we’re cozy

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It’s late afternoon now, and the flakes have been falling since shortly after Beanie dragged me out of bed. That was before the sun, if you were wondering, and we had to turn lights on to make coffee. I walked out the back door, and despite the duration of the snowfall, it doesn’t seem to have amounted to much. It’s powdery, and swirled around my boots as I scuffed down the driveway to the mailbox with my trusty mutt. I stalk the mail carrier this time of year, eager for the cards carrying love and good wishes from across the map. The box had one card inside, and with it in hand, we shuffled back to visit the chickens and check for eggs. Our sleds are lined up along the front of the shed, but they won’t see much use until the snow’s a bit heavier.

My little flock hasn’t ventured outside today, despite half of their run being covered. They were hanging out just inside the door when I opened it to check for eggs, and craned their necks to peer at me with their beady little eyes. I should have taken treats with me. Can you see poor bedraggled Buttercup on the right? She’s the black Australorp, and she is in the middle of a bad, late molt. She’s also at the bottom of the pecking order, and receives a strike to the back anytime she passes another bird too closely. I’ve been sprinkling extra sunflower seeds right below her beak when the others are distracted. We’re already talking about preparing for spring chicks, figuring out how to build a brooder box in the basement since we no longer have an extra bathtub. I’ve got my sights set on a dozen sexed chicks, and may even go the mail order route. That beautiful Lavender Orpington from the Fair is dancing in my dreams. And I’d love to get a couple Aracaunas and have blue eggsin my nesting boxes… ah. Such are the things that make up my wishlist.

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We’ve got a real tree in the living room, dressed in ornaments from our childhoods, and a few from adulthood too. Hanging together on the left side are photos of five-year-old me facing five-year-old J. I need to craft some of our girls to join them, I think – a craft that absolutely needs to be done NOW and not someday. A tree skirt has been on my someday list for at least ten years now, and I’m still wrapping an old white bedsheet around the stand. I’ve set my little faux tree in the upstairs hallway to shine out the front window. I paid $30 for it after Christmas at a Joann Fabrics back in 2005, and it’s starting to look a little squished…and some of the lights on the back don’t work…but it’s lovely from the road. This is certainly not an Instagram- or Pinterest-perfect Christmas family, and I think that’s ok. We’re cozy.

Tonight I’m working on some little gifties for friends and neighbors, and finally getting my Christmas cards prepped (after a reprint and then a refund from another discount company, this batch from AmazonPrints looks perfect). J is home tonight, and I’m looking forward to sitting by the fire with him. Even if we’re both working independently on homework and projects, we’ll be together.

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making merry

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Before our Thanksgiving guests even left, I was on a plane to Atlanta for several days of training and team-building with my colleagues. I’m a high-strung traveler, and I can admit it now. I used to try and play it cool, outwardly rolling with the punches while having an internal meltdown, but I’ve decided that this is me, and if I need to arrive at an airport the full two hours before my scheduled departure in order to maintain my sanity, so be it. Sadly, I live quite a ways from the airport and so I found myself pulling out of the driveway at 2:30am the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

It was a solid trip. I experienced minimal delay on the way out, and got to have dinner with my aunt and uncle and cousin the first night there. I honestly enjoy my colleagues – we’re blessed to have such a great staff, and it’s nice to talk to people in person when they’re usually a floating head on a web call. So it was a good trip. And it kicked my butt.

I didn’t bounce back this time. I made a conscious effort to be in bed before 10pm every night I was away, and it was still a slow crawl back into real life. I shared on Instagram a little bit of my struggle to readjust, and I think I’m finally back to normal today, a full week after coming home.

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It was a week of making merry, of diving fully into the new holiday season. We cut our tree the day after I got home, choosing to frequent the same place we’ve gone the past two years. The proprietor greeted us by name when we pulled in, and we had the place to ourselves as we inspected each tree. The girls each took a turn at the saw, and an eight foot tree found its way into the bed of the truck. We do not quite have eight foot ceilings, but we do now have a green scrape in the paint over our heads, and a tree with no topper.

