Unboring defined

I walked out to feed the chickens yesterday morning and ended up with a clearer understanding of my unboring path.

There are now eleven chickens. We lost three when I started to feel sorry for them being cooped up in the coop all the time, nice as the coop is — even (one has to think) from a chicken’s point of view. Oh, let them out, voices said. Let them scratch in the dirt and find bugs and dust themselves in the sun if they want to. Give them The Life of a Chicken to Beat All. But place (any place) has its perils, as we may recall from the last post. I don’t know what got the first three, but let us assume a wandering fox or raccoon got lucky and slept that night on a very full stomach.

The fourth chicken may have met the same end, but I blame her demise on Bridget, my anomaly of a golden retriever. Whoever heard of a golden retriever that was anything but nice? Certainly she is mostly nice, but there are moments when she forgets her breed, when something else in her brain kicks in, and we have to bring her back to the norm, which is to say nice, which is apparently too much to ask on a consistent basis of this old rescue dog who endured in her earlier life only God knows what. Someday I hope I will again have a dog that is unequivocally nice. In the meantime it’s an imperfect world.

Bridget decided a few days after the now-twelve chickens were once more cooped that she wanted the hunk of bread that had been given to them, and pawed and gnawed at a weak area of the fencing and made a hole. How a bird got through that I cannot imagine, but clearly one did.

The now-eleven chickens of mine are the best-fed chickens in town. I bring scrap from the kitchen at work — leftover tomatoes and toast, carrot peels, squash seeds, etc. — and provide a frequent feast. Chickens, like most creatures, are seemingly oblivious to how good they have it, and carry on as if I am the average chicken keeper. As I deliver the pickle bucket full of goodies, they act like it’s run of the mill. Fine. I do not depend on their appreciation. We must just know we do good and keep on doing it regardless.

Ordinarily in the mornings I feed my [ungrateful] flock and put the now-empty bucket into my car and rinse it out when I get to work. But this time I chose to walk to the garden and use the water pump that Bradley and Beth thoughtfully put in the middle. It was a cool morning for late June in Virginia. Rain was in the air. I could not help but take a moment to look around at the various raised beds proliferating. I have to think whether I would describe them as proliferating beautifully or proliferating wildly. Either descriptor will do.

The lettuce catches my eye. Spectacular lettuce! We have been feasting on it for weeks and it just keeps coming. If you have not had lettuce fresh picked from a garden lately, you will have to remember how tender and tasty such lettuce is, though I served a salad to my friend Vernon the other night and his comments focused on the maple dressing instead. I was pleased just the same.


There is not much else in the garden I would call spectacular right now. The sugar snap peas and this planting of spinach are past. The catnip is ridiculously tall but I don’t need it. The cabbage, beets, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and cukes are on their way. The onions failed. There is one volunteer squash of an unknown variety that has taken over the compost. Whatever it is (and I expect we will soon know), it loves its bed. These leaves might be called spectacular.


The beets need weeding. Some of the weeds have been food for Japanese beetles, some of whom are still munching. As I pull the unwanted plants out, I considered leaving them in. What if, after I remove the obviously favored weeds, the beetles go after the untouched beet greens instead? But the weeds make it a mess and my sense of order triumphs. Out they go, regardless of my not having garden gloves on, because of course I came to the garden not to pull weeds or admire the lettuce or assess the glorious (if wild) results of rain + sun + healthy plants.

This half hour — this sequence of feeding chickens (because I will continue to curry their favor with goodies even if they never acknowledge me) to cleaning buckets (because it was Saturday and I didn’t want them sitting in the shed until Monday) to admiring lettuce (because there is nothing else you could do with that, other than pick and eat it, which came later) to weeding the beet bed (because of my need for ducks in a row) to muddy hands (because of recent rain and my unwillingness to go get gloves) — might strike the reader as a lot of boring tasks and a lot of justifying boring tasks, but in fact this half hour represents a portion of my unboring path.

It occurred to me that I call this site “an unboring path” and presumed that would be self-explanatory, but maybe it isn’t. Using a somewhat unorthodox word, I mean just what you think. I mean the opposite of boring, the opposite of uninteresting (I suppose we could follow the pattern here and say un-uninteresting?), the opposite of dull. 

Tasks themselves are of course sometimes boring. Some people find baseball boring, or ironing, or reading technical manuals. I’m not talking about any one thing here as being boring or not. I’m talking about an enjoyable path, a richness, a fullness, a continuously evolving forward movement that you are joyfully and willingly engaged in through task, purpose, circumstance, feeling and decision. An unboring path is interesting, yes, but it’s interesting because you decide to be — wherever you are and as best as you are able — a part of what’s going on, involved. Interesting moments, ideas and experiences happen only sometimes by chance. They are also sought out or, when presented to you, chosen. They can lead to something new or something familiar. What matters is that you embrace your world, using what you have — your brain, your body, your hands, your heart, your time, your surroundings, your circumstances — to get the most out of life. What you have is partly of your choosing and partly not, an ever-unique, ever-evolving combination of factors that you help shape.  An unboring path is not about passing time or sitting on the sidelines. It is not about lamenting what you don’t have. It is embracing what you do have and getting in there and doing the best you can with that and enjoying every minute.

