Sandy’s Best Leftover-Oatmeal Ham Sandwich

Ham sandwiches don’t usually start with oatmeal. But one thing leads to another around here in ways I can’t always predict. Getting from Point A to Point M is seldom a straight line.

Point A: It’s been unusually cool for May. This time last year we had the kiddie pool out. But sweater-and-sock weather asks for oatmeal.

Point B: I got distracted while measuring out the oatmeal and milk/water, a simple 1:2 ratio so this is a little embarrassing, but somehow I messed it up because it was too liquidy coming out of the microwave. After a brief huh…what-did-I-mess-up-there moment, I solved this problem by taking a handful of oats (with my hand), adding it to the liquidy, almost-ready breakfast, and giving it another 2 minutes. This resulted in no-longer-too-liquidy oatmeal that had somewhat more texture than usual, the late addition not having had as much cook-time as usual. But cooked al dente, like that pasta stage just before it’s really soft, when there is still the tiniest element that’s uncooked, and sweetened not unliberally with brown sugar, it hit the spot.

Point C: My al dente oatmeal, delicious as it was, did not seem worthy of a photo, so there isn’t one (and a photo cannot convey al dente anyway), but adding more oats also resulted in… more oatmeal. Which is to say, leftovers. On my dear German friend Claudia’s first trip to the U.S., she coined the word over-lefts, which she and I still say sometimes 😊 and which is a sub-point of Point C and not Point D, in case you were wondering.

Point D: I stared at the over-lefts and was about to do my usual – look in my non-working dishwasher for the right size plastic container and transfer oatmeal from bowl to chosen container and place in fridge. What might have steered me away from this idea was 1. The bowl I had microwaved the oatmeal in – an old beauty that I got almost thirty years ago from a man who was then in his 80s and had probably had it since he and his wife got married in the 1940s. A spectacular bowl! Same bowl I often use to mix up bread dough (that’s a clue).

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And 2. (this being a sub-point of Point D) I have been playing around with yeast rolls lately. (Heading toward some kind of bread she is, anyone can see that.)

Point E. I never made rolls starting with leftover oatmeal, never heard of that, but sure, why not? (The following is not a recipe, in case you were wondering and/or looking for specifics. The following is me playing with food.)

I let it cool a bit, added a cup of not-too-hot-not-too-cold water and a tablespoon of yeast (or what looks like a tablespoon in the palm of my hand) and half a cup of flour or so, and stirred this up and walked away. I suspect it helps the end result, this “proofing” of the dough (though I cannot be sure). In any case I get a charge out of the little bubbles that form as the yeast begins its vital and magical work. This was worthy of a photo so here you go. Fifteen minutes (or so) later), bubbles!

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Point F: Having seen that adding yeast, water and flour to leftover textury oatmeal produces a promising start, I remembered that the raisin rolls I made twice recently came out just fine and I decided to take the leap to Leftover Oatmeal Raisin Rolls. This being an experiment (and not a recipe, as stated above), I added some sugar (guessing 1-2 tablespoons, it’s said to feed the yeast, though I know it’s not essential), some salt (a palm-measured teaspoon, never make bread without salt, whatever you do), some more flour (two cups maybe?) and some chopped up raisins.

I love raisins, but they are a bother when un-chopped-up in dough, always plopping out and being uncooperative, and any of you who have tried to chop raisins with a knife will know that that’s not easy either – they stick to the knife and get all clumpy. I used (and was reminded of the usefulness of) this handy-dandy cutter that I know they still make because you can get it at my favorite grocery store, Yoder’s.

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I put the raisins in a bowl and let the blades do the cutting work while I do the up and down work. This thing chops nuts too. You gotta love a cutter with the manufacturer’s name stamped into the top like this. There’s not even a zip code. I love it.

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Adding the raisins and then seeing the raisins and the bubbles gave my heart a leap. What can I say?

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Well then (and you see this is all under Point F, The Making of the Dough), I added more flour till there was just enough so the dough pulled away from the sides of the bowl, turned it out and kneaded it (adding flour as needed) until smooth, then covered it and left it alone to rise, suspecting that the weight of the oats would lengthen the rise-time, which turned out to be correct but I got distracted anyway and a couple hours went by.

Point G: Thankfully guests are starting to come to the cottage again, so I spent some time over there preparing things. The other thing going on and occupying time during the dough-rising is the siding on the house. It’s all well and good for the front to look nice, but the rest looks pretty crappy, so – one side at a time – this needs to be done too. On the wall that looks out over the mountains we have the obstacle of the electric box that was attached to the house in 1973 on top of the original siding, which was attached to stuff that tries to be plywood but instead (I swear) is packed sawdust. It calls itself “insulation board” and claims a value of some kind that means nothing to me.

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Look what it does when you pull it off the wall. It’s gross.

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It breaks, crumbles and collapses, which was actually quite handy as we had to get it away from the back of the electric box while said electric box is still attached to a stiff pole. This we accomplished, rendering the box free-standing on its pole, not standing straight in this picture, not attached to the wall at all, but the electric company will help with that part one of these days.

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Point H: This was a nasty job, fraught with we-are-working-around-an-electric-box worries. You get hungry doing all this stuff (and worrying), so lunch was early and included dividing the dough into 12 pieces and making knots on a baking sheet so they could rise a second time in proper, rolls-in-a-row formation.

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Point I: After lunch we got real plywood up, followed by house wrap. Somewhere in there I peeked into the oven and saw that the rolls had raised well, so I took them out to get a decent picture (plus, you don’t want to see the inside of my oven)…

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(Point J): …and put them back in and turned on the oven and set a timer, knowing I would get involved with siding and not be in the house, i.e. not able to depend on my nose to tell me they were ready. Forty minutes later they were a glorious golden brown and the house smelled like a bakery, which all by itself makes this well worth the effort.

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I broke one open to see what the texture was like (umm, yes, also had a nibble)… Oh, yum! Well worth the effort.

