Thursday, July 31, 2014

a pie story

My parents have been slogging away at finishing up their new house. They’re down to the floors, now. It’s slow-going, but the place is stunning. They show up on our doorstep every 24 hours or so to mooch off our internet, food, carpentry knowledge (my husband’s, not mine), but most of the time, they’re up at the property, their noses to the grindstone.

Now, as it turns out, their woods are full of blackberry bushes, so for a while there my mother turned her attention from oiling floors to picking berries. One day she invited my children to pick with her. I dropped them off with promises of blackberry pie ringing in their ears. The children returned with enough berries for a pie and a quart leftover for a cobbler: blueberry and raspberry, I think—my mother already dubbed my future creation “Black-and-Blue Cobbler.”

I was baking the promised pie on Saturday afternoon when Suburban Correspondent came to visit. It felt kinda cruel, baking a pie and not giving her any. But it would’ve still been hot and therefore too soupy. Besides, there was chocolate chip cookies and mint tea. Though—full disclosure—we ended up talking so long that the pie probably had plenty of time to set. But I kind of forgot about it by then. In fact, I kinda forgot about everything, so lost in conversation was I. I didn’t even think to feed them supper.

A word about meeting blogger-friends. Earlier this month, I met half of Mama Congo from, well...The Congo. Then, like I said, there was Suburban Correspondent from Suburbia. Mavis from out West pops in every now and then (last time she brought me a fifty-pound sack of potatoes from Lancaster). And this weekend we get to host the gang from Thrift At Home again. It’s so special—kind of magical, in a way—when virtual friendships cross the line to face-to-face ones. (I was going to say “real” ones but more and more, the line between virtual and real is looking pretty ragged.)

Anyway, the next afternoon I called up my parents and asked if we could come over with pie and milk. They said yes (because they are not dummies). Dad made coffee in their outdoor kitchen, and I got to have a tour of the place. Tours involve removing our shoes, standing on old rags, and then slishing across the floor, sopping up excess floor oil. It’s complicated. Mom showed off her dish-washing set-up (running water!) and I went around back to check out their outdoor sleeping quarters.

The kitchen. 
Notice the jars of canned blackberries on the counter.


Can you spy the running water? The stove? 


How we slish.


Go on. Pinterest it. I know you want to.


Windows for light, an open door.
(If you sang that caption, you might be Mennonite.)



Above the stairs.


He's wearing clean socks (I think), so it's okay.


Then we ate the pie.
In ten minutes flat.
And that was that.
The end. Goodbye.

This same time, years previous: joy, blueberry torn-biscuit cobbler, and chocolate beet cake.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

do you strew?

Strew, according to Wiki: scatter or spread (things) untidily over a surface or area. 

I’ve heard about strewing through a number of sources, but most recently through my reading in relation to unschooling (or self-directed learning). Simply put, parents scatter interesting materials around the house so the children (and adults, I suppose) have a wide variety of fascinating things to grab their attention. It’s a way of introducing ideas and information without being imposing. The decision to seize on it (or not) is up to the individual.

I am not adept at strewing. I often guess wrong at what might snag, and then I get discouraged when my carefully laid plans get ignored. It’s too much bother. Better to just send them outside to play with sticks.

But then two things happened. First, I read an article about how homes (the lived-in ones, anyway) are like museums: chock full of collections, stories, projects. Suddenly I saw my home through different eyes. Look at all the amazing stuff we have here to learn from! do! experience! explore! How can I make it even more interesting? Second, my younger children are playing more with the written word, and my older son begun to read the magazines and newspapers we have laying around—his interests are broadening and deepening.

A couple years ago, we inherited 30-plus years' worth of National Geographics in mint condition. Lacking an immediate shelving solution, we stuffed them in the attic. Ever since then, we’ve been brainstorming where to put the collection. It drives me slightly crazy that the magazines aren’t sitting at the ready in the main area of the house. All those intriguing topics and issues, not to mention the incredible photography (fact: it takes an average of 20,000 photos for one National Geographic article) just hiding out in the dark.

Several weeks ago, the stars aligned (at least, the ones in my brain did) and I got the brilliant idea to strew them. I set an old plant stand by the toilet and on the stand I set three magazines. Each week, I switch them out for three new ones. Days go by when they don’t appear to be ruffled, but then one will walk off and show up in a different corner of the house, by a bed perhaps.


My strewing is extending beyond the National Geographics. At the thrift store, I happened upon a book of interesting facts. I bought it and set it on the throne’s stool. It disappeared almost immediately. (In fact, I don’t even know where it is anymore.) My son claims he’s read the entire thing. He’s been quoting random bits of weirdness ever since.

By no means am I an expert at this strewing business. Now, however, my antenna are up. Mind games and puzzles, casually placed on the art table, might be fun, as well as more fact books, I think. And maybe some magazines artfully opened to some human interest stories, yes? Some items I might buy new, others I can pick up at the thrift store, and still others I’ll lift from my own shelves and cupboards. It’s the same idea as rotating toys, just on a slightly more evolved level. And it feels like a game—one that involves observation and crafty, hush-hush maneuvers. It’s also one in which everyone wins.

Do you strew? What, from your experience, makes for good strewing?

This same time, years previous: heading north, the quotidian (7.30.12), a quick pop-in, shrimp, mango, and avocado salad, and summertime pizza.  

Monday, July 28, 2014

the quotidian (7.28.14)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace



My older son ate five sandwiches—FIVE—before calling it quits.
(Our friend gave us these beauts since our maters are still several weeks out. 
I'm getting dangerously impatient for them to ripen. As in, I'm
contemplating blowing the budget at the Farmers Market).


Under bean siege.


Gonna make me some pickles.


Comparing squats.


Making music (or trying to). 

*** 

And now. For the pet edition!

Because puppies are exciting!


Puppy prince.


Puppy kisses.


Even Jessica digs the puppy love.


Canine squirt gun.


When Charlotte walks on the scene, they throw themselves under her like it's a bomb drill.


Privacy, interrupted.


This same time, years previous: we're back!, rest and play: lizards! volcanoes! giant drinks!, the girl and the tea party, the girl and her friend, the boy and the bike ride, roast corn with lime and feta, classic bran muffins and banana bran muffins, July evening, spicy Indian potatoes, Indian pilaf of rice and split peas, little bits of smile in a cup of sad, and blackberry cobbler.        

Thursday, July 24, 2014

a riding lesson

My older daughter fusses that I never come take pictures of her riding lessons.

I find it interesting that instead of asking me to come watch, she wants me to “come take pictures.” Does she equate picture-taking with focused attention? Does she think the only way I see my children is through a lens? Or maybe she thinks that photographing an activity gives it higher merit? On the other hand, maybe she’d just like to have some pictures of her sweet self on a horse? I suppose it could be as straightforward as that.

Anyway, last week (or the week before? I don’t remember) I attended her afternoon riding lesson. She was slated to jump—it’d be her second time jumping a horse. She was excited. I was curious. The horse was frisky.


The first part of the lesson consisted of her riding the horse all over the ring while the instructor called out instructions (because that’s what instructors do, duh). Problem was, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. As the lesson progressed, I started to understand the key phrases, but all the little stuff in between? No idea. It was a different language completely.




Such focus!

Please note: I am alarmingly oblivious as to what exactly it is that my daughter is doing. It was a month or two in to her farm work that I learned what kind of lessons she’s having (an idea in itself that is mildly bewildering because I didn't know there are more than one kind of riding lessons). The riding lessons she's taking are called dressage, pronounced, according to the locals here, “drah and then “sage,” as in corsage. It’s French and it’s fancy and it’s a full body-brain sport. It's also beautiful to watch.

(As further proof of my slowness, it wasn’t until last week at the barn when I heard her say, So and so started taking lessons here because she wanted to learn “leg yield” that it finally clicked: Oh! The horses are taught to YIELD to your LEG. There is rein work, too, yes—when she first started she got blisters between her fingers—but the legs are doing the driving. How cool is that?)


