Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Gift

This Christmas will be a memorable one for us. Our little duckling is walking and babbling, and into more things than ever before. I think this year we'll really enjoy the season in a whole new way. We do a simple Christmas, minimal decorations, gifts for children, and a tradition of making unplanned memories. Christmas here smells like apples and baked sugar, and look like pine cones, greenery with hints of tiny lights, and a string of cards.

Both of the photos of decorations in this post were taken at my local farmer's market, which is decorated beautifully for the season.

Recently, a conversation I was having online with a group of women jogged my memory about a special Christmas story that I've never told anyone. I've only ever written one Christmas story, but that was more of a family history story and not so much a personal one. The one I was prompted to tell recently was personal, and made a deep impression on me as a child. 

It was during the years when we lived on the old farm property at the edge of the woods, the place where we lived the longest. Our neighbor was a miserable old man, such a stereotype, but oh, he was the grumpiest. He had a wife of great endurance who had a front row seat to his many temper tantrums, the kind of which all the neighbors could hear and that seemed to echo throughout the fields and forests. You could even hear him stomp his feet during the yelling. If I told you his last name, you would just about fall off your chair because it is the kind of name that dooms someone to a life of distress, such as the one he appeared to live. It was Panic. Mister Panic.

Mr. Panic had no friends in the neighborhood, a foul temperament and an unruly dog that bit children. As our family was his nearest neighbor, he reserved a special ire for us, a front that was both noisy and antagonistic. I was too young to remember, but for years I heard the story of the time he called the fire department on us for having a barbecue. We had no idea why a fireman with an axe was standing on our front doorstep while we innocently flipped burgers over a small charcoal grill. It was that kind of nonsense which we put up with for years. We got along best we could, ignored his childish vents, and turned the other cheek.

One Christmas morning, after we had breakfast and had opened gifts, my father went outside for a moment and came back with an amazing story. Mr. Panic had caught him out by the street and with a tear in his eye, shook my dad's hand, wished him a Merry Christmas and told him what a nice family he thought we were. I'm sure my mouth opened wide in awe, because it never occurred to my young mind that a bad person could have a change of heart like that. It was inconsistent, wildly absurd in my limited experience. If Mr. Panic could become nice, well, anything could happen.

I rarely tell this story, but I never forgot it. Our neighbor gave us a gift that morning, the kind that you take every where, but isn't heavy to carry with you. You never out grow it, it doesn't take up any space, and you can share it with others. It's the best kind of gift. 

Think about it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Welcome to The Compound

Am I the only one in blog land without a cute name for my home? It seems the internet is littered with Blessed Acres and Faithful Farms. I just made those up, don't hate me if that is what you call your little corner of the earth.

It never occurred to me to name our little farmette. Indeed, we don't run a business, so have no need to call our residence anything other than home. It has little distinctiveness, but no need for a corporate name. It's small, and mostly hidden. Which is why The Mister's brother calls it The Compound.

Let me explain.

One of the first major improvements I insisted on when we moved here was a fenced-in back yard. If I'm going to have dogs, this is a requirement. So the Mister built a six foot fence along the back property line, which took away some lovely scenery but serves us well. Did I mention the fence perimeter is further enforced by some thorny shrubbery that I can't stand? That's right. Don't even think of climbing over our fence.

While The Mister was building a humble wooden fence, I was devising plans for a sixty-foot stone wall and moat to protect the front of my castle. At the very least, it would stop trash thrown out of car windows from floating up to our front door. At the most, it would secure our fortress. The Mister then explained about zoning codes and township-enforced size limits on fences, then came up with another plan. Arborvitae. He could get them wholesale from a cousin who owns a nursery and would plant sixty-some of the tall shrubby trees to shield our estate on all sides not encumbered by a fence. Yea, it came to pass that a mighty wall of shrubbery was built, giving us the appearance of someone bedding down the hatches. Just in case someone was thinking of coming in and sneaking wood from our woodpile. 

The only leaves left are the gold ones. I love seeing this tree from our window on the west side.

Like all of The Mister's designs, the fortified perimeter is extremely functional and not very pretty.  It doesn't exactly scream "Welcome!" It barely whispers of the warm hospitality insidelo. It shields our construction debris, multiple vehicles, projects, animals, and yes, the woodpile, from intrusion. It causes my brother in law to call it The Compound.

The nickname suits my introverted personality and makes me laugh, so I'm okay with that. While I love to look at pictures of pretty houses that are up to their roofs in curb appeal. I also like to read the posts that rarely get written, the ones that make me say, that's like my house! My family! Me too! They say you should write the things that you would like to read yourself. Maybe this reminds you of some quirky area of your life, and makes you fell just a little more, well...welcome. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Middle Ages

One recent Sunday, we went to the local park, where we met up with some friends we had not seen in a while. There was much to report. Growing families, grandparents and even some parents in declining health, who would be taking care of the mother in-law? Life changes were falling around us like jewel colored leaves off a tree.

"The Martin dairy farm is going up for auction this week," she told me, shading her eyes from the sun. They'd be heading out to the county to watch the neighboring farmers bid on the old home place.

"No one wants it?" I asked in disbelief.

"Nope. With six brothers and only one of them farming...it will be sad. What about your grandparent's house?"

Oh, that. Up for sale. Open house today. It's my mom's old home place and it's been tough for her.

I looked at my friend, still thin as a sheet of paper turned sideways. Probably still cutting her dress from the same pattern as when she was sixteen. But wait, are those some gray strands of hair I see peeking out in the front? Did she notice mine?

"These are the kind of things you talk about when you are middle aged," she said with a smile.

Middle aged. 