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Point K: By dinnertime the outside wall was looking like this, with real plywood, house wrap, some siding, and the box ready for the guy from the electric company to come and attach it properly.

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But by then I was tired and wanted an easy dinner. Earlier I’d picked some lettuce and spinach from the garden, so a good dinner to me sounded like a salad plus some of these raisin rolls plus a slice or two of ham. Raisins go with ham, right? And you know that ham I mean – the kind that comes pre-sliced, maybe ¼” thick (great stuff for adding to scrambled eggs). A little oil or butter in a hot pan gives these slices a beautiful color and adds to their flavor. Super fast, super easy, super yummy. Works for me.

Point L: I gave Sandy his dinner in two plates – salad on one and sautéed ham slices and rolls on the other. I planned to eat my dinner in discrete sections: ham, rolls with butter, salad (in that order). I gave Sandy mustard because normally he puts mustard on ham.

But no. Not this time.

Sandy put the ham slices on the raisin roll and called it the best ham sandwich! Raisins go with ham, right?! It was gone before I had a chance to document this historic event. Day Two for lunch we added thin apple slices (also his idea, bravo Sandy, full of culinary genius lately).

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Point M (as in yuMMMMMMM!): With or without the apple, these sandwiches were an unexpected pleasure from leftover oatmeal!

 

 

Covid Beard Meets Covid Bench

Everybody knows that six feet is the covid-safe distance. Stand six feet apart. Maintain six feet of open space between you and the next person. Respect the six-feet-apart marks you see on floors in stores everywhere. Though few of us have questioned this (arbitrary?) measurement, all of us henceforth will have a well-trained sense of what six feet looks like. Six feet, you say? Six feet I know.

Covid has also affected what people look like. Everybody knows (and can see) that the covid-ban of barbers and hairdressers caused men to fall into several predictable camps regarding their looks: 1. They have continued doing what they always did (rare barber visits or self-buzzing or practically nothing, with mixed results, did someone say there’s a pandemic?); 2. They’ve fretted and cajoled and somehow found someone who would cut their hair and keep them looking as if there isn’t a pandemic that changes things (appearances being ever important) ; 3. They’ve adopted a who-cares attitude and are looking rather bedraggled (you know who I mean, but what a great excuse – there’s a pandemic!); and 4. They’ve played with it. I find this last group most interesting. Hey, there’s a pandemic – what better time to see what a beard looks like?! Sandy says men are getting in touch with their inner Paul Bunyan.

Into this mix, throw my porch project. Two years ago we were ramping up to tackle the destruction of the old one, shabby and rotting and on its last legs as it was. Two years later we are putting some finishing touches on a new, expanded, roofed version. The less-than-well-detailed plan included two spaces for built-in benches, a nice idea but I had had no idea what those benches would look like (“we’ll figure it out” – my famous last words).

Guess how wide the bench spaces are. Yup, six feet. Guess what I like doing. Yup, chatting – relaxed and leisurely, in person if possible! – with nice people I know. Guess how you can safely chat with people outdoors. Yup, sit six feet apart.

Normal people would put two chairs six feet apart and sit and relax and chat and call it a day. Those are the people who have the chairs. Ummm, busy building here, didn’t get porch furniture yet. (Can I crowd-source for that?)

Ta-da! A covid-friendly bench! See what I mean? I think it should be a thing: The Covid Bench. You sit at one end, and I sit at the other, and we will be our follow-the-rules, six-feet-apart selves having a lovely chat.

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Like this. And do you see what I see? Yup, that’s a Covid Beard on a Covid Bench! Far be it from Samuel to be bedraggled about it. All trimmed up he is – let us not drop our standards.

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Just try finding a bench like this on Pinterest. I looked and looked, but everyone wants to put the back on a long side, so both people have to face the same direction with worrisome thoughts along the lines of are-we-correctly-social-distancing or they have to practice awkward neck-craning with bodies facing one way and faces facing another. Putting the backs on the short sides makes perfect sense to me. We used the standard 15-degree chair-back angle, and slightly curved them for added comfort.

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The backs went on after the seemingly floating seat (well connected to the 6×6 posts, trust me) and before the outer railing, which turns out to be a great height to rest your arm (as Samuel so beautifully demonstrates) or your tea cup, which I invariably have near me unless (for obvious reasons) I am holding Coco. All to say: My covid bench invites and awaits company, whenever that may be, even if you don’t sport a covid beard!

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Exotic Irish Soda Bread

I never said my timing was the best, and here’s proof. The slew of (worthy and admirable) bloggers who posted Irish Soda Bread recipes right around St. Patrick’s Day have the pulse on reality. I tend to float on a breeze when it comes to food. To me there’s nothing wrong with pumpkin-anything in the spring or summer, and I love a hot cup of tea no matter what the temperature outside. To this jumble, consider also that in the Age of Covid (which includes, in theory, more time for baking), I sometimes want to take my time with food, relishing the luxury to experiment and play, and I sometimes still (just like in the old days) want E-A-S-Y, as in I-have-other-things-to-do.

In my favor today is the fact that you are probably not presently inundated with Irish Soda Bread recipes, and you might be inclined to want something E-A-S-Y, so maybe you’ll try this delicious flavor blend of exotic + sweet. Are we still allowed to use the word exotic? That’s not one of the off-limits words now, is it?

Caraway seeds add the exotic element that sets this version apart from the rest. Even though these pungent little buggers are often associated with rye bread, I find them equally at home in this soda bread recipe – though how many Irish people would consider them an essential or even authentic ingredient is anyone’s guess. Currents add a bit of sweetness. You can’t go wrong with a bit of sweetness. Feel free to use regular raisins instead, or golden raisins, or the dried fruit of your choice.

