A Wooden Pie Crust

The other day I had an idea. It fits along the lines of what architects call the “design spiral” and what I see as the way ideas evolve. That is, you have an unfinished, unsettled or ill-defined part of the building project that needs to be figured out. In my experience, light bulbs — a.k.a. ideas — don’t turn on in one click but rather come on slowly, as if someone had control of the dimmer switch. One thought leads to another and in the end there’s a solution, a point of yes-that’s-right-(finally!). All contributing factors – budget, context, history, personality, goals – have been considered and satisfied. You like it, you approve it, you move forward.

Such was the case with the wooden pie crust.

To help explain the situation, here’s a side view of the cottage. See the blue triangle? The blue triangle became a space to fill. Not on the cottage though.

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You see, when Bradley was building the cottage, he made the window frames (made the window frames, that’s cherry you see, made that door too, fyi) and then called the local glass company to come and measure for the glass to go in them. The guy measured for the trapezoids wrong (it’s simple geometry, I remember Brad saying to me) and the glass didn’t fit, so the glass company ate the mistake, remeasured, and produced correct sizes. They didn’t want the first, incorrect windows, so we kept them in storage. When the time came to build my porch, I wanted to borrow some architectural elements from the cottage and decided to use these leftover trapezoids. They will flank the as-yet-undelivered center window over the bench. You see the same blue triangles.

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Since the line across the top of this set of windows is straight instead of steeply pitched like the cottage, the trim/molding around the windows either has to work around the angle of the trapezoid or stay straight. Angling the trim didn’t seem right, but if it stays straight, that would leave blank spaces (the blue triangles) that to me would look weird. What do you fill it with? Siding?

What to do in that space – that was the question.

Sandy suggested a decorative rosette. Here are some examples of rosettes one could consider. I didn’t want a flower or a circle or a tree or a fleur de lis or any of these, plus they are mostly made for square spaces, not triangular, but the ones that look interwoven gave me an idea.

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Years ago I knew a woman who had her own basket-making studio. As a homeschooling activity, several times, my children made baskets of their own under her instruction. These are the ones they didn’t claim (when they left home) and I still use frequently. There is nothing like a good basket.

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Another factor that somehow came into play here is that I love to bake. When you love to bake, it is not hard to think of pie, especially in the fall when the apples are coming in. I have always loved the look of a lattice top on a pie. Yesterday I bought 40 pounds of apples at my favorite orchard, Albemarle Ciderworks, and soon will be enjoying a piece myself (to say nothing of lots of applesauce!). This image of a lattice-topped pie from notjustbaked.com shows you what I mean. King Arthur Flour also has a marvelous video that shows how a lattice crust is made.

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My idea to fill the blank spaces at the tops of the trapezoid windows evolved from “something has to go in that space” to a solution that feels personal. It combines fond reflections of the baskets my children made years ago and my love of a good lattice-top pie, and it satisfies that part of me that wants something a little less pre-fab, a little more unique, not too expensive and not overly challenging.

I thought of getting ash strips, the kind you would get for basket-making, and weaving them like pie dough. Then I remembered the thin ash veneer you can get in one-inch width, and decided to play with that. It worked!

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This stuff even has a kind of glue on the backing that responds to heat, so when the time comes to adhere the triangular webs to the luan (thin) plywood pieces that Sandy cut into the same size, I will try using an iron, and will do it on a test-strip first of course! This will also serve to flatten it.

And then we will find a way – I don’t know how yet – to affix this to the wall in the empty space and trim it out with the molding. I think it can go both inside and outside as a not-too-obtrusive bit of interest. In the living room I will paint it white to match the inside moldings and on the porch use the same stain as the trimwork out there.

A year ago we started this project. I love that there’s pie as we head into the home stretch 😊!

Haints Alive!

Weird morning here. Random, unexpected, connecting dots. Or maybe they don’t connect at all. First, while still in the not-quite-awake stage, I would swear I saw headlights coming down the driveway, heard tires on the gravel, but then there was no car. Then a noisy bird outside started yakking, squawking, hollering, incessantly bird-barking (as only birds can do), clearly upset about something, some other bird stealing his food or intruding on his territory probably. Then Nancy played “HAINT” in our Wordfeud game and I didn’t know what it meant.

Ghost or evil spirit, that’s what it means.

I’m not a big believer in ominous bodings, but the headlights-that-weren’t, the raucous bird and word I looked up all did kinda point in one direction, an odd confluence. Not exactly creepy, just mildly unsettling. The temperature here is so heavenly right now I’ve got windows wide open so I can hear and see a lot of what’s going on outside. The window-that-isn’t (yet), the one in the living room, is covered with some variety of house wrap only, reused from the last time it temporarily covered a gaping hole in my house, stapled to the sheetrock on the inside and sealed off with painter’s tape. And that window (that isn’t) connected back to the haint (that probably isn’t either) because just behind me as I sit on the couch, just past the house wrap that covers the gaping hole, is the only part of the porch that has a ceiling.

Let me start over. I’ve got this nice new set of windows in the foyer that allows a full-on view of what/who is coming down the driveway. There wasn’t this much daylight when I woke up earlier, but you can see it would be pretty impossible to miss headlights coming my way in the semi-dark. Headlights are hard to mistake in the dark. Beyond that Benz on the left, that narrow strip of almost-horizontal gray, that’s the driveway.

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Okay then, no headlights. I made a pot of tea, found my spot on the couch and tried to ignore the angry bird by seeing what word Nancy had played in the wee hours when she is always up playing against the word I played the night before. HAINT got her 48 points because she played it on both the double and the triple word spots. Bravo!

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I know they don’t allow contractions in this game. You can’t play DONT for DON’T so I dismissed my first instinct that HAINT was a contraction for IT AIN’T – and I know it’s not what Elvis was singing, but I heard “Haint nothin’ but a hounddog!” in my head 😊

The hyperlinking you get when you simply put a word in the google search box continues to amaze me, even after all these years when I’ve used it a gazillion times. In no time flat I had a definition and had to share it with Nancy.

