Life with the Birds

Nature held back and held back until hope had been deferred sufficiently, and then she said, “NOW.” Just like that, we get a week of brilliant sunshine after about 6 months of cold and wet (my family says I exaggerate about this) and the green explodes electrically. That may not be a thing where you live, but it is here. Every day I feel more alive, and just when you thought I wasn’t going to do one of those ecstatic spring posts, you’re getting it.

There’s a Carolina wren that hangs out just outside our bedroom door that opens to a smoker’s deck, only we don’t smoke there. I suppose we could call it our coffee deck, or our tea deck in the evening. This summer I am going to flood it with my house plants and pretty stuff to make it even more pleasant. It has a roof made of clear plastic sheets that need to have the moss pressure washed off them, and there is a persistent Virginia creeper that runs along the house wall. The wren seems to like this atmosphere, because she wants to nest somewhere right close by and sing her liquid song of pure joy. I have no objections.

She’s a little behind the robins who have already raised a brood in the bush that climbs up the railing. They regretted their choice of home site as soon as our children realized there was a nest at eye level, and checked on the babies quietly but with much diligence. Yesterday the babies flew away, and the robins are having to decide whether to risk a second brood in the same spot or to rebuild in a quieter neighborhood.

Gregory installed three nesting boxes for bluebirds when we started to notice them in the yard. I keep seeing them flitting about over the garden, their personal smorgasbord. Then they flit right over the privacy fence and go to the neighbor’s bluebird boxes to feed their babies. It seems a little disloyal, but one can forgive a bluebird almost anything.

There’s a Baltimore oriole who occasionally flaunts his brilliant feathers from the tops of the high oaks down to the arbor. He is so beautiful it takes my breath away. I keep scanning the high tree tops where they like to weave their swinging nests, and since the leaves are only starting to blossom out, I can see that he hasn’t built yet. I wouldn’t choose the shagbark hickory, though it’s so high and breezy, because those branches break off so easily and I have to pick them up all the time before I mow. I’m guessing he’ll try for the tallest cherry tree or maybe the oak once his shy wife shows up to show her approval.

Whenever I hear an especially beautiful bird song, I scan until I can find the artist. Last week I located the mockingbird pair, and I’m so glad they’re sticking around to serenade us while they rejoice over their babies.

(Just as an aside… Have you noticed the ecstacy and wonder of the birds rejoicing over their young, over their domestic triumph? When I see people doing the same, I know it’s right and good. There is glory in it, oh yes! Also a lot of insistent, persistent mouths to feed. But it goes with the glory. There’s your little homily for the day, if you’re an exhausted parent. )

When I was mowing with our z-turn mower that has two levers you have to keep level or you veer off course, I was taking a tight circle under a bush and instinctively reached up to free my hair from a branch. Of course, that instantly turned the circle tightly into the bush, and out fluttered an outraged mourning dove. Sorry friend, I won’t do it again. Go back quickly and give your squabs their pigeon milk.

The cardinals absolutely love all the prickly stuff around here. Because they can fly in such a tight, dipping pattern, they can nest in the most inaccessible places. We have enough multiflora roses for a colony of cardinals, and it’s one of the reasons we aren’t clearing them.

The hummingbirds are back and I really need to get some petunias planted for them. I would rather cultivate the flowers that give them their nectar then try to make sure that their feeder is clean and full all summer. But the girls are begging for a feeder, so we’ll probably do both.

Last but not least, the phoebe that has returned to her nest under the awning at the corner of the sun porch has raised another successful brood. Last year there was a lot of stuff piled in that corner, so that she had a decent sense of privacy right outside the window. I cleared all that stuff away this spring, and it was still very cold when she was sitting on her eggs. As soon as it got warm enough for us to start using the sun porch, she felt the intrusion. But she’s a diligent one and look at her! I haven’t noticed her trying to raise another brood yet, so I hope she’s having a little vacation. That was a lot of bugs being stuffed into mouths.

We have crows, and starlings, and lowly sparrows, and even occasional bald eagles floating on the thermals. There are red winged blackbirds and gold finches and so many more. All of them are just doing what they’re supposed to do day after day. To repeat my little homily, there is glory in that. Bless your heart, and go do what you’re supposed to do today.

Me? I’m supposed to clean my house today, get rid of some loose feathers and tuck in the sticks that aren’t settled quite right. I’m also supposed to make some food, and the nestlings need to learn to make some new recipes, so I’ll be doing a bit of coaching.

What about you?

The things my children teach me…

…in no particular order.

I identify as a mother, haven’t even tried to not look like one or act like one for many years. I am comfortable with this space. All the mom stereotypes… I don’t really care. They are hilarious and strange and okay by me.

From my children have come some of my greatest moments of exhilaration and also my deepest moments of anguish. It is the price of love, a fiercer love than any other I have experienced. Nothing will change that, not distance or changes or decisions they make. As my friend Tina said this morning, “They will always be your babies, no matter how old they get.”

