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 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.)

On the making of goodness.

It sounds rather grandiose, now that I write it down, but I’ve been trying lately to imagine how it is that we make space for making goodness.

For making good things, for allowing basic goodness to creep into whatever it is we are making anyway.

Specific examples include the lamb-leek-barley soup I made last week and cannot get over; the upcycled wool scarf I made Len for Christmas that both of us quite adore; the hour spent in the kitchen with both boys this morning as we explored  spontaneously the acoustic properties of an old vacuum pipe and a cardboard wrapping-paper tube.  In every case, there was the magic of serendipity (one can never properly estimate the right amount of leek, am I right?); the hard work of preparation (finding the best way to set the tension for the walking foot and cleaning out all the felted wool lint repeatedly); the challenge of setting down expectations and just showing up to what’s present (a two-year-old’s insistence on toting around a long ShopVac tube and helpfully “vacuuming” freshly painted walls while hollering seemed like a good opportunity for redirection).

It strikes me now that this post would do well to include the soup recipe (inspired by this), the scarf tutorial, and the fun description of sound games to play with toddlers…and perhaps it shall.  Another night.  For now, let it be enough for me to share my gratitude for delicious local foods, for friends with a superior grasp of sewing machine workings, for fun and interesting kids who are malleable enough to move with me sometimes.  Let it be enough to remember that making things is often better than not making things; that flailing wildly is really just a natural part of the creative process; that resilience in the face of failure is a whole lot better than being so safe you never get to fail.  And once in a while, you get to feel the good in the product, even, and not just the process.  Those are good days.  And the rest just keep you humble, right?

On reaping what we sow.

I made the best dinner of all time today: smoked salmon chowder (see Epicurious for recipe; then double most of it, use chicken instead of veggie stock, and add fresh dill).  It was freakishly, awesomely delicious.  I’m not sure why, exactly, but the fact that the potatoes and garlic were harvested from our garden a week or two ago and the leeks and dill just tonight might have helped.  And let’s face it: the fact that the smoked salmon was from one of the monsters my nephews and brothers-in-law caught fishing on Lake Michigan in August wasn’t bad either.  I thought the meal would be a festival of the goodness of local eating — hence the name of the post — but it’s way more than that.

While we ate, we had music playing in the background: a mix of songs from my iPhone. One song was from my acapella group in college, and Ezra kept asking: Mama is that you?  So when one song featured a solo of mine, we turned it up and I told them yes, this is me.  The rest of the time you can’t hear me because I’m blending in with all those other beautiful voices, but I’m part of the music.  But they were so thrilled to hear me sing solo that we found the other track of mine: Cats in the Cradle.  I remember the day I earned this solo in group auditions, being near to tears myself and apparently bringing others to the same point.  It was just such a poignant song to me, as one in a long line of kids who didn’t get what they needed from their parents, and as someone who assumed that patterns perpetuate themselves.  But to hear my own nineteen-year-old voice singing those lines, remembering the anguish inside me, while looking at these gorgeous, robust, whole children of mine AND their beautiful, engaged papa…well, it brought me to tears again.

It’s a strange thing, when you spend a lifetime with a sense of unfairness, to discover that sometimes, even if only for a little while, there’s a reprieve.  Sometimes the universe rains down the kinds of goodness we had mostly decided was a myth.  And sometimes it rains down all kinds of goodness at once.  Tonight was one such night: a veritable flood of goodness.  The beneficence of family and the earth and water; the originality and specificity of these small boys; the good flavors and great good fortune of our food and time together.  The voices of dear friends from long ago making music that still moves us all to dance.  A friend of mine once said that the universe has lessons to teach us, and if we aren’t listening, it will keep beating us about the head and neck until we do.  This was more of a massage, really, a kind, persistent, and powerful reminder that it’s safe to relax, to trust in who and what we’ve chosen, to reap what we’ve tried to sow.  I can’t imagine a greater mercy.

On recovery.

It’s been a long week for all of us, including flu shots and incipient molars as well as a host of other, more significant challenges.  Friday comes and we’re pretty much beat.  More than beat, we’re beaten down, a little, by circumstances and the persistent tiredness of not being able to see what comes next that might fix the things that need it.

So what else is there to do, really, but head out into the evening garden for potatoes?  The fingerlings have gone untouched so far, since they were planted late and we harvested the yellow potatoes earlier and are still working through them.  But I wanted fingerlings, specifically, to go with the local lamb burgers and sauteed kale I was planning, and the boys surely needed some kind of existential shift.  We all did.  So out we went, with pitchfork and hod, and I dug and sifted while the boys pulled the bright beads from the soil.  Some were serious potatoes, but most were the kind of thumb-sized beauties that gave rise to their name.  Every time one came to light, Ezra would shout with joy, and he had a hard time taking turns with his brother (assisted, no doubt, by said brother’s stubby one-year-old arms).  Two-thirds of the crop is still in the ground, since the bugs found us shortly after we hit our stride, and we had enough for dinner, anyway.