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She’s hilarious. We both try anything actually – the game doesn’t limit the number of times you can play with combinations and hopefully find something that works, even if you never heard of it, don’t have to know it or have known it, never have to defend the choice. Hey, we didn’t set that up, just enjoying the game!

Haint is often connected with porch ceilings, as it turns out. “Haint Blue” is a color, according to Apartment Therapy. “Once upon a time in the deep South, many people painted their porch ceilings a specific shade of Haint Blue, a soft glue-green, to ward off evil spirits called ‘haints.’ It’s especially common in the historic homes around Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.”

Photographer Paige Knudsen’s blog post about her house shows this lovely example.

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My own porch is far from finished, nor did I or would I ever consider a ceiling of that color. It’s a bit too cold for me. Some people think its benefit has less to do with warding off haints (but if it did, okay, we’ll accept that too) and more to do with looking like the color of the sky, thereby warding off insects like wasps that might think it’s the sky the same way birds sadly crash into windows because they think it’s a continuation of the open space they are flying through. Those misguided wasps (haints if you ask me) might therefore decide to build their nests in some other place. Let’s hope.

By the way, my computer’s dictionary does not recognize “haint” as a word, keeps underlining it and wanting me to change it to “haunt” – how appropriate, hmmmm.

We just put up the plywood this past weekend on the part of the porch where the oddfellow’s bench sits just on the other side of the living room, and just got the lights in, though it’s still windowless here on account of that mysterious thing called “backorder” – did someone maybe drop the new window when they took it off the truck on the expected delivery date of Sept 9, this past Monday, after saying it was “on the truck” the night before? Out of my hands to be sure. But I hadn’t taken a photo of this ceiling yet because when the light was just right, I hadn’t thought of it. Until now, until this confluence of headlights, hollering and haints led me to Oh, this is the perfect time to take that picture – enough light but not too much.

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I have cedar in mind for the ceiling actually, repurposed old siding. Look what happened to the old siding (vertical piece on left, below) after a few runs through the planer (piece on right). That’s some gorgeous, perfectly usable wood.

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Lovely cedar aside, it IS a weird morning around here! As I heard my guests preparing to leave, I got up to say good-bye, went out the front porch door and heard a crash. A piece of sheetrock, temporarily tucked back into where it was cut from the wall in the foyer to get to the wiring to make the lights on the front porch, had fallen.

Huh.

To say nothing of the box spring that’s standing up in the hallway right now while I do some spackling in the front bedroom (closing in other gaping holes). Right after the piece of sheetrock fell from the wall, the box spring unsettled itself, lost its balance and fell toward the opposite hallway wall.

Haints alive!!?? What’s next?!

 

Croquettes with a Twist

Recently I discovered that you can make a thing your whole life and then one day discover a twist on how to make it that in all the years before never occurred to you. Rice and Cheese Croquettes are the thing I speak of today. I wrote a detailed post about this all-time favorite last year, noting them as one of my mom’s great comfort foods. You mix plain white cooked rice into a cheesy sauce that causes the rice to stick together, then you form patties, bread them and pan-fry them – oh yum!

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Sometimes I don’t make my rice plain though. Sometimes plain seems boring and you know how I feel about boring. Sometimes, also, I don’t plan very well. I just look at what’s in the fridge and work with it.

Having decided against plain rice as a side for an earlier meal, I had made rice pilaf instead. All that means is that I started with an onion – you seldom go wrong starting with an onion! – sautéed it in a few tablespoons of butter till it was transparent, then added chicken broth instead of water, waited till it came to a boil (just as I would if it were plain water), then added the rice and a bit of salt. When that began to boil, I turned down the temp, covered it and let it simmer 20 mins (just as I would with plain rice). Ta-da! Rice pilaf!

Remember when making white rice, use two cups of water for every cup of rice. Wild or brown rice is another thing. And also remember your rice will triple in volume: 2/3 cup uncooked rice becomes 2 cups cooked rice.

Problem was I had forgotten the tripling-in-volume part and made too much rice pilaf and there it was in the fridge staring at me as a leftover. A whole big container of it. Four leftover cups of cooked rice pilaf. That’s a fairly major miscalculation, but possibly it wasn’t a miscalculation at all but instead I had made extra thinking it would be good to have leftover. I forget. Anyway, you can heat up leftover-rice-of-any-variety in a pan same as anything, even crisp it up a bit, no argument there, delicious and easy. But croquettes were whispering in my ear as I stared into the fridge that day. Hmmm, croquettes made with rice pilaf?? That’s new.

[pause]

Sure, why not? And while I was at it, why not embellish further? Why not finely dice some ham and chop some spinach and add it to the mix? Because those were whispering too.

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Let me give you the ingredients of the original recipe first, then explain how I tweaked it. Remember I was starting with four cups of cooked rice, so I ended up doubling everything.

I tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons flour
½ cup milk
2 eggs, separated
2 cups cooked rice (2/3 cup uncooked)
½ cup grated sharp (Cabot if you can!) cheddar cheese
¼ teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper (a couple shakes)
1 cup fine bread crumbs mixed with 2 tablespoons flour (for breading)

Same as making any roux, melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over a medium heat, add the flour and whisk it together. It should look like this.

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When you add the milk and whisk (a little more gently than u whisked the flour into the butter, or else you’ll have milk splashing all over your stove, and you don’t want that), it gets creamy.

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Don’t add the milk all at once. Add about a third of it, whisk in, then another third, whisk in, then the last bit. You get no lumps that way. Look at this silky, creamy goodness!

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For rice croquettes (unlike regular white sauce then made into cheese sauce) you also add egg yolks. This has to do with the binding properties of eggs – you want this sauce to make the rice grains stick together to form the patties, plus it makes the whole thing richer. So add the egg yolks. I used three instead of four because two of mine were pretty massive, coming as they were from my Mama Brahma hens, which you probably don’t have. Four regular size egg yolks work fine. Set aside the whites for later.

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Stir this up and admire the gorgeous color it forms.

