Crackers Revisited

Late in the afternoon yesterday I went to visit my friend Hank Browne. First thing (after hello) I said was, “I have a little something for you. These are my homemade cheese crackers,” and I handed him a little baggie full. Never having had these crackers before, he said, “Now why would you make these when you could just buy a box?” I said, “You try them and then talk to me.”

This is the photo of Hank that we used on the end flap of the jacket of his book.* I love the fact that he is actually holding a bagel in this photo but we cropped it out.

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Sometime after I left him with my crackers, I texted him and said, “I need to know what you think of my crackers.” He said simply, “You are my cracker maker.” I think he liked them.

Last week my mom called me to ask for “the cracker recipe.” She did not have to tell me which cracker recipe because only one matters in my world at the moment. There’s a reason you stick with a recipe. It works and it’s wonderful! Imagine sharing /savoring/devouring some of your favorite cheese alongside homemade crackers – these homemade crackers.crazy 2 baked on rack.jpg

These crackers have texture, flavor and the possibility of crazy shapes if you are so inclined. They can take cheddar (Cabot if you please), parmesan, Monterey Jack or just about any hard or semi-hard cheese. I think asiago would be great. Jarlsberg even.

About two years ago I wrote about these same crackers, but at the time I thought it was enough to present the recipe and show what they looked like finished. See how much I’ve learned in two years? Lots of pictures are good! Here we go. Still, we will start with the recipe. It’s from the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary cookbook. Back in the day I thought it was very cool that I got one of their first-run, limited-edition 3-ring binders.

All you need on this page is the list of ingredients, but feel free (later) to compare their instructions with mine. I don’t even look at the instructions any more. Oh, wait. Perhaps I had better check!

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That’s right. They wanted you to roll out the dough on a floured surface and then transfer the crackers one by one to the baking pan. I did that for a long time. Terribly time-consuming, and as you might have guessed, I have other things to do. So a few years ago I came up with a waxed paper method I will show you, and just yesterday (lucky you!) I realized an even better way to get the rolled-out dough to the pan. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before!

First, grate your cheese. Use the finest hole of the grater you have. This is mine that I got in IKEA years ago. I like it because 1. It has its own bowl that the cheese falls into and 2. it has a second top with bigger holes that I use at other times for other things. My sister Lynn has the same one and she loves hers too. But my mom never liked hers and gave it away. To each her own.

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Of course if you are using parmesan or romano cheese and it came already grated, you are good to go on that point. I chose cheddar this time because Cabot was on sale this past week and I bought four of the Seriously Sharp bricks, maybe five.

Also, I tripled the recipe because I know how these disappear. If I am going to go through this process and make something that doesn’t go bad in three days (not that they will last three days even tripled!), I might as well make enough to last a while and be able to give some away. You want to share this kind of love.

Put your cheese in a large bowl and mix in the cornmeal. I happened to have yellow cornmeal but you can get white also. The one I had in the house yesterday is also a somewhat coarser texture than I have had in the past, but it doesn’t matter unless you care about them being a finer texture in the end. They are good either way.

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Naturally your cheese is a little moist, so mixing the cornmeal into it first helps keep the cheese from clumping. We don’t want clumps.

Next add the flour. This additionally de-clumps.

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Add the rest of the dry ingredients (i.e. everything else except the eggs, oil and water). Mix in. I did not add the Dijon as suggested in the recipe, but I’m sure it’s good.

The recipe says to mix the eggs, oil and water together separately and then add it to the dry ingredients. You can do this if you want but it works just as well for me to break the eggs right in the bowl and then pour the oil and water in and stir it all up. Two things: 1. If you are worried about shells getting in your crackers (you don’t want shells), break the eggs in a separate small bowl and pour them in, and if you are going to do that, you might as well beat them up right then with the oil and water before adding to the big bowl. I did not worry about shells because my hens are making good strong shells. Your call. 2. I always use extra virgin olive oil (EVOO, as the pros call it).

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This mixture looks so yellow because of the yellow cornmeal as well as the very yellow yolks my hens are making. Yours might not look this yellow.

