Raining Hearts

Somehow holidays creep up on me. Naturally, today, Valentine’s Day comes to mind – is it tomorrow already? I see images of hearts everywhere, an eternal expression of love, as well as other suggestions such as small gifts that often hold to the red and white (maybe some pink) theme, maybe roses or carnations and yummy sweets.

What do you do with that? How far do you take it? How much do you buy into the expectations that umpteen ads and displays impose on you? Especially if the people you love are far away…

One lovely little paperback my children had put things in perspective for me – it was called Four Valentines in a Rainstorm.* On the surface it’s about Valentine’s Day, yes, but see what you think. Maybe there’s more to it…

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A little girl named Cornelia Augusta “caught some” and proceeded to use them in clever ways to make Valentines for her friends. She used little ones to make a heart necklace, an “especially handsome” one with a very white and very soft cotton ball to make another, a whole lot that were “so small” she had to paste them on one paper and paint around them, and one she cut holes in to look like Swiss cheese!

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“…and the next, and all the years after that, Cornelia Augusta found other ways to make Valentines.”

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Such simple lessons!

1. Oh, look! It’s raining hearts. Maybe I can do something with that. She saw an opportunity. Instead of analyzing the meteorological quirkiness of it or looking with disgust at the mess it made on the ground, she saw the hearts as a means to make others happy.

2. Hmmm, with a little string and glue and paint and a cotton ball… She didn’t go out and purchase a pre-made anything. She didn’t take a class to learn tole painting or paper quilling. She used simple materials that she had at hand.

3. How about a sweet necklace (kind of like a collar) for Puppy, swiss cheese for Mousie, a heart with a fluffy tail for Bunny with the fluffy tail and watercolors for Mr. Turtle? No one-size-fits-all for Cornelia Augusta. She matched the gift to the one she gave it to.

4. No big deal. She did the thing she could do – she gave from her heart – and skipped along on her merry way. She didn’t peek in her own mailbox longingly, waiting for reciprocation. The giving was the important thing.

The fact is, it doesn’t rain hearts every day. The ways we have to show we care, to show we love, present themselves randomly and strangely. Opportunities don’t necessarily fall on the designated days. People are different, with different likes, schedules, sensitivities. Let your heart (not the media) be your guide as to timing and substance.

Just pay attention. See what comes your way. Do what you can with it. Don’t worry if it doesn’t fit the mold as long as it fits the person. Know that in the end your kindness brings great reward — even if it’s a far different reward than you ever would have imagined.

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*Felicia Bond’s book was published in hardcover by Thomas Y. Cromwell, New York, and then again in 1990 as a Harper Trophy edition. It seems to have been renamed The Day It Rained Hearts.

Cut Marks

When I was a kid, we had pizza every Sunday night. Tradition on Sunday was: Eggs for breakfast, then a mid-day dinner invariably including macaroni with red (tomato) meat sauce, often with Italian sausage or meatballs or eggplant parmigiana and a tossed salad on the side. This was a more formal meal than during the week, thus Sunday night being Mom’s night off from having to cook.

If we got a couple of pies at the local pizzeria, my dad asked for them uncut. He would slide them out of the box and into our preheated oven, straight onto the rack. In this way he attained optimal crispness (to his own point of perfection), a thin, crispy crust being a requirement. Plus, he always wanted his food hot (not warm, hot). If we didn’t order out, he would make pizza from scratch with purchased frozen bread dough that we let thaw and he then rolled out himself. And even though we only ever had cheese on pizza – freshly grated of course, and heaven forbid we spoil it with pepperoni or any veggies – it was of course delicious.

Maybe I learned to love pizza then, maybe I would love it anyway. No matter, it’s an all-time favorite for sure. I’ve made it more times than I can count. When my kids were growing up, I often made it for lunch, once a week at least I’d say. All three of my pans look like this, confirming way more than a few uses.

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While my friend Fred was here last week, we made pizza one night because he wanted to practice making the dough himself. When I pulled the pans from their storage place alongside the cutting boards, I offhandedly called attention to the many, many cut marks as evidence of the many, many pizzas having been made on them over time.

You know how it is with offhand remarks. You forget you even said anything. I never gave it a second thought.

When he returned home to Kentucky, he wanted to make pizza. He made the dough himself and was super pleased with how it came out. Bravo, Fred!

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Our little pizza lesson paid off, I thought, and now he can make his own whenever he wants, and perfect his dough and play with toppings (using my recently developed pizza pile method of course!). Good for Fred! Good for his family!

Then he sent me a photo of his two slices on a plate, and later a photo of his cat licking the drippings off it. Clearly this is a man who enjoyed his pizza!

Hours later I got this photo.

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Yes, that’s a pizza pan. When I saw the holes I thought he was going to tell me about whether the crust was crispy or not on account of those holes, or maybe how they affected the slide-off onto the oven rack. I was not expecting thoughts on the cut marks. He said:

My first cut marks.
I didn’t have a pizza baking pan so I bought this one today. After using it and cleaning it my first thought was that I shouldn’t cut pizza on it as it leaves cut marks. Then I thought of how you proudly reminisce of the cut marks on your pans. Sometimes we leave marks where we have been, better than shiny things with no history or attachment. 

Amen. Leaving marks where we have been is a thing to ponder. Cut marks are perhaps not the best analogy, but if you can get past the sharp-object implications and onto the idea that the blade connected with the pan in such a way as to leave a permanent reminder of that connection, then maybe we are onto something.

First of all, yes, better to connect and be left with a mark than to stand alone – perhaps even shiny! – but still lonely, untouched. So what if we look perfect or have a perfect job or eat a perfect diet but have no meaningful relationships. The marks we gain through valuable personal interactions, through caring for someone besides ourselves, make us only more attractive – especially and most importantly to eyes that can see beyond the surface.

But, pizza-pan-cut-marks analogy aside, the marks that matter are often not visible.

