And another thing I’m learning from the kids

I’m greatly impressed, lately, by the power of silence.  And not just the kind you think I mean, where the noise finally subsides and we can hear the ringing in our ears and take a deep breath before it all starts up again.  No, I mean the kind of silence that is intentionally made and kept as a conscious choice.  My older son, Ezra, likes to ask for silence in the car on the way home from daycare.  And tonight, as I lay next to him at bedtime and asked if he wanted a song, he said, “Not yet, Mama.”  And he lay quietly for a good long while.  I used to listen, in the silence, for the things I wasn’t hearing: the music, the conversations, the stories.  I used to plan for what would come next or imagine what might have been.  But lately I’m just trying to do what he does: to hear the world as it is and his own presence in it, without comment or contribution.  Just listening to all that comes in on the breath and noticing all that goes out with it.  The world is a full place indeed, and those places of quiet are one of my son’s many gifts.


Our home bread revolution

IMG_1245I am someone who lives in the perpetual struggle between wanting to live frugally and wanting to eat well.  There are certain non-negotiables: organic dairy products; decent wine/beer; and until recently, good bread.  There are two fabulous local bakeries that we like to support (don’t you love it when a good cause is also the best food around?), but we are also bread-hogs, and our little habit was costing us maybe $50 a month.  I’d tried baking bread off and on for the last few decades, but the best I could do was a very good (but highly specific) polenta bread and a decent sandwich loaf.  All other attempts were met with varying degrees of disappointment and rage.  By me, I hasten to add.  Len loves whatever I cook and is uniformly supportive (which I don’t understand but revel in).

So imagine my skepticism when I read about these “no-knead” bread strategies that cost less than a buck a loaf.  But imagine my experimental enthusiasm as well!  A few weeks ago, I tried it.  This is the recipe that, I believe, started with Mark Bittman’s thing on no-knead bread, but I found it here at the Italian Dish Blog.  It seems like an awful lot of flour (and I changed it some, as detailed below), but then, it makes three loaves of bread!  And the most incredible thing is that it is really really easy AND really really delicious.  Raise your skeptical eyebrows all you want, people.  Try it and see.

So several times a week, now, our house is filled with the glorious aroma of baking bread; our lives are enriched by those first warm slices slathered in melting butter; our ordinary toast — with jam, with melted cheddar, with slices of creamy avocado — is now a thing of transcendent beauty.  Once a week I mix a new batch and let it sit.  Honestly, the worst thing about this whole undertaking is that the bowl I use takes up too much room in the fridge.  Poor poor me.

So here’s the recipe:

  • 3 cups warm water
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons (or 4 1/2 teaspoons or 2 packets) granulated fast-acting yeast
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons (ditto) coarse salt
  • 3 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour

You mix the yeast and salt into the warm water — I use a fork to make sure it’s all dissolved.

Mix the flours together and then add them to the yeasty water all at once.  Mix until moist.

Cover and allow to rise (not airtight) for about two hours — longer is fine.  We understand the vagaries of life, and so does this dough.  (And in case you feel like there’s some professional fancy dough-covering device needed — nah.  I use a recycled plastic grocery bag with the handles tied in front.  Sue me.)

Refrigerate at least 3 hours (this dough is really sticky and wet, and refrigeration makes it easier to handle).  I leave the bowl in the fridge for up to a week, taking off what I need as I go.  Though you will be tempted to rest other foodstuffs on TOP of the dough bowl, it’s probably not a great idea.

To bake: put a sheet of parchment paper on a lipless cookie sheet or pizza peel.  When it curls up repeatedly, curse under your breath and place the parchment paper box lengthwise across it to hold it down while you prepare the dough.

Cut off, with a serrated knife, about a third of the dough.  If it’s sticking to your hands, you can dust them with flour, but I rarely need to do that, and it’s much faster if you don’t have to get things OUT for this.  Shape the dough into a sausagey-french-loaf-kind-of-shape as quickly as you can, pulling the top under to the bottom and hanging it to lengthen it .  The surface should be taut and smooth.  This should all take maybe 30 seconds.  Set dough on parchment paper-covered cookie sheet.  Let rise 30-40 minutes (and don’t worry if it doesn’t do much.  Mine rarely does).

