Chocolate Cheesecake and Degrees of Fabulousness

The tradition in our family is that on your birthday you get the kind of cake you want. It’s telling that the last two cakes I’ve made my children – for Marie in Boise in September and for Lincoln this week (to bring to Vermont) – have been chocolate cheesecake. This is one of those that I’ve made quite often over the years. It always cracks, but that never matters! It’s totally fabulous. There are no words to describe its fabulousness.

You start with a box of Nabisco chocolate wafers crushed up fine. These are dark, thin and crisp. They crush into fine crumbs nicely. I used to use my food processor, which works great and creates fine, even crumbs, but then I was in a hurry one time and didn’t want to bother taking the machine out, setting it up, using it for one minute and then having to clean, dry and put it all away again. So I tried using a gallon-size ziplock bag and a rolling pin, which requires more uumph but does the trick, and have been doing that ever since. Plus I always figure that if I work a little harder to make the cake, if I exert more energy, burn more calories, I have less to worry about when the time comes for eating it. This may be faulty logic, but it has served me well 😊

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One package of cookies is 9 oz (255g) which crush to about 2 cups (500ml), a little more maybe depending on the size of your crumbs.

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The cookie crumbs get mixed with ½ cup sugar and 5-6 tablespoons of butter. It’s better if the butter is soft to begin with, but if it’s not, you can manage. I am not being exact on the amount of butter because it doesn’t matter. It works just fine with 5 TB, but 6 makes the mixture a bit more pressable in the pan. A fork works to mix it up, but if you have a pastry blender, that’s a bit better.

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Mixing it up means evenly distributing the sugar and the butter. It ends up looking like this.

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I’ve made this recipe many times and found it makes a very thick cake, so I took to making two, one small and one large. (Now that I think of it, that’s probably why I started using the whole package of cookies — see recipe below.)  I don’t think Lincoln will object to having two birthday cakes! I used two springform pans, one 26cm (10.5”) and one 17cm (6.5”). You could use any combo that adds up to about the same size, or one very large pan and have a thicker cake.

Into the pans go the crumbs. You press them out with your fingers or the back of a spoon until they are not too loose. You’ll be plopping thick cake batter on top of this.

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Oh, the recipe. I copied this years ago out of a book called Great American Cakes, which I cannot find. Looking at the recipe. seems I did make some changes! I use the whole package of chocolate wafers and correspondingly a bit more butter, but I stayed with the ½ cup sugar. The batter part, I promise you, I always make exactly as the recipe says (well, almost, we’ll get to that). Trust me, it’s all good!

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(In case this is hard to read, I’ve typed it out below.)

I did two things differently: 1. After I beat the eggs into the cream cheese mixture (or watched as my beast of an electric stand mixer beat it in), after I added the vanilla, sour cream and chocolate and watched said mixer combine all these ingredients, I turned up the speed. I’m blaming this on Aquaman! Yes! On account of it having been an awesome movie, Samuel and I subsequently watched Captain America and The Avengers, all very (goes without saying) action-packed and fast-moving. Could there be something changing in my brain – hey, speed can be fun! – that I am transferring to cake-making?? It made a beautiful fluffy batter, I can tell you that. (You may note my restraint – I am not going to go on and on about the swirls!)

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So I did not allow the mixer to simply “stir in” the vanilla, sour cream and chocolate. I let the machine beat it silly! This produces air in the batter, which may or may not be a thing I decide is a good, permanent change. This is how recipes evolve.

A thing to know is that this cake cracks. I always have followed the recipe exactly regarding the very slow cooling process, which is to help prevent cracking, but it always cracks anyway. When I say crack, I mean crack. It goes from being smoothed out in the pan (pans in this case)…

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…to looking like the Grand Canyon on steroids.

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But it doesn’t matter! You take a can of cherry pie filling, spread it on top and watch all signs of cracks disappear! No one is the wiser and it tastes heavenly! Just don’t forget the cherry pie filling (although you could use any flavor of pie filling that you deem appropriate to go with chocolate cheesecake).

About which I must tell you my second change. This cake is for Lincoln, who in the past always left the cherries on his plate. He liked the sweet, pudding-like, thickened cherry juice just fine, but the cherries themselves he couldn’t eat. Last time I made this for him, I tried using (what was then new and I was playing around) my immersion blender to finely chop up the cherries and blend them with the pudding-like part. He loved it! So that’s what I do now.

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That’s the thing with recipes, with life! You can do something this way or that way for years (I’ve been making this recipe for at least 20, I’d say) and one day get a brainstorm that turns out to be a much better way. I am unable to firmly say yes-absolutely-go-for-it! regarding the late-stage furious whipping of the batter because with the whipping it’s fabulous and without the whipping it’s fabulous, and who can measure degrees of fabulous-ness?? But on the changing of normal cherry pie filling (with whole cherries in it) to a thick, fruity topping of even consistency – that’s a keeper!

Chocolate Cheesecake with Cherry Topping

2/3 package chocolate wafer cookies, crushed
½ stick (1/4 cup) butter
½ cup sugar
———————————————————
2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa
1 Tbsp flour
½ tsp salt
½ cup sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
1 ½ lbs (3 eight-ounce packages) cream cheese, softened
5 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup sour cream
8 oz. (2/3 of 12-oz package) semisweet chocolate morsels, melted (4 mins on power 4 in microwave)
1 can cherry pie filling (for topping)

  1. Combine crushed cookies, ½ cup sugar and butter for crust. Press into bottom and sides of springform pan. (I cover just the bottom.)
  2. In large bowl (I use my large stand mixer bowl) beat cream cheese with electric mixer. Add cocoa powder, sugars, salt and flour; beat till smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each. Stir in vanilla, sour cream and melted chocolate. Pour (plop carefully) into crust.
  3. Bake in preheated 450-degree oven for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees and continue baking. Turn off heat but leave cheesecake in oven for one more hour. After that, still leaving cake in oven, prop oven door open (very slow cooling), another hour. (Remove from oven, transfer to plates by sliding a knife around the edge of the springform pan, opening the release of that pan and carefully removing side part, sliding a wide, strong spatula carefully under cake and easing it onto a plate.)
  4. Spread cherry pie filling on top (put in blender or use immersion blender first if you want to chop up the cherries.) Cool rest of the way in fridge.