I can expand much further and rebound better than I thought I could. My husband showed me a meme today with a series of circles, the largest being 10 cm across. It simply said, “This is what 10 cm dilation looks like. Buy your mom something nice today.” I have accepted the fact that my body had to change and stretch drastically to give birth to my babies, and I waste no time pining for my teenaged shape. Sometimes I would like to return to the wide-eyed hopefulness of my first baby shower and just tell that girl, “This is going to stretch your very soul until you think you will die, but you won’t. You will become bigger, more, and it will be a beautiful thing that you have been so mercilessly expanded.”

I am a nurturer, and though I mostly practice my skills on the ones in my house, the nurturing includes people who are not my birth-children. In the Mother’s Day message at church, it was mentioned that you do not need to give birth in order to be a fruitful woman. In my own thoughts, the heart of femininity is bearing fruit to hand it out for the feeding of others. How ridiculous to turn all my grapes into shriveled raisins for storage in case I get hungry someday. To offer freely what I have, with no strings attached- it sounds noble, but oh, it is hard!

I read about a mother who coached her little ones that if they are ever lost, like at the zoo or in the store, they should look for a woman who has children with her to ask for help. I aspire to be one of those safe persons in our society, the ones who have time for another’s drama. It is the essence of motherhood.

I have had to face my humanity and brokenness repeatedly in the last twenty years of mothering. This is the best thing that my children have taught me, and it’s not because they are so horrible. It is because they came into the world needing quite a bit more than food, and as it turns out, I do not have all the resources they need. There is an elderly lady who comes to church, probably in her late 90’s, and she is full the of the fire of God. She declared, “You won’t do everything right in your parenting. God won’t let you.” It’s true. He wants to teach me about His resources. I have learned that I can come boldly to the throne of grace behind a locked bathroom door or flat on my face beside the bed, a beggar.

I find myself in over my head. And yet I embrace this. I signed up for it.

What do your children teach you?

April On My Mind

When I made the lesson assignments for the girls this week, I got so happy that I just went ahead and did next week’s as well, and that was the last lessons in the books. They got so happy when they saw how close they are to done, and now they are speeding along, doing two lessons a day. They might as well, since it is once more snowing and blowing. I cannot decide how one ever figures out that the time is now right for stowing winter gear. I packed away hats and gloves yesterday, even though I knew… oh yes, I knew.

The magnolia in the front yard tentatively opened one glorious rosy bloom yesterday. Today it wishes it were a few degrees south. I do too.

There are bluebirds flitting about, though, and the raspberries are growing great promising leaves, shooting up sidewise out of their roots with more energy than discretion. I planted Purple Passion asparagus roots yesterday, too, with a loving layer of rabbit poo pellets, and I have Plans, oh do I ever!

This spring I keep running into tutorials for making your own planters: a mix of portland cement, peat moss, and perlite, called hypertufa. Apparently Martha Stewart has been making them for over a decade, and there are endless varieties online. I love the look of a planter that may have been unearthed in an archeological dig in the backyard, so I have been hypertufa-ing like anything. The first planters were too ambitious, as in too large, molded in a five gallon bucket with a smaller bucket inserted to make the plant’s space. Unfortunately, I forgot to unmold them until they were pretty dry, and I had to break the plastic buckets to get the planter loose. They were a fail. Holes in the bottom, cracks in the side- that sort of fail. Now if a little old lady can do it, so can I. I watched more tutorials and I tried again. The second set of planters is curing, and they please me inordinately with their craggy concreteness. In this whole family, only Addy likes how they look, so we two stoutly stick together. Just wait until they have flowers spilling over their concrete sides! I have enough perlite to make two more batches, and I plan to sprinkle them throughout the garden. Once it gets warm, that is.

This is the time of year when I squirrel away books for our end of the year bash. Often I buy used books at library sales or from Thrift-books, but this year we are feeling extra celebratory. Gregory is graduating and we have survived an unusually brutal winter, both actually and metaphorically. This year I am buying new, beautiful books, hardcovers, lovely illustrations, the like. This year, the books are worth wrapping nicely, and I can hardly wait to give them to the children! I bought quite a few from The Rabbit Room Store, where they are running a good sale for Mother’s Day right now. I also like Lost Art Press for simply beautiful books on lost arts… what else. I only ordered one book on Amazon this year, and for that I feel accomplished. Each child gets two, a storybook and a nonfiction, how-to, or poetry book. I even got myself what my little heart desired, which this year was Poems to See By. It is the high point of the school year, a tradition we all love.

I think I mentioned that I am taking a writing course from The Habit, and currently we are reading/discussing All Creatures Great and Small. I have no idea how Herriot came to be such a stellar writer, but I’m guessing it was with a lot of practice. In an encouraging email to the Habit membership, Jonathan Rogers said,

“I find it helpful to think of writing as a way of continuing a conversation I didn’t start. It relieves a lot of pressure to remember, My job here is not to say something utterly original, but to add something to an ongoing conversation. It may seem counterintuitive, but giving up on “utter originality” may be the first step in producing something that feels original to the reader—something that continues the conversation in an interesting way.”

That produced an “aha” moment for me, because of how often I flounder without anything utterly original to say, or even worse, fear that I am subconsciously quoting what I read somewhere else. One recent assignment was to write about expectations, and then describe what really happened. Here is my contribution. Some details may have been changed just a tad, but it did happen. Enjoy. 🙂

It was an era in our lives where the high point of the month was plunking a little extra onto our mortgage payment. We were in love, two children deep into our marriage, and my husband was working his teaching job, studying nights and weekends for EMS training. Time was in as short supply as funds, but our house was small and we really needed a night out, just the two of us. 

