Straw Bale House Part 3 (Yurt)

A Shower or a Fridge: Which Would You Choose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…small bunk beds for the girls along one side…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straw Bale House: Part 2 (Site)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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*coincidentally the motto of the rocket company Blue Origin

The Light of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Trees Among Friends and Family

Sometimes I forget things. My first waking thought today, Christmas morning, was not (I am sorry to say) about the real meaning of Christmas, but instead Oh, right, I told Mom I would make scalloped potatoes to go with the dinner today – better get to that! Yesterday was pure relaxation after Samuel helped me finish up the chocolate lime pie, our traditional Christmas dessert. I got out a new (very hard!) jigsaw puzzle and got completely absorbed with that until we turned on It’s A Wonderful Life while enjoying Samuel’s excellent pizza.

Now I realize I also forgot all about the popcorn garland I was going to add to the Christmas tree. Could have done that yesterday too. Do you think it needs it?

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Speaking of trees, I almost didn’t put one up. I was so enchanted with the way my outdoor tree looked this year, especially when we got snow, I said to myself, It’s enough. I wished it had snowed before I made up my Christmas cards this year!

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But snow (in Virginia) melts and various people I know sent me photos of their Christmas trees. How could this not nudge me??

Louisa in North Carolina was the first. How amazing that her tree is not only so incredibly beautiful but that she got her precious pups to pose in front!

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My sister Lynn in Massachusetts was next. I love the way her star on top shines on the ceiling, so soft, and I bet it looks different from different angles and at different times of day.

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Fred in Kentucky, I venture to say, could tell you where every ornament came from. How precious a walk through memories…

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Marie’s (in Idaho) made me smile big. They went out with neighbors and cut one from the woods. I love it!

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Even more precious was the photo of Ellie, who is three, holding an ornament. Marie said, “Grandma gave me this one when I was three.” I hope Ellie’s child (someday) is smiling as she holds the ornament I sent Ellie this year…

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Claudia’s tree in Germany is full and jolly!

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I also loved her table decoration prepared in time for the first Sunday of Advent. How we take such simple elements and put them together to make something so pretty and meaningful!

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Kim’s in Vermont is not exactly a tree, but it is made from branches of trees! At their family camp where they traditionally get their trees there just … weren’t any. She said it’s growing on her and is much more manageable than a real tree! I love it!

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We make do and we make it wonderful! Lincoln and Julia in Vermont, in their straw bale house, decided to be even more unconventional. I love theirs too!

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Lincoln’s, Kim’s and Marie’s made me think – here I am with the unboring path and yet I have a rather conventional tree. They get the prize for Unconventional! How fun and wonderful to see such a lovely variety, to bear witness to the creativity of those I know, to see and hear about the joy and fun that surrounds this custom.  They all made me smile! What a funny custom it is – we buy a tree or go to the woods to cut one down (or cut some branches, if you are Kim and Dave), then install (assemble?) it indoors in a prominent place and decorate it with our favorite ornaments. Or if you are Lincoln and Julia, you put up some lights and hang ornaments and use your imagination! What a special way once a year to slow down, do something unnecessary but just fun,  share a tradition with countless others and revisit our Christmas memories as we make new ones.

Merry Christmas! God bless us every one!

Lincoln’s Pentagonal, Straw Bale Insulated House in Vermont

My son Lincoln is building a house, but not a normal house. Twenty de-barked trees taken from his six-acre riverside property in northern Vermont constitute the vertical supports, and the first-floor walls are stacked straw bales that serve as insulation. Oh, and the pentagonal design means the corners aren’t square.

Presently it looks like this. The smoke coming out of that stovepipe might lead you to think it’s warm in there. Indeed, it’s warmer than outside!

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Last week Samuel and I traveled to Vermont to work alongside Lincoln and better understand his project. I found myself awestruck not only by the hard work, craftsmanship and ingenuity evident everywhere, but also by the fortitude, patience and ease with which every member of the family is walking through this process.

