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.

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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.

On upcycling, or whathaveyou

I’m one of those people who has a hard time getting rid of things most of the time, because I’m inclined to imagine other uses for it.  T-shirts, for example, are CERTAIN to become t-shirt yarn and then fabulous folksy rugs, except that they are all different weights and textures and none of them is a color I’m crazy about.  But I have to store them for a couple of years before I can arrive at this conclusion and give them away.  It’s an imperfect system, but I really excel at it.

So imagine my husband’s surprise when he entered the kitchen yesterday afternoon to find me packing Bonne Maman jars into a big cardboard box.  It’s our preferred jam, and we eat a lot of jam, and when we realized a few years ago that the jars were useful for everything from packing kids’ lunches to serving gin and tonic, well, we kept a few.  Ah-hem.  They overflowed the glass-cabinet, and then we started storing them on the windowsill by the food-prep area, because it was so convenient for lunch-packing.  At first it was one row, then a second on top, and then a third, in a truly precarious and often artistic display.  A few weeks ago, our boys decided to stop eating our packed lunches on the two days a week they go to daycare, preferring to eat what everyone else eats (daycare makes fresh lunches for the kids every day).  And here we are with seven thousand jars and no concrete use for them.  But then I remembered some friends who may want to borrow them for glasses at their August wedding on the coast, and then I got to thinking about everything else you can do with them.  So here’s my list.  Pinterest style.  Be inspired.  Or entirely turned off this blog.  It’s up to you.

A whole bunch of things you can do with Bonne Maman jam jars:

  1. Drink out of them (preferably clear, icy drinks with lemon twists or olives).
  2. Store smoothies in them (remove cap; drink).
  3. Put frozen veg or fruit in them to thaw for kid-sized snacks at home or on the go.
  4. Pack lunches in them (pesto-pasta in one; cut-up chicken in another; peas in another).
  5. Use as votive-holders with glass beads, pebbles, or sand in the bottom.
  6. Use for terrarium: add moss, sticks, wee ferns.  Occasional plastic animals may find their way in as well.
  7. Use for aquarium: add rocks, water, and a small plastic sea-turtle.
  8. Catch spiders or fireflies or other cool creatures.  Examine at leisure and then release.
  9. Fill partway with soapy water and use as receptacle for Japanese Beetles, Tomato Hornworms, or other interesting-to-look-at but utterly unwanted garden guests.
  10. Use for vases, especially for simple, short, matching arrangements of daisies, for example.
  11. Use as centerpieces filled with small fruits.
  12. Fill partway with glass beads and water; rest an avocado seed halfway in the water.  Wait a few months and it’ll sprout.
  13. Use to organize office supplies; craft materials; small children’s toys; crayons; hair clips; coins.
  14. Wire them around the edges and hang them as vases or candle-holders.
  15. Use to store dried herbs or other non-perishable household items.
  16. Use to freeze pesto, if you make it in large batches; one jar, 2/3 full, is just right for our standard box of pasta.
  17. Use to freeze breastmilk.  I kid you not.  Those Medela bottles are pricey and this works just as well.
  18. Use in place of Tupperware for storing leftovers, making more room in your fridge.
  19. Make a sewing kit for a gift or for your own house.
  20. Make cocoa-mix gifts.  Or small Halloween candy jars.  Or layered soup mixes.

Or, as my husband points out, you could conceivably just recycle them.  If you were cold of heart and dead of spirit.

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.

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.

Resurfacing

You know how when you get sick and worn down, nothing seems significant anymore?  And that which does is mostly depressing?  Yeah.  That’s been the past week.  But we’re all starting to get better now, which gave rise to a fit of afternoon food production around here: lentil-sausage-pesto soup and citrus olive-oil cake and even some bread dough.  Recipes are offered below.  But I just wanted to register not only this fine achievement but also an important realization: when we’re low and off-kilter and sick, we consume.  When we’re grounded and whole and healthy, we produce.  Perhaps this is not the most important thing I’ve ever noticed, but then again, perhaps it is.  Resurfacing does more than let us gasp for air — it reminds us how to swim.

Recipes:

Lentil Soup: from Smitten Kitchen (scroll down the page some to find the actual recipe amid all the hoopla and enthusiasm), but I like it best with garlic sausage instead of sweet italian; kale instead of chard; and a cup or so of pesto to keep things lively.  It’s gorgeous.  Oh, and the garlic oil they rave about?  I haven’t tried it.  I’m sure it’s brilliant.  But who has time?  This is quick, healthy, and totally delicious.

Citrus Olive-Oil Cake: sorry I can’t share it.  It’s from Rustic Fruit Desserts, about which I often rave, and I probably need permission.  Pester me if you want me to look into it.  I will mention that we used only grapefruit and orange rind and substituted lemon extract — which makes me wonder if you could use all extracts in a pinch? — and it was terrific.  I used a pretty fruity olive oil and next time will go milder.  I mean, the cake itself is GORGEOUS, but with such a strong oil, you end up with a bit of aftertaste and -feel.

Bread: this one cracks me up.  I’ve been flirting with bread-baking for, oh, fifteen years or so.  I mostly spend a lot of time to make something kind of mediocre and so I bail.  I think I really need to get a sourdough starter and try again.  But this was a last-ditch effort at ordinary yeasty hearth bread, and I tried it because it’s no-knead.  So a lot less time.  I figured it would suck, but whatever.  Here’s the thing: it’s really good! It is, so far, hands-down the best bread I’ve ever made.  The coolest part is that you make the dough, let it sit out for two hours, and then refrigerate it for as long as you want.  You cut off a chunk to make a loaf (my dough will make about three loaves, I think), shape it and set it out to rise for about 40 minutes, and then you bake it on a pizza stone.  Absolutely delicious, and with a better crumb and texture than anything else I’ve made.  Maybe bread is like garden soil: we all think we have to maul it for best results, but if we can get out of the way and let it do its own thing, it’s brilliant.  Recipe is here.