A Kind of Scrubbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCRUB!

______________________________

 

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

Your Neighbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about: Love your neighbor as yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

my neighbors

Love your neighbor as yourself.

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

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

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

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

_____________________________

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

“(probably we needed it)”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Marisa.

A Scary Day at the Beach

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

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

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Water and sand and play and sun.

The beach is supposed to be just plain fun.

How it almost turned deathly I cringe to recall.

What you must understand is that Sand Can Fall.

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

The key to understanding this situation is twofold.

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

Not in Boca.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good God, he can’t breathe in there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Phone, My Buddy

I stirred in my bed this morning before there was any color in the sky, reached over as usual to the space next to me and found what I always find. Only it was dead. Cold. Unresponsive. Useless.

It was a little, just a little, like the story I’ll never forget about my Great Aunt Emily. She told me that as the youngest child in her family she had watched her siblings one by one tie the knot and then begin one by one to have troubles – troubles she associated with their unions, troubles that uninspired her to say yes to the man who asked for her hand. Whether she closed the door after that or was never asked again, she didn’t tell me.

For most of her adult life, Aunt Emily lived with her mom. For practical reasons they had slept in the same bed. Once, when I was a child, we visited her at the one-bedroom apartment in New York City they had shared.

You see where I’m going, right?

So, okay, finding your phone – cold and unresponsive – an arm’s reach away from you in bed is not the same as waking up next to a dead body, not the same as all the sadness, weirdness and subsequent suffering that go along with the unenviable life experience that Aunt Emily had. I get that. But when that phone is your connection to living people, when its job is bringing you out of dreamland and reconnecting you to the unsleeping world, when it serves to comfort you in its sameness yet always gives you something new to think about, when you depend on it to tell you not only the time and the weather but also who thought of you in the night and what happened during those sleep hours that you need to know about – well, you see the parallel. I hope.

Wait. How did this happen? How did our phones become a thing we reach for, a comfort, a kind of lifeline to the world beyond the space we stand or sit or lie in? How it is that I routinely fall asleep next to mine? Why did I, first thing in the morning, before making tea, before brushing my hair, before even turning on a light, find the charger and plug it back in?

We must have connection. In so many ways we like, we crave, we depend on connection with others – whether that be the ideas they present, the music they make, the comfort they provide. My phone died because I fell asleep to the podcast I was listening to. But it made me reflect on what the alternatives might be – or might have been. What do you like or need or depend on to get you over the bridge from Awakeland to Asleepland? After you brush your teeth, arrange your pillows the way you like them, set your alarm, and do whatever else is in your bedtime routine, how do you tuck in and make the transition?

Let’s see. You could fall asleep in the arms of your lover. Anyone who has known such a pleasure would surely rank this above falling asleep while listening to a podcast. Yes. Definitely. Some people are blessed with nights on end of such joy. Some have it sometimes. Some had it and now miss it greatly. Some only wonder if that kind of comfort is not just a myth.

Being with someone you love is super nice. Being warm is a need. You could fall asleep just trying to get warm. What if your bedroom were cold enough to wear a hat to bed? Nightcaps were a thing you wore on your head before they morphed into a strong drink you enjoyed in the wee hours. Hot water bottles with cute, knitted sleeves can take the chill out of cold sheets. How about a bed warmer, used in the days before electric blankets to heat a bed. Wikipedia cites Cora Millet-Robinet (1853), Domestic Economy: “A copper warming pan is indispensable to a household. Take care to have a big enough quantity of embers, above all some red cinders, when you want to heat a bed. Get it smouldering well before you use it, otherwise the fire will soon go out and the bed will not warm up. You must move the warming pan constantly to avoid scorching the sheets.” This bed warmer from the Netherlands gives you the idea.

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Falling asleep with a lover to keep you warm seems about perfect to me, but I digress.