I barely began contemplating this idea when a large, stinging-type insect appeared on the screen of my window — on the inside — unsure how and unable (though valiantly trying) to get to the other side of the screen. The word for him is doomed. Soon he was, first by my hand feebly, then by Samuel’s more definitively, dead as a door-nail as they say. Why do we say dead as a door-nail? he asks when the deed is done. What’s a door-nail?

I have slowly acclimated to the ease of using a search engine to answer questions, though I still often forget how easy and handy this is. This time I did not think twice, but instantly googled door-nailThe first benefit of this search came in the form of the passage often associated with this word, the introduction of Marley at the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

An unboring path includes the unexpected. It’s June, not Christmas, but here you have it, a most famous passage about a door-nail. I am very familiar with it. Our local Shakespeare theater http://www.americanshakespearecenter.com/ performs A Christmas Carol every year, and every year I go there to see it if I can. George C. Scott in the film version is outstanding as well. I have heard this door-nail passage many times, and every time I do, I marvel at it. If you don’t find yourself marveling, read it again, slowly. Marveling will come. This short passage plainly and unexpectedly gives us the mastery of Charles Dickens: his cadence, word choice, imagery,  humor. Truly marvelous. Even in June.

An unboring path includes things you didn’t know before. We have now found out that door-nails were/are a specific kind of nail that 1. need to be hit hard on their heads repeatedly to get through the wood and naturally end up “dead,” and 2. were historically longer than the thickness of wood they penetrated and therefore had to be hit from the other side to knock the point into the wood so that there would be nothing sticking out to hurt anyone, rendering the nail permanently lodged in said door and henceforth unable to ever move (even if it were animate in the first place), or to ever be retrieved, or to ever be useful again (on account of its point being bent) even if it were somehow taken out, and therefore in these ways also “dead.”

In the search that produced the door-nail passage, Shakespeare was mentioned as not being the origin of the door-nail idiom, but the Bonus Facts part of the article included several other Shakespeare facts, including this one about his use of un- words.

Shakespeare is, in fact, the first known user of many words that start with un-. He was a fan of the prefix and attached it to words that previously hadn’t used un-. Examples include unhelpful, uneducated, undress, and unreal, plus some 300 other un-words.

After the chickens and after the garden, the stinging insect came unbidden, producing the door-nail question that unleashed Dickens and Shakespeare. I feel quite certain that Shakespeare would approve of “unboring.”

The peril of place and the beauty of Real

Every place you go, there is or is the possibility of something unpleasant.

Where I live it is sometimes humid. Most everyone thinks of humidity as something bad. One morning last year I was playing tennis with a woman from Tennessee. It was about 7:30, and shaping up to be a scorcher of a day. In Virginia that means mid-90s or so. This particular morning it was also humid, and we both were feeling it — but one of us not in the usual way. Of this I am certain because at one point, as we were energetically whacking the ball back and forth, she said to me in such a way as you would have to think she really meant it: “Don’t you just love this humidity?!”

I don’t usually stop the ball but I stopped the ball. “Did you just say you love humidity?” I felt sure I must have heard her wrong. She assured me she had indeed just said that. Well, aren’t humans the most unpredictable creatures? Whoever heard of such a thing? But to her, humidity is not a bad thing. “It reminds me of home,” she said, “and I like home.” Huh. Maybe a thing I always thought a negative doesn’t have to be.

Where you live, there might be the risk of hurricanes or wildfires or tornadoes. It might get to 20 below in the winter, or colder. Maybe the black flies buzz around your head for a few weeks in the spring or the Japanese beetles eat your garden produce. Maybe you do not walk through the safest areas on your way to work, or you have to listen to someone else’s music blaring from their apartment, or your taxes are really high, or there is no good bakery!

Black snakes are harmless but creepy, I grant. Twenty below is very cold. Black flies are irritating, humidity is sticky, and if you ask me, hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes are downright scary. I am sure you have your own feelings about unsafe areas, bad music, high taxes and the lack of excellent bread.

Every place has its risks and annoyances. Every place has its quirks too. In two corridors of the hotel where I work, there are wide carpet runners going the full length of the space. All around the carpet there are beautiful old floor tiles imported from Europe to lend authenticity and character, which they do effectively. But during my tours I have fun telling guests that when the staff was doing the installation 20+ years ago, they discovered they did not have quite enough, meaning that under the carpet is plain concrete. Think about it, I say. You all have somewhere in your own homes where you know it isn’t perfect but you covered or patched or ignored it and said That’ll do!

The imperfection makes it real. Very often, when something is Real, it’ll not only do, it’s better.

The very best description of Real that I ever read came from Margery Williams’ version of The Velveteen Rabbit. In it, the Rabbit is feeling troubled, insecure and out of place, and the Skin Horse comes along to comfort him.


         The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away. He knew that they were only toys and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

         “What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

         “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

         “Does it hurt?”

         “Sometimes.” For he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

         “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up, or bit by bit?”

         “It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or who have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

         “I suppose you are Real?” And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

         “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real. That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

         The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished he could become it without these things happening to him….

Just like weather and insects and corridors and Rabbits, places are real. Home is real. Like the woman from Tennessee, I like home. I’ve always liked home. I have lived in four states and spent some time feeling quite at home overseas as well. Not a single place has been perfect. I know this. I accept it. Every place has something about it that must simply be tolerated.

But perhaps I did myself a disservice when I wrote a few weeks ago about the black snake. Worse was adding a photo of the fellow. Today I received a note from a dear friend who does not live locally. She said, “If I could get that picture of the snake in front of the cottage out of my mind, I might consider driving down to see you!”