Sliding Snow

As we left to go see Aquaman on Saturday, it was beginning to snow lightly. When we came out of the theater, there was a dusting on the ground and we were glad we had chosen the 3:45 p.m. showing instead of the 7:10. Sunday morning at not quite dawn (you can see the dusk-to-dawn, timed heat lamps still glowing red inside the coops), this scene greeted me.

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I didn’t think the chickens would be eager to put their feet in the cold, white stuff, so I took my time getting out there to open the door for the hens in the new coop. They did not rush out when I raised the door, practically tumbling over one another as usual. They didn’t even peek out. I opened the brooding box doors and found Whitey in her usual spot and Spot still in lala land. Hey, that’s cold air – d’ya mind?!

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I noticed the icicles forming and threw some feed inside for these Unwilling Chickens. If they chose to stay inside for a while, scratching around in the straw to find the grain would give them something to do.

The other group had come through the opening at the top of their little ramp and down into the covered area, but that’s as far as these Reluctant Chickens went. For once they were not clamoring at the door where I stood taking their photo. In order to do that, they would have to step into the cold fluff. For once they did not seem to be begging for food so much as Could you get rid of that foreign material??

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An hour or so later I found these Underneath Chickens that had managed to get as far as the area under their coop. This is not better! How do we get back up and inside??

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Not a fun day for any of them, but I was oddly unsympathetic. They have a heat lamp inside at night! (Not every chicken can boast the same.) They’ll live. Chickens have survived cold before.

What got my attention a little later in the day was the snow sliding off the metal porch roof of the cottage. Look how it’s heavier in the middle and drooping into a fan shape. How cool is that?!

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What I found Monday, after the temperature had risen slightly above freezing and the snow had melted some, was just as interesting. The weight of the snow had come slowly down the two front valleys of the cottage roof, buckling into waves.

(right)

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(left)

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But the best part was the icicles tilting toward the front door.

(right)

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(left)

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It hadn’t been all that windy, so I guessed that the weight of the descending snow had caused this effect. At first I wished I’d had a slow-motion camera going on it all day because surely those icicles were hanging straight down before they veered sideways. Then I thought I should have not only individual shots of the icicles on either side, but the same shot as above with the fan-shaped swath in the middle, only without the fan-shaped swath in the middle because it had already fallen to the porch by the time I took the icicle photos. I went back out not twenty minutes later to try to get this shot – boots, coat, scarf, the whole business – and the icicles on the right had already crashed down to their natural end. So much for that. Only the icicles on the left remained. How quickly things can change!

This made me think about two things:

The moments we capture and the moments we don’t. Our phones make incessant photography and videography possible but let us not get too lazy and make the camera do all the work. Some things we should capture, yes, especially for those who cannot be there. I love seeing a video of my two-year-old granddaughter Piper (in Seattle) telling her very obedient dog to roll over (and Zadie does it!). But no matter what we capture, no matter what we have a glimpse of – there’s always more to the scene, always more that we should/could imagine. Let’s not forget 1. There’s a fuller picture than the glimpses we get, and 2. The best images, the most powerful images – our memories — live almost exclusively in our minds and our hearts, and that’s where they belong. Some of them, to be sure, live only in our imaginations. Let us continually build up that bank, filling it with sweet and wonderful images that sustain us when it’s dark outside, when certain days of wonder are behind us, when the screen is blank.

The expected way and the sideway. Ordinary icicles go straight down on account of this thing called gravity. Not many seemingly have a mind of their own and veer in any non-downward direction — Nah, who wants to go straight down?! Let’s give ‘em something to marvel at! I keep thinking about the extraordinary things people do that they don’t have to, such as Lincoln and Julia building their pentagonal, straw bale insulated house in Vermont. Various well-meaning people said to them, essentially: You have two small children. You live in a cold place. Build something simple – four straight walls, four straight corners, roof, windows, door, water, power, heat – that you can live in temporarily while you then play with funky designs and materials. But Lincoln and Julia chose the unexpected way, the sideway, the harder way. They chose to make their own unique house from the get-go (unconventional yurt in the meantime notwithstanding!), thereby writing their own unique story. The sideway is not always the best option, granted, and we have to think it through and sometimes take our chances, but oh the dividends! Lincoln and Julia not only give us something to marvel at, they also are making lots of deposits in their memory bank!

Tuesday morning the mango peels I threw on the ground inside the chickens’ run on Monday are still there. None ventured into the snow to get them. I opened the door, out they came, still unsure … and they all stood on the platform. Now what? Huh? Now what are we supposed to do?

The others had made their way to the door and begged as usual. Food, remember?? Starving here! (As if!)

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But the icicles! Those on the left had not yet fallen off, but had inched ever slightly downward. Against the backdrop of dawn over the mountains, I felt like I was in a fairy land.

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And the blanket of snow that had formed on the side roof of the cottage, the blanket that yesterday looked like this…

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…now had shifted down and curved inward.

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Nature made a show for me. I’m so glad I was here to see it!