You could fall asleep just listening. For some it’s music, for some it’s traffic, for some it’s clatter. In my world the sounds I am likely to hear include my heat pump as it kicks back in to keep my house at a steady 68 (ka-chink, but some things I am willing to pay for), some howling coyotes (God only knows what sets them off sometimes, but they are usually pretty far away by the sound of it), the perfectly tuned wind chime hanging above my back porch (if the air is not still), or the rumbling of the train about half a mile away through the woods (a most reassuring sound – if the train is running, something is right in the world).

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You could fall asleep in front of the TV. I am old enough to remember how the TV produced a grainy, fuzzy “snow” on the screen, well after midnight I guess, when programming actually ended for the night. I don’t think it does that anymore but I wouldn’t know. I never had a TV in the bedroom, never wanted one. Which speaks to how complicated and unreasonable we silly humans are sometimes. A podcast is okay but forget a TV. There is not much difference perhaps.

You could fall asleep while reading a book, on purpose or not. Some people use the book as a way to fall asleep, getting through one paragraph at best on any given night before being unable to keep their eyes open. It’s a sleeping pill akin to a shot of Bailey’s or your drink of choice just before bed. Not a terrible bridge to walk over.

You could fall asleep praying, though I want to think we do this when we are more coherent. I want to think we pray throughout the day, reflexively, within our daily situations, as a part of our course and not so much as a designated activity. I want to think we fill in the gaps of our days with silent pleas, a kind of continual communion. But as with so many of our life choices, the individual way we each go about prayer is as varied as everything else about us.

You could fall asleep in conversation. I don’t mean the kind where words come out of your mouth audibly. I mean the kind where you hear futuristic or past dialog in your head. This might be an imagined meeting in which you decide what everyone says. What if I said this or that instead? How lovely if he/she/they said that. How might the flow of the dialog change – or even the outcome – if the spoken and unspoken words were different? Or you might replay a significant scene that occurred between you and someone else that you are trying to make sense of. Did I hear that correctly? How unexpected was that reaction! What did he/she/they mean to suggest by doing that? I wonder if only introverts do this dialog review and construction.

You could fall asleep thinking. Just thinking. Most recently I have had porch-building dilemmas to solve, test results to ponder, familial history to find my peace with. The world doesn’t end if you don’t come to workable solutions or solid footing before nodding off, but time spent working through a problem in our heads is under-appreciated, I think. Not everything has an instant solution. Not everything is immediately understood. Some things stick in your craw. They don’t resolve, they stay annoying or difficult or challenging. Maybe that’s because you aren’t there yet, you aren’t done thinking, you haven’t figured it out. Maybe just before fade-out is the right time to make a little progress on that issue.

Maybe your phone even helps you. I don’t think it’s all bad that we sleep next to our phones. They give us lots of information and connect us with people who are far away. But some day, someone studying this time in history will note a shift in human habits right about when cell phones became universal in our culture. They will see what we can’t see – how this technology played out both for good and not so good, how we adapted, how we changed, how our relationships changed. I wonder what they will say. What do you think they will say?

In the meantime, there it lies, my phone, my buddy. Don’t ask me why I put stickers on the back. I have no idea. Hey, it just occurs to me that a bedside table would be very handy!

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Leftover Mashed Potato Soup That’s Kinda Sorta Corn Chowder

On Thanksgiving I got a surprise. There’s a lot going on when you have 12 people coming to dinner, and a lot of oh-wow-how-can-I-be-this-tired afterwards. But I like to share the joy so later that evening I sent this photo to my friend Claudia of us all about to partake in the feast.

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Do note Mom’s fancy rosette napkins on the paper turkey plates. I am not a paper-plate kind of girl but exceptions are allowed! Our meal included turkey and gravy, spiral cut ham, butternut squash, green bean casserole (the one with the French fried onions on top), creamed onions, stuffing (mine has sausage in it), mashed potatoes, warm pineapple pudding, cranberry sauce from a can (the only thing not homemade), cranberry chutney (because it is one of my favorites), and bread and butter.