I’m thinking about the people I know and the marks they have left on me, more than I can possibly list, but for starters: those who don’t just wait for me to finish speaking so they can say their bit, but instead really listen (how many people really listen?), those who brought (and continually bring) laughter into my world, those who taught me to get outside of my own little box and consider the needs around me, who encouraged me to think a little more (and not just swallow the party line), to slow down and look at the stars on a clear night or listen to the soft rain pattering, to find something nice to say to someone because maybe it’s the only nice thing that person hears all day.

I am the grateful student of those who taught these things, encouraged these things, modeled these things and much more. Their shining examples, their admirable character, left permanent impressions on me. I want to be like them when I grow up. They have countered and helped push away the prevalent me-first stand of so many others who also tried to leave marks.

They say you become like the company you keep. We keep company in lots of ways these days – not only in person but also through our computers and phones. Perhaps we should be more mindful of the marks we subject ourselves to and concentrate our people-time with those who are likely to leave good marks. Likewise, what about the marks we ourselves leave – now there’s a sobering thought…

Man and Dog

One moment in the scene I witnessed yesterday was like a puzzle with 1000+ pieces, a puzzle made from a photo of a man and a dog. Imagine you finally found a significant piece you’ve been looking for, the one with the man’s eyes. But the eyes look different than you had expected. Most eyes look up at a camera. Not these. That’s because at the moment the camera shutter clicked, the man didn’t care a hoot about the photo. He cared about the dog he was about to take home. His eyes – eyes that can’t possibly give full account of the love in his heart – are looking at the dog.

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Going from unloved to loved is a remarkable journey that does not have to take a long time. I saw it happen yesterday to this beautiful black Labrador retriever in about an hour. We arrived at the shelter and waited for Max to be brought to us. Joe reached toward him with a hand. Max wagged his tail and moved toward Joe, welcoming his touch. We walked down to the lake, then to the play area. Max ran after the ball Joe threw to him, frolicked with it, frolicked some more, brought it back. Joe said, “That’s the icing on the cake.” Paperwork happened. Man and dog now each have someone to care for, someone to love.

Nothing really happens in an hour though, does it?

Just like that puzzle, lots of individual pieces came together to make this scene, pieces that have evolved over time, pieces that even last week didn’t seem to go together with any other piece.

Wendy walks her own two dogs in her neighborhood and had been watching Max for years. He had not been abused per se, but was left outdoors year-round and certainly wasn’t loved. When a medical issue arose and his owners were unwilling to follow through, they agreed to release him to Wendy.

She knew she couldn’t keep him herself, even though Max was a littermate of one of her own dogs. She brought him to the local shelter hoping to buy a little time and get him some medical attention – with strict instructions that they not to do the thing they do at this shelter when they have too many dogs or deem them beyond hope of finding a family. You know what I mean. Right about then, she and I spoke. Did I know anyone who might be willing to take Max?

Joe came to mind. He had had a black lab some years ago; the situation had turned sad, leaving him without a dog. A few weeks back he mentioned to me that enough time had passed, and he was ready again. I contacted him to see if he might consider Max. Joe didn’t need a lot of words to answer that question. Yes, he said.

My attempts to connect Wendy and Joe misfired a few times, so it took a week or so for them to finally talk about Max’s condition, background, etc., none of which deterred Joe in the least. He was clearly excited on Friday night as we made plans to meet at the shelter on Saturday to meet Max. I asked him if he had a dog bed, leash, collar, etc. He answered, “I have only lots of room in my heart, my house and my yard.”

That seemed like enough to me. I got a big bag of dog food, a leash and a collar. Wendy got the crate, two dog beds and his food and water bowls. On Saturday morning at breakfast, I told Mom and Jerry what was happening and Jerry said, “Could he use an electric fence?” I wasn’t absolutely sure, but there was a good chance. Jerry packed it up and I brought it along.

We met Joe at the shelter. He and Max became fast friends, and we all took a little walk to get to know Max a bit. Wendy explained more about Max’s previous situation and observed that the medical condition was already improving. Good diet combined with enough activity and enough love (which would all be part of Max’s new life) can clear up all manner of issues – we all knew that, we all shared examples, and we all hoped that would be the case for Max. No doubt he would get whatever he needed. When I asked Joe about the electric fence, he said, “That would be awesome.” A breath later, he said, “There are just too many pieces falling into place for this not to be the right decision for me.”

Joe got the okay from the shelter and looked up at the camera.

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Max has a ways to go. He needs to be housebroken, to adjust to a steady diet of good food and tender human attention. He’ll have to get used to car rides, to games of fetch, to a warm home, to being loved and cared for. His face needs to heal. All of this will happen, I have no doubt, just as it did for Mrs. Donovan, the town busybody, and Roy, a sadly neglected retriever, two of the most amazing characters in James Herriot’s Dog Stories.

Herriot’s commentary at the end of this story includes: “Mrs. Donovan’s dedicated care was rewarded with many years of loyal companionship and Roy, despite his bad start in life, lived well into his teens. The salvation of Roy and the wonderful transformation of his appearance and in his entire life is one of my warmest memories.”

When she encountered him around town, Mrs. Donovan used to always say, “Mr. Herriot, haven’t I made a difference to this dog!” It won’t be long before Joe will be able to say the same about Max. He probably won’t say it out loud to anyone, but he will know it in his heart.

What We Don’t See

Yesterday afternoon a fog took over. I had been too busy to notice when it started, but it just kept creeping closer and closer to the house. This view looks out toward the mountains.

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The air was palpably wet but not actually precipitating. Night was beginning to fall. Was much happening here? Many would say: Not a thing! Do you see mountains? Neither do I. Is this anything except a photo of the woods on a dreary winter day?

Looking at the cottage with fog in the forest behind it had a somewhat lesser sense of the world encased in a temporary, foggy hold where nothing is happening. The cottage itself gives at least a focal point, a bit of eye candy, as they say (for someone who is intrigued with home design anyway!).

