The amazing story of two 40-something women on the path to matrimonial bliss

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Monday, December 31, 2012

A Year of Bread and Books

The past few weeks has found Teri and I in a natural state of wrap-up and what's next? You've likely been in that place too--finishing up the loose ends of 2012 and making little declarations and intention statements about what you want 2013 to be about.  I don't do resolutions and Teri has been somewhat sucked into that mindset as well.  Instead, we do what I like to call themes--what's the focus? What might be an overarching direction, idea or topic for the coming year?  Sometimes, it is as simple as "drink more water" and other years, it has been a bit more structured.  So, we've been working out what our 2013 themes will be...

At the onset of this past year, my intention was to experience more pleasure and less stress.  I hoped this would come in the form of more massages and evening walks, less long work weeks and late nights.  Alas, I didn't really do so well on this intention, as the world seemed to have other plans for me.  Fortunately, there is no failing at this intention stuff, as far as I am concerned, and I just might have to take some other measures for 2013.

Teri has decided that in the next 12 months, she will augment her typical voracious reading appetite with 12 recommended classics.  A couple weeks ago, she asked me, as the resident English Major, what "classics" I would suggest?  "Well," I mused, "What sort of parameters do you have for Classics? It would be more helpful if you picked a genre, time frame or even a continent as the cannon is always changing--we need to reign in the quantifiers a bit."  So, she decided to ask all the kids at weekly drop-in what books they would put at the top of a must-read reading list for the coming year.  It definitely helped her create a unique and varied list from which to pull her books. She now has twelve personally suggested books in her bull pen:
  • Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
  • Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
  • All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
  • Night, Elie Wiesel
  • The Once and Future King, T.H. White
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
  • Catch 22, Joseph Heller
  • The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
  • My Antonia, Willa Cather
  • Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
In case you are wondering at the parameters for this little dozen--all recommended by 20-something young adults educated in U.S. public schools--except Tropic of Cancer; that one was mine.

So, that is a little piece of what Teri will be up to for the next 12 months, I have decided to go in a different direction.  My overarching theme is to create more and do more with my hands.  The tangible, initial focus of this is to make all our bread.  I don't know if I'll be able to sustain it or not--it is terribly easy to buy a loaf as needed--but I thought if I could make every loaf and every roll we ate for the next twelve months, it would slow me down just a little and be a good, solid basis for creativity and less cerebral activities. 

I suppose if one were to attempt to capture our separate efforts into a simple theme, you might say we are attempting to get back to basics in some way.  It seems we are both striving for perspective, a deeper connection with the human condition.  As two people who already live rather public, involved lives through our work and volunteer efforts, it seems we might be needing something a little more introspective and personal.  Like all of you, we have no idea what the next twelve months will bring, but it somehow helps to have a little intended structure to send us out into the great unknown!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lessons Learned from First Year of Urban Farming

Now, we've gardened before, but this past year was our first very intentional foray into the sometimes pretentious world of the urban farm.  We started calling ourselves urban farmers for fun and referring to our "farm chores" but, in all actuality, we have jumped in with both work boots, a pitchfork and a few chickens! Along the way, we've learned a few things to keep in mind as we plan for our 2013 adventures...

We learned that chickens are about as trainable as cats or kids.  They tend to come with their own ideas about how they'd like to spend their days, what they want to eat and where they'd like to lay an egg (or not.) When our first-to-lay hen, Virginia, took up laying her tiny pullet eggs in the cat box, we were admonished by the wonderful guy who runs the fancy farm store. After feeling guilty and shamed, we tried to retrain her to no avail.  A couple weeks later when the second hen, Hilda, started laying in the nest box from the very first egg, Ginny moved her operation into the nest box too.  Like kids, they figured it out themselves and we might have saved ourselves a bit of shamed fussing.

Despite what all the sassy books say, this gardening/farming stuff can be expensive!  That has been another lesson learned.  With the search for organic, non GMO seeds and starts, to the purchasing of chicken coop and supplies, chicken wire, tools and organic slug bait, our garden budget line item was a little high. Could we have done it cheaper? a perfect world...but not everyone is tool savvy and talented in upcycling, recycling and uncycling (or unicycling, for that matter.)  We could have spent a few dollars less for each of our chicks, but we opted for the heirloom, sexed, happily-hatched-local varieties and we haven't regretted that.  It's sort of like growing the heirloom vegetables, why raise and grow the exact same thing we could get at the store?