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Add the paprika and again admire the spectacular color of the red specs splatted against the pale golden cream.

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Once duly admired, stir in the paprika. I then added my diced ham and spinach, which are random-but-seemed-reasonable-to-me amounts, probably about a cupful each.

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Then I added the cheese, which again is (sorry) a rather unmeasured amount (I cut a hunk off the block and grated it, looked about right). It might be a bit more than the called-for cupful (remember I doubled the recipe) but that, I have found, doesn’t matter.

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This “sauce” I then transferred to a bowl, added the cold rice pilaf (if it were hot or warm it would be okay too) and mixed it up. If your pot is big enough, you could also mix it up right there in the pot. I don’t know why I didn’t.

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Now the fun part, the part where your hands get directly involved, the forming-patties part. By the way, you can make these whatever size you like, even some bigger than others or odd shapes (crescent moons perhaps?) because they are your patties and no one else’s and you should have fun with rice patties whatever way you like 😊. I chose (did I really??) boring, burger-size patty shapes. I suppose, in retrospect, adding the ham and spinach was enough outside-the-box for one day. Another shape would have been just too much. We do need to know where to draw the line.

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I don’t fry a lot of foods, but these I have no qualms about. You lightly egg-and-bread them and then let them crisp up in some hot olive oil. This is where you use the egg whites you set aside earlier. In my case, I had so many patties, I needed more egg, so I added another egg to the whites and whisked it in. I also add a little flour to the breadcrumbs because I’ve found this helps it stick to the thing you just egged.

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So first put a patty in the egg, flip it to coat evenly, then transfer it to the crumbs and flip the same way. If you can manage this with two forks, you will keep your hands from getting so gooky. Once they are coated, put them in the hot oil. Flip when browned on the first side.

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In the end I was quite pleased with this experiment. What we didn’t eat for dinner I wrapped up tightly and froze. What a good idea — boy, did they come in handy when my sister came to visit!

When you are ready for a quick meal or side dish, thaw and heat in the oven for 20 minutes or so, like your own amazing convenience food. I expect you will enjoy every bite!

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Egg with Tail, Paper Piles and Real Towels

She just didn’t finish. That’s what it looks like to me. The hen that laid the egg with the tail (yes, you read that right) either got bored and distracted and forgot when to pinch off, or it started to hurt and she just eeked through the pain, or she is protesting her egg-laying job but had to get it out anyway. Let it be said that none of us knows exactly what it feels like to plop out an egg, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to get the general idea.

This egg was like the other weakly shelled egg from earlier this summer, squishy just the same, a bit like jello with the thinnest of a crust, just enough crust to keep the yolk and white from making a gooey mess all over the place. Only this one had a tail. What’s up with the chicken that lays such an egg? I wonder which chicken? Miss Old Gray? Don’t-Mess-With-Me White Brahma? Sister Cinnamon Queen?

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I wonder if the same chicken laid both. I wonder why.

I’m thinking it’s one of the Queens. I see an attitude, don’t you?

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Why give an egg a tail? Is it because what else, given her limited physiology, can she do for fun? You know, to let her artistic side run wild? See what they think of this design! Did the chicken misfire or did the misfired shell surprise the chicken? At the Chicken Council will she defend herself with Hey, sisters, really, that shell material had a mind of its own – I didn’t try to make it do that! As if (overall weak shell aside) the hen tried to get the tail to break off and it just wouldn’t? A little like, well, you know. Perhaps the shell proper, taking an autonomous stand, was unwilling or too embarrassed to break off? Or maybe the blame goes back to insufficient shell material in the production line – Hey, Jack, you shorted me! How am I supposed to make a good shell if you short me on the hard stuff?

No getting around it (no pun intended), this egg is unfinished, improper, abnormal.

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There was nothing wrong with the egg inside. I had it for lunch, scrambled with a bit of leftover rice. The shell reduced to a teeny, wet, plastic-bag-like mess once the innards were removed, and that was gross and instantly trash, but the white and yolk were perfectly normal. This egg-with-a-tail anomaly caused me to wonder about other kinds of unfinished business, other things that I never quite wrap up in a neat little package and call DONE, like mail and laundry, and that led to fond memories of systems-that-work-but-are-somehow-unimplemented and environmental consciousness. Bear with me.

Mail: It’s true they don’t send as many catalogs as they used to, increased postage having changed that game. My paper piles don’t get as high and toppling as they used to. A lot of bills come electronically now, and they send you ads online instead. Last week I was looking at websites for outdoor furniture because sooner or later I will have a finished porch (speaking of unfinished business!) and later, while reading a New York Times article, up popped an ad for the very chair I had been looking at. That’s just plain creepy. I assume it’s legal for some program to be tracking my views, and I know it happens all the time and waaaaaay more than I know, but I don’t like it a bit. I think I’d rather deal with the pile!

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Still, I can’t blame my pile(s) on the creepy internet. In the mix you’d find checks I don’t know what to do with after I have mobile-deposited them (can I really throw them away?), receipts for the next time I do taxes, that great garlic-planting guide Tracy gave me (I’m going to need that in October), the really nice visitor’s guide from when I was at the Ringling Museum in April, bank statements (I still get some in paper form), to-do lists (I still write them to keep myself on track and I sometimes like looking back on them to see Oh, look how much was accomplished! – though be assured I do throw the shopping lists away after the shopping trip), random business cards, occasional invitations that are too pretty to throw away (and isn’t it somehow disrespectful to throw them away?)…

What kills me is that I have had, have used and have benefited from a perfectly good system for dealing with such random papers – a filing system! You get plain pocket folders (a variety of colors is more fun) and label them Bank, Garden, Travel, Projects, etc., and then you put the lists, receipts, etc., in the corresponding folder, which then goes in a file box somewhere handy. How hard is that?? No paper piles need exist at all!

I could say it’s hard right now because of living in a construction/ undone/ upside-down zone. Three rooms of my house need sheetrock work. Here’s one.