Back to the lesson. The instructor told her to take the horse to a trot, though not in those word, of course. The horse sped up and suddenly my daughter started rising up in the saddle and settling back down every two beats. It was so unexpected that I actually gave a start. It was like dancing, graceful and precise. (I’ve since done some research. It’s called posting on the diagonal. I think.)



Walking the horse over the bars. 
For the jumping part, they raised them a couple feet at one end.

And then there was the jumping. This was only the second time my daughter had ridden this particular horse, which happened to be a strong-willed, feisty, and alarmingly large animal. Much time was spent getting the horse to walk in tight circles, stop and start, slow, walk over the bars, etc. Finally, at just the right moment, the instructor gave the green light. Up and over went the horse. The workers applauded and cheered. The instructor came over to make sure we understood the full magnitude of that jump. I didn’t, of course, but I appreciated that everyone else did.

And then the lesson was over.


Getting her head as close to the powerful hind feet as possible. 
I took a picture and then dedicated all my energy to not thinking too hard.

This same time, years previous: rellenitos, the quotidian (7.23.13), pumpkin seed pesto, cucumber lemon water, birthday revisited, limeade concentrate, brown sugar granola, and Dutch puff.    

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

curry potato salad

At our latest church potluck, I stumbled upon a goldmine.

(The way I write about church potlucks, you probably think that’s all our church does. And it is.)

(Kidding! We do other things, too. But we do like to eat. During the summer we meet at a park. The kids get to play and the grown-ups talk and supper clean-up is a snap. Yay for potlucks.)

Back to the goldmine. Seriously, that’s what it was. It was gold (colored) and I got the recipe and made it myself (the “mine” part). Bonus, unlike a real goldmine, this one is affordable.



It’s a curry potato salad and the first time it touched my lips, I swooned. Actually, there was an abundance of swooning going on—everyone at our table was eating it and swooning, or so it seemed. (One might say they were “sweaning,” which is swooning combined with eating, see?) My husband even went back for seconds and then had the audacity to refuse me a bite. So I stole his Triscuits.

The salad is a cinch to make. It’s mostly just potatoes with mayonnaise and a scary-huge amount of curry, plus eggs, cilantro, onion, and vinegar. I’ve eaten it for lunch, two days in a row. And the kids, never huge potato salad fans, eat this one without fuss. Sometimes they even take seconds.



Curry Potato Salad
Adapted from Martha Stewart’s recipe.

3 pounds new potatoes
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ cup mayonnaise (plus more, probably)
3 tablespoons curry powder
1 medium onion, thinly sliced and then chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
5-6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut into wedges

Boil the potatoes until fork tender. Cut into wedges while still warm and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and the vinegar. (There is no need to peel the potatoes, though if that’s your preference, peel away.)

In a small bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, curry powder, and remaining teaspoon of salt.

Add the onion, cilantro, eggs, and mayonnaise mixture to the potatoes and toss to combine. (I found I needed a good bit more of the mayonnaise than called for.) Taste to correct seasonings.

This same time, years previous: half-mast, a free-wheeling education, and braised cabbage.

Monday, July 21, 2014

the quotidian (7.21.14)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace


I should make this more often: cheesy herb pizza.


Spiraling out of control.


Nine batches down.



The dish-washing stork.


Cuddle cats.


A new hat.


One round of puppy shots down.


Getting their puppy fix on.


The de-worming death squeeze.


Fencing, country-style.


Proving a point in a random conversation about the Titanic.


Happy snowman apple: nature provided the body and children added the face.


Completion.


This same time, years previous: Saturday nights, a tale of two children, statements, in my kitchen, how to beat the heat, shrimp with coconut milk, picklehead, zucchini parmesan frittata, the sex talk, and salvation's chocolate chip cookies.      

Thursday, July 17, 2014

this new season

Our new evening ritual is to gather in the yard with the puppies while the sun goes down. We sit in the grass, giggling at their antics. My older son stretches out full-length on the ground, making himself into a human puppy playground. The puppies yip, growl, and chase the cats. They have a penchant for ears and shoelaces. I take pictures. We visit. It’s peaceful.