Thirdly, we could have canned and preserved more than we did.  At the time--in the heat of late Summer--it felt like we put up jars and jars and jars and we would never eat/share/use all those gorgeous glass goblets of tomatoes, salsa, sauce, jams and preserves. We now know that, despite the fact that we grew 22 tomato plants, we could have canned three times as many jars of tomatoes and sauce to meet the reality of how much we use through the fall and winter.  Honestly, we ate the last of our garden grown fresh tomatoes right around Thanksgiving, so we had more than 5 solid months of fresh tomatoes of every size and color AND canned dozens of jars, but we could have done more. We are also already out of pear jam and are hoarding our precious jars of fig preserves--even though we canned a good dozen jars.  Sure, we've given a few as gifts and our adult kids have snagged a few jars from the larder as needed (Who knew they'd find the regular jar of applesauce or marinara sauce to be so enticing?), but we surprised ourselves by how much we use on a regular basis so this next year, we need to do even more!

Additionally, we need a food dehydrator!  We thought about getting one this year, but were a bit intimidated by acquiring more gear that we didn't know how to use.  Now we know we could have dried apples, figs and persimmons from our trees (not to mention some cherries) and would have used them in all sorts of things.  Alas, next year...

Other things to grow more of this year: lavender, cilantro, kohlrabi and we seem to never grow enough carrots or onions.  There were a few things we didn't eat as much of as we thought we would--namely lettuce--we tended to lean more toward spinach, kale and chard for salads than lettuce. Plus the slugs and snails thought the lettuce was a banquet!

We have new projects on the horizon for this year: hopefully bees, building our rain collection barrel system, adding a couple new chickens to our flock, and experimenting with some new ways to grow potatoes. We'd also love to find a place/person to get the fresh goat milk from while we contemplate what our lives might be like with a couple dwarf dairy goats hopping around our back yard.  We'll see, but if nothing else, there ought to be a few more lessons in store for us for 2013!

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Package

Today, we mail the packages.  This year is the first year I have compiled a send-away package for one of my baby heads.  21 year-old Lillian is living out of state for the first extended period and this will be the first time in that many years I haven't shared Christmas with her since her birth.  Teri is more seasoned at this than I.  Along with Lilly's Priority Mail box stacked by the front door, there are two others: one for Teri's twin sister and one for her baby head--both of whom live on the East Coast. 

This isn't to say that I have never shipped away the Christmas presents--when I lived in the Midwest years ago, I put together the paper-wrapped boxes to send back here to Oregon; and my sister lived in Seattle, London and New York city for decades and I sent her treats and treasures every year, but this is different. Strangely fine and strangely not fine all at the same time.

If you ask my kids, they might tell you that I've been raising them for adventures since the very beginning.  I wanted them to know there was a great, big, available world out there and that they could do anything, live anywhere, change their minds, make mistakes, and live out myriad versions of living in one lifetime, so it was inevitable that they would leave home and wander out.  In an over-used phrase, they get to do what they want. But the thought of Lillian actually opening her little presents a time zone away on Christmas is bittersweet.

Sweet in the yay-she's-living-her-life-and-we're-so-proud-and-supportive and bitter in the I-can't-believe-she's-really-all-grown-up. While Teri and I are planning a trip out to see her in the Spring, I haven't actually seen her since she left for the wilds of Colorado this past June. Yes, we talk and text and send each other photos of daily snowfalls, meals and odd happenings, but that isn't exactly the same as meeting up for lunch or plopping down on the same couch. 

According to Teri, packing the Mom's (Moms') Christmas Box takes skill, art and restraint.  A balance must be achieved between the practical and the sentimental.  We want them to have a little bit of momish gooeyness, but not so much as to be morose.  After all, as Teri and I have determined, part of our job now is to send the constant messages that we have complete and absolute confidence that they all can manage their own lives just fine (coupled with the reassurance that we are here no matter what.)

Our kids are all so different and we are really in the early years of separation by time and space and purpose. While we have been letting go for over two decades in this dance of mother and child, as many of you know, that means getting used to walking around with an enlarged, bruised and bewildered heart.  We do our best, whether they are coming to us, running from us, or we are sending a little piece of ourselves out into the world to find them wherever they may be.

So, we've wrapped our packages; tucked in little bits of this and that; cushioned and taped and labeled--and I have likely hidden a little chunk of myself amidst the tissue paper and bubble wrap--just in case.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Christmas Cookies!

This time of year is about a bunch of things--lights, love, charity, goodwill--but let's get real here, it is also about the food.  No seasonal celebration would be complete without its arsenal of tasty treats and at our house, that means cookie jars and tins full of cookies!

In the home I grew up in, Christmas cookies meant dry sugar cookies with or without frosting, cut out in festive holiday shapes.  Period.  We might go to parties or potlucks where there were trays of choices and that is where my youngster self started to realize there was a great big world of colors, tastes and textures out there and they all came off someone's cookie sheet.