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The foyer houses a lot of tools and construction materials because you can’t run downstairs every time you need a different level or drill bit. And if you can call the new porch a room, that makes four undone zones – two of the three new sets of windows are in but not trimmed…

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…roof is on but not siding, some new ceiling lights now (as of yesterday!) turn on and some ceiling plywood is up but not all, and not all lights are in, and I still have not picked out the fans, and some of the old cedar siding is planed (to become ceiling material over the plywood) but not all, etc.

It’s a mess. A work-in-progress, I-begin-to-see-the-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel mess. A beautiful-vision-in-my-mind mess. Can a person be expected to maintain neat file folders under such circumstances?

Excuses, excuses! I hear you! Try living in my house, you say.

So-and-so (no names) adds to the mess / takes all my time / distracts me unspeakably!

My job is so demanding right now!

If only the people who said they would do the work would actually do the work!

Truth be told, I myself can never remember to buy the pocket folders! All right, all right, I’ll put them on the list. Now where was that list?

Laundry: When do we come to the end of laundry?! I operate a little b&b, so there are always sheets and towels, to say nothing of my other life and the sawdusty clothes from porch-building and oh-yeah-my-other-life the inside-out workout pants that I love.

But I don’t really mind. I even hang my laundry on a wonderful outdoor clothesline most of the time. There is nothing under the sun like sleeping on sheets that have dried in a sunshiny breeze. (I do not hang bath towels – they do need to fluff up in the dryer.)

There is in fact one portion of my laundry that I am even proud of in a way only some of you will understand.

I am not one for paper towels any more than necessary, nor throwaway wipes and that sort of thing. There is something about using a real piece of cloth that is fully intended to get dirty and be the thing between my hand and a mess I have to clean up, something about the softness of the cloth coupled with its toughness/ reuseableness/ tried-and-trueness. There is a difference between a real towel vs. something that tries to be a real towel.

Imagine my delight when I read in A Boat, A Whale and A Walrus (lovely birthday present cookbook from my daughter) by Seattle restaurant owner and entrepreneur Renee Erickson:

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REAL TOWELS

I’m a fan of towels – not the paper kind, but real cloth towels, the kind you hang from your oven door. At home I keep a huge wicker bin of them next to my oven, and I use them in lieu of paper towels, to mop up messes, blot food and soak up excess liquid wherever it appears. I accumulate them when I travel, mostly, but especially in Parisian antique markets. They’re pretty, and they’re washable. And because living in the restaurant world inevitably means making a lot of waste, it makes me feel good to use a little less paper at home.

I did not acquire my own cloths at Parisian antique markets, nor are they all the same. Some are terry, some soft knit, some woven cotton, some gauzy. They are my go-to for cleaning, for spills, for drying things, for polishing things. If they are rendered trash – such as when you use them to mink-oil your shoes – so be it. There are always more. Most of the time they go in the wash (thereby adding to the laundry, yes, but I am going to do laundry anyway, and so are you) and go back in my rag drawer. I can only imagine having space in my kitchen for a huge wicker bin of them.

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I wish I had a way to know how many paper towels I have not used over the years. I wish I knew the amount of money I have saved by not buying massive packs of them or could see the still-empty corner of a landfill that’s not filled with just my lifetime’s worth of them. I know someone else’s use of paper towels will fill that corner. I know that what I don’t use in a lifetime is probably what a football stadium, say, accumulates during one event. I certainly use paper towels sometimes.

Still, every time a paper towel is just the thing (such as on the plate I am about to transfer crispy bacon to from the hot pan), I pause and see mountains of trash in my mind, with bulldozers pushing it around to try to make room for more and more coming day after day, and I say to myself it’s okay this time. The “leave as little a footprint as possible” directive was intended for campers at first if I remember right: Take away anything you bring to the campsite, allowing the next camper to enjoy the natural environment as much as possible (instead of having to deal with your leftover stuff). To me this applies to everyday life too and to the big picture of my footprint on the environment. I am responsible for mine, after all, not someone else’s. I do what I can to be a good steward of my resources, earth’s resources. And a part of me is very satisfied about that.

As the chicken was probably satisfied. Hey, doing the best I can here!

What We Keep and What We Throw Away

A couple weeks ago I realized that the shoes I have been using for bricklaying and porchbuilding and gardening had serious cracks in the soles. The kind of cracks Nora Jones sings about in Creepin’ In.

There’s a big ol’ hole
That’s gone right through the sole
Of this old shoe
And the water on the ground
Ain’t got no place else it found
So it’s only got one thing left to do

Creep on in
Creep on in
And once it has begun
Won’t stop until it’s done
Sneaking in

Go ahead and click on the link – her music, her voice (and Dolly Parton’s in this collaboration) are way better than the words alone.

What do you do when your shoes have holes in them? I’m a make-do person, and I would fix them / deal with them if I could, but the fact is that these slip-ons really weren’t that supportive anyway – kind of loose around the ankles they were – and had considerable wear on the inside too so maybe it was time to retire them.

And I had this other old pair in the closet that I probably got for hiking (long before the days of who-would-have-thought-it bricklaying), a pair with decent (read uncracked) soles, strong laces, metal lace-holders (that surely have a name in shoe-talk) and only a little bit of the stitching coming apart. See?

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Faithful, sturdy shoes, these, reminding me so much of the goblin’s shoes in the Little Bear books.

One day a little goblin went by an old cave. It was old, it was cold, it was dark. And something inside it went bump. What was that? BUMP! “Hoo-ooh—” cried the goblin. He got so scared he jumped right out of his shoes. Then he began to run…. (The goblin ran and ran, very scared – first about the bump, then about the pit – pat – pit – pat chasing after him.)

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the pit – pat – pit – pat came closer, closer – CLOSER – till it stopped right by the hole in the tree!

(Then he saw a hole in a tree, jumped in and …)

Then all was quiet. Nothing happened. Nothing. The little goblin wanted to peek out. It was so quiet. Should he peek out? Yes, he would. He WOULD peek out. And he did. “Eeeeeh—!” cried the goblin. Do you know what he saw?