My friend, who is a few years my junior, was whole-heartedly, joyfully, embracing the concept of a time in life we call middle aged. She was at peace with it, and felt no pressure to be seen as the young women we were ten or fifteen years ago. I loved that. It validated something I always say, which is, you better love whatever age you are and claim it. If you have a problem with forty, you'll have a bigger problem fifty. Have a problem with fifty? Seventy will probably kill you. 

Photo courtesy of friend and frequent commenter BATMom. Don't you love it?
 I remember when I was getting married, thinking what a relief it was that I would never have to worry about who I was going to marry ever again. No more worries about finding the right man, or having to plan my life around the unknown. My middle age feels a little bit like that, in that I no longer wonder who I'll grow up to be, what I'll be like when I'm established. The fruit of the decisions made in the past are here, and ripe. Some are sweet and juicy, a few are seconds I hope to turn into sauce or jam. Either way, I'm the grown up that I knew I'd be someday, and while I'm committed to being a lifelong learner, the peak of the mountain has a wonderful surprise at the top. You can look down and see your youthful worries, indiscretions, and insecurities fading as you climb higher, disappearing as they become smaller. Meanwhile, the view around you is lovely. 

Sometimes I see something and think, oh, I've always liked that. Other times it's more like, oh, if you had told me twenty years ago that I would like this I'd have thought you were crazy. I love how we never stop growing and changing.  

I'm okay with being middle aged, even calling it that. It is a grateful life we lead that we can choose a favorite season that comes around every year, greeting us like an old friend. Then there are the seasons of life that come, stay for a while, and are gone forever having served their purpose. While the warm harvest of summer will always be my favorite time of year, I can enter this season of life peacefully, with confidence that an exciting hay ride awaits.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

For Your Family Bookshelf

A cold and dry winter is being predicted for the north east. A rumor was going around that if corn doesn't peek out of their husks by harvest time, a cold winter is coming. Someone said a local farmer admitted that he hadn't seen so much as a kernel.

The geese know something. They are honking their departure while flying overhead in a southerly direction.

This is the time of year that makes me want to delve into some good reading, but alas, my reading life has really been a closed book since becoming a mother. It's so hard to find uninterrupted time to really engage in a good story. That's why I was very excited when an unexpected gift arrived containing a light, fun, and cozy book that I could really take my time reading.

My lovely friend Mary Ann Kinsinger is making quite a splash with her book Life with Lily, the first in a series, and a cooperative effort with author Suzanne Woods Fisher. The book is based on her childhood, and I love Mary Ann's wholesome and authentic recollections. This would be the perfect book to read aloud to your family, because all ages can enjoy it. One of Mary Ann's writing talents is the ability to express a child's point of view, so that you can really identify with how the child thinks and why they say such cute things. For instance, when Lily's younger brother was born, she is told by her father that God brought him. She immediately wonders whether God is still visiting at their home, and if so, will she get to meet him?

It's not an equal comparison, but the feel of the book reminds me of The Little House series, which is also beloved by children and adults alike. It's good, clean family entertainment.

If you haven't seen Mary Ann's blog A Joyful Chaos, do check it out.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Fall at High Noon

It is noon and it is fall.

I have already showered, fed the baby, assembled my cleaning supplies for something I'll tell you about in a minute, washed a load of towels, welcomed my husband home, cleaned up a huge mess made when a quart jar of tomatoes broke and splattered on the floor, bathed the individual responsible for said crash, cleaned the bathroom, mopped the floors, got an old clock out of the car which had been there since yesterday after being picked up from the repair shop, oh, and made sure other pantry jars are secure as a prevention measure. It is only noon, and I am slowing down.

What is it called when you volunteer to do something as a service, but with a self serving ulterior motive?

In our church, members take turns cleaning the building via a sign-up sheet, where one can take a two week turn at cleaning. Once a year we all come together and do a thorough window washing and whatever else needs to be done, but the year round housekeeping works through the sign up sheet with most signers committing to a month. It was very over-due for my turn, but it wasn't the guilt that got the pen in my hand. It was the smell.

For a very long time I've been noticing a certain stale smell that hangs in the sanctuary and clings to our clothes long after we're home. The Mister can't smell it, but I can, and I plan to eradicate it with the aforementioed cleaning kit which contains numerous odor reducing products. My idea of opening some windows once in a while has never caught on, so now I have to launch chemical warfare. While pumpkin festivals abound, this is what my fall afternoon looks like.

It is an autumn noon, and yet it is eighty degrees. I am sweating in my denim skirt and cotton top, getting ready to meet a friend and her children at the park. I love afternoons at the park, and always keep one eye on the ground for natural things I can show Duckling, things to make his eyes widen and enlarge his world. Things that are not acorns, which he puts in his mouth.Whatever corn is still standing is brown and the bean fields are yellow. I hear thuds from the black walnut tree losing its fruit. The changeable sign at the farmers market has one word on it: Apples.

It is an autumn noon. 

Natural thing found at the park.

As an aside...Last week I shared my abundance of outgrown baby clothes and a few other new and unused items with our local pregnancy crisis center. It's a double win since they are out of our space while hopefully benefiting a baby in need. This past year my heart has expanded in new ways for moms and babies, and pregnancy centers like the one mentioned here do a wonderful service to unborn babies and mothers with few options. Now that yard sale season is over, maybe you will consider donating any gently used baby items to centers like these.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

It's the Little Things

You can thank that little cool snap in the air for keeping me away from blogging. That hint of crispness that makes everyone all moon-eyed over autumn leaves and apple desserts? It terrifies those of us with home improvement efforts underway. It's like receiving a warning notice tacked to your door that tells you the end is near, and pack it up before things get really cold. While everyone else is thinking pumpkins and mums, we're watching the clock.

As you know, I've been fairly open about the struggles of having a fussy baby. But I'm not too sure I have shared some of the triumphs. They do happen, and when they occur you breathe a prayer of thanks and slide down the rainbow singing the praises of another milestone reached. It's like getting a coupon doubled on a clearance item. You want to tell people about it, but you don't want them to think you're some nut who gets ecstatic over something so menial. Something that other babies seem to do naturally, effortlessly.

