Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ahh, Christmas!

It's Christmas Eve. In fact, it's 11:30 on Christmas Eve. The house is quiet now, and Christmas is coming. It's almost here! It's coming even though I didn't get all the cookies baked. It's coming, despite the fact that my house is dirty. It's coming, regardless. And I can't wait! My heart is ready, even if nothing else is. And when Christmas gets here - in just a few minutes - it will be magical. Christmas magic is a heart filled with God's love. Christmas magic is peace, knowing that no matter what, there is God, loving me. Christmas magic is joy! Pure joy that makes me grin, even when I'm by myself and no one sees.

The lights are on our little Christmas tree are twinkling, but the real show is outside. The heavens are singing the glory of God with stars upon stars upon stars. If I slip outside when Christmas comes, I won't hear any animals talking, but I will hear the sweet sound of angels singing! It's almost here! The clock is striking midnight! Gotta go!

Merry Christmas!!!


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Auntie Letters

Every month I write a letter to my three elderly aunts. I started this ritual one Christmas when I couldn't think of anything else to give them. I had purchased a home computer and digital camera that year, which made it easy to compose one letter, illustrate it with some photos, and print three copies. They loved it, and five years later I'm still at it. I tell them about what's going on in my life and what's up with the rest of the family. I've done pretty well: only a few letters have been late, and I think I missed only one month when I was sick. I'm always on the lookout for auntie letter material. I know they will be disappointed if I don't come through. The next letter I write will be bittersweet, though. You see, one of those three aunties died this week. Aunt Frances, at 89, was the youngest of her four siblings and the first one to pass on. She was a tiny thing in body, but big in spirit, apparently a lot bigger than I knew.

Aunt Frances, who was always full of spunk, got married the day after she graduated from high school in 1940 and moved over a hundred miles away, give or take a few, to start a life with her new husband. Her family saw little of her during the next 20 years or so. World War II interrupted everyone's life, and Aunt Frances was busy raising six children. My memories of her begin when I was in elementary school and her sons and daughters were young adults. After her husband died in 1975, she was able to reconnect with her brother (my dad) and two sisters and by the time I was in college she came to visit her homeplace a couple of times a year. My, how the stories would fly when the four of them got together: I was spellbound by tales of a depression-era childhood in the country: stories of farm life and school life, of adventures with friends and lessons learned the hard way, all of which took place way back when in the days before television.

Even though I knew Aunt Frances, saw her, talked with her, hugged her, wrote to her, it was the kind of knowing that families have when they live long-distance. I didn't know any of her friends, never met her on the street running errands, never stopped by her house on Sunday afternoon. Yesterday, during her funeral service, I got a glimpse of "that little woman" that her friends and neighbors knew. Folks spoke of her love of quilting, gardening, and red birds. I heard how she marched her children down the road to Bible School in the summer, sang in the church choir, and spoke with stark honesty, whether you wanted to hear it or not. And I was glad I was family, glad she was my aunt, glad I was there, shedding tears along with those who knew much more of her than I. Despite the sadness, it was a sweet hour of remembering and celebrating the feisty little lady that was my Aunt Frances.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How Can I Keep From Singing?

I went to choir practice last night. I haven't done that in a very long time. Long ago, before the age of waning energy, elder care, and to-do list overload, I sang in the church choir. I even directed it for a few years. A really long time ago when I was young, I sang with a ceili band and we even made a record. But since the turn of the century, I haven't done much singing, with or without a choir or ceili band. Singing got pushed to the outer reaches of my life, where it has been wasting away for too long.

Folks are so kind - and persistent. They keep asking me to sing with the choir at church, if only for the annual Christmas cantata. They keep asking me to sing a solo for Sunday worship whenever I'd like to. And I would like to, but that same old challenge of making room in a busy schedule for practices has gotten the best of me. Sadly, I've let singing slip away, and it's almost beyond my grasp now. You see, a singing voice is one of those things that, if not used often, will eventually be lost. I haven't lost my voice completely yet, but I have lost some range and control. Only a lot of practice and effort will bring it back.