We enjoyed a teeny homegrown Christmas fair at Beanie’s nursery school. I made blondies for the bake sale, and we shopped the used toy collection, coming home with a big bag of Duplos and two like-new puzzles for a small donation – a Dr. Seuss alphabet and a Scholastic beginning sounds (this one is pretty great, and both girls worked really hard on it without getting frustrated).

We made an attempt at spritz cookies, finally using the electric cookie press my mom had given me quite a few years back, and took a huge plate of them along with us to the tree lighting at the community center. It was a community-wide event, with multiple groups taking charge of various parts. Our librarians read a story and organized a craft. My fellow board members organized the cookie donations and served hot chocolate. The fire department and events committee set up a campfire and roasted marshmallows on the beach, and some of the local men strung the lights and flipped the switch at the appointed hour. Santa himself arrived in his SmartCar and had a present for each child. Truly, one of my favorite events of the year.

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I’m finishing up teacher gifts, one for each of Beanie’s nursery school teachers, and one for Sweebee’s piano instructor. I’ve got three dishcloths finished, and need to cast on the fourth tomorrow. I had thought I would wrap them around a bottle of Mrs. Meyer’s dish soap, but was cautioned by a scent-sensitive former colleague, and went for fancy chocolate instead (and these Dagoba bars are under $2 each at Target right now with your Cartwheel!).

Swee and I did a little shopping to fulfill a request from the town’s Giving Tree, choosing warm socks and a simple fleece and shirt for a neighbor in need. My girls are such kind little souls, it’s not taken much reminding at all to get them thinking of others. It’s enough to bring me to tears.

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**Speaking of tears, several of these Christmas books have been real tear-jerkers, like The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree and The Story of Holly and Ivy. I’ll be sharing more of our reading selections in the side bar on the right, as well as in posts here and there using affiliate links, and would appreciate your clicks, if you’re so inclined.

Why affiliate links? By clicking a blogger’s Amazon affiliate link, they will receive a tiny portion of anything you buy at Amazon during the 24 hours after clicking – even your normal household goods. It’s a small way to help my family on this adventure, so thank you for clicking! 

 

progress

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TP roll turkeys by Beanie and Swee

My husband has very basic tastes when it comes to food. His palate has expanded over the years, but generally he sees no need for anything fussy or foreign, a real meat-and-potatoes, bacon-and-eggs kind of guy. I am not. Give me all the sauces, and fancy ingredients, and ancient grains, and special veggies. We order very differently in nice restaurants.

When we first moved in together eleven years ago, our dining preferences took some getting used to. Not that we could afford anything super exciting, but after living alone for several years, I suddenly needed to accommodate vastly different tastes.

One dish we settled on was a sort of shepherd’s pie. I’d brown some ground beef, toss it together in a casserole dish with frozen mixed veggies (square carrots!) and a can of cream of celery soup, and top it with instant mashed potatoes, usually garlic or cheddar flavored. Half an hour in the oven, and dinner was served. Inexpensive and filling, though certainly not very clean.

We still eat a sort of shepherd’s pie around here – we had it tonight, in fact. I’ve graduated to using ground turkey and making a sauce from scratch: chopped onions sauteed in butter and a bit of salt, adding three tablespoons of flour to make a roux and then whisking in a cup of milk. I still use those store-bought frozen veggies, but they’re really not a terrible option when you think about how long the “fresh” produce has traveled in the back of a truck to get to the store. But the potato topping is real now: boiled red skins mashed dirty with butter and spread across the surface. Sprinkled with freshly grated cheese and baked. Salt and pepper. It takes a little longer to prep, but oh, it tastes so much better. And truly, it’s not any more expensive than the packaged stuff from years past.