My thanks go to Inge White, a lovely lady who lives in Fairfax, Vermont, who passed this recipe to me years ago. I have made it countless times, which puts it on the tried-and-true list among other essential yummies that never go wrong (assuming you are paying attention during the process and don’t forget something important). Thank you, Inge! Another Vermonter gets a shout-out today too. Lyn Boyce, the woman I want to be like when I grow up, subtly suggested on the phone the other day that she would like to see more recipes. I hope you like this, Lyn!

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In case you can’t read my handwriting, that’s

Mix together 3 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, 3 teaspoons baking powder, 3 tablespoons caraway seed, ½ teaspoon salt and ½ box raisins (which is about 1 ½ cups, and this is where I substitute currents or golden raisins). Add 2 cups milk and 2 beaten eggs (I don’t beat them before adding them). Bake in two greased loaf pans at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

How simple is that? Mix dry ingredients together, add milk and eggs, stir and bake.

Speaking of buggers though, one thing you have to get past is that the caraway seeds do look kinda like little bugs in the bowl. (You may recall my aversion to bugs from my Always a Menace post.) If these seeds had legs I would be creeped out, but they don’t, so I can deal.

Instead of two loaf pans, I chose one loaf pan, two mini’s and one oddball thin-wooden loaf form lined with parchment paper. The oddball is going in a birthday package to my son in San Francisco. He is also getting my granola, cranberry brownies (best brownies ever), shortbread cookies (better than any in a tin), chocolate-chip-pecan-espresso biscotti (pecans instead of walnuts this time) and pumpkin-oat-chocolate-chip bread (if you want the recipe for this, ask). In this Age of Covid you somehow can’t get eggs in San Francisco, which means that Drew and Nicole have not been able to bake much. And I’m the mom here, the mom with chickens who give good eggs, so…

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One little loaf disappeared before it even cooled down. Try slicing it, toasting it and spreading butter on top. A piece of toast like no other! Enjoy 😊

Always a Menace

Last year in early September I was attacked. Normally you wouldn’t think it a problem to stroll along a lovely river on a dirt path. Early mornings in Virginia in the late summer can be scrumptiously warm, so I was wearing a dress. Bad idea. My co-stroller was wearing pants. Way better idea. Those river mosquitoes attacked me with a vengeance, as if there had been a famine and then suddenly fresh meat, free for the taking, came to town. I realized my folly when I got home and decided to count the bites on my legs. I stopped at 30, too depressed to count the rest. Eventually they healed – supreme efforts to leave them alone and supreme weakness resulting in ferocious scratching notwithstanding. By Christmastime they had finally all healed.

Something about the mosquitoes in Virginia is different than the mosquitoes in Vermont, where I lived for 20+ years. Something about the biting kind of insects in general is different. Before moving here 15 years ago, I never had these severe reactions. My first spider bite here took ten months to heal. My first tick bite, four months. It’s a bother. Can I call it Virginia Venom?

After hearing the story of the river walk, my friend Crissie sent me a new shirt. She lives in Caribou, Maine, which is way, way up there. They have black flies, nasty black flies, tiny and annoying and biting black flies. Seems there’s a shirt for that. Small world that I live in, I had had no idea no idea that “repellent apparel” was a thing. But it is. LLBean, based in Maine for over a hundred years, makes the shirt she sent me. It’s so soft, you would never know it had been treated with an active ingredient called “permethrin.” Learn something new every day!

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The shirt got me thinking about menaces. Powerful insects (the ones that have power to make my skin miserable for a time) are a menace. Granted, mosquitoes and black flies are not as much of a menace, nor are they as powerful or invisible a menace as the novel coronavirus we all are scrambling to understand and defend ourselves against. If only there was a shirt we could wear instead of these masks!

But there’s always something, right? Always a menace of some kind. In Vermont I didn’t deal with nasty bugs or the blazing hot and humid days that are common during a Virginia summer. But I did deal with blizzards in March and sometimes, snowfalls in May.  On Saturday, May 9, three days ago, it looked like this in Jeffersonville, Vermont.

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Last year we didn’t have a coronavirus to change our world. It has made me feel super nostalgic lately. I found an old Michael J. Fox movie (For Love or Money) made in 1993. You could have parades in 1993 (or squash festivals in fictitious towns, as the case may be). The average car cost $12,750. A movie ticket cost just over $4. The Pentium microprocessor was introduced by Intel. Canada got its first female prime minister. We could let our children play outside without worrying. I myself was confidently going about my own business, unaware of a menace yet to intrude in my family. But menaces there were. In 1993 an earthquake in India killed nearly 10,000 people. A dilapidated and overcrowded ferry sank in Haiti and as many as 1500 died. The World Health Organization estimated that 14 million people worldwide were infected with AIDS. The WACO disaster happened. Menaces of every ilk sneak into the world with little or no warning.

They always have.

A quick glance through a history book reveals invasions, disasters, wars, heartache, pain, suffering. A teeny sampling: In 1700 B.C. the Hittites invaded Syria. In 111 B.C. war broke out between Rome and Numidia. In 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the town of Pompeii. In 793 Viking raiders attacked in Northumbria. In 1247 Mongols invaded Japan. In 1348 the Black Death ravaged Europe, killing at least a third of the population. In 1502 the first Africans were taken to become slaves in America. In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed more than 13,000 homes. In 1729, opium had become such a problem that the Chinese Emperor Yung Cheng banned it. In 1737 an earthquake in Calcutta killed 300,000 people. In 1918 a worldwide influenza pandemic began, killing tens of millions.

They always will.

Maybe menaces are where the rubber meets the road. Maybe (assuming we survive) they are where we find out what we are made of, where faith grows stronger and we discover or re-discover with more certainty what’s important to us and what’s not.