As an adult, I've built and developed my own pantry of favorites--greatly influenced by kids, friends and loved ones--and this is the time of year, the oven is working overtime producing everyone's favorites.  I generally bake a few batches of 3 or 4 different kinds each weekend throughout the season to keep the cookie crocks filled.
Some appear every year: thumbprint cookies, Russian teacakes, chocolate crinkles, gingerbread cookies, peanut butter cookies, and some sort of molasses cookie.  Others have been trendy or made by the request of a household member: chocolate chip, peanut butter chocolate chip, and various bar cookies (bar cookies don't fit so well in a cookie jar so I generally avoid them, but if a request is made, heck ya!) So much butter, chocolate and brown sugar...

I still generally do some sort of a cut-out cookie--sometimes a buttery sugar cookie and other times, I use this vintage recipe for cut-out cookies made with honey (I like the honey recipe better.) I confess, this was a much more pleasant process when all the kids were home and they could help with all the cutting and frosting--it can be a big job for one person!

Lately, Teri and I have been on a quest for a cookie press.  She has fond memories of her mother's butter or "spritz" cookies and those are part of her memories of Christmas past.  Now days, most of the cookie presses are made of plastic parts and we are searching for one that it is not.  And one that is not super expensive!  We found one at Hardwick's, but it was in the too expensive category, so the quest continues.  We are about to start searching thrift stores to see if we can't find a trusty old simple one!  Until then, those little buttery shapes are missing from our cookie tray.

I don't know how cookies became a key player in the Christmas tradition.  I reckon I'll credit the Germans--my memories of visiting Germany are dusted in the sugar and spices of some of the most amazing bakeries (die b├Ąckerie or Konditori) I've ever experienced. Windows and windows piled full of yum! My limited German being just enough to get me into trouble in those very bakeries.

Before I indulge my tendency to wander off topic into all the bakeries I've visited around the globe, back to our own kitchen--where I think I'm due to bake up another batch of Christmas cookies!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Dear Santa...

Dear Santa:

I know that you haven't heard from me in oh, let's say 35 years or so, and I guess that is a pretty long time to lose touch.  How is Mrs. Claus and how are the reindeer?  If I remember correctly, that is how I used to open my yearly missives. Yeah, I know I probably didn't use words like missives then, nor was I likely to spell words like reindeer correctly (and, in the mis-directed spirit of confession I have to admit that I have actually eaten reindeer since would have been culturally rude for me not to) but, as someone once said, that is neither here nor there...

Now then, I've gotten caught up in the whole Great-Recession-Simple-Living-Deprivation scene so I haven't actually allowed myself to want or desire stuff for the past several years.  After all, I have plenty; other people have less and there is so much judgment going down about greed and consumerism, I feel guilty craving a bag of potato chips (shame!) This year, however, I am giving into my rumblings of want; there are a few things I would really, seriously dig:
  • A big, new waffle iron--not one of those piddly, makes one waffle at a time modern jobs, but one that makes six or eight golden waffles with one snap of the lid over a poured glob of batter.  They are hard to find, but maybe you have a sturdy old one laying around the North Pole somewhere?
  • A new flour sifter. Enough said.
  • The latest Red Hot Chili Peppers album I'm With You--yeah, I know I'm old, but they are as old as I am.  I really groove on that song The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie and I still like to buy and own entire albums; I'm old-school that way. Besides middle-aged, white, West Coast funk sounds mighty fine seeping out of the windows of a teal green PT Cruiser driven by a sassy middle-aged me.
  • A year's supply of stamps.  I don't mail much anymore, but standing in line at the post office sucks (you know what I'm talking about) and it takes 2 weeks to get them through the mail when I order them online.  I think about 100 would do us just fine.
  • A Book: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & The Unlike Ascent of "Hallelujah" written by Alan Light. I don't know why, it sounds intriguing and very English-major-y--an entire book devoted to one song, just like an entire college class devoted to one poem. Yeah...pretentious...I want it and not from the library.
  • A Kenyan top-bar bee hive.  Those babies are a little spendy and I just don't have the skills to build one. If one appeared wrapped in a red bow on Christmas morning, I would show you a bee dance like you've never seen (nor has anyone else seen it, really. I don't really know how awesome it would be myself, but it would be amazing.)
That's it.  I think.  It feels odd, Santa, asking for things.  I feel a bit guilty. I mean, sure I really want world peace and justice and equity and access to affordable health care and prosperity for everyone, but, seriously, I work on those biggies all year long.  It's a little bit of a flip-flop from those folks who wish for it once a year. Not being Snooty McRighteous here, just sayin'--I want to indulge a little selfish want too! Maybe I'll call it by the trendy moniker I hear others use: self-care and I won't feel so guilty. So, if you have a minute--or maybe Mrs. Claus does, or maybe that gay dentist elf wants to take on a special project? Other than a few stumbles this past year, I think I've been a pretty decent person...and I haven't really asked for anything in decades...