Here is what they dough looks like with all ingredients mixed together. You don’t want it gooky, but it should hold together. If your dough doesn’t hold together nicely or seems too dry, you can add a little water to it. But don’t make it gooky.

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Now the fun part.

I did the rolling out part three ways. You can choose which way seems best to you.

  1. Between two sheets of waxed paper
  2. On one sheet of waxed paper with flour on top of the dough
  3. Between a sheet of parchment paper and a piece of waxed paper

All of these methods allow you to transfer a full pan’s worth of crackers to the pan all at once. The two-sheets method is what I discovered a few years ago. It has the advantage of being less messy than the old floured-surface method but the bottom sheet can wrinkle a bit. I’ll show you.

Take about as much dough as comfortably fits in your hands mold it to a flat ball or oval and put it on the paper.

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Put the second sheet on top and smoosh it a bit.

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Now use your rolling pin to roll it out. See, no messy floured surface. If you are careful you can re-use the paper for the next ball of dough.

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Keep rolling until your dough is about 1/8-inch thick. Remove the top sheet and flip the whole thing onto your silicone-mat-lined baking sheet. If you don’t have a silicone mat, grease the pan.

The first time I did this, I cut the cracker shapes first, then flipped it. You should not cut on a silicone mat. In the end I found a better way, but this way first.

I removed the top sheet and cut the shapes I wanted. The tool I have is called a Raedle, which is basically a wheel with a zig-zag edge connected to a handle. The one that says Grand.. on it was my grandma’s. It has been used a lot over the years, thus the chipped off name. The other pictured here I found in an antiques shop near me called A&W and had to decide which of my children to give it to. I settled on Samuel because he made these crackers for me some years ago when I was writing my book. Batch after batch sustained me through that project and I’ll never forget his kind service to me. This one is a beauty. If you find one at an antique shop, buy it. If you don’t have one, a pizza cutter works fine.

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The dough sticks to the paper which makes the flip possible, but do you see how the paper can get a bit wrinkly? This happened as I continued to roll out the dough to the thinness I wanted. It does not affect the crackers, but maybe that bothers you.

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The bottom sheet may wrinkle less if, on top, you use flour instead of another sheet, but either way the wrinkling is not a big deal. Using waxed paper also means you have to be able to flip the paper on to the pan as I will show you. If you are shy of flipping, use the parchment. You can bake right on it. I’ll show you that later.

For now, this is the flipped waxed paper on the pan.

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Little by little I carefully peeled what is now the top paper away.

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There are always a few stragglers that don’t want to stay with their fellows. See that one at the top? Every crowd has a few renegades. Just put them where you want.

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Brush water on the dough before you salt the crackers. I couldn’t find my little brush so I dipped my hands in a little bowl of water and used my fingers to wet the dough – just enough to make the salt stick. Use coarse salt.

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And into a 400-degree oven they go. The original recipe says 375, but 400 works for me. You bake these until they are as dark as you like them. I love them a little darker but was in rather a hurry yesterday so these are not as dark as I would normally make them. Still good though!

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Transfer them to a rack to cool. Try one or two. Stop if you can. Oh yum.

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Now back to the other rolling-out methods. First, one sheet of waxed paper only. Put flour on top, rub your fingers over it to smooth out the flour a bit and then roll the dough out.

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You might need to keep adding a bit of flour until you get to full size and desired thinness.

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This method still requires you to flip the paper onto the pan. I found that cutting the cracker shapes before flipping made it trickier, and I know you should not cut on the silicone mat for fear of damaging it but I decided to take the chance. I flipped the uncut dough, removed the paper, then used the Raedle gently. It’s easier and I managed to not damage my mat, but then I remembered parchment paper. That’s the ticket!

Cut a piece of parchment paper that will fit your pan, roll out the dough either with waxed paper on top or with flour on top. This shows waxed paper on top.

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Then simply slide this paper onto your pan. No risky flipping. No pre-cutting of shapes. No worry about mat damage.

This is the parchment slid onto my pan, which you can’t see because I cut the paper too big.

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So I trimmed the paper.