I’m reading a book about Winston Churchill*. In it the author recounts a letter Churchill wrote to his stockbroker in 1932 when the United States was solidly in the Depression. “I do not think America is going to smash…. If the whole world except the United States sank under the ocean, that community could get its living. They carved it out of the prairies and the forest.” I appreciate that he thought so highly of Americans, but I think he undersold the rest of the world. I do not mean to diminish the tragedy of coronavirus’s impact on many people’s lives, nor the terrible sadness if you know someone who has suffered and died from it. But I admire the dogged determination of humans everywhere to keep going despite the menaces that come along – no matter how harrowing or unpredicted or invisible or dangerous the Menace of the Day may be. We have been on the brink of “the world will never be the same” before. And the world did change. Mightily. But here we are, still chugging along, still finding ways to be good neighbors, still swapping stories, still staring at the stars at night, still loving our families and friends, still caring. May this never change.

 

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*Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, Martin Gilbert, Macmillan, London, 1981

Veteran Homeschool Notes

Unlike many parents in these covid-induced times, I did not homeschool my kids on the spur of the moment. I was not thrust into it involuntarily. I made a choice. I consulted with the principals of schools in my area, did a lot of research about various educational approaches, and talked with many people – both those in my same person-with-young-kids-now-facing-school-decisions boat and those with older children and vast personal experience. Then, one year at a time for the next fifteen years, I homeschooled my four, then five kids. I have a perspective that is not theoretical. We did this thing that suddenly millions must do.

I homeschooled before the cell phone era, when it was a fringe thing to do, when our PC ran DOS, when I was a Birkenstock-wearing, granola-making young mom in Vermont. My kids wore I Love Homeschool buttons when we went out to public places during the day so that (maybe) other people would not look askance at them because they weren’t in school. Back then, my fellow homeschoolers and I were sure beyond any doubt that we would always be in the tiniest minority, that no way would homeschooling ever eclipse public education. My neighbors probably asked themselves: What’s up with those kids who don’t get on the bus?

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During the homeschool years I had high goals beyond academics. I was okay with our being renegades, mavericks, nonconformists, oddballs or whatever we were called because I wanted our unconventionality to teach my children that charting your own path – within the bounds of reason, integrity and safety – begets an indomitable spirit that is not easily led astray, squashed down or made weak. At that time and in many respects, the world looked to me like a mess. I wanted my kids to be among those making it better. In a post about a year ago, I shared some reflections.

During the homeschool years we all learned a lot about the world and how it works, about each other and about ourselves. We not only got through it. We became stronger than we ever could have been otherwise. Homeschool for us meant figuring things out, making use of what’s at hand, choosing and doing the best we can, getting along, keeping balanced perspectives, aiming for excellence, allowing creativity its moments, finding and using our strengths, managing and mitigating our weaknesses, counting our blessings and keeping the joy – all of which we all use and need every day no matter what our “normal” days look like. In other words, homeschooling was quite the preparation for Real Life. In a nutshell, here’s what we did.

  1. We figured it out. With no map of the uncertain territory ahead, we made our own map. We invested time and energy, practiced common sense and took one step at a time. In real life, who gets a map? There are no guarantees. Every step of the way you do the best you can with what you have, and you can choose to do it in such a way that years later you will not be mired in regret. But you don’t have to figure it all out today. One day at a time is our allotment. Mistakes are allowed. Mistakes handled well engender confidence and teach in ways that success cannot. That thing (that style, that tact) didn’t work? Okay, not the end of the world. Let’s try this instead.
  2. We wore no masks. Ha! I don’t mean anti-virus masks. I mean the kind we know we wear when we transition from home to work and back again, the mask that tells others we’re serious about this project or this case, the mask that sets aside one world while we focus on another. Homeschooling forces a kind of juggling. Learning is integrated with meals and playtime and downtime and be-quiet-because-mommy’s-on-a-call time. The day is not neatly segmented. You don’t get to walk out of your bedroom wearing your happy-face mask and say Okay, kids, time for school! You can’t hide your grumpy face, your tired face, your frustrated face. You are with each other all the time and there is no hiding (or very little, or a lot less than maybe there used to be). You had better learn how to get along.
  3. We aimed both deep and wide. Homeschooling is different than School at Home. A speaker at one seminar I attended back in the day suggested that there are three main camps when it comes to home education: Unschooling (doing no formal education until the child asks for it, John Holt having been a huge proponent of this approach), School at Home (trying to replicate a classroom at home using desks in a row, timed sessions, lots of seatwork and other props better suited to teaching 20-30 kids) and Homeschool (the integrated, personalized development of your children’s lifelong education). Realign your expectations. Look at both the trees and the forest. Show your children that learning is not about fragmented bits of knowledge or random knowhow, nor chopped up into discrete subjects. Rather, the subjects weave together, supporting and making sense of each other. Help your kids connect the dots and better see the big picture. Make sure they know that you are learning too. In fact, let them teach you. This kind of homeschool enables a richer, deeper, broader experience and leads to how to think, how to solve problems. And isn’t life full of problems to solve!?
  4. We found the tools. In the days before the internet, we tapped into the knowledge bank of the world at large using tangible materials like (lots of) hard copy books, as well as the experiential and intellectual expertise of our local community. I often think, oh, if we had had the internet! But hey, I wasn’t trying to deal with social distancing – every era has its challenges! The thing is: If we found the tools, parents today surely can. The tools are out there. The experts are out there. Good people are out there. The resources you need – if you add reasonable time, thought, energy and organization to this equation – are out there. They don’t come knocking though. You have to go look for them. Gems don’t jump out from a rocky hillside. Most anything worth having requires a little digging.
  5. We practiced Dependent Independence. When you admire the accomplishments of a brilliant person who came before you, when you investigate or build upon their work, when you actively demonstrate and celebrate the interconnections you have with others – even if they have a different perspective or lived in a different time or faced a different set of problems – you affirm the value of community that binds and supports us throughout our lives. When you balance a recognition of your dependence on others with responsibly taking things into your own hands, you become your children’s primary model of this critical life skill. You show them you aren’t perfect either, that it’s okay to be competent at some things and clueless at others. We stand strong, do what we can and take responsibility for our own decisions and actions, but we need each other and always have something new to learn.
  6. We flowed. Here we are, a set of people walking a given path together, all with our own quirks, rhythms, ideas and interests. We allowed for some days being more productive than others, for Idea A to spark Idea B, for the unexpected tidbits of everyday life to feed and supplement the plan we started with. We let life teach. We tried to be good students – sensibly aiming for desired outcomes, but trying to not fix the results to match the hypothesis. Life is full of surprises and they are not all bad.
  7. We marveled. Look carefully at the underside of a mushroom, the veins of a leaf, the uniqueness of your fingerprint. Smile at the random blink of a firefly, the delicate softness of flower petals, the perfect shape of an egg. Gaze in awe at nature videos: a mother whale protecting her calf, a snow leopard marking territory, an eagle soaring in the high mountains, a lizard basking in the warm sun. Note well the simple beauties of nature or the fascinatingly complex interweavings of systems. Teach your children that when they (or you) are feeling an extreme – either full of themselves or totally in the dumps – they (or you) can let the wonder and magic of the natural world feed their soul. Sometimes that works.
  8. We made it fun. Being a Vermonter steeped in Ben & Jerry’s old If it’s not fun, why do it? slogan had its effect on me. I wanted our days to be as fun as possible, as meaningful as possible, because I never wanted my kids to associate homeschool with drudgery or boredom or annoyance. I also never wanted them to think that learning is confined to classes or that it stops when school is over. I wanted them to be lifelong learners, to “keep the joy,” to never stop being curious or amazed or intrigued, to never stop asking questions and looking for answers. I wanted them to know that despite whatever hardships, challenges, dips, tragedies or pain comes along, life is full of good.