Claudia responded to the photo as kindly as usual and ended with: “My soup with the leftover mashed potatoes was very tasty.”

What? Leftover Mashed Potato Soup??

Why did I never think of that?! (And I have leftover mashed potatoes!)

I asked her to tell me more about her soup and got a voice message instead of a text message – how wonderful to hear the voice of a friend who lives so far away! She said:

Well yesterday I sautéed some onions and added some leek and potato – no, not potato – and pieces of squash and carrots. I put some water in it and used the leftover mashed potatoes to just thicken it. I put the potatoes in towards the end. Another option is if you have squash left and mashed potatoes, you just sauté some onions and leek if you have and carrots or other veggies and then you just puree everything and then you have cream of vegetable soup. Something really nice is if you have some bacon cubes – you just fry them in a pan a bit and before serving you put them on top, and maybe some grated parmesan cheese. You have a whole meal if you add some mini-rolls or something like that.

You all will have deduced several things from this, including: 1. Claudia doesn’t measure much. 2. Squash is squash apparently, doesn’t matter what kind. 3. Bacon is available as or able to be cut into cubes in Germany. 4. No one is vegan or vegetarian or against carbs in our world.

In the spirit of Sure-Why-Not, I decided to play around with my own Leftover Mashed Potato Soup on Sunday after everyone had left. It was raining – that raw and cold kind of rain that does not invite outdoor play – so it was a perfect day for creamy, hot, thick soup that would take practically no time to prepare. Plus there’s that emotional hole that a soup like this lives to fill. My description/ instructions/ recipe may be only slightly more helpful than Claudia’s because I didn’t measure anything either, but at least I know about how much. Mine, unlike hers, is Kinda Sorta Corn Chowder.

I had intended to make Kaesespatzin, a cheesy-homemade-spaetzle dish topped with sautéed onions, on Wednesday when Lincoln and Julia and the girls arrived, but I got too tired and we made calzones instead. Having already sautéed the onions however, I put them in a jar figuring they would come in handy another day. For my soup I started with these. I scooped out a couple spoonfuls and warmed it up in a saucepan. I would say the amount I used was the equivalent of about one chopped onion sautéed in 2 tablespoons of butter.

I then took about as much leftover turkey as would fit in my hand (if I were holding it) and chopped it up fine — the pieces were about the size of raisins, maybe a little bigger. I added a cup or so of chicken broth from a $4.99 Sam’s Club rotisserie chicken we had had on Tuesday when I was also too tired to cook (which is what happens when you make three quilts in two weeks) – that carcass in a pot with water covering it and a bit of time over a flame had provided this. Bouillon or a prepared (canned/boxed) stock would work as well, as would leftover turkey gravy mixed 1:1 with water.

I had half a small bag of frozen corn so I added that; it was about 1 cup of corn. Then, following Claudia’s instructions on this point anyway, I added the leftover mashed potatoes (“toward the end”) – it was about two cups. The thickness of this mixture told me to add water so I did. I added water to the consistency of chowder, which is a thick soup anyway, and who doesn’t love a thick, creamy soup on a cold and rainy day? The potatoes were perfect in it!!

A little salt and pepper and that was it!! I was tired. It was simple. Done!

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The very idea of mashed potato soup was a surprise for me but now that I think of it, why not? Thank you, Claudia!!

Straight Seams and a Woobly Wander

Last week I was off my feet a bit. Not so much thrown off. More like tripped up, as when you are engrossed in conversation and don’t see a slight rise in the corner of the sidewalk paving block and find yourself in a wild and awkward dance as you try to right yourself. All you wanted was to walk along and have a nice conversation with no unexpected bumps. That’s all most of us want in life in general too, right? To walk along without bumps? Good luck with that.