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Brilliant. Cut shapes, brush with water, sprinkle salt, and into the oven it goes just like that. Regarding shapes, have at it – standard squares or rectangles, maybe diamonds as you see above, or a little more free form as below. It was fun to make the arc cuts, but in the end the crackers were pretty square anyway. You can use cookie cutters if you want too. Either cut them on your counter and move them (tedious but the most efficient use of the dough) or cut them on the parchment and just leave the in-between parts to eat on the side later.

You don’t have to separate the crackers after cutting but before baking. The baked crackers break apart easily.

I know it’s just as easy to buy a box. But the other night I took the last few of the last batch of these, the ones my mother made last week and gave me, to the airport when I picked up my son Samuel. He polished them off well before we got home, at which time he asked, “Do you have any more crackers?” I knew there were no more of the homemade ones and started showing him his choices, the boxes in the cabinet. He stopped me short. None other would do.

You try them and see if he’s not right.

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*Hank’s book is Vanishing History, Ruins in Virginia, published last year by my little publishing company, Paper Shoe Press. You can find it on amazon!

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Pink Hands

I love the story of the Little Red Hen. You know the one where the hardworking and foresightful Hen goes through the steps of growing wheat. She asks three other animals on the farm – the Cat, the Pig and the Duck in the version I remember – to help her plant a grain of wheat she found. She says, “Who will help me plant the seed?”

“Not I,” said the Cat. “Not I,” said the Pig. “Not I,” said the Duck.

So she does it herself. She continues to ask for help with harvesting, threshing, milling and baking, and the other animals continue to refuse to help. Finally the bread is ready to be eaten and they sure do want to help with that! Too bad! They didn’t want to help with the work, so they don’t get to enjoy the reward. The Hen shares the bread with her happy chicks.

Today was Harvest Day at Golden Hill. The beets and carrots have been doing what garden vegetables generally do if you leave them alone. (Anyone who has harvested a baseball-bat zucchini can relate!) I just didn’t get to it before now, can’t imagine why. But the beets had pushed themselves pretty much out of the ground and the carrot tops had dried up.

Here are the beets in their bed in May, in June and today:

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And the carrots in their bed in May, in June and today:

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See what I mean? I’m an amateur in the garden, but this I know: It’s time to harvest. And I had little girls happily helping me!

First we did the carrots because you have to pull harder. Little girls get tired, so let’s do the somewhat harder thing first and save the easier task for later. I loosened the soil and exposed those gorgeous orange tubers.

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Eppie didn’t want to get her hands dirty with pulling carrots, so Rise helped with this. Eppie put them in the box. Well, some of them. She found other interesting things to look at in the garden, including two worms. I wonder sometimes if some children never get to touch real worms…

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How fun it was for Rise to pull up some pretty big ones!

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Eppie was more impressed with one that was curled. And with the ants whose home we evidently disturbed. “Look, sister!”

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The ants were none too happy but they will figure it out.

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We got two boxes full of carrots, smoothed the dirt for the next planting, and said Wow! as we looked at our harvest. Rise said we should make carrot soup for dinner. We’ll see about that, but how wonderful that she is not only helping but also thinking about what to make with them.

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Onward to beets. So much easier. You don’t have to pull at all, but practically just lift them out of their nice bed,

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and twist off the green leafy part (that’s for the chickens).

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Beets are fun. Look what you get besides beets – pink hands!

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I like making little girls happy. I like making chickens happy. Look at the box of greens behind the box of beets! I know we could eat the greens too, but you have to draw the line somewhere. All those lovely beets make me so happy I can let the greens go.

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The chickens were soon very happy!

Well, each in their turn. The photo below shows the brahmas, cinnamon queens and Rhode Island Reds, which I have been lately calling Group A – will someone please help me come up with a name for this group?! They got theirs first – the beet greens and a few tomatoes that the garden turtle (remember him?) chewed off half of because they were lying on the ground because someone (I wonder who) didn’t get around to staking up the tomatoes very high either.

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See the silkies and black copper marans (Group B for Bantam?) looking through the dividing wire, longing for theirs. Hey, where’s ours? Patience, patience!