I saw the poster, “David Copperfield, Reimagined,” and I thought it would be perfect. We were avid Dickens fans, a little old-fashioned in our tastes.  My husband would quote his favorite passages, chuckling and marveling at the genius who penned these worlds. “Reimagined” was a great idea for a play. In those innocent, pre-smartphone days, we planned to simply show up at the venue and buy our tickets. Having arranged childcare, we dressed carefully for a date night in the city.

We were running a bit late, and the crowd that teemed at the door was young, hip, and decidedly casual. “Wow,” I enthused to the girl in the line beside me, “who would have thought this would be such a sell-out? We just love Dickens!” She didn’t bother to reply, and her sidelong glance seemed to register a bit of pity. I figured she could sense the deep country air around us, and let it go with a shrug. I was here to enjoy this evening. 

When we finally found our seats it was time for the show to start. Neon lights strobed across the curtain as it rose in a flourish of music that was anything but 1800s. “Reimagined,” I reminded myself as we settled in to enjoy the show. David Copperfield himself showed up in a red sports car, stopping center stage in an ear-splitting roar. Dressed in a gauzy black suit, he produced a flamboyant silk from his pocket and threw it over his car.  The car disappeared in a swirl of foggy smoke and I looked at my husband, who was as bewildered as I was. Try as we might, we couldn’t discern a  hint of our beloved Copperfield in any of it. It was when he pulled underwear out of the pockets of ladies in the audience that I took time to read the handbill we had been given in our rushed entrance. “David Copperfield: Reimagined” and underneath that in lilting cursive was the subtitle, “The Magic Show.”

Welp. ( Just a little trivia: welp has just been introduced into the Webster’s dictionary, an official word. I liked it better before, but it has become habit, so I shall continue to use it.)

Welp. That concludes the April post. If it’s still snowing where you live, maybe go buy a few poetry books?

In which I played with a bit of mud and some spring came out of my fingers.

I Now Have a Power Cord

For various reasons due to the circuitous nature of life, I was not able to charge my laptop for quite a while. I bought it used for hundred dollars years ago and it is very aged, but it is full of my personal stuff: documents and photos and things I write so it feels Very Important. When the charging issues began, we made plans to hit a Best Buy to see whether the fault is in the cord or the computer. (Have you looked at the prices of Apple charging cords recently?) We can either drive 45 minutes north or 45 minutes south for this service, neither of which is a good option these days of inflated gas prices. It transpired that we had a trip back to our familiar stomping grounds and we were going to drive right past a Best Buy. Enroute we stopped for a few hours with Gabe’s sister and her family, so we did not run our computer diagnostic errand. We’ll hit it on the way home, we thought. As it happened, friends asked us to stop in and have sushi with them (you can’t pass up such an offer) so we did, and we didn’t start home until all the helpful blue-shirted minions of the Geek Squad were clocked out and in their pj’s.

I gave it a rest with a small sigh of resignation. It would wait. I do NOT like tech stores, and I didn’t want to go on my own. Two weeks later Gabe and I planned to go north, just do it, make it a date, etc. That morning I awoke with a ridiculous head cold, barely able to keep my eyes open, sneezing violently. My husband took one look at me and suggested kindly that we wait until another day. Then he had four work shifts out of town, so that put us into the next week. We made plans again for a date. When we looked out our windows that morning, it was blizzarding royally outside. Are you kidding? We decided to go anyway.

We drove through white-outs and gusts that threatened to blow us off our northward course, but we made it to Best Buy at last. The Geek Squad had about seventeen Gen Z’s and one aging Millennial on staff. I know because he had grey hair in his ponytail and no acne on his face. Also he made a speedy diagnosis without using any terms I didn’t understand. It was simple. I needed a new charging cord. We searched the shelves for the exact model I needed, and a blue shirt magically appeared to help us (Gen Z this time.) He peered earnestly at labels and boxes, and he peered at his phone; they didn’t have one in stock. Then he shuffled his feet sadly and suggested that we try Amazon for a cheaper option. I bet he’s not supposed to do that. At least we knew what we needed.

We found a Thai restaurant and ate spicy food and drank green tea while the snow swirled. Then we went home and ordered a charger cord. In those weeks of un-computer time I wrote a bunch in my head, but obviously those articles are gone. One of them was really clever, but I can’t remember it. I can do a fast recap, though.

We had a weekend back in Bedford County, since my parents were home from Florida. We spent time with Alex, connected with friends at church, hugged everybody, admired new babies, marvelled at how tall all the children are growing. We made sushi with friends, then sat at a long table and ate it while we visited.

I babysat my sister’s children for three days while she and her husband celebrated their 15th anniversary. It was six extra bodies, but they fit right in with our crew, all but one of them younger than mine. It has been a long time since I wiped so many noses on repeat and read the same favorite picture book six times in a day. Some aspects of little tots’ care are less charming than others, but I do miss having a resident three year old. I did nothing except nourish and clothe bodies and wash the things associated with those activities. It was a reminder again of the full-time work it is to care well for little people. (Hats off to you, mothers of young children. You are doing amazingly busy, hard work, and it is good work.)

