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.

On school choice.

This has been a rough month for a range of reasons, but one of them is that we’ve been struggling to decide what to do with Ezra in terms of Pre-K next year.

The scene: our little guy is smart; academically motivated; significantly beyond age-typical intellectual development; emotionally/socially about normal; very sensitive to others’ interest and approval/disapproval; EAGER to get to school.  We live in the highest-performing elementary district in our city.  I am a HUGE fan of community-based public education.  Our school has one pre-K teacher.  I have visited the class; talked with her; talked with various friends who have had kids in her class.  There’s also, 25 minutes away, a charter school rooted in Reggio-Emilia, with an emphasis on arts and sciences, and Ezra got in through the lottery.

The dilemma: our guy will be (is) a total nightmare if he gets bored.  Our local pre-K seems guaranteed to bore him (and the teacher expresses no curiosity about him nor any interest in the question of how to help kids not get bored).  Transportation to/from the charter school will be a huge hassle.  But in all seriousness, when I think about the predictable outcomes (not fear-based, but logical foreseeable conclusions) of his participation in the local school, I imagine a high likelihood of difficult behavior and (to add the fear-based pieces which are also reasonable in our culture) possible diagnoses and medication.  When you take a smart, active kid and you bore him and teach him that you don’t care about his particular needs, it is reasonable to assume that he will go haywire (and we know he can do this beautifully).

The nutshell: we have, we feel, no real choice in the matter, given the realities of our particular situation.  But that is true of many people we’ve talked to (and not true of many; I’ve been appalled to hear blanket statements like “I hate public school!” from people who don’t even know what district their kid is in).  I feel one of my jobs in life is to try and rescue public education, and I thought I’d be doing that in part as an engaged parent in the local system.  Yes, the charter is public, but I don’t even BELIEVE in charter schools, except in extreme cases.  And I don’t think we’re that extreme.  But maybe we are — maybe the “we” isn’t my family but the system as a whole.  If we have arrived at a place where our teachers are, by inclination or by rule, more interested in managing a whole class for non-disruption than in sustaining a love for learning EVEN AT THE PRE-K LEVEL, then how can we expect to participate long enough to make change?  The risk is too great: it’s not about academic “success” even; it’s about the whole life and worldview and sanity of a child.

Can you tell how uncomfortable I am with this situation?  How deep my grief is for the community I thought we would enter through participation in our local Pre-K?  How sad I am for the system I’ve seen fading for years, as more and more of my brightest, most motivated college students who WANTED MORE THAN ANYTHING TO BE TEACHERS stepped away from those dreams because they couldn’t afford to pay off their loans on a teacher’s salary, they couldn’t imagine sacrificing their ideals to the extent they knew they had to, they couldn’t condone following standards that were about a strange societal commitment to “academic” performance rather than a genuine commitment to the healthy development (and academic learning!) of whole children?  I LOVE public education.  I want to be part of it.  I want my children to revel in it.  But until they are old enough to sort out which are the sucky parts of the game you play because you have to, and which are the nourishing, life-giving aspects that we can find in the middle of the rest — well, until then, I guess they go the charter route.  And we count ourselves lucky.

I welcome thoughtful comments and perspectives, as ever!

On preparing for spring. Hahahahaha.

They say it’s spring now.  I say: we have double-digit negatives most nights this week.  They say spring is coming.  I say: we have to get through mud season first, and we’re a far cry from the kind of thaw that entails.  Basically, I’m a cynic.  It’s seasonal.  It’s Maine. It’s Vitamin D deficiency.  Whatever.

I did, however, replace a broken shop-light today so that I can start my third and fourth flats of seeds in the basement.  My onions, leeks, brussels sprouts, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers are all going strong.  (Trying cinnamon sprinkled on the soil surface this year to fight the damping-off I’ve struggled with the past two years…Have you tried that?  Is it a myth?)  I’m fired up about the parsley, the new lavender, the zinnias, the basil.  So, in essence, I’m ready for the theoretical reality of spring’s approach, but in my heart of hearts, I believe we’re stuck in sleet-land forever.

It’s this way on all fronts sometimes: you have a nice morning with one son, and that afternoon the second one pukes all over.  You book a fun new consulting gig only to learn that issues of responsiveness might be a drag.  You foolishly sign up to run a training session for a board you serve on, then find someone awesome to run it for you, and then find your leadership partners are reluctant to bring in someone else, which was the whole idea in the first place.  GET WITH THE PROGRAM, WORLD.  Enough puking and dragging-of-feet.  Let’s make some plans and get ‘em done.

So I’ve got my graph paper out for the garden, and all my gorgeous books on potager designs; I’ve got a new necklace and a new lipstick for when the consulting gets its act together; I’m getting VERY CLEAR with my board partners about the limits of my available time for volunteer program design and delivery.  It might still be winter, or even mud season, in the spirit of the world, but I’m heading for the bright lights of summer.  Are you with me?

On differences of perspective.

We all approach the world in different ways; heck, we occupy different worlds, for the most part.  Even those of us who live together, who adore each other, and who share, in many ways, similar attitudes and beliefs.  Often, those differences are a real problem, and sometimes they’re just plain funny.

My husband is a very relaxed guy.  I am not.  I have always liked order.  He doesn’t care that much.  I’m sure this is about differences of upbringing: his was secure and loving, so he didn’t feel much need to control his environment.  I, on the other hand, did.  Anyway, we’ve struggled with this range of issues for the nearly twenty years we’ve been together, and usually with good humor.  Which is where this example comes in:

We recently bought a new fridge/freezer when our old one broke.  We got a pretty budget model which we thought would do fine.  Until we tried to load the freezer at home and realized that its single shelf is fixed in place six inches from the bottom and twelve from the top (never mind that it bows in the middle under ordinary weight).  I tried, for a few weeks, to live with the necessary chaos of frozen fruits and veg that results from this total lack of structure, and then I lost it.  The seventh time I tried to remove a single bag of peas and ended up working with both hands and my whole torso to staunch the flow of frozen food tumbling forth from the maw of this hideous beast, I hollered.  Len ambled in, helped put everything away again, and then stepped back as I started to, er, explain that we were going to buy BINS, TODAY, because we were going to create a SYSTEM, because WHO LIVES LIKE THIS?  I may have been emphatic, even vehement.  Len, bold man that he is, grinned at me and said, as he patted the freezer gently:

“We already have a system!  Frozen stuff goes in here.”

(Yes, we bought the bins.  No, I still can’t stop laughing.)