Oh dear. This is a little bit like the proverbial opening your mouth and inserting your foot. I did post that. And I cannot take it back. But as I think of it, I don’t want to. Illusions are pretty and clean and perfect, and they look great on magazine pages and in films, but our everyday worlds are clearly imperfect and we all know it. Occasionally, the Midwest gets a tornado, the Northeast gets a blizzard and the West gets a drought. Occasionally, my mother in New Jersey sees a black bear scampering across her front lawn and my son in San Francisco deals with street crime. This week, my sister in Phoenix is trying to keep cool in temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Somehow we all manage. Somehow we sidestep (literally perhaps when it comes to critters) the inconveniences and imperfections of the places where we live. Somehow I deal with the occasional black snake, even if I don’t like it (and let there be no illusions — I don’t like snakes!). But in a world that’s Real, somehow we get by. The lucky ones — some would say the smart ones — do more than that. The lucky and smart ones are like the Skin Horse. They prefer wisdom and grace and they gladly (if sometimes reluctantly at first) accept the various imperfections about their worlds and themselves. They understand that regardless of its downsides, imperfect is better. Imperfect is Real.

You have started a fire in me

There is a lot to be said for fire. Obviously it needs to be controlled, but when it is, it’s quite handy. There’s nothing like a burger cooked on a grill, or a marshmallow toasted over red hot coals, or the kind of heat that radiates from a wood stove. At my airbnb cottage, there is a freestanding fire pit near the deck that many a guest have enjoyed. You make the fire, you bring down the adirondack chairs to encircle it, and you watch either the fire up close or the fire far away — the flames or the stars.

June seems like a funny time to be writing about fires, especially after the piece on strawberry jam, a topic perfectly suited to early summer. But you never know what’s around the next bend, and tonight I have good reason to be thinking about fire. Tonight I received a picture of Sara’s jam.

Sara's jam.jpg

Sara and Scott came to the cottage a few weeks ago, and shared some goodies with me. I in turn shared some of my strawberry jam with them. Lo and behold, next thing I knew, Sara wanted the recipe to make some strawberry jam of her own. Which she did, evidently with great success! And tonight, along with sending the great photo, she told me the red raspberries near where she lives are ripe for picking soon, and she plans to make raspberry jam next. “You have started a fire in me,” she said.

I love to start a fire. In Vermont we had two wood stoves in the house. The next two houses had fireplaces, the cottage has a wood stove, and there is nothing like a burn pile to get rid of brush — so I have started plenty of fires and never lost sight of the magic. You crumple a bunch of newspapers, make three or four layers of kindling criss-crossed on top of the paper, put a medium size log on top of that, make sure it has air, and strike a match.The striking of the match makes the spark, and the spark loves the paper and eats it up and breathes the air and grows. It’s easy to do if you have the right stuff. It’s so easy it’s like magic.

In the old days you kept a tinder box and needed more luck and more skill. Presumably you had more motivation as well because of the lack of backup systems. We are so spoiled! In any case fires usually don’t just appear in front of you when it is a cool night and you want to warm up in front of one. You have to start a fire, and no matter which way you do it, you have to first have a spark. Sparks don’t just happen either. You make them. Even the flick of the wrist (or the thumb in the case of a lighter) has to be right.

I love the spark! First of all, spark is just a very cool word — say it out loud and hear for yourself. Secondly, a spark is like really good bread — when the right combination of ingredients is put together with the right technique in the right environment, then given the right amount of time to do what it needs to do, magic happens, and you get not only the unbelievably wonderful smell of bread baking on your house, but you also get the unbelievably wonderful taste of it when it’s done.

The fact that I bought a loaf of bread today that was still very warm and filled my car with its enticing aroma certainly has a great deal to do with this descriptive analogy. But I can be passionate about bread as Sara can be passionate about jam right now because that’s what this fire business is really all about. Passion.

When Sara says I started a fire in her, I think she means I sparked a passion. She already had an interest, she already had some experience, and she got herself a lot of berries. She could have all that, but if there is no spark, there is unlikely to be jam. None of us have to make jam. We don’t have to write blogs either, or go fishing in cool mountain streams or compete in triathlons or grow flowers in our gardens or contort our bodies in strange yoga poses.

So why do we do these things? Because there’s a spark, a force, a magic that makes you want to do something, then makes you do the something that you really want to do — and do it well (at least sometimes) and enjoy it fully. That spark can create a passion that moves you through the motions and in the end brings an indescribable feel-good (and in the case of jam, an indescribable taste on fresh bread!). I think my jam was somehow Sara’s spark. It was the magic that moved her to spend an afternoon of vacation time making something yummy that will be a joy to eat and a joy to give to others. That’s a double bonus for me. Not only do I get to enjoy my own jam, but I get the thrill of knowing that my jam begat her jam.

I expect most people go their whole lives and never make jam. That doesn’t matter. This isn’t about jam (though Sara’s is undoubtedly fantastic!). This is about doing something that you really want to do — and doing it well and enjoying it fully. It’s about letting a spark become a fire, an interest become a passion, even for an afternoon! How does that happen? Yes, you need the right pieces, the right ingredients, the right technique, etc. But in everything worth anything, there is also a little bit of magic. When the magic happens, you like it and you want to do it again. And just like the spark touching the paper, the bit of magic breathes and grows. Let it.