Pie in the sky? Ground meat raised by here or by friends, or game hunted by J. Carrots and peas and corn and beans and potatoes from our own garden. Local milk and cheese.

So yeah. My shepherd’s pie has a little ways to go yet, but we’ve made some progress.

(Now…if we could just get Swee to eat it…)

give it a rest

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We pulled the last of the veggies yesterday. Six short stalks of itty-bitty Brussels sprouts, and five teeny-tiny cabbages. I cut the sprout stalks with clippers, and then had to use the shovel to dig up the roots and stumps because the ground is already starting to freeze and we could see the ice crystals in the dirt. The original goal was to leave them in the garden and harvest on Thanksgiving morning for a true “farm to table” side dish, but we have had multiple hard frosts, and the daytime highs are in the 30s now – I decided not to risk it. Based on some reading, we left the sprouts on the stalks, wrapped them in plastic bags, and tucked them into the crisper drawer on high humidity to ride out their remaining week. The cabbages got the same treatment, and I hope to get them into a crock or jar this weekend to become sauerkraut for New Year’s Day.

There’s some cruel irony that the growing season ends right when I begin to feel energized to do things. We hustle all summer long, making and prepping and growing and chopping to the point of exhaustion, and when the cooler temps arrive to refresh us, it’s time to stop. And yet it’s a very clear reminder that we all need a season to rest, including Mother Nature. There’s no subtlety in her delivery, that’s for sure.

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And so we put the gardens to bed – our current plot will soon be mulched and transitioned to a perennial bed (raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb for now), and our new plot has been started. We decided to move the main garden to the other side of the house where it will receive full sun for the majority of the day. It’s situated along the driveway in a flat space below the main orchard. We marked it out a full two-thirds longer than you see in the photo, and then realized we hadn’t stockpiled enough material to get it going and had to reduce our aspirations…at least for now. There’s plenty of room to expand, and goodness, it does look tiny from above, despite being a larger space than I tended this season. We began by putting down a whole mess of fallen, rotting apples, covered them with pine shavings and manure from the chicken coop, and blanketed the whole area with cardboard. We’re hoping to throw a layer of composted horse manure on top to finish, though it’s now a race against the snow, and I’m not sure we’re going to win.

In theory, this lasagna method will kill off the existing grass while nourishing the dirt below, and all the cardboard should be broken down in time to till it under in the spring. Yes, I think we’re going to rent a rototiller this time, and have at it. Turning the soil with the spade took me far too long, and I am just not physically strong enough to manage a large enough space in time to plant. As a friend pointed out, I will lose all that time I spent digging out rocks in the other plot, and have to do it all over again in the spring in this new spot, but our raspberries will reap the benefit of my efforts for years to come, and I’ll have all winter to forget just how hard I worked and get excited to be out in the dirt again.

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Though we have over a month to go until the Solstice, it’s truly beginning to feel wintry here. Mittens are always tucked into mama’s bag, and no one leaves the house without a hat. They will still be blaze orange for a few  more weeks as hunting season winds down. Beanie and I took a little walk during Swee’s piano lesson yesterday, partially to get a little bit of fresh air but really to keep her from pestering the teacher’s cat for half an hour. We checked out the dam at Mill Pond, the water rushing through the opening and down over the rocks. There’s a thin layer of translucent ice on the pond’s still surface, and jagged clumps on the stones below. Beanie is already talking about skating, and there are snowflakes on my ten-day forecast. Definitely time to come indoors and give it a rest.

pearls of wisdom

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“Self-care is not about self-indulgence; it is about self-preservation.”
                                                                                             -Audre Lorde

Two weekends ago, I spent some time at Kripalu Center in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. It was a rare chance for me to move at my own pace, and with the freedom of total independence; I was bound only by the retreat schedule and my own hunger pangs. You, my fellow parents, know all too well how infrequently you feel like an independent human being, wholly your own. I practiced yoga at sunrise, enjoyed fresh, clean meals in a silent dining room, hiked in the woods and bathed in the quiet smell of fallen leaves, and passed multiple hours without speaking to a soul. Silence. There was zero expectation that I attempt to be social, or make small talk. This beautiful, golden silence was encouraged and celebrated. Just heavenly.