20 minutes before baking, put a pizza stone in the center rack of the oven and a shallowish pan on a lower rack (I find it best if the pan is not directly beneath the stone).  Preheat your oven to 450.

Immediately before baking, slash the top of the bread three times with a sharp knife.  Slide the dough, paper and all, onto the hot pizza stone.  Then quickly pour one cup of water into the pan and close the oven door.  Bake 30 minutes, turning the paper once if your oven is crappy and uneven like mine.

When bread is almost finished, use a clean towel to lift the loaf briefly, peel off the paper, and return the bread to the stone (ideally to a new, hotter spot on said stone).  Crisp for five more minutes to brown the bottom crust.

Enjoy your absolute wizardry; brag to all your friends.  Regret it when they demand taste-tests.  A few days (or hours) later, when your loaf is gone, just grab more dough from the bowl and fire it all up again.

A last note: when you go to make a new batch, you don’t have to wash out the bowl.  According to the authors at The Italian Dish Blog, the leftover yeasty doughy goodness just adds to the flavor.  And indeed it does, my friends.  Indeed it does.  Divine.

If all this sounds a little much, rest assured that it’s quicker than reading these instructions.  It’s quicker than BUYING bread.  It’s a simple habit to develop and you’ll be glad you did. (Heavens, you’d think I was investing in your bread success.  I don’t know how to do that.)  Anyway, enjoy.

On gardening and sharing the love

This is a quick little post because I’m prepping to teach a organic-vegetable-gardening workshop this morning, and I’m excited and wanted to share.

What fun!  Gardening!  Friends!  Love it!

I’ve put together an array of resources, most of which are electronic, and I’m presenting them on my Pinterest board “Garden workshop” if you’re a Pinner.  If not, I’ll post them on my “growing” page here soon.  But the best and coolest one is from MOFGA, and is available here.

If you’re new to gardening, or just want a handy reference in one place, this is it!  Love it.  Love the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.  Love the gardening.  Love the love.

On being too many things

If any of you share my somewhat shame-faced but whole-hearted love of the cheesy dance movie “Center Stage,” you’ll recognize this brilliant line: “Girl, you are too many things!”

It comes when the gorgeous and talented but attitudinally-impaired Yva Rodriguez has just danced her stunning surprise lead role in the academy director’s major new piece, and her performance shocks everyone not just because she was a substitute: she was flawless.  She was inspired.  She brought individuals to tears and the house to its feet.  Most importantly, she realizes for the first time that she truly does LOVE this work, this life, and that her own sense of self-importance and defensiveness really take a back seat to her passion and joy in the work. Her best friend, Eric O. Jones (“O as in Oprah — she’s my idol”), offers her that unforgettable line, perfect in its capacity to honor all the many facets of herself.  It’s not “Oh, yay, you did a great a job,” or “What a terrific career opportunity” or even “congratulations on overcoming your obvious fears of success.”  It’s “you are too many things!”  You are all that and more: scared and courageous, brilliant and flawed, vulnerable and hostile and beautiful.  That’s the kind of encouragement we all need.

We had some reminders in our house recently of the risks of underestimating ourselves, of curling up in our shells because we’re tired and sore.  We’ve also had some reminders of how crucial it is to do just that kind of retreat.  The challenge, I guess, is knowing when or in which fields it’s okay to hide out, and when to more forward, trusting the path to open up ahead of us with fewer brambles than before.  Part of the challenge, too, is knowing how to ask for guidance, who to ask and with what kinds of framing.  Do we seek to be better at what we do, or to help out more where we are, or do we try to challenge and nurture our core selves, whatever that might look like?  Does the latter always advance the former?


Image by Leonard Bartel of LE Bartel PhotoArts. Check out his other brilliant work online at

This stuff seems purely academic in a certain way, except that when you pile it all up, it takes on form and begins to loom.  It casts dark shadows.  Like this.

When the exhaustion and the irritation and the career concerns and the money worries and the new-computer-buyer’s-remorse are all heaped together, they start to look a little like that guy.  So I’m glad that I get to actually SEE him, to remember that he’s a children’s toy, that we can pick him up and move him around, that his long shadow is just a result of where we’ve put him in relationship to the sun.  It helps.

It also helps, I find, to revert to the present mode again.  To realize that even if it’s not the time to haul out every tinkertoy in the known world right before bath, it MAY be time to put the baby down first and then spend extra long with the Dr. Seuss-a-thon the three-year-old wants.  It MAY be time to hold said three-year-old extra close for longer than usual, because he is your child and he makes you whole and this is why we are alive.  We are indeed too many things, all at once, and we’re no good at living in that kind of story.  We want the drama of a particular narrative and the resolution of conclusions; we want plots that unfold with tidy themes.  There’s rarely enough room for the outrageous glory of the everyday while fatigue hums along our bones like wires.  We cannot contain in language, or even sometimes in our hearts, the enormous bog-wallow that is our lives, everything steeped in everything else, our fears and ambitions and concerns and hopes.  The closest we can come, I guess, is to accept the bigness and the touchingness and the inextricability — and to keep showing up, right here, right now, to see what’s rising to the surface.

Excuses, excuses

I’ve been reading a range of books on how to live better, manage tasks better, be kinder, explore more — you know, LIVE.  I’m always fascinated by how many of them articulate the same kinds of common sense we’ve been hearing for years, yet make it sound fresh and important and attractive.  Which is vital if you’re someone like me, who has a great deal of common sense and yet a whole host of excuses for being stuck in a rut.  It’s MY rut.  It’s not uncomfortable.  I’ve made it sort of homey, papered it with possibilities and laid out a few nice cushions on the floor.  And I spend a lot of time there.

But these writers say we should explore!  We should take risks!  And be uncomfortable!  And the bummer is, they’re right.  Sometimes the discomfort is as small as giving up the precious quiet cup-of-coffee minutes of a baby’s nap to write a blog post; sometimes it’s as huge as cold-calling for consulting gigs.  Sometimes it’s in between, like meeting the new neighbors and trying to decide what if anything to make them for a welcome dinner.  I guess I’m more of an introvert than I thought.

The most important tool, I find, for staying stuck in my rut is the excuse.  I rarely even have to offer them to others — I use them on myself.  I’m truly gifted at rationalization.  But there’s a point when our knowledge of ourselves makes even the best excuses evident: when we wake up in the morning with back pain because we keep skipping our exercises, well, then, there’s really no excuse for skipping the exercises.  No matter what I tell me.  If we want a particular kind of job, then all our brilliant excuses for postponing the search are going to be, well, stupid and self-defeating.  And I don’t know about you, but I dislike feeling stupid and defeating myself (though again, I am excellent at both: this is one area where you really don’t want to run with your strengths).

How, then, do we get past all this?  I’m on the fence about that.  Surprise.  I am really liking Scott Belsky’s “Making Ideas Happen” and its Action Method; I also really like the gentler, more spiritual approaches of Patti Digh.  I am drawn to the clarity and categorization of Strengthsfinder, but I believe in the broader, more mindful approach of, say, Parker Palmer.  As much as I appreciate what she’s doing, Gretchen Rubin’s “Happiness Project” makes me a little itchy — perhaps I am just allergic to the tone of direct achievement and 20/20 hindsight when I feel myself groping around in the dark.  And Seth Godin is always appealing, but usually more as a shot in the arm, maybe-I’ll-take-up-mountain-biking-while-I’m-churning-out-utterly-brilliant-novels kind of way.  Mostly, I think, what I need is a Natalie Goldberg-esque kind of practice, a daily writing-cum-meditation that helps me see what’s in play and sit quietly in its presence.

What I DON’T need is a computer that has stopped connecting to the internet anyway anyhow…but that’s what I have.  Now I have to see if I can fix it, or see if I can find someone who can, for cheap, or buy a new one.  All advice welcome.  (And yes, that’s my excuse for late posting.  I’ll get back to it, I promise.)


On the flurries

It has been snowing lightly off and on for weeks.  Months, I believe. Forever, in fact.  Which is enough to drive anyone a little crazy, especially toward the tail end of a long Maine winter.  But another kind of flurry is complicating things too: a work-flurry.

I’m someone who has always sought and valued routine, even though I’m a little bored by it.  My preferred mode of living is comfortable routine with fun variations and surprises.  So why, you might ask, am I pursuing this life of writing and teaching and consulting?  I guess because the pull and excitement of those fields, coupled with the attraction of time with kids, just seem more magnetic right now than the security that used to be so vital.  Last week I felt comfortable with that.  This week, with all of the following things happening, it seems a little nutty:

  1. two offers to teach courses at area colleges over the summer;
  2. one possible collaborative book project to develop and write;
  3. one academic book chapter awaiting final comments from the editors;
  4. one article to write for the very cool L/A Magazine;
  5. one fabulous blog to develop and maintain;
  6. one other blog I’ve been itching to start;
  7. one gardening workshop to host for local folks;
  8. one GARDEN to plan and plant (seed-starting only at this stage, but still);
  9. one board committee meeting to chair; one larger board meeting to attend;
  10. one book discussion session to facilitate in a monthly meeting at our public library;
  11. one book discussion series to plan for the fall for the library/Maine Humanities Council;
  12. the usual array of doctor’s appointments and work-related travel and family life to manage.

And this Sunday is the changeover to daylight savings time.  Which is nice, because it will mean that the baby gets up at 3:30 instead of 4:30 am.  So we’ve got that going for us.

Seriously, why do we do what we do, especially when it’s volunteer or really low-paid?  For me: I’m itching to make these things work.  I’m in the relationship-building phase of a number of initiatives and it all seems worth it right now.  What are the things that pull you in many directions?  How do you manage their competing priorities?  And how do you stay sane during it?  It’s like the snow at this time of year, isn’t it: you never quite know what those clouds will produce, and you surely don’t know if it’ll stick.  But you know that seasons are changing and you know you can’t stop time, so at some point you just hold out your hands and try to  be grateful for what lands.

It’s Sunday morning, people

And at our house that means we have room for some of these:

  • Baking some bread (again, from The Italian Dish’s recipe);
  • Watching the smallest among us explore his space and his (distressingly loud) new lion roar;
  • Making smoothies (yoghurt, banana, frozen raspberries and peaches, oj) and trying them out on the baby-who-might-we-hope-to-god-be-outgrowing-his-dairy-intolerance;
  • Carefully assisting the drinking of said smoothies and cleaning up as we go;
  • Appreciating Ezra’s careful pronunciation of “tusks” and “scientists,” complete with his gloat that he can, in fact, pronounce difficult words like “tusks” and “scientists”;
  • Discussing (with Len, lest you mistake my childrens’ early interests) austerity  and Warren Buffett’s idea about managing the federal debt and generally airing our concerns about the future of our economy;
  • Contemplating what if any further seed-starting should happen today, now that we’ve got the tomatoes, parsley, dahlias, zinnias, and marigolds underway;
  • Revising my new work-management plan, which is basically a chart with the five categories of “work”-type stuff as columns and a range of different projects or tasks below — my strategy is to use this to keep the responsibilities before me, and to commit to checking off at least ONE of the things in each column weekly.  I’m curious, in this first week, to see where the check-marks naturally fall.  If you’re interested, I can post the chart;
  • Planning a new blog post on getting things done, based on a little facebook research I did recently…I figure if there are strategies that are shared by freelance techies; writers with full-time day jobs; perpetually curious students; professors with serious media addictions; and moms with multiple jobs, both paid and creative — well, then, perhaps they are useful strategies.  Worth a shot.
  • Wondering if it is going to snow about an inch every day for the next two months like it has for the last week or so.  I am weary of the overcast.

What are you up to today?

Parasaurolophus attack.

Parasaurolophus attack.

Uh, oh, I have to go.  I’m under assault by a parasaurolophus.  Right here on my desk.  It roars.