These days I do a lot of facilitating, helping my children reach for things, develop skills, gather resources. They mostly do their own cleanup, hallelujah! Last week I took Gregory to get a fishing license. We smelled the rotisserie chicken at the deli and suffered immediate hunger pangs. Supper had come to us. I smiled at the deli lady and said with excessive politeness, “Thank you greatly.” Then Greg looked at me with wonder, “What did you just say?” And we walked away quickly before bursting into laughter. And that’s how quickly you go from hiding your amusement when they are funny to them making no effort whatsoever to hide their amusement when you are funny. I don’t mind though. The most distressing people I have ever spent time with are the ones with no sense of humor. I consider it my duty as a mother to help my children learn to laugh at themselves, and I figure I need to model it.

This was a week ago, with sunshine streaming in the south window and a fresh layer of precipitation outside.

Spring has faded in and out, in and out, that Pennsylvania season that teases us alternately between boots and flip-flops on a day-to-day basis. Today we dug holes for support posts in my raspberry and blackberry beds. I am lengthening both of them with volunteers that shot up at the edges. Gabriel used a measuring tape and squared off the garden with the privacy fence. It had been raggedy edged, a result of the neighbor eying it from his tractor seat when he was tilling. We are widening the area where we will plant corn. And we are putting in an asparagus bed. I wish I had done that two years ago, but here we are.

I have another dream and a place for it. Beehives. Pollinators. Honey. When I was showing Gregory where I would put them, he made a weak objection about the adjoining grass, and I segued smoothly into my plan for chickens. It was gloriously warm. Anything was possible. The daffodils finally dared to open, and the birds were singing riotously. Let’s see what all we can do before it snows again on Saturday.

Saturday in the Life…

I awakened to that blissful feeling of a whole Saturday to just do whatever I felt like doing, which for a mother means Whatever Yells Loudest. I got out of bed just about the time Gabriel got home and got into bed. He was the only nurse for the entire 12 hour shift last night in the emergency department. Weary is not even the right word to describe it, but it will have to suffice.

There was a blustery blizzard going on, and I’ll admit, I was not especially pleased about it. It seemed like a good day to wear my robin egg blue sweater and drink lots of coffee.

Two days ago it was raining so hard that I kept checking the basement to see if the dehumidifier and drains were keeping up with the trickle of water coming in from excessive snowmelt. A bunch of old towels made temporary dams, but this morning we had to address the situation in the basement, now that the precipitation is solid again. I picked up the sodden towels, then we sorted through the big bags of snow clothes from last Saturday when they were skiing and put them away. Gasp. A whole week later!

There has been a stack of boxes in the basement that were never unpacked since we moved. Cringe. Eighteen months later. I found that the threat of a possible flood gave me the nudge I needed to get rid of the cardboard boxes. One was full of framed family pictures from newborn portraits to recent, and I repacked them in a plastic tote to take to the attic. The rest of the boxes contained stuff that we shouldn’t have moved. We haven’t used or missed that stuff in 18 months. Salvation Army, here we come. We had a small bonfire as well, and I feel better.

I mentioned the girls’ play corner downstairs. We curtained off about 10×10 feet for them to set up as their playhouse. Sometimes it feels like it is completely out-of-hand, spilling into the entire basement, but I think it is worth every square foot we ceded to them. They cook on an induction burner, make tea for their friends and serve it in pretty dishes. Then they wash the dishes and use an antique washboard in a bucket to wash their tea towels. Occasionally they sleep down there on the floor with its patchwork of area rugs, surrounded by hodge podge furniture we don’t want anywhere else in the house. They reign there in a miniature scale they can manage.

This morning I saw that the girls had a bunch of my pottery towels in their play corner in the basement. They were clean, but stained, and looked ugly. I told them they need to make some tablecloths and runners out of fabric pieces. When those were hemmed, they needed to be ironed, which reminded them of the tiny iron I got for them. They promptly decided to make an ironing board to match. I heard a lot of hammering and drilling, and what do you know! They have an ironing board for their linens.

Gregory and Olivia are doing a history course together this year: Ancient Civilizations and the Bible from Answers in Genesis. It’s a different approach to history than we have done in the past. Gregory likes the freestyle idea of reading supplemental books, following trails that interest him, picking a research topic for each unit, and then procrastinating until the very last minute to write the report after I have twisted his arm. Olivia does not like the freestyling at all. She prefers a history course where you memorize dates and timelines and do normal tests. Her reports are masterpieces of conscientious research that she is sure are not good enough, and they are done before the deadline. Children, children. (To be honest, this history course is stretching me too. Rather more library books to chase down than strictly necessary.)

Anyway, all week I wanted to make baklava to finish up the chapter on Greece. Today we had time to do such fiddly things. Olivia brushed butter on twenty sheets of phyllo dough and Greg chopped up the nuts and mixed the honey/spice drizzle. It was a golden brown triumph of pastry to enjoy with our tea.

