New Neighbor

Someone has moved into the house behind ours.  It wouldn't be worth noting except that the house went up years ago and I've never seen anyone go in or out of it. 

I remember my dad commenting on its charm the last time he visited.  I was showing him the raised garden beds we'd built, and he walked over to the edge of the yard to get a better look at the house out back.  That was the last time I saw him before he died, not that we had any inkling at the time that it would be.  

It's like Alex (my partner) says, when you're a kid you get picked up all the time.  If you fall asleep in the car, you're carried up to bed.  You get lifted onto your mother's hip, carried on your brother's back or hoisted on your father's shoulders for a better view.   Then one day you're put back down, and you're never picked up again.   There's no announcement.  No right of passage.  It's just over.  That's what my parents' visit in  2015 was like.  I'm sure if it hadn't been the last I wouldn't remember something so insignificant as my dad liking the house out back, but I remember feeling pleased that we had that in common.  After all, it's not a typical house.  It's a bit of an oddity actually, surprisingly tall and thin with asymmetrical elements, but charming in its cooky way.  

That house stood empty for so long that I'd  begun to wonder if there was something wrong with the interior that made it uninhabitable.  I tried to get a look inside, but to really see I would have had to get right up close, and empty or not, that didn't seem like a good idea.  After all, what if I was wrong about no one living there?   Just imagine getting up close, looking in and being face to face with the homeowner!  No thank you.  

Then, early this year I noticed there was something different about the door.  A couple days later it was clear that renovations were taking place; the original door was being replaced with a much, much wider one.   I was partial to the old one; it fit the place.  The new one is out of proportion with the rest of the building, but what did my opinion matter, I reminded myself.  I wasn't the one living there.  Did I mention that the new door is off center?

When it snowed I saw a path had been made, but there was still no sign of my new neighbor.  Of course in the suburbs it is easy to go weeks, even months without seeing the neighbors.    

And then this morning we met.  

Squirrel headon

I have a hard time pronouncing his name, but he says I can call him Red; most people do.  He says he did all the renovations himself and gave me permission to post a picture.  

Revised birdhouse 05122017


So soon?

No matter what sort of winter we’ve had, I always find the first warm days a bit of a shock.  Winter is endless, formidable, a bully that stays longer than the three months it's allotted.  It’s supposed to be a  long candle lit and cocoa fueled rest, interrupted by nature’s workout regimen of shoveling and roof raking.  Every year I want it to last a bit longer. Just a bit more time to get indoor projects done without such a pull to be outside; that would be would be wonderful. Like a farmer, all year long I set aside inside tasks that I’ll take on when the garden is hidden by snow and the walkways are coated in ice. When the only reasonable course of action is to stay inside, I’ll be sure to get through the hundreds of photos  waiting to be edited, sorted and labelled. When daylight fails at 4:15, surely then I’ll finish the knit vest I started last winter.  And oh the quilting!  Winter was made for hand quilting.    

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If only the darkness of winter didn’t make me want to curl up and sleep.  If I could slip ahead through time to spring and siphon a bit of that energy to take back to the darkest days, oh what I might do! The To Do list of projects would...

well...

if I’m honest, the list would probably still be just as long since as soon as I knock off one thing I come up with another.  But there would be fresh faces on that list, and new characters to get to know, instead of the glares of long ignored residents.  

Potato print bunnies

So as much as I enjoy getting to skip a hat, reacquainting my feet with sneakers and an extra hour of sunlight, it all feels like a guest who has arrived early for the party.  I’m happy to see her, just not yet.  


Diptych Project - Week 2

Kristina and I don't consult with each other as we do these diptychs.  We each do our parts independently, then I send my part to her to format (she knows mountains more than I do about such things).   This is why I found the similarity between our photos in week 2 so interesting.  In week 1 we were both all about the snow, winter wonderland, frosted beauty.  Something clicked (or maybe broke) in each of us the next week, and we were both seeking life and color.

Diptych_week2A

If you'd like to see this larger, just click on it.