In the past couple of years, I've been working at getting my voice back. I sing while I'm driving. I sing or hum along with the radio while I paint at the farmhouse. But nothing replaces the exercise and discipline of singing with a choir, with regular practice being one of the best benefits. In addition to the vocal workout, the camaraderie of a choir is good for my soul, nourishing that part of me that longs to belong.

And so, I made time for Christmas cantata practice last evening. The music was a little overwhelming in places, and when the ladies' notes were too high I dropped down to sing with the men. But it felt good to be there, to sing with a group, to be a part of the choir again. It will still be a challenge to get to rehearsals - I probably won't make them all - and I hope no elder care emergencies interfere with the Sunday morning performance. But Christmas is coming and music has always been a gloriously necessary part of the season for me. What sweeter way to celebrate my Saviour's birth than to sing!!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Recipe Copycat

At the risk of being called a copycat (which I hate), I'm going to try my hand at recipe posting/food photography. It seems that sharing great recipes through blogging is a popular thing to do these days. Ree Drummond, a.k.a. The Pioneer Woman, has it down pat, complete with stunning photos of every step in preparing a delicious dish. Check out her blog/website at http://www.thepioneerwoman.com/, and click on the cooking tab to see what I mean.

I'm not a newbie when it comes to photography, although there's always a lot to learn. But still, taking nice pictures of ingredients sitting still on the counter top can't be too hard, can it? Well, let's just say that over two hours and 200 photos later (thank goodness for digital cameras), I have a healthy respect for food photography! I'd even venture to say that food photography is an art and science unto itself, requiring great knowledge, skill, and creativity, not to mention a good dose of luck.

I chose my mother's Apple Crisp recipe for my first food photo shoot. It's a simple recipe, with only seven ingredients, and is quick and easy to prepare. Even so, it took Robin and me about two hours to get it in the oven, what with posing and snapping photo after photo, and checking to see if they were sharp and clearly focused, most of which were not. In the real estate business, they say location, location, location is the secret to a successful sale. This evening I learned that in food photography, the secret is light, light, light. Light is everything, and if the light isn't right, the photo won't be right either. I also learned it is helpful to have at least four hands when shooting food photos. Thanks, Robin!

So here goes:

Apple Crisp ingredients: apples, sugar, cinnamon, salt, water, flour, and butter.
Pour 1 cup sugar into a medium-sized mixing bowl.

Add 3/4 cup flour.

Add 1/3 cup cold butter (a scant 6 TBSP).

Set bowl in the frig while you peel and slice the apples.
(Too late, I realized this shot should have been taken with the bowl sitting in the frig!)


Peel apples. You need 4 cups sliced apples. Most any kind will do just fine.

Robin set up this still life: the peeling is all in one piece.

Slice apples into an ungreased 2-qt. baking dish.


Sprinkle 1/4 cup water over apples.

Sprinkle 1 tsp. cinnamon and 1 tsp. salt over apples.
Sorry, didn't shoot adding the salt because I forgot to add it!

Remove the flour mixture from the frig and mix with your hand
until crumbly and fine, but don't melt the butter.

Sprinkle mixture evenly over apples, covering them completely.

Whew! Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, until lightly browned. I tried getting shots of the oven setting, but they came out really blurry, as did the ones of the dish inside the oven. I'll work on that, but not tonight! I realized I hadn't added the salt right after I put the dish in the oven, so I scratched around in the topping and sprinkled it in. While it baked I started writing this post and uploading photos. By the time the crisp came out of the oven, I was about whipped, but here are the final photos:

Hot out of the oven.

They say food photographs best in white dishes...but my only
white bowl looks yellow! It's the light again.
Here are some closeups...but the light is still yellow. *Sigh.*


This one isn't so yellow, thank goodness.
So...four hours after I started, I'm almost done with my first food photo shoot. Getting all these photos on this post was no small feat either, and I'm ready for bed. But in case you don't care about the photography, here's the recipe for my mom's yummy Apple Crisp. It doesn't have oatmeal, and I think that's why I like it so much. Take my advice: don't try to photograph it, just make it and eat it!!  It'll sweeten your day. Enjoy!