As best as you can in the covid world: Find and celebrate the good. Surround yourself — however you can — with upstanding, intelligent, caring people. Play to your strengths but allow for mistakes. Tap into the experts but use common sense. Aim for excellence but don’t make a federal project out of it. Breathe. You can do it. One day at a time.

Essential Alcohol and the Joy of Flowers

I’m not much of a drinker. Inside of one glass of wine I get so tired I am looking for the nearest couch to pass out on. For me there’s no point. I have things to do.

Recently I asked Samuel about why Virginia’s ABC stores are being considered essential during Corona. “C’mon, Mom, during a crisis you’d hardly want to take away people’s sedatives.” Fair enough. I get that. Part of well-being is managing anxiety, keeping your peace. I guess it’s the same nationwide, that alcohol is a must.

Then Claudia told me that the garden centers and hardware stores were already closed in Germany. My contact at our local building supply had already told me the store was closed but they would still deliver. Same for the tile store; there you can place an order and pick up. In my case, being almost done with the front porch, midway on the bathtub replacement and just starting the kitchen re-do and garden prep, this was worrisome.

UH-OH. So let’s make a list. What MIGHT we need, and let’s get it before we can’t. This involves a lot of math, including how many 2x4s for the railing pickets (once you rip and allow for the off-cut), how many 2x6s for the tops and bottoms, how many boxes of screws and other hardware so we don’t run out halfway across the porch? It involves tiles for the tub surround, sheetrock to cover the holes I am making in the kitchen area, plywood for cabinets, cherry for facings, drawer fronts, and cabinet doors, etc.

It also involves flowers. And what I want to know is this: If alcohol is considered essential, why aren’t flowers!!? If alcohol (in theory, and sometimes anyway) calms people and helps them cope, what about the things of beauty that bring us joy and feed our souls? What if I can’t get flowers??

I realize this is a big can of worms. What brings me joy and feeds my soul is different (vastly perhaps) than what you need. Where do you draw the line between essential and non-essential? Clearly I don’t have a say in this, so I thought through the risk of going to the local garden center I presumed to be open – it’s open-air and I can wear my PPE and keep my distance besides – and decided it was okay. Time for flowers.flowers in cart (2)2mp

On a cart I gathered dianthus, snapdragons, pansies, daisies, two small azaleas, some random other flowers, two tomato plants, parsley and a bunch of seed packets, and got in line.

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Even here, I hardly wanted to breathe. But everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing and was most respectful. Note the socially distanced spacing. Will we ever stand near one another again and not worry? Turn on any movie or series or anything on film produced pre-March 2020 and see the proximity of humans!! The scenes at the MET on Moonstruck (hadn’t seen that movie in years; it helps me understand my Italian side), the subway in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (on Amazon now, yay!), the restaurant in As Good As It Gets (never get tired of that movie!) – surely there will be a pre- and post-Corona reality in everyone’s memories.

I wonder how many people will reflect on the good that came from this challenge and incorporate some of their newly discovered way of life into their post-Corona world. My friend Beverley yesterday called what she sees “the silver lining.” In her neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, she has seen “families out strolling, mulching, dog walking, tossing the frisbee, football, baseball. There were even some lil ones running thru the sprinkler in their front yard. And what’s so encouraging …Parked cars in the neighborhood, hardly any traffic. People are Staying Home! And warm weather is coming!!!! A combination that might conquer this beastly virus.”

How many people will rediscover chatting over the fence, sharing baked goods, fixing their own bike? I’m thrilled to see farmers finding new ways to get their produce to consumers, stay-at-homers enjoying the intrigue of sourdough bread, shelters with no dogs left in them because people at home like (and have time for) the companionship of a faithful (and surely grateful) pooch. In the broader, more serious picture, I am hopeful and confident that next year’s Nobel prize will go to those who come up with the cure/immunization. May they be successful soon!

We all have our ups and down, our lack of focus some days, our misgivings about the way things are handled, our frustrations at the inconveniences we face every day. Cabin fever may never be seen in the same light again. But hats off to those people who take the bull by the horns and show others that this is not altogether (that we know of anyway!) the end of the world, to those who find the balance between, on the one hand, seeing and responding appropriately to the tremendous seriousness of this virus and on the other, finding a way to manage their everyday stuff and see and applaud whatever good they can.