Eventually the sun shone on our world in that aloof way it has in winter. I took a walk outside, slipping barefooted into my fur-lined boots, which is about as edgy as I care to be in 17 degree weather. Lady and I checked out the creek, which was flowing brimful in midweek as it drained away the snowmelt. Today it was a normal size again, with little dangly icicles left behind as the water level went down. I heard birds singing, but there are no rose hips or other edible berries left along the edges of the trail. There was a brilliant flash of a cardinal digging seeds or bugs out of the now-brown seed heads on the sumac. Other than that, the world was monochrome. I noticed that the woodpecker’s ash tree broke off right at their biggest bug mining hole, crashing across the picnic spot in the woods, and I fantasized about getting out there with the small chain saw and cleaning up. I have Plans for Paths and all manner of projects in the backyard just as soon as the snow melts and the mud dries. I cannot wait to mow lawn again!

Bev Doolittle would be proud.

We planted some seeds this week. Rita started a lettuce garden and I sowed grass seeds in containers, an idea I picked up from my sister. It should be lush and green by Easter. I also planted some little bulbs, crocuses I think. Last year we grew paperwhites, but honestly, we could not stand the scent. It was just too much, and I had to throw them out.

See my tropical grass on the windowsill up there? Last fall I had a piece of ginger that was very wrinkly and old. We stuck it in a pot of dirt to see what would happen. After a long time, a shoot emerged, then another and another. It is now a grass stalk about 3 feet tall by my kitchen sink. We love it, and can’t bear to check if it has made more ginger roots in the pots. Maybe once we have green outside we can sacrifice it. I have a coleus on the windowsill, saved from my outdoor planter, and it will be the mother of many babies for my window boxes and planters. Then there are the fiddle leaf fig leaves that we hope will eventually get roots. Do you notice a theme emerging here?

Tonight I took Rita along to Walmart to help me load up bags of salt for the water softener. She is strong and useful for such errands. “Just essentials,” I said as we picked up milk and eggs. Somehow the two of us also came home with blueberries, strawberries, bananas, lettuce, cucumber, avocados, and a coconut. Isn’t it wonderful that we have access to so much bounty? I am very very grateful.

How we live these days. It was 50 degrees at the time.

These February days…

Hello, friends! I don’t know if anybody remembers when I used to do a post every day in February, the short month? I don’t know how I did it.

We have reached the point of winter where it has settled into our souls, and even though we know in our heads that it will not last always, in our souls it feels like we might as well make plans to continue indefinitely in this season. I saw that Walmart is putting all the snow clothes on clearance. I bought two coats for the older girls. It seemed a reasonable way to spend seven bucks.

Gabe got a mighty itch to buy a snowmobile since we got such a handsome amount of snow. First there were fourteen inches and then a few days later there were ten more inches on top of that. Very little of it melted, so it is quite brilliant outside. He actually did get his hands on an aging snowmobile, apparently one built to go get the groceries in the Arctic, with heated handlebars and all. It is enormous and may reach speeds of 65 mph, requiring a field to make a turn successfully. Yeah, it was quite the thrill, until it died without explanation as he finished the last ride on Sunday night. Now we get to figure out what makes it tick, and maybe the snow will last for a few more months so that we can use it lots more. I believe this could happen. I do heartily endorse finding ways to enjoy it. I break trail down to the creek and walk the trail a few times every day if I can. I remember a Lewis quote: “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary sparkles are like this!” (edit: I just looked it up. Lewis said “coruscations” instead of “sparkles”. I think in this case, Lewis overdid it.)

Yesterday I was just walking along, minding my own business, when I felt my bum knee go out. It feels as if the kneecap is sliding down beside my knee, only an MRI a few years ago showed that it is only a small piece of cartilage that is floating loose and occasionally giving me grief. As a result, I cannot bend my knee, which is a little unhandy. Eventually it will float somewhere less offensive, and I will only have soreness to remind me it is there. They said it looks like a sports injury, and the only thing I could think of was that time in fourth grade when I wiped out during single base at school. I could schedule a surgery with ortho, sit in the waiting room with all the silver haired folks who need hip replacements and the kids with sports injuries. Meh. I think it will have to get worse before I do that. This bum knee is the reason I do not have the fun in the snow that I used to. Skating, sledding, skiing, even snowshoeing, are all out because of it. It seems the Lord’s will that I winter somewhere tropical, wouldn’t you say?

Meanwhile I shall hobble about in the house, pottering with houseplants, cooking soup, and looking out at the birds at the feeder, watching the lazy flakes swirl down. Yes, that is what they are doing.

I find myself trying to explain to one of my children what I want them to bring up from the basement, feebly waving my hands around my head as I grasp for what you call it. “Words, Mom,” they prompt helpfully. “Use your words.”

I was trying to make up a meal schedule last evening, and found myself writing “soup” repeatedly. It’s appropriate, and that’s what we’re doing. Hearty hamburger soup. Toscana with kale. Chicken broth with vegetables. Ramen. I bet you didn’t see that coming, but hey, my children like Ramen. Who am I to quibble? (I am feeling satisfied that I thought of that word “quibble” without too much feeble hand waving around my head.)

We had a sunny day last week that melted the stuff on the roof, so that we had enormous icicles growing outside the windows. Rita called the most impressive one Big Jimmy and everybody got invested in watching how much he would grow. Two of the girls even dreamed that various neighbors came and broke off Big Jimmy before he reached full potential. Methinks we need broader horizons.