First of all, it’s not warm in Vermont in December. It wasn’t warm in November either. This year, Thanksgiving was the coldest on record (11 degrees Fahrenheit, -11C), and snowfall broke the previous record set in 1900 with 32” (81cm) of snow in November. As Lincoln has been building this unusual, amazing house, he and his wife Julia and their two delightful daughters (Rise and Eppie, 6 and 4) have been living in a 16’ (4.8 meter)-diameter yurt on the same property. It has a wood stove that keeps it toasty, but the privy is detached and the adjacent “greenhouse” that Lincoln and Julia slept in is unheated.

Some nights it got down to –4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20C). Think about that. How many blankets would you need? They would turn their electric blanket on about 40 minutes before going to bed. A couple weeks ago when he was about to get the wood stove in the house set up, Lincoln said, “It’s very exciting for those of us sleeping in unheated greenhouses waking up to -4 degrees on our faces.” When I said I could not even imagine how that feels, he said, “Eh. Our electric blanket is awesome. It’s basically just like getting out of bed into a walk in the freezer.”

You can see the yurt and the greenhouse down the hill from where Samuel is standing with Coco tucked into his jacket. (She was a constantly shivering camper during this week, but that is another story!)

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This is glorified camping. In the winter. In Vermont. As the fire dies down, you can sometimes see your breath inside, but no one seems to notice. None of them complain. They just carry on. Here we are cooking dinner together in the yurt one night early last week. I have an ear warmer on under that hat, and I am wearing four layers on top (including a wool sweater and an alpaca sweater), and two on the bottom (cold weather leggings under snow pants) and the girls are in regular clothes, oblivious.

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There is no running water right now. The pipe that brought water into the yurt froze during the very cold November. No matter. They bring in water in large containers such as the one behind me in the photo above, filling and refilling at their friends’ house (Zach and Nicole live a very short drive away). But there’s electricity and internet. They have a fridge, a stove, a microwave and a toaster oven. You heat up water to do the dishes. You put on another sweater if you feel cold.

Lincoln works on the house day after day, one task at a time. Julia works outside the home, coming and going with gentle, saintly tolerance. Rise goes to kindergarten and Eppie to preschool, and I suspect few of their classmates are as unspoiled or resilient, or as well equipped to handle the various forms of adversity that their own lives will bring. The snow, the cold, the construction zone, the tight quarters, the inconveniences – they all take it in stride. They may not have running water yet, but they will. In the meantime, as they love, support and serve one another with smiles and strength and kindness, they are happy, healthy and secure in a peaceful, incredibly beautiful place. They ask for nothing and have everything they truly need.

I stand in awe.

Lincoln could have built a normal house, and it would have been done by now, or nearly done. A normal house would have square corners, a shingled roof and indoor plumbing as it applies to both kitchen and bathroom. There would not be sawdust and bits of straw everywhere or 6ml plastic for windows.

But he didn’t. He created a unique home design that is enormously ambitious and unconventional. He is living his dream, and Julia, God bless her, is his perfect partner.

Lincoln’s dream is a lot of work (a lot of work!), but it lets girls be prairie dogs,

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includes dizzying heights,

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demands outstanding joinery,

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and creates surreal images.

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I hope these few photos have whet your appetite. I plan to do a more thorough step-by-step of his building journey in future posts. If you have any questions or want me to explore any particular aspect of the project more, let me know.

Guy on Window

Bizarre as it was – the sounds, the images, the mind associations – no one flinched. No one asked for an explanation, no one cared. We all just carried on as if there weren’t a guy on the window, as if a guy on the window happens every day. Let’s take GUY ON WINDOW one word at a time.

GUY: Guy refers to a male generally, unless it’s used in the “What do you guys want to drink?” colloquialism, but that is a different conversation. I am from New Jersey. When we say “I know a guy” it means “I know a man who does X [and I can talk to him about doing X for you].” I have often been amazed at how, for the most part, even from afar (though this is not foolproof of course), we can instantly tell if someone is male or female just from how they stand or walk or gesture. We don’t need to see their face. We don’t need hairstyle or other typical gender signifiers. They can be bundled in bulky clothes. Something about the image tells us “male” or “female.” I’d put money on it: this was a guy on the window.

ON: On is a preposition that implies adherence to or connection to another object. According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, “on” means “in or into a position covering, touching or forming part of a surface” as in

“a picture on a wall

There’s a mark on your skirt.

the diagram on page 5

Put it down on the table.

