Friday, January 30, 2015

Warmth, Wonder, and Pumpkin Soup

 Last week, I saw a beautiful picture that no one could never capture. A man leaning against a window, his crisp shirt and best Sunday vest a perfect complement to the white wood frame and clean window glass. A perfect silhouette, his hands folded in prayer as a halo of sunlight surrounded him. Then he wiped away a tear. Those who saw it knew his prayer. A sick wife, doctors and treatments and fear. It was a holy moment, never to be recorded by film but painted for a moment in time on a canvas of faith.

I'll never know who else quietly observed the discreet prayer said in the open, but I understood the lesson. We are constantly being shown faithfulness and love, and each moment that we notice and capture in whatever way we can is a gift. A twinkling jewel in our hand that will fade with memory and lose luster in time, but it sparkles for us for a season. The jewels are not rare, they are abundant. Sometimes they are recorded and shared, but more often they are tucked away in our hearts. At the worst times, they go unnoticed and are ignored completely. Lord, help me to notice each one.

Later that same day, our family drove to the beach and showed Little Mister the wonderful ocean for the first time. There, I witnessed and captured many moments of wonder, curiosity, and awe. 

 Someone was a little surprised to discover that the waves come AT you.
 So many discoveries...shells, bits of crab, driftwood, and even a forgotten sand shovel from summer past.

He could have given us one type of treasure, one sweet moment, one type of shell, one color in the sky. He has given us an abundance.

 He got the hang of running from the waves.

Oh, and that crazy hat. It's from last year and too small for his head. But it is warm and snug.

Tonight, it is twelve degrees and the wind is blowing. It was the perfect night for soup and grilled cheese. This recipe would work just as well with butternut squash, but I used pumpkin. The garlic and thyme make it very flavorful.

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 scant tsp. salt
3 cups pumpkin puree
3/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 tsp. thyme
1 1/2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 cup milk
1/4 tsp.pepper 

Heat stock, salt, pumpkin, onion, garlic, thyme and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Puree the soup using a stick blender or in batches with a blender/food processor, and bring to a boil again. Reduce heat and simmer for another 30 minutes.
Stir in milk or cream, and garnish with parsley.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Photo Contest

For the past couple years, I had been trying to take a photo of the deer crossing the road in front of our house at sunset. It was especially tricky as they time it perfectly to the sunset and not the clock, and the whole dance lasts less than a minute. Finally, one evening, I readied my camera and stood on the edge of our property. I waited for the deer to gather in the field and then make their crossing against the scenic backdrop. 

Well, the best laid plans. 

The first deer spotted me and seemed reticent to do anything. That deer promptly told the others. Just as I moved in for the shot, they threw it in reverse and bolted into the woods wagging their white tails behind them. 

My fault for not attaching my best zoom lens.

Now, let me tell you the story of the picture I did get which was tainted with laughter, confusion, and a surprise ending. 
Last summer I snapped this adorable picture of the Little Mister in the corn field behind our house. Taken with an old low megapixel point-and-shoot, I humbly submitted it to an annual photo contest in a popular state-wide farm newspaper. When the submission was initially printed, they made a horrible mistake on my last name. Here are some facts about my last name: 

  • It was originally The Mister's, of course.
  • It is only three letters long.
  • It is impossible to mispronounce and is not uncommon. 
How could this go wrong?

Well, they could misspell it as I-S-L-A-M. Yes, my photo was credited as "Monica Islam".

How on earth? 

I laughed about it for three days before sending a polite and well humored e-mail to the editor, who was extremely apologetic and very embarrassed. He assured me he had no idea how this happened, admitted it was a terrible mistake, and thanked me for my gracious e-mail. He also assured me there would be an attempt at a correction in the next issue. Only there wasn't, and none was ever printed. Ah, well.

I forgot about the contest for a while, and enjoyed the other entries as they were printed. Charming little girls in milking parlors and brothers posed in wooden wagons.

Then, the new year rekindled my memory.
"You know," I said to the Mister just last week, "The least they can do since they didn't print the name correction is select me as winner and award my son a cash prize." I was joking, of course.

