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 doing one thing at a time.

Like many of you, I struggle to be all things to all people.  Rather, I’ve given up EXPLICITLY trying to do that, because I’m too smart to keep at the impossible (sometimes), but I’m not smart enough, it seems to give it up entirely.  I still worry, when I’m parenting, that I’m not bringing in money.  When I’m bringing in money, I worry that it’s not building a career.  When I’m having conversations about building a career, I’m worry about the experience my kids are having in daycare and wondering what I should give up on in order to be more present somewhere, sometime.

But the bottom line is, we have to choose.  Most of us, as the self-help books point out, choose by default: we limp along in agony until eventually we fall on one side of the path or the other.  It’s unpleasant but surely saves on decision-making.  I am rather a master of this skill.  Case in point: a pretty fantastic job appeared recently at an institution near me, and I sweated for a week over whether or not to apply.  But every time I turn the decision over again, filling the wee hours with my remorse and trepidation, I arrive at the same place. I am not ready to go back to full-time work yet.  I want to spend more time in my children’s lives.  Other people may not; I may not eventually; but right now, I would feel sad and cheated and resentful if I could not spend these two-and-a-half weekdays with my boys.  So I will honor that and choose not to apply for full-time work.

The hard part, of course, is less making the choice and more living with it.  I have always believed in a keep-all-doors-open policy, which makes perfect sense if you are not sure where you want to go.  And so I mistrust my own clarity when I do have it.  But enough sleepless nights, going around the same circles, and even I come to see that my conclusions are always the same.  So the math leads me to believe what the soul has been trying to say all along.

This macro-dynamic of too-many-things shows up everywhere, of course.  In college, I changed majors four times, the last time in the middle of my junior year (bad idea, in case you wondered).  When designing courses, some people think about what reading and assignments to include; I have to think about what to leave out, because there’s SO MUCH great stuff to work with.  Last month I purchased no fewer than eight sample cans of paint in order to decide what color to paint the kitchen (and please note: they were all shades of white.  The kitchen is white).  My any.do app which I use to manage to-do lists typically includes eight or ten things under “today” and a similar number under “tomorrow”; never mind that any ONE of these things might be (was, in fact, today) enormous: making curtains for a friend.  (FYI, that project involves cutting and sewing ten panels of various lengths, hemming on all sides and creating top pockets for the tension rods she will use.  The fabric is a gauzy linen; the sewing machine is a temperamental thing with a bad attitude about tension.)  What special form of self-flagellation leads me to put all these items on a single day?  I realize it’s mostly a commitment to keeping the doors open, in case circumstances direct me to one or another of these things, they are all right there for the doing.  And on an average day, I probably do cross off three or four things.  But…three or four out of eight is kind of depressing.  I want to feel more efficient than that.  I want good reasons to tell some of these nagging voices to pipe down.

So as part of my commitment to Peace in All Things (a mother of two under four: bwahahaha), I decided today that come hell or high water, I would achieve SOMETHING.  I was not going to spend my available time on Pinterest and Facebook, planning and pining.  I was going to find my way into that beautiful, soul-soothing creative space and emerge without having done everything but having made something.  Because that has to be enough, and I have to practice it.  And so I did.  Four panels only, but that’s something for an afternoon.  Small hands may have helpfully pushed each pin all the way into the pincushion (“I like the colors, Mama!”), and even smaller hands may have spent quality time measuring my chair repeatedly (“My measure tape!  I measure for you!”), but I was able to be and do together.  This feels like spiritual practice.  It feels like good work, one thing at a time.

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 making.

It has long seemed to me that what we need to make is a difference.  If we are making ephemeral things, I’d always thought, we aren’t really making much, or doing justice to the world, because what it needs is change, contribution, brilliance, systems, products that last, that improve our lives in concrete  ways.  Like health care reform.  Like voter registration systems.  Like healthy local food production.

And here I am, listening to my thirteen-year-old niece draw the most extraordinary sounds from her cello, basking in the resonance, this sound that wraps around me like a hug and reaches into my knees like a kiss.  This, I can tell, is sacred; this is true.  This is worth any amount of practice, money, and inconvenience.  This is important in the world.

I remember my own youthful engagement with music, which always filled me up but which was, I felt, not important enough in the world.  Which is to say: it did not stop fights or help my parents like each other.  It did not contribute to household income, at least not for a while.  But I can see, now, that it helped hold things together for me and perhaps for us…maybe even when we should have fallen apart.

I now see that that’s the point: to help us hold it together; to help us fall apart.  It’s the point of music, of painting, of poetry, of knitting and spinning and dying yarn.  It’s the point of collage, of letterpress, of papier-mâché.  It’s the point of song, of singing, of dance.  It’s the point of anything that we make ourselves, with our tiny hearts and striving souls.  It’s the point of all these many ways we hold up the specificity of our lives, ourselves, against the incoherence and fray of the universe.  Making is what we have, the action that demonstrates choice and will and art and resourcefulness.  It makes us human, of course, and no art or craft more than any other.

My niece’s playing reminds me that what is sacred is the yearning, the creativity, the hope embedded in the action.  It’s what we are.

On wading in: Day 17. The particulars.

As I sat last night with the smell of my son’s hands (grapes, tomatoes, basil from our farewell-to-the-garden harvest) and the image of a Somali immigrant high schooler carefully blowing large, perfect bubbles and laughing with joy as my three-year-old chased them down, I realized that these were my touchstones for the day.  

I need these touchstones; I need specific memories and moments to ground me in the world.  Community does that for me, ideally, through its webs of friendship, caregiving, mutual tedium, shared challenge.  But lacking that, I’m needing to build some of these pieces for myself. 

One of the ways I’m doing that is through my work with the Maine Humanities Council, especially this new series I’m creating on the agrarian novel in the USA.  The more I read of these glorious novels and the insightful criticism related to them, the more caught up I am in questions of nostalgia, utopianism, political structures, and illustrative details.  The difference between a polemic and a novel, after all, is largely about the level of detail in plot, character, setting.  The particulars are what pull us in and what make a difference, and those of us who tend to view the world from a distance sometimes have a hard time remembering that.  What’s beautiful about agrarian novels in particular is the synchronicity between what they advocate (attention; local knowledge; reverence for beauty and for nature) and what they do (demonstrate each of those principles in their own process and language and plot).  It’s a harmony that’s well worth seeking in the other fields of our lives.

Some particulars of today: at the Bread Shack, while I waited for my car to get fixed down the street, I had a cup of cocoa.  When it came, in a perfect round white cup with a dollop of chocolate-sprinkled whipped cream on top, Dara (owner and friend) asked the server to bring a spoon.  A demitasse, specifically.  It needs it, she said.  It’s just crying out for it.  And she was right.

At bedtime, Ezra wanted to read Brown Bear again, because we’ve finally (after a year or two) finished putting up the remainder of the wall decals from his Brown Bear set.  (He had been missing the aquatic creatures: the yellow duck, goldfish, and green frog, on account of us having no body of water to put them near/in.  They now occupy wall space near a picture of a duck pond.  It’s all out of proportion, but Ezra could not be more thrilled with the whole thing.)  So a reading of Brown Bear involves him reading to us and pointing energetically to each creature in its place on the four walls of his room.  His face is full of light as he searches and finds, over and over, the brown bear climbing in a tree; the red bird soaring toward a bird house; the yellow duck waddling toward the pond…and on and on.  “My friends,” he calls them.  “My friends are so happy to be all together.”