Since Duckling joined us, church has become an exercise on par with an event of Olympic proportions, a constantly failing game of part chance, part skill, with a whole lot of crying. Things were so bad that I often couldn't go to church, or would only go if it was an easy service with no potluck, special programs, or anything else that would make the church service one minute longer than it had to be for the sake of my little screamer.

If you don't get them to sit still in church by the age of two, they'll never sit still. 
                                                                 -oft repeated lyrics to a song of sorts that I grew up hearing.

We cautiously persevered, as months wore on monitoring signs of maturity and changes in behavior. Finally, one recent Sunday, we experienced victory. We arrived before the service, and for once the inquisitive faces appearing before us seeking a peek of the baby did not cause a storm. The clouds parted and no thunder crashed during the singing. And while there was one trip to the nursery during the sermon, there was no massive protest of unknown origin. My baby was doing it. He was sitting through church. I knew we were in the clear when I heard him vocalizing along to the final song, Oh! To Be Like Thee.

Three days later, I got word that my friend's mother died suddenly, and I would need to haul the Duckling solo to what was bound to be a large and long funeral service. Dare I wish for a repeat performance? 

As I stood in line to enter the church, all I could think was Oh please let the usher seat us in the back near the door. Then he escorted us to a conspicuous outpost which was like being seated in the balcony at a stadium. A few other babies soon followed, and pretty soon the babies were all staring at one another trying to communicate in baby talk, and we were all very far from the nursery. One woman clamped her hand over her baby's mouth, but I couldn't do that. After the initial singing, I headed for the nursery.

Yet again, there was a moment of grace and it happened during the singing. As hundreds of people raised their voices song, so did Duckling, with one long harmonizing note. Not loud, or disruptive, or perfect. Just a sweet low key attempt at making a joyful noise. I had to smile as I drove home and passed this sign...

Because sometimes, it really is the little things.

Friday, August 31, 2012

If Pinterest Was A Person

You say, I just wanted to check in real quick. Maybe there is a fast supper idea here. Can you help me, old (new) friend? I'm not even going to pin anything. I just need a quick look.

Pinterest says, sit down and stay a while. Get comfortable. Speaking of comfortable, did you see this easy diy chair reupholstery project?

Not what I'm looking for at all...huh, macaroni in a mug. A thousand ways to wrap a gift. Vinegar and chalkboard paint will save the world. Ugh, salted caramel. Why won't that just die?

YOU NEED TO PIN THIS NOW AND READ LATER>>>IT HAS OVER 4,OOO RE-PINS>>>Have you prayed for your husband today?

Stop making me feel bad because I didn't pray for my husband today. I trusted God to look after him, okay? Falling leaves, pumpkin latte, a chill in the air. People love autumn. I wish I could get excited about autumn. Mmmm...blackberry crumble, that's exciting. Where are all these pallets coming from that folks build stuff with? I mean, we have pallets laying around but we're building a house. What's their excuse? Smoothies. Pretty wreath...darn, it's a craft. I want to buy it, not make it.

All your friends love this 1885 farm house kitchen. Melanie re-pinned this apple pie.

Seriously? I actually know here. She can make a better pie than that with her eyes closed. Okay, I'm getting distracted. Let me visit my food board.

Wait! 40 ways to tie a scarf!

It's 90 degrees outside. 

Pin now, save for later. You'll be sorry!

Ignoring you....here's some artichoke pasta I re-pinned twice. Brown sugar chicken. Oh, it's spam. Not even a spam recipe, just spam. Yum, there's that lemon cake I've been wanting to try.

You can rub soap on your mosquito bite to make it stop itching. Amanda is now following you. Giraffes!

 I'll get a restraining order. Hey, here's something quick and easy. Whew. Okay, now where was I? Oh yes...that is a cute and doable baby picture. Pin! No scrub cleaner for stove burners...well if that works it's worth something. Ahh, built-ins. I wish we had planned for built-ins before we, uh, started building.

Faith in God Includes Faith in His Timing.

Yes. You know what I really need to pin? Hope. Is there any hope on here?

My HOPE is in HIM. This is the easiest pad Thai you will ever make. It's no-sew. Never shuck corn again!

Yeah, right. If there is one thing I know for certain, it's that I could pin that and be shucking corn tomorrow. Uh oh, was that a cry and a huff? The baby is awake. Gotta go!

Come back! Copy-cat spaghetti baked in garlic bread smothered in salted caramel...

You've held me hostage long enough. Maybe I'll come back and visit later tonight.  But I'm just going to visit, not pin anything. 

...in a Mason jar!

Oh please.

(Edited to say: I actually enjoy Pinterest, and you're welcome to follow me if you do too.)

Follow Me on Pinterest

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Savings of Staying Home

Right off the bat when I quit working, we did lose money, but not as much as one would expect. No more filling up the gas tank three times a week (I lived quite a distance from where I worked). No more store bought snacks or lunches for those days when I didn't or couldn't bring a lunch or snack. Finally, although I find joy in giving and am glad that I can contribute, there were now fewer cash gift contributions to make towards whatever occasion a work place collection was being administered. Because I worked in a large and loving library community, there was a collection almost every week. But one of the biggest savings came in clothing.

I don't dress that differently from what I wore to work to what I wear anyplace else. The main difference is quality and newness, so my clothes with the least amount of wear were the ones that went to church and work, while some old dresses and skirts are really what I wear for day to day cleaning. I had spent so long making sure I had decent professional clothing on hand that it took a few months to remember that I no longer had to dress like that every day. I could now wear my denim skirts, slightly worn tops, and flip flops. Yay! Of course, I can't wear that for every occasion either, so the first time I crafted a nice church-worthy outfit for under $25 I felt like a champ. The only thing about store-bought clothing is that it rarely lasts as long as the items I have sewn, so I definitely want to keep sewing as time allows.

The rainy day we've been saving for.
Another thing I noticed after Duckling came along was that food prices soared last year. Remember, I had spent a year in bed being sick and not getting out much. Then,  I suddenly went to the store and thought What happened here? I read a couple of sources that described low cost meal systems, and found that they fell into two areas. One is the extreme couponing model, where you denounce all brand loyalty and after running to ten different stores with a fistful of ads and coupons, wind up with five boxes of cereal and ten bottles of salad dressing for free. The other technique involves a combination of mass bulk buying and limiting yourself to certain recipes that work with the hundred pounds of chicken legs in your freezer. I have ended up doing what I always did, which was carving out a middle ground that uses a little of both strategies. By using coupons for products we like and use and keeping up with the sales at the 4-5 stores where I regularly shop (two grocery stores, two drug stores, and Target) along with produce stands and a bulk food store, I'm able to make the same delicious meals we always enjoyed, at a decent price.

I still love articles where ladies talk about how they make ends meet and how they feed their families on pennies a day. There is always something usable there, and if not, then I can use the inspiration. Every family has different priorities about what they consider to be essential, and once you know what those are, you can set about finding the best deals and leaving the rest. 

Our formula would not work for everybody. Our lifestyle does not include a satellite or cable television package, car payments, smart phones, cosmetics, or even paying for water and trash removal, with those last two being based on where we live.We're also blessed with an extremely low heating bill every winter thanks to our wood stove and a large amount of wood split by my husband and his family.

The money we've saved by my staying home is off-set to a point by some new expenses. Items for the baby, additional health check ups, and the rare baby sitter. Also, we are still generous when it comes to giving to those who are in need. Because saving means you have more to give, when you live simply so that others can simply live.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Unexpected Reunion

It happens every year. No, not just the reunion, but the fact that The Mister invariably forgets to request off from work the day before the reunion, and we end up having to leave just hours after he comes off of his shift and the poor guy ends up awake for 24 hours straight. It happened again this year, and I drove a baby who had a very bad week and one very tired man out to the annual old-fashioned-farm-machinery-threshing-event that also serves as the backdrop for our extended familial gathering.

The other thing that happens every year is we are nearly always blessed with the sunniest and mildest of August days, bluest skies, and big puffs of flat bottomed white clouds that set off the scenery just so. Tall stalks of corn and light green tobacco leaves waved in a gentle breeze. White farm houses stood stark against a patchwork of hills. This is Lancaster county.

The traffic crawled along the two lane pikes, slower than a snail carrying a full luggage rack on its back. Tourist traffic and the increasing population compete for access on tiny roads that never kept up with the demands, making you run later and later. This is Lancaster, too.

I say it every year, and sometimes we actually do it. "We need to stay over the night before." It's the only way to get an early start.

My head spins. Children from previous years are no longer children, and are instead a foot taller, confident, with big kid mannerisms. My eyes see photo opportunities everywhere, and my hands fumble for my camera, but I'm so busy indulging in adult conversation and looking for familiar faces. Amazingly, our Duckling is not just having a good day, but a great one. There are sandwiches, and fruit cups, homemade root beer, and ice cream in four familiar flavors; Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and black raspberry. This year there were roasted peanuts, too.

A few years ago, we brought two of our dogs. While sitting on a bench holding our pups by the leashes, an old man approached. He reached out a shaky hand towards our friendliest canine, a white fluffy dog named Buddy. The old man's face was alive with pleasure, his sunken mouth open in a wide smile. "May I pet your dog? I love dogs!" His proclamation came in a shaky voice, and he let out an ecstatic chuckle as his hand softly met Buddy's head. A fluffy tail wagged. Our more timid dog hung back. Buddy and the old man were having a moment of joy. It was a moment I could have lived a thousand times over and never got tired of living it. Seeing someone find joy and healing through interaction with a dog still brings me an enormous blessing. 

It happened again this year. 

Lydia, solemn and barefoot, became alive at the sight of a small friendly dog. She tried to feed him a crumb off the ground, but this dog was a pampered pooch and would have none of it. When the dog would look slightly interested she would leap out of her chair, hungry for the interaction of an animal who loves for the sake of loving. Lydia was having a good time, but it was me who was having a reunion with a moment I never forgot.  

Reunions sometimes happen in the most unexpected ways.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My Guest Post Elsewhere

Today I am sharing some of my experiences with Duckling over at The Fussy Baby Site

Mom and baby looking forward to the future together.

I know this won't be of interest to all my readers, but this website was a tremendous source of support and encouragement to me, and still is on rough days. Maybe if you know of someone who is struggling with a colic baby, or just one that seems a little harder to handle, you'll remember this resource and help someone out by mentioning it. Thanks.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Question

The question comes in several forms, usually precipitated by a nervous smile or inquiring raised brow. It goes something like this: "So, how do you like staying home?"

It always takes me aback for a second, for a number of reasons. Although I know what the asker means, it's the implications that make me wonder. The idea that I have sacrificed something, or that I secretly hate it and long to be elsewhere.

"I wanted to ask you when we were completely alone and not in front of anyone so you could tell the truth," whispered one inquisitive soul, as if there was a conspiracy.

Well, I'll tell you the truth. In my mind, being a full time homemaker was, is, and always will be the gold standard of careers. I can't believe I was naive enough to think that everyone else believed this, too. I know an army of women who never in their lives held a job outside the home. Some of these women even spent the first few childless years of their marriage at home full time. It's not like I'm breaking any new ground. But it's a fair question because I did work outside the home before little Mister arrived on the scene.