Except that it did win. Within a week I was notified that my picture won the 2014 photo contest and a nominal monetary award for Little Mister's farm fund.

"On its own sorry again about the name..."

It was announced as winner in the paper and reprinted along with my correct three-letter last name. 

Never could I imagine a story of delayed gratification quite like this, one that writes its own ending.

Friday, January 9, 2015

My Journey to a Clutter-Free Home

I'm not a winter person, but I do like how clean the snow makes everything appear.

A few months ago, I did a big clean out of my belongings as one of my seasonal cleaning projects.

I've been living clutter free for three months now, and I love it. 

It is everything you think it is, and also some things you probably wouldn't imagine. While the mind references popular images of clean counter tops and sparse rooms with decorative baskets holding two books and an umbrella, it is not that. It is livable without being sparse.

Here is what clutter free means at my house: Everything is in use, has a use, or is something we flat out love. If you love it, that alone makes it useful. 

Clutter free does not mean that I never have to take three things out of a cabinet before I find the bottle of vitamins that dropped down behind some dishes. It does not mean there is never anything that needs to be sold, donated, or reassigned. It does not mean that we do not have to store anything. Indeed, there will always be Christmas decorations in the attic, wrapping paper tucked away for the next gift, and swimsuits and towels that await warmer days. I maintain one small laundry basket in a corner for items on their way out, usually the final stop before they are donated. 

While I'm uncertain that there is a one-size fits all solution to getting stuff out of your living space, here is how it unfolded for me:

It took time. Three years worth of cooking magazines did not show up on my doorstep all at once. Also, persistence. Every time something was moved around I would analyze whether it was something we still needed or desperately wanted, especially with seasonal changes. A few posts back I mentioned our small house, and I think that is also a big help. If you don't get rid of the things that are no longer useful, you will have no room for new things to come into your home. Most of us have a finite amount of space to work with, and valuing the creation of empty space is as important as filling a space.

I adopted a one-in, one-out philosophy. If I was bringing home something, what was it replacing? More often than not, something that was broken or worn out.

It's a constant process. Although there is a time when you can savor and enjoy the things you own without the distraction of old stuff that has worn out its welcome, living without clutter require vigilance. After all, we're people who require tangible tools for living, and sometimes that is a family heirloom or less romantically, something made in China. There will be new stuff, old stuff, sentimental stuff, and stuff you can't stand.

The biggest challenge? Getting everyone on board with it. The Mister is a man who likes his stuff, but even he realizes you can't fit a castle in a cottage. The mail delivery assaults us with new paper every day, and if Old MacDonald read just a fifth of the farm journals that arrive each month, there wouldn't be much time for pigs and cows. Be gentle, persuasive, and a good example. If all else fails, buy nice baskets and put stuff in them, and then remind the owner of the contents that the basket needs periodic attention.

 When clutter knocks on your door, it may wear a disguise. It could be a bag of hand-me-downs that are the wrong size and season, or something that seems like a bargain although you don't need it. Calmly explain that your treasures are being stored up in heaven. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Gingerbread Play Dough

 This time of year always fills me with hope, as I ponder the 
miracle of Jesus' birth. If a King could be born in a stable, anything could happen. When I was a child, Christmas was a time of wonder. I hope to never lose that feeling of child-like wonder.

The wonders of His love, the wonders that He doeth, and the wonders of heaven.

It's a spectacular experience to see the wonder in Little Mister's eyes, now that he is getting old enough to comprehend Christmas a little more. All the tiny delights that prompt round eyes and mouth to form an "oh" of awe. I long for a heart filled with awe at the miracle of the season. To see everything anew, through the eyes of a child, is a gift meant for all of us. I'm sure of it, and think it's meant to be carried with us all year too.

 I did little in the way of decorating this year. Just some basics and a few things that were handy. When I decorate for this time of year, I do like to mix old things with new. Treasured and timeworn alongside new.

 One afternoon, as I do every year, I baked a large batch of gingerbread cookies. An army of molasses men waiting for decoration. What fun to surprise those little round eyes with all of those gingerbread men awaiting faces of icing and garments of sprinkles. 