***

As a rule, summer is our active season. Come September, our schedule loosens and lightens—not necessarily because we’re doing homeschool stuff, but because everyone else is in school. No longer is there the option of day-time swimming lessons, week-long camps, or play-date marathons. Come autumn, there is a cultural moratorium on daytime activities—at least for children—and life slows. So with an end in sight, I do my best to embrace the summertime crazies. Usually I succeed.

Except I’m noticing a shift. My children’s activities, particularly for the older two, are getting more involved. They are becoming invested in out-of-the-home stuff. And rightly, wonderfully, so. But it means my role is evolving from Director of Daily Life Together to Facilitator of Individual Interests. In other words, we’re splitting up. We’re moving in different directions.

And it’s busy.

I’ve always claimed busyness is a shallow invention created to mask our inadequacies and boost our self-worth. Because if we’re busy, we wrongly reason, then we must be valuable.

Life has seasons, sure. Some buzz with activity. Others, less so. But a consistently frenetic lifestyle is self-cultivated. It's our responsibility to set the pace.

This is what I say. This is what I believe.

And yet, these days, more often than not, I am feeling like I have less control over our Busy.

It used to be that I spent my days orbiting the kitchen table, giving orders, doling out food, cleaning up. Life was chaotic and full, but not calendar-schedule busy. Our days were free. They were mine for the dictating and structuring.

Now, I am no longer chained to the table. With the kids’ increased independence, my husband and I can go on runs without fear (for the most part) of them clubbing each other to bits. Because the children do tremendous quantities of housework, sleep in, and entertain themselves for hours on end with Legos and dystopian novels, I have more time to devote to writing, my own out-of-the-home projects, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

Except, I'm not the only one with projects and interests—the kids have them, too.

And herein lies the rub.

We can’t all be going six different directions all the time. Physically, it’s not possible. We are a one-van, one-income family living in the country. And emotionally, well, emotionally it’d be crazy stressful. We have to pace ourselves.

Except . . . I don’t know . . . we didn’t exactly pace ourselves starting out. It was more like a pell-mell sprint into parenthood—four children in six years. The way we set this gig up, change isn’t incremental. It’s all or nothing, baby (insert crazy lady cackle).


It used to be when the kids were little, I fled the house, gasping for breath. Now it’s the children’s turn to fly and I’m left standing by the fridge, staring at the full calendar magnetted to its side, pencil in hand, trying to catch my breath.



Time flies.
Babies fly.
Breathe.

This same time, years previous: roasted beet salad with cumin and mint, bacon-wrapped breadsticks, what's it worth?, popcorn with coconut oil, and cooked oatmeal.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

win-win

“I don’t do anything I don’t want to do.”

That is what I said at our last Sunday potluck. The group gathered around our picnic table was having a conversation about home education and self-directed learning (initiated by Yours Truly), so my statement wasn’t completely out of the blue. Nonetheless, it was still kinda far out.

Right away, my seat mate took issue, “Well, I do! I do all kinds of things I don’t want to do!”

“Yes, yes,” I said, “Me, too. But! I do them because I want something bigger.”

I hustled to explain. “Take volunteering, for example. I say no to all volunteer opportunities I don’t want to do. When I say yes, it’s because I find the work meaningful and interesting. I want to do it. This doesn’t mean I always enjoy the work involved. In fact, I might detest it at times. But because I chose the task—nobody coerced me into it—I am motivated.”

“Okay, yes. When you say it like that, it’s the same for me, too,” my friend agreed.



A couple weeks ago, I had a stretch of several days with just my older son at home.

“How about I teach you to cook?” I suggested. He’d observed me in the kitchen so much, he already had a good sense how things worked. He could cook a handful of basic recipes and be well on his way to self-sufficiency.

He wasn’t overly enthusiastic with my plan, but he said he’d do it.

