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.


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.

The Annual Slightly Strange List

of things for which I am thankful. I remembered this loosely held tradition today and thought I could skillfully weave a few things into our current life experiences so that you get an ever so subtle update as well as a list. Let me see how far I can get without mentioning the C—–.

  1. Assurance of a time coming when the bulbs we planted will bloom and inflatable lawn ornaments will not be a thing anymore.
  2. The ability to gasp, especially now that there is a second son driving on a permit. If it hasn’t saved our lives, it has likely saved some mailboxes that were installed too close to the edge of the road, and also possibly some hubcaps on cars parked along the street.
  3. Knowing how to turn an ornamental white pumpkin into puree, having had the foresight to ask if these pumpkins can be used for cooking after they are finished decorating. Since I learned to simply cut the tough guys in half, turn them upside down on a baking sheet, and roast them in the oven until they are soft enough to scoop into the blender, I no longer fear pumpkins. There is no need to endanger fingers while whacking away at a fruit? vegetable? that defies peeling.
  4. Making a new friend who texts me something about C*&%# and how weary she is of trying to navigate the social situations of 2020. This blessed me more than any text that day, because no matter what anybody says, this is what we all think about it.
  5. Owning boots. Even more than Bedford County, this northwest Crawford County is going to require of us lots of boots. Outfitting a five-child family with all the necessary gear can break even a healthy budget. One mile from my house is a Salvation Army, a large repository of donations and cast-offs. We have found leather boots for Gregory that he wore wet for a day to mold them to his feet, then waxed and waterproofed. Also we have gotten fur-trimmed dressy ones, a number of pairs of snow boots, and some pink rubber ones that are knee high for when the girls desire to cross the creek in the wintertime. Basically we are flush with boots around here. And still when I go to get my pair, someone seems to be wearing them.
  6. Pets that only make miniscule messes. The girls brought a pair of budgies home from the cousins in North Carolina, and they are greatly beloved. Every day there are minor tiffs as to who gets the birds while they are doing school. Gregory has an antler perch for them beside his desk, and Rita let them sit on her assignment book until I objected to the little smears that appeared on the pages. Ever the problem solver, she now has a scrap paper system for their potty needs at her desk. Addy simply lets them sit on her head and brushes the tiny droppings into the trash can if they occur. Compared to the drama of cats and dogs in the house, this is so minor it hardly counts.
  7. A misguided purchase at the overstock warehouse, where the box with the fancy espresso machine turned out to contain a much less impressive machine. Apparently somebody with evil intent had returned the box with their inferior espresso maker inside. So we decided to spring for a cute stovetop model like our grandmas may have used if they drank espresso. Then we bought a milk frother and the entire set-up cost us 90% less than the fancy machine, so we felt smart about that and happy that our counter space is not entirely used up yet.
  8. An opportunity to forage. I was wanting to lay some pine boughs on the mantel, maybe make a wreath for the door, etc. On five acres, we do not have one evergreen tree, so my mind leaped at the possibilities when I saw an enormous pine across the hiking trail, downed by high winds. Addy and I went back with pruning shears and got all the pine we could carry. It smells wonderful and we were so green and helped clean up the trail to boot.
  9. Children who are expert scroungers. It’s the term we use when I am too involved in clay to cook. This doesn’t happen unless Gabriel is working, I might hasten to add. “Shall we scrounge?” they ask hopefully, and that means any leftovers in the fridge are fair game. One likes to make pancakes or Ramen. The little girls peel entire cucumbers to dip in Ranch, followed by cold cereal. The best part of scrounging is reading a book while eating. I am hopeful that they will look back at those times with fondness for a mother who indulged them rather than wondering why they didn’t get the proper nourishment they craved every day.
  10. Leftovers. See number 9. We love them! When I cook, I make large amounts, either to freeze the extras, or to store in the basement refrigerator for later in the week. Right now there are a lot of Thanksgiving leftovers, which I did deliberately. I got an enormous turkey, so that at least 3/4 of it was left for the freezer. Then I cooked the bones with vegetables for broth and got eight quarts of that. Gabriel had to work on Thanksgiving Day, so we had our feast on Sunday, complete with cranberry salad, which only the adults eat, and my personal favorite, stuffing, which the children eat reluctantly. I feel quite thankful.
  11. Being able to laugh through tears. “I am so tired of everything being hard,” she said, even as she finished unloading the trunk full of groceries from a wonderful Aldis that is only two miles from her house. And while the tears had nothing to do with the grocery run, juxtaposed, the circumstances seemed too funny not to laugh because what could be easier than Aldi two miles away? I will not say that I am glad to be able to cry, because there have been more tears than strictly necessary and when they can’t be turned off, it becomes a matter of alarm. It is handy to have comic relief always close at hand in one’s own domain.
  12. The freedom to ignore all the shouting in the world and get on with the simple business of the day, what is right in front of me. Last week I had a conversation where I revealed my ignorance of the current news in our country and was informed that I have been living under a rock. I admit that I like it there. It is peaceful. It is impossible to get away from the groaning of the whole creation as it desires to be liberated from bondage to freedom. This has been going on for a very long time, however, and the distresses of our present time are not a surprise to God.
  13. The yearning hunger that accompanies hope, because who hopes for what they already have? Again I refer to Romans 8 for context, with my paraphrase of verses 38, 39. “For I am convinced that neither Covid19 nor vaccines, neither tolerance nor racism, neither mandatory masks nor the future of lost freedoms, nor any government, fraudulently appointed or otherwise, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


10/21/20 My absent-minded middle daughter hung a sign above her desk this fall. On pretty grey paper with silver accents it says, “Focus.” This morning dawned so warm and sunny that she was struggling to stick with her lessons and after I had pulled her back from lala-land for the third time while we were learning to check by casting out nines, I reminded her of the sign that exhorts her to focus. “Oh, but Mom, there’s also a sign that says ‘Not all who wander are lost.'” She had me there.