While we were out there, we brought in a massive bunch of kale, a smaller assortment of late zinnias, marigolds, and bachelor’s buttons, as well as a few carrots whose impressive tops made us pull them just out of curiosity.  (Our fridge is full of carrots already.)  And of course, the raspberries have been loving this frost-free October, putting forth nearly as much ripe fruit as they did all summer, and better.  It was an evening to remember.

Every time we bring in flowers, Ezra helps arrange them in a vase, and then he says, in a tight, excited voice: “We have to have a celebration!  To celebrate these flowers!”  And indeed we do.  Three-year-old vision is sometimes so impeccably clear.

Best of all was Ezra’s request, at dinner, that we give thanks (which we do sometimes, but not often enough).  We held hands, and I spoke my gratitude for these sweet men, for this good food and the land on which it grew.  A few bites later, Ezra wanted more: Papa gave thanks for our family, and for all the love, and for the many people who grew the food we eat.  And then, Ezra himself spoke a bit later:

“Thank you for the good Ezra-Mama-Chi day and for whole-family-day tomorrow.

Thank you for the fruit and flowers that grow all around us.

And for the vegetables that grow all around us.”

As I write, my heart spilling over, my eyes rise to the prints on my desk, gifts from my artist friend Kim Crichton: “Grow.”  “Nurture.”  “Sow.”  (You have to see the images to really get them, but when you do, you’ll see why I’m all weepy over all this together.)  From a day when it seemed like nothing could come together, I all of a sudden see that in this moment, everything has.

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?

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 wading in: Day 22. The things I’m still avoiding.

It is clear to me that this month has involved a lot more wading into life than usual.  It shows up in the games we play with the kids, the conversations we have together, the increased singing, the greater appreciation of what’s around me, the enhanced interest in our slow-food processes of homegrown goodness.  (Today, for example, we started off with pumpkin-oat waffles; enjoyed a fabulous leftover white-bean-and-buttercup-squash soup for lunch; found a rack of lamb in the downstairs freezer that we roasted with garlic and rosemary, accompanied by sliced broiled delicata squash and kale sauteed with garlic.  It’s a hardship.)

These are the areas of life that soothe me, that fill me up and calm me down.  And I’m glad I’ve learned to love those, to try to live within them, because for much of my life I would have coded such satisfaction as “boring,” not understanding the depth of joy and contentment and the peace that they bring.

But every so often I am reminded that there’s more to me than this.  There are big important issues that I want to work on, skills and gifts that ask me to do more.  I tend, lately, to suppress those, to nod and smile while focusing elsewhere.  It’s the spiritual equivalent of facebooking while your kids are talking.  And it’s one of the things that needs to change.

See, I’ve assumed all along that the Big Important Stuff cannot peaceably coexist with the daily habits of joy.  But it also seems true that perhaps they cannot peaceably coexist without one another.  So now I ask, again, what it looks like to bring them together.

Some aspects of that are already in place: public humanities work that seeks to explore how we can talk civilly with different others across disagreements; other public humanities work that offers novels as a way to understand our relationships to land, culture, and food; board work that tries to open new avenues to social impact instead of just programmatic outcomes.  But there’s more.  I wonder: would more and different kinds of writing be a way in?  A new blog on the horizon, this one focused on the professional concerns I seek to address?  Who knows.

For now, I am glad to have this discipline here and this set of lenses through which to examine the life I lead.  But I also see that I can rise to the risk I set for myself.  Perhaps it’s time to pose a new challenge: go to the heart of what matters in professional life as in personal.  It was my way for fifteen years; there’s no reason it can’t be again. The fact of being a parent makes me a better person, a clearer thinker, a more compassionate human.  And it also helps me see more clearly what matters and what doesn’t.  Instead of feeling pushed out of my professional world (as most of us do, who “step off the track”), perhaps I can just speak my truths wherever I am, whatever they may be.  Scary — but after all, what’s the alternative?  I worry about arriving at the end of this stage of life and feeling that I bottled up too much, that I didn’t participate in conversations I needed.  Fear of rejection, mostly, is what keeps me mute, and fear is what I’m most ready to release.

Sigh.  We’ll see how this shakes out.

On wading in: Day 21. Presence/presents.