Diptych_week2B

I like how Kristina's haiku paints an image that is so clear, it could be a photograph.  When I'm writing mine I know what image(s) or feeling(s) I'm trying to convey.  I just have no idea if I'm giving enough clues for someone else to see/feel it too.  Haiku writing feels like shorthand to me, but shorthand is useless if the audience can't read it.  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

 


What your Shoveling Says about You

My mother's people left Sweden, and settled in an equally wild, coffee adoring, snow filled region -  the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (a.k.a. the U.P.).  

Negaunee porch snow

If you've never visited the U.P., imagine northern Maine with its dense forests, frigid lakes, and tiny towns.  In my mother's stories it was the sort of place where everyone in town went to the Lutheran church on Sunday, and if you got in a scuffle on the playground, your mother and grandmother knew about it before you even got home.

Bethany Negaunee 2

It was there my mother and uncle learned to always make their walkway two shovel-widths wide.  Anything less was sloth (and reflected badly on the family).  I imagine my grandmother was sensitive to such things as a divorced mother of two in mid-century America.  

Adella in the Snow

Fast forward 30 years, and my mother is all grown up with two children of her own.  New England may not have lake effect snow, but it has plenty.  My mother, brother and I would shovel a path to the backdoor (in case of fire), to the oil tank (so it could be filled), to the shed (I don't know why since it was full of summer stuff) and to the front door (for obvious reasons).  That front door path always needed to be two-shovel widths wide.  When I'd complain that our actual walkway (a path worn in the grass by our feet) wasn't even that wide, my mother would say there was no way she was going to have people think she was raising us to be lazy.

Fast forward to 2015, I'm "all grown up" and sharing a house with my partner Z.  We've had a fair bit of snow this year (over 100 inches) and I bet you can guess how wide my front walkway is.

Alex shoveling 01272015

Single wide every time!  Sorry Mom. 


The Diptych Project

It's Lent again.  I say the word and I instantly think of the smell of fish sticks in the cafeteria on Fridays and the Catholic girls at school proudly abstaining from chocolate.  At my house, in my church, we didn't do Lent.  It was just a blank space between Ash Wednesday and the drama of Holy Week. 

So it's been something of a culture shock to become part of a church that sees Lent as a chance to dig in and grapple with what it means to be in a relationship with God. 

That last line is the perfect example.  Where I came from people don't say that sort of thing.  It feels presumptuous and a bit dangerous to talk like that.  I half expected the computer to short out when I wrote it.  And that's what Lent has become for me, a time to be vulnerable, to stretch my faith a little beyond what's comfortable.  In recent years I've tried new forms of prayer, colored mandalas, attended chant groups, meditated, read, read some more and yes given up indulgences like TV and Mt. Dew. 

This year my friend Kristina (check out her blog)invited me to join her in a creative project.  The idea is to build on our church's theme for Lent, Listening to God.  That makes me more than a little uncomfortable, so I've rebranded it as making time to appreciate what's around me.  Ignatius of Loyola (there's evidence of that Lenten reading) said to find God in everything, so I think I'm on solid theological ground.  

We couldn't decide if we wanted to take a photo each week, or write something short, so we decided to do both.  We each take a photo and write a haiku (at least one) each week during Lent.  These are then made into diptychs, her photo with my haiku and vice versa.   

I haven't written a haiku since 6th grade English.  I've never collaborated with anyone on a creative project like this.  Will the results feel jumbled and confused, or will the mishmash make us see our own creations in a new light?  I don't know, but that uncertainty has me really excited to give it a try.  To quote Anna from Frozen "Don't know if I'm elated or gassy/ but I'm somewhere in that zone." 

Without any further ado, here are week 1's diptychs:

Diptych_week1A

Diptych_week1B
*click on the images to make the diptychs larger


Success Tastes Sweet

I have a calendar, one of those cheap ones that insurance agencies send out around Thanksgiving, that I started using way back in January 2014 to help me build healthier habits.  I'm a list maker.  I love that shot of excitement that comes from crossing an item off a list, even if that feeling is all too brief.  This calendar works like a list in reverse.  Any time I do one of the habits I'm trying to build, I get to write it into that day's square. 