Warmest Regards and Happy Holidays,
your pal,

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Cold Winter Mornings

Lately, our mornings get started quite early around here.  With Teri working the seasonal job at "Harry & David" and finding herself with an early morning shift starting at 6:00 am, we stumble out of bed in the dark and dress by the light of the Christmas tree.  It has made me start to question my claim to be an authentic morning person.  After all, a leisurely 7 am start to the day is a little more civilized than a 5:00 am one!

You may wonder why both of us are crawling out from under warm quilts so early? Well, we figured no need to pay for downtown parking and there really isn't a safe place for Teri to stash a bike, so I do the drive and drop-off and then she walks the 2 or so miles home midday.  It is working and it is temporary, but it is damn early.

There is, of course, an upside.  I have been taking advantage of the early start to do a little work, do a few chores, and enjoy watching the street come alive while I sip my second cup of coffee. After two weeks, I'm getting into a bit of a routine...

After an hour or so of work on the computer, I notice the morning light prying its way through the curtains and head out into the cold garage to scoop a big bowl of cat food for the miscellaneous outdoor cats who clamber on our back deck.  I refill the water the dish with clean water and fluff the various pillows and blanket beds. By that time, the chickens have realized that I'm out and about and they are clucking and pecking the wire walls of their little coop, anxious to be sprung free.  With chicken feed scoop in hand, I tromp to the coop and unlock their door and they all three immediately stretch and march over the threshold (unless one of them happens to be already on the nest, which happens every couple days.) The chickens get fresh water too and I check the nest box to see if it needs a bit of a clean-out--replacing the soiled winter cedar chips with clean ones (summer=straw, winter=cedar).  Lately, I've been feeling particularly farmer-ish on the cold, wet mornings so I head over to the compost bins--looking like a funky Mother Goose with a trio of chickens trailing--and after I turn a few pitchforks over to mix in all the garden debris and newly-added fall leaves, I pull out a couple warm scoops and dump them on a nearby garden bed--the chickens consider this the poultry-equivalent to steaming oatmeal with raisins and honey and they dig in searching for unsuspecting grublet morsels.

Usually, around this time, our neighbor has come out in his saucy knee-length blue bathrobe to tend to his little chicken flock. We share a 7:30 am wave across the garden fence as he bends over not-so-delicately to free his hens from their little cage. Seriously, talking chicken farming only here.

Climbing up onto the back porch and sliding open the glass doors, when I step back into the kitchen, I feel a bit of self-righteous satisfaction. Out the front picture window, the yellow school bus is stopping for kid pick-ups and windows and shades are being pulled up and open up and down our street. Maybe it is time for breakfast or maybe I should sit down and write and address a few more of the big stack of Christmas cards temporarily living on the dining room table? It might be time to heat up my chilly coffee mug in the microwave (unless the cup is still sitting in there from an earlier heat-up) or it might be time to think about the house-wide tidy before getting ready to head off to work myself.

All in all, the morning chores and productive fiddling haven't been too bad--I just wish we didn't have to get up so damn early to make it all happen!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Awesome Ghosts of Holidays Past

Neither Teri nor I are very sentimental people by nature.  I don't even make excuses for myself around it any more and Teri is the quickest person to pack up, discard and give away of anyone I have ever known.  This tendency to live in the present, however, does not mean we don't have attachments, memories and ghosts--and this is the time of year when a flurry of memories whirls around us.

Here's my confession: I have not saved every piece of schoolwork or homemade ornament my kids made while growing up.  I have a few--representations, if you will--and they suffice.  I've given back many items to the kids so they can have, cherish or not, depending on what matters to them. Besides, for me, the ghosts and memories aren't really in items or things--they are more in smells, recipes, activities, and stories.  Teri and I find ourselves doing a whole lot of story-telling this time of year--remembering benchmarks, comparing childhood experiences, and thinking about holidays that have come and gone.

For me, the best Christmas is always the one that is going down right now--everything else seems shadows or rickety drift boats floating off in the distance.  That does not, however, stop us from remembering people who are no longer with us; versions of our kids that pop up in stories of certain times and places; or versions of ourselves we've said good bye to long ago.  I think this is one of the reasons Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has stood the test of time and still rings true with so many people; we all have whole lifetimes we've lived and people we used to be and this time of year gives us full on permission to revisit, re-tell and repent.