He saw – HIS SHOES! His own little shoes – and nothing more. “Goodness,” said the goblin, hopping out of the tree. “That old bump in the cave made me jump right out of my shoes. But they came running after me, didn’t they! And here they are!”

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Good little shoes! As were mine.

Or so I thought. Proudly (I was smart enough to hang onto these perfectly good shoes for such a day as this when they would come in handy!) I began wearing the good old shoes. Their value suddenly came into question while I was shoveling gravel to fill in empty spaces to make this firepit platform level (things you will walk on should be reasonably level) with the 709 free bricks that came my way (thank you, Joe!). See all that gravel filling in where the ground slopes downward? One shovelful at a time, baby! We call this I-get-to-have-ice-cream-later!

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So, yeah, gravel does not feel good when it gets IN your shoes. Understand, the gravel was not, as in the case Nora Jones’ Old Shoe, creepin’ in the way water got through her sole. Oh no. It was not, as in my First Retired Pair, dropping in around the loose ankle part (the sole cracks being big enough for water but not for gravel). It was having a high-old-easy-time-of-it coming in where the sole separated from the rest in a way it is not supposed to. See, your toes are not intended to be ever visible once your foot is in the shoe. In case you were wondering.

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You think maybe I could fix this with glue?

Okay, I do know better than that. Last year Samuel got Red Wings and is convinced they are the best, especially their once-a-month-we’ll-take-care-of-your-shoes plan, and he’d been asking me what I wanted for my birthday, so off we went. New, wonderful, shoes – voila!

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But it got me to thinking about what we keep and what we throw away. I’m not a person who easily throws stuff away, not do I hoard, nor do I misunderstand that things have a given span-of-presence in our lives.

Why do we keep some things and throw other things away? By things I mean not only things in the inanimate sense – shoes, old windows, Christmas trees in early January, mugs, cars, underwear, mail, cookbooks, screwdrivers, couches – the list is long!! I also mean people. Not in the sense that we throw people away of course, but that the circle of people who touch our lives changes over time. Some come closer, some fade, some appear occasionally, some reappear after long periods of time.

It’s hard to know who and what to hold onto! I wish I had Kenny Rogers’ confidence. Do you think he was talking only about the cards in your hand during a poker game?

You got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done.

The advice of The Gambler gave Kenny an ace he could keep. But how do you know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away, when to run?

Seems to me, some things are useful and some are relational. And that applies to both things and people. We only sometimes feel a pang about leaving people behind when we change jobs, but anyone who is remotely a friend (or very much a friend) is in another category and we ought not be so flippant. That teapot with the hairline crack might be on its last legs, but I got it while shopping with Claudia in Germany; its usefulness is only part of the reason I use it every day. Old shoes that eat gravel should go in the trash – their function is past – but small cracks in the soles of the other pair, well, maybe I can use those for painting?

Some things are easier to get rid of than others. There are no hard and fast rules or guidelines about what or who to keep around and what or who to part ways with. I think the key word in the song is you, as in you got to know…you never count…

If I may elaborate:

You look for clues, you seek confirmation, you follow your heart, you make your best judgment (you got a great new pair of shoes!). Sometimes you are wrong, you misjudge, misinterpret clues, have to re-assess, start again. Sometimes you are 100% correct and your timing is perfect.

Sometimes I wish the answers were clearer! But then we’d be like robots, right? See A, do B, expect C, repeat with other As, Bs and Cs.

Now that wouldn’t be any fun! Part of the journey is not knowing what’s around the next bend, like an ongoing movie that we don’t see the ending to until we get there. Do you ever feel like you’re in the middle of a movie? I do! And I love it because I get to play my part, small as that is, connected to these particular people as it is, focused on this goal or struggling with that challenge as it is. I never want to forget how wonderful it is to have what I have, even if it’s different from what other people have, even if there are things I don’t have and wish I did.

A Very Happy Labor Day to Everyone!

It Smells Like Earth

This morning as I made my bed, I again smiled at a gift I received last year, a small pillow filled with I don’t know – pieces of pinecone? I picked it up, held it to my face and breathed deeply in. The earthy scent of the filling filled me. My eyes closed, my body relaxed, my smile broadened.

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Gabi wrote a note to explain the un-ordinary pillow. It helps us get a good sleep, she said. Just have it near you in bed. Why would someone want a pillow filled with forest material? Why would I want one?

Trees stand tall all around me, some towering over 100 feet. Giants they are. This time of year my windows are wide open. Cool freshness wafts in. I hear birds chirping, squirrels chittering, insects singing, an occasional train in the distance rumbling, not much else except my confused hen (the one that thinks she’s a rooster) sometimes crowing.

Yet I love this pillow. And if I love it, I who live in the country, I can only imagine how other people in other settings might love the scent of earth at the ready, packaged neatly and freely evoking thoughts of earth’s predictable-yet-always-slightly-different cycles, of forest filled with boundless unseen dramas, of blessed, beautiful trees with fluttery leaf dances so high up.

I wonder how a pillow like this strikes a person who lives near the sea, where saltiness would pervade the air, water would predominate the landscape and the rushing, ebbing, flowing tides, rustling dune grasses and hungry shore birds would replace the forest sounds. The waterfront scene is as lovely as the forest, some would say as lovely as the sea of waving grass in the plains or the jagged, white peaks of high mountains. All these places can be our connection to earth, to the intelligent design it presents, to things we often hardly give thought to – how magical and majestic are these natural wonders, how awesome and complex is the schematic that includes all the moving parts of this picture, how utterly spectacular is a sky that is different every single sunset and sunrise.

What do people do who do not have the natural world in their everyday life? I don’t mean you have to have a forest around you or a vast body of water in your sightline. I mean just a piece of nature, like Rachel’s pawpaw trees.

Once I had guests at the cottage, parents and two middle-school-age daughters. As we were exploring the garden, the mother said, “Girls, this is nature.” To me, quietly, she said, “The closest we get to nature is the fruit bowl on the counter.”  Oh, dear, can this be true?