A “recipe” for strawberry jam

In the early homeschooling days, someone gave me a bit of advice that can apply to just about anything we do. Take a few minutes, he said, and write down why you are doing it. Make a list of your reasons. Make sure you think it through and make a good solid list. One of these days you will be tearing your hair out and asking (seriously) What was I thinking??!! (i.e. What was I thinking when I thought this was a good idea!?) Post your list where you can see it (so that you know just where it is!) because on those days when you are tearing your hair out, you need to look at your list and let it do its good work. Let it remind you why you decided to do this, whatever it is. Chances are good that your list will bring you back to a good place.

It seemed like a good idea to me, so I made my list. Its title was something like: Why I choose to home school my children. One of the reasons had to do with joy. I very much wanted to keep the joy in learning. If I can find a way to keep it fun, I thought, keep them engaged in the process, keep them hungry to learn something new — then (the hope is) throughout their lives they will always be excited and happy to learn new things. I was homeschooling because I wanted to make sure that my kids became lifelong learners, and one way to do that was to keep it fun. I suspect that John Holt’s Learning All the Time played into this, but there were other factors. I just didn’t want my kids to ever be bored or uninterested or think they had nothing yet to learn in this life. There is always something to learn in this life. Too many people think learning is over when you finish school. Oh, how much they miss!

Therefore, when I meet someone who is hungry to learn something, to explore something, to be challenged by something, I am both impressed and happy. If that someone wants to learn something from me, I’m over the moon. This is one reason I love Millicent. She has thrilled my heart time and again by saying things like “Next time you make a quiche, can I come and make it with you? … Oh, please teach me how to make pizza — can I just do it with you next time?. … How do you do that? Can you teach me?” Millicent has a nursing degree and a law degree, plays the harp, sings like an angel, and makes me think deeply and laugh out loud in all of our conversations, and she is hungry to learn something new. These days Millicent is learning how to ride a horse. I am sure she is doing it with enthusiasm and joy, and I could not be happier for her.

Last week one of my airbnb cottage guests reminded me of Millicent’s spirit and her joy of learning. It was all about jam, strawberry jam. As the berries came ripe during the month of May, I began to see that there were many of them, more than last year. They were gorgeous and bountiful and delicious. Look how beautiful.

strawberries on vine.jpg

I learned last year that these garden-grown berries, untouched by anything except sun and rain and the human hand to pick them, are not like the kind you buy in a store. If you have never picked a strawberry off a vine, it may be hard to imagine the very particular sound they make as they pop off the stem that holds them. To me it is downright musical. The flavor sends you to heaven then, far exceeding any berry on a plastic box. Their being untouched also means they do not last days and days. Freeze them or make jam within a day or they will not be the same.

The first batch looks like and feels like a treasure.

first batch of berries.jpg

A few days later there were enough to make jam. (The stuff laying on top is rhubarb, yet another taste marvel…)

second batch of berries.jpg

My good friend Sandy was game to help me, and together we made a batch, and a week or so later there were this many again, so we made another batch. There might be 15 jars or so total, I didn’t count. But it came out really good.

jars of jam.jpg

At about the same time, my airbnb guests Sara and Scott (of grilled salami fame, two or three posts ago) had invited me to have dinner with them. During my visit with them, they gave me a good sized hunk of some amazing bread they had bought in town, and I took it back to my house later and had some with that lovely strawberry jam on it. Fresh jam on fresh bread — does it get better than this? So I brought them some in a little bowl so they could enjoy it with their own hunk in the morning for breakfast. After they left I found a note in the cottage that told me that had enjoyed it on cheesecake besides. Sara called it incredible. I smiled. That would have been enough for me. They completely endeared themselves to me.

A couple days after they left, I got the following note:

Hi Patricia – Scott and I enjoyed the last of your strawberry jam this morning.  We have been milking it – literally!  Anyhow, we are just getting strawberries in our neck of the woods and I plan on picking at the orchard nearby this coming week.  Would you share your jam recipe?  It was superb and just the perfect amount of sugar.  Hope all is well with you.  We sure do miss the Charlottesville Area.   

Kind regards,  Sara

Not only were they perfect guests who also invited me to dinner. Not only did they call my jam incredible. Now she wants to make her own! I was thrilled — and worried! I admit it, I am not a good recipe-follower, and here she is asking for a recipe! Having made jam in the past, I knew it is a bit involved, and I had no way to know if Sara had any idea what she was getting into. I had no idea if perhaps it was a fluke that mine came out the way it did, seeing as I was not overly precise about amounts and timing and technique. For example, I am not even really sure how much fruit I used. I just cut up what I had and eyeballed it. How could I possibly give her a recipe? I decided to just tell her what I had done as best as I could which doesn’t look like a recipe to me, but the following is what I told her.

You have to really want to make jam to follow the following.

