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.

Pinterest as spiritual practice

The Pinterest craze has provided many of us with new ways to kill time.  And I mean, kill it dead.  The unbelievable depth and breadth of resources available present an enormous challenge to those of us with a passion for, well, anything.  Because it’s all on there – the whole world of hobbies, ideas, design, innovation, crafts, houses, book ideas, every possible manifestation of human interest.  It’s easy to start, hard to put down, and even harder to catch up on sleep after your first week.  Which is why all kinds of folks are including Pinterest in their media fasts, their unplugging, their general efforts to return to sane and local living.  (Patti Digh has a great little piece on that here.)

The real challenge, I think, is in moderation, in judicious use of the resources with a discerning eye, so that you a) aren’t constantly on there, and b) you only pin what you want to use, for feeding you in some important way.  (Here, my pastor mother-in-law would smile and say: “As it so often is in our spiritual lives.”)  Indeed, one friend asked (on facebook, amusingly): “does Pinterest provide beauty or value, or does it just give us more information? Because I have enough information.”  I answered yes, beauty and value indeed, because of how it enables us to keep contact (distanced, sorted, organized contact) with information, with good ideas and beautiful, inspirational images.

I am one of those people who struggles to live in the present because I am always trying to bear (“to carry”) in mind too many kinds of information: the location of that recipe I want to cook for dinner; the directions for that fun activity I want to try with my kids tomorrow; the pattern for the hat I will crochet my niece for Christmas; the paint color I saw in someone’s bathroom that I want to try in ours.  And that’s just the domestic sphere!  What of the brilliant “slow money” article I keep losing track of? The book on radical homemaking that offers new ways of imagining barter? The website that’s a useful model for my consulting practice? My head is constantly moving on several levels at once, which is an advantage in terms of getting things done but a distinct disadvantage in the peace-of-mind category.  It took me until a few months into my Pinterest love-affair to realize the enormous gift it offered me: to be here and now without ceding my hold on the future.  It offers us what is essentially a spiritual opportunity, previously available (perhaps) only to those writers and contemplatives who kept and used tiny portable notebooks.  By pinning (in our portable phones, even?) the next great family activity or the last painting that made us gasp, we can store our cherished visions without giving them up; we can live our lives AND remember where and how those visions are; we can revisit them in all their detail and promise, erasing what no longer fits or reorganizing to accommodate new dreams; we can share these visions, when we choose to, with friends; and most of all we can do all this without fear of spending our lives away from center, from the here and now.  We can set down the dream, or pin it up, and not have to live in its shadow for fear of failure or forgetting.  That way we can be here, now, with our lived realities, and still honor the hopes we have for other, better, fuller lives.  Because we do have those hopes, and yet we only fulfill them through living, here and now, rather than dreaming in the ether.

On gardening, or planning to garden

Most awesome seed source ever.

Most awesome seed source ever.

Is this what happens when we grow up?  Do we finally get clear about what matters and just root down?  I just sent my seed order in (only to discover the empty packet of my favorite lettuce: Winter Density…argh!).  It feels late, as it always does, and a few things are on back-order.  But mostly this year I feel a seismic change in the whole process.  Every year I pull together all my zip-lock bags of seeds and corral them into one huge basket, and then I go through and inventory what I have.  It’s a process I’ve loved over the years, as it fills me with a sense of abundance (look at all these gorgeous seeds!  Think of all the gorgeous PLANTS!) and with that delicious anticipation of ordering more.  Plus, when you feel like you’ve really gone overboard, ordering like 25 packets, you realize you’re only out $35.  Which is a lot of shopping bliss for your buck.  The big change this year, though, is in me rather than in the process: for the first time in history, I’m not all that interested in growing lots of different kinds of each vegetable.  (Flowers, yes.  Still.  Always.)  But I used to want six kinds of carrots, for example, to see which were best. I wanted to compare all the kinds of peas so I could know what I preferred and have some good variety in type and time to harvest.  Now, I’m realizing, I’m becoming a much more grounded gardener.  I want delicious; I want easy; I want staggered harvests and enough variety to keep cooking and eating interesting.  But I am more than happy to stick with tried-and-true, and my appreciation of new discoveries seems happy to stay in the realm of the theoretical.  I do not need to buy new varietals.  (There, Len, it’s in writing.  To your massive surprise, I know.  Mine too.)