He had been hit on the head.

She climbed on to the bed.

What you don’t see here in this list of possible uses for “on” is “guy on window” or even “there’s a guy on the window.” Because it’s unusual. When I say on, in this case, I mean in-a-position-touching-the-surface-of-[the-vertical-third-floor-window].

WINDOW: Windows are generally glass and generally flat planes. This one was. Sometimes they open to let in air, and sometimes they are sealed shut. The kind in office buildings, especially on upper levels, are usually sealed. This one was on the third floor, and it was sealed. Windows need to be cleaned now and then. This one apparently did.

Of course we weren’t sure what was going on at first. At first all you saw was a foot.

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I was waiting for my mom to get through her appointment with the eye doctor.  There are many aspects to the appointment – various tests and various waiting periods. When you go there as the driver, you know it will be a while. Last time it took almost two hours. This time was better, only an hour and 35 minutes. Still, that’s a lot of time to observe what is going on.

Those of us sitting in the waiting room had heard water being sprayed. We had seen water streaming down the window. Someone new walked in and said, “Is it raining?”

No, not raining, but oh, look, there’s a guy on the window. Yeah, so, a guy on the window. Big deal. He has the right equipment. The water he uses to clean the windows with comes out of the nozzle because it is hooked up to a system that supplies it. He is agile enough to manage this job. He is strong enough to hold everything. He is not afraid to be up that high, though he is strapped in somehow I’m sure. He is paid enough for him to want to do this work. The businesses in this building are doing well enough to pay someone to wash the windows. The building is well made so that no water seeps through. Etc!

So much has to be in place just for this one guy to clean the windows!

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I thought about this today while Samuel and I were driving to Vermont. It took 12 hours, the first five of which were in horrible rain. Despite the rain and the accompanying driving conditions, we realized that it’s remarkable to be able to drive 650 miles in one day. Like the guy on the window, so many factors have to be in place for this to happen: We have to have a car that runs, money to put gas into it, good health to be able to make a trip. The roads have to be in good repair, we need to be able to find the gas to put in the car, so there must be gas stations along the way. The state borders through which we travel (Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont) – indeed all of the states in the US – allow free travel – no border stops, no restrictions, just keep going. We have jobs and schedules that give us the time to travel. Etc!

And because of all of this, now I get to spend several days with my sweet granddaughters and help my son and his wife with their new house – his straw-bale-insulated, pentagonal house on six rural acres in Vermont, which I will tell you more about soon.

In the meantime, remember that the things to be grateful for never end.

When I Grow Up

As we left Lyn’s house in Vermont last week, she handed me a jar of cookies, homemade maple cookies, homemade by Lyn herself of course. My heart warmed on seeing that jar, wrapped up pretty with beautiful, delicious cookies inside. It was my jar and she was, on the surface of it, giving me my jar back. This past winter, I had used it to give her some of my Virginia applesauce. In Lyn’s book, you don’t return the jar empty, or the container, or the plate, or whatever was used to give you a gift of food. You give it back with something yummy. It’s a thing. It’s a wonderful thing.

cookies from Lyn Boyce.jpg

This is Eppie, who might not remember this jar of cookies, but I hope she will always give something back in a similarly beautiful way. I hope when she gets older, she meets a dear lady who becomes for her as Lyn has been for me.

Lyn B2

This is Lyn. I want to tell you what she did to my stove. In my early twenties, our first house had an old electric stove in the kitchen that was, well, gross. It’s one thing to make a mess yourself and clean it imperfectly, but someone else’s mess, someone else’s baked-on spills, someone else’s goo dripping down that narrow space between the side of the stove and the counter – that is just gross.

The man we bought the house from had left a tea kettle sitting on the back burner, which succeeded in hiding the fact that there was no coil under it. Discovering the missing coil and realizing his deception was disappointment enough for me to have talked about it, and in telling the story, I must have mentioned that the stove was not exactly appealing in its present condition. I might have used the word gross. Lyn said to me, “I will come and clean your stove.” Being five months pregnant at the time, I did not argue.