Maybe nature – the wondrous creation of things not-man-made – doesn’t speak to other people the same way it speaks to me. Maybe I just want to think it has a lot to say if only we hear and listen, look and see, touch and feel. The older I get, the more I think there’s more to everything than we can ever know, and that makes it not only endlessly unboring, but also ever able to teach us something new, something we need to know, something that helps or serves something else. Maybe I just hope it.

The Side Effects of Old-Fashioned Cookery

Yesterday after I put the ingredients together in a bowl for meatloaf, I asked Samuel if he would mix it up for me since my shoulder was acting up pretty bad. He washed his hands, stuck them in the bowl and began mixing up the couple handfuls of oats, two eggs, milk (to moisten the oats), a small hunk of finely grated asiago (for the cheese this time because I didn’t have any romano – I figured it was close enough), a small bunch of chopped fresh parsley, a pound of ground beef (it came in a weighed package!) and salt and pepper.

He squished and turned and squished some more and then said, “Seems wet to me. Is it always this wet?” He was right. This is a risk when you pour the milk directly from the gallon.

I reached for the breadcrumbs in the pantry, said, “This’ll fix that,” and sprinkled some in. He mixed some more, it still looked a tad wet, so I sprinkled some more breadcrumbs in. Good now. He formed the loaf in my cast iron skillet, and I turned on the oven a while later so that everything would be ready when he returned home. I misjudged and the meatloaf baked a while longer than was perhaps ideal, but that meant a very delicious crispy bottom crust – and the inside was certainly not dry!

At one point during meatloaf-making, Samuel had said (half under his breath), “Do you measure anything?”

Of course I do! But it got me to thinking about measuring, about “cookery,” about ease in the kitchen – the trial and error of learning to make food, the imprecision, substitutions and playing around that often work, the times I make do or figure out what’s for supper by looking in the fridge and seeing what speaks to me, the side effects of being as old-fashioned about it as I am.

I also thought about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, how he says in Outliers that those who have achieved a high level of competency in any area – whether a concert pianist, a hockey player, a computer programmer – have simply, over the years, put in the time. “Highly competent” is a subjective assessment in the kitchen (and I myself have miles to go before I’m close to that), but I wondered if my ease, my sense of when it looks right or feels right or smells done, my willingness to flex with ingredients sometimes (such as using a different cheese in the meatloaf this time) has to do simply with having spent a lot of time over many years preparing food in a kitchen. It’s probably why my mom and my sister are such great cooks.

This past week my dear friend John gifted me a book called The Lost Art of Real Cooking.

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He mentioned it was coming by saying, “I’m sending you a hard copy of a book that reminded me of you…. When I read part of it I could hear you talking 😊”  Now that I have it, I wonder which part. Maybe, knowing my meatloaf methodology, he liked: “This book is an effort to loosen up.”

Maybe, knowing how much joy I get from feeding people: “There is, it cannot be denied, unspeakable pleasure in providing sustenance for others with the labor of one’s own hands.”

Maybe it was this part (because I have said as much!): “Yes, this will be hard work. But can you see the irony of people who save time and energy with electric gadgets and then traipse off to burn calories in the gym? Why not boldly brandish a whisk instead? Your egg whites will be all the more happy for it, as well as your biceps.” (Myself, I would like to add an exclamation point after biceps!)

Maybe this part (because I have also said as much!): “We are not averse to measurements per se, they are often necessary, particularly with baking. But to insist that a quarter teaspoon of some particular seasoning is correct while anything more or less, or, heaven forfend, a substitution, altogether amounts to culinary heresy, this is just too much to bear.”

Maybe he’s thinking of how much time I spend making homemade manicotti (including the crepes that wrap up the cheese) or waiting for bread to rise or watching the tomato soup slowly cook down to the point of straining out the seeds and skins, or how delighted I am that the basil I planted in May gives flavor to our pizza in August, or how satisfied I feel when the granola comes out crunchy because it sits in the oven overnight. “So before you continue, Gentle Reader, if you cannot abide long hours in the kitchen, this is no book for you….Cooking slowly with patience is inherently entertaining and the food it yields tastes better, costs less, and connects you with the people you feed in a way that a prefabricated meal can never hope to do.”

Beyond that, I’d say that “cooking slowly with patience” connects you to the earth, to the seasons, to your own senses, hands, arms, legs, back and brain, to the real plants and animals that keep you alive and to the many who came before you, patiently working with what they had, feeding the people they loved, honing the skills they learned valuable, far-reaching lessons from. In a broader sense, isn’t that what life is all about: making the best of what you have, taking care of the people you care about and increasingly gaining knowledge and understanding that better equips you to carry on (let us hope) with grace and compassion?

Imagine my joy when, just a few days ago, while still digesting the comforting and (truth be told) vindicating message of this book (thank you, John), I read the following poem by Sarah Silvey (yes, the same Sarah who drew the teeth-brushing/berry-eating bear peeking/peeping in on Mom). Out of the blue she produced a perspective on working in the kitchen that took my breath away, so closely did it mirror my own experience, so well did it express the unspeakable pleasure and unexpected benefits that come from a simple task in the kitchen. Thank you, Sarah.

Sometimes I enjoy doing things the hard way
The long, difficult way
By hand
Without electricity
Without advanced tools.
It connects me to the past
To ancient humans
Struggling to make ends meet
To those who worked hard perfecting a craft.
I tried to saw dovetails with hand tools
When I made my desk.
It was hard work.
It took days.
I was sore, my carpal tunnel flared
And when I finally tried to hammer the pieces together
It didn’t fit.
But I learned
how much work
Every piece of furniture should be.
I can appreciate
The ease of modern living
Machine made items shipped to your home.
I can appreciate too
What we’ve lost.
You forge a connection
With things you built
With food you grew, harvested, and processed.
Even doing something as simple as washing your car by hand
You learn more about the state that car is in
Notice its scratches and weak points
Restore the sparkles in its paint.