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Most of the time when I look at a scene involving nature, I am astounded by the colors, the complexities, the design, the way the ever-evolving world appears at this very moment. The fog yesterday made me think of the ways that the world – the one we live in, function within and find ourselves every day immersed in – speaks to us visually.

It is the goal of media to get our attention. If you partially close your eyes while watching most any show (eyes closed enough so that you can’t see detail), you still see that the camera angle changing frequently and the images randomly alternating (just as frequently) in degrees of brightness. You are hardly allowed a few seconds to become adjusted to one scene before another pops onto the screen. This is not accidental. Look here! You know this is the most interesting thing happening right now! Nothing else (in the room in which you sit or anywhere else) is more important! Some new stimulation wants your momentary devotion.

In everyday scenes involving people, while we sit in traffic or navigate the challenges of the home or workplace, our senses are bombarded with the colors and styles of the clothes people wear and the vehicles they drive, the technical and mechanical gadgets that continually try to outdo the one that came before (even if before was yesterday), and the personal antics, showiness, bossiness, and buzz of humans wanting to be noticed, jockeying for status, dominance, and favor. Your eyes don’t get much rest.

Nature is a bit more subtle about it. A photo can look like a still life, but in real time even a tranquil scene of fog enveloping the woods will soon include a scampering squirrel, a flitting bird, a falling leaf. The photo may look static, but there is activity aplenty within the scene.

All of which is to say that we get so caught up with what’s in front of our eyes, we miss what’s not.

What, besides the presently invisible mountains, am I not seeing in these photos? What fox is lurking? What birds are looking for nesting material? What branch needs only a strong wind to snap it from the trunk? Every fallen log is in some stage of decomposition. Animals of every kind are looking for food, protecting their homes, doing their best to stay hidden while they get their own needed rest.

When the scenes around us include people, we routinely don’t see so much. To name a few, we don’t see the effort some people are making just to appear “normal,” the misdeeds others are desperately covering up, the heartache of recent news, the fears that accompany decisions, the competitive spirit masquerading as teamwork, the fatigue that’s making it hard to focus, or the careful maneuvering of circumstances (benevolent or malign) to accommodate a singular need.

We are so busy, so occupied, so full up (!) seeing what we see that we forget there are invisible pieces to this puzzle, pieces kept invisible on purpose or not, pieces just as pertinent to the big picture but much harder to detect. And because they are competing with the bombardment of what we do see, because they remain invisible, they are often not considered. What we don’t see can be more important than what we do see. It may never actually surface but might often more directly affect the outcome.

I don’t suggest we can ever have all the pieces that would construct a complete image. For all the bright colors and sharp images playing out in front of us, we still see dimly. Anyone trying to solve a crime, figure out why an engine won’t run or attempting to fix a broken relationship suspects or knows they are missing something vital. What we have at hand to work with, at any given time, is only marginally above scanty. We can never see it all. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a stretch to think we are ever, truly, fully informed.

That’s okay. That’s as it is, as it must be, as it will always be. But don’t forget that there’s more to the picture than what you see. And don’t think that everything you don’t see is bad. For every person who’s conniving, another is making a grand effort to be positive. For every snide look, there is one (let us hope more) of tenderness. For everyone who’s posturing for kudos, another is quietly and lovingly serving a fellow human.

You know who you are – doing good every day in your own way, wondering if it will amount to anything, hoping the situation will turn around, wanting so much for this person you care so much about to heal, to accept, to grow. You may think that what you are doing is invisible, and maybe it is to the world at large, but goodness makes its mark just the same, never doubt it. Kindness, caring and good cheer are never for naught.

Today I want you to know that I know you are there, doing your seemingly invisible good. You, bringing a quiche to a friend whose father just died. You, going to hospice house to sit with a lonely someone for a few moments. You, visiting one you love who doesn’t know your name any more. You, warmly welcoming others on a regular basis. You, sweeping up so someone else doesn’t have to. You, including someone who is often excluded.

Bless you, and all like you, who make the world a better place.

Three Wintertime Lessons from My Garden

I don’t always get around to things right away. I don’t qualify as a professional procrastinator – you all know people like that, the kind who can say: I used to just crastinate, then I turned pro. I’m not that bad. But I did not rake out the garden beds and paths last fall after the leaves finished falling. I didn’t break off the dead branches of the gigantic, once-glorious-now-sadly-bygone mum. See what a mess?

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Here in early February, all that old, dead stuff was still there. Even when a strong wind might send the leaves in an upward spin, the barriers of the 8-foot-high deer fencing that surrounds the entire garden ensured that they would still require labor to move them out of there at some point.

It was time.

Sunday was a decently warm day, mid 40s. Having just returned from sub-zero Vermont made it feel downright balmy. I could have used the leaf blower but it was early in the day and I didn’t want to disturb my cottage guests; besides, I have trouble starting it on my own. So I raked. And raked. And raked. My garden is about 400 square yards (334 sq. m.). The entire space was not covered with leaves, but some was. It took a few hours to make it respectable.

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Not bad, eh? When the afternoon sun pierced the trees along the back and came streaming in like this,

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I marveled at the beauty and thought about three wintertime garden lessons.

1. Rest is vital. The garden needs to rests in winter. It did the active, hard work throughout the spring and summer, bore its fruits, then slowed down and closed up shop for a while. It’s not dead – though I know it looks that way! – it’s just resting. Once I broke the branches off that mum, I saw little bits of green …

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The pachysandra that Louisa gave me last summer can hardly wait for spring.

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It’s as excited to send forth new green as the mum is, as the garlic is.

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We ourselves close up shop when we sleep at night, or when we step off the hamster wheel we have been running on long enough to regain some strength and perspective. Being inactive for a while is vital to the activity that comes before and after.

Seems to me that people fall often into two camps: those who can’t get moving unless some outside force forces them (otherwise known as a kick in the pants), and those who can’t stop moving until some inside force forces them, i.e. until they practically drop. Life does not always allow it, but as much as possible, somewhere between these two extremes is a better place to be (though how much we know and how seldom we apply!!). Imagine if we could organize our lives and make decisions about everyday activities such that we can get the right amounts of both rest and activity, motivated by our own determination coupled with reasonable expectations.

