for wintertime projects. The woodcarving hand tools are in the basement where he can carve spoons and bowls. Our property has a lot of young trees, having been recently logged, but there are plenty of greenwood options. Of course, the house projects are ever with us, but we need a break, so we are taking one.

   I have been occupied with turning this house into a home. Decorating is not my strong suit, but I have been trying for “cozy cottage” and it feels good to me now. We have a considerably bigger house to work with, which is nice!  I have a studio room in the basement with a large sink, windows, and lots of shelving for my pottery. It is nice to be able to work at things without going outside the house, even though I miss my lovely pottery shed. Having taken a six month break, I am really enjoying getting back into maker-mode. The Etsy shop should have some stock soon.

   This letter has taken a rather large space. It has been a full year, in a weird, constricted sort of way. We have flourished and we have suffered. It felt like we were rubber bands, stretching as far as possible, then shrinking back down repeatedly. Sometimes we feel like we might need fresh elastic, but I doubt anyone is ending the year unchanged. With all the social distancing, loneliness, and uncertainty in our world, it felt important to connect and make sure our friends get our new address so that we for sure receive our Christmas letters and photos.

   We pray for endurance, for peace, for justice in our world. Even when all seems chaos and confusion, we remember that Jesus came to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

   Hallelujah for that solid fact, and for the hope that is before us!

Lots of love and blessings to all! Gabriel, Dorcas and family

And here is the picture you didn’t get with your letter, but one that seems appropriate. (Photo credits to Gabe’s sister, Ruby.)

The one photo where the dog behaved beautifully, but none of the people were ready in that exact second.