In an effort not to get too mush-brained, I paid for a writing course from Jonathan Rogers, called The Habit. (Author of The Wilderking Trilogy, highly recommended for kids and adults both. We got the audiobooks, and they are top-notch.) The idea is that you must make an every day habit of writing if you’re serious. I have been trying, I really have. One thing I have established: my fiction attempts are total rubbish. But I keep making a stab at the assignments, trying to string words together in fresh ways. The problem is that it has all been said before. Occasionally I get frozen with fear that I am subconsciously quoting another author whose work I admire, thinking I am making this up all by myself. What a fraud! Rogers uses samples from authors like Tolkien, Lewis, L.M. Montgomery, and Harper Lee to explain excellent writing. One is reminded constantly that one is very. small. potatoes. Especially in February.

I also signed up for a lot of studying in Sunday school this winter. We are doing a course called Search the Word from The Daily Grace Co. I like the discipline, but admit, I have to crack the whip over my mind repeatedly. There are ladies in the group who put me to shame with their level of study. In this season I have no excuse not to search the Word, but I do have endless interruptions, so I am taking it as the enrichment I need without dipping into any guilt when my summary misses a few points.

Gregory has volunteered to make omelettes for lunch. Rita is singing, “I’m leaving on a jet plane,” at her desk, and Addy is studying adjectives with much drama about boring school. How are you fine folks holding up?

Curated

So I have a google phone, and every day it suggests news articles for me, most of which I loftily ignore. I am endlessly amused though (not by google’s spying) by my own interests coming back to bite me with more ideas to pursue on topics of interest. I have repeatedly clicked, “not interested” on sports, celebrities, and c***d discussions for my own mental health. For some reason I get suggested articles on “Eleven Habits of Emotionally Healthy People”. I also get “Twenty People Who Didn’t See What Was Coming” or “Twelve Cake Decorating Ideas to Avoid” video compilations. I laugh uproariously and feel better for the therapy.

This past week there have been organization articles, ways to streamline your household and make your kitchen feel happier, less cluttered, etc. These are fascinating to me. Like this tip: turn your kettle lids upside down when the pot is in the cupboard so that you can stack the next kettle on top of it. Do tell! I think I learned that in my mother’s womb. Or the one where you lay a piece of pegboard in the bottom of a drawer, then stick short dowels into the holes so that you can put cookie cutters or apple slicers into the drawer and they won’t slide around. It’s kind of a neat idea, if you have a cookie cutter drawer. Mine go into a metal cookie tin in the pantry to wait for next Christmas.

I read the gardening articles. “Three Easy Ways to Keep Your Houseplants Happy,” or “How to Propagate Succulents”. Last week I found a fascinating article about soil, written by an Amish-man who lives not very far from here. I kept exclaiming to my children about how articulate his ideas are, how much sense they make, and how can he possibly be Amish? He has a blog and a podcast! They couldn’t quite get past the part where I was reading about soil. Again. They actually laughed at their funny mother. O vell.

I do click on “Underrated Destinations that Delight Visitors” and do armchair traveling. The problem with telling the Web about an amazingly undeveloped destination on the beach is that 100 million people might see it, and then if only a fraction of the people go there, it will no longer be undeveloped or amazing. Why do they do that, I wonder? I also check ticket prices to hot and sunny places. It’s a sort of joke with my January self. If things get too frozen, I can go to Phoenix for $112, like a tapping out button that I will never use. Then I saw that some friends of mine are actually in Phoenix right now, in a sun-drenched desert landscape full of blooming cacti and, did I mention, sunshine? So it can happen.

Then there are the recipes. We are past the week of “confused and full of cheese” and officially into the season of craving citrus and broth based soups. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to try all the sourdough coffee cakes that google suggests would bless me this month.

I should probably go now, check if I have the ingredients in my spice cupboard for that “How to Make Sure Your House Smells Great” potpourri.

Processing

I spent a few hours outside in flipflops today, picking up and burning trash, looking at the gardens tucked in and the tiny spears of garlic that are not supposed to be up, but why not, because it’s fifty degrees? We feel about as confused as the forsythias we saw blooming. I made a bonfire and hauled accumulations of boxes out of the basement, then I organized the perpetually self-destructing corner that is our canned goods shelves and overflow pantry. There was a mouse hole nibbled in my unsweetened coconut shavings, indicating that I have still not won the battle I started when they moved in this fall. We bought a bunch of food grade buckets and are storing most of our bulk food supplies in them, but not everything fit, so out went the coconut.

This past week we worked on the basement staircase, which was a dismal looking hole with exposed studs, wires, sewer pipes, etc. Gabriel covered the mess with panelling that we had saved from house walls we removed, then I primed and painted the whole works. Have you ever painted the underside of a stairway? When I was about half-way done, I felt myself descending into a crawly, irritated person who wants to be ugly to anybody who happens by. “How dare you have such an easy day of doing whatever it is you are jolly doing while I crane my neck and paint the underside of this step?” I did two things. I asked Gabe to pick up pizza for supper, please, and I began to sing songs loudly. It worked, and I was happy to wash out the brushes before the pizzas were ready. No persons were harmed either.