Apple Crisp

4 cups peeled and sliced apples
1/4 cup water
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour
1/3 cup cold butter

Stir flour and sugar together in mixing bowl. Add butter and mix by hand until crumbly and fine. Set aside. Arrange apples in ungreased 2 qt. baking dish. Sprinkle with water, then sprinkle on cinnamon and salt. Sprinkle topping over apples evenly, covering completely. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, with ice cream if desired.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

October Snow!

Today is the 29th day of October. We got up to about four inches of snow! And it's October 29th! Daylight Savings Time hasn't begun yet and Halloween is still two days away, and we have snow! Despite living in the mountains, inches of snow in October is unusual. Maybe a few flakes blowing around or even a dusting on the grass, but not inches. We weren't prepared. My geraniums and dahlias are still blooming in the flower bed along the front porch, along with begonias in pots. The bird feeders were clean, but they were still in the basement, and I had to dig for a hat and gloves.

But, oh! What a winter wonderland! Every surface, no matter how minuscule, was covered with white fluffy snow. Fall leaves, still gold, green, and yellow, were laced with whiteness and drooping mightily. The pines took on their heavy snowy mantles and the fence rails were piled high, looking for all the world like icing on a cake. And then there was that glorious snowing sound, the hiss of snowflakes falling against the muffled blanket of silence that dances in my ears like nothing else I know.

Just a couple of days ago I came home from school in shirt sleeves, enjoying the warm October afternoon. Today I wore boots and a goose down coat to the farmhouse when I went to paint. I found it ironic that I painted the kitchen ceiling in 90-degree weather, wearing as little as decently possible and still sweating buckets, and today, I had the heat on and wore my coat and hat most of the morning as I painted a few feet away in the adjoining pantry.

It's evening now, and most of the snow is gone. I knew it wouldn't last long in October. The ground still holds too much of summer's warmth for snow. But I loved it while it lasted. It was a gloriously sweet surprise from Mother Nature.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Do You Remember?

A while back, I wrote about visiting my grandparents as a child in my post, "Sundays With Dad." I vividly remember getting carsick on the mountains we crossed during the drive every third Sunday. And I remember having to sit in the middle in the back seat of the car all the time. That's what I remember. I think. My middle sister, however, remembers it differently. She recalls volunteering to sit in the middle on the way to Grandmother's, to get it over with and have the window seat on the way home. When I asked my oldest sister about it, she couldn't remember exactly but said the volunteering thing sounded like something Mom would have suggested. Which brings me to the point of this post: which one of us is right? What's the truth of the past here? Am I remembering right?? Does anybody remember it right??

Memory can be a tricky thing. Everyone knows that several witnesses can see the same incident at the same time and yet recount different and sometimes conflicting accounts of what took place. Some of that can be chalked up to different perspectives, I suppose, but what, exactly, is the truth? Can we ever find out? Just how reliable is memory, anyway?

Several years ago I wrote an account of my parents and aunts and their experiences during World War II. I encountered this same problem with memory: siblings remembering the same incidents differently. I also found that their memories didn't always agree with historical records of events either. Of course, more than 60 years had passed, which could cloud one's memories a bit. But I'm thinking that a lot of the time, we remember things the way we want to remember them instead of how they really were. For example, over lunch at school, we teachers often recall how different school was for us as students years ago, in contrast to what we see now. Our memories are mostly of the "things weren't this bad when I was in school" kind. If our teachers from 30 or 40 years ago were part of our discussions, though, how would they remember those days? I'm thinking their memories wouldn't agree with ours.

So, what happens when our memories don't agree? Sometimes it causes laughter and good times, other times heated discussions and hard feelings. Sharing memories, however, brings us together in a way nothing else can. Memories, be they bitter or sweet, are important just because we have them. They help make us human. And most of the time, hopefully, they make life a little sweeter.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Fond Farewell

We said goodbye to an old friend this week. It was a sad parting, but the time had come. We debated for several years over when it would be best to let it go, although every wind storm made the decision a little easier. Our old friend was the last of seven huge maple trees in our yard. Loyal and quiet, it sheltered us for the twenty years we've lived here but it has stood sentinel for decades, maybe even a century or more. And now it's gone.