May God bless and preserve our health care workers and all the others risking their own life and safety in order for many people to have what they need. They are my heroes right now. None of them “signed up for this.” All of them face fears and hardships they never imagined. None of the rest of us would want to trade places with them. Talk about a rock and a hard place.

All of this will end. May we all look back and know we did the best we could. No more is expected of us than that 😊

Flowers in the garden – a palette of color that includes good dirt and fresh air – feeds my well-being. What feeds yours?

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A Kind of Scrubbing

We all have different reactions to stress. Mine is scrubbing. Occasionally that means the literal on-your-hands-and-knees kind of scrubbing with a bucket of soapy water and a rag. (Just try getting to the far corners of the floor under a large piece of furniture without the hands-and-knees approach.) Look around your house. You know what I mean. Any number of things could be cleaner, less dusty at least. Yeah.

Usually for me though, scrubbing is the more general version, the simple make-something-better-with-energetic-activity kind of scrubbing. Pick something, anything. Lots of things could be better than they are. When we make something better, good things happen. When we sit around feeling stressed, dejected, annoyed, fearful or any other un-positive way, good seldom comes.

I know. I’m a worrier. I’m worried about bringing The Big Bad to my mom who’s trying to heal her broken back. I am worried when I’m not in her apartment that somewhere out there, something I touch, someone I pass by, will infect me. I’m worried about my friend Sandy who just had knee surgery* and is staying at the cottage. We all know how contagious coronavirus is. I don’t touch anything I don’t have to. I wear gloves almost continually. I don’t even want to breathe when I am anywhere other than my house, my car or Mom’s apartment. But sooner or later we all need stuff from the store.

Here’s the thing: I can’t make my mom’s broken back heal any faster than her bones naturally knit together. I can’t un-stiffen Sandy’s knee or cause the ice packs to un-swell it more effectively. I sure can’t reverse the deadly track of the coronavirus. I can’t play the trumpet and serenade my neighbors like this amazing and selfless trumpet player in Italy.

But by golly I can scrub! First and foremost of course, I can scrub my hands to help ensure I am not making the situation worse. I can “do” the other thing besides hand-washing that we all have been advised to do: Stay home as much as possible. Consider it done. I love home anyway.

I can also make food and give it away. Yesterday I made three ricotta pies which have safely made their way to three different refrigerators.

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I can plant my lettuce, spinach, peas and onions, hoping I’ll be able to share that produce in a month or two. Basil is best started indoors. The sight of these seeds popping through the dirt was about as lovely a sight as I could have asked for.

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I can pray. Lord knows there are plenty of people trying to figure out how to navigate this weird new world. I can also be a sounding board and hopefully an encouragement for people who want to talk on the phone, or text (as they are that for me!). Once in a while, maybe I can even make them laugh! To maintain my sanity/well-being (okay, and to let out a bit of frustration), I can break a hole in the wall near the end of the kitchen and start my next renovation project.

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I do not mean to diminish the seriousness of the world situation by one iota. I am aware of the military trucks in Bergamo taking bodies to crematoriums in other Italian cities because there is NO MORE ROOM for them in Bergamo. My heart is heavy knowing I don’t have a clue about pain and suffering and worry compared to those in the thick of it.

But I do think we can collectively and individually make things better than they are. With some unfortunate and maddening exceptions (spring-breakers on Miami beaches come to mind) most people have brains, energy and helpful and caring hearts.

SCRUB!

______________________________

 

*He got in under the wire, one of the last three elective surgeries to be performed in our local hospital before they decided to draw the line on non-essential procedures.

Your Neighbor

It occurred to me yesterday that if my mother had not taken a bad fall last Wednesday, it could be months before I would see her again. The daffodils in my garden would be long past.

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The lockdown here is so complete that unless you are the caregiver or performing some other critical function, you may not enter. When I was stopped and questioned at the gate two days ago, I was told that even my status as her daughter didn’t matter. But as caregiver, following protocol, I could come in.

Not in all her 85 years has my mother been in this much pain. Breaking your back is to be avoided at all costs, trust me! Even with the drugs, she has done more wincing, gripping and crying out in the last ten days than I would want anyone to experience in a lifetime. I would not wish this on anyone.

Except for necessary trips to the bathroom and back, Mom is confined to bed, confined to her apartment. Considering COVID-19, this is not a bad thing.

The situation makes me think about choices. Would I rather Mom have a broken back or struggle through COVID-19? Both are bad, very bad, exceedingly bad. Painful though it is, I suspect she would choose the broken bones.

Tomorrow we have to make a trip to the doctor – insurance dictates that she be seen by her primary physician within seven days of an ER visit. Are such regulations suspended because of the virus? I would rather her not go anywhere right now. What should I do? We are doing everything we can to be careful, but neither of us has been in complete isolation. Either of us could have been exposed to the virus during one of her recent trips to the ER. I am being extremely careful about washing my hands, keeping things clean and not mixing unnecessarily with other people. Were Mom to catch this or any respiratory illness and have to cough while giving the bones right behind her lungs the time they need to heal, the pain would be, I’m sure, at the being-flayed-alive level. 

Sometimes the choices in life are not Good or Bad. Sometimes they are Bad or Worse. Sometimes there is no good way forward. Sometimes just The Best We Can. The current global pandemic had made us all think about what’s important. We have all, I hope, weighed the risks not only for ourselves but also for the rest of the world, though it’s hard to wrap your head around the prospects for 7 billion people. One way to do this is to go back to basics.

How about: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

How about: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Years ago I came to a life-changing understanding of Mark 12:31 when I heard it preached about in a church in Kempten, Germany. Until then, I had what is probably a standard interpretation of the word neighbor – someone who lives on my same street or in my same building. The concentric circles around myself started with my own family (in my own house), then expanded to neighbors, then to community, then to town, then to county, state, nation, world. Like this:

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This pastor approached the topic by looking at the word neighbor in a different way, and he had the advantage of a different language.