2. How good it is to clean things up! How good to finally clean up those leaves that were cluttering up the garden path, looking like Hey, who’s the slouch that didn’t finish the job in here? This doesn’t mean we go crazy raking in November if November is full of other things (the leaves will still be there in February!). It does mean we recognize a needed task/change and make sure we get to it in due time.

How this primes us for the Better Next Thing! A fellow blogger (thank you, Sarah) reminded me this week of the need to take stock of the things that creep in and clutter up our lives, get in the way of our goals, serve only to eat up time. At some point we need to take steps to put the house in order, so to speak, or at least give good thought to whatever it is we want to have, do and aim for, and then eliminate, greatly reduce or find an alternative way to manage whatever stands in the way.

Mind you, I did not rake away every last leaf, even in February. Not only am I determined not to veer into OCD territory, I also know that decomposing leaves put nutrients back into the soil. See my herb garden? This is not the work of an obsessive woman. A little of the old often assists the new.

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3. Getting rid of the Not-As-Important makes way the More-Important. Like raking the leaves out of the garden so that new, unobstructed growth can happen in the spring, taking time to figure out the balance in our lives – the place of “enough” work/rest/play – gets us to where new, unobstructed growth can happen in our lives. Along with Sarah, we can all hope for the magical day when the stars align and we are doing enough but not too much of any given thing. Zu viel nimmt weg von genug, as they say in German: Too much takes away from enough.

We need activity, but too much activity detracts from our doing the right amount for our current physical and situational constraints, which in turn may make us either tired or frustrated or sick.

We need food, but too much food sends us over the edge, past the that’s-quite-enough mark, into feeling uncomfortably stuffed, which (if you do it too often) leads to all manner of problems.

We need friends, but too much social time stretches us too thin, which gets in the way of other, equally important things like work, rest and alone-time.

As with every other aspect of our lives though, it takes more than hope to be in a good, balanced, healthy place – whether that place is emotional, physical, professional, or relational. It takes common sense, good decision making (on a fairly continual basis), frequent reassessment and a reasonably strong will, i.e. the need to say no when the less desirable thing rears its head and wants to dominate our time, energy and attention or pull us away from the direction we intended to go. That’s all 😊.

The ebb and flow, up and down, pull-back-push-forward motions of our lives are not carved in stone of course, but rather always in sometimes-maddening flux. But again that is where life is like a garden – we are always in one part of the cycle or another, even if, for the moment, it looks like nothing at all is happening.

It won’t be long before I’ll be showing you this area along the fence full of fresh leaves and abundant strawberries. It looks brown and desolate now, I know, but a good future is within that dead-looking stuff!

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Straw Bale House: Part 4 (Driveway)

Point A to Point B

One thing in life we must find/have/create is a reasonable way to get from Point A to Point B. We have to get our bodies from sit to stand, our emotions from down to cheerful (☹ to 😊), our brains from first grade to second, our friendships from I-know-you to I-like-you, our careers from entry level to positions of seniority.

No matter where you live, you have to get from public space to private space, from the road to your own front door – a little snippet of your overall journey perhaps, but a vital one. If you live in the country, the thing that comes in handy for this purpose is a driveway. Not a big deal, you say. Simply step or drive off the road and walk or drive toward your house by way of the driveway. Most of the time a house comes with a driveway – a designated, hard-packed (or paved) surface between the road and the house. So simple and straightforward. You just drive on it. Duh.

Unless there isn’t one, as in the case of Lincoln and Julia’s Vermont property that they subsequently built the straw bale house on.

Unless the land immediately bordering the road is heavily wooded and drops off steeply along the entire length of the road-front property line. When I say steeply, I mean steeply, sharply, almost unmanageably. There was no way to walk from the road down to a reasonably level (but still not overly level) part of their property that felt remotely like a path for feet to tread on, let alone vehicles.

I remember it well. The first time I visited in the spring of 2017, we parked up on the road. When I say up, I mean up. Walking down felt like descending nearly vertically into a forest by way of roots, stones and irregular-sized patches of dirt. I found out later that Lincoln and Julia made the patches with a shovel and a good bit of stomping because they knew I was coming and had to create something that vaguely resembled steps. Walking down it while holding four-year-old Rise’s hand as well as a bag or two was not un-doable but still a challenge. How on earth had they hauled lumber, chairs and other bulky/unwieldy items to the yurt site we then carefully navigated our way toward?

Clearly high on the agenda in the development of this property was the construction of a driveway. If you have ever constructed a driveway from scratch, you know that constructing a driveway is different than paving or in any other way surfacing a driveway. Lincoln started that spring making way for it, including countless hours with a chainsaw felling trees, moving trees, setting trees aside for later use, cutting up trees for firewood.

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The property had come with a permit for the driveway, allowing for one to “cut in” off the road at a certain point, but Lincoln and Julia wanted a different entry point, so needed a new permit. Some things go easily (that did), so they ordered the first load of gravel. (Note the mailbox not standing upright in the background. The guy who delivered the gravel worried that he might hit the mailbox, so Lincoln pulled it out of the ground temporarily.)

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This pile included rocks up to 3-5”. The sole purpose of the first load was to fill in the space between the level of the road and the level of the land such that a vehicle could drive on it, the first vehicle being the excavator that would allow him to do the rest of the work — not the thing that might be interpreted as a car in my cross-section drawing that might make all this clearer, though Lincoln says the ground after the drop-off isn’t that flat!

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From below, from the land, that first load looked like this.

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Once this load was smoothed out (by hand) and Lincoln was able to get an excavator down onto the land, he moved copious amounts of dirt from here and there. For eight days straight, he dug, carried and dumped load after load, changing the contour of the land rather dramatically in some places. He had to move not only fill dirt, but also some very large rocks to use for a retaining wall.

