On meetings.

I used to have a lot of meetings in my life.  From, say, 8 am to 5 pm most days.  In fact, we were so busy meeting that we never had any time to do the actual work we were meeting about.  Which, some might argue, is an issue.

I’ve also been part of a culture where folks not only don’t like to meet (in “meetings), but they are really conscious of meeting practices.  Best example comes from my old camp counselor days, when we were all so tired by Sunday night staff meetings that we wanted maximum efficiency…and worked well to get it.  My favorite group practice was the subtle (and not) mimicking of holding a huge steering wheel — when someone got going on a rant, we always described it as “driving a big bus,” and we would demonstrate.  It was astonishingly useful and not too painful to experience as the driver, which is perhaps why it was so effective.  It called your attention without really calling you out.

I’ve been at meetings with agendas, meetings without; meetings with strong leadership and meetings with none.  I’ve met with presidents and provosts and with middle-schoolers and with everyone else you can imagine.  And still, the best meeting I’ve had yet happened today, on the second floor of my house, called and managed by my three-year old.

He requested a meeting formally: “Mama, Chi, let’s have a meeting, okay?”

He pointed out his need for a “hammer” (a gavel) but accepted my alternative offering (a full tube of A&D ointment).  He pointed us to seats around his foot-high table but graciously permitted me to sit in a chair I would not break.

He declared a clear purpose: “This is a muffin meeting.”  And he ran it with clarity and vigor: “Mama, what kind of muffin do you want to make?”  Pumpkin.  “Malachi, what kind of muffin do you want?”  Pumpkin.  He then asked the same thing of himself and of four or five participating stuffed animals; he had the grace to be amused when the rabbit answered “carrot” to everything.  His own preference was zucchini-banana, and although his was the only voice for it, he declared it the winner.  (In equal and opposite reaction, I later went downstairs and made pumpkin muffins.  There was no rebuke.)

After the muffin meeting there was a cake meeting (“carrot,” said the rabbit), and a soup meeting.  There was a bizarre and abbreviated “lamb” meeting (at which we were surprised to learn that Elmo, at least the one who lives with us, declared himself a vegetarian) before we turned our attention to the birds at the feeder and adjourned by default.

It was short; it was sweet; it was participatory.  No decisions were made, except by the leader in the moment and by me later, but I suppose that’s all pretty typical.  I wonder if most meetings wouldn’t be a little bit improved by two parties under three years of age?

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On putting things to bed.

The rain is falling outside for the first time in weeks; it’s a sound I love.  It’s also surprisingly cold, and the leaves are suddenly coming down faster, and it makes me realize that this weekend, or maybe next is peak leaf weekend.  And then we’re heading downhill fast toward the dead of winter.

I try not to think this way, most of the time.  I try to stay more centered in where I am and what is beautiful there.  And so I’m supporting those habits by spending a lot more time appreciating the rituals of fall, especially since this is the first year in a while I’ve had that luxury.  (Babies do not permit a great deal of house-and-garden time, at least not mine.)  So here’s what that looks like:

1. Mums on the steps, orange, white, and maroon.  A daily reminder of what’s lovely and right, even when we’re barreling past them with arms full of squealing, squirming kids en route to or from some hideous ordeal like the grocery store.

2. PUMPKINS on the steps.  This is totally new to me, since I’m one of those freak shows who sees the pumpkin primarily as a foodstuff rather than an item of decor.  But today at the farmers’ market, as I’m asking Ezra if we should buy one pumpkin “to look at and then to eat,” our farmer Trent Emery (of Emery Farms; love them a lot) points out that he has sacks of ten pumpkins for ten bucks.  Sugar pumpkins.  In great shape.  Decorate and then devour.  That’s right.  Who am I to say no to a sack of pumpkins?

3. Leaves actually getting raked.  Since it’s been so dry, they’ve been incredibly easy to manage, and it’s become my little twenty-minute workout to whisk them into the driveway and then on down the slope to our Massive Epic Leaf Pile at the bottom.  The kids are doing a banner job of breaking them down into the leaf-crumbs that I like to put all through my garden beds, so this is a win-win-win.

4. Finally doing some serious weeding of the garden and, eventually, harvesting the last of things.  But if the weather is mild, we can harvest kale without protection through early December.  Putting the garden to bed isn’t quite as finite and rhythmic a process as one might imagine.