Neighbor in German is Nachbar. Nach means “next to.” Nachbar literally means The One Next To You.

This means your neighbors are not just the people on your street. It means they are the ones you work with, the ones you pass by in the store, the ones who sit with you in meetings, the ones in front of you or behind you in a line or queue. Your neighbors are not (just) the specific people who live in houses or apartments near you, but instead a fluid set depending on where you are.

This less restrictive, more open definition helped me see that while I am at work, my co-workers are my neighbors. While I am shopping, my fellow shoppers are my neighbors. At any time, but especially while we are fighting the most serious pandemic of our lifetime, anyone I come in contact with is my neighbor. Like this:

my neighbors

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Reconsider your concept of the word love as well. I’m not talking about love as in “in love.” In English we can get stuck with one word that is tasked with encompassing a wide range of meanings. Greek, the original language of the New Testament, has four words for love: storge (applying to family), philia (friends), eros (romantic) and agape (total love, the kind that changes things).*

Agape love is the kind in Love your neighbor as yourself. Look within yourself to find a way to consider equally what’s best for you and what’s best for your neighbor. We all want to avoid getting a deadly disease. Equally, we should all want to avoid passing it along to someone else. This is the kind of love that will change how this virus spreads.

Follow guidelines. Stay home. Avoid gatherings. Keep your distance. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Encourage others to do the same. The only way we can get through this with fewer casualties is for us to get over the hump of delusion that it’s not that bad. It’s that bad! We all have to take it seriously. The St. Patrick’s Day revelers who gathered in bars in cities across the country should be ashamed of themselves.

We have to learn to think in different ways. We have to adopt new ways of being, of moving about, of taking care of ourselves and others. We have to do this now.

_____________________________

*For a somewhat more detailed look at these four kinds of love, see this article.

“(probably we needed it)”

A week ago my mom fell. She’s 85 and doesn’t blame anyone or anything.  It just happened. But it hurts like nothing she has ever experienced.  She fractured two ribs in her back as well as part of her spine – two of the ”thoracic transverse processes” that stick out on either side. She goes from bed to bathroom with great pain, great difficulty and a lot of help. If you have ever broken your own back, you will have a clue how she feels.

Just two days earlier we had been enjoying the spring flowers at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond with Rise and Eppie. You never know what’s around the next bend.

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Nor did we expect the coronavirus. We are extremely fortunate to be in an area that, up till now, has no known cases, and thank God Mom is essentially quarantined anyway. Her community has imposed a set of protocols similar to many retirement facilities of this kind, seriously cutting back on group activities and limiting visitors to the degree that’s reasonable, feasible and sensible. Even so, we are, like everyone, aware and concerned and doing everything in our power to minimize the risks.

Hearing about Google and Apple and other tech companies having their employees work from home makes me wonder about the people who can’t work from home – the nurses, the plumbers, the truck drivers, the shopkeepers – the unsung heroes of our age who keep the lights on and make sure we all have food to eat. The number of people, things and systems we take for granted, the variety of interconnected parts that have to work together for society to work as it does, is mind-boggling. For all its problems, as many things as possible considered, I am more grateful than ever for the incredibly smooth way of life we enjoy.

Hearing about people staying at home makes me wonder about how many are getting to know the people they live with in new ways, or rediscovering books and board games and actual conversation, or working out underlying issues that were easy to escape when we led our fragmented lives in utterly separate zones. Years ago a neighbor who homeschooled her kids told me that when you are around the same people all the time, you can’t wear a mask, you can’t put on your happy face and get through the day and take off that face when you go home. The people you are with all the time see what’s there, the good and the noble, the ugly and the tired. You had better learn to get along.

Finding the right balance in this thing is the trick, and I am grateful to my friend Marisa, who shed light on the phenomenon from her country, Italy, which was hit earlier than we in the States were. She described how they are handling the government restrictions imposed on them, such as staying at home most of the time. “In doing so, compared with the hectic lifestyle we, as Italians, and in particular as people from Lombardy, have always had, we are now experiencing/discovering a new way of living (probably we needed it).” How blessed am I to be friends with a person who sees things this way! She adds, “Let’s take the positive from the negative. Our thanks to our health workers who are doing a terrific job. Good luck to the whole world!”

Let me return to “probably we needed it.” Probably we needed to improve relationships with the people we care about (and now we have some time to do that). Probably we needed a reminder of what’s important. (Probably we all needed to wash our hands more anyway!) Probably we needed to take stock of all that’s good. Probably we needed to get a better perspective, a fresher look at the amazing world that we forget is so amazing. Please don’t misunderstand: Nothing’s perfect, never has been, never will be. Challenges, disagreements and conflicts are ever with us. I’m not saying there isn’t plenty to improve upon. But coronavirus aside, I get tired of all the complaining that things are sooooo bad. Maybe it takes a crisis for many people to get a glimpse of just how good we’ve had it, just how well-thought-out and well-executed many systems are, just how wonderful most people are — even if occasional glitches and/or troublemakers get all the attention. Maybe we don’t need a complete 180 but instead, a healthy balance of sincere gratitude, personal integrity, some steady, thoughtful, reasonable tweaking, and a focus on what’s actually important. 

Thank you, Marisa.

A Scary Day at the Beach

The following intro on Wild Sensibility’s latest post made me think immediately of the beach. Granted, the beach is an odd thing to think about in the middle of December when I have to cover my rosemary every night so it doesn’t get too cold. But we do not always control the meanderings of the mind. Especially when they get a little direction.