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A year ago, the goals were to exercise, write and craft more. Not too different from a million other people's new year's resolutions.  I color coded these goals to make it easy to see patterns on the calendar: exercise is underlined in yellow, writing in green and crafting in purple.  The colors made it easy to see what I was doing a lot and what I wasn't.  They all look strong for about two, maybe two and a half weeks, then more and more blank squares appear on the scene.  It's the classic resolution fade out.

Mid February I made an effort to get back on track.  A quick look tells me I did a good job of meeting my goals on the weekends.  Midweek.  Let's not talk about midweek. The exception being shoveling, which I appear to have done quite a bit of midweek and weekend all month long.  Thank you mother nature for helping me get more exercise.

And so it goes.  By March I'd given up on the color coding.  I jotted down any time I exercised, wrote or fiddled.  Yes, I'd swapped fiddle practice for crafting.  Like writing and exercise, I enjoyed it once I got started but what is it about getting started that's so tough?  

My calendar pages May through September are seas of white, with only the word "fiddle" to break the monotony. I'm sure I was doing other things, but they weren't making it to the calendar.  Maybe I didn't want to see their (in)frequency.IMG_0227

Then the fall came in all its beauty and the night crept ever farther into the day.  I started tracking how long I sat in front of my fake-sunlight lamp; "it's medecine" my doctor had reminded me,  "take the recommended dose, no more, no less".    Exercise shifted in my mind from "good for me" to "weapon against depression", so it went back on the calendar.  I started taking pre-work walks again, since outdoor exercise as early as possible has been shown to help as well. 

I'd like to say that I knew all these things were good for me, so I did them day in and day out.  But you know that's not true.  I'd do it a while, then stop.  I'd see the white space on the calendar and start up again; "Just keep starting" is a twelve step maxim that I firmly believe in.  And then in November, I read a blog post by my friend Kristina.  She had undergone serious surgery and was making big life changes as part of her recovery process.  In the post she talked about giving herself a sticker whenever she reached a daily goal.  I smiled and thought "I don't need to go that far".  But when I saw a pack of multicolored sparkling star stickers at the store, they were in my basket in an instant. Who didn't love getting a star on their homework back in school?

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How do I earn a star?  Gold - sat in front of my light 1st thing in the morning.  Green - exercise.  Orange - fed the soul (fiddle, crafting, baking, extended reading).  And blue - drank water and ate fruit with my breakfast.  This last one, the blue star is the reason for this post.  I know most people love fruit, but I see eating fruit a lot like I see shaving.  I do it because I don't like what will happen if I don't. 

Apples 10122014

Yes, fruit can be delicious (have you ever read William Carlos Williams' poems about eating plums?),  but it is so fickle and unpleasant too.  Fruit are sticky, they have really strong smells and you never know what you're going to get when you take a bite.  One day you're rewarded with sweet, jucy pleasure.  Another day and the fruit's gone sour or worse yet, squishes with the first stages of rot.  Add in the fact that sometimes my body goes on allergen overload and gives me an allergic reaction to fruit I'm not allergic to.  Fruit and I aren't friends. 

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But I've been doing it.  Pears.  Grapes.  Bananas.  When I have trouble sticking to it, I grab a beloved, reliable veggie instead.  I don't think it's a coincidence that brocolli and breakfast both start with "b". 

So what's this success I  mentioned in the title?  Have I lost 10 pounds?   Am I a fiddle master? Did I finish my holiday knitting on time?  No,  no, and no.  But yesterday when I went to the kitchen hungry for a mid morning snack - I grabbed a pear.  Just as natural as can be.  No reaching for a muffin and telling myself I ought to eat fruit instead.  No staring at the choices in the fridge and making a deal with myself that if I ate the fruit I could have something good afterward.  Nope.  I just saw the pear and grabbed it. 

I think that's the first time in 40 years that I've chosen to eat fruit as a snack. 

Now that's some sweet success.

 


What I Learned from Moving

It's been quiet on this site for a while; the sort of gaping silence that TV shows highlight with chirping crickets.  It started with the usual end of semester rush of work, then there was a two month purge of unwanted belongings, followed by a remarkably smooth move into our very first house!  After a few years of looking each time it came close to the end of our lease, we finally found the right house at a price we could afford. 