5. Mulching the perennial beds.  Poor things, they straggle through the summer without the moisture they need because I’m cheap and water-conscious (okay, and lazy), and then fall comes and they get an inch of mulch and suddenly revive.  Makes me realize what lovely gardens I’d have if I, you know, tended them.

All this settling in, tending to, quieting down has made me think more about the kids’ bedtimes, and ours, too.  After all, we’re organisms in need of rest as well.  I’ve tended to focus on the obvious: the stories, the sips of water, the schedules and routines.  But I find the outside gives me new perspective on the insides, too.  My understanding of the value of blankets shifts after watching the plants respond to the mulch: it’s not just about keeping out the cold, but about snuggling, protection, nests.  My imagination of my children’s needs shifts after thinking through the garden soil and its many forms of symbiosis: no organism stands alone, and sometimes we want company and stories together, and sometimes we just need the nurture of one primary caregiver.  Sometimes we need water, sometimes mama milk, sometimes a snuggle-animal, sometimes light, sometimes dark.  We probably meet the needs anyway, since that’s pretty much our job, but there’s a difference between scattering fertilizer and layering compost.  There’s a difference between rushing through a story and giving the characters their full voices.  I save the singing for the crib-time, after the nursing, just as I save the compost for the spring, just as I rarely water.  But why?  My garden survives on this rhythm, but it could do better.  Listening and watching and smelling and being THERE can help us understand the whole range of organic needs that our people and plants profess, including the need to thrive, to blossom, to yield fruit, to be the whole and stunning miracles they can be.

On simplicity and plenty.

My idea of bliss is spacious: open fields, airy rooms, bright spaces.  I’ve always thought it was an aesthetic thing, but as I’m reading (again, in parts) Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting, I realize that’s it’s more than that.  As usual, aesthetics are also ethics, and I believe in a lifestyle that is simple, natural, deep, and direct.

Yesterday was our fifteenth wedding anniversary, and while we had a lovely night out, the day itself was hard.  I’d been looking forward to it, because I had both boys and a playdate in the morning AND a visit from another friend in the afternoon.  But the boys were more or less intractable.  We spent much of the morning in a tussle to get TO our friends’ house and the rest of it in a tussle to get back home.  I’ve never seen so much crying.  It occurs to me, of course, that what they want is simple downtime — to rummage through their toys, invent new games, lie on the floor under the table, eat an oversized apple in a particularly messy and inefficient way.

Payne’s book makes the case that such downtime is not only valuable for kids; it’s necessary.  For them and for us.  Our lives are too complicated, too fast, too crowded, too loud, and the net result is that we don’t have much space to permit our feelings, our processing, our development, our SELVES, to show up.  We feel sad about something so we put on a movie.  We have a window of time between meetings so we hit Pinterest.  Even the guilty pleasures we adore sometimes drop away from our lives, squeezed out by a sense that we don’t deserve such luxury and that anyway, we don’t have time.  Reading is like that for me.  But it’s astonishing how time stretches out when we let it.  I check the clock after fifteen minutes of reading because I’m sure it’s been an hour already.  Singing does that.  Gardening does that.  Lying on the floor with our kids does that.

Time with our kids, and SPACE with our kids, is like that.  We filled up Ezra’s walls with pictures of animals because he loves them, but before long he seems not to care about them anymore, and the room just looks smaller, cluttered, with less room for air and light.  The single bird-feeder, mounted outside his window, does far more for entertainment, learning, and connection to the animal world than the twenty pictures all over the walls.  And yet, when I try to reduce the book collection, as Payne recommends, I hit a wall.  There are a few things I don’t love, but mostly his two-shelf collection is carefully chosen and thoroughly wonderful.  How to get it down to twelve books, and why?  Perhaps a commitment to rotation more often would soothe my concerns here…or perhaps we try to winnow in other places.

Because I do think there’s a place where abundance still does mean abundance.  A collection of fabrics that I love makes me feel rich, as does a well-chosen shelf of books.  A stack of good magazines, arranged in a lovely basket, ditto.  A coffee table obscured by heaps of books and magazines, however, makes me crazy.  So the line between simplicity and plenty is a moving target for me, highly conditional, field-specific, and storage-dependent.  I revile the notion of storing lots of stuff — why?  WHY? — but I honor the desire to keep what really matters.