Here is what I tell those whom ask. It is absolutely the hardest job I ever had, and there are moments just about every day where I long for the luxury of legally mandated bathroom breaks and thirty minute lunches. It is a 24 hour boot camp that uses every skill I have ever acquired, and seems to highlight the ones I never perfected. It is also the most rewarding job ever, and an absolute privilege to invest one hundred percent of my time and energy into my family. It is the best investment I will ever make. I am also painfully aware that not every mother can afford to stay home with her family; the changing economic-based societal choices of the past 30 years have priced some families out of this option. Yet, I wish that every mother who wanted to stay home could do just that. No one will hand you a gold paperweight after twenty years for your service, but I do believe the reward to be immeasurable for all around. In other words, I love being home.

The reactions are varied. Grandmothers are the most sympathetic, often expressing wishes that their own daughters would stay home, could stay at home. As I told one grandmother, "It is the only way I can do this."
No, she said, it is the only way to do this.

Some mothers tell me how they tried to stay at home but just were not good at it. They were "bad" stay at home mothers. These ladies are usually of an outgoing personality type that I could never be in a million years, exuding boundless energy, and so a part of me can imagine that they struggled with the high demand and sometimes confining world of full 24-hour childcare.

Finally, but more rarely, I get the ladies who are flat out baffled that staying at home with one's family is even an option. "You mean, you don't have to work?" Of course, what she means is that it's her experience  that not everyone has to work in a job outside of their home and pay for child care. It's this reaction that I find the hardest to comprehend, and yet I know it is the reality for many families. But this question was asked to me recently by a neighbor who lives in a custom built luxury home, and whose husband works in the oil industry. I have been a guest in her home and know that times are not tough for her family by any standard. She and her husband have one child. Still, the idea of not having to work is, for her, unbelievable. I'd ask her why she thinks she has to work, but I have a feeling that I already know the answer.

Perhaps I'll do a follow up post on the economics of staying home. It's a subject worthy of a little discussion, one I've been thinking about, but don't have a lot of experience in as of yet. It's not a discussion I can have right this very minute anyway, because my family needs me. Yes, it feels good to say that. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Crazy Quilt Summer

Last week I was blessed with an invitation to visit with a friend for lunch. The idea of me offering to bring dessert like in my pre-infant days seemed far fetched when most days I can't even guarantee myself a snack. So I grabbed an empty quart jar and intended to fill it with flowers from a farm stand, only when I got to the stand, the few flowers left were frying in the heat and past their bloom. Ah, the best laid plans. Wondering what to do as the clock ticked, I bought a thin, paltry bouquet of the best of the worst. Since my stem clippers were in the car, I could snatch a few roadside lilies or daisies along the way to fill out the bouquet, piecing together beauty from random places.

This summer has been a case of making it up as we go along, like stitching together a crazy quilt with no plan, discovering hastily added pieces from the remnant pile. Plans have changed with the wind -literally. A gusty storm came through town a few weeks ago and left us without power for days. We were the fortunate ones, as some of our neighbors were stuck in hotels for over a week. No one noticed the Fourth, and the nearby park has remained closed. I showed up for church on Sunday with salad for the potluck a whopping MONTH early. Why yes, I was tired and overwhelmed. Thank you for asking. I'm just clipping flowers along the way during this crazy, mixed up season.

One patch for my crazy quilt arrived in the form of some summer squash from my brother-in-law's garden. I think the best way to enjoy squash is to mix it with corn and make succotash out of it. I found a recipe for a southwest-inspired succotash and adapted it a bit for what I had on hand. It was delicious! The cumin and cilantro made it very flavorful, and a little bit of heavy cream gave it a smooth, silky texture.

Succotash with Summer Squash  (say it ten times real fast)

2-3 jalapeno peppers (or hot pepper of your choice)
olive oil
1 medium red onion, coarsely diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 garlic clove, finely cut
2 cups fresh corn (3 ears)
1 large tomato, diced
2 yellow squash, sliced thickly and cut into thirds
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 T lime juice
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Dice the jalapeno peppers while heating 2T olive oil in a large pan. Cook the jalapenos, onion, and red peppers in oil, stirring constantly for five minutes. Add garlic, black pepper, cumin, and 1/4 tsp. salt and cook for a minute. Add corn, tomatoes, and squash. Season with a shake of more salt and cumin, and then cook covered for 8-10 minutes. Remove lid, and cook for another 5 minutes while stirring until liquid has evaporated. Stir in cream, lime juice, and cilantro. It will take about 3 minutes to thicken. Top off with a little more cilantro. Talk about how good it tastes while eating it.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Our First Family Outing

As some of my long time friends and readers know, I usually declare our annual visit to the Kutztown Folk Festival to be the best day of the year. But for the past two years, it actually hasn't been that at all. Last year I was too sick with my pregnancy to leave the house most days, and the year before, the Mister had a miserable head cold and my stamina was dead after battling an infection. Rough times. This year, however, we were forging ahead with our family tradition and including our newest member in the event. We also met up with some very fun friends at the festival, and despite some early challenges that morning (a storm that knocked out power the previous night, road blocks, baby fussiness, and missing our all important exit off the turnpike) we rolled into the scenic hills of Berks County, PA in the hot noon sun and bravely embarked on our adventure. 

Won't you join us? 

It's only ninety degrees. Stop complaining. Who told you to wear black?
Here's that llama who ignores me every year. But I hear the petting zoo animals are rescues from tough situations, and I am too, so I understand.
They really do bake bread in this. 

First place in the quilt barn. Garden Tracks. It's called hand quilting, folks.
I had never heard this proverb before...interesting!
The Mister showing our Little Mister some petting opportunities.