I processed five gallons of grapes by hand.
When I sat in my kitchen
Peeling grapes
I mimicked the motions of my ancestors.
Women have peeled grapes
Into bowls in their laps
For thousands of years.
They spent hours upon hours
Processing the bounty of summer
To stave off winter’s bite.
They told stories while working
Sang songs
And some just worked
Alone, in quiet thought.
Every grape I handled
Taught me more about this food.
I learned to tell a wormy one by feel
Its rough scar tissue
Sent a shudder through my marrow.
I learned what every color tastes like.
I learned to love the Concord smell
Rich and strong and sweet and tangy.
If I’d used tools
I wouldn’t have had to stand at the sink for so long.
I wouldn’t have had the quiet thinking time
I wouldn’t have been able to practice my working posture
Relaxed enough to fight fatigue, yet always moving.
I noticed I was taking much longer than necessary
Due to my need to get every grape, save every grape, not waste
Anything
And I knew someone watching me would have felt frustrated
Just as I felt
When I watched my mother process peaches for the freezer
Always graceful, always painfully slow, yet inevitable.
After two days of work
The peaches would be all blanched, peeled, sliced, sugared, and frozen.
I felt her echo in my slow fingers
Of her, and a million women before her
All of us preparing the harvest
So we might have something sweet
For winter.

 

 

Is the Bear Peeking or Peeping?

Earlier this week I mentioned that my mom, in her house in the woods, always pulled her blinds at night because she worried that a bear might be looking in on her. No matter what, she closed off the view. Mom, really? I teased her. A bear cares to look in on you? But I wonder: Those of you who live in the woods – do you worry about that too? If you live next to another house, do you close the blinds every night? Does it matter which room you’re in? Does it matter if you know your neighbors are home?

I also wonder: While looking into someone’s window is a thing, yes, and maybe a thing the someone should be worried about, is it peeping into someone’s window or peeking into someone’s window?

When I mentioned Mom’s blind-pulling, bear-avoiding habit, I suggested that Sarah – poet, artist, writer, friend – would no doubt be able to draw the scene, probably easily. It would flow like water down a hill for her, the pen setting down lines where lines should go, and in practically the blink of an eye she could relocate the image from her brain to a piece of paper and produce a very recognizable image. I was sure of it, even a mite envious of that skill, wistfully, wishingly thinking Oh, to be able to draw like Sarah!

Sure enough, she did it! And priceless it is! In no time at all she sent me a mom-and-bear post-it-note drawing with window between, each occupied but suddenly aware of the other (or so it seems to me). Uh-oh! they each seem to say. Notice how Sarah went beyond a bear peeking/peeping in – we get his personal hygiene routine, the box of goodies Mom’s rummaging through (always goodies in Mom’s case, never junk), the mutual surprise – only creative people like Sarah think of (and successfully execute) these extras! Don’t you love his paunch?!

You tell me. Is the bear peeping in or peeking in? Is Mom doing either?

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Does peep mean to look in furtively or briefly and does peek mean to look in cautiously or slyly, or the other way around?* Both have the idea of quickness, of trying not to be seen, of some measure of invasion of privacy. Does it matter if you intend to look in, or if something simply catches your eye and you glance toward it? Did Peeping Tom set the connotation in stone forever? Is peep up to no good and is peek benign?

Remember Scout and Jem and Dill trying to look in on reclusive Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird? In Chapter 6, see Harper Lee’s choice and also get a little reminder how amazing this book is (in case you have not read it recently). What are the children doing?

“What are you gonna do?”

Dill and Jem were simply going to peep in the window with the loose shutter to see if they could get a look at Boo Radley, and if I didn’t want to go with them I could go straight home and keep my fat flopping mouth shut, that was all.

“But why in the sam holy hill did you wait till tonight?”

Because nobody could see them at night, because Atticus would be so deep in a book he wouldn’t hear the Kingdom coming, because if Boo Radley killed them they’d miss school instead of vacation, and because it was easier to see inside a dark house in the dark than in the daytime, did I understand?

“Jem, please—”

“Scout, I’m tellin’ you for the last time, shut your trap or go home – I declare to the Lord you’re gettin’ more like a girl every day!”

With that, I had no option but to join them.

There are so many elements of this book I would like to talk about – the norms of the time, the things we don’t know, the ways people surprise us, the consequences of actions, the role of fate – another time! For now I wonder if Harper Lee chose peep on purpose. I don’t want to split hairs about meanings, but words can get us in trouble sometimes, and our own understanding is not always someone else’s understanding. I want to know what y’all think about peep vs. peek.

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FYI:

*Merriam Webster says it’s the other way around. They assign “slyly” to peep and “furtively” to peek. Are sly and furtive that different?

The Soothing Power of a Dog on a Tractor

I have mistake-on-the-brain because I made a big one this weekend. The maddening part was Shouldn’t I have seen this coming? The worst part was knowing the work I caused for other people, who themselves are doing me a favor and should not have to backtrack because I goofed and then changed my mind. The good part was that in the end it was a fairly-easily-rectifiable, not-the-end-of-the-world mistake. The best part was the dog on the tractor.

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Sandy called her “Farm Girl.” He took a break from hammering, measuring, sawing and fitting to make some amusement and roped Joe into the plan. Coco has a small brain and I expect this adventure was nothing more for her than Sure, whatever you say. I’ll sit here like a doofus, why not? I did not participate in setting this stage, but was called over when she was propped and perky and please-can-I-get-down-now? I was still, at that moment, in the throes of self-flagellation, beating myself up for not seeing the situation clearly enough in my mind to head off the mistake at the pass.

Nothing like a little silly dog to change the subject and bring a smile! Thank you, Sandy!

Come to think of it, a day or so later, the mistake itself doesn’t matter so much. It’s only a window, right? It’s only the window I’d been waiting more than eight years for (and then five weeks after ordering), the window I thought would be perfect, the window marked on my inside wall with painter’s tape and marked on my outside wall with a full-size template – both of which I had been staring at for weeks. We worked all day to get that window in. It was hot! I wanted to LOVE it!

But I didn’t. It just looked wrong. Too small. How can it look so small? But it was too small. I was up half the night trying to figure out how to make it right, but I knew – though I hated to say it – that the new window had to come out.