And now that almost two months have passed I feel like I can take a deep breath and share a bit of what I learned from the experience.

  • Buying a house is ranked right up there with divorce and the death of a loved one in terms of the stress it causes.  I didn't make that up; a therapist friend told me.
  • Put a piece of painters tape on any cord that could possibly get separated from its machine, and write what it goes to.
  • If you're trying to get rid of items in a hurry, skip Craigslist and go straight to Freecycle (everything is free so people jump on it), or call a charity like the Epilepsy Foundation to have them pick the items up at your house.  Either way the items are kept out of landfills and making someone happy.
  • Getting boxes is so much easier today than it was 10 years ago.  No more doing the rounds of toy and liquor stores.  Boxes are almost always available on Craigslist, and Freecycle.com.  In addition if you buy boxes from U-Haul, they'll take back any that you don't use.  The boxes at Lowes are cheaper though I don't know if they have the same return policy.  We got incredibly lucky in that some friends offered us the boxes from their move, which we used, then passed on to other friends who were moving a few weeks after us.  Sometimes the universe just comes together.   Alex new kitchen 05312014
  • Keep the labeling on your boxes simple.  Write the room and then a couple key words to maintain your sanity when it comes time to unpack.  Our movers said that people do all sorts of number and color coding systems, but nothing helps them unload faster than just having the room name on the box.
  • The amount of time it takes to pack seems to increase as you get closer to the end.  A wise friend told me "At some point in packing you're going to get to the 'ah f**** it' stage and just not care any more."  She was right.

Misc boxes 05312014

  • The most useful tool while moving is a Swiss Army knife.  With that in your pocket you never have to look for a screwdriver while you're packing, or scissors to cut open boxes once you've arrived.  You may even want to take advantage of its bottle opener feature.
  • As soon as the boxes are off the truck, send someone to the store to get those few food essentials that help you feel all is right in the world.  In our house that means bread, peanut butter, milk, cereal, Diet Coke and Mountain Dew.  Wow, that does not paint a flattering picture of our eating habits. 
  • When moving to an unfamiliar town, it's worth calling the Town Hall to see if they have maps available. 
  • All empty houses do not sound the same.  The echo of a place you're moving into is cold and industrial.  It sounds like a solid block of ice, daring you to try to make this place a home.  But, the echo of a place you're leaving is music, something a little bitter sweet but with a rhythm that makes you want to dance.  Because when a place is finally empty enough to echo - the endless packing is over!
New hall 05312014
1st morning in the new house

Yankee Thrift Bread

I thought about calling this post "Refrigerator Bread" because the recipe is  great for using up fruit that has outstayed it's welcome, but the more I thought about it, the less appealing that name sounded.  "Ice box" sounds homey and fresh.  "Refrigerator" conjures up a big humming machine which has an open box of baking soda in it for a reason. 

Refrigerator bread cut 033014

Therefore, let me introduce Yankee Thrift Bread.  The center is moist, rich with cinnamon and chock-a-block with baked fruit.  The crust is slightly sweet and crunchy.  And best of all the recipe is easy (one bowl, no mixer needed) and incredibly forgiving.  How forgiving?  The recipe started out as zucchini bread (from simplyrecipes.com) and was very good.  The next time I made it I didn't have enough zucchini, so it became summer squash bread (mixing green and yellow).  No one noticed the difference. 

For several years I've made it as zucchini carrot bread.  This version I always associate with camping trip breakfasts and early morning walks.  The bread freezes well, which is great for that stretch in August where the world becomes overrun by zucchini.   I did try zucchini, carrot and parsnips in one batch, thinking if one root vegetable works, another should too.  Not quite.  That batch was eaten, though I think it was by the squirrels. 

So it's not that surprising that today when I realized I had an overripe pear, a bruised apple and dried figs from 2013 in my fridge, I considered throwing them in the compost bin, then thought better of it.  What would be better on a gray, rainy day than cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar and fruit?

Foggy fence tree 022214

Yankee Thrift Bread

Ingredients

2 eggs, beaten

3/4 cup sugar - The recipe started out as 1 1/3 cups of sugar.  I keep reducing the sugar each time I make it.