I try very hard to slip self-care into our normal days, but there are times when an hour here and there just is not enough. A total immersion was precisely what I needed. The retreat focused on self-renewal, and it included some difficult, emotional work – I wasn’t quite prepared for that kind of depth – and while I anticipated it being wonderful, I was certainly surprised at just how renewed I felt when I arrived home.

The power went out a few hours later. And it stayed out for a couple of days, long enough to make me fear for the contents of our freezer. Breathe, and relax around the tension. We were lucky. Our lines were reconnected quite quickly in comparison to others we know, and I felt some guilt at even admitting we were back on.

It was inconvenient, yes. Because the storm and subsequent outage was so unexpected, we hadn’t prepared. We had very little drinking water on hand, and certainly hadn’t filled the bathtub. In great good fortune, I’d been too lazy to tip the wheelbarrow up against the shed when I was finished with it the week before, and the storm had left us with plenty of rainwater to flush the toilets. No power means no wifi, and we are in a hollow with no cell service, so we were effectively disconnected from everything. Really though, it was encouraging to see how well we managed. We re-heated leftovers on our gas range (lit with a match) to keep them from going bad, and colored with the girls by candlelight after dinner. We played outside with friends, and soaked in the quiet of our home – so very quiet without the background hum of appliances. We pulled out extra blankets and fired up the woodstove in the evenings.  Can you receive? We checked on friends and neighbors, and felt cared for by the same as they looked in on us. And we were warmed through and through as the entire community came together to celebrate Halloween for the kids, moving the party to the fire station where their generator gave light and heat in the middle of a chilly, dark village.

I made a commitment to myself during that weekend in the mountains. Clearly I can’t pick up and run off to the Berkshires any time I feel overwhelmed by life, and so I have to develop a practice to reconnect with my wise self, my true self. I have to get up and move. I have to drink in the silence and maintain that space for myself. I’ve chosen to gift myself time alone in meditation each morning. A blanket and a candle, a short reading and introspection. Inspiration without practice is not sustainable. It’s not been easy to maintain, particularly with the time change, and I’ve slipped already. But then my accountability partner texted me yesterday to keep me on track, and so I’ll be ducking out to the car to retrieve my mat before bed, for 6 o’clock comes early.

 

 

pumpkin time

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Pumpkin Week was a total hit. I have to admit, this unit was somewhat easier to plan than others because there are so many ideas out there to be borrowed. A simple Pinterest search led me to something for every subject area – why reinvent the pumpkin? This is such a great, flexible topic because you can use it any time in October or November.

We kicked off the week with our pumpkin themed library selections. You can check them all out via my Instagram feed in the right-hand sidebar. Pumpkin Fiesta led to great multi-cultural conversations, and we enjoyed talking about building community in Too Many Pumpkins.

I wanted to try process art with the girls, so we planned to do some acorn painting. We have oodles of acorns in the yard, and I thought they’d make some great, wobbly lines across the paper. In reality, they were too light to roll, so we ended up switching to marbles partway through. I printed the pumpkin templates here, and taped them into the lid of a banker box, dabbing a blob of paint at various points around the edges. Swee and Beans each took a turn rolling the marble through the paint and over their pumpkin. The blogger whose idea I borrowed suggested we peel the tape while the paint is still wet so it doesn’t set, which was helpful. When they were dry, the girls cut their own pumpkins out (I helped Beans a little) and we hung them up. I think they turned out really neat, though we are now out of orange paint.

