On good sportsmanship.

We recently made a brilliant family investment by purchasing Dinosaur Bingo for our sons.  It is a total blast.  We really enjoy playing it together.  And it’s educational: you learn about the dinos themselves (lots of different kinds); you learn to scan for text and image; you learn letters and counting (how many spaces do you have left?); you learn the value of close attention (“Follow your BOARD, Papa!”).

It’s all fun and games until we get to the end.  The end really is the climax of the game, not just because we get to sort the world (again) into winners and losers, but because the winner gets to throw his arms in the air and shout “TERRIBLE LIZARD!”  “Dinosaur,” you see, means “terrible lizard.”

So we are happily playing in the kitchen one morning and then Malachi wins and shouts “TERRIBLE LIZARD!” and Ezra (4) has a hissy fit about how he wants to win TOO and maybe Chi is the VERY FIRST winner but he will be the FIRST winner and Chi is protesting vehemently and I am quietly resting my forehead on the table, perhaps giving it a gentle occasional thump.  I am breathing deeply.  When I have gathered my resources, I shush the boys and begin my lecture about how people don’t like to play games with other people who are always grumpy at the end, and good sportsmanship is about being happy for other people and can’t we just enjoy the GAME and PLAYING without having to worry about the issue of winning and losing?  And in the middle of my stream of thoughtful and strategic guidance, Malachi (who is two) turns to me, raises his arms, and shouts: “TERRIBLE MAMA!”

You’d think that might be the end of our day, but really it was the beginning.  I couldn’t help myself.  I guffawed.  I laughed till I cried, and the boys laughed too.  Laughing, you see, really IS more fun than winning.

On zucchini.

This is a dangerous time of year, as Donald Hall reminded us in (I think) String Too Short to be Saved.  He describes it as the time of year when you need to lock your car in the parking lot, because if you don’t, you will return to find the backseat full of zucchinis the size of baseball bats.

Indeed.

At my gym, there’s a fabulous guy who “gardens” to the tune of 65 tomato plants and an analogous number of squash, cucumbers, beans, and everything else.  He grows all this to give it away — to his kids and grandkids (he is roughly, I’m guessing, 75), to the nursing home down the road, to anyone, really, who might want it.  A few weeks ago, I came home from the gym with two zucchinis the size of otters; last week, it was just one, but bigger than my thigh.  I had to cradle it in my arms like a baby. So I join the rest of the (fortunate) human race in the quest to figure out what, in the name of all that’s sacred, to do with zucchini.  Here’s one excellent solution.

Chocolate chocolate zucchini bread.  (And I repeat chocolate both for accuracy, as it contains both cocoa powder and chocolate chips, and for emphasis, as some cultures use repetition to drive home a point.  Chocolate chocolate chocolate.)

This recipe is my own adaptation of one from movitabeaucraft.wordpress.com, and she in turn reports modifying hers from the Joy of Baking.  I offer an egg-free version here as well, because my eldest son is egg-allergic, but also because, having made both, I like the moister version (egg-free) better.  Your call.

Preheat the oven to 350 F; grease a 9x5x3 loaf pan (or muffin cups or whatever).

1 1/2 c. shredded raw zucchini, loosely packed

1 c. all-purpose flour (or sub 1/2 cup whole wheat for 1/2 c. a-p)

1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt (I may have added more)

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp allspice

1/2 c. unrefined coconut oil (they used canola, but I like this better)

3/4 cup sugar (they used a full cup; I’ve used 1/2 and liked it, so your call here)

2 large eggs (OR 1/4 c. greek yoghurt and 1 Tbsp ground flax seed mixed well in 4 Tbsp water)

1 tsp vanilla

3/4 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips (I like the tiny ones)

You can do all the fancy separate mixing and using your standing mixer and whatnot, but I’m of the mix-dries-then-wets-then-blend school, and it seems to work.

A loaf will take about 55 minutes to bake; cupcakes more like 35, but keep an eagle eye out and test as needed.  The original writers suggest turning the loaf from the pan and waiting until it’s fully cooled, but let’s be real.  It’s chocolate.  It’s smushy.  Wait, you say?

Enjoy!

On distraction.

It’s a well-known tenet of Buddhist practice that we all have monkey-mind: our thoughts leap about from place to place, seeking pleasure, worrying worry, pre-empting problems. I excel at this. Meditation, then, is about calming the monkey, sitting patiently with its antics until the time between leaps grows longer and the act of staying takes on some kind of reality. Or, perhaps, it’s just about watching the monkey jump. Silly monkey. Funny monkey. Desperate, sad, hungry monkey.