I suspect this change is not really about the garden.  I suspect it’s about my life.  You see, gardening used to be a hobby – and now it’s one feature of my busy life with my family.  It has always saved us money, but now we count on that.  It has always kept us healthy, but now it teaches my children a lifelong love of healthy food.  It has always been a way for me to get grounded, to come back to my most basic self, and now it does that for two much smaller souls as well.  Nine kinds of peppers seems beside the point – though I am quick to defend the obvious point that there are roasters and jalapenos and Hungarian paprikas and bells, and there’s nothing wrong with a few of each.  But will I spend time reading about the fifty other kinds I don’t have?  Not this year.  No time, and my energy and curiosity are turned elsewhere: to people, large and small; to fiber and fabric; to writing and ideas and hope.

The next step, of course, in the process is cleaning off the seed-starting mats and shelves, checking the grow-lights and the soilless mix supply, investing in more wooden plant labels and a new, sharp Sharpie.  I’ve always loved these midwinter pilgrimages, but now they seem even more special, now that they are prompted by Ezra’s impatience.  Can we start seeds, Mama?  Yes, my son.  Yes, we can.  And all throughout the summer and fall, we can point to those plants and remember the smallness of their seeds in his palm, his chubby carrot fingers working to grasp and maneuver their tiny promise.

The perfect pumpkin bread

I know, I know, it’s an ambitious title.  But I’ve working on this for years, and I feel some confidence in the result.  wicked good pumpkin bread

My goals were these: pumpkin bread that is a) delicious and b) healthy.  It had to be tender and a little chewy and not harden up too much in the day or two following the bake.  I wanted to have some variability in spiciness and to be able to use either canned or real pumpkin.  Done.  Check.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Makes two loaves.

Ingredients:

1.5 c all-purpose flour

1 c. whole wheat flour

1 c. oat flour (you can do what I did: buy the pricey stuff and THEN find out that you can grind oats in a blender to make it yourself, or you can just start the cheap way and feel all smug about it)

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp allspice

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp ginger

3/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 c. loosely or not-at-all packed brown sugar

3/4 c. milk (soy or cow’s, whatever)

1/3 c. vegetable oil

2 tsp vanilla

2 large eggs

1 15-oz can of pumpkin, or mashed roasted pumpkin (I used extra this time, maybe 15 oz, and loved the result)

Optional walnuts, chocolate chips, currants, whatever — though it’s pretty awesome plain.

Process:

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Mix dry ingredients together; make a well in the center.

Mix sugar through pumpkin in a separate bowl; add to the dries.

Add whatever extra stuff you feel you need.

Pour into two greased 8 or 8.5″ loaf pans and bake for 1 hour.

Notes:

You can also add 1/2 tsp of cloves and a pinch (or more) of cayenne if you want a spicier version.  Also, be glad this makes two loaves.  Strongly consider giving one away, but know that I will not judge you if you end up not.

Small achievements, small regrets

I’m trying to keep things small these days.  So those ambitious and beautiful patchwork velvet scarves recycled from old clothes — well, those haven’t been happening, except in my head.  The PLANS have been laid for a month now.  But apparently the downside of the otherwise-totally-awesome upcycling process is that you have to first “make” your “fabric.”  Which means cutting into something with many possible uses and which may or may not be replicable.  (I realize this is how you tell the newbies from the old hands in this work — the old hands know there’s always something else awesome out there.  I don’t, yet.)  So I agonize over the cutting and spend lots of time trying to decide whether to rip out seams or cut them out (old velvet: the answer is cut them out, because once the ripping is over, your fabric is likely to rip along the stitch line anyway).  Today, instead of beating myself up for not making the scarves, I decided to just make rectangles.  It took me much of the morning, since I was working with tailored garments, one of which even seemed to be bias-cut AND was heading toward its at-least-third life in my hands.

But now I have gorgeous, sumptuous rectangles that both babies want to get their hands all over.  Thank goodness for scraps.  (Or, according to the scared voice in my head who always promotes the logic of scarcity, I have now ruined the potential of several neat old garments.  Good thing I didn’t yet cut up that sweet little coat I’ve been considering.)