Hi Sara,

I am so thrilled that you liked the jam that much!! We are really enjoying it too  🙂 As far as the recipe, it is going to sound like a crazy amount of sugar, but every recipe uses a lot. I read five or six recipes in my cookbooks and online (since it had been some years since I made jam) to get an idea of the proportions of fruit to sugar, then cut up the fruit (halved or quartered depending on the size of the berry), which (eyeballing the same amount of water in my pot right now) seems to have been about 3 quarts. I then added a 4lb bag of sugar and 4.7oz Ball Real Fruit pectin (1 container of it) and brought it to a hard boil. It develops foam, which you methodically skim off little by little with a long handled spoon. It continues to make more foam. Just continue skimming it off (a relaxing exercise actually, if you can look at it that way). All the recipes I read said it needs to get to 238 degrees F on your candy thermometer, but we boiled the first batch (not the batch you got, but the one we did the week before) for a long time, half an hour I think, and finally decided that my thermometer had to be faulty because it never got above 220. With your batch, I drew the line at 15 mins (the thermometer was still faulty apparently because it did no better), skimming all the time. Good enough, I said, let’s jar it. Before we jarred it, Sandy mashed it with a potato masher, which broke up the fruit a bit more.

In the meantime, you have a big pot going with boiling water (your canning pot), and you sterilize the jars this way. Have you canned before? If you are not familiar with this process and want to bypass it, I think you can freeze jam too. But the canning is easy, and every canning pot comes with instructions. You sterilize the jars, take them out of the water with tongs (carefully), put the hot jam into the hot jars, wipe the top rim of the glass where the lid will meet it, put the lid on, screw the screw cap on (not too tight) and lower them into the water carefully (again with the special tongs) and boil for 7 mins. Remove from the water and set on the counter; wait for the center each lid to pop down as they cool. This assures you of the seal.

Hopefully I have not in any way discouraged you.  I am delighted that anyone would want to make jam! But if you prefer, send me your address and I will simply mail you one of my jars 🙂

The poor young woman, I thought. She has to make sense of that! But if she had thrilled me by asking, she thrilled me more by her response to my “recipe.”

Thank you for this!  I have canned before (not jam- and it’s been a few years) but I am sure I can do this.  Looks like I will be digging out some of my jars this weekend.  And thanks for offering to mail some jam, but I will attempt this work of art.   It is a labor of love and one I can appreciate .  I will let you know how it turns out.
Kind regards,

Oh, may the joy we have in learning something new never be squashed!

Perfect and imperfect things

I love living in the country. I love the peace, the quiet, the turn of the seasons (gently in Virginia), the crisp fresh air, the sound of peepers and crickets. I love going outside to feed the chickens in whatever I have on, or don’t.  I love eating straight from the garden. Tonight I feasted on snow peas like Sal in Blueberries for Sal, who ate more than she ka-plinked into her little tin pail.

I went to a party recently with a garden salad. In it, from the garden, were lettuce, spinach, snow peas, finely chopped chives and strawberries. The lettuce is soft as butter right now and the spinach a deep, serious green. I picked the first of the snow peas that night but the last of the strawberries. I put my normal maple syrup dressing on it, which is about one part olive oil, half part cider vinegar, half part syrup, S&P.  My dear friend Kim gave me something she calls “cooking syrup,” the dregs of the maple sugar run I take it, the stuff at the very end of the season that’s thick and strong and oh so delicious in salad dressing. I use that most of the time, though regular (real) maple syrup works just beautifully too.

Is there anything under the sun like a salad straight out of your own garden with a dressing you love? Yesterday I baked some salmon and had it first alongside, then with an equally delicious garden salad, this time with a lemon dressing: about one part olive oil, one part sour cream, one part lemon juice, a teaspoon of sugar, S&P. I wish I had thought sooner to just put the fresh hot salmon right on the cool, lemony salad. 

There is so much good about living in the country, but as we see and experience every day, nothing is perfect. Sooner or later — no matter where we are — we are disturbed by something we would rather not encounter. The first summer I lived here, I was in my bathroom minding my own business, when I turned around to look out the window and noticed a wolf spider nearly the size of my fist that was thank God on the outside of the screen. She was surely minding her own business too, but for me it was terrifying to the Nth degree, practically a near-death experience the way my heart jumped. (No, I do not have a photo of this creature — how could I possibly have thought of that?!)

I screamed for help. Who can blame me? At that time there were several valiant males on site, at least one of whom came and “took care of it.” I cannot know what was really happening on the ground below my window, though as a general rule it is not wise to question white knights who mean well. In my world, there is a certain protocol, a natural order, when it comes to creepy things: The people who are not as creeped out by any given creepy thing take care of it for those who simply cannot deal. It’s a you-scratch-my-back-I scratch-yours arrangement. We all have our fears. And how easy it is to chuckle or scoff at someone else’s.

Not that I believed he really did take care of it! But on this eventful morning there was nothing else to do except recover as best as humanly possible, get ready for work, try to be a big girl and hope that the trauma of being abruptly disrupted from her siesta on my window screen was enough to send that old girl to a new resting place far, far away, never to return. I recognize the delusion here. I do. But as we have our fears, we also have our delusions, and I will hold fast to mine.

At work, I sought comfort with a friend who also lives in the country. I told her of my fright in the most honest way I could, interspersing my vivid and emotional description with intonations of fear and relief and disbelief. Cheryl is a wonderful human being in so many ways, but on this occasion she completely failed me. I got absolutely no sympathy whatsoever. I mean zero.”You’re living in their home,” she said. I beg your pardon! Dying of fright here! A little sympathy please! Nope.