A central problem of modern life is that we don’t realize we are the monkey, and we don’t realize we have (or even might want) other choices. I get this. I’m all about meditation and being still and centered for about a third of every year, usually in fits and starts that last a month or two. And then I get so tired of being so present and so exhausted by my own inability to really be still that I seek comfort in distraction: Netflix, games, Facebook. The symptoms that I observe, that help me diagnose the problem and put me back on a path to some kind of health, look a lot like this: I now have Candy Crush Saga, Farm Heroes Saga, AND Cookie Jam on my iPad mini, and I play one until I run out of lives, at which point I switch to another. And so on. When, after an hour or two, not one game will let me keep playing without paying (and thank goodness I don’t have more disposable income or I’d be tempted), I become angry and then disconsolate. I don’t know what to do with myself. I laugh, of course, but it’s a little hollow.

I contrast this to my good times, when I feel present and centered in my life. I notice my kids and the garden and the quality and scents of the air. I feel stories and poems press in on me from all directions, and I even do an okay job at writing them down (though I persist in imagining that I will remember more than I can remember, and I feel the words slip through my fingers, spry and inky, gone for good).

So what works best, if I seek distraction but don’t really like it? Do I strive for a life composed solely of depth and meaning? Or is this the macro version of monkey-brain, the larger time-frame of noticing, so I can trust that noticing itself means that I’m on some sort of reasonable path? How do I practice sustaining the modes of living and working that feed me best, even when I also want the metaphorical french fries and disgusting fast-food burger? Let’s be clear: we all want these things from time to time. But the difference between a really good chocolate shake and a nasty-ass fribble (or whatever they’re called) is vast, and maybe the trick is to choose the really good distractions over the cheap and easy ones. Maybe the trick is like that eating-management plan some people have had to learn, where they realize they have never known what it’s like to be full, and they have to pay close attention to their sensations, stopping eating when they are sated instead of continuing on out of habit. I know what it’s like to be full. It’s glorious and magnifying and enriching and empowering. It makes all things possible, to live like that. So why choose the smaller version with the bad food and boring distractions? Sigh. Perhaps it’s too much muchness, this powerful life we have. Perhaps we still believe somehow that checking out will bring us peace. And after all, it’s very hard to stop. These are things I’ve noticed.

And these are other things I’ve noticed: yesterday, in the yard with the boys, we lay on the driveway to watch the clouds. (Okay, I did; they were all complainy about the sun in their eyes.) There were two osprey circling overhead, perhaps en route to the nearby pond. They called out their osprey calls, and Ezra called back. The clouds were mostly cirrus. Later, two hummingbirds flew invisibly fast from the hydrangea across to the apple trees.

On keeping it simple.

On days when the kids run amok and the rain pours down and everything seems to be breaking or peeling or falling apart, there’s only so much we can do to hold ourselves together. For me, that “so much” usually involves food.

I can’t bake in this humidity (well, I can, but we would all regret it), so I end up focusing a little more intently on the dinner process than usual. And that can have nice consequences.

The other day I made potato salad in the morning: my favorite kind, with new red potatoes from the farmer’s market and white wine vinegar and olive oil and pressed garlic and chopped lemon basil from the garden. I put it in the fridge with orders for no one to touch it, and come dinner time, it was astonishing: bright, intense, comforting, addictive.

To go with that, I had an unceremonious pound of ground beef from Clay Hill Farms, also acquired at our local market. I know it’s great beef, but honestly, I get a little bored with beef. I needed something Greek. Ish. So I got out the goat cheese and added maybe a third of a cup to the beef, along with a handful of chopped oregano and the ritual salt and pepper. Made some patties, fried them up, and OMG. Such good ideas. Add some fresh steamed broccoli (plain, for variety), and it’s a beautiful little meal.

I should add that we are slowly refinishing our kitchen table, which is where we always eat, so we are having most meals out in the screen tent on the deck. It’s kind of a hassle, but kind of a beautiful way to live outdoors more. Plus, we may eventually get a nice new kitchen table out of it, so there’s that.

This is where I want to wind up with something witty and reassuring about how kids grow up and it won’t be this chaotic forever, and aren’t we lucky that we get to be WITH all this astonishing youth and growth…and yes, I am lucky. And I’m also really really tired. Good food helps, but so would a long vacation. Solo. So I invite you to tell me: what are your ways of sustaining yourself, of keeping it simple? Cut flowers? Walks in the woods? Escape novels? Meditation? Bonus points for brilliant strategies I haven’t thought of. :)

On all the muchness of summer.

It’s hard to know where to start after being gone so long. From writing here, I mean. I’ve been doing some poetry and a little garden journaling, but mostly I’ve been out living so hard that I can’t seem to put proverbial pen to paper when I’m done. The checking-out impulse has been strong with me. But eventually you hit the stage I’m at now, where checking out is no longer as delicious as checking in, and this is a good thing.

So an accounting, of sorts, for me as much as for you:

1. Change is in the air. I don’t know if it’s this super moon or what, but we’ve finally given away our sixteen-year-old furniture and reshaped the living room — there’s more space and more air and less room for sitting on one’s ass, and these all seem like good changes. For now. Winter would be hard in this configuration, with only one small couch for snuggling. There’s a new rug en route from Overstock, and we seem to be living in shades of red and orange. (Full confession: the couch is purple velvet, a deep grayish plum, but it’s covered with an ivory canvas slipcover right now lest anyone find us garish…)

2. Since we brought the purple couch down from our bedroom and we wanted something else in there, we took the big blue chair and ottoman from Ezra’s room and put them in ours. It’s lovely and spacious and inviting. And best of all, we created, in the same corner of his room, a Nest. It’s an elegant affair: a folded bunk mattress on the floor surrounded by many sizes of pillows and stuffed animals, and he loves it so much he sleeps in it. It’s his favorite spot for reading and sitting quietly and rolling about in excess, and overall we’re thrilled with the whole situation.

3. Outdoors, the peas are done (those the groundhog didn’t eat): we have had enough to gorge ourselves senseless and to feel that every visit to the garden (morning, noon, or night) is an occasion for picking and eating, but we’ve had none to put by. I’m okay with that. The broccoli and cauliflower, on the other hand, were completely eaten, all 16 plants, by the groundhog, and I’m much less okay with that. But I’m breathing in and out and feeling mostly grateful that I don’t have a 22.

4. I’ve ripped out the pea vines to make room for the struggling melons, squashes, and cukes…a little composted rabbit manure from a friend, and they seem to be much happier. I’ve even discovered some beets languishing beneath the vines that now seem to want to size up, so we’ll see how that goes. And where other things were spent (bok choy, mizuna, lettuces), I’ve sown more carrots, some bush beans, and even an ambitious row of swiss chard. I heard we were getting a polar vortex and I figured why not take advantage? (For the non-gardeners among us, chard is in the goosefoot family, and many of those prefer cold weather for germination and even for actual growth — sowing chard now is bold and perhaps foolish, but for this little microburst of cold…)

5. We finally had the tree guys come and they rescued the poor chestnut in the bottom of the yard, overshadowed and leaned on by some aggressive box elders. They also cleaned out the huge red maple of water sprouts and dead growth, which was quite a project, and they took down a diseased cherry and a frankly dead spruce. I’m inappropriately excited that I thought to ask if we could keep the chips, so we now have roughly three cubic yards of wood chips in a heap on the driveway, and I am filled with possibility.

6. The only other thing of note is that we haven’t been on a date in what seems like months (and may in fact be months), and I’m figuring that’s why I felt it necessary to buy a Vitamix. Refurbished, but still. It’s outrageously expensive and it’s going to be stellar.

Basically, I’m feeling a little ADD about life — bouncing around from house to garden to boys to work to writing to friends to family to crafts to community-building. I’m not seeing much of a common thread these days except me, raveled or not. So I’m just trying to go with it. And it is rewarding: the new sightline from the kitchen into the living room is so spare and clean; the boys can play with their trains in whole new ways; the self-sown bachelor’s buttons and asclepias are feeding whole generations of bees and other pollinators; the new variety of oregano (Pizza Night) is more delicious than any previously. The plans to make slipcovers for the Nest pillows are coming along, though no actual sewing has happened; the kitchen table is half-stripped and awaiting some serious sanding in the basement. It’s all in progress, all at once, and I’m just trying to be there with it, running lightly and breathing free.

On the physics of kisses.

Okay, this post is not about what you think it’s about.

These kisses are the kind that our sons blow to us — across rooms, down the driveway, through closed windows.

They used to be content with the blowing of kisses, but about a month ago they got worried that the kisses wouldn’t reach their destination, the kissee, if you will.  Which led to a brief lecture by me explaining that they, the kissers, can only control the love they send out into the world; they cannot control how it is received.

But they can surely trust that kisses are fast and smart: they fly faster than any car and they can find their person no matter where they are. Kisses always reach their kissee when we send them out into the air.

These are some established truths at our house.

Today, however, posed some new challenges, as Len and I backed out of the driveway at the same time (me with the kids in back) and headed off in opposite directions.  The sweet boys had waited until we drove off altogether before starting to smooch their little palms, and as they took their big breaths to blow those kisses toward Papa, they realized HE WAS BEHIND THEM!  What would happen if they blew their kisses in the WRONG DIRECTION?  We revisited the physics of kisses (see above), which reassured them, and then led to this:

Ezra, after a moment of quiet reflection: “My kisses are shaped like hummingbirds.”