Ah! Good things come (usually) to those who wait. The chickens like the tomatoes better than the greens. But I guarantee that those greens won’t last long either.

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I think I never had a harvest of beets and carrots like this. Never so many. How blessed am I to share the experience with these lovely young ladies! Later in the week we might plant some more carrots and beets in these beds so that there will be a fall harvest. Something tells me I’ll have two good helpers!

 

 

The Mushrooms Have Disappeared!

No joke. They are gone!

Yesterday, just yesterday, I shared about the delicate mushrooms that seemed to have colonized the area of my garden near the water pump. They came from out of nowhere, as from outer space. Their lacey cups sat atop slender stalks no more than four inches high – dozens and dozens of these had appeared suddenly two days ago as if that particular square footage of mulch contained their favorite food or just the right conditions for growth. (Never mind the rest of the mulch in the garden complaining Hey! Something wrong with this hood?!)

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Today after dinner, Kaileena reported that they were GONE! Not pekid, not fallen, GONE!

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Gone, like a moment in time. Gone, like the countless moments we do not take a picture of. Gone. There is no way back to those moments. Most of the time, only our memory holds the record of them, and even that record can be sketchy as time goes by. Will I remember the many moments of today? My mom and Kaileena playing Dog-opoly and laughing because of whose turn it was to go not to jail but to the kennel! Kaileena finding the first egg (the first egg!), soft-shelled and slightly broken, and the excitement in her voice, “You have to come see!!” Mom doing her first mobile deposit. The blue-tailed skink trying to hide under the hand shovel in the onion bed and quickly ditching that plan and heading for a hole.

Gandalf comes to mind, Gandalf standing on the bridge shouting to the Balrog: “You shall not pass!” The image is strong and the analogy imperfect, but the finality is inescapable.

You shall not pass this way again.

The child is only two once, only six once, only ten once. When you pack up certain toys in a box or give away the size clothes that don’t fit any more, you know that chapter is over. Graduation can hit hard. Cross-country relocations even harder.

The lilies are finished, the beets are harvested, the lettuce is gone to seed. I bought a package of romaine today.

But there is a brighter way to see it, which we all know through experience if not verbatim: To everything there is a season. It’s been a long time since I read the first eight verses of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes.

There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every event under heaven –

A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace and a time to shun embracing; a time to search and a time to give up as lost; a time to keep and a time to throw away; a time to tear apart and a time to sew together; a time to be silent and a time to speak; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.

We could add

A time to play our hand and a time to fold; a time to joyfully greet and a time to tearfully say good-bye; a time to praise and a time to scold; a time to travel and a time to stay put; a time to feast and a time to diet; a time to spend freely and a time to pull the purse-strings tighter; a time to bring chicks home and a time to get rid of roosters; a time to use sheets to make a bed and a time to use sheets to make a barrier between the earth and the mulch; a time to take photos and a time to just enjoy the moment because

You shall not pass this way again.

The beautiful side of this reality is that there are so many wonderful moments. Yes, we have to leave yesterday behind, but in the new day, if we keep our eyes open, new flowers will bloom and be glorious, new friends will come into our picture and brighten our world, new chances will arise for forgiveness and reconciliation, new gifts will be given and received, wrapped or unwrapped. There will be new restaurants to try, new books to read, new recipes to make, new babies to hold, new pets to nuzzle, new places to explore, new songs to sing, new words of kindness to be sure and say, new ways to remind those we love how much we love them.

I’m not sure I’d be on this track right now if it weren’t for those otherworldly mushrooms that appeared mysteriously. I’m not sure I’d have seen the mushrooms if the sunflowers had not first caught my eye…

Looking Suspicious

This past weekend we were getting ready to pay long-overdue attention to the sign at the end of the driveway. The chicken coop took a good bit of time but is as done as can be until the siding is milled. The garden simply yields its bounty (cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and carrots mostly right now). It is not presently demanding anything of me. But the sign that should look something like this,

Golden Hill sign summer 2015

instead looked like this, and was calling my name. Calling loudly.