But what's this? An impostor! 

No, it's NOT a gingerbread cookie. It's homemade play dough made to LOOK and SMELL like gingerbread! What a neat gift. One of Little Mister's teacher's shared the recipe for this unique clay. 

1 cup flour
1/2 cup salt
1 Tbsp. cream of tartar
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cup water 

Food coloring (or Koolaid powder)

Optional: If you want it to smell like gingerbread dough, add 1/4 cup allspice, ginger, and nutmeg. But I want you, it really does smell like gingerbread dough and your kid will want to eat it. So will your pets. 

For gingerbread dough: Mix spices until you get the scent/color that you want. 

Mix all dry ingredients in a pot, then add oil and water to mixture. Cook over low-medium heat, stirring frequently until mixture forms a mound. Remove from heat, cool slightly and knead together. Cool completely before having fun and store in an airtight container. 

For colored play dough: Add food coloring to oil and water before adding to dry ingredients, and omit spices.

Wishing all of my readers a Christmas filled with the joy and wonder of a mighty King.

Monday, December 8, 2014

No Cost or Low Cost Gifts for the Special Needs Parent

Would you like to give a gift that could cost as little as a couple dollars or even nothing at all? Chances are, you know someone who has a child with therapy needs, doctor appointments, endless meltdowns, and some tired parents holding the whole thing together. Sometimes we're just holding it together with string, chewing gum, and a little duct tape. In my experience, our loved ones want to help but don't know how. Sometimes they offer money, and hey, that's great. Depending on what kind of needs your child has, money might help. But for those of us holding our own in that department, there is something even more valuable you can give and that is TIME and CREATIVITY

Here are some ideas to get you started...

Offer to go on a doctor appointment and/or babysit the siblings. Children with a diagnosis often have extra doctor appointments, sometimes scheduled up to a year in advance. These appointments might be 30 minutes away or at some specialist 3 hours away. Offer to go along and be an aide while mom fills out paperwork or asks the doctor questions. Alternately, mom might need a babysitter for her other children. 

Make a busy pack. This so easy, inexpensive, and even a little fun. Find a craft of the appropriate level, assemble instructions and materials in a zipper seal bag, and hand it to mom. If you are not the crafty type, find a few inexpensive toys, maybe a small book, and a novelty treat. Give it to mom on the sly so she can add it to her arsenal to subvert a tantrum or rainy day meltdown.

Offer to help at church. This is a big one. Church should be a refuge, but for special needs parents it is too often a depleting war zone. I can't begin to tell you how many parents would be encouraged by someone asking if they could help with your child during Sunday School or take a child out to the playground after church so the parents can enjoy some fellowship after the service. It would absolutely be a gift.

Donate an hour.- Offer to run an errand, take their car to the wash, or take the kids to the park for a nature walk. How about an hour of respite in your home? It might just be the time a parent needs to make phone calls, do paperwork, or just decompress. We'll take it.

Give your special skill. Photographer? Offer a free mini session. Baker? Drop off a couple loaves of bread. Do you enjoy sewing? Take on the mending pile. It all makes a difference.

There are probably at least a dozen more ideas, but this could serve as a jump off point if you choose to bless a parent of a special needs child on any occasion. If you still find money to be the best option, no one in the history of mankind has ever turned down a gift card. Also, many parents rely on services from non-profit organization that do yearly fund drives. Ask when the next fund drive is taking place and donate at that time. 

Finally, sharing this list in some way would be a free gift, too. Who knows where it might touch a heart and inspire goodness?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Hanging in the Balance

You know, when Little Mister started his daily afternoon preschool program I thought, now I'll have plenty of time to get things done.

You know who that joke was on, don't you?

Most days still feel a lot like I did as a young waitress many, many moons ago when I struggled to get meals to table five just as table six ran out of drinks, while tables seven and eight sent up smoke signals for their check.

 I do not want to be one of the people who glorify "busy-ness".  No one wants to stand in a monsoon when they can sit beside the still waters. Sometimes I think my life will be spent finding the balance, a way to keep everything gliding like a smooth carousel while I ride the horse of my choice. 