Mama (eyes welling up with the awesomeness of this revelation): “Wow.  That is pretty fabulous.”

Malachi: “Mine are shaped like bluebirds.  Blue and RED.”

Ezra: “Yes, because bluebirds are your favorite birds.  But not blue and red, blue and orange.”

We haven’t yet discussed whether these shapes and colors and their breathy essences always embody kisses (what a world!) or whether these particular boys have particular kisses the shape and color of small birds…but I feel sure we will.

On the unfolding of the unfolding.

PROCESS.  It’s enough to wear you right out.

All these things you want to HAVE and to BE, like gardens, and children, and happiness…and they all just stretch themselves out haphazardly through years and conversations and unfoldings, never really giving you a clear static PRESENT.  They’re always emerging and never really realized.  It’s exhausting.

Can you tell I’ve been hard at the early spring phases of gardening?  With my four-year-old?  After, oh, four years of basic garden neglect?  My soil is compacted and clayish; my nutrient levels deficient; the late spring has left two beds soggier than they should be.  My strawberries are enough to make me weep, and not in a good way: some fool (ahem) planted a sweet little feverfew in there early last year, and whadya know!  It self-sows!  Rabidly!  And then the little seedlings root deeply enough that pulling them out leaves the strawberries upside-down, root tendrils waving in desperation.

In short, it’s hard to know where to start.

But start we did, a few days ago, and did a little more today.  Wood ash and peat moss and compost and worm castings and chopped leaves and some elbow grease and the occasional back spasm…and today, thanks to my four-year-old’s intervention, some actual planting.  He has declared one of our six veggie beds “his” for the season, though he is graciously allowing me to plant some brassicas there because of my (winningly brilliant) explanation about crop rotation.  He began with radishes (four kinds spread across one short row) and moved on to carrots (only two, so far, of the rainbow of colors we intend to plant).  He was patient with my need to rescue strawberry plants rather than sow more carrots, which surprised me.  But whenever he’s outdoors with purpose and freedom, he tends to be surprisingly mature and cheerful.  Note to self, right?

So the list of what else to do stretches long, and longer since I bought a few plants at the Fedco Tree Sale last weekend.  (I was only going to pick up the potatoes I had order, and because it’s a spiritual pilgrimage for me.  I was NOT going to buy trees or shrubs.)  So now I have to open up new ground for the new raspberries; transplant an old seeded grape for a new seedless one; make space for a beautiful Arctic Blue willow and an Ellen’s Blue Buddleia; and I think there’s something else in there I’ve forgotten.  Plus, I need to move the roses that are in too much shade come late summer (and where to?  roses near the swing set just spells trouble, no?); rake and weed the asparagus bed; transplant things from the “nursery bed” (see my earlier post on THAT sore topic here).

But isn’t this just how it is?  I mean, there are gardeners I know who stay on top of it, whose soil is rich and beautiful, whose daily chores consist of the necessary work that arises in that moment.  They don’t seem chronically behind (and yes, they are retired, these legends), but nor do they look at their gardens through the lenses of deficiency.  They are asset-oriented.  This is what I strive to be, in gardening as in life.

Years ago, in a bout of depression, I used a really irritating and fabulously effective exercise to drag myself back to healthy living: you sit with a pen and paper and write down, every day, ten things that are positive.  No sweat, right?  I remember the first time I tried it.  I was staring out at the edge of the yard, where a seasonal stream separated our property from our neighbors’.  Tiger lilies were starting to sprout there, tender green shoots pushing skyward.  And yet what I saw was a reminder that the $&%*^# deer were just waiting to eat every beautiful thing around.  I was mad that I wasn’t transplanting some lilies into the fenced garden where they would be safe; I was angry that there was no way to protect them where they were in that peaceful natural setting.  It took me the longest time to circle back on myself and arrive at this: there are beautiful naturalized lilies volunteering in my yard.  I live near that.  I live in beauty.

I’m working on holding this commitment to seeing the positive, to honoring the unfolding.  It’s not that we didn’t get far enough in today’s work; it’s that we chose to rest and play rather than push on.  (And when great clouds passed with quick but soaking rains, we hid under the deck together — and what fun it was to watch the silver sheets and hear their susurrations over our heads!)  It’s not that the radishes and carrots will be uneven and disordered; it’s that my four-year-old chose to be out there with me, participating as fully as he knows how.  The work will never be DONE — at least not my work, not by me.  That’s not how I roll.  But I can make progress and I can choose when to stop.  And most importantly, I can keep working at seeing what’s beautiful and whole, even if  it’s riddled with imperfections and its beauty is fleeting and its wholeness always still unfolding.