2 tsp vanilla

3-4 cups fruit or veggies - For a smoother texture grate them.  Dicing also works, though it makes the bread more likely to crumble.  Whether to peal or not is a personal preference.

1/3 cup (or 6 tbs) melted butter

1/3 cup (or 6 tbs) apple sauce - If you don't have apple sauce on hand, you can double the amount of melted butter. 

2 tsp baking soda

pinch of salt

3 cups all purpose flour - if you use a heavier flour you'll need to add more moisture

1/2 tsp nutmeg

2 tsp cinnamon

1 cup nuts (optional)

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (175 C).
  • Grease two 5 x 9 inch loaf pans.  A smaller size will also work, but the timing will need to be adjusted. 
  • In a large bowl mix eggs, sugar, vanilla.
  • Mix in the fruit/veggies, butter, apple sauce. 
  • Sprinkle baking soda and salt over the mixture.
  • One cup at a time, add the flour and stir.  If you do it all at once it will be very hard to incorporate.  This is a thick, sticky dough. 
  • Mix in the cinnamon, nutmeg and nuts (if using).
  • Divide the batter between the two pans.
  • Bake for 45 minutes to an hour.  I find the zuchini version takes longer to cook.  You'll know they're done when the tops are golden and a fork stuck into the center comes out clean. 
  • Cool in pans for 10 minutes.

Refrigerator bread 033014

 


Peas Glorious Peas

We're expecting single digit temps overnight.  My partner Z is wrapped up in not one, but three blankets on the couch, and I have turned on the heat in my office for the first time in a month.  The weather may not realize that winter is over, but in my mind it's a thing of the past. 

Back in February I dusted off the grow lights, poured some potting soil and planted some seeds.  This was admittedly early, but I had two good reasons.  One, was that I wanted to know if the seeds I had left over from last year were still any good.  Many of them weren't.  The second reason was less practical; I was ready to see growth!  Life!  Green! 

Snap peas soak 031014

Turns out I wasn't the only one.  Jenna Woginrich over at the ColdAntlerFarm blog was eager for green too.  She announced The Cold Antler Farm Snap Pea Challenge (click the link to see her great graphic).   The challenge is simple.  Anyone who wanted to join just had leave a comment on her blog and plant some peas on the 12th.  The benefit (aside from the excitement of seeing that first millimeter of green emerge from the earth) is that you get to compare progress and methods with everyone else who joined in. 

So here goes:

Planted: Amish Snap Peas from Seed Saver's Exchange.  SSE and Annie's Heirloom Seeds are my favorite sources for seeds since they keep the old non-patented seed varieties going.  I've read that the West Concord library branch has a seed library for patrons.  Isn't that a great idea?  When I make it over there I'll tell you all about it.

Soil: Commercial potting soil.  I would have added compost, but mine is still frozen.

Light: Grow light.  I have it on roughly 12 hours a day, but I'm not precise about it.

First Signs of Life:roughly a week after planting

Today roughly half the seeds I sewed have sprouted.   The package didn't give any information about peas' preference in terms of moisture, so I've been watering daily.  I have a spay bottle and I also pour water into the tray under the seed pots. 

Peas 032314

Those are the facts.  Those are what I capture in my gardening log, with an aim of having something to look back on in the future.  Those have nothing to do with what I love about gardening.  Each year I take notes on what I do and what happens as a result, but whether it's the way I take these notes or simply that I'm not all that interested in the science behind gardening, I haven't managed to turn those notes into anything useful.  Instead, I take photo after photo of each plant's progress, like the proud parent of a newborn.  No one else sees anything worth grinning so widely about, but I smile at the way all plant chutes start out the same verdant chartreuse, the way peas come up looking like question marks that slowly unfurl into certainty as they reach for the sky, and the way tomato plants fill the room with scent as strong as any rose. 

Unless I learn to delight in the soil and light needs of my various plants, I will never really progress as a gardener and get the vegetable yields I hope for; but for now I'm happy playing the part of proud plant mama. 

Pea closeup 032314