The cause of last week’s bumps was twofold – a decision someone made some time ago that I just found out about, which resurfaced old traumas, and a reaction someone had that reversed good feeling. The bumps led to sadness and reflection and finally to what my mother summed up as “You poured out your heart.” I needed to work my way through.

I’m here to say that it’s all well and good to pour out your heart, but in the time that follows the outpouring, you have to actually do something. In times past I did not so much control what activity came next – I went to work or fixed a meal or fell asleep. This time, post-outpouring, I had a full day staring at me with nothing else in it.

Thanksgiving is coming and so are my granddaughters Eppie and Rise, now 5 and 7.

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These are the cuties I’m talking about, smiling on Rise’s first day of school. Eppie walked up to the bus stop with her, having to wait one more day for her own first day of kindergarten. Note it was cold enough in the morning in late August in Vermont for a jacket, but not cold enough for Eppie to wear shoes. Rise probably has them on only because of going to school.

I have quilts in mind for them for Christmas. I’ve had quilts in mind for them ever since my neighbor Tracy told me how she treasures the quilt her grandmother made for her. I’ve made jammies and simple dresses for the girls, but not yet quilts. With their visit coming soon, I figured I had better get going because I like to watch people open the gifts I give them and I don’t want to have to mail anything – and here I am writing about it instead of doing it!

When your heart is greatly stirred up, it helps to use your hands on something that requires focus. It helps to direct energy toward something that will bring good to someone else. I don’t expect Rise and Eppie to oooh and ahhh over these quilts when they open them up next week. But in ten years, or twenty, or thirty, maybe they get a warm feeling inside knowing, remembering (I hope!) how great was Oma’s love for them through every step of their childhood. There has to be Good in these gifts, if not now, then later. I’m banking on that.

Quilts then, on this empty day that needs focus. First, assess inventory. Open the scrap fabric boxes and make a pile of fun fabrics, colorful fabrics, plain fabrics (to balance the fun and colorful). Take out the sewing machine, the ironing board and iron, the scissors big and small, the cutting mat, the rolling blade. Uh-oh. Where’s the rolling blade? You can’t get the precise measurements and straight edges you need without the rolling blade. I can’t find the rolling blade.

Well, that’s unfortunate. Now I have two choices. I can either take (what will feel like) half the morning to drive forty minutes to the store and forty minutes back and buy a new rolling blade. Or I can order one that will arrive tomorrow and make do in the meantime with scissors. I will certainly not be done in a day. Make-do kicks in. This is the new roller that duly arrived the next day, still in its package for reasons yet to come.

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Having a goal to make two quilts but having no roller to precisely cut the fabric nudged me in a new direction. I hemmed, I hawed, for all of three seconds (deadline here, remember) and decided okay, not-so-precise – a.k.a. crazy – the quilts will be. Please understand that I am not a crazy-quilt kind of person. My quilts have taken one of two looks. Either they are orderly and color-coordinated, like these I made when my granddaughter Zoe was born last year (one baby-size for Zoe and one doll-size for her big sister Piper):

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Or they are orderly and slightly-less-color-coordinated, like the two from before Zoe’s, a lap quilt for my dear friend Kim and the larger one for her mom, Lyn’s comfort quilt.

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Can I do crazy? Can I start sewing with practically no idea what this thing will look like when I am done? Can I put pieces randomly together in ways that will affect that section and ultimately the quilt overall? You betcha!

I just started sewing pieces of fabric together, proceeding in hopes that Piece A wouldn’t clash terribly with Piece B (which got tougher when Pieces C, D, E, F, etc came into play) and willing to include odd angles, varying size pieces and some larger squares all in a row from another quilt I had started but never finished. I wanted to use some of the cute, child-like prints, but not too many.

In no time it seemed – mainly because using scissors goes faster than using a roller blade – I had the main part of Rise’s done.