Out it came first thing next day. Not a super big deal in the end and thank God for the reverse function on the screw gun, but I internally fussed: Whatever made me think a small window there would be the right window there?

A fishbowl. Now I see. It all comes down to a fishbowl. Here is my five-seconds-or-less Pictionary drawing of one.

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The house I live in is out in the country at the far end of a gravel road. The only other house you can see from it is my own cottage. But my living room did not come with a front window at eye level. The funky 70s triangular window way up high, now removed, did let in light and did sometimes blind anyone sitting in the middle of the room, depending on the sun’s angle, but no one is that tall. I have never been able to look out and see from this room. Likewise, no one has ever been able to look in and see.

Hence, I have never had to worry about being the fish in the fishbowl! Eeks! Adding a window to that wall is a gigantic leap. Nothing partial. No middle ground. No gradually-getting-used-to-this-new-situation. I will go from being unseen and unable-to-be-seen to potentially being seen in one fell swoop! (Whether there is anything interesting to see is another conversation.). Dare I? Do people do this?

My mother is to blame on this one and she knows it – at their house in the woods on four acres she always pulled the blinds at night because “a bear might see me.” No kidding. (I wish I had Sarah’s drawing skills and could draw a bear looking into a window! Her Happy Friday and Purple chinchilla drawings are among my favorites.)

But here I was with a new (small) window with real glass at eye level. How did I think the size would make a difference? Maybe I thought that if it were small it wouldn’t matter? That people would say to themselves Here is a woman who clearly does not want to be looked in upon (otherwise she would put in a big honkin’ window!) – cease and desist! How did I not realize that window glass is window glass and see-through-able regardless? To this point Joe said casually at dinner, “You get something to cover the window for when you need that, a curtain or a shutter or something.”

I do know about curtains and shutters, what they do, how they work, why people use them. Why did it take this simple statement to make me realize that if you can cover a small window, you can cover a big one!

Ah, well, funny creatures, we humans. Fickle sometimes. Not overly able to visualize upcoming realities sometimes. Dense, you say? Thick? Fuzzy? Obtuse perhaps? Lackwitted? Slackminded? Featherheaded? Airheaded? Bubbleheaded? Blockheaded? Myopic? Cabbageheaded? Chowderbrained? Hebetudinous? Out to lunch? Three bricks shy of a load? (Gotta love a good thesaurus!)

Guilty as charged! But a new window is coming – a honkin’ big window! – picked it out and framed up the rough opening already. It will be better!

One Determined Marigold

Various people in my world are struggling. Some have chronic pain. Some have jobs that make them crazy. Some feel creaky, obsolete, scared, unwanted, frustrated or alone. All of them are like my one little marigold.

Apart from certain, strangely-not-completely-out-of-control areas, my garden is a mess this year. I’ve had some perfect veggies, enough for the marginal labor to have been worthwhile, but roughly half of the space qualifies as a jungle. With the front porch project I simply haven’t had the time. Plus this aggravating shoulder of mine, unimproved after three weeks of physical therapy (maybe worse), holds me back.

Still, I like fresh green pepper on my pizza and Samuel said he’d make some the other day. My contribution amounted to walking to the garden for a pepper. The jungle mess did not encourage lollygagging – it wants to get about its wild business without critical observers – so I got my pepper and was about to leave when a spot of gold caught my eye.

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There it was, one single marigold, standing tall and beautiful despite the choking weeds not far away. I had not planted it. I am unconventional in a list of ways, but it would not even occur to me to plant a flower in the middle of a path. One of the seeds from last year’s lovely crop must have found its way to this spot.

In August of last year the marigolds I did plant were huge and just beginning to blossom. My granddaughter Rise, five years old at the time, sweetly gives you the idea how tall they were.

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By September they were so full and heavy they fell over with gorgeous weight.

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This year I planted gourds instead, and some of them are remarkable (see the one hanging in the upper left? it keeps getting bigger!), but no zinnias, marigolds, asters or any other purely-for-color-and-show plants. Yet here is this one flower – standing strong, beautiful in its own way, determined – despite the mess – to have its moment.

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What a lovely parallel. Just like each person I know who is not in ideal circumstances presently, each person struggling with this or that, my one marigold is determined to

Stand strong: It’s hard to endure pain! It’s hard to have no time for yourself, or be far from those you love, or go to a job that feels dead-endish or keep up your end of a deal when those around you slough off. It’s hard to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, to remain positive when you feel like crap, to hold your tongue when someone is out of line, to go to the gym when you feel weak, to push through when you want to stay in your comfy little cave. Yet all around me I see people standing strong just like this marigold. It doesn’t care that it’s the only one. It proudly manages feeling like the first grader in the college class, being the newbie on the block, saying the words that are hard to say. Bravo, little marigold!

Be beautiful: See all the green around the marigold? The scene of mostly weeds (other than that one funky gourd) sets the stage for this one determined flower to shine. In our own mess of life, in the chaos or worry or disharmony we endure more often than we would like to, it’s easy to simply become part of the mess, to add to it, to blend in and become invisible. Instead we can choose to be the marigold – at least sometimes – and be other, be radiant, be beautiful.

Have its moment: The older you get, the more fleeting time proves itself to be. Time is so limited. Resources are so limited. So what. None of us will be here forever, or do everything we want to do or reach all of our goals. We are bound by our bodies, our relationships, our location, our circumstances, our education, our wisdom (or lack thereof). Bound. Having a bum shoulder has made me think a lot about the elusive thing we call equality. I can’t do what I want to do! I have a disadvantage compared to people with good shoulders! (Funny how you see things like good shoulders that you didn’t see before!) But this shoulder is mine, for better or worse. I own it. It is unique to me and limits me in ways I wish I could change right now. Alas, we do what we can while we can with what we have. This little marigold will be seen and admired by precious few people before it succumbs to the frost in a few months. No matter. In this season, this year, in this place, it will be like a gem in the dirt, determined to have its moment and do what it can despite its limitations.

I wonder if it grew in this spot just to bring these ideas to me.