I consoled myself (all by myself, thank you, Cheryl) gradually. I would hardly be human if something didn’t creep me out. I don’t know what it is about spiders, especially hairy ones. I can deal with mice all day, and even snakes are somewhat fascinating — as long as they are the black kind that I know are the good kind, like the fellow who sunned himself one day on the driveway just outside the cottage. The good ones keep the bad ones away, that’s what they tell me. In five years this was the second time I have seen one of these for myself, for anyone who is worrying, and I don’t just visit here, I live here. 

Beth, who for some reason has to tell me such things, tells me I “don’t want to know” what she has seen. While my right brain occasionally sends my heart rate soaring with conjured-up scenarios of close, awful encounters with various creepies (dear God, let there always be someone else to go under the crawl space of the house if and when that is necessary), my left brain tells me that all of these creatures, and the many more I see and don’t see, are part of a vast, important ecosystem of which I am a part. I am proud and happy to be a thinking part, even if I cannot hide in a tree hole or fly to the next tree branch. Which reminds me, there are at least two owls that we hear on a regular basis this spring. Owls! These we have seen and heard too! How many people have ever seen an owl?

Thus another Golden Hill lesson, one that has echoed a million times over: You take the good with the bad, or the bad with the good, however you want to think of it. No place is perfect. On a trip to Lancaster County many years ago, a woman in one of the quilt shops told us that when the Amish women make a quilt, they make sure to leave something distinctly wrong, some line of stitches not quite straight, some place where the points of the star do not meet quite as they should. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know, but I liked her punchline and I like the analogy she presented. They do this, she said, because only God is perfect. This may well be true, but the garden salad comes pretty close.

A mermaid story

I’ve been an airbnb host for more than a year and a half. My little Golden Hill cottage is occupied every weekend with guests from here and there. It may not look like it, but the cottage is kind of like a mermaid. And I don’t mean just any mermaid.

You say the word mermaid and many people immediately think Disney. A few might recall The Secret of Roan Inish. Both of those mermaids are a far cry from one particular mermaid who made a great impression on me. Mine doesn’t have a long, sexy fish tail. She doesn’t entice men. But she is set apart from her fellow creatures — she is unusual, nice in her own way, comfortable being who she is. I’m guessing from the story that she’s about five or six years old.

My neighbor Marty gave me this story not long ago. He lives at the next farm. If you don’t turn left onto my driveway, you come straight to his house. There’s a sign at the end of my driveway that clearly says Golden Hill. See?

Golden Hill sign summer 2015

But people go past it sometimes when they are supposed to be coming here. Last week I discovered why. I was coming home from Richmond, and was unfamiliar with the part of the city I was in, so I had used my GPS to guide me out of the city. Once I was on the highway, it stopped talking to me, so I forgot about it. But it didn’t forget about me. As it started guiding me on the last stretch of the way, I decided to let it. I wanted to see what it would say so I would know what my guests experience. Correctly, at the beginning of my road, it told me to go another three-quarters of a mile, which of course I did. Then I saw my Golden Hill sign, but it did not tell me to turn left. Instead, when I turned left (because I know where I live), and went maybe 30 feet more, it said, “In 900 feet, turn around.”

No wonder my guests sometimes drive past my sign. They are listening to a device that is not telling them to turn. Of course they all find the cottage eventually. There isn’t too far to go. They get to Marty’s and figure it out. Once in awhile, he is outside when they drive up. They explain about being lost and what they are looking for. He points them in the right direction, and tells them in his very dry way, which let’s hope most of them see as humorous, “But you don’t want to go there. She’s weird.” He has done this at least twice. He says this to them because I have said to him (one too many times apparently) that I am weird. When they tell me what he said to them, they are laughing. It borders on a please-tell-us-he’s-not-serious kind of laugh. For what it’s worth, Marty is weird too, because who says that to people? But I can’t mind — he’s right.

Some people are weirder than others. For a long time, my measure of weird has been television. I think I’m weird (or weirder than most) because most people have at least one TV and I don’t. At various times I have had one (and even had one for about two years and didn’t know it, but that is another story). Mine shorted out, or something, maybe half a year ago, and stopped turning on. I didn’t replace it yet, though I expect someday I will. There are numerous other reasons why I have considered myself — and to Marty and others, proclaimed myself — to be weird. Examples are not necessary here. Just trust me on this.

Not every neighbor would give you a story to make a point. But Marty did. It spoke to me.

The Mermaid Story      

by Robert Fulghum

            One rainy Sunday afternoon I found myself in charge of 70 or so school age children.  We were in a gymnasium, and I knew that if I didn’t come up with an idea before long – pure chaos would ensue.  At that very moment I remembered a game – an old roll playing game called Wizards, Giants and Goblins.  So I got my charges to calm down (no easy feat, thank you very much), and I explained the rules of the game:

“Now,” I proclaimed, “if you wish to be a Giant, stand at the front of the room.  If you wish to be a Wizard, stand in the middle.  And those who wish to be Goblins stand toward the back.  All right,  let the play begin.”  I allowed the children several minutes to confer in huddled masses until the action resumed.

As I was standing there I felt I tug on my coat.  When I looked down, there was a little girl with blue, questioning eyes.       

  ” ‘Scuse me.”

  “Yes, what is it?”

  “Scuse me, but where do the mermaids stand?”

  “Mermaids? Mermaids?” I sputtered.  “There are no mermaids.”

  “Oh, yes there are.  For you see, I’m a mermaid, and I wish to know where to stand.”