Straw Bale House Part 3 (Yurt)

A Shower or a Fridge: Which Would You Choose?

Lincoln and Julia’s one-of-a-kind, pentagonal, straw bale house was first of all a dream. It did not come in a kit. There were no pre-existing plans. This photo, taken with immense joy in late 2018, shows the first time smoke came from their stovepipe. Walls, roof, heat — these must come first.

28smoke in chimney

Houses like this, especially when you are building them almost single-handedly, do not come together quickly. It took nearly two years on the property for Lincoln and Julia to be able to abide in this abode, even if it is far from finished. Until then, they all had to rest their heads somewhere. The choice seemed perfectly logical: a temporary dwelling just down the hill.

In the late winter of 2017 they bought the land. The first two weeks (thankfully now just a memory) they slept in … a tent. That year at that time was not as snowy (snow might have been less brutal) as it was rainy — a nonstop, 40-degree drizzle that erased the snow but gave them nowhere to warm up. In their memories this qualifies as the worst part of the adventure. But spring came and with it, the beginnings of permanency. You can cook outdoors on a camp stove for a while, but an indoor kitchen, however rudimentary, has advantages.

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The yurt that would be their home for nearly the next two years had been erected twice before – the first time on a hillside overlooking Mt. Mansfield immediately following their wedding in October 2011. (Yes, they lived in it all that winter! A small wood stove inside heats up the entire space to a toasty 65 degrees or so, and 65 feels toasty indeed when it’s 4 outside.) The second time was for a short while in Virginia before Rise was born.

This time they sunk pressure-treated 4x4s down to bedrock and built a non-equilateral hexagonal framework of double-beamed 2x10s. That’s three long double beams laid parallel to each other — one 17-footer (about 5.2m) across the middle, one on each side of it about 8 feet away and four more that closed in the frame, like my imperfect sketch (you get the idea).

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The 2×6 joists that stood on end across the framework then each had at least two points to rest on.

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So far this was more like a freestanding deck than the base for a dwelling. But let’s be real — this is Vermont and it gets mighty cold. So they got underneath, stapled landscape fabric to the undersides of the joists and filled all the in-between spaces with regular loose-fill cellulose insulation that was repurposed from the walls of their good friend Zach’s house. The insulation provided a critical measure of warmth and the landscape fabric gave incidental water a way out.

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After the insulation between the joists came the pine plank flooring. Remember this is the third go-round in a yurt. They chose pine planks “after not enjoying being on osb or dirt.” (OSB, oriented strand board, is, according to Wikipedia, “a type of engineered wood similar to particle board, formed by adding adhesives and then compressing layers of wood strands (flakes) in specific orientations.”) Lincoln says, “It’s not really a great foundation,” but it served them well.

To be able to cut the pine planks where they needed to be cut (see them lying flat but sticking out under the lattice?), they first put up the accordion-like walls, then circularized the bottom by suspending the cone-like framework of the roof on the lowest intersection of the lattice.

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The roof framework was then disassembled and reassembled up in its proper place, as you see in this photo. The opening in front is for the door of course.

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The canvas, having been used twice before and clearly showing wear, tear and rot from four years of storage and getting hauled all over the place, was not in its original very white condition, but it did the job surprisingly well. It wasn’t long before this simple structure began to feel like home. Let’s just take a nice book and sit in the sunshine! That’s Eppie, almost three.

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When I came to visit that spring, all was in order. A workable kitchen area with running water, gravity fed from a nearby stream (the red tube hanging over the sink)…

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…small bunk beds for the girls along one side…

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…and Lincoln and Julia’s bed against the wall during the day when not in use.

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As summer went on, the grass came in, making an idyllic front yard. Their garden, with natural fencing to keep small critters out, included strawberries, tomatoes and squash.

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Probably the most exciting thing that happened that year was on July 25 when power came!

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The very first thing they hooked up was a small, dorm-style fridge, which very much improved upon the previous need to continually refresh the ice in a cooler. Oh, the joy of a cold glass of milk!

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“Refrigeration!” Lincoln said. “This may have been the happiest day of the whole project to have that modernity. Real running hot water/a shower will probably be the only thing to top it.” They put the full-size fridge near the site of the barn initially, next to that glorious fuse box! To put it in the yurt required a proper gauge wire (that would support a full fridge’s amperage draw) long enough to make the 310-foot trek between fuse box and yurt. That didn’t happen until the following spring.

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You will note the absence of (and have perhaps been wondering about) indoor plumbing. When it comes down to it, until such time as water from a well would run indoors, they could take hot showers at Zach’s house, use water being led into the yurt from the on-site stream for general washing of dishes and hands, and fill and refill large dispensers with potable water from Zach’s outdoor spigot.

But on site there must be a toilet of some kind, and indeed there was, built according to the same specifications Vermont uses to build the privies along the Long Trail. They figured if it was good enough for the state, it was good enough for them. Countless generations of humans have constructed similar structures and managed their personal needs adequately, if not warmly or luxuriously. I daresay this one is a far cry nicer than a lot of its predecessors.

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Now think about it: If you had to choose between indoor plumbing and electricity, which would it be? How many of us have to choose? How many of us could (uncomplainingly) manage neither for a while and then one-but-not-the-other until both, in their proper time, were a part of our reality?

How much we take for granted every day! How blessed we are!

So, about Aquaman…

If you know me a little, you might be surprised at what I am going to say. If you don’t know me, I can tell you that I am a country girl who paints her toenails, that I love staring at a full moon through the trees on a clear night, that I have 22 ridiculous chickens that live a (some might say) pampered life (they have a heat lamp for the cold nights of Virginia), that a thrill for me is watching a beautiful dog run in the sunshine or hearing the sound of frogs in the creek. I don’t like roller coasters, fast cars, explosions or violence.

But I thought Aquaman was awesome!

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I’m just not a superhero kind of girl so this is an odd thing for me to think, say or feel – more than odd, you might say. Unexpected. Shocking even. I like crime dramas that are intelligently done, historical dramas that are reasonably realistic and romantic comedies that are not overly sappy or predictable. I love Blue Planet and Planet Earth (I and II). I love zoos, aquariums, mountains, beaches, lightly falling rain, the soft smile of a child, the velvety fur of a puppy, the natural. I don’t generally go for the glitzy, the fake, the fast, the wicked, the destruction.

I didn’t go see this film unwillingly though. When we went to Mary Poppins last week, we saw the poster for Aquaman and laughed. That’s the poster picture above. C’mon, look at that guy. How unnatural is that! But Samuel wanted to see it, said he “would be happy to go.” The fact that I would even consider it rather shocked him I expect, and then I brought it up again today. Sure, let’s go. I said to myself Someday I’ll look back at the time when Samuel was here and when that day comes, I don’t want to think Why didn’t I just go to the movie he thought would be fun to see? What would have been the harm? Why be a fuddy-dud?

It’s not that I thought it would be any good. I just didn’t want Samuel to think he knows me too well. It’s good to stay a little unpredictable, contributes to an unboring path. And I was curious. What’s all the fuss? Nonetheless I can say honestly that “It was awesome” was the last thing I expected to be saying afterward. Why was it awesome (to me)?

Genuine love portrayed: Love between man and a woman (he of the land, she of the sea – stay with me here) – they meet and love and have a child, Arthur, who is called a half-breed by his enemies later. A mother’s love for her son: She leaves for the child’s protection when he is young, and (back to love between man and a woman) every day afterward the man goes looking for her, hoping she will return, which she couldn’t for a long time because she was trapped. A son’s love for his father: Instead of leaving the scene to save himself, Arthur pulls his dad from his truck after the sea went crazy and tidal-waved it upside down. I love seeing genuine love portrayed because I believe there is such a thing and I love to see it, even in a superhero movie.

Genuine good guys and bad guys: No moral ambiguity, no hidden or not-so-hidden political agenda (I hate it when movies insert their political agendas). No wondering whose side anybody’s on. No sympathy lost on undeserving scumbags. Just good guys who fight valiantly for the good and bad guys who lust for power and don’t care who or how they hurt to get it. (And I don’t mean good males and bad males. I’m from New Jersey where “you guys” is not gender-specific.)

The hilarity of the over-the-top, fantastical creatures in their bizarre underwater world: Who gets to make this stuff up!? How much fun they must have had! For example, the “trenchers” attacking the fishing boat that Arthur/Aquaman and the somehow-also-air-breathing female lead named Mera had used for one of their escapes: Really?! Someone had a lot of fun with this scene (and all the rest) and you can tell. I could scoff, but why? Instead why not marvel at this (yet another) creative way of saying Evil tries so hard to get the better of them! But it does not succeed.

Evil fails to prevail. Of course it fails. That is why we love superheros. They triumph! They conquer evil against the odds. They defy norms and expectations. They survive absurd battle scenes. They encounter yet another challenge and they don’t let it defeat them. They act with integrity despite having cause for cynicism, bitterness and exhaustion. They use strength and power for good, mirroring longstanding archetypes that we know within ourselves hold true. They even make us laugh. And when they have the opportunity to kill the bad guy, what do they do?? You’ll find out. All you have to do is go see Aquaman, even if that’s the last thing someone expects you to do. Maybe you should defy their expectations…

The Icing on the Cake

I don’t mean Icing on the Cake in the figurative sense. You know, the way people say Oh that’s the icing on the cake when they mean the best part of an already good situation, something added that makes a thing better, an enhancement that you don’t actually need but takes the thing up a notch. Such as: My trip was already perfect in every way. The beautiful weather was just icing on the cake.

Notice that the phrase is not, generally, the frosting on the cake. There are exceptions of course, but the idiom that slips off the tongue for most people is the icing on the cake. The difference between icing and frosting is at the kindergarten level of understanding for pastry chefs and aficionados, but I daresay most people would be hard-pressed to articulate their particularities. That might be because the similarities are more striking. They both are 1. Sweet, 2. Spreadable, 3. Useful for enhancing/decorating/topping a cake or cupcakes.

Giovanna Zavell of Drake University begs to differ. She says they although they are commonly confused, they are in fact are “very different” and each have “their own personality.” Icing is thinner, glossier and gets a harder surface after it sets, as when you get eight inches of snow followed by a 40-degree day (so that the upper half inch or so melts) followed by a 10-degree day which makes that melted part form a crust on the surface that cracks as you walk through it. Icing is also called a glaze.

Frosting has more cream/butter, is fluffier and holds its shape. It is also called buttercream. You can spread it with a knife or you can squeeze it out of a pastry bag. Zavell says, “If you want my opinion, choose frosting. Always go with frosting.” But when it comes to food, there is really only one hard and fast “Always go with…” and we all know what that is. Always go with chocolate is just so obvious once you have tasted vanilla ice cream and then chocolate ice cream (I mean, seriously, who can argue with that?).

Now that we’re hopefully clear on icing vs. frosting (you will never mix them up again, right?), you will see that I am not focusing today on icing (though it’s what slipped out of my mind for a title (see how those idioms plant themselves deep in our brains and just spill out!), but rather on frosting. I ended up making two chocolate cakes recently, one for Sandy and one for John. On your birthday around here, you get the kind of cake you want, and both of them asked for chocolate, just sayin’!!

They wanted two different frostings though. Sandy, bless him, wanted chocolate. I know I will disappoint those who need/want exact instructions, but I was in a hurry that day and on autopilot. I mixed (with my new, handy-dandy electric mixer) half a stick of softened butter with some confectioner’s sugar (a.k.a. powdered sugar) (maybe two cups?), a few drops of vanilla, and enough milk (a teaspoon, two? three?) — oh and a couple heaping tablespoons of cocoa! — till it looked like this…

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…at which point I said to myself No, that’s too wet and added more sugar…

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…to make the right consistency. By right consistency, I mean it is not dripping from the beaters, nor is it so stiff that you need to be Hercules to scrape it out of the bowl and spread it on the cake.

Sandy did not want further decoration on his cake – no silly sprinkles, sadly no coconut and thank God no crushed nuts of any kind. So his cake looked simple and tasted yummy. You can’t go wrong with chocolate + chocolate.

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John, a few days later, wanted cream cheese frosting. For this (since I had better be a bit more specific), I checked with Fanny Farmer.

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I never put egg white in a frosting before! But hey, Fanny is reliable, and I must say, there was a nice fluffiness to this frosting when it was done. My mixer was wonderful again (what did I do without it??) and gives me the opportunity to show what I mean by drippy.

not enough sugar

This is what it looks like if you have not yet added enough sugar. It drips from the beaters and doesn’t hold the the beautiful shape of the beater swirls in the bowl. With enough sugar, it stays where it lands on the beaters, and the swirls hold their shape in the bowl. Gotta love those swirls!

not dripping

 

To frost the cake, first put a bit of frosting on the plate like this.

frosting on plate

 

That way, when you put your first layer of cake on the plate, it doesn’t tend to slide around as much. By the way, frosting a frozen cake is easier than frosting a non-frozen cake. So if you have time to plastic-wrap those layers and put them in the freezer for a while before the frosting stage, do that.

Frost the top of the first layer. Use a non-serrated knife if you want a smoother surface. Note: This does not have to look perfect. It’s going to get covered with the second layer.

frost middle

 

Add the second layer and frost the sides before the top. Note: This does not have to look perfect. It’s a homemade cake. Imperfections are part of the appeal.

sides first

 

When you are finished, defy expectations (John didn’t specify further decoration either) and add some prettiness such as colored sugar. There is already so much sugar in this – what’s a little more? It doesn’t change the flavor (or irritate anyone who doesn’t eat nuts and then could not enjoy this cake). I happened to have purple sugar on hand, which is a little more festive than it being plain, but not over-the-top. I hope he approves!

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Straw Bale House: Part 2 (Site)

(This is the second of a multi-part series that will document the development of Lincoln and Julia’s property, the first having been entitled “Lincoln’s Pentagonal, Straw Bale Insulated House in Vermont.”)

Say you want to live in the country. You have been dreaming about and looking at properties for years. You finally find a piece of land that has privacy from almost every side and a river a stone’s throw away, yet is only a mile from town. You see the view, the potential. You see the price tag, and it’s doable. On this solid piece of earth, you imagine this here, that there, where the sun will rise, how far a walk it will be to that lazy river one fine day when you are all settled in. Images take shape in your mind. With a canvas, an artist can paint.

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There was snow on the ground when Lincoln and Julia first set foot on the land they would come to call home, land that would come to include their yurt, greenhouse, beehives, garden, barn and of course their pièce de résistance: a pentagonal, straw bale insulated house. In their heads and then on paper they drew up a rough schematic plan showing where everything would best be situated before they even closed on the deal. We’ll come back to this.

schematic.JPG

Sometime later they calculated many years’ worth of firewood standing/leaning/lying on site (that would not have to be paid for by the cord) – maybe a lifetime’s worth if they were good stewards of the land. Bonus!

Was there any question that this piece of land was the right one, that buying it was a good decision? Any reason not to jump in with both feet? Absolutely. Skepticism was strong. Lincoln worried that his excitement might rose-color-blind them. He knew he’d be a fool not to ask: What’s wrong with it? What are we not seeing?

Snow is not unusual in Vermont in the wintertime, and it does present assessment challenges. For example, why is there a cattail here in what seems to be a clearing? How wet is it underneath?

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The cattail was worrisome. They talked to the neighbors across the street, who described the land as “kinda swampy.” It was, however, a swamp on a slope. Let’s think about that now (and think long and hard they did): A swamp on a slope can be only so bad and should be manageable. They decided to deal with it. So they worried as they dreamed and they dreamed as they worried.

Before making a decision, they walked the land again after a spot of warmer weather. If they had been excited before, they were even more so when they saw plainly in front of them all they wanted: river, rock, field and forest. They loved it in every way above all other pieces of land they had seen. The big piece of exposed rock overlooking the river put one word in Lincoln’s head: Swoon.

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They knew it was just land, land that dropped off at a steep angle from the road, land with no house (no dwelling of any kind), no driveway (barely a spot to pull off on the side of the road to park, so even an RV wasn’t a temporary option), no electricity, no well, no septic. They knew it would require countless hours of labor, more money than they at that moment could lay claim to and years of patience before the word finished became an accurate descriptor. Yet in they plunged!

Then winter weather kicked in again. Their first campfire says Determination loud and clear, but the first two weeks of snow and cold were the worst. In Lincoln’s words, “The first two weeks on the land sucked. Sucked bad. Probably why we take some other stuff in stride: nothing compares to how that was.”

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Nonetheless Julia’s TA-DA says Ours! as she shows off their first campsite.

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That first night inside the tent, with Rise at age four and Eppie at two, they began an adventure that will last for years.

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The yurt would go up first, becoming a temporary place to sleep, cook and plan the next stage of the ongoing, unconventional, ambitious project they set their minds to. My granddaughters will grow up watching their amazing, energetic, creative parents continually researching, learning new things, doing the next thing, discussing options, working, resting, researching more, learning more new things, meeting challenges, staying flexible, correcting mistakes – ever unfazed by inconveniences that many (most?) of us would not so gladly endure and with a measure of patience that comes with a prize. Three prizes really: peace, self-reliance (though they are forever grateful to all the people they have relied on) and debt-free ownership of their dream home.

On the one hand Lincoln would like it to be clear that they do not live on a massive bucolic estate, rather on “a haphazard swamp where everything is half built or falling apart or both!” On the other he holds fast to Gradatim Ferociter*: slowly, step by step, with ferocity.

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*coincidentally the motto of the rocket company Blue Origin

A Golden Visitor

It’s quite impossible to describe softness in words. Or curiosity. Or grace. The best we can do is give examples and hope that our meaning is clear. Yesterday afternoon all three of these words found a beautiful example in one incredible animal. Millie came to visit.

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Millie is a six-month-old golden retriever. She came with my Airbnb cottage guests Frankie and Steve, who graciously let me enjoy some time with her while they went off to an event downtown. What is it about a golden?

I have always been partial to them. For twelve years, this beauty named Candy was a big part of my world. She was a birthday present for Lincoln when he turned 12 and one of those loyal, gentle, intelligent, perfect dogs that come along now and then in this world.

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She accompanied me to school when I taught in an upper elementary Montessori classroom. As the classroom dog, she brought comfort and cheer to the students every day. I remember one fifth grade boy named Jay saying to me as he sat on the floor with her stroking her fur, “If you’re having a bad day, or someone hurts your feelings, you just go to Candy and pet her, and everything is okay again.”

She seemed to be seriously weakening in the fall of 2012. I had planned a trip and was going to be away for almost two weeks. One morning before I left for work, she was lying on her bed, hadn’t moved yet that day. I got down with her to stroke her lovely head before leaving as I always did. “Candy,” I told her, “you go before my trip or after, but not while I’m away, okay?” Later that morning, Bradley came to me in my office and said, “Mom, I’ve never had to do this before.” He had to tell me she was gone.

How does a dog get so attached to our hearts? I cannot say, but I knew Candy would forever be attached to mine. In her memory and honor, I named my property Golden Hill.

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It all came back yesterday when Millie arrived. I’ve had guests with goldens before but have not been able to spend time with them as I could with Millie. We spent hours outside. I sat with her on the deck of the cottage stroking that amazingly soft fur. We walked over to the coop, she staying right with me as a good dog does. I watched her stare at the chickens – totally, utterly intrigued.

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Around the perimeter of the coop complex she padded noiselessly and gracefully, as if seeing them from a different angle would answer the question written all over her gorgeous face: What are they?

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What are those noises they make? How do they balance those odd bodies on those two ridiculous legs?

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No, I mean seriously: What are they?

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Maybe if I get a little closer…

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Maybe not.

And this one, with the fluffy head… What IS that?

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So I let her inside to see what she would do. Her curiosity was just as intense.

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The chickens, as you can see, were not as interested in her as she was in them.

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Their MO was to get as far from her as they could. Clearly a face-to-face would not be possible without a little help. So I introduced her to them up close and personal.

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No, still no idea…

Millie may have remained baffled, but my day was completely wonderful – I got to enjoy this perfect golden for a few hours. She is and will undoubtedly henceforth be a joy beyond words to Steve and Frankie. I am so thrilled for them. It is not everyday that a dog like this comes into your life.

Batter Beauty

I am not being paid to say this, but I love my new mixer.* I haven’t had a hand mixer (that works) in at least ten years. I’ve had my hand, my wrist and a good whisk, yes. And I’ve had a powerful stand mixer, the kind you keep in the cabinet and lug out for big jobs. But I haven’t had that in-between, lightweight kind that’s as easy to take out from a drawer as a spoon is and that in no time at all whips up cake batter or heaven knows what else I will discover in the coming months.

For now, the cake batter has my attention. Chocolate cake particularly.

I do not consider myself artistic either on the being-an-artist side or on the recognizing-good-art-when-I-see-it side. The beauty/appeal of modern art, including pretty much everything in the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C., touted “as a leading voice for contemporary art and culture,” completely eludes me. Nonetheless I stand ever in awe at sunrises and sunsets, smiles on the faces of children, majestic landscapes, creatures large and small, and colorful, delicate flowers. I think we humans have an intuitive sense of what is truly lovely, even if we each identify different examples, even if we can’t articulate very well exactly what’s amazing about what we are looking at. There’s something about shape, gleam, patterning, movement, authenticity and that very fine line between familiar and unique that catches our eyes.

The chocolate cake batter had me utterly entranced! And no, I was not under the influence of any mind-altering substance.

The mixer did it. The mixer has thin but strong wire beaters. They don’t look particularly powerful.

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But oh, what they do to cake batter!

Understand, I repeat, that I have not had an electric hand mixer in a long time. I have been managing just fine with the baby and the beast – my whisk and my stand mixer. So I was a little skeptical. I beat the butter and sugar together. Okay, nice. “Fluffy,” as recipes like to say.

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I added two beautiful eggs. (Look at those eggs, huh?)

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The butter-sugar-eggs combo developed a smoothness that started to look kinda pretty. But, hey, I’m just here to make cake, right?

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My recipe calls for the rest of the dry ingredients to be added alternately with the buttermilk. This is the recipe by the way: Best-Ever-Chocolate-Cake-From-Scratch. It might have been on the back of the Hershey’s cocoa tin years ago, but I cannot be sure. The chocolate cake recipe that’s now on the back of the Hershey’s cocoa carton (no longer a tin) is different. (My note of praise in the upper right hand corner was from when I made copies of my favorite recipes for my children and put together cookbooks for them, but that is another story.)

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Anyway, I got to the part where you add milk and then flour, then more milk and then more flour. That’s when it started getting interesting.

Do you see what I see? Do you see the swirls, the cake-batter-landscape of little hills and valleys and possibly river gorges cut through in an age gone by? The random spatters just above the land mass on all sides? Now watch. Depending on where the beaters are within the bowl and what angle you hold them, the batterscape changes.

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For the record, I love chocolate. Vanilla ice cream doesn’t hold a candle to chocolate. Cake of any flavor but chocolate is trying, I know, and I give it credit for trying, but the competition is simply too great. Chocolate wins for me every time. This fact could perhaps contribute to my increased delight as I went from the batter above to its better (i.e. chocolate) version.

If you decide to try this recipe, please note that even though the recipe calls for you to get to the stage above and then mix up the cocoa and boiling water into the positively glistening paste that results, I suggest you do that at the start so as to let that mixture cool a bit.

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And if you don’t already have a mini-scraper like this, you might want to get one, even if it is not as cute as this. I find this size comes in very handy.

You add the chocolate to the beautiful swirly batter in the bowl. (Just imagine how excited I was at this point anticipating! If the pre-chocolate batter patterns moved me as they did…)

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Here we go, folks! Let the marbling begin, even as you know that the two will become one glorious mixture.

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I just loved the velvety smooth, different-every-second designs in my bowl…

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…the way the light shone here and there…

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…the kaleidoscopic variance.

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Call me crazy (and you may be right), but I had fun making this cake! Beauty is all around, isn’t it?

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*My new mixer is a Kitchen Aid model KHM512MY in majestic yellow.

At 100

Yesterday as I stood in a parking lot and looked up, I heard a racket and saw many birds in the top of a tree. It was a tall tree! I suspect the birds were on their way somewhere en masse and saw this perfect stopping place, like a good park bench after a long walk. Oh, look, a place to rest our bones a bit. I can’t know for sure, but it seemed to me that on this very gray day they were loving their place at the top.

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Reaching great heights in another way are people who hit the milestone year of 100. On a weekly basis I read to Evelyn, who is 101. This week I happened upon a video called Life Lessons from 100-Year-Olds, about three people, each over 100: Clifford Crozier, 101; Amelia Tereza Harper, 103; and John Denerley, 102 and a half. What do they have in common besides the good fortune of having made it past 100 without incapacitating physical or mental difficulties?

Attitude, that’s what. Good attitude. I notice some common themes among the things they have to say about life.

Keep things in good perspective.

“I don’t have many failures” Cliff says. “If I make a cake and it fails, I have a pudding.” I love this, especially considering how many cakes I have made that were not very good looking, or the time I forgot to put the sugar in the pumpkin pie! (We doused it with maple syrup and it wasn’t half bad!) This is Cliff. He also makes his own bread by hand.

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“Everything makes me happy,” says Amelia. “I love talking to people, I like doing things, I like going out shopping. I’ve got beautiful memories and can live happily because of my beautiful memories.” She also has no regrets, absolutely none. Can you imagine having a perspective that allows you to be that happy? To have lived that many years and not be dragged down by what-if’s and oh-why-did-I-do-that’s? To know you did the best you could and to be able to truly say: Everything makes me happy. This is Amelia.

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John keeps perspective by refusing to stay stuck in the past. While showing you his iPad, he says, “You’ve got to keep up with the times. What was good 80-90 years ago doesn’t work these days.” I wouldn’t think he necessarily means you have to be a tech whiz, but rather that you recognize the simple truth that some things do change – systems, procedures, styles, techniques – in a constantly evolving way, and it behooves us to stay with the program. We do best when we allow for a beautiful blend of old and new, classic and trendy, order and chaos, rock solid and on the edge. This is John.

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Evelyn listens carefully and always wants to be learning new things. We read through a comprehensive biography of Queen Victoria. “Who would have thought she would have a man like that in her life?” she said of John Brown, the unpolished Scot who became Victoria’s sole confidant in her later years. We are now into a rather graphic book about everyday life in pre-Civil War Charleston. “Isn’t that awful?” she says sympathetically when any of the characters fare poorly. Evelyn’s heart is tender, she doesn’t miss much, and she loves Coco!

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Be a good neighbor.

Amelia says, “A good idea is to behave well to other people, show them respect. And help them as much as you possibly can and it will be repaid hundredfolds.” Which of us cannot say, have not seen, that good begets good? It certainly might not be that you get back the very thing you give (you seldom do), or that you get something at the time you would think would be best (often we wait), but good comes around and multiplies, and there are more blessings every day than we could count.

“I think I’ve done all that I wanted to do, as long as I can be helpful and keep going. That’s the main thing.” Cliff knows as we all must come to know, that you can’t do everything. You know and spend time with a small circle of people (and hopefully you hold them dear); you travel here and maybe there too, but not everywhere. But it doesn’t matter. We do the next thing with the same full heart and soul as we did the last thing, and that leads to the next thing, and along the way we help as we can – and little else is needed for a full and rich life.

Stay strong (as strong as you can).

I love the vitality, the determination, the utter lack of dejected resignation that I see in these wonderful people. Evelyn enjoys a chocolate milkshake every day (and why not?!). “I don’t know why I’m still here,” says. “But every day I get up and it’s a new day…. Oh, Coco’s here! Come here, Coco!” She strokes this beautiful pug’s fur during the whole time we are reading, and Coco lays quietly at her side and loves every second of it. Maybe we never grow tired of stroking a beloved animal’s fur.

“I’m not going yet,” Amelia says. “I’m still strong. I’m very very strong. I never realized how strong I am.” At 103 she says how strong she is! I love how she then credits her mom and her mom’s cooking. “It’s all the food that my mother cooked and first of all grew in the garden. We always always had fresh food when we were youngsters, always. Straight from the garden, into the pan and onto the plates.” I’m sure there’s more to her longevity than this, but I too am a mom who worked hard to put good, fresh food on the table for my own children, and I will hope it has at least something to do with their good health.

Why not see that today is what we have, and embrace it? Yesterday is gone and tomorrow isn’t here yet. “It’s just that you keep going. It’s only a number. 101 is only a number,” Cliff assures us. “And you live for the day. Be as independent as you can but don’t be reluctant to ask for help when you think you need it.” Independence and interdependence are not and do not have to be mutually exclusive. I imagine that when Cliff needs someone else for something, he remembers that others have in turn needed him, and I also imagine he shares the bread he makes! Respectful give and take creates the amazing community that community should be.

We seldom know what’s around the next bend in life, but movement forward is what’s important. John’s motto for life mirrors Cliff’s, though he takes the words directly from a Harry Lauder song: “Keep right on to the end of the road…” Don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t think it doesn’t matter if you help your neighbor/friend/cousin/niece/colleague/anyone (it matters!). Stay strong, keep a good perspective and live the best life you can live.

The Light of 2019

Last year during the week between Christmas and New Year, it was very, very cold here in Virginia, inordinately cold, exceptionally cold. We seldom get to single digits, let alone for a week straight. We took Katja, a visitor from Germany, to Washington, D.C. and walked from one end of the National Mall to the other. It was 4 degrees F (-15C) that day.

Just before Christmas we were in Vermont. I did not pay as much attention to the temperature because we were busy insulating Lincoln’s house and hauling household items up the snowy hill, but I do remember hearing it was 11F. That’s not as cold as 4F but it’s still mighty cold. Coco doesn’t like it. Poor baby. There’s not a lot of fur on her belly, and it’s very tough on her. She would much rather be tucked in.

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When we got home it was much warmer. It makes me smile to see her finding her spot outside on the front porch (that’s no closer to being finished than six weeks ago)…

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…or inside where the sun comes through my south-facing bedroom window.

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She finds and occupies the only bit of rug that also has sun in that room and has her trusty fox toy behind her. Now we’re talking! New Year’s Day in my neck of the woods is predicted to be sunny and 64F (17C). Ah, glorious sun!

If a patch of sun can make Coco so happy, imagine what it can do for you, what it does do for you without you hardly noticing it most of the time. Think about how you feel on a drab day vs. a sunny day. If you live in a place that’s sunny all the time, you may not be as aware of the effect that cloudy days have on your emotional well being. But winter is harder in places that get snow not only because it’s colder but also because there is less sun.

Imagine if we arranged our built spaces to take advantage of the sun whenever possible. One of my favorite books about the design of living spaces is A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. In it he suggests some examples to encourage indoor sunlight: “(1) a porch that gets the evening sun late in the day; (2) a breakfast nook that looks directly into a garden which is sunny in the morning; (3) a bathing room arranged to get full morning sun; (4) a workshop that gets full southern exposure during the middle of the day; (5) an edge of a living room where the sun falls on an outside wall and warms a flowering plant.”

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In Lincoln’s pentagonal house, he has chosen to put an oculus (which will become a cupola with functioning windows) in the center of the second-floor ceiling. Light will stream into almost every room of the house through this amazing component of his design.

This (in my woobly red line) is the oculus I’m talking about. Only some of that flooring will remain.

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Most of us are stuck with the house we have, the orientation it came with, the sun we get. But on this first day of 2019, I am thinking about what the sun does for us and how we can and should take advantage of it. Find a sunny spot to sit in if you can, even for a little while. Let the sun do its work on you. See what happens.

Beyond that, I think about what we can do for others by being “sunny” in our interactions. The expressions that come to mind and go hand in hand with this concept include:

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar – a favorite of mine because it’s true not only figuratively, it’s true literally. The image of a flypaper hanging from a ceiling in a cabin somehow resides in my mind. If the strip of paper were coated with honey, no way could a fly’s wings detach once they landed on it. What (very dumb) fly would land on a paper coated with vinegar? I translate as: You accomplish more by using grace and kindness than by being sour/vindictive/mean/angry/etc.

In honor of Mary Poppins, all the rage with Mary Poppins Returns being in theaters right now: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In the Julie Andrews original, she applies this literally, though why the children need medicine when they are not sick is beyond me. Nevertheless, my translation: The world can be a tough place; anything we do to make it better makes it better! Add an element of good to something that is unpleasant or difficult and you will find everything easier.

Lastly: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine! I was thinking today about how limited we are, how our sphere of influence is small, how many people there are in the world and how few of them we can in any way affect. So what? We don’t have to save the world (this has already been done), but we sure can make our own corners — and the corners of those we love and care about — less dark by our chosen actions.

Several years ago, I found the essay We Were Made For These Times by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves). It made me think about why I do what I do, what I think is important, what the future might hold. Maybe it speaks to you and helps you make 2019 a wonderful year in new and important ways.

My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.