The first day he made pizza dough, baked hash brown potatoes, and deviled eggs. The second day, baked brown rice and Shirley’s sugar cookies. And that was pretty much the end of the lessons because, he said, he didn’t like cooking.

Part of me was mildly exasperated. Cooking was so much fun! Don’t be a lumpy! Seize life by the horns! do something! But another part of me couldn’t be bothered enough to much care. He is smart. The kid can figure out cooking on his own when he wants to.

Now, if I had needed his help, I would have pushed the issue. In our family, working together to run the house is non-negotiable. I don’t give a fig if the kids enjoy scrubbing the kitchen floor or not, JUST DO IT BECAUSE THE FLOOR NEEDS TO BE CLEANED.

But the cooking lessons weren’t necessary. I was going out of my way to help him accomplish my agenda. My rationale wasn’t exactly logical so I dropped the issue.


My mother made me learn to sew when I was a child. I hated it. Still do. I can’t stand the feel of fabric, and just the sight of threads and bobbins makes my hair curl.

I’m being melodramatic, but only slightly. The sick feeling of working on something that I positively hated has stuck with me all these years.

My mother maintains that sewing is a valuable skill (it is) and that everyone should know it. Regarding that latter point, I disagree. I don’t know how to sew—because I’ve intentionally forgotten—and I’m not walking around in my Birthday Suit. Somehow, I’ve managed to keep it covered (pun intended).



In an article by Sandra Dodd, she writes that the ideal conditions for learning are humor, music, and fun. Yet so often “learning experiences”—in school, home, wherever—are pretty far removed from these conditions. Even as a relaxed homeschooler, I often find myself slipping into the “just buckle down and do it” mode with my children. Tears and temper tantrums, while not the ideal, are par for the course. Learning isn’t easy. Just do it and you’ll be better off.

But wait. Is this true? Is learning through suffering really the way to go?

Science tells us that heightened feelings of distress cause the frontal lobe of the brain—the inquisitive, creative part—to shut down, and the hypothalamus—the primitive, life-saving fight or flight part—to kick in.* This means that in situations where we’re stressed, nervous, anxious, fearful, and worried, our minds aren’t exactly open to creative insights. In other words, pressurized learning situations (of the sort that aren't self-initiated and self-directed), no matter how well-intentioned, are not conducive to learning.

As a life-long learner, my goal is to discover what brings me happiness and satisfaction and then do more of those things. When I view learning through a pleasure-and-fun lens and not a suffer-because-I-know-what’s-good-for-you lens, the process completely transforms. No longer is there fact-cramming for arbitrary reasons, such as, It is October and you are nine years old, so time to conquer two-digit division. Instead, the starting point is question-based.

What do you need?
What brings you joy?
What do you have to offer other people?
How can I help?

When approached this way, education is liberating.



My son—the one that doesn’t have a fire under his butt—has expressed interest in working. He’s driven by money and, I think, by the rush that comes from rising to the occasion and proving himself capable in the adult world. As this is his one expressed interest, we’re opting to let him run with it. What’s the point in holding him back to do mother-mandated learning? Maybe a sweat-for-cash curriculum is his best bet right now? So starting this week, he’ll work two days a week for the same guy that works with my husband.

When my son—a huge grin breaking across his face—filled me in on the news of the just-hammered-out job arrangement, he tentatively followed up with, “And what about in the winter? What if he wants me to work then?”

“That would be fine,” I said.

“Really? Wow. I didn’t expect to win that quickly!”

I just smiled. No need to tell him just yet that we’re both winning.

***

*I'm no expert. The point is: when people are stressed, the parts of the brain that govern open-mindedness and rational thought shut down and instinct takes over.

P.S. The Sandra Dodd reference is from Chapter 18 of Natural Born Learners, edited by Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko and Carlo Ricci.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (7.16.12), in the woods: forts, ticks, and pancakes, Jeni's Best Ever Vanilla Ice Cream, simple bites: in the pits, pasta with roasted tomatoes and summer squash, counting chicks, Banana Coconut Bread, and Red Beet Salad with Caramelized Onions and Feta.