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The driveway slowly began to take shape. On six acres there’s plenty of dirt to create an acceptable grade. “Best practices” in driveway construction suggest that 10% is acceptable, meaning a 1-foot change in elevation for every 10 feet that the surface goes laterally. Lincoln got somewhere near that.

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It is hard to describe just how tedious this work was, how stressful and harrowing those eight days of maneuvering of the excavator were, how very many buckets full of dirt and stone had to be moved uphill, how soupy some of the areas became as he took dirt away, how careful he had to be to not get the large machine stuck in mud because you sure don’t want it to sink so deeply into “the soup” that it can’t self-rescue with its own arm. Hours were wasted getting unstuck, and you pay by the hour when the machine is running.

When trying to make a reasonably flat ground, you necessarily aren’t on reasonably flat ground, so not flipping the machine is also a significant concern. Lincoln has flashbacks of ending up 45 degrees over with his feet up on the sides before catching it with its own arm. This happened, for example, while carrying a heavy boulder from one side of the machine to the other; he was not able to swing on the uphill side because of an obstruction (or maybe that tread didn’t have as solid a footing left), and halfway around the whole shebang started to go over. In retrospect he simply says, “Wheee!”

At one point one of the treads fell off, which was its own adventure,

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to say nothing of how the bucket kept losing its teeth!

On the left in the photo below you see the huge rocks forming the retaining wall. Harder to see is the swale on the right, on the upside of the 200-foot driveway, so that any water coming from above the level of the driveway would go into the swale and turn into a stream along the side instead of washing over the driving surface, introducing too much water and/or washing away surface gravel. A swale was as necessary as a wall.

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When Lincoln was done with the machine, he hand-graded for about a week before being satisfied that the driveway was smooth enough and had the right grade. It was still so soupy they could barely walk on it. The earth that became the primary passageway between the town road and their front door took all summer to dry out enough to drive on, but in the meantime, he built the barn (which we will come back to).

By fall it was time to keep going with surfacing the driveway, but reality forced more felling of trees, beautiful trees this time. In September Lincoln rented a truck with a 10-foot bed to bring some items from New Jersey to Vermont – items from his grandmother when she was moving out of her house. He backed the truck from the road to the barn without much trouble, and Rise and Eppie gave us another darling image,

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but once the truck was empty, it was exceedingly difficult to drive it back up on account of there being no weight in wheels where power was trying to be delivered. The front wheels sank into sand, and all manner of spinning and sliding into the swale ensued. To get it up to the road required a winch, that is, hand-winching. During this laborious process, a beautiful maple tree that they had suspected would be seriously in the way was seriously in the way. They knew it would have to go. It’s not an easy thing on your heart to take down a beautiful, healthy tree, even if it just happens to be in the wrong place. Afterwards, visibility was much better, and they knew they had done the right thing, but it’s a pang to this day.

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The three standing trees in this photo all came down. They were leaning heavily toward the road, and naturally you don’t want them to fall into the road. That’s where the car (photo below) helped. The rope you see was longer than the tree was tall, don’t worry.

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Once the grade was correct and those unfortunate trees were down, they could begin creating the driveway’s hard surface. On top of the native soil it is typical to first lay “road fabric” to keep a barrier between your soil and your gravel. Otherwise the earth will just eat the gravel, and in Lincoln’s case, with how wet the soil tended to be, this would happen fast. Lincoln worried about fabric because moisture can go through it and he was unsure how his driveway would behave with so much water. Bottom line: He didn’t want soup again.

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Demonstrating sound problem-solving skills, to say nothing creatively reusing otherwise landfill-worthy materials (wouldn’t Bertie Boyce be proud!), he put down shingles, which later got topped with gravel. Shingles? Yes, instead of just gravel or just road fabric topped with gravel, he created a weather shed using roofing shingles that made a solid surface of the first 100’ of driveway (up to the barn) so water can’t permeate, and soup cannot form. (With the leftover shingles he made a floor for the barn four layers thick).

This came about because Lincoln and Zach were re-roofing someone’s house at about that time, which resulted in a lot of used shingles that, per the contract, needed to go away. Instead of paying to dump them in a landfill, Lincoln took them to use on his driveway. The sticky point was the history of the disposal of shingles. Apparently it has been common enough practice among unscrupulous builders to dig a hole and bury unwanted shingles (causing the homeowner an unexpected sinkhole some years later) that it became illegal to “bury shingles.”

Naturally therefore Lincoln didn’t want to advertise what he was doing, even though his application in no way resembled the outlawed practice. This didn’t stop some people from misconstruing, looking askance and even asking outright, “Isn’t it illegal to bury shingles?” Following an explanation, he got a broad spectrum of responses including “Okay, guess that might work” (tinged with incredulity) and “Oh, brilliant!” (with genuine excitement followed by stories of their own unconventional solutions to similar challenges).

Lincoln’s driveway has been “hard as bones” even during Vermont’s famous mud season. Unconventional works sometimes. May we open our minds to it more often!

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Chocolate Chip Walnut Biscotti

Most people have an aversion to certain foods. They don’t like bananas, or are allergic to garlic, or can’t stand cilantro. I don’t do nuts of any kind, and I don’t drink coffee. This biscotti recipe contains both nuts and coffee, a double whammy for me, so I cannot tell you that they are good. But you could believe me when I tell you that everyone who has tried them has loved them, and then give ‘em a go yourself.

I doubled the recipe* because I like to have enough to give some away. Okay, I give all these away. My friend Melba and her husband Brian had sad news recently about their beloved dog, and I hope these biscotti will help console their hurting hearts. If you know someone who could use a bit of cheer, consider a small gift of something homemade. We cannot change the circumstance, but we can remind people we love that they have been on our hearts. Food conveys love, care, warmth.

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It’s an easy dough to put together, but I don’t know why they set up recipes the way they do. If they want you to cream the butter with the sugars and then add the flour and other dry ingredients, why don’t they tell you that? In that order? Why do they tell you first of all to combine the dry ingredients and then set them aside? Why would I want to wash two bowls when I can wash just one?

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I suggest: combine the butter and sugars, add the eggs, then the dry ingredients (I do not sift together these together, I just put them in), then the chips and nuts. This recipe says to use an electric mixer. You know I love my new mixer, and certainly you are welcome to use yours, but this is one you could manage with a good spoon. Your call.

The dough is like a cookie dough, pretty stiff, easily pulling away from the side of the bowl.

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I did not have instant espresso powder, whatever that is. But my former barista son Samuel tells me that ground coffee is the same thing, that the difference between coffee and espresso is in the brewing method and the brewing method only. Well, I hope so because he was sequestered while I was making these, solving yet another perplexing coding problem, and I had some ground Folger’s in the fridge, so I substituted that for the instant espresso powder.

The walnuts are another thing. I had bought them already chopped but have learned from making this recipe in the past that if they are too big, the loaves are harder to slice when the time comes for that, so I chopped them smaller. For this purpose may I present the best chopper I know (Kwik-Kut Mfg. Co, Mohawk, NY). I’ve had it for decades but I know they still sell them. I got some for gifts at Yoder’s this past year. (Great for egg salad too, if you are into that.)

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I put the 2 cups of nuts (remember I doubled the recipe) into my four-cup glass measure and chopped them right in there (again why measure in one cup and chop in another – that would be two things to wash instead of one). I didn’t get carried away and I didn’t go for a specific size piece. I just chopped till I got tired of chopping.

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I suggest using mini chocolate chips instead of the regular-size morsels (again for the ease-of-slicing reason), but I didn’t have enough (having used half the bag in the oatmeal cookies I made yesterday). So I used some regulars too, and tried chopping them into what I needed, the same as I chopped the nuts. It was a little harder but I reduced their size a bit. Using all mini chips would have been better. Get the minis.

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Once all of the ingredients are combined, you can use your hands and form one solid ball of dough. I cut this into four pieces so that I’d have equal-size loaves.

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I formed these quarters and put them on my pans, hoping they wouldn’t spread too much. They look like little meatloaves to me!

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I found that it took longer to bake than the 25 minutes at (fully pre-heated) 325F for these loaves to be firm to the touch, more like 35 minutes. I gave them their prescribed five-minute rest period, then used the right knife for slicing biscotti to slice them. Between the nuts and the chips, and the loaves still being pretty hot after the five minutes, it was not as smooth going through as perhaps it might be (you see a few breaks), but I managed to slice them, put them cut side down and bake again. This too took longer, more like 15 minutes per side.

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Who knows, maybe I sliced them thicker, or maybe my oven is on the cooler side and I should have upped the heat. Whatever the case, they looked great in the end, even if I cannot tell you they tasted great. Samuel gave them the thumbs-up, and he doesn’t even like sweet things generally.

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Doubling the recipe made quite a few; I count about 30. These keep well, ship well, dunk in coffee well 😊 Enjoy!!

 

*recipe from my William-Sonoma Cookies and Biscotti cookbook, Time-Life Custom Publishing, 1993

A Pumpkin Custard Irregularity

Yesterday a can of pumpkin called my name. I know January isn’t when you usually think of pumpkin. Most canned pumpkin sold in the US sells in the fall, not in the winter, spring or summer.* Still, I saw it sitting there in my pantry when I was looking for the wheat flour and it called my name. Pumpkin is really good for you. It’s loaded with Vitamins A and C, and a cup of it has more potassium than a banana. Plus, I was hungry, and a great recipe for pumpkin custard popped into my head. It’s from my friend Bobbe (to whom I apologize if I have abominated her recipe).

Pumpkin custard is basically pumpkin pie without the crust. Maybe not quite as rich, and you have to be willing to eat custard without crust. Granted, a pie crust is the perfect, flakey, slightly crispy compliment to the smooth, velvety custard/pie. The combo is worth the trouble…usually. But not always. Sometimes I don’t want to make a crust, or I don’t have time. Sometimes I just want the creamy part – a quick and easy mixing of ingredients and into a baking dish it goes.

Yesterday I had another idea, a new idea. I opened the can of pumpkin, then found the molasses and poured a bit in. I didn’t remember that molasses isn’t in my pumpkin custard recipe – it’s in my pumpkin pie recipe – oh well! (This is what happens when you start putting stuff in the bowl before you open the cookbook.) Plus I didn’t actually measure the molasses, so never mind about it unless you want to put a tablespoon or two in there; it won’t affect anything except to make the flavor richer. I got the brown sugar out, and then the eggs and all the other ingredients – all while contemplating a strange addition. It was breakfast-time, okay, so I can be forgiven for this I think. How about some oatmeal?

Oatmeal?? Oatmeal!! I took down my beauteous old tin (isn’t it beauteous?)

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and (definitely did not measure this) added two handfuls of the old-fashioned oats contained within – what I could hold in one hand twice. I stirred it all up and poured it into the 8×8” cast iron pan I had had heating up in a 375F oven with a pat of butter in it (the recipe says 350, but 375 worked just fine). I cooked it till it was set, wondering all the while if I was crazy. It’ll just be pumpkin custard with a bit of texture to it, I told myself. It takes a while for this to bake, and I was doubting myself considerably the whole time, I won’t lie. But it wasn’t half bad! Actually I was quite pleased with not-overly-sweet pumpkin flavor and the nice oatmealy texture!

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This photo doesn’t come close to doing it justice, but really, if you want a twist on pumpkin custard that works for breakfast, this is worth a go! You could eat it hot, warm or cold, but I think warm is best. I was pretty excited about it, and mentioned it to Samuel when he came out from his coding-cave. He said, “You did what?!” I told him again and he said, “Mom, that’s like putting peas in bread! It just doesn’t go together!”

I said, “Frozen peas or canned peas?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Either way, both are food combinations that don’t make sense.”

I am not ready to put peas in my bread dough and see what happens any time soon. But oats in pumpkin custard isn’t that weird, is it? Let’s just call it irregular. A long time ago I read a book called Irregular People* which was about exactly what you think it would be about (and can’t we all think of someone who fits that word?!). Irregular is a very cool word anyway, even if it does, for me, conjure up images of strange and/or difficult people. I’ve decided that it applies nicely to my custard-oatmeal combination, if I may say so.

In case you are inclined to think out of the custard box and the oatmeal box, so to speak, and in case you have a can of pumpkin in your pantry that you should use before next fall, you might want to give this a whirl. Here’s the recipe from my cookbook, typed out below in case the handwriting is hard to read. With or without some oats thrown in for a little texture, enjoy!

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Pumpkin Custard

Preheat oven to 350F.
Combine:
1 ½ cups cooked, strained pumpkin (one 15oz/425g can)
2/3 cup brown sugar (I did not add this much, but did add some molasses)
3 beaten eggs (I did not beat mine before adding them in)
1 ½ cups scalded milk (I added it cold and it worked fine)
1 Tablespoon cornstarch (I forgot this)
1 teaspoon cinnamon (yes)
½ teaspoon ginger (yes)
¼ teaspoon each ground cloves and nutmeg (I did not add these)
(I added two handfuls old-fashioned oats)

Pour in buttered baking dish (don’t you love how the recipe assumes you know what size dish to use? I used my 8×8” cast iron)
Bake 45 minutes or till set.

 

*According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Libby’s (owned by Nestle), with 90% of the US market for canned pumpkin, sells 90% of it from October through January.

** Irregular People by Joyce Landorf Heatherley, 1982

A Bit Brisk

On Friday of last week we arrived at Lincoln and Julia’s straw bale house in Vermont at about 430 in the afternoon. Temperatures were in the single digits, maybe below zero already – at that point, what does it matter? – and lots of snow blanketed the ground. Six-year-old Rise came out to greet me wearing her pajamas, leggings, socks, slippers and a sweater. “It’s a bit brisk,” she said plainly.

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This photo was taken before the 18” or so of fresh snow that fell the next day. Do you see those icicles hanging on the side of the house? They looked like this straight on.

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Yes, that’s plastic on the windows. That’s as far as they have gotten so far. It’s a double layer of 6ml plastic, which is a fairly decent wind block. In case you were wondering, straw bales have great insulatory value, but are much more effective when they have been mudded and sealed, which will happen in warmer weather. As of Friday night there was also no upper floor insulation except for the air trap – the 1/2” green foam insulation sheeting over 2” foam blocks separating the green from the inside surface of the plywood of the roof. On Saturday morning, following Lincoln’s birthday party Friday night, he and Julia posed for me on that upper floor.

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You see lots of green but no pink puffy insulation. That’s because they had barely begun that part. Over the course of three days, the upper floor went from this …

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…to this. The walls (not the ceiling yet, but they’re getting there!) are fully pinked!

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You can imagine that the pink makes quite a difference regarding heat loss and therefore overall warmth.

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I will come back to the specifics of the construction. For now I just want to make it clear that without insulation it wasn’t overly warm in there. At one point I found Eppie standing between the couch and the chair next to it eating ice. Where did she get the ice she is very happily eating?

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Right behind her, where post meets straw bale meets interior 6ml plastic, there’s a bit of ice. But only here and there.

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While the exterior temperatures varied between -11 and 8 (-23 to -13C), the interior temperature maintained a steady mid- to upper-50s (12-14C), which is a tremendous improvement over the 25-30 degree F differential they experienced at first. By Monday evening when all the insulation was in the upper walls, the house was holding at 58F with a good fire going in the wood stove even though there was a fierce wind making the below-zero temps feel much colder outside. Here we are playing Ocean Bingo…

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…and sneaking Samuel’s homemade crackers.

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You can see that neither Rise (who walked outside in her pajamas) nor Eppie (ice-eater) seems to need the hat and multiple layers of wool that I do not feel quite comfortable enough to take off, though toward the end, as the pink upstairs increased, I unzipped the vest a few times. Half the time, the girls forget to wear their slippers and are running around the house barefoot or in just socks.

Oh, the poor socks. Here is what happens when socks meet sawdust. Ah, well, they function just the same!

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During the weekend snowstorm, while the wind blew and the temps outside maxed out at 4F (-15C) — not counting wind chill — we were continually shoveling a path.

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This family continues to amaze me. They take it all in stride and don’t see how extraordinary it all is. They just live there, dressing appropriately, taking one day at a time, gradatim ferociter: step by step with ferocity. It will all get done. They will put the rest of the insulation in; hang, tape and paint the sheetrock; mud and paint the straw bale walls inside and out; install a wood floor on top of the subfloor and (yes!) enjoy hot and cold running water – all in good time. Even when it’s a bit brisk!

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Lyn’s Comfort Quilt

Hopefully every one of us bears witness to – or is blessed to be part of – a truly wonderful marriage. I’m talking about the kind of marriage in which both people know beyond any doubt that they are each other’s best friend, that only together are they the best individuals they could be, that because of being together their lives are full, rich and meaningful to the limit of what humans can experience and that words like commitment, trust, companionship, care and joy are not just words, but are lived out in tangible, consistent ways.

Lyn and Bertie had one such marriage. I got to know them in my early 20s and was blessed to watch in awe for decades as they walked their godly ways, kindly opening their home to me and many others, being the best of neighbors and friends, modeling grace, humor, generosity and gentleness. Ten years ago we stood in their living room capturing a single moment in their wonderful world.

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We never want sad things to happen, especially to people we love, but we know we are not immune, that we will not escape crying buckets when the realities of life and death impose upon us their at-times-devastating ways. There are no words for the heartache that comes, as it did for Lyn a year ago, when one of a perfect pair is left behind.

I had tried for years to tell Lyn how much she meant to me, how her everyday walk inspired my own, how her selfless service to those in her path shone brightly and brought good beyond measure. I wrote notes and letters mostly, but words are just words, as they say, and you can’t hold them in your hands and they don’t dry tears.