I’d also been wanting to do some upper and lower case letter matching, and had seen an idea to use a paper plate and clothespins, but didn’t want to write on the pins I use for laundry. Swee loves stickers, so I ordered these pumpkin stickers and wrote a lowercase letter on each of them to be matched up to their uppercase version in the pumpkin patch. We had a great time with this one, though I didn’t anticipate her insistence on making it look like the arbitrary vines I’d drawn were actually attached to the stems of the stickers. We ended up with what looks like floating pumpkin balloons, which is rather comical.

Daddy usually does science and math on Tuesdays while I’m working, though last week I took the day off to chaperone Beanie’s field trip to the pumpkin patch. We were able to bring home two small pumpkins to use for Pumpkin Science! Daddy walked them through the scientific method as they made observations and a hypothesis on whether the pumpkin would sink or float. The worksheet came from Natural Beach Living, and had some great ideas. Both girls really liked the activity, and I love when something I’ve planned works well for both Sweebee and Beans.

It was a fun week for us, and flowed really nicely – which I know won’t always be the case!

freezing our assets

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5C rhubarb; 20C shredded zucchini; 6 pints applesauce; 2gal cider; half a pig, including 12lbs bacon; 1 pint pesto; bags of carrots, kale, peaches, green beans, green peppers, roasted tomatoes, whole tomatoes, wild blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries

We have a chest freezer. It’s in the basement, next to the oil tank and the fuse box, and it’s big. It has a light inside, and two raised baskets for little stuff to float over the big stuff in the bottom. We’d been saving up for the purchase, tucking away birthday money and cash from odd jobs – and waffling back and forth between buying used and potentially losing thousands in food if the thing crapped out, and spending more to buy new while consuming all kinds of resources for the production of a new appliance. Ultimately, the risk of food waste combined with a great sale led us to purchase a brand new ice box with a good name (Also – I know that freezing food as a means of putting by is fraught with risk in terms of disaster preparedness, but believe it’s still a solid step in the right direction).

I spent the summer filling the freezer portion of our side-by-side kitchen refrigerator with all the odds and ends I could get my hands on. As things ripened, I’d use what we could, and then I’d chop and blanch and freeze whatever was left. When we picked 14lbs of strawberries this summer, I stuck several canning jars into the freezer, choosing the ripest ones that wouldn’t get eaten before going bad. The less firm blueberries met the same fate, tucked away for baking this winter. We supported our former neighbors who raised our pig and the local butcher who cut and wrapped each piece, and invested in more meat than I know how to prepare. I didn’t even plant zucchini this year and yet I have 20 cups shredded and frozen, thanks to neighbors, friends, and a mama at story hour who were all blessed with excess. This little bit of food security was a community effort, a tangible symbol of how friends and neighbors take care of one another in a way that is not always visible in every place.

It’s also a symbol of real privilege, of hard work and how far we’ve come over the past three years. As homemakers, we know that you pay less per unit when you buy in bulk – but the caveat is that your wallet still needs to have enough cash in it to cover the larger dollar amount required to choose that bulk package. It doesn’t matter if the roll of TP in the 24-pack is cheaper than the single roll if you can’t pay the higher dollar price of the big pack. That’s the reality for a lot of people, and it certainly was our reality for a long time, so it’s not lost on me that the ability to have a freezer (and with it, the ability to stock up on things when they’re at a good price) has a far deeper value than what you see physically sitting in our basement.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the definitions of success. And if you’ve been visiting me here for any length of time, you’ve probably established the sense that we don’t exactly ascribe to a consumerist philosophy.  While I haven’t laid it all out, we’ve been working hard to craft our own definition of success for ourselves and our family, sharing it here in bits and snatches, and (hopefully) modeling it – and the more confident I become in that definition, the further we go, the more strongly I believe in the importance of multiple definitions of success. The fancy car/corner office/5 bedroom/corporate ladder plan is not the only option for being successful. There is more out there that we can aspire to, with completely different benchmarks.

So in our case, right now, success looks a lot like a freezer, and the community that helped us fill it.