See you next year!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Living in the Moment: More Peaceful Living

It was the second day of summer, and I was loving it. I sat on a chair with my bare feet wading in the kiddie pool watching Duckling nod off on his bumble bee float. The sky was clear and blue, and the sun sparkled on all three inches of pool water. Off in the distance I could hear the hum of an air conditioner, and much closer, the song of birds. The air smelled fresh and clean. My brain was parked in neutral. I was having that elusive experience that is a complete moment of peace.

I had the presence of mind to ask myself, how did I obtain this moment? How can I have more?

One thing I noticed was that in my peaceful moment, I was engaging almost all of my senses. Everything I saw, heard, touched, and smelled was calm and pleasing. The other thing I noticed was that I was completely engaged in the moment. There were no thoughts of what needed to be done or what happened yesterday. It was full immersion in the present. What a blessing it is to focus on being and not doing, to celebrate and give praise to what life is at that very moment. Oh, it's so simple and yet so rare!

So here is another lesson I learned on obtaining a more peaceful life. Take time to live in the moment. Engage all of your senses in that moment. Most importantly, plan for peaceful moments, and if you can't plan, then be on the look out for random moments of being still that you can cultivate into quiet moments of joy.

Notice I said, engage all your senses. You didn't think I'd forget about taste, did you?

It's berry time, and I'm thrilled that despite my complete negligence of them this past year, we've been enjoying a black raspberry harvest. I love these berries. They are actually quite scarce in our area and expensive when found.

This is a recipe I adapted from Country Woman. You can use any kind of raspberry for it. In keeping with my simple yet practical style, it's fast, easy, and you can reconfigure the sugar content to suit your taste. My berries went from fresh picked to dessert dish in about 20 minutes.Could anything with the word dumpling in it ever taste bad?

Raspberry Dumplings

  • 1 pint fresh or frozen raspberries
  • 1/2 cups sugar, plus an extra 2-3 teaspoons for dumpling mix
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 and 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 and 1/2 cups prepared baking mix*
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • Ground nutmeg for sprinkling

  • *Big yellow box, store brand, or your own.

    In a 3-qt. pan, combine raspberries, 1/2 cup sugar, water and cornstarch; stir to blend. Bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce heat to low.
    Meanwhile, combine baking mix, milk and a couple teaspoons of sugar sugar in a bowl. Mix until a soft dough forms. Drop dough by spoonfuls onto berries. Cook over low heat, uncovered, 5 minutes. Cover and cook 10-15 minutes more, or until dumplings are cooked through. 

    Sprinkle dumplings with a dash of nutmeg and serve warm with ice cream. 
    Yield: 5 servings.

    Saturday, June 16, 2012

    Peaceful Living: One Big Thing

    Hydrangea time
    It was a late spring day like any other. The front door seemed to slam repeatedly as the loud thud of the Mister's work boots walked to and fro, retrieving tools, taking measurements, an occasional hammer or electric saw. A tractor across the road set the dogs off on a barking frenzy. Somewhere, a car horn expressed discontent or malice. The phone rang. In accordance with the laws of nature, our phone only rings when my hands are full, usually carrying a huge pot of boiled water. Not wanting to waste it by pouring it down the drain, I was making my way outside to pour it on the weeds for some quick organic weed control. It's a constant battle to keep our stone driveway from sprouting a meadow in the warm months. Canning season does a lot for organic weed maintenance when I can kill them off with hot water.

    Ignoring the phone as usual, I made my way outside just as a car was pulling into said weedy driveway. A man poked his head out of the vehicle window.
    "Are you the goat people?"
    "Do you have goats?" he asked.
    I looked around to double check. What if I said no while there was a runaway goat standing behind me?
    I confirmed that we did not, but I know who did, and so after some directions to our neighbors, the man thanked me and made his way to the house one street over. But before he did, he made a curious comment.

    "It's so peaceful out here."

    You could have fooled me.

    Surely I gave him a look that showed I had no idea what he was talking about, but I did know. It's easy to view green fields and quaint country churches sandwiched between farm stands and feel, well, soothed. Even with nearby cities and suburbs encroaching from all sides, people find rural stretches of road synonymous with peace. Less traffic, less noise, more sky. I wouldn't trade it for anything else.

    I make peaceful living a priority. That means I limit artificial noise whenever possible, noise made by non-organic things. We'd rather hear the duckling laugh, the rain on the roof, and the dog bark rather than electronic beeps. I'm always on the look out to clear clutter, which is nothing more than visual chaos. We like fresh air and a relaxed lifestyle. All too often, these things elude me and circumstances takes over. Even the quaintest landscape looks most peaceful before the tornado funnel arrives.

    One way I've put more peace into my life lately is by throwing away my to-do list. This doesn't mean I chuck all my responsibilities out the door (who could get away with that?) but if I'm going to make peaceful living a priority, then I need to save my sanity and revamp my goals. Instead of a to-do wish list, I've started doing what I call "one big thing." Every day when I get up I ask myself what is the most important "big thing" that has to be done today. It could be laundry. It could be seeing a friend. It could be a much needed trip to the store, or a home project that needs attention. Barring sickness, emergencies, or locust plagues, I can usually get the one big thing done. Anything else I can do on top of that is icing on the cake, and it feels so good. Most of the time it's surprising how many other things I am able to get done besides the big thing, but there is no pressure to do them. I feel more productive and less stressed than when I held myself to a list of demands which often made me feel like a failure when I couldn't complete all of them in a single day.

    My image in the bird bath, looking for some still waters.
    What makes your life peaceful? Tell me about it, or just think about it, but by all means, don't put that on your to-do list.

    Wednesday, June 6, 2012

    Book Review: Your Secret Name

    I decided to pray about a ministry opportunity for the second half of my life. You know, I'm 40 years old. This is half time. I want God to use me for something in the upcoming years, where I can serve Him and others. It's in helping others that we lose ourselves, and those petty me-centered house flies that keep sneaking in through the hole in the window screen. Although that is something I cognitively know, it's sometimes a challenge to apply.