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You have purple funky surfer guy (find him), pink and aqua hedgehogs, funny owls, sleeping sheep, happy watermelons, golden sunflowers and even a piece of the lavender daisy print from Zoe’s quilt. You have some squares made of two perfectly cut (I took my time) 45-degree pieces and some rectangles slashed with a random angle. Some stripes, some plaids, some solids, some dull, some bright, a piece from a dress I made for Rise, several pieces from jammies. You have pattern here and no pattern there, big pieces and small pieces, some deliberate juxtapositioning and some whatever. You have funny ways the pieces came together and predictable ways.

And isn’t that just like life? You have things you can make happen and that you feel happy about or proud of as well as things you can’t explain: What was I thinking when I did that!? You have some rooms/projects/relationships that are a mess and some that are comforting. You have people who make you laugh and people who are just kind of there, filling up space. You have ideas/colors/particulars that appeal to you and ideas/colors/particulars that don’t. You keep going back to certain aspects of a thing because it shaped you or speaks to you or satisfies some part of yourself that you can’t even identify. I like the purple funky surfer guy.

Quilting makes a mess. Samuel came on the second day to make pizza, which we always enjoy in the living room, so I didn’t worry about the table. He took one look at it and said So this is the table of Mrs. CAYGO. His little dig was aimed at my occasional nudges to Clean As You GO in the kitchen. Yes, well you try making a quilt without making a mess. I’ll clean it up. Just maybe not so much As I Go.

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This photo also shows plainly that sometime in the afternoon of the first day, while making do with scissors, I found my roller blade. You see it there, the yellow one on the ironing board, the new one still in its package on the table. I found my old one, of course, exactly where I had left it. The seams of the outer portions of Rise’s quilt are therefore straighter, less woobly, than the inner portions which will not lay as flat. But some roads we walk are straighter too, aren’t they? And some are a woobly wander.

Having a roller blade for Eppie’s quilt from the start meant straighter seams but no less creativity. With the confidence that I can “do crazy,” I began in fact to enjoy the randomness, to let one section suggest the next, to give myself license to use a piece that is not the absolute perfect one. How often do we get what’s absolutely perfect anyway? Is it okay to come close, to do the best you can, to make do with what you have, to hope that the love you put into a thing will shine through your obvious flaws and fears?

I say yes.

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Frosted Sage

I didn’t know if I killed the sage. I didn’t know if the shock of transplant, or the dipping toward freezing temps, or the full moon at the wrong time might kill it. I didn’t know if these splotches of frost, these teeny tiny measures of fluffy ice heaped on the leaves would be lethal. I don’t know enough about plants. But I wanted it in my new garden so I moved it.frosted sage (2)2mp.jpg

Like the sage, I have felt the shock of transplant. After my life turned upside down twenty years ago, I moved from my longstanding home and community in order to protect my children and pay my bills – both as best as I could. Uprooting is hard. One very wise woman (she knows who she is) suggested to me that I had no idea how much I would lose. She was so right.

Like the sage, I was made rather uncomfortable by the whole ordeal. Moving south didn’t involve the challenge of freezing temps but it did involve numerous scary unknowns and a nonstop schedule with insane hours and sure, why not write a book besides all that (because life isn’t crazy enough)! Moving involved new culture, new neighborhood, new relationships – lots of this New woven in with lots of that New woven on top of the old, threadbare-in-places Tapestry of My Life.

Like the sage being affected (or maybe not) by the full moon, I too have been at the mercy of (a lot of) forces I don’t control. The real estate market, for one thing. Its machinations caught me, bit me. Twice. Mainly though, I don’t control other people. Everyone carries on with their own life, and I know they all have burdens to bear. Most don’t know my personal hell, but some of those who do pretended nothing happened, or, geez, it wasn’t that bad. Some “make their peace” with it and land where it seems none of it matters (which is different than pretending nothing happened). Some don’t realize that A affects B in ways you don’t see until twenty years later. Some judge. Some blame. Some withdraw. Some make decisions that have painful, landscape-altering consequences.

But in all fairness to the sage, strength and resilience have played a mighty role. Fine, pluck me up, roots and all. Replant me in a more convenient location. I will stand firm, and the sun will shine here too and the rain will come. In winter I will rest. In spring and summer and fall I will bring beauty and flavor.

Likewise, shock of transplant, discomfort and forces I don’t control have not been all bad for me. My faith is stronger, my perspective broader, my tolerance greater. In a new place, wonderful people have come into my life and the ties I have with some from before have been strengthened. Many have wrapped love and comfort and prayer around me and reminded me intermittently in their personal, special ways about what is important, which helps more than they can ever know. Some bring gifts, some bring humor, some bring advice, hope, joy, fun, inspiration. Some hold me tight, some make me smile or laugh out loud, some help me make things nicer than they were before, some show me reasons to count my blessings. Some do a lot of these things in one beautiful bundle.

Pushing the boundaries of what you thought you could do generally results in You can do more than you thought. Doing more than I planned on, more than I thought possible, more than my imagination could ever have conjured up, changed me. Had things not happened as they did, would I be the person I am? Had unforeseeable pain, calamitous events and inevitable ripples not occurred, would I understand some things I didn’t understand before – even if there is way more yet to understand? Even if pain resurfaces at very inconvenient times? It is not for me to know what the Me Whose Life Didn’t Turn Upside Down would look like. I only know the Me whose life did. I can’t be sure, but I think this Me might be stronger.

I am glad beyond words to be where I am, but forces beyond my control have nothing to do with location. I suspect I would have learned in any case that life throws punches and some of them hurt. I would have learned in other ways, but learned it nonetheless, that Good begets Good. I would have kept the best of my old friends (I hope!) and met some amazing new people and seen glimpses of everyone’s true colors one way or another. I am not sure what will kill me, but so far, by the grace of God, it is none of the above. Nor is it a red pickup truck barreling through an intersection at unsuspecting me and Jerry. If indeed I have been moved to “The Back of the Line,” there are punches yet to meet, marvels yet to witness, joys yet to embrace.

The sage endured the unexpected shock and challenge of a move, but landed in a bed of fresh, good soil. Perhaps so have I. Today’s rain is dripping straight and steady, doing its job, balancing the sunshine like tears that are coupled with hope.

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A Whim and a Limb and Then: Bison Meatloaf!

Do you remember when ground beef was under a dollar a pound? I do. These days I feel lucky to find it under five dollars a pound. Which explains, in part, how I came to make bison meatloaf.

I always had the vague idea that bison* are an undomesticated cousin of the herding animal that accounts for the beef we generally find in stores. Yes, my son, said the domesticated steer to the curious calf, In the grand history of the Bovidae family, we have some… let’s call them… “wilder” relatives. Never listen to Aunt Bessie on this point, son – she calls them renegades and I think that’s rather intolerant of the slight differences between us, and I cannot abide intolerance! …sigh… Back in the Pliocene when our family history began and the forests and mountain areas of Eurasia were our home, all of us had horns that pointed forward and all of us had a straight back. All of us, son.

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As happens, even in the best of families, some of the more adventurous members struck out on their own. They wandered east and crossed a massive land bridge known to humans as the “Bering.” After years of trekking and searching, they found great plains in North America and loved it there and thrived! They had lots and lots and lots of little ones like you who somehow over time got bigger than you will ever be – count it among the mysteries and wonders of the universe! I’m not sure about why their backs humped up like that, but never mind. Ignore Aunt Bessie, son, when she scoffs and mocks and finds fault. Cousins these hairy beasts are, I tell you, even if you have to go around nine corners to trace the roots of our common heritage.

Human that I am, unapologetic red-meat eater that I am, I ordered bison steak a few years back at a fine restaurant on the recommendation from the server. It was for me both a whim and a limb: a whim because I am not as adventurous with food as some people and a limb because this was bison after all – bison! – though, I told myself, this particular hairy beast is not in another genetic zone like, say, kangaroo, which would somehow give me pause. The steak was so good, I had no qualms henceforth.

Some time later, probably at a rare point when I was feeling less budgetly constrained than usual, I bought a package of ground bison at my grocery store. This time it was more like How about if I make burgers using special, expensive cousin-of-beef instead of the normal stuff? At about double the price, it was a treat. But every now and then, a treat is a good thing.

Samuel never had qualms of any sort about meat of any kind. He added a bit of salt and pepper and finely chopped onion to the meat before forming the patties, then grilled them. If you have never had a bison burger and can manage the scruple, try one sometime. The burgers were amazing – more tender than regular beef, remarkably tender, and had a wonderful flavor, though similar enough to beef for non-adventurous sorts like me. I was sold. A few more times in the last couple years, I spent the extra money for a superior burger.

A couple weeks ago, the whole lot of ground bison at the store was marked down to $4.99/lb. None of it was near the expiration date. I’m guessing someone in the ordering department messed up and ordered two cases instead of one, or 15 pounds instead of five, and the store knows its customers’ buying patterns and knew it would never sell that much at the normal price. My lucky day! I bought ten packages and put them in the freezer.

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If it had not been so “cheap,” I would not have had it on hand when (fast forward) Samuel arrived home last week from a week away and Mom was just coming home from the hospital. We would all meet for dinner at Mom’s, and meal prep was on me. In a nod to Samuel (happy to have him home and God bless him forever for not moving far, far away), I asked him what he wanted for dinner.

Meatloaf? he replied.

Hmmm. Okay I said. You know how texting goes: Words on a screen that have no intonation, no body language, few clues as to the meaning of said words. Hmmm. Okay really means a pause while I think this through (I was quite certain I did not have on hand the ground beef-pork-veal combo I usually use to make meatloaf, and I also had too much else on the docket that day and knew I did not have time for a trip to the store), followed by the frozen bison coming to mind (that would be new but could work). Hmmm = pause. Okay = could work.

Don’t want meatloaf? he said, having read only Hmmm. Okay and questioning my hesitancy with no way to understand the mental gymnastics behind it.

No, sounds good. I just have to have the meat. Could make it with bison!

That sounds yummy!

Bison it is then.

Wanting to make sure there was enough to leave leftovers with Mom (she was not supposed to lift anything heavier than a coffee cup the first week, let alone cook) and enough to give Samuel some to take back to his place for a meal another day (I repeat, God bless him forever for not moving far, far away), I used two packages.

BISON MEATLOAF

In a large bowl combine 2/3 cup Italian breadcrumbs, 2/3 cup old-fashioned oats, ¼ cup milk, ¼ cup minced onion, 1 cup grated romano cheese**, 2 tsp salt and 2 Tbsp dried parsley***. Add 4 eggs and 2 pounds ground bison. Mix well.

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Form two loaves. I do mine free form, but you can use loaf pans if you prefer.

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**I happened to have this asiago-parmesan-romano blend, which is more shaved than grated, and I thought What the heck?

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I chopped it fine

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and added it instead of the grated romano I would normally use.

The larger pieces of this oddball cheese choice resulted in large blops of melted cheese on the surface of the cooked meatloaf which, depending on your perspective, looks either appealingly creamy and fantastic or weirdly blotchy and unkempt. It was delicious. I baked it for 45 minutes at 400F. The higher temp gets the outside crispy. Oh yum.

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Alongside baked gold potatoes and acorn squash mixed with butter and a touch of maple syrup, the meatloaf was a hit. Mom and Samuel put ketchup on theirs, I was Plain Jane with mine, and Jerry, hmmm, I don’t remember! We ended the meal with Mom’s Apple Cake and that’s how I say I’m so glad both Mom and Samuel are home! 😊

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*Thanks for the bison photo to modernfarmer.com.