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I have been successfully ignoring it for weeks now but it’s pretty bad, I know. Pathetic. Quite unacceptable. How did I let it get this way? Two reasons:

  1. We each get 24 hours in a day. For my whole life I have felt that I could use more hours than that, I would like more, I would have no problem filling more. But I don’t get more. No one does. Lately, to name a few of the things that have occupied my hours: coop, bench, garden, stream bed, company…
  2. The deer frustrated me and I have resisted giving them another free meal. More than once we have put a lot of work into making the area around the sign look pretty with nice flowers carefully tended, and in one night the deer come along and chew it all up. As if we made them a feast on purpose. As if they can’t find enough to eat in the hundreds of acres of woods surrounding my property. As if I want to tend that area again.

But I can’t leave it looking so bad, deer or no deer, and there were these 19 concrete retaining wall blocks that a neighbor didn’t want sitting under the tarp behind the bench begging to be useful. And Kaileena was here, my 10-year-old great niece who says “okay” when I suggest anything at all and said “okay” when I suggested a project that would involve digging. “I like to dig,” she said, and I smiled. After my own heart she is!

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We had to take some before pictures, including the one above, because I will feel that much better when all is lovely again. This is where the suspicious part comes in.

“Come stand here with me,” I said. “You should be in the picture because you are helping.” I am holding an elephant ear bulb, in case you are wondering. It will make a gigantic plant that hopefully deer don’t like to eat.

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Kaileena stood with me for the picture. In case you can’t quite see the look on her face, it’s this:

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Is she looking suspiciously at me or what? She might be thinking: “What have I gotten myself into!?”

Perhaps it’s more like, “My sister is right. This lady is weird!”

(Context that I failed to mention previously: Kaileena’s 4-year-old sister Brea looked at me squarely one day last week out of the blue and said matter-of-factly, “You’re weird.” When I pressed her for a reason, as in, “Okay, that’s fair, I know I’m weird, but I’m just curious why you think I’m weird,” she could not elaborate. Darn. Just when I thought light was about to be shed…)

Exactly what is that look on Kaileena’s face?

Interpretation is a funny thing. One time in grad school we were talking about the pre-existing notions people have and how this affects the way we see the world. As an experiment, I brought Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon to the seminar that week and read it aloud. The pictures are incredible. This is the last page.

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I wondered how different people would interpret the story. For anyone unfamiliar with Owl Moon, I have copied Scholastic’s summary, which I found online just tonight:

A young girl and her father take a nighttime stroll near the farm where they live to look for owls. It is a beautiful night, a moonlit winter night. Bundled tightly against the cold, they trudge through the pristine snow, “whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl.” As they go, hidden in the ink-blue shadows, a fox, a raccoon, a field mouse and a deer watch them pass. A delicate tension builds as the father imitates the great horned owl’s call once without answer, then again. Finally, from out of the darkness “an echo came threading its way through the trees.”

Here I am thinking about interpretation and I discover that even though I have probably read this book more than a hundred times out loud to a child, I have NEVER noticed the fox, the raccoon, the field mouse or the deer watching them pass! Yet that bit is deemed important enough to be included in a hundred-word summary.

The summaries of my fellow grad students were equally interesting. The book is written in first person from the point of view of the child. The pictures are not clear whether that child is male or female, nor does the text make it clear, and I have never been quite sure. Some students’ summaries include mention of the boy who went owling with his father and some of the girl who went. Some interpreted stress on the part of the child, some excitement. Some thought the father was mean to bring her out in the cold.

We cannot help but bring our own lenses to any situation. When we are with people, even people we know well, we do our best to figure out what is really going on around us. Words alone tell us only a small part of what we need to know. We look for signs that are not words — stance, hand gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, softness, stiffness. Most of what underlies the words (and is the real story) — pleasure, displeasure, fear, joy, anger, hope, anxiety – — is presented to us through signs.

A picture is worth a thousand words, right? I could describe the Owl Moon picture above, or the look on Kaileena’s face, all day long, yet you, in one glimpse, understand more than I could tell you in endless words.