    Right around this time, someone recommended a book called Your Secret Name by Kary Overbrunner, which uses the story of Jacob and Esau to helps you better understand who God intends for you to become. The author injects a lot of his own story into this book, and as he had a history of self abuse, his story of overcoming this difficult burden can be very hair raising at times. I had to admire him for having the guts to tell his story and transformation in such a real way. I don't always admire raw honesty because not everything needs to be said all of the time, but it served the purpose in this case.

    Anyway, I had been praying about how God might want to use me through some of the things he has given me a heart for, some of my gifts. It's hard to look that far ahead and imagine how He might use someone who as of right now is knee deep in the unassuming world of baby care and home management. But the more I prayed about it, the more God gave me clarity by helping to recall a few key moments that happened over the years which provided a glimpse of where He might use our family one day. It was soon after recalling these events that I read Kary Oberbrunner's take on this:

    We get a tiny peek of what could be- the possible -while taking a vacation from what is- the actual. Only a fleeting foretaste, and then, as quick as it came, it's gone. The following days, years, and perhaps even decades help us hone in on that original vision we received. Time brings clarity. Yet for the moment we must be content to simply understand where we are and how far we must travel in order to arrive at our destination.

    ...The hope is that such a glance, however brief, will inspire us to get on the path of discovering who we were created to be.

    I love when a book I'm reading is timed perfectly to be relevant to real life, right now.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this book and just wanted to share an encouraging piece of it with you. Did it help me find my secret name? Perhaps. Even better, while reading it I got some affirmation about pursuing a ministry idea for the future. Now I'm really excited about THAT and someday if, no, when, that idea comes to fruition I'll gladly share it here.

    Just one other random note on this book. I have no idea why the publisher chose the cover that they did, with the lady in sandals and a long dress. The cover kind of feminizes the book unfairly, because it's definitely not a book written just for women, and the author is a man. I just felt it was an odd choice, but maybe there is some symbolism I'm missing out on that others might comprehend.

    Finding a good book at the right time is like finding a four leaf clover.

    On a final note, this book was recommended by Trudy Metzger who is doing an excellent blog series on the topic of spiritual abuse. If you or someone you love has ever been hurt by a church, organization, or someone in position of leadership, I urge to you to check her blog out.

    Monday, May 21, 2012

    Outside Ideas

    This year, once again, it's the inside of our home getting all the attention while rampant neglect reigns outside. It makes me look twice as longingly at other yards where I can both appreciate their beauty and their owner's hard work. Lately I can't stop idea shopping for when we reach the landscape phase of our renovation. Although there won't be anything fancier than a bird bath and a new deck, I can't stop seeing simple and cute garden ideas everywhere. Here are a few of my favorites...

    I love these partially buried clay pots full of succulents. My source tells me these are called "chicks and hens."  

    I hope no one was looking through those blinds watching me take a picture of this fanciful bicycle planter. I love all the little places on it to slide in some flower pots.

     Who says a bird bath can't also be a stand for pots of pansies?

     It's an umbrella...it's a tree...it's an umbrella tree~ whatever it is, I appreciate its dual purpose of looking cute and providing shade.

     Campanulas (also called Bellflowers) are nice easy perennials. So pretty and delicate...would love to get some of these into the flower bed next year. 

    Or why not accessorize the grass with a baby? 

    Just so there is no confusion...these pics were not taken where we live, but while visiting family. The busy two lane road where we live, populated by farms and fields, is pretty underwhelming as far as gardens are concerned. It makes me appreciate these scenes even more. 

    Saturday, May 12, 2012

    Mommy Style: A Tongue in Cheek Look at Who We Are

    The lady sized me up over her bifocals. She scrutinized my application while phones rang in the background of the busy office.
    "So, you are seeking to apply for a specific style of mothering. Is that correct?" she asked.
    "That's right. Do you have any available?"
    "Well. We need to see what you would best be suited for and then we'll go from there."
    "I see."

    In my head, the many different kinds of mothers I had observed over the years surrounded me. Where did I fit in?

    "Now, I see you are applying to be a Loving, Patient, and Thoughtful mother. Just how did you hear about that position?"
    "From Hallmark, the card company. It's their biggest selling card, and I think it fits my skill set."

    But that was wishful thinking, and only half the story. Just that morning I had screamed in frustration when the world's fussiest baby quacked for hours for no reason I could discern, and wouldn't even take a nap. Fully convinced I would never be able to get out of my bath robe again, I handled it with as much grace as I could, which turned out to be an amount so small you would need a NASA microscope to see it.

    "That's a very competitive style. Many apply, and many don't make it. Do you have any secondary choices?" She refocused her attention on my application.
    "Um, yes. Fun mom, or Organized mom."
    "Fun mom, you say? What appeals to you about that?"

    I thought it would be neat to be the kind of mom who always has fun outings and learning opportunities planned, a constant playmate to my curious little guy. The kind of mom I see sitting on a blanket at the park with her toddler having a blast on a clear sunny day. That looked appealing. That could be me.

    "Remember all that energy you had when you were twenty years old? Do you still have any of it?"
    "No," I confessed sadly. "I used it all up digging potatoes and writing academic papers."
    "Let's think about Organized mom."

    Someone told me they heard about it at a place called The Container Store. I'm not only natural a stickler for organization, but I find joy in it. Since becoming a mother, there have been no late night runs to the store because we ran out of something, never a time when I absolutely needed to do the laundry for fear of nothing to wear, never a time when I didn't know where every little errant baby sock in the house was located. Things did slip by the wayside, but never for very long. This could go places.