***Fresh would be better but I didn’t have any and remember, no time to go to the store.

Mom’s Apple Cake

If you have used a recipe countless times, if it’s the one you think of when you need something delicious and reliable, if you have many times called it tried-and-true – yes, keep this recipe and pass it along. Let’s hear it for Mom’s Apple Cake!

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You know how old this recipe is because it calls for Spry. I venture to say some of you never heard of Spry. Now for our culinary history lesson (thank you, Wikipedia): “Spry was a brand of vegetable shortening produced by Lever Brothers starting in 1936. It was a competitor for Proctor and Gamble’s Crisco….Though the product is discontinued in most countries, there are anecdotal reports of its being used through the 1970s.”

Back in the day (and Spry had its heyday in the 1950s) you were either a Spry cook or a Crisco cook. Mom was devotedly Spry (I mean, who wouldn’t want to be spry?!). I copied her recipes verbatim, even if by the time I had my own kitchen, the thing I bought was not actually Spry, but a store brand of shortening. I called shortening “Spry” for many years because Mom did.  (I am quite certain I never converted to Crisco because it was always more expensive than the store brand and because Mom would never have used Crisco back then – maybe she does now….)

Note the way the recipe changed. First Spry, then shortening, then (when I smartened up and realized how amazing butter is) butter. Note what appears to be an emphatic obliteration of the Spry or shortening. Really, butter is better.

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Note also that this recipe is titled Cup Cakes. Boxed cake mixes were not so much a thing in the 50s. And mixing these ingredients together does not require an electric mixer and takes very little time. I don’t follow it exactly, having found that presifted flour (is there any other kind now?) eliminates the need for to “sift three times” (good heavens!). In my head, and if I ever rewrite it on a new card, the recipe will be simpler (and it will not have all the asterisks below because that info is in my head). And since I use it for apple cake 95% of the time (only occasionally plums), I will call it Apple Cake and just make a note about the plums. And I will write it the way I do it.

Apple Cake

Mix 1/3 cup softened* butter with 1 cup sugar**. Add one egg; mix well. Add 2 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp vanilla and 1/2 tsp salt; mix well. Alternately add and mix in ¾ cup milk and 2 cups flour***. Divide batter between two layer cake pans that have been buttered and dusted with flour. Spread batter to edges. Peel and thinly slice 3-4 apples. Arrange on top****. Sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar*****. Bake at 425F until nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in the cake part comes out clean, about half an hour. This cake is also delicious made with plums.

*Soften either by letting it sit out for an hour or so or by using the defrost mode of the microwave for 35 seconds.

**Use a wooden spoon. My spoon has a flat end that has a hole in it. Works perfectly. You could also use a whisk.

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***In other words: Add ¼ cup milk; mix well. Add 1 cup flour; mix well. Add another ¼ cup milk; mix well. Add another cup of flour; mix well. Add a final ¼ cup milk; mix well.

****I go for the bursting star design usually. If you have more time and want to slice the apples thinner, it’s prettier. I was tight on time when I made this yesterday.

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*****It is assumed that you have a jar in your pantry into which you have put about a cup of sugar and about 2 tablespoons of cinnamon and shaken it like mad (the Cinnamon-Sugar Dance!) until well blended. This jar lives in your pantry for when you need to make cinnamon roll-ups from leftover pie crust or for putting into hot farina (aka cream of wheat) on a cold morning or, of course, for this apple cake. The amount of cinnamon-sugar you put on top is up to you. Mine looked like this just before I popped them into the oven.

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You could also top with a streusel crumb topping. Robin’s (Haphazard Homemaker) Oatmeal Streusel Crumb Topping is great and would work perfectly!

When you can, time the baking of this cake such that it comes out of the oven just about the time you serve whatever dinner you are serving so that by the time you are done with dinner, the cake is still warm but not too hot. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream if you like.

Mom and Jerry are smiling, but truth be known they are both saying: Hurry up and take the picture so we can eat this delicious cake!

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