It’s the oldest pun in the world, but it’s STILL TRUE.  Being present yields amazing presents.  Giving ourselves the gift of focusing on just one thing, being right there with it, is hard but necessary if we want to be part of the magic.  Examples:

At the Common Ground Fair yesterday, a speaker was working with a huge and restless horse, an absolute beauty of a beast who apparently has great nervousness.  The speaker told how he came to get this horse after others gave up on it, and he was only able to work with it when he could focus himself entirely on the horse.  Any lapse, any straying, any half-assed efforts the horse could sense immediately and it would freeze up and refuse to cooperate.  The owner had been able to work well with the horse and he told how it was even useful for him — though hard — to need to undertake this exercise.  “How well he works with me,” the owner said, ” is in direct relationship to how completely focused I can be on him.”

My weekends are often full of lists and planning, but my favorite days are the ones when I am lost enough to not even HAVE a list.  Those days I float from place to place and simply respond to where I am, open to what soothes me or irks me or wants to change.  By being present with the space around me, I can see with new immediacy what I should be doing in the moment.  And the results surprise me: the spice rack (a strange arrangement of small stacked painted crates bolted to the wall) got a much-needed cleaning and new contact paper; the space alongside the oven got cleaned and de-cluttered; mulch got laid; sweet woodruff got transplanted; a Barrington Belle peony got dug in; a few beds got weeded or fall-cleaned; potatoes got dug; carrots got pulled.  Even the strawberry bed, which has been a short forest of self-sown feverfew all summer, got a thorough weeding — just the kind of chore I will work hard to avoid if it’s on a list, but when it just calls to me, well, I can answer.

The most glowing moment in a satisfying day (did I mention we started with zucchini/banana/flaxseed muffins and finished with homemade potato-leek soup?) came as I was rounding the last corner in the strawberry bed, reeking of feverfew and starting to get sore.  Len was corralling the boys to go inside, and they wanted to give me a hug first, so they ran to me, barefoot and glowing in the early fall late afternoon.  One boy in each arm; one sweet neck against each cheek.  So much, so much.  How could there be more?

On wading in: Day 9. Seeing clearly.

There are a number of things that my husband and I are not good at, and one of them is regular household maintenance.  He is genuinely relaxed about it, whereas I suffer a low-grade chronic anxiety over all the neglect.  Doesn’t matter: we don’t do a thing.

But sometimes I get to realizing that my life would be happier without the chronic anxiety.  And that maybe some of the things I’m anxious about are, in fact, fixable.  So every once in a while, we get all over it (see Day 7: Gettin’ it done).

What I don’t usually anticipate are the lovely results.  For the past two days, for example, I’ve been opening all the blinds on all the windows and gazing out the windows admiringly.  When teased about this behavior, I responded truthfully: “But I’m loving looking OUT the window instead of AT the window.”  Because that was what I had done for the last, oh, five years.  I’d look at the clouded, spotted, smudged surface that was supposed to be glossy clean, and I’d feel like a failure.  It was a very quiet voice and a very quick sort of seeing, but it was there.  Today, I just see the emeralds and golds and blues of this early fall day.

As ever, there’s a lesson here for me.  Letting go of, or doing away with, the obstacles to joy is a whole lot easier than I think.  It may take time, organization, and elbow grease, but it’s something, often, that I can plan for, engage others in, and DO.  What it takes most of all, though, is a willingness to see clearly what the obstacle is — and how to fix it — and, most importantly, how to honor its removal and revel in the joy of a new openness in my life.

Today was an “Ezra-Mama-Chi day,” as Ezra has coined them (in case you couldn’t tell from the order of names), from Len’s departure at 7:45 until his return at 6:45.  And it was the best such day we’ve ever had.  Why?  I think it had to do with all that clear sunlight streaming into the house and all the crystalline simplicity it brought with it.  Playground?  Why sure.  Duck pond?  Absolutely.  Hungry for muffins?  Let’s make some.  We’ve got this here zucchini and our favorite new recipe (Martha Stewart’s recipes really are, often, impeccable).  Naptime was later than usual because of all the story requests, but hey — there are worse things than extra reading.  There was one small meltdown, which I met with love (“I KNOW how hard it is to listen sometimes, but I REALLY want to read you stories before bed, and Mama can’t read to a boy who doesn’t listen…so what do you think?  Can you work harder on listening?  Let’s practice!”).   I did, of course, flash forward a few times to all the Things I Have To Do Tomorrow, but for once I could see clearly: tomorrow is tomorrow.  Let’s write those puppies down and look at the list…tomorrow.

In short, I felt powerful, loving, loved, contained, expansive, generous, whole.  My work felt new, my life fulfilling, my family part of my art.  This, I imagine, is perhaps the whole point.