  Now here was a little girl who knew exactly what she was – a mermaid, pure and simple and she wanted to know where to stand.  And, she wouldn’t be satisfied standing on the sidelines watching the others play.  She had her place, and she wanted to know where to stand.

But, where do the mermaids stand? – all those children we try to mold and form to fit into our boxes.

Sometimes, I have moments of inspiration.  I looked down at that child, and I held her hand -“Why the mermaid shall stand next to The King of the Sea.” (Yeah, King of the Fools would be more likely.)

  So, we stood together – the mermaid and the King of the Sea – as the Wizards, Giants and Goblins roiled by in grand procession.  It isn’t true, by the way, what they say about mermaids not existing.  I know they do for I’ve held one’s hand.

Now I may have a soft spot for little girls, but no way is this one weird. She’s just different, and knows it, and is happy with it. She doesn’t try to be something she’s not. No molds for her, no boxes, no convention. All she needs to know is where to stand. If Robert Fulghum’s story is nonfiction, then somewhere in the world there is a five-year-old who helped me know that where I was standing, apart from the rest in numerous ways, was really ok. And not only ok, but good. She gave me a new perspective on something that had nagged me for years. I still call myself weird sometimes, but now I mean it more in the sense of unconventional, which is probably the same thing but somehow more palatable. As never before, I am ok with being unconventional. The beaten track isn’t for everyone.

The cottage that Bradley built is one of a kind. Search the world over and you will not find another. You might find a cottage with a wood stove and a deck facing the mountains and a 12/12 pitched roof, but will it have custom cherry windows and coffered ceilings? You might find a cottage in the country where there are 15 chickens, but do six of them lay greenish eggs? You might find a cottage that has a big garden with deer fencing all around because of the many deer that live in the woods, but is one of those deer white?  The Charming Cottage at Golden Hill is set apart from all other cottages, from all other lodgings, just like that little girl who fancies herself a mermaid — it’s unusual, comfortable, nice in its own way. 

And I get to share it. I get to be part of a movement that celebrates uniqueness. We all have a general sense of what goes into a good, comfortable, safe night’s sleep, but I get to interpret that in my own unique way and be a host in my own unique way. Because Brad and Beth built this amazing little house, I get to be part of a wave that says: Take the road less traveled. I’d say they are part of the wave too.

Take a good look at the people around you, and you will see some similarities. We all eat, sleep, breathe, void, move, and wear clothes in public. Keep going with this list. What else do we have in common? You may be able to generate an extensive list, but I am hard pressed. We certainly don’t all eat the same things, like the same music, use the same vocabulary, prefer the same activities, travel to the same destinations. Not everyone cares for dogs or cats (or snakes or ferrets or turtles or fish or parakeets) in their homes, but some people would be lost without their pet. Some people look forward, some look back, some mainly live in today. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. And some like it hot.

My cottage is in the country. What do you see when you look out of those custom windows along  the back wall? This is what you see:


Trees. You see trees and more trees. Some sky as well. A range of foothills in the wintertime when all those trees have lost their leaves (which you cannot see in the photo but is there, I promise). You will not see buildings. Ugh to all that nature, I am sure some say when they look at the listing. Not everyone likes green. Some really do prefer concrete (my brother-in-law Fred comes to mind). Also, there are steep stairs that lead to the main bed in the cottage. Some people don’t want stairs of any kind. I have a drip coffee maker and a french press. Maybe Keurig is your thing — or maybe you don’t even know what a french press or a Keurig is, and all you want is a cup of coffee, for crying out loud! Why do there have to be so many choices!??!

There have to be so many choices because we are all so different. We don’t get everything — in general or when we travel — but we make choices and align our have-to-have’s and wish-to-have’s to come as close to (what for us is) perfection as possible. We continually juggle reality with desire and try to get the weekend or the vacation just right. And what makes anything perfect for you is different than what makes it perfect for me. This is why I think airbnb is enjoying tremendous success, and why it is so cool to be a part of it. The options are practically unlimited — size, location, decoration, ambiance, amenities, price, etc. Bungalows, cottages, condos, yurts, mansions, apartments, etc. Take your pick.

I love that there are lots and lots of choices. My little cottage is not for everybody, and that’s ok. Like me, it’s unconventional in various ways. Like me, it doesn’t have to fit a mold. I am glad it doesn’t. I’m glad I don’t. Granted, not fitting a mold is a pain at times, and you are misunderstood at times, but overall (and I can hardly believe I’m saying this after struggling so long about it), unconventionality is an asset. The success of this cottage, I am convinced, is at least in part because there is nothing else like it. The little mermaid of this story tells me to celebrate my unconventionality and I can choose to make the most of it. And the success of Golden Hill shouts loud and clear: Don’t be afraid to be unusual, nice in your own way, comfortable being who you are. Pick your passion and run with it. Nobody else can do what you can do the way you can do it. 

A white deer and grilled salami

The gravel road I live on is about a mile long and my property is almost to the end. It’s a private road, privately maintained, and maxed out as far as the number of residences, which is under ten. Some parts of the road are narrow, so narrow that if someone else is driving toward you from the opposite direction, one of you has to move over up onto the grassy side areas, or back up if the side areas are too steep. This is not a lot of fun when it is late at night because of course there are no streetlights, but with so few vehicles on the road, it seldom happens. More constant an issue is the condition of the surface, which, being gravel, is irregular to say the least, and more so after all the rain we have had of late. Let’s just say you do not break any speed records on this road.