Well, not really gone. Yet. There's still quite a bit of it in the yard, only now it's horizontal instead of vertical. It's amazing how tall a tree is when it's on the ground! And that was just the reason we had to cut it. This old maple was huge, and way too close to the house for comfort. If it had fallen just right, our front porch and two front rooms would have been underneath its massive trunk. Many a night I pleaded with God to "please, don't let it hit the house if it falls" while the wind howled outside. We held out for as long as we felt it was reasonably safe, but the time came at last when we had to bite the bullet and cut it down.

I wasn't here for the cutting since it was a school day. I suppose that was a good thing, since chain saws grate on my nerves and watching such feats make me think of all the ways the process could result in disaster. I snapped some photos before I left for school and said my goodbyes with a wistful sigh.

Goodbye, old friend!
When I came home, the sky was empty and the yard was full. Robin surveyed the work that awaited him, wondering when he'd ever get it all cleaned up. I took more photos. When we looked over the stump, trunk, and largest branches we could see that we made the right decision. The core of the tree was wet and soft, a sure sign that decay wasn't far off. We could also see where the tree had been tapped over the years for making maple syrup, which made us wonder just how old it really was. But there was no use in waxing nostalgic at that point, so we both got to work. Robin started clearing brush and I tackled the sidewalk with a broom and a shovel. We barely made a dent before dark.

The horizontal tree
Firewood for a warm house

Today, a couple of days later, we're getting used to the yard without our big tree. A friend helped Robin get all but the biggest chunks cleaned up and hauled away. What a blessing that was! (Thanks, Jeff!) As with every change, there are pros and cons: our kitchen in lighter, but the dirt on the windowsill shows more, and chances are the evening sun will be in my eyes as I work at the sink. There won't be such a mess of leaves and seed pods around our door, but there won't be any shade from the hot afternoon sun either. And I'll be able to see who's pulling into our driveway from the window, but the birds have lost a huge source of shelter and food. Still, life is all about change, whether we like it or not. Once in a while the constant force of change we don't notice most of the time makes itself known in big ways. When it does, I want to savor the sweetness of good memories and blessings yet to come.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sundays With Dad

Today was my Sunday to spend with my dad. It's a ritual I've observed for a while now. Robin and I are in the season of elder care, and Sundays with Dad are important. He's 91, and since Mom died, his days get long and lonely sometimes.

Until I was 10 or so, my grandparents lived about an hour away. We went to see them every third Sunday, leaving Sunday School early and arriving in time for an old-fashioned and delicious Sunday dinner. Back then I got carsick easily, especially since, being the youngest and smallest, I had to sit in the middle in the back seat. Our route took us across two mountains and I got sick on the same turn every time. Mom would say, "Bill, you better slow down! She's turning green...she's going to be sick!" And sure enough, we'd be parked beside the road while I got my stomach in order and inhaled the fresh air with my feet on solid ground. By the time we got to Grandmother and Granddaddy's, I was ready to put something good into my very empty tummy. Once the dishes were done, the afternoon hours were spent mostly listening to the grownups talk. By 3:00 or 4:00 we were on our way home. Sometimes we stopped at the Dairy Queen for ice cream, which was a special treat. Hmmm...I don't ever remember getting sick on the way home. Go figure.

Now it's my dad who's the old one, and I'm the grownup visiting every third Sunday. It's a two-hour drive to his house, so I leave in time to meet him at church. After the service is over we have lunch at the Kalico Kitchen, where all the locals who don't want to cook go after church. On rare occasions I take lunch, but I didn't get the covered dish gene. I enjoy cooking and I'm not bad, but coming up with good food that travels well just isn't in my bag of tricks. Sometimes my sister feeds all of us (she got the Sunday dinner gene) with wonderful meals. She likes to try new recipes. I always thought she had some secret for picking out really good ones until I said so one day. Her son immