Who, me? A Napper?

Dumb luck comes to everyone at some point or other. It came to Harry by way of a bird – an unsuspecting, industrious, blessed bird. First, the backstory of No Roses for Harry.*

Harry was a white dog with black spots. On his birthday, he got a present from Grandma. It was a woolen sweater with roses on it. Harry didn’t like it the moment he saw it. He didn’t like the roses.

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This is a story that packs a punch. In the opening paragraph alone and in the priceless expression on his face, we are all reminded of a time when we opened a gift, feared our inability to hide our shock and thought How ghastly is that!

Poor Harry. No one else seems to think the sweater is ghastly. He does his best to lose it, fails three times, is forced to wear it and finally hangs his head.

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That’s when his luck began.

As he sat wondering what to do, Harry noticed a loose stitch on his sweater. He pulled at the wool—just a little at first – then a bit more – and a little bit more. Harry didn’t know it, but a bird was watching….

Quick as a flash, she took the end of the wool in her beak and flew away with it! It all happened before Harry could even blink.

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To Harry’s great delight, the bird kept flying with the string of wool in her beak until the entire sweater had unraveled and was trailing after the bird high up in the sky like a plane at the beach trails a banner – this was the best banner ever!

No one in the family noticed until they got a note from Grandma that she was coming for a visit. Uh-oh! Where’s the sweater? Of course they couldn’t find it. Only Harry knew why.

This is where I take umbrage.

When Grandma arrived, Harry ran to her with his leash. Then he sat up and begged. “All right, Harry,” said Grandma. After I’ve had my lunch and a nap, we’ll go for a walk.”

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C’mon, Grandma. Really? You just got there. Lunch, okay. But a nap? You need a nap??

I’m pretty good about sticking to the text of a book as I read aloud to children. It seems ingenuine and just plain wrong to change what the author clearly intended the words to be, much as we will interpret them (and, in this case, the hilarious images and fashion of 1958) individually anyway. But this is the one part of this book I might have reworded slightly once or twice over the years, maybe even just omitted the “and a nap” part.

What kind of grandmas need naps, even think of naps, in the late morning having just arrived on a visit to precious grandchildren? Not the kind I wanted my children to form images of. Not me anyway, not the woman who would someday become the grandmother (Oma) of their own children. Best nip this expectation in the bud. No roses for Harry and no naps for me!

For better or worse, I have a lot to do in this one life I’ve been given. It’s always been that way. Whether working full time under someone else’s timetable or ordering every minute of my day myself, I am one of those people whose list is always longer than the time given, who never runs out of things to do, who thinks of the next thing while doing the three things that came before it. I have always lamented that I have to sleep. I like to sleep, don’t get me wrong. Sleep is glorious and needful, but sleep happens at nighttime, the way nature intended.

Napping is a foreign concept – they call it a siesta in some cultures, right? Other cultures. Napping was always, for me, an activity reserved for those days when I am so sick I can’t get off the couch. I always said If I’m asleep during the day, you know I don’t feel well.

C’mon, Grandma. Really?

Gosh, now I get it!

See this darling little fellow? This is Nelson, almost two, with my mom, his great-grandma, about to catch him as he flies downward with all speed and zero fear.

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See this darling little girl? This is Ellie, just turned four, posing with a goat at Yoder’s in Madison, Virginia, looking sweet and angelic, which she (yes, of course, because I love her very much) always is. 😊

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They wear me out! I need a nap!

 

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*No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion, Pictures by Margaret Bloy Graham, Harper Collins Children’s Books, New York, 1958

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Out of Whack

The last time I played tennis, I did – several times – a thing tennis players do. I adjusted the strings of my racket. The impact of the ball at the moment of contact shifts the strings ever so slightly depending on many things like whether the shot has backspin or topspin, how tightly the racket is strung to begin with, the speed of the racket as it heads toward making contact with the ball, the physical strength of the player (mine being not much). Watch those players during the USOpen or Wimbledon and see them do this quite often between points.

Roger Federer likes his racket strung loosely, so the strings easily (considering his spin and strength) shift and get out of their perfect perpendicular formation and into all kinds of wacky, wavy patterns. He often has to adjust the strings that get, one could say, out of whack. Rarely (possibly never) can I use that phrase without remembering when Samuel was five and watching me adjust my strings. I explained what I was doing and he said, “Momma, why can’t the strings just stay in whack?” (Hold that thought.)

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See how Roger stands there looking at the racket, fingering the strings?* All us tennis players do this sometimes. (Did you catch that: “All us…” 😊 This is, in fact, one of the only characteristics I have in common with players who really know how to play the game, but I’m darn proud of it!) Besides bringing your strings into correct position (which makes for a better next shot in theory anyway), this activity gives you a moment of focus to (if you are Roger Federer) rethink your strategy for the next point or (if you are me) mentally beat yourself up for the last bonehead shot that was so easy – how could I miss that!!??

Cheryl, Scott, Pat and I play as often as we can on the har-tru hydrocourts at  Keswick Golf Club, a holdover perk from my years as Resident Historian there. Here is an old photo to give you an idea of the lovely setting.