The other big achievement of the morning was finding Malachi in a still moment and snipping off his curly little mullet.  I did this with the relish (and, apparently, thoughtlessness) of someone who has been casually watching for just such a chance.  Once it came, I didn’t really ponder why I was taking it.  But take it I did, and the smallest among us now has more respectably short hair.  As I took the curls and the baby into the kitchen, replete with a strange sense of swollen, senseless grief, Len cheerfully announced: “No more first haircuts!”  and the tears spilled over.  Since then, I’ve also realized that winter in Maine is not necessarily the time to cut off a baby’s neck-warmer.  But I think I’m mostly just a loving mama who is hardwired for regret, and so this seems like a big one that I didn’t properly anticipate.

It’s like the life-management metaphor of juggling various balls: just know which are made of glass and which of rubber.  Cutting up fabric is really only ever cutting up fabric.  And basically, you could say the same thing about your child’s hair.  But when you realize that you just altered a particular way of being when you’d give your soul not to alter it, well, that’s a little painful.  And silly, of course.  I’m working on letting go of my attachment to his hair.  But I will say this: I’m looking forward to it growing back.

On actual crafting (as opposed to planning to craft)

You’ve all seen it: “Stop pinning; start making things.”  It’s good advice.  And many of you probably do handmade holidays like we do.  So there’s a persistent sense of always needing to be making things, and therefore always resisting making things, right up until the holiday is over.  Then it’s time for self-recrimination about the lame little thing you ended up making instead of the bastion of glory you INTENDED to make, and then onward and upward to the stout promises for better work next year.  Somewhere after that, a beautiful thing happens: you relax. And with relaxation comes clear vision, for the first time in months.  You love crafting!  You made some beautiful things!  And you have some nice ideas for a few more that you’re looking forward to making in these cold, dark months.  (If you’re like me, you may have even invested recently in decent lighting and perhaps been inspired to move things around and clear out space for easier access and better child-management during the work.)

So in this spirit of clarity and kindness toward myself, I thought I’d share some of the things I made.  Details are available upon request.

Brooke's hatConnor's tractor hat flower appliqued throw IMG_0020 Julia's red velvet scarf Kim's cowl Parker's hat sweater hats tree ornament

On hiding out

It’s the most exhausting time of the year.  Daylight is brief; daytime is crowded; people are hurried and harried and hard.  It’s not supposed to be like this, but it is.  Children who are otherwise fonts of light become stuff-oriented demons, and runny noses abound.  I grant you that I’m a little jaded, having been soaked in vomit (not my own) not once but twice today, but still, it’s a rough time for all of us.  Quite aside from the national trauma of Newtown, I have friends who are living their first holidays without a mother, a husband, an aunt.  And while I adore the notions of peace and joy and sugar cookies, I struggle to make room for these things in any meaningful way.  It’s as if the show takes over and the substance of our lives has to yield to the performance.

I recognize this is the opposite of what Christmas, or any holiday, or even any season, should be.  And I find myself longing for a quiet week at a little cabin in the woods, just us and a fireplace (with a nice protective barrier), some board games, and a well-stocked kitchen.  Maybe snowshoes, and the corollary snow.  THERE, I believe, I could properly celebrate the lives of those I love, the season of rest, and the birth of hope.  But out here?  I think not.  Instead, I let my three-year-old watch back-to-back episodes of “Go Diego, Go” and I bury my head in social media.  Organizing our lives seems too much for me right now, let alone enjoying them.

I figure this will stop, or at least abate, once we ease off on the doctor’s visits and get a few packages in the mail.  (Did I mention we make everyone’s gifts?  Crikey.  Photos below, if I can find my phone, which I am — accidentally? — losing a lot these days.)  But perhaps I fool myself.  Perhaps this is the test run of the general philosophy that we spend our lives how we spend our days; that peace is every step; that we can choose to live with grace and intention or we can choose to throw our hands in the air and give up.  I’m working on it, or at least I INTEND to work on it, and I hope that counts for something.

On strategizing

Work is one of those areas we tend to ruin for kids, like healthy eating and time management.  We act like we’ve got it together, and in reality, we’re just feeling our way along with a handful of principles and a heartful of hope.  “What do you want to be when you grow up?” we ask, like it’s a simple decision to make and a simple path that stretches forward from there.  Ah, for the good old days when the choice seemed feasible and easy.  A doctor.  No, today I want to be a teacher.  An ice-skater. An airplane pilot.