We hung hooks on a rail along the top of the panelling, and now 10! coats can be hung there. There is a cubby for my mops and window squeegee, and I am happy. It doesn’t take much, I know.

We had sausages, sauerkraut and fried potatoes for supper. Happy new year to us and to you! The children declined the sauerkraut, but that’s their loss. Later tonight we’ll have our purple cow and popcorn while we play games.

At suppertime we were talking about the year that’s gone, just like that. Gabe and the children thought it went by very quickly, and I feel like it has been tattered since August. I love a new year. Always it feels like a fresh start, a hopeful beginning.

Even if the sky is falling, a new year lifts my mind to the verities that underpin all of my life. I read Isaiah 35 recently, subtitled “Hope for Restoration” in the NLT. In reading over it again, it is hard to choose just a segment. If you are feeling the tired hands and weak knees that life has a way of dealing out, this is the message for you.

“Say to those with fearful hearts,
    ‘Be strong, and do not fear,
for your God is coming to destroy your enemies.
    He is coming to save you.’ ” (Is.35:4)

( I am loving this translation, by the way. It is a fresh way of reading the Word, catching things that I have read so often and missed because they were so familiar.)

For the first time in many years I did not send out a family letter before Christmas.

Here’s a quick overview:

January: Rain. Mud. School with the children every day. More rain. Vitamin D in megadoses.

February: Alex moves back to Bedford County and resumes his former job. We travel back and forth a few times for skiing and events, see his apartment, and visit friends.

March: Lots of snow that delights our hearts. We get to spend time with cousins before they move far away.

April: Sunshine in abundance, rare in this area they say. The children and the dog stay a week with my parents while Gabe and I help his brother’s family move to South Dakota. Gregory has two seizures, but absolutely no anomalies on any tests. We embark on a journey with epilepsy.

May: Extended family reunion in Ohio, a delightful time of connecting with the Schlabachs. We host my brother Ken’s family at our place, and the guys put metal on the shop roof. For fun they go walleye fishing in Erie and we fry fish and morel mushrooms for an epic meal. We take the children across the Allegheny Reservoir in canoes for a few blissful days of solitude in tents.

June: First time camping at Pymatuning State Park, a wonderful place. We decide we will make up for lost time with the camping this year. Gabe and Greg start the upstairs bathroom remodel and I garden my heart out. I also learn how to install vinyl plank flooring.

July: Addy turns ten; Gabe turns forty! We celebrate with lots of family here. The summer weather is perfection. We start the kitchen remodel, tear out the old cabinets and endlessly sand the bowling lanes we plan to use for countertops.

August: My grandma goes to Jesus, and I join my sister for a trip to Wisconsin for the funeral. Our school books come in the mail, and Addy dives in because she can’t wait, but the others all laugh at her. I continue my garden therapy, and get rewarded with beauty and deliciousness.

September: We officially start the school year. We seem to hit a sweet spot with home school, and we love it. The Peight family has a reunion at a cabin in Wattsburg. Lovely times together. Two of my Miller cousins marry girls from this area, and I get to host cousins overnight, serve tea to aunts and uncles.

October: Our twentieth anniversary. We can’t leave the children for long, but we take off for a two day jaunt to Niagara Falls, rent scooters, hike, sleep late, visit antique shops, go to Schlabach’s Nurseries. We still hold hands, laugh at each other’s jokes, and are glad we got married. We go camping at Blue Knob with friends while Gabe does ski patrol training. It is wonderful, even though it rains a lot. The kitchen is now all done and we love it!

November: The children and I go to Pittsburgh for a field trip and to pick up clay at Standard Ceramics. Two days later Addy and I return in an ambulance so she can have her appendix out. Gabe has work in Pittsburgh in November, so we ride home with him the next day, a little spent but glad all is well. We have a lovely Thanksgiving at my folks, with my sister and brother and their families. I sell pottery at a local vendor event for the first time and have a lot of fun doing it.

December: We go to Pittsburgh twice more for appointments with specialists. We are grateful for excellent health care, cautiously optimistic that Greg’s meds are right. It is a warm, wet month. We buy each other presents at thrift stores and antique shops, plus some new winter clothes, boots, gloves, etc. Maybe we won’t get to use them this year, because today we were out in flipflops.

That’s a quick flight over the past. I really don’t know how to summarize this year. A lot of it feels frustratingly ragged; nothing was neatly packaged. I have had to relinquish control more than ever before, and been so utterly drained of resources that I know without a doubt that anything good in the husk that is left is not me. That is not a bad place to be, although rather uncomfortable at times.

And there you have my understatement of the year. I am not a sweetly compliant child who doesn’t shout questions and beg God for mercy. He doesn’t always answer the questions, but every morning there is fresh mercy.

With that assurance we go into the new year. Blessings, all!

Thanksgiving, 2021

Peace on Earth

Goodwill to men.

Unless, of course, it’s men who don’t think the way you do.

Or men who see things differently than you do.

Or women, those digital warriors

Who feel called to set the world aright in a most ineffective way,

Attacking their neighbor with little squares of words.

There are meme wars and they are real.