Neither did I have any idea what she meant by “cleaning” my stove. She showed up in work clothes and over the course of two and a half days, she took that stove apart – screw by screw! She scrubbed and polished every piece individually, so that all old grossness of any kind that might have remained lodged between two pieces was able to be removed. Then she put it all back together.

I never saw a person clean anything so thoroughly, to say nothing giving two and a half days of their own time to do it. The stove was an ugly color, that goldish tone that was popular in the 1970s and remained in many kitchens until those stoves one by one kicked the bucket. But despite the (soon replaced) missing coil, it worked, and I was not going to have a new one any time soon. By the time Lyn got through with it, that stove was shining like new and not nearly as ugly. In fact, I could not help but smile when I looked at it. I remember being awestruck at her willingness to ensure that I would have a clean stove.

What a gift she gave me! Who was I that she would do this for me? Why she would go out of her way and work so hard for me like that? And how could saying “thank you” even come close to expressing my gratitude? In my twenty-something, bumbling way I asked her, “What can I ever do to repay you?”

She didn’t miss a beat, but replied gently, “Someday, someone will need their stove cleaned. You clean their stove, and you have repaid me.”

I like to think that anyone would have realized at that moment what an extraordinary human being she is. I did think that. But my thought specifically was – and still is – “When I grow up, I want to be like her.”

It wasn’t just the stove of course. It was cookies coming to me or coming back to me, time and again. It was hours spent listening to me working my way verbally through some perplexing issue or current crisis. It was a lot of kind questions that made me think she genuinely cared about me, though I still didn’t know why she would. Her amazing generosity and warm welcomes were love in action and made me feel loved, to say nothing of her maple cookies, apple squares and buttery turnips! Lyn made the best turnips I ever had! One Christmas after moving to Virginia I was feeling especially homesick for Vermont, which perhaps she knew and perhaps she didn’t. She kindly sent a box of her apple squares, wrapped well for the journey. But to fill the small bit of empty space in the box she did not use Styrofoam peanuts or newspaper. No, she thought to cut some sprigs of a fir tree so that when I opened the box, the pine scent brought me back to Vermont instantly.

I could go on, but perhaps you get the idea that I love and admire her very much. May every woman have such a woman in her life! May every man have a man so worthy and respectable as to inspire the same kind of hope, the kind that says I want to be like that someday! The vision of that someday will stop us short when we are tempted to be lazy or unkind or bad-tempered. The vision inspires. Like the ripples in a pond, the actions of people like Lyn inspire our own actions which hopefully in turn inspire someone else’s actions. In a few years when I show Eppie the photo of herself with the jar of cookies, I’ll tell her what it’s all about. Maybe she’ll get it. Or maybe someone will clean her stove, so to speak.

May we all have people in our lives to admire, to emulate, to learn from – people of such shining, wonderful character that your own life is richer just knowing them. Let us never forget how important we are to one another, how important our actions are and how far the ripples reach.

The Maze of Life

I love it when people find ingenious ways to make money using what they already have. For 20 years a farm family in Vermont has been planting 24 acres of corn, cutting an intricate maze into it, charging admission and making untold numbers of people thrilled that they found their way out! Here is a previous year’s maze to give you an idea of what they do.

maze1 (2).jpg

There is a boat and a bridge in this one; a boat and two bridges in the next.

maze2 (2).jpg

Perhaps it’s hard to understand the scale from the aerial photos. What it looks like from atop one of the bridges is this:

long view.jpg

That’s a boat way out in the distance. The corn is taller than all but the tallest people. And even if you were a giant, it would be hard to see which path to take.

BBP.jpg

There are a lot of pointless loops and dead ends. There are “guides” posted on the bridges, wholesome yet also rather smirky young people who may or may not steer you right, and they will tell you they may or may not be steering you right! (I may be reading the smirky into it.) There are two “frustration bells” located in random places just to give you something to do when you feel like you are going in circles. There are numerous paper punches mounted on stands that all make a different shaped hole in the card they give you to punch: star, apple, boat, teddy bear, umbrella, hand moon, leaf, etc. Mine looked like this by the end.

card (2).jpg

You are supposed to punch the card every time you come to one, and when you are all done, you “compare your sequence of punched shapes to their locations marked on the aerial photo in the admissions booth to see how you solved the maze.” Let’s just say I used the card as a way to feel like we were making some progress. If you come to the same hole puncher twice, you are really in a loop! We only did that once that I remember, but I was piggy-back-carrying my almost six-year-old granddaughter a good deal of the time, so forgive me if my memory is a bit fuzzy on the details.

We were fortunate during our trek last week to have a scout in our party who often went on ahead and checked to see if we all should keep going that way or try another direction (thank you, Lincoln!). Nonetheless I am sure the nine of us went under one of the bridges at least three times. We discussed what mistakes we might have made. We tried to intelligently choose the next direction. On my own I would not possibly have made it out of there in the two and a half hours it took us.

I should have had a clue it was going to be as challenging as it was. Just getting to the place feels like going to the middle of nowhere.

sign2.jpg

You are on a dirt road (not that that’s unusual in Vermont). Finally you see the sign that says M [ear of corn] Z E 627 feet. 627 feet?? That’s your clue right there. This going to be fun!

sign.jpg

Parking is easy. There are goats to visit,

Lincoln and goat

toys to play with,

Eppie

and all kinds of fun things to do before entering the maze itself.

haybales1.jpg

It’s no wonder people love coming here. Kudos to the owners/designers who give us not only a fun and challenging way to spend time together. They have also made possible an experience that fabulously parallels real life, whether anyone but me thinks about it that way or not. How is a maze like this NOT a parallel of a person’s lifetime?

We come into it, we bumble around (fairly clueless), we think about it, we rest, we have a snack, we try again, we note the milestones, we carry the little ones, we share stories, we slow down for the slower ones we care about (or they slow down for us!), we feel a bit of success, we marvel at the complexity, we get dirty, we keep going, we get help (or not, as we choose), we discuss our options, we go the other person’s way sometimes, we laugh, we leave clues for other people and hope it helps, we get frustrated (not that bridge again!), we make progress, we get tired, we sense we are getting to the end, we celebrate, we finish and we sit down!

Seems about right to me. Some people bumble more than others, some have more successes, some carry little ones more often, some get dirtier. But all in all, life is a maze. We don’t know what’s around the next bend, we don’t know how long it will take us to get through it, we don’t know what our path will be until we start going along. We back up and start again sometimes. We experience surprise, frustration, challenge, relief. We keep going.

I am in the middle of my own maze as you are in yours. Don’t you love it?!

The Cookbook Comes Out

I grew up in the era of television commercials. One of my favorites was for Almond Joy and Mounds: Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t! I don’t eat nuts at all, and even if you took the almond off the top of the Almond Joy I would not eat it, though I am fairly sure it is exactly the same dark chocolate covered coconut underneath as Mounds is. I would eat Mounds endlessly if only there were not a price to pay for such a delicious indulgence.

I find it’s the same with living in the country. Sometimes you feel like going outside and getting yourself busy with something that is likely to involve wheelbarrows, garden gloves and sweating. Some days I wake up and can hardly wait to get out there. Yesterday I was so anxious to get going (on weeding of all things! It had rained, okay? and I knew the ground was soft, and I had guests coming, and it would get hot later…) that I got dressed in my grubbies before even taking the dog out, then just stayed out there weeding after she did her thing. She stood next to me for that hour with a look on her face that clearly said: This is not the way this works. We get up, we go out, I do my thing, we go back in, you feed me breakfast, then you do whatever else you want. What’s up with messing with the routine? Hungry here! Starving! Wasting away!

Needless to say, she survived the wait. When we went out after breakfast, she came again, this time standing there with the look that said: Yes, great, my belly is full, but do you really expect me to lay down on these stones? I went and got the old pink towel that doubles as a soft outside blanket for her (which of us is well trained!?), put it in the middle of the driveway where she would be near but not underfoot, and watched her lay down and look up at me with her That’s more like it face.

Coco on towel

But sometimes you don’t feel like going outside. Today I had no such drive. It was a pleasant morning just the same as yesterday, cool enough, calm, lovely. I wasn’t put off by the coyotes howling somewhere in the distance. I didn’t feel overly tired or sore. There is plenty to do out there (and there will be for the rest of my days!). But my inner voice said No, today is a good day to bake!

My 10-year-old great niece Kaileena is coming for a visit with her 4-year-old sister Brea, her mom (my niece Erika) and her grandma (my sister Lynn). I was thinking yesterday about what Kaileena and I will do together next week when the others have gone to North Carolina. I was thinking about baking. We will make pizza together for sure, and maybe crackers (some of you might remember my cracker post from a few years ago – I have a hankering for those again!).

But before they come, some baking would be good. Think about how you feel when you go visit a family member or a friend and they have baked for you or prepared yummy food of any kind for you. That’s how I want my friends and family to feel. Besides, good neighbors of mine brought me some scrumptious lemon bars this past Saturday and I want to give the container back, but with something in it. Many years ago, my friend Kim told me that she and her mom had a plate that went back and forth between them a number of times because neither one wanted to give an empty plate back to the other. I always liked this idea, so I will put something yummy in Jen’s container.

Like anyone who is comfortable in the kitchen, I have some old stand-by, tried-and-true recipes for sweet things that time and again I find myself falling back on. Why? Because they are good! Chocolate chip bars, for instance. Strawberry tea cake. Oatmeal cookies. Sour cream coffee cake – oh, with blueberries in it at this time of year! That won’t fit in Jen’s container very well though. And two children are coming…

I settled on chocolate chip bars, which I made countless times over the years, so many times that the recipe was clearly in my head. I said was because I was a little disappointed in myself this morning in that I was slightly unsure of the amount of butter (Rule Number One: Always use real butter). Being unsure meant that I had to take the cookbook out.

THE cookbook.

Back in the day everyone had a cookbook, everyone I knew anyway. Well, some people had a little file box with 5×7 recipe cards in it, but that system never worked for me. You write recipes on a scrap of paper sometimes, or the back of an envelope, and scraps don’t fit well in a file box. Here is one example from my book. Believe it or not, this is a recipe:

scalloped potatoes

Mario Da Silva was the Villa lunch chef at Keswick Hall for years. He verbalized this recipe to me and I scrawled it out (clearly in a hurry!). It says

Scalloped Potatoes (Mario Da Silva)

3 onions

chop fine

4-5 cloves garlic

fine chop

olive oil    saute    S&P

(What is the difference between “chop fine” and “fine chop”? You tell me!)

heavy cream

mozz cheese

when sticky    stop

parsley

set aside

slice potatoes

boil

 

in pan

spoon of sauce

layer

mozz on top

parsley on top

bake

That makes sense, right? I’ve made these potatoes several times. They are my mother’s favorite.  Mario now works as the Executive Chef at the Holiday Inn in Sarasota, Florida. If you are in Sarasota, go eat there. Trust me. I never saw a chef get more accolades! And he’s cute besides! (Hello, Mario and Mary!)

My cookbook is in a three-ring binder using plastic sleeves. That way, whatever slip of paper or card a recipe is on, I can find a way for it to fit. For the most part, the recipes written in the standard way, with a list of ingredients followed by instructions. The style of Mario’s potato recipe is the exception (you knew that).

I love so many things about my cookbook. Back in the day I had two smaller notebooks instead of one bigger one. I had one for BREADS CAKES / PIES COOKIES and one for EVERYTHING ELSE. Guess you know where my priorities were! I covered the notebooks the way we used to cover our schoolbooks with brown paper bags cut to fit, except I had book cover paper that had been a giveaway at a Ben & Jerry’s stand at the fair one summer in the mid 90s.

The paper was so colorful and fun. We lived in Vermont then and Ben & Jerry’s was still a local business. I loved my cookbooks covered in this paper:

ben and jerry 2

When I made cookbooks for each of my children about ten years ago, I didn’t have any more Ben & Jerry’s paper, so I scanned the last image in The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, retold and illustrated by Lorinda Bryan Cauley. It is one of my favorite images from when my children were small and I used to read to them (a lot).  I think it made a great cover for a cookbook.

towncountrymouse

The text just prior to this image says: “Then off he went to his snug little home in the fields, whistling a tune and looking forward to a good book by the fire and a mug of hot barley-corn soup.” The cozy chair, the tea kettle on the stove, the cinnamon swirl bread in the oven (just like I made many times!), the soft lighting … I can almost smell that bread!

Inside my cookbook is a collection from many years of trading and finding good recipes. Many are handwritten, which is precious in its own way. One look at the recipe and I know who gave it to me, even if their name is not on it. I see Lyn Boyce’s handwriting, my daughter Marie’s from when she was a teenager, my son Samuel’s, my mom’s, my grandmother’s, my sister Lynn’s, Kim’s, Claudia’s, Anett’s, Crissie’s, Marisa’s, Judy’s, Margaret’s, Eileen’s, and Mario’s (not quite as challenging to follow as my scrawl, but close!).

This is really good soup, by the way. Don’t you love it: “…PLUS 1 GALLON WATER… SALT PEPPER AS YOU WISH. AFTER EVERYTHING IS COOKED, JUST BLEND IT.” You know what that means, right? That means a blender, a few scoopfuls at a time. Did I mention that this is really good soup? And see, not everything in my cookbook has sugar in it!

Mario's yam soup

Handwriting is a reflection of personality and individuality, as unique to every person as their voice or their laugh. How blessed am I to have such a collection! I also see recipes cut from the side of packages or from magazines, printed from emails, hand-copied from other cookbooks, typed on an old typewriter. I see smudges, stains on the paper (from pre-plastic-sleeve days), translations (from some of the German recipes), even notes to me, like these:

Claudia's fettuccini (2)

Marisa's handwriting (2)

There is nothing in the world like the combination of good food together with friends and family. You can make all the amazing dishes you want, but if you don’t share with people you care about, something is missing. Sharing good recipes is not as fun as being with people you love and eating the food that good recipes make, but it’s right up there.

Back to the chocolate chip bars. The recipe (below) says Chocolate Chip Cookies. I haven’t made it as cookies in years. Bars are easier. You put all the dough (no need to grease the pan) in a 9×13 pan. I don’t know why it says 15×10 at the bottom of the recipe – ignore that! Spread it out and bake until golden brown on top, maybe 25-30 minutes, I’m not sure. You tell it’s done by the color, not too dark, not too light. When it has cooled, you cut them up however big you want them.

With bars, you also achieve a more reliable goo-factor — you know, when they are still fresh and the chocolate (which melts together more in bars) is so soft it’s gooey, even kind of a mess. Almost heaven. Almost because, like Mounds, there is a price to pay. Then again, life is short. Every now and then, by all means, pay up.

This recipe is so old, it’s from my pre-must-use-butter days. You see it calls for shortening, which I don’t even have in my cabinet any more. That’s part of the charm of it for me though. I look at the recipe and remember when I kept a cardboard can of white fatty stuff, and I used it! The flavor with butter is so superior, to say nothing of shortening being a mystery food for me, and I like to know what I’m eating: What is that white fatty stuff and what do they have to do to make it? We need to see our own progress sometimes to be reminded of how far we’ve come. It’s like finding some hideous shirt in my closet and thinking I used to wear that?! Then again, sometimes the shirt is hidden for a long time and years later I find it and say, Hey, look at that nice shirt! Maybe I’ll come around to shortening again too.

I always wondered about the half teaspoon of water – could it really make a difference?  What if the eggs are bigger than usual? Might that not be at least half a teaspoon of water difference in the overall amount of liquid going in? But I always put the water in anyway. Some things you just do.

This is the only recipe in my entire book with sections circled and numbered, which I clearly did after the fact. I think I did this in an attempt to tell someone (one of my children maybe?) what order to do it in. Sorry for any confusion. 1. Combine butter, sugars, vanilla and water and beat till smooth. 2. Beat in eggs. 3. Add dry ingredients (I never combine them first any more) and stir them in. 4. Stir in package of chips.

You can add a handful of old fashioned oats if you want. This adds texture and makes them a little easier to justify. A couple shakes of cinnamon is wonderful too. Or add some chopped nuts, let’s say half a cup, if you like nuts. Walnuts might be good, I’m not entirely sure. Nut-eaters could tell you better.

I could type out this recipe, but it wouldn’t be the same.

choc chip bars