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Cheryl, Scott, Pat and I spend close to as much time talking as playing, but we do play, and we occasionally have great points – deft angles, slamming overheads, forehand alley shots that slip right down the line past the net person. We congratulate each other, go collect the ball(s) that went astray and set up for the next point.

So there I was, mid-game, waiting, feigning focus, fingering strings, when I saw something astounding: DIRT!! Tennis is a clean game, I assure you. Dirt??!! Do you see it?

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In case you don’t, allow me to show you.

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I puzzled. I wondered. I was fully distracted from the next point. Then I remembered Willow.

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Willow was here, beautiful Willow, a dog that will chase a tennis ball all the day long. I’d been out there with her as often as I could, more times per day than I kept track of. Imagine what happens to a tennis ball that gets hit onto a gravel driveway bordered by some grass and a lot of dirt and then mixed with dog slobber? Here she is post-chase taking a quick break under the car with her disgusting prize.

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Ah, that’s where the dirt came from! The thought of her boundless energy warmed my heart as I stared at the dirty racket. She had brought that ball back to me over and over again, and I (with my garden gloves on when I remembered them!) had picked it up and whacked it with my racket yet again and off she would tear in hot pursuit. No wonder my strings were dirty!

As you see though, (and I noticed sadly) my strings are not out of whack. Pathetic, weakling stroke I must have these days. Maybe the workouts at the gym will remedy that, but alas, another conversation.

Now back to the phrase: Charming and adorable as Samuel was at five (still is at 25!), we simply don’t say that the strings of a tennis racket are in whack! What else don’t we usually say?

Lincoln was talking about Sandy the other day, about how he keeps going despite sometimes not feeling well. Lincoln said, It wouldn’t do for him to think he was vinsible.

Why do we say right as rain but not right as sunshine?

Why do we say the kiss of death, not the kiss of life?

Why is it always discombobulated and never combobulated or simply bobulated?

Why do we tell people not to be a wet blanket but we never encourage them to be a dry blanket?

Why do we call a small person (in jest of course) a shrimp and not a plankton?

Why hasn’t the handwriting on the wall morphed to the printout on the wall?

Something  with this system is surely out of whack!

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Thank you, WSJ, for the Federer photo!

Morning Joy

None of us ever knows what we will wake up to, but today for me was doubly amazing. In the early morning dim darkishness, in the murky, fuzzy, just-getting-started light of pre-dawn, I opened my eyes the way I always do first thing — tentatively. You know how it is – your brain is as un-luminous as the day, your eyelids aren’t 100% cooperative in the effort to lift, the rest of your body is solidly at anchor – and time is a mystery.

Try to put yourself in that state of mind for just a moment, in that place of one-degree-past-pitch-blackness, and imagine this image all dim and silhouetted, almost indistinguishable, none of the color, only the shape of the vase against the backdrop of windows and trees. It was quite something to wake up to! Even in my brain-fuzziness, I knew it was a vase filled with beautiful lilies, my favorite. And I had to smile.

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Lovely things give us pause, and lovely things that come from a kind heart, as these did, remind us how much kindness matters. In one corner of my life or another, there’s a mess. I know everybody has a mess somewhere, some minor and almost silly, like unfinished walls and untrimmed windows, and some major and heart-wrenching, like a ravaging disease or a house fire. Lovely things and kind hearts go a long way toward balancing the picture.

One of my current minor messes is a spackling mess. Yesterday was the wet-sponging stage, followed by one last filling in of not quite perfectly flat spaces. The funky triangular windows that came out of the bedroom wall and the living room wall were replaced with sheetrock, but my shoulder issues of earlier this summer put the finishing touches on hold. Now, thankfully, sustained overhead movement is no longer impossible, and I’m tired of unfinished walls.

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Sooner or later there will be paint!

So this morning, following the silhouette of lilies, following a cup of hot tea enjoyed in crisp, early fall morning air on my oddfellow’s bench, I went downstairs to get the cans of paint that I would need to paint these rooms. I then went out to the porch and set them down on the dropcloth Samuel’s got there for the little table he’s refinishing.

That’s when Beauty came to me in another unexpected way.

I looked up, toward the garden for some reason – did movement catch my eye? There she was, a beautiful doe, way out by the far pergola. I live in the woods and deer are all around. More often I see them running than standing still. But I never grow tired of their grace and elegance, even from afar.

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I’m sure she heard me. We had a stare-down, of which she finally got bored. That all you got, lady? You just gonna stare? There must have been some good grass out there. Promptly she went back to it. I wonder if she laments being unable to get into the garden. The eight-foot deer fence has kept her kind out for years. This year they probably gathered out there, shook their heads and said to each other Pathetic attempt at a garden! We sure could help get rid of some of that feast of a weedy jungle! … Nah, forget it. Feast or no feast, that fence is waaaay too risky!

None of us ever knows what we will wake up to but today I got one image of kindness and one glimpse of wildlife. Both reminded me that some things in the world are as they should be, and very good.