If you spend time in the outdoors, eventually something will go wrong. It’s a law of nature. But if you survive, those epic failures become the best stories! We’ve all read about amazing accomplishments in the wild, but now it’s time to tell us about the not-so-great times and what you learned from them. Share your best #EpicTrailFail stories on your own page, include this paragraph as a header, and then provide a link in the comments here or here. We’ll curate and circulate the best stories in future posts. We can’t wait to read about what you’ve survived!
Arionis of Just A Small Cog and Rebecca of Wild Sensibility.

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Water and sand and play and sun.

The beach is supposed to be just plain fun.

How it almost turned deathly I cringe to recall.

What you must understand is that Sand Can Fall.

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I take you to the public beach in Boca Raton, Florida, where I in my young(er) and stupid(er) days brought three of my boys and had a terrible scare.

The key to understanding this situation is twofold.

  1. I am not a beach person, meaning I have not spent loads of time at beaches, which is to say I am unfamiliar with some of the inherent issues one finds at beaches which other people, less ignorant, would know from experience to be careful of.
  2. This particular beach was structured oddly. Normally a beach is flat and you walk on the sand straight into the water. The level of the sand sometimes drops off (sometimes considerably) when you venture a bit into the water, but normally it’s an easy, flat, level walk from your parked car to where you can get your toes wet.

Not in Boca.

There, for reasons I do not understand, the level of the sand drops off just before the sand meets the water, meaning you have to hop down if water is your goal. Likely this has to do with whether it’s high tide or low tide, but after this incident I admit I did not take time to look into it. I was too busy having heart palpitations.

A cross section looks something like this. At least in my still-trembling memory it looks like this.

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It is not a big drop off. Maybe it wasn’t even that high. Maybe that’s just how I remember it in my nightmares. For my boys – Lincoln was about 10 and Bradley was 12 (and Samuel was too young to take part) – it was a great, fun jump, then a simple climb back up. Jump. Climb. Jump. Climb. In between splash around a bit. I was on the upper level, paying attention. So I thought.

They got tired of this jumping-and-climbing game and decided to dig. Wouldn’t it be fun to dig a tunnel from the bottom up and from the top down – at about a 45-degree angle – and wiggle through it? It wasn’t a long tunnel, maybe just a bit longer than my boys were tall. And the sand, being close to the water as it was, had enough moisture in it to hold the tunnel shape, like a sandcastle does until a wave washes over it. So I thought.

Then okay. Tunnel built. Lincoln crawled through. Triumph! Smiles, bravo, do it again.

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Lincoln is small, thin, agile, lithe. Always was.

Bradley’s turn. Bradley at age 12 had what you could call heft. He was a “big boy” – other descriptors include solid, wider than thin, robust.

You would surely see/anticipate/fear what I did not. The inner walls of the tunnel were likely compromised by Lincoln having gone through first. Plus, Bradley’s style of movement was more bull-in-a-china-shop than graceful or careful or any other style that might have prevented those tunnel walls from caving in.

In they caved indeed, with Bradley smack in the middle – no feet to be seen. No head!

Good God, he can’t breathe in there!

Now who was digging?! The foolish mother who let this happen, that’s who! Lincoln helped, as did a blessed bystander or two. It did not take long to uncover his face but it felt like eternity. Bradley was fine after gasping a breath or two, unfazed, emerging enthusiastically not unlike a jack-in-the-box. He jumped in the water to clean all the sand out of his hair and ears and played until we left as if nothing happened. A moratorium was called on tunnel-building though.

These are the moments a mother relives ad infinitum with a great deal of chiding and self-flagellation. Like Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, I asked myself a gazillion times How could I have been so stupid? How could I have been so stupid?

Bradley always had an adventurous spirit. He loved skiing, having grown up in Vermont next to Smuggs and Stowe. He watched Warren Miller films – the ones showing crazy skiers in settings both gorgeous and treacherous – thinking Those guys are awesome rather than Those guys are crazy. He worked at Alta ski resort in Utah one winter just to be able to ski on his time off. You know, triple-black-diamond, around-the-trees-down-the-steepest-slopes kind of stuff. When he was about 20 he traveled for six months with his best friend Tim to southeast Asia, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand. They worked some, played a lot, tried to spear poisonous fish (perhaps succeeded), sent photos designed to unnerve me – Brad with a full beard on a park bench somewhere in Sydney holding a sign that said Will Work For Food comes to mind.

I never forgot the beach day though. Some years later while reviewing my parenting missteps (everyone does that, right?) I took the rap (should have been smarter, should have anticipated the tunnel collapse, etc.) and added, “Bradley, I think that’s as close as you’ve ever come to death.”

“Well, Mom,” he began, about to (I could tell) give me other, better examples of events that had nothing whatever to do with me – possibly an effort to relieve my guilt – events that made the day on the beach look like a walk in the park.

“I don’t wanna hear about it,” I said firmly.

As if I need more mental images of near-death that include any of my children. As if I need any mental images of near-death. But I know that danger is a part of every adventure, and I thank God we get through most of them unscathed. What lessons did I take away from Tunnel Terror? Nothing I didn’t know before. But all worth remembering.

  1. Sand falls. It is an unstable substance despite how solid it might look.
  2. Children do not have the best judgment sometimes. They forge ahead with no clue as to possible unwanted repercussions.
  3. Adults do not have the best judgment sometimes. They fail to anticipate possible unfortunate consequences.
  4. Life is precious. A death or near-death event (no matter whose, so long as we know the person) is one of the best reminders of how much we love the people we love, how much we cherish our time with them, how much the world would not be the same without them.
  5. We all do the best we can. Distractions, missteps, fatigue, confusion, fear and a multitude of other factors all complicate the picture, all color the diligent attentiveness and sound decision-making and responsible actions we want to think are ever-present, ever-applied. We’re just not perfect. We can’t know every risk, can’t stop every bad, can’t fix every hurt. We can just love each other, protect each other, forgive each other and deal with whatever life throws at us, each day, every day, as best as we can. That’s a tall enough order, I’d say.