I come back, over and over again in my life, to the Craftsman principle articulated by William Morris: “Let there be nothing in your home you do not know to be useful or find to be beautiful.”  With kids, I grant you, that’s a bit of a stretch, but then we’re not shooting for ideal.  We’re just looking to feel at home in our lives.  So we keep tacking back and forth, then, clearing out and making way, hoping the new air and light will help us make best use and beauty of all the chosen objects of our lives.

On eating well.

Sometimes I go through fits of intense fascination with food.  It’s grounding and uplifting at the same time; fun to make and fun to eat; beautiful to be both a producer and a consumer of so much goodness.  Since I was boasting on Facebook about yesterday’s food-frenzy, I was asked for recipes; they are below.  More to follow, eventually.  Oh, we also made applesauce: core and chop Macintosh or Cortland apples; heap into slow cooker.  Add one or more chopped pears for fab flavor; 1/2 cup water for texture; 1 tsp cinnamon for attitude.  Cook on high for an hour or so; stir periodically until it reaches the texture you want.  Puree if you feel like it.  Freezes well!

Leek and Pumpkin Soup:

Roast one smallish pumpkin or other winter squash  (I cut mine in half, scoop out pulp, and roast them face-down in a pan with an inch of water until the outside is brownish and it smushes under pressure — maybe 40 minutes at 400F).  Chop and wash three medium leeks (yes, I do it in that order, so I can really get all the grit out from between the layers).  Sautee them in a Tbsp or so of butter until they are soft, adding a half-tsp of thyme and another of salt somewhere along the way.  Deglaze the pan with about a half-cup of dry white wine, keeping the leeks in there for the process.  Inhale deeply over the pot.  Add homemade chicken stock (maybe 6-8 cups?).  Add mashed insides of squash.  Simmer together for ten minutes or so, then puree if you so choose or keep it chunky.  Your call.  Enjoy.

Ricotta Cornbread:

This is an eggless variation of my old standby cornbread recipe.  It’s the sweet, moist kind.

Butter an 8×8 pan; preheat oven to 400.  Mix dries and wets separately and then combine.  Pour into pan; bake for 20-25 minutes until done.

3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup white whole-wheat flour

1/4 cup sugar

2.5 tsp baking powder (more doesn’t hurt)

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/3 cup ricotta cheese

1 tsp vanilla

 

On festivity and resistance.

In times of absurdity and ongoing crisis, it seems hard, if not wrong, to feel festive.  At least, that’s one way that I struggle with the state of the world.  And yet, as my friends who are artists and theologians keep telling me (indeed, as the world itself seems to shout), we have to celebrate anyway.  We have to celebrate what we DO have, the people and places and purposes that fill us up, make us laugh, demonstrate glory and beauty and grace.

October is a tough month for me in this regard.  We have our anniversary, a bunch of family and friend birthdays including my own, and the whole greatness of fall itself.  And yet I always feel like, with winter coming and work to find and projects to take care of before the snow flies, we don’t have TIME for joy.  But then a little voice, lounging in a comfortable chair in the back of my head, tosses a chocolate in its mouth and says, “why not?  What the heck else should we do?  Pout?”

Which makes perfect sense.  The scraping and sanding and caulking and priming and painting might as well happen from a place of gladness, right?  Why not sing while we’re up there?  Why not marvel at these astonishing blackberry canes that gave us four years of fruit before succumbing to some fungal infection?  Of course it’s a pain to pull them out, but how grateful I am to have this little patch of earth in which to grow things.

I realized yesterday that I have a tendency to treat the flowers in my yard like rare objects, hesitating to pick them and bring them in.  Ezra has been helping me with this issue just by assuming that anything out there that’s gorgeous should come in, and that he should both carry it in and arrange it in its vase.  But even then: I pick small vases and make small arrangements, several even, instead of one big one.  Why is that?  It seems like a logic of scarcity, and that just isn’t where I want to be these days.  Abundance is.

Resistance is out.  Festivity is in.

That means maybe taking on a version of “Clay Days”: a friend whose nickname is “Clay” celebrates his birthday over a two-week period around the day itself.  There are many parties and picnics and walks and bloody-mary-brunches and general good times.  I want that.  Maybe it means letting myself do, for a change, exactly what I want when I want.  (Knowing me, this will not in fact lead to the chaos it might for others; it will more likely lead to more things getting done, perhaps with less advance planning.) Maybe it means making beauty for the sake of beauty.  Examples: this morning before I took the boys to school I did two things that will cheer me up all day. First, I combined the flowers from several tiny vases into one larger arrangement of purple and green and orange, and I periodically pass by it and just stop and gaze. I’m soaking up its presence.  The other one was making grape sorbet.  I KNOW!!  Grape sorbet.  We have these concord-type grapes growing over our pergola, and last year I tried to make jam and it didn’t gel.  But I froze it in jars, calling it “compote,” and yesterday I thawed one out and this morning put it in the ice-cream maker.  Beautiful beautiful beautiful.  We were all wildly impressed with ourselves.

So I say this: if we can’t play with flowers and make sorbet before school, what good is this life?  If we can’t paint a bench a crazy color, or sip wine with crafting friends, then what do we think we’re doing?  The serious stuff has a place, and I also need to remember that living in beauty, committing to abundance, is important stuff too.  Bring on the festivity.

Things that shut down.

Happy October!  The federal government is shut down.  Or, at least, much of it.  I hear that the military is exempt; I hear that gas and oil drilling operations are exempt, and some other stuff.  I can’t imagine the calculus of deciding what our nation needs to keep moving forward, except for this: we need a government.  We need one that works.  One that is willing to honor existing laws — which, despite popular confusion, includes the Affordable Health Care Act. We need to live in a place where people are willing to have hard conversations and imagine that the folks on the other side are genuinely interested in finding solutions, in understanding different others, in forging a common welfare that sustains us all.  Who are those people?  Why are they not in government?

There are a range of obvious problems: the press eating away at anyone in public life; the unthinkably large price tags of even running for office; the broken two-party system that forces a polarization of views and a false unification of important difference.  We need, frankly, common threats to make us unite behind something.  If the Tea Party were a separate political party (and please!  When will those radical independents get the nerve to cut the apron strings?  Get off the teat!), imagine the fascinating realignments in Congress.  Heck, we might even have an actual conversation about something instead of partisan bickering.

But more than all these obvious problems are the subtler ones: our failure, as a society, to understand how knowledge works, and rhetoric, and logic itself.  We don’t know how to HAVE conversations, or even civil arguments.  We don’t ask good questions or seek to learn what we don’t know.  It’s like our fear of loss, of pain, of discomfort have left us so overwhelmingly anxious that all we can do is cling to our little bit of the world, thumbs in our mouths, rocking.

Our minds shut down — liberals as well as conservatives (whatever those terms even mean any more).  Our hearts shut down — we become unable to imagine the world from the standpoint of a hungry child, even if that child is one of our constituents.  We lose the capacity to even conceive of a greater good where my joy is bound up in your joy, where I genuinely cannot feel happy or whole unless I know that my neighbors, too, are taken care of, at least in basic ways.  A dog-eat-dog world is scary, my friends, and I don’t see the moral virtue in pretending that since you’re a big dog, the system works.  I suppose it does if you’re a dog.  But then please, stop pretending you’re a human.

As I write this, the LifeFlight helicopter passes over my house on its way to the hospital with some urgently ill patient.  I just came from a warm get-together of new friends and their family where, among other things, I learned that they lost a daughter, a sister, in a car accident as a child.  These griefs are real and immediate and timeless and tangible.  They work to shut us down, but they can’t — because we have lives to live.  Other children to raise, other patients to transport, other honorable and important work before us.  Shutting down is not an option.  It’s a child’s choice, or an addict’s, to withdraw from the problem until the problem goes away.

This position is even harder to sustain when you yourself may, in fact, represent the problem.

I want to write the word “leadership” and the word “integrity.”  I want to write “hope” and “transparency” and “faith” and “systems change.”  I want to map out the solutions, not just to this impasse (I can’t even call it that.  This is a tantrum) but to our whole broken society.  But that’s my own form of shutting down: imposing my vision instead of someone else’s.  So maybe we can ask, instead, how we can come to understand one another better, how we can try to respect a system that seems so dysfunctional, how we can begin to imagine solutions other than our own.  Maybe that’s a kind of exercise we need.  (The answer, of course, likes in books and careful, mediated dialogue…or so sayeth the lit-teacher/organizer.  Surprise.  And yes, please let me know if you’d like details on how to do this.  I consult, did I mention?)