Ode to Miss D’Uccle

Please note up front: I am not mourning, and if I were, I would not be mourning just any chicken. I know chickens die on a routine basis. I eat them without thinking about it them having died. But it has been a long time since one of my own up and keeled over. They have been heartier than that. They are well protected, well fed, practically pampered (thanks to Sandy who, no doubt, takes secret pleasure in watching them dive after tasty dried mealworms). Miss D’Uccle’s demise is a bit of a mystery.

This is the bird whose fate I relate.

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She was a piece of work, this one. Can you tell? Smallest hen in the flock, full of spitfire, always the one guests asked about because of her fancy coloring and perky attitude. I called her Miss D’Uccle, though technically she was (note past tense ☹) a Mille Fleur D’Uccle, a breed that comes from the Belgian town of Uccle, outside Brussels. Descriptions say they are a “bearded” breed, but I see mostly sideburns, don’t you?

A profile shot better reveals the beard of which she was surely proud.

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The feathered feet are a thing as well. Let the others sport their bare-legged, three-toed-for-all-the-world-to-see business. None of that for her. Miss D’Uccle’s soft brown and white speckled body was complemented beautifully by her perfect red comb (imagine if humans had red combs!).

Just yesterday she was sitting on an egg or two – hers perhaps, and one of the silkie’s probably. (You can never be totally sure unless you nudge them away from the sitting spot and find a warm one underneath, and even then, it’s only a most-likely-it’s-hers situation.)

Did something poisonous bite her? Did she have heart failure or an unknown chicken disease? Or was she sitting because she was brooding, the chicken form of depression? Did her feelings get hurt? Did she decide it’s all just not worth it anymore? We will never know. I went out to collect eggs this afternoon and found her face-in-the-straw. There’s no hope when you are face-in-the-straw.

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Typically in the past, when a chicken dies, we throw it – chickens turn ungendered to me upon death – over the hill, the very steep hill that overlooks many acres of additional woods beyond my property. We do this for two reasons: 1. it’s the easiest thing to do, and we have a lot going on around here, and 2. so some lucky fox or raccoon or hawk can find a free meal and be happy and praise God in their own way. It’s not recycling, it’s full-cycling, giving back. There are perils to such an approach though, as we reviewed at the dinner table when discussing what to do next while said bird remained for the time being in the coop.

Peril #1: The Standing Obstructions. There was the time when Sandy went behind the garden and attempted to throw a dead one down the hill, but it got caught in the crotch of a tree about ten feet up. Likely, when you live next to an unmanicured forest where towering trees, saplings and every height of green woody thing in between fills the space, something solid will get in the way.

Peril #2: The Unexpected Return. There was the time when Bridget, a golden retriever I had, came charging back up the hill with a dead chicken in her mouth. Granted, it should not be surprising when dogs with “retriever” in their name, when dogs famous for, routinely used for, retrieving dead birds in the field should appear having thus retrieved. Nonetheless, you think when you throw a dead bird over the hill, it will stay over the hill! The thing about dead birds is – unless you are going to eat them – you really don’t want to see them again.

Peril #3: The Cannibal-in-Them Emerges. We have not seen this, but we fear it. The same chickens that happily eat anything you throw in their outdoor space, anything, including the leftovers from a chicken dinner (and they will pick those bones clean!), just might have no qualms about a free meal in their own midst, assuming they could get past the feathers. My experience tells me you don’t put anything past chickens.

The disposal alternative to the hopefully-far-flung fling is digging, and digging a hole in Virginia concrete (in other places referred to as dirt or soil), especially after weeks of little rain, involves a pickaxe and rather a good deal of physical labor better applied to porch-building, gardening, etc. All things considered, you find a way to give a free lunch to the wildlife wandering in the woods outside the coop.

Samuel, wanting to avoid the trees-as-catchers problem, said, “I’ll walk it down.” Bless him. That would be a good idea. Pre-walk, however, he was not agreeable to a photo. This is his I’m-not-posing-with-a-dead-chicken photo. Note poor quality of photo with uncooperative subject. And I don’t mean the chicken.

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Being flung into the woods is not the most heart-touching finale to a well-lived life, I’ll grant you. I cannot be accused of over-sentimentality when it comes to my chickens, much as I am amused by them and appreciate their wonderful eggs. (Dogs are another thing, don’t get me started.) But Miss D’Uccle was a good one, and we will miss her. And we didn’t eat her. And here I am ode-ing her, right? That has to count for something.

 

A Wooden Pie Crust

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

Such was the case with the wooden pie crust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haints Alive!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh.

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

Haints alive!!?? What’s next?!

 

Croquettes with a Twist

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

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

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

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

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

[pause]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stir this up and admire the gorgeous color it forms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Egg with Tail, Paper Piles and Real Towels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My job is so demanding right now!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REAL TOWELS

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

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

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

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

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

What We Keep and What We Throw Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good little shoes! As were mine.

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

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

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You think maybe I could fix this with glue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I may elaborate:

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

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

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

A Very Happy Labor Day to Everyone!

It Smells Like Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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