There is a selfishness inherent in busyness. When the preoccupation with our to-do lists and the constant focus on our own interests take over, can we spare time to look outside of our families, our house, our own little worlds and extend love to others? I struggle with finding a balance when dueling priorities come knocking at the door.

Recently, someone complimented me on something I do for Little Mister. It's nice when that happens, and rare. Mothers don't get nearly enough of that sort of thing. It was so unexpected that I shrugged it off with a yes, well, I do that because it's fun. It's something I can do, so I do it. I can't do everything, but I can do that. It taught me the truth of an old saying:

You do what you can. 

Part of finding balance, I think, is noticing what you can do and finding some satisfaction in knowing that there is something you often do well. It makes up for the chronically un-swept porch or leftovers that went to waste. There's no perfection this side of eternity, but there are certain things that you do well. It's the heavy weight on your scale.

Isn't it funny how some tasks can be done effortlessly, while others can so thoroughly deplete you? I could probably spend substantial time baking in the kitchen and never notice the clock. I could travel many miles and loose track of the days. A Sunday afternoon can disappear faster than a drop of water evaporating in a glass on a warm day.

I spent one such afternoon gathering up a few apples that had been hanging around too long and turning them into a deliciously moist Apple Crumb Bread. I adapted it from a recipe out of The Busy Mother's Cookbook. I love a cookbook that doesn't shy away from simple ideas. If this strikes your fancy, just know that I modified the original by adding a lot more apple and decreasing the sugar.

Wouldn't it be fun to dab some apple butter on it?
1/2 c. butter
3/4 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. baking soda
2 Tbsp. milk
2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
2 1/2 c. chopped apples

1 tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
2 Tbsp. brown sugar

Cream butter, sugar, and eggs in the mixer.
Dissolve baking soda in milk and add. Add flour, salt, and vanilla. Add apples last. Mix thoroughly and put into one large greased loaf pan. Mix topping and sprinkle on top. Bake at 325 for an hour. 

LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Psalms 39:4

Friday, November 21, 2014

Gifts of November

 It is seven in the morning as I walk around the perimeter of our beloved Compound, and deceptively noisy. The wind and a light sound of battered leaves surround me. In a matter of hours the leaves will fall from this tree, a skeleton of branches left behind.

With a light frost on the ground, my feet crunch with every step.

Honking, honking everywhere. Geese en route to warmer places fly overhead and take a break at their rest stop in the field.

I don't recall ever noticing that November is so alive.

 At our church's annual Thanksgiving carry in, I am one of five people who were asked to give a brief testimony of gratitude. My first thought was all the obvious blessings- family, friends, food, shelter, health. Especially health. I had a broken ankle and a walker this time last year, so I'm especially mindful of that one. My next thought was that everyone is going to get up and say that they are thankful for those exact things. I wanted something less rote, something more specific and easily hidden, something unique to my life at this point in time right now.

I spent a week being mindful of the lesser blessings, those small but meaningful moments of thanks that get lost in the fold, or perhaps never even make it out of the dryer.

Here are some things I found and sorted.

I am thankful for opportunities to give, and am thankful every time I witness someone who wants to give their time and resources to others in need. This is a good time of year to observe this, as it becomes more abundant with Christmas approaching. I am thankful if someone in need is being fed, clothed, or comforted by any laborer in the field. It happens often, but it's a bonus if I get to see it.

I am thankful every time someone asks about our son, asks about his progress, or just plain asks about his unique diagnosis. Any opportunity to share the joy of his accomplishments or educate someone about Childhood Apraxia of Speech is a personal blessing. To advocate for your children is a special extra-credit assignment.

I am thankful that my husband will be working on Thanksgiving day. It means he has an important job that is in demand. Yes, once in a while we have to reschedule a holiday, but not every holiday. You get used to it when you have a loved one who works in the medical field.

Finally, I'm thankful that I don't shop in any actual stores on the day after Thanksgiving. I can't think of any place I would rather not be than out in the crowds. My Christmas shopping is done, anyway. I guess I can be thankful for that, too.

South bound journey.

What are your unique blessings?


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