My dear friend Kim, Lyn and Bertie’s only daughter, had an idea that turned into an opportunity for me to show my love, gratitude and admiration. Shortly after her father passed away, Kim told me she wanted to use his shirts to make pillows (or something similar) to remind her own sons and their cousins of their grandfather. As we talked, the idea quickly evolved into using those same shirts to make a quilt for her mom – a way to help her feel close to him, to be wrapped up in him, to have a part of him near. Kim said the only problem was that she herself would have a hard time cutting her father’s shirts.

That’s where I came in. One thing led to the next and Kim sent me the shirts – mostly conservative, neutral buttondown oxfords that were either solid color or had teeny, muted plaids, but also one dark green solid, a work shirt as Kim called it. All of them had (as men’s shirts generally do) a chest pocket. Bertie always kept a hard candy in his chest pocket to be able to offer one to others, but also, as Kim says, “as handy access for himself because he loved sweets!” He also liked to wear bold-striped rugby shirts, but using knit fabrics along with woven fabrics would be tricky, plus the stripes are proportionally bigger than would work well.

Kim agreed to leave the project in my hands. I did what I always do when a quilt is happening – I opened my own fabric scrap boxes and began to see what might work alongside the shirt fabrics. By themselves, the oxfords and the one dark green would have a hard time being interesting, even if they were the core of the piece. I found some perfect blue and white bold-striped material, a miniature version of rugby stripes that would serve as the rugby element and got Kim’s permission to add color and some femininity – it would, after all, be a lady’s (a dear lady’s) quilt and lay on her bed in a room papered with tiny rosebuds.

I had some other good coordinating fabric scraps, but not enough, nor enough variety of color. Coincidentally, my friend Anett was coming from Germany to visit for five days in April. If anyone has an eye for color and design, it’s Anett. We went to the store and found the following to add to the shirts and what I already had.

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Making a quilt is more fun together. This was already a group project with Kim’s idea, Anett’s eye and Lyn’s consent. It was even better that Anett was willing to iron, cut and organize squares with me. We even got a few of the nine-squares sewn together while she was here. My dining room table was the perfect work surface.

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Anett and I cut large squares of the shirt fabric and alternated these with nine-squares that themselves were put together with a variety of fabrics. After Anett left, I kept going, hugely motivated by the hope that somehow this quilt would bring comfort to Lyn. I knew I was taking a chance with the additional fabrics. I hoped, for example, that the polka dots (tiny as they were) wouldn’t strike her as frivolous or too playful at a time when her heart hurt so much.

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I played around with the arrangement a good bit, getting closer to what seemed best every time I moved them around on my bed, and finally got them connected with the strips of gray that form the mullions of the panes. I chose a lighter gray for the back, a soft flannel sheet in fact that looked silvery to me, like the silver lining of a cloud. I chose one of the shirt pockets and appliqued it on the back of the quilt in the upper left, about where (proportionately) a shirt pocket sits on a shirt.

The dark green worked as a defining border around the edge. Kim said later, “One thing that struck us about the quilt is that you used my dad’s work shirt cut into those small strips as the edging to frame it and hold it all together. Far beyond the dark green edging looking nice, it was symbolic of my dad’s hard work, strength and care for his family.”

I quilted the three layers together and carved Bertie + Lyn on a tree, so to speak, on one of the shirt squares. If any part of this project brought tears to my eyes (and still does), it’s this.

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Some of you may recall that in the early spring there was a huge building project at my house – a new chicken coop. I had helped dismantle the old run, dig post holes for the new run, set the cedar posts in cement and erect the foundational elements of the new coop. Then right at the end of April, I got sick. I got a coughing sickness that kept me pretty much planted on the couch for almost a month. By the time this happened, the main part of the quilt was together and mostly handwork remained. Had I not been sick and confined to indoor, quiet work, I am not sure how this quilt would have been finished by the time Kim and I planned to rendezvous at Yoder’s in Madison, Virginia, for the hand-off in May. But it was.

Before I packed it up, I put a hard candy in the pocket.

Kim had asked me to send a photo of the quilt while it was in process. I had this photo of it finished…

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… but I told her a photo would spoil it, would not give the best idea of it (I still think this) so I didn’t send it. She waited. I was very happy that when she finally held it in her hands, she was sure her mom would like it.

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Along with the quilt I sent a note to Lyn. It included: No doubt you will recognize Bertie’s shirts. But all by themselves they would have made a very dull quilt indeed and not come close to reflecting his unique personality. Plus, we all know that only together with you was he the man he was. You were there every step of the way and he needed you as you needed him. So the quilt had to reflect you too. You are so beautiful!

Oh the fun I had! There had to be some bold stripes for his rugby shirts, a pocket for his candy, some rosebuds and other flowers and some pink for you, some softness, some delicacy, splashes of color, old and new, subtle and fun, conventional and unexpected, greens for the Green Mountains of Vermont, blues for the glorious, endless sky, golds for the golden years you had together, your names carved together somehow (I hope you like the how!).  Hopefully the fabrics, each in different ways, bring you good, peaceful, comforting thoughts, and the combination of them pleases your eye and your heart. Hopefully it looks nice in your room and adds warmth in ways that only God can make happen. Hopefully Bertie feels a little bit closer.

Lyn sent me a beautiful, heartfelt letter of thanks that overjoyed me. Kim said, “The quilt is a treasure. Mom snuggles down beneath it as she rests. I often go in and rub my hands over it when I am at the house. It feeds the longing I have to be near my dad. I think the quilt, made with love and with all its symbolism, is the most beautiful gift you could have given my mom to bring comfort to her broken heart.”

When I went to Vermont in August, I got a big hug from Lyn and was able to see it on her bed. How blessed am I to have such marvelous people in my life, and how grateful to have had the opportunity to give back some small measure of good to Lyn, who has done more for me and for everyone around her than she will ever know.

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