The ghosts come and go--they wander in and out of the kitchen while I am making Russian teacakes or stirring up the zillionth cup of hot cocoa; they slide across the floor when I unwrap the set of colorful Nutcracker ornaments three school-age kids and I got in the lobby during intermission at one of the many performances of the Nutcracker ballet we attended; they slosh across the backyard in the plump, green mist of a Pacific Northwest December; and they gyrate through the air while Burl Ives sings "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas"...

These ghosts mean well, but they are not always welcome.  It can be hard to reconcile my 3-year-old son, Stuart, dressed as a pirate-superhero-ballerina with the tall, thin, soft-spoken and stoic young man he is now.  Thoughts of my grandparents dressed up for the annual Christmas party at the Elks club in all their polyester finery are bittersweet. Memories of sad Christmases--deaths, loss and loneliness--remind us even more of the attachments we have made and lost.

There is something about these short, dark days and the need to light them up with candles, twinkle lights and the burning of the home fires that all goes hand-in-hand with the dance of the mid-winter ghosts. If we allow ourselves to settle in to the darkness and the cold damp, it is tailor-made for waltzing with memories, sharing our stories and giving in to the soul-healing rituals of bringing ourselves solidly into the present. There is no where else I'd rather be than right here, right now, and the Christmas ghosts help to remind me how I got here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Road to Burnout Mountain

My true confession is that I work...a lot.  Seriously. Early mornings. Most week nights. Many weekends. My cell phone goes off at 11:30 pm with texts from staff or volunteers, and whether I am at home or at work, I tend to be either working, worrying about work, strategizing about work, or knowing that my phone could ring or buzz at any moment and I'll need to problem solve, go somewhere or just think about work stuff.  Even my so-called volunteer work tends to somehow end up work-related. I am neither bragging nor proud. In fact, I fully acknowledge that it is, to put it kindly, a bit much. I also know that I am not particularly unique.

Working in a small nonprofit is very much like running or working for a small business.  Things are rather entrepreneurial and quite precarious.  Awesome, amazing people who have true passion for the work tend to find their way into a world of long hours and low pay (when and if there is pay) and rising to the authentic expectations means going above and beyond on a fairly regular basis.  The propensity for burnout is well-documented. But, alas, that doesn't necessarily mean that those of us who do this work know how to do everything that needs to be done and avoid the stressors that contribute to burnout!

Perhaps the saddest reality is that we tend to unintentionally drag those closest to us into our world of overwork too.  When your job demands you work all day and attend evening meetings and weekend events, families and partners tend to choose to join in or go along just to make sure that there is some "together time." Teri has helped raise thousands of dollars, staffed many a table, stuffed a zillion envelopes, and been what a few of us call "adjunct" or unofficial staff.  Our kids have attended events, volunteered and pitched in as well.  While all of this household support is awesome, it is not really sustainable--nor is it what most people are expected to contribute to their jobs.

Obviously, I haven't figured out the answer or the solution--but I think I am in good company.  As long as we live in a society with the values and expectations of ours, the high-paying and economically just jobs will not be those providing social or human services, nor those that contribute to a more just and equitable society. Just like any other business, we have the weight of making payroll, paying taxes, and providing health insurance for employees, and just like any other business, we must earn or raise enough money to do that--or we close our doors or resign ourselves to doing the work without adequate salary. Unlike other businesses, raising and earning the money is not always directly linked with the services we provide. This results in a great deal of free or donated labor to the greater society. Honestly, the handful of economics classes I took in college never really explained to me how to preserve the dignity and recognize the worth of all the workers who give their lives over to the social good.

So, we all do our best.  We work until we can't work any longer and hope that someone else will step in and carry the load a little further.  We hope our families and loved ones can hang in there for just a little more and that we can leave things in some sort of shape for the next person. We juggle, take an extra aspirin, drink an extra cup of coffee, or swallow a spoonful of peanut butter for lunch and hope it carries us through until dinner time. In the end, we cling to our belief that we can move things along and make the world a little better--empower, support, encourage and involve--even if it means stretching ourselves a bit further than we ever imagined we could go.  And then, unfortunately, sometimes, we burn out and need to tend to our very human bodies and spirits.

I really don't know the answer. I tend to offer advice that I don't follow and spout platitudes about self care that I don't adhere to. I am hesitant to ask people to do anything I won't and don't do myself and I'm not sure what to do about that.  In the end, I know that there are all sorts of contributors--a crumpled economy, societal priorities, gender politics, technology, etc. but I don't imagine explanations and excuses stand much of a chance against good, old-fashioned burnout!