They are not meant to bless or encourage

But to hurt and belittle.

Then it’s outrage on Earth, curses to men.

You are stupid sheep because xyz.

No Way!

OH. MY. WORD.

Can you even believe what she just said?

They are stupid sheep because they think we are stupid sheep.

There are times when nobody is right

Because everybody is reacting wrong.

That’s what my mama said when we yelled and blamed each other.

Wait.

Aren’t we supposed to be sheep?

We have a Shepherd.

He came all this way to Earth to call a ceasefire.

He came to lead us to still waters, green pastures.

Peace on Earth in every heart who follows Him.

It is no surprise that those who refuse the leadership

Of the Shepherd are spreading vitriol and violence.

But the sheep?

They’re listening for the voice of the Beloved Shepherd

Whose birth announcement said,

“Peace on Earth, goodwill to men.”

Preparing Room

I love that line: “Let every heart prepare Him room.” It’s an old-fashioned way of saying, “Give Him space.” He is the One who clears out the chaos and dusts the cobwebs in the heart that has given Him room. He beautifies and enlivens the old place, brings out the shine in the furniture, and provides the places of comfort.

This realization inside me has changed my view of housekeeping into one of homemaking. I get to partner with Jesus in my home, filling it with grace and goodness, because that is what He has done for me. That sounds so nice: good food, warm places, and happy hearts. However. You can’t have fragrant gingerbread without some flour puffs and icing smears and possibly even a deluge of frustrated tears. It also involves taking out the trash and washing a lot of dishes. I guess technically you can light a gingerbread candle, but that doesn’t quite count the same.

When I was handed a different house to turn into a home, it was a dark and gloomy place, floor to ceiling. It ended up being a long paint-splattered process, with only two rooms completely finished when we moved into it. Decorating brings out my insecurities and exhausts me, but homemaking has become a delight. Just ask my children how many times I rearranged the living room furniture this fall, finding the sweet spot where everything looks peaceful and happy together. Not matchy -our furniture is carefully curated (Don’t be afraid. That’s code for used, thrifted, or on clearance.) from many different sources- but cozy.

Because of how unsettled and chaotic the last few years felt, it became imperative to me to make our home feel lovely and secure. I am not good at visualizing things in my head, and Pinterest gave me anxiety. I ended up making a list of things that are important to me: light, cheer, comfort, practicality. Stabbing at a feeling meant sleuthing out little end tables at the thrift store so we can set our mugs and books on them. It meant soothing blues and uplifting yellows. It meant putting the old ratty towels on the dog-towel stack and investing in fresh ones.

We have large south-facing windows in the main living area, one of the big selling points for us when we checked out this house. I wanted to let all the light in, yet be able to close the fishbowl at night, and decided on sheers with metal rings and linen looking panels to keep open most of the time. I bought curtains and hung them so I could feel them, then returned curtains and got others until it looked like I wanted it to look. (Sorry, Big Lots.) My windows are dressed, not like anything I saw on Pinterest, but I like them.

I take the same approach every time I decorate the mantle piece. A few weeks ago I bought some placemats that say “JOY” because I wanted to use one as a wallhanging above the fireplace. I was tempted to buy silvery fake eucalyptus, but decided on the dried dusty millers from the garden, some twigs spray painted white, and sprigs of rose hips instead. When I am done with them, I can throw them away instead of figuring out storage. Every time the season switches, I decorate and step back and rearrange and step back and throw out some stuff and step back and go look for different elements until it feels right to me. This is probably not how you’re supposed to do it, but once it feels cozy, I feel done. My heart tells me so, and in this case that’s what I go by. I refrain from comparing with what others are doing, because that is not the point. Their house is their house, and ours is ours.

Home is a sensory experience. The atmosphere really does matter. Lights are very important. My husband blessed me and installed can lights everywhere. I also hang many strings of twinkle lights for the long dark winter. We light candles and fires and feel the blessing of darkness pushed back.

Gabriel’s work is as stressful as it has ever been, so the feeling I strive for at home is peace. Imagine with me a 12 to 14-hour shift where you are aware the entire time that you cannot possibly give patients the standard of care that you were trained to do. You are only one, and you can only do so much. When you come home from work, what is it that you want to feel? I can’t do much for the masses in the hospital, but I can make a place where one of their nurses can recharge and find cheer and hope.

This is different for everyone. I read articles about how the pandemic has changed people’s perceptions of what they want in their homes because they actually spent a lot of time in them. The all-vanilla, sterile hotel room style is out, and colors and comfortable furniture style is in, as well as personal touches and hand-made accessories. (I know I should have made my curtains, but I am only one and I can only do so much. :D)

We can take part in preparing room, in building a culture of redemption and safety, one homemaking day at a time.

“And heaven and nature sing!”

(Disclaimer: I wrote most of this post last year before Christmas and didn’t publish it, for some reason, so here it is, fluffed up a little, not your average Advent post. My “Restoration” issue of Daughters of Promise came in the mail yesterday. I was happy with my little garden feature, but really inspired by all the articles on taking waste spaces and discarded goods and giving them new life. It’s a core value that resonates deeply with me. I dug out this article and decided to send it out. Blessings all, as you invest in wherever it is you are called to beautify today.)