    "Have you ever left the house and forgot to put diapers in your bag?"
    "Just once," I admitted, "but I thought some were in there. That never happens now. Never. I spend all morning making sure the diaper bag is well stocked."
    "Oh? What happens when you have to be someplace in the morning? Do you do it the night before?"
    "No, that would never happen because it's impossible for me to ever leave the house before noon. Physically impossible. Also, I never forget anything except for when I do, which is all the time since I became a mom."
    This was going nowhere. "Look, what kind of mom style openings are left?"

    The interviewer spun around and tapped the computer keyboard.
    "We always have openings for Helicopter mom..."
    "I don't know what that is."
    "It's where you hover over your child, managing every detail of their life closely and lose yourself in the minutiae of your child's existence. The assignment starts when they become school aged."
    Ugh. No way. It sounded noisy and unbalanced.

    I thought about the times I try really, really hard with Duckling, doing my best and how sometimes I fall wildly short, and other times exceed beyond my expectations.

    Hey, wait a minute.

    "Do you have something like a "Doing My Best mom"? Oh sure, it turned out that not only were there many loyal members in the Doing My Best corps, but that many of the best moms were operating in some subdivision of that company. Even better, this Division is always hiring as there is an endless need for this mom-type.

    "Congratulations. This position and title are retroactive. Oh, and Happy Mother's Day"

    Friday, May 11, 2012

    I Did It: I Busted My Fabric Stash

    This post is basically meant as inspiration for someone who wants to get their fabric scraps busted and organized. It was a long term project that I worked at little by little, mainly anywhere from 15 minutes a day to a couple hours a week. The motivation was to get a grip on my over flowing fabric bin, and to take an inventory of what fabric I already own. A review of your fabric inventory never hurts, and I was surprised at what I forgot I had!  My goal and ultimate motivation was to find fabric that could be rediscovered and prepped for future sewing projects. If you love to be organized, like I do, then I encourage you to take some of these ideas and take control of your fabric remnants.

    Here are the steps:

    1. Empty out your fabric drawer, box, cabinet, whatever. Decide what is really worth keeping. This is actually the easiest part. 
    • Keep It: Premium fabric bought for specific projects that you just haven't gotten around to making yet, fabric that you just love no matter how much is left, expensive fabric, fabric of significant yardage, any scraps of decent width or length. This amount will vary depending on the type of sewing you do and your craft needs. I chose to keep fabric if it was large enough to make a pillow case, since that is a common need in our home. I may have kept some fabric that was less than that amount if it was solid colored and could be used as backing for other projects.
    • Toss It: Really old fabric that has faded or degraded, small scraps of material leftover from craft projects that you are just tired of seeing and won't find joy in creating anything new out of, any scraps leftover from something that you made only to discover the material didn't hold up or has faded terribly. I would also add to this list, any significant yardages of material (including bolts) that are taking up space and that you realistically cannot commit to making use of in the near future. In my stash, I found some large yardages of dress fabric that are identical to dresses I already own; Since it was over more than a yard of fabric, I chose to donate it to the Christian Aid Ministries sewing program.
    2. What you should have left, after turning some things into rags and throwing out tiny scraps that are too mangled or in poor condition, is a mini-mountain of oddly shaped scraps in varying sizes and lengths. If it is anything like mine was, then they are also horribly wrinkled. This pile will be a walk down memory lane of everything you have made over the years. You'll get to fall in love with some of your favorite florals and stripes all over again, while having some "What was I thinking?" moments about others.  

    An ugly plastic grocery bag full of scrap material.
    Now you are ready to bust.

    Decide on a reasonable strategy for your mini-mountain. Do you have some projects that you make repeatedly as gifts? Do you know of a million things to do with squares or triangles? Have you always wanted to make a yo-yo quilt? The time is now. I've heard of some people who cute their scraps into 8-inch squares for simple block quilts that they tie together with embroidery floss. Maybe some of your material will end up as drawer liners. That's okay, just start thinking about how you want to break down your pile.

    Since I'm a quilter, I opted to invest in a tool called a stash buster, which is a clear plastic quilting ruler, marked so you can easily measure and rotary cut 5" charm squares, 2 1/2" strips, and an assortment of usable shapes and dimensions. The reason I chose this method was because of the many charm pack-friendly quilting projects I would like to try (and already own patterns for) and breaking down my stash should leave me with a nice rainbow assortment of charm squares. Also, if there wasn't enough fabric to get a charm square out of it, I could easily cut jelly roll strips. Either way, I was getting good, usable material  in convenient sizes for future projects without spending a dime.

    Besides the stash busting ruler, I also pulled out a few of my most frequently used craft patterns and made some key pieces in various fabrics. There is a table runner I love to make, so I got out the pattern for that and cut out a couple dozen shapes so I'll have a stock pile the next time I want to make that project. 

    Tip: Remember to stack and whack. Whenever possible, double up the fabric before cutting save time.

    If you have some larger pieces of fabric and are a quilter, I'd encourage you to cut 10" squares (layer cakes) as there are plenty of great projects out there for that size, and the larger you cut your blocks, the less time you will spend cutting and the faster you will bust your stash. (Tip: Always cut the biggest usable pieces you can, since you can always trim it down later, if needed.)

    Once I figured out my busting strategy, it was important to make the commitment to grab a handful of fabric every few days, press it, and cut it down. I also made a commitment not to start any new sewing projects until this project was complete. I didn't want to get sidetracked and get stuck abandoning my bag of unsightly scraps. Was it worth it? I think so. A charm pack has around 42 squares and costs about $10, and while I haven't counted the results of all my cutting square by square, it's safe to say the savings will be significant. I now have a ton of usable pre-cut fabric in material that I liked enough to buy in the first place, and neatly cut fabric takes up so much less space than crumpled scraps. 

    A 6-inch high stack of squares.

    Final Step: Organize by color. This is just a good obvious way to organize your new sew-ready fabric supply so you can get some project ideas together. It's completely optional, of course.

    Linked to Homemaker's Challenge as part of their Challenge Accomplished link up.


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