The challenge arises when you’re 39 with two kids, three degrees, and fifteen years of solid work in a given field under your belt, and you’re trying to broaden your thinking.  You’re just dripping with intentionality, and it’s starting to get annoying.  Not as annoying as the disabling sonar of your three-year-old’s wail or the baby’s uncanny persistence in the face of what he KNOWS is off-limits — but annoying.  Get a job, you hear some cruel voice say in the back of your head.  It’s hard to know, though, which of these that voice really means:

  1. Get paid; stop being a drain on resources.  (To which I say: do the damn math.  Stay-at-home moms are worth about $110 K/year, according to Salary.com and other sources. And yet, I miss our DINK days, no doubt.)
  2. Get validation. (To which I say: yes, please.  I could use that.  But validation comes in many forms.)
  3. Get out of the house. (Indeed. Good plan.)
  4. Get involved in work that makes a bigger difference.  (But I AM!  I serve on boards and write and am raising feminist boys, and…well, yeah, I miss that, too.)

So you need a strategy, but not the old kind, where you shake every job-hunt tree in reach and see what falls out.  No, this kind of strategy needs multiple prongs and greater strategery.  Here, you need to honor (with a straight face, if possible) the multiple facets of your life, the many skills you have, the many longings.  You need to quiet the voices of criticism and their obnoxious reminders that those wasted degrees are IVY LEAGUE degrees.  Put differently, you don’t want to end up charging full-bore at something you THINK you want, only to find out you’re wrong.  So now you do this:

  1. Job-hunt in the conventional ways, for work in your field and close to your field and close enough that you think you’d like it.
  2. Develop the writing: seek publishers and editors and contacts and assignments.  Take workshops.  Jump in.
  3. Develop the crafting: remember that not everyone is out making cool scarves from recycled velvet dresses, or sweet hats from old sweaters. You do have vision and you do have skill, and there are folks close to home who are creating markets that might sell your stuff.
  4. Network, broadly and openly, about the Search.  Acknowledge its multiplicity.  Own its complexity.  People love to give advice and to help — take it.  All of it.
  5. Work hard not to resent your children for needing you or your spouse for having a daily life that involves silence, reading, professional respect, and music of his choosing.  Work hard to stay centered and limber and whole.

Good plan, no? The devil (or at the very least, the wee cherubs and their noiseful chaos) is in the implementation.

The overwhelmingness of creativity

Every year I start thinking about Christmas gifts in June. Every year I SWEAR that I will start making them in June. And this year I did! I did. I made one small scarf. But summer is just so, well, summery, so perfectly designed for other things, like helping a very naked young man make a river habitat for his wild animals on the edge of the driveway. Crocheting fuzzy things just seems so pointless under those circumstances. And thus we arrive here, in early December, at a state suspended halfway between panic and bliss: the crafting imperative.

And so I spent my Sunday afternoon: felting old wool sweaters; upsizing a hat pattern I like; making experimental fleece hats (one of which my sweet partner has been wearing ever since). I am one of those crafters who takes such pleasure in the planning and anticipation that I spend very little time actually MAKING things. But now it’s all about the making, and that brings a whole new kind of satisfaction. Put differently, it actually brings satisfaction rather than its promise. Pam Houston: “In graduate school you learned that men desire the satisfaction of their desire. Women desire the condition of desiring” (from Cowboys Are My Weakness, probably “How to Talk to a Hunter). I hate to be so gender-conformist, but hell, I’m a stay-at-home mom making Christmas presents. I’ll just own that.

Back to the Making of Things and the Overwhelmingness of Creative Energy: I’ve got plans. They are good plans. The trick now is to get enough done fast enough that it still feels like generous gifting rather than crazed production. It’s a bear trying to live this whole mindful approach. But it has been beautiful to look back at the last few years and realize that most or all of our gifting is now either a) donation (Heifer, Kiva, local home energy assistance, or recipient’s favorite charity); b) handmade; and/or c) purchased from local crafters. That feels good on all levels — an appropriate way to honor a holiday I tend to think of as the birth of hope. And boy do we need it. In these dark months we need all the warmth, fellowship, and generosity we can get.

And hey — if you are interested in details of what I’m making, check out my Pinterest boards or just leave a comment here. I want to use the pages for that kind of info, but I’m not quite there yet. Prompt as needed.