Being near the end of a gravel road and having to drive slowly has its advantages. For one thing, it allows me to both ease into and ease out of my day. I can’t tear out of here, nor can I zip back in. In much the same way as we are all given 24 hours in a day and no more and no less, I have been given the physical constraint of this road for the first or last mile of every trip I make, and am forced to accept its reality. As with the 24 hours, after a while you don’t really think about it. As my mother says, it is what it is!

Slowing down also means you see things you might not otherwise. About a year ago, on my way to work as I slowly drove down my road,  a patch of while caught my eye off to the left about 20 yards away. Sure enough, it was the white deer my neighbors had talked about.

white deer (2)

You are never really sure if people are pulling your leg or not when they tell you about rare animals they have seen in the wild. I know rare animals exist, and zoos get them sometimes. In the zoo in Nuernberg I saw a white crocodile many years ago, and I can believe that someone trapped it and gifted it to the zoo. But a white deer in my own neck of the woods?

There it was. I drive a Prius, very quiet in its electric (slow) mode. I came to a stop, let the window down and aimed my very handy phone camera at the magnificent creature. My vision is not superb, but I saw him more clearly than he appears in this photo. I assure you — that is a white deer!

A few days later when I was with some friends playing tennis, I showed off my photo. We all have stories to tell, and I had a new one. Look what I saw! Pat, one of the wonderful women I play with, asked me to send it to her, and when we played the following week, she handed me printouts she had had made of the deer photo in various sizes. That was so nice of her! I took one and put it in the notebook that sits on the coffee table in the cottage for my airbnb guests. Usually, since there are important things to cover during the intro when they first arrive, and I don’t want to keep people too long, I don’t mention it. Sometimes though, if they start talking about wildlife, or if they have children who seem like the  kind who would want to know, I tell them that if they get really lucky they will see the white deer as I once did, and I tell them about the photo in the book.

In my area there are a lot of hunters. A good bit of the land around me is posted No Trespassing / No Hunting, but even more is not. I was so glad to have seen the rare deer when I did because I thought there was a better chance that I, who do not buy lottery tickets, would win the lottery than that this trophy deer would live through hunting season. Nonetheless I told my guests about it sometimes. One can hope. And sometimes, I guess, they found the photo in the book and imagined that it must have been taken in these woods. Very occasionally, as I drive slowly past the spot where I saw her, I wonder whatever happened…

This winter I was not as active as I should have been, so recently I decided to walk more. Each day lately I have been walking on my road. To the end and back is not an overly impressive distance, but it’s something, and I don’t feel so much like a slug soon to turn into a whale if I don’t get moving. Tonight after work I walked. Bridget, my old dog, did not like the idea much, but she came along. I did not see the deer. I didn’t even think about it. Perhaps thinking about how long it has been since I saw it brings too sad an image of a mounted trophy head to my mind, and I prefer not to go to that sad place, so I effectively keep it pushed away most of the time.

I came home, collected eggs (nine today), and watered the newly planted cabbage, cuke, eggplant, basil, tomato and pepper plants, the not-yet-emerged carrots and onions, the thriving spinach, lettuce, beets and snow peas, and ate the first snow peas off the vine! On my way back to my house, my wonderful cottage guests, Sara and Scott, came out to say hello. We had very pleasant conversation about their dinner on the terrace overlooking the golf course at Keswick Hall last night (yes, they loved the parmesan truffle fries!), and about their day exploring Monticello and its walking paths. Then Scott said, “Oh, we have to tell you — we saw the white deer!!”

They saw the white deer? Yes! Coming back toward the cottage this very afternoon, there she was — running as only a deer can run, not posing as she did for me. They did not get a photo, but they had seen it in the notebook on the coffee table, and wondered. What a gift to them this creature gave! During their first airbnb experience, on a little getaway to celebrate their anniversary, they saw a white deer no less! The image of her extraordinary whiteness, of her graceful stride, of their incredible luck at having been in the right place at the right time to see her even for a few moments — this all will stay with them in a way no photo can. (Also think of the deer’s incredible luck at having evaded hunters for yet another year!)  I am delighted to have been a small part of their amazing experience. Once again, I get back more than I give.

And then some. “Please, have some dinner with us,” Sara graciously offered. They were grilling burgers and salami. Wait… grilling salami? I work at a five-star hotel where they do all sorts of things with food that I have never heard of. I’m half Italian and probably ate salami before I knew how to say it. But I had never had it grilled. You have to try this! It just might be my new favorite! Two slices at a time, Scott says (it’s a little thicker that way). In a cast iron pan works just as well, Sara adds. It was Sara’s idea to begin with, Scott admits. Sara smiles. They put it on their cheeseburgers all the time now. Brilliant, really brilliant.

I had a full day at work starting at 6am today. I took this photo of the fallen rose petals carpeting the walkway of the pergola by the horizon pool at about 615.

May 31 2016 pergola rose petals.jpg

I filled in for the restaurant manager and oversaw a busy breakfast. I worked with Susan and Ashley to edit the member event calendar. I began preparing the schedule for an important training event coming up. I answered mail, interacted with vendors, attended meetings, got home around 530. I thought it was a pretty full day. Then the walk, the eggs, the garden. I did not expect the white deer besides. I did not expect grilled salami! You never know what you are going to come home to. Thank you, Sara and Scott!