Generally we are very good at reading the picture in front of us, whether it involves people or picture books. The written summaries of Owl Moon got the story mostly correct. In everyday life, if we pay attention, if we read the nonverbal clues, we can usually just tell when someone is nervous or upset or bored or tired or whatever. We have a sense that it’s time to leave, or something big is about to happen. We have a gut feeling that it’s better to stay away from this person, or better to stick close to another. We can’t necessarily explain this, we just know it.

But not always.  Sometimes we are wrong. Why is Kaileena looking at me that way?

Best to ask her, don’t you think? So I did.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe I was looking at the dog?”

The dog? What dog? There was no dog.

You mean maybe I asked her to stand for a photo and she got distracted by a dog? She wasn’t looking at me at all?

Sure enough, another look at the original photo reveals…. There was a dog!

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Well, good! At least she wasn’t thinking I am weird!

Just Keep Going

On Thursdays my mom and I read to a wonderful 100-year-old blind lady named Evelyn. Mom met Evelyn nearly half a year ago, and they started with a biography of Queen Victoria. I love this idea, so I asked if I could too. I read at 2pm and Mom at 3. A few weeks ago I mentioned Coco, the adorable black pug I am taking care of, and Evelyn wanted me to bring her. Today was an especially good day for that because Evelyn got bad news this week. Coco was perfect. She did what she does. She brought joy, comfort, warmth. Oh that fur. For the full hour that we read today, Coco lay wedged between us on the couch and Evelyn’s hands didn’t come off her once.

The tongue seems disproportional to the size of the rest of her, I know.

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Coco put her tongue (mostly) inside her mouth and I picked up where Mom left off last week and kept reading till Mom came and took over. Today’s chapter was rather heart-wrenching. Victoria was in the throes of despair when I handed off the book and took my leave.

Some days are monumental. You accomplish something big, learn something new and very useful, have a great influence on someone’s life, solve a mystery, explore a new and exciting place, have an important meeting, or experience a life-changing event. Or it dawns on you that if you put food in the chicken coop that the chickens don’t want to go into, they might want to go into it! (Thank you, Kim. I know this doesn’t really qualify as brilliant or monumental the way it seemed yesterday, but we are creatures of habit, we are. Never have I had to put food in a coop to entice the chickens to go in it — why should it have occurred to me before? One of these days I will try though. Perhaps I should drape tempting greens on the steps of the chicken ladder. Spaghetti? Maybe that would lure them up and do the trick?)

Today wasn’t a monumental day (nor did I care to entice the chickens – let them sleep on the ground!). Most days aren’t. Today, like most days, I just kept going with this and that. So did Evelyn, as she’s been doing for a hundred years. That’s a long time to just keep going! It struck me today that despite what happens, we keep on eating good food, sleeping as best we can, loving the people we love, figuring out what to do next and most of the time doing it, or trying to do it.

All around me, everyone and everything is doing the same. The lettuce keeps on making more of itself so there can be a salad every night. Oh, a new dressing to try: Mix a bit of yogurt (maybe two spoonsful) with some apple cider vinegar (about ¼ cup) in a jar (same as you would mix olive oil with vinegar). Add a bit of strawberry jam! The batch I made this year came out kind of soupy, so I just pour a tablespoon or so in there. You might need to mush it up a little bit. Shake the jar to mix it all up together. Salt and pepper to taste. Yum! (Those are the carrots right behind the lettuce in this bed, in case you’re wondering.)

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The cabbage keeps getting bigger too, this head bigger than a softball. Somehow I thought the cabbage plants were Brussels sprouts plants instead. I feel slightly disappointed about that. It seems I will have a good deal of cabbage to saute slowly with onions one of these days.

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Speaking of onions, they keep pushing harder to get out of the ground. I planted 300 “sets” (whatever that means) – 100 each of red, white and I don’t remember what the other one was. Yellow maybe. It seemed ridiculous at the time. Now I am thinking this might be a good number. If there are any left at the end of the summer, they will keep well.

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The tomatoes keep getting taller and have started getting red (yay!). I couldn’t find my favorite “sun gold” variety this year, so I don’t have any of those. But these will be excellent anyway and make the sun golds all the more special when I surely find them next year!

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The lemon grass keeps on getting fuller and taller. By the time the fall comes, this plant will occupy the entire raised bed. I am not exactly sure what to do with this other than admire it. The two other times it has grown in my garden, its entire purpose has been to make an incredibly big and ornamental show of itself, which is nice, but there has to be something else to do with it. Another day I will look into this.

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Everything just keeps going.

It was 90 degrees today, but shady where I myself kept going, rock after rock, on my stream bed. This morning I had 23 linear feet. I drove back from Evelyn’s and went very slowly down my road, stopping to pick up a few more set-aside stones from the last outing that were waiting patiently for their own special place in my long puzzle. I gathered some more rocks from around the house and softened the dirt bed before starting to set them in, then kept going to the main curve of the stream, banked those big anchor stones tight against the edge, and decided this was not far enough for one day, so gathered some more rocks and began again, adding 11 feet total today. There’s only 11 to go until I reach the woods and call it done! (I don’t care what happens to the water when it reaches the woods. Let it delta out all it wants.) After all this, I sure hope the water will choose to stay in its pretty channel during the next heavy rain.

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Needless to say, the chickens kept on being ridiculous! It’s hard for me to look at them sometimes and not think they are little aliens. For all I know, this one could have been looking back at me saying You think I’m funny looking?

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Sauce and cheese

This week I was reminded how words can mean such different things to different people, how easy it is to think someone else knows what we mean, how words are so little yet encompass so much.

Two little words: sauce and cheese. You know what I mean, right? I don’t have to say more. If you would look in my freezer and see a plastic container labeled sauce, you would know what is in that container and what it goes with. You would know how often I make it, how often we eat it and what else would be on the table with that meal. If we were at the table together and I was eating soup and I said This would be really good with cheese, and got up to get it, you would know before I returned to the table what I was getting. You would know what color it is, what has been done to it since it was purchased and how and where it is stored. We would understand each other, right?

When I was growing up, we ate pasta three times a week. We did not call it pasta. We called it macaroni. You boiled the macaroni in a big pot on the stove, and in another smaller pot you heated the sauce. On Wednesdays for dinner (5:00ish) and on Sundays for dinner (1:00ish because you ate Sunday dinner after church) we had our macaroni with a red, meat sauce, a.k.a. sauce. We had it so often that there was no need for modifiers. Seriously we ate this every Wednesday and every Sunday of my childhood. That’s 104 times per year x approximately 18 years, or somewhere around 2000 times. The very same meal.

My mother made sauce (not the sauce, mind you, just sauce) on a regular basis such that we were never out. It would be inconceivable to not have sauce ready to go on Wednesdays and Sundays. I am quite sure my mother would never have let that happen. The basic ingredients were the same every time, but if we had had a pork or lamb roast recently, she added these bones for flavor. Here is the recipe exactly as I wrote it many years ago when I decided it needed to be in my cookbook for reference. I did not need it myself of course. The recipe is etched in my mind’s file. But someone else might need it.

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This recipe is perfectly clear to me. You could follow it, right? You would know how many onions and how finely to chop them. You would know what chop meat means and what percentage of fat content was normal. You would know to put these first two ingredients together in a large, heavy pot over a medium flame and cook them together until the onions are clear and the meat is browned. You would know what size the cans of tomatoes are, what brand to buy, and whether they are whole, plum, chopped, diced or pureed. You would know what paste is, and how to get it all out of the can — even the parts that stick stubbornly to the sides — and why you need two cans of water per. You would know to dump all of this over the meat and onions at just the right time and stir it up. You would then know to add just the right amounts of s&p, garlic powder, oregano and basil. Strictly following tradition, it would not occur to you to use fresh garlic, oregano or basil. You would shake these out of jars you bought in the store and you knew the perfect quantities to shake and how big each little pile would need to be as it sat on top of the tomato-meat mixture in the pot. You would stop shaking when each pile was the right diameter and height. If you had leftover bones from a recent roast, you would add them in at this time. Then you would mix it all together and turn it down. You would know how low to turn the flame down, and you would let it cook for a few hours and walk away and do something else. You would know by the smell that it was done. The smell was normal. This was home.  Every Wednesday and every Sunday we had our macaroni with sauce for dinner.

On Fridays for dinner (5:00ish), being Catholic, we had our macaroni with a non-meat sauce, maybe red and maybe not. The non-meat red was called marinara and the non-meat other could be onion or ceci (you know what those are, right?). In my memory we ate all macaroni meals with a salad. We did not additionally (and it never occurred to me until much later that others might) eat long thin loaves of crusty white bread. On Sundays, however, you might also have meatballs (either softened from having been taken from the freezer and heated up in sauce, or crispy from having been freshly fried in oil) or a veal or eggplant parmesan or a roast (beef, lamb or pork) on the side. Thus the leftover bones that might go into the next batch of sauce.

Onto any of these macaroni dishes you put cheese. You put imported, finely grated, sheep’s milk peccorino romano stored in a little glass jar which had little holes in the chrome screw-on lid. This jar was stored in the cabinet, by the way, not the fridge. You turned this jar upside down and shook it, and cheese landed on your macaroni. At some point prior to the meal someone had taken the four-sided stand-up grater out of the cabinet and stood there holding the fist-sized hunk of cheese in one hand and the handle of the grater with the other hand, and with well practiced vertical up-and-down motions, pressing the hunk against the sharply perforated side of the grater, created tiny, slightly curly shavings of this ivory colored, aromatic, aged wonder. I did not think of it as a wonder. It was just cheese. Cheese went on macaroni. Macaroni had sauce.

The conversation about sauce came about because Samuel was fishing around in the freezer and found a container labeled SAUCE. What kind of sauce is this? he asked. What kind of sauce? Is there another kind? I see SAUCE on top of a plastic container in the freezer and I know exactly what is in there. But he doesn’t. Oh.

Can it be that he wouldn’t know what I mean when I use a simple word? I thought everybody knew what that word means.

What about cat?

House?

Party?

Surely he knows what those are. Surely you do.

Words evoke images. Do you have a lithe, grey feline in mind, one that snags large moths and bats them around until they give up? A white clapboard Cape Cod with three dormers set up on a hill with a large stand of maple trees behind it? A lot of well dressed people in a small room, holding fancy drinks and trying to hear one another above the loud music? Or do you imagine a tiger, a brick ranch, and a wild frat house?

This gets harder when the images associated with the words are not so concrete:

Honorable.

Divine.

Patriotic.

It’s no wonder we get tripped up sometimes. I am sure you know what I mean when I use certain words and you are sure I know what you mean. But do we really? John Durham Peters in his Speaking into the Air, says that there are hints and guesses in communication, which “at its best may be a dance in which we sometimes touch.” Thankfully we use lots of words to fill in the mental pictures, and usually manage to understand and be understood. Usually.

At least we are now clear about sauce. After Samuel fished it out of the freezer and I explained it and thought I knew what we were having for dinner, he asked another question: What’s onion sauce? Ah, onion sauce!

Chop three large onions. Saute them slowly (I mean slowly) in butter until they are soft and golden. This will take at least half an hour. Turn on the pot to boil the macaroni in only when the onions are almost done. In the meantime, finely dice that wonderful aged peccorino romano till you have a handful or so. Once the water is boiling, put small macaroni like ditalini in there with some salt and stir to make sure they do not stick to each other. When the macaroni is almost done, put the cheese in with the onions and butter. You don’t want to melt it, just soften it. Some ground black pepper and a little bit of cream in there with that rounds it out nicely. By now your macaroni is done. Put your colander over the bowl you will serve this in. Pour out the pot of boiling water and macaroni so that the water ends up in the bowl and the macaroni ends up in the colander (this makes the bowl hot, which keeps the food hot on the table longer). Dump the water out of your serving bowl, put the macaroni in there, top with the onion mixture and stir it all together. The word for this is divine.

Unboring defined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The peril of place and the beauty of Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         “Does it hurt?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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