Much of my own life has been consumed with trying to focus on the big issues in the last month. We did a fair amount of wandering too. It has been a gloriously colorful fall and while we waited a little anxiously for our heating guy to show up, the weather continued balmy until the middle of October. Occasionally we built a fire in the fireplace and ran electric heaters. The day after the ductwork was finally completed, we awoke to a heavy frost and a chill in the air that meant business. We touched the button on the thermostat with gratefulness.

Our family traveled to North Carolina in the first week of October, both to visit family and for an anniversary getaway for Gabriel and me. We left our offspring divided out among my two brothers’ and Gabriel’s brother’s families and had three days for ourselves. After this crazy, busy summer, we found ourselves with barely enough time to catch up on the things that had not been discussed for too long. It is highly preferable to stay up to date with our issues, but sometimes life conspires to pile up a backlog. I think perhaps the security of lifelong commitment causes us to get sloppy with our accounts, kind of like not balancing the checkbook for too long and just figuring there is enough in there to carry us through until we make time. Marriage is sanctifying , and when you mire around trying to find your way through mud for awhile, it is a great relief to come out still liking each other, still sharing the grace of life.

We were a little surprised to find ourselves traveling homeward with two extra tiny passengers, offspring of my niece’s very prolific parakeets. My brother convinced us that we needed them, and the girls were quick to remind me that I promised them birds when we get settled in our house. The budgies are quite happily at home here. We got them a spacious cage, but most of the day they spend perched on someone’s shoulder. Pepper had a traumatic experience one day when she took a spontaneous flight on her clipped wings and landed smack in Olivia’s hot chocolate. Needless to say, we do not cook with parakeets on our shoulders.

We were delighted to host my brother Nate and his family here the week after we got back from North Carolina. They had plans to come north this fall before we made plans to go south, so we had us a little feast of time spent together. Our children are now old enough to entertain themselves for hours, and we can take off to a fancy restaurant without worrying about a babysitter. The high point of Nate’s visit may have been the night I served him decaf coffee that inexplicably contained lavender and chamomile. I have no idea how I managed to pick up a package of decaf Eight o’clock coffee labeled “Relax” and didn’t notice the odd ingredients. I didn’t remember until I had made it that Nate has a strong aversion to chamomile, but it is terribly funny to tease him so I served it anyway to see if he would notice. He politely declined to drink it.

This week we’re celebrating Gregory turning 16. He said that the only thing he wanted from his sisters for his birthday was for them to stop talking in British accents. Haha. It’s a deeply entrenched habit they have picked up from listening to audio with British narrators and they are pretty good at it. They love to tease him by adding in an Aussie “mate” when they address him. In the end it was easier for them to go to Walmart and spend some of their money on gifts.

Gregory and Gabriel are having a fishing day in a canoe today. There are a number of lakes around here that we haven’t explored yet, so they packed a lunch and headed out early. Right now fishing is pretty much the pinnacle of his life. I’m guessing Gabe is doing some napping in the canoe, since he didn’t get home from work until 1AM.

10/27/20 I spent a few hours outside this morning, raking and planting bulbs. We got a handy dandy drill bit that made the bulb planting much faster, especially the ones in the lawn. (I did not know these devices exist until this year. Thank you, Kristen, for sharing your bulb planting tip.) FYI, I first bought one at Home Depot, but it stripped out on the very first hole we dug. The resident blacksmith told me it wasn’t hardened tool steel and a terrible design to boot. So… after much research, I mean I read Amazon reviews, I got the one I linked, and it is fabulous. You have to have a pretty strong arm if the bit digs into a tree root or a rock. It is not a job for a child, for sure, but children are great at dropping bulbs into the holes you dig. If you have a gimpy knee, you too will be amazed at the easy bulb planting ways of the middle-aged.

Most of the daffodils I ordered were for shade and are supposed to naturalize very well in the lawn, so that’s where we planted them. The tulips and allium are going in the front of the house where I can see them easily through the big windows. I’m a little nervous about all the squirrels around here eating my tulip bulbs, but this way we can open the window a crack and dispatch the squirrels if we need to. I probably don’t need to tell you that I can hardly wait until spring.

I used to think leaf blowers are for sissies, but guess who is a sissy? We accidentally left our rakes in a barn at our old place, so looking at the situation realistically with these humongous trees in our yard, we bought 3 rakes. And a leaf blower. It took this mother and four children hours to clear the lawn of leaves, and this was the third time we worked at it. I just read in a gardening book that a large oak tree can have 20 acres of surface area to catch water on its leaves. Is that the same as 20 acres of leaves?

The dingy room in the basement that is my new pottery studio is now cleaned and painted with larger windows in the walls. It is warm and easy to wash down with a sink in the corner. When I first thought about trying to throw pots in that dungeon, my heart sank. It was a very uninspiring room, but it is surprising what a little paint will do. I have been throwing pots this week and finding it deeply satisfying.

Let us conclude this straggling post with a few pictures of sunset over Erie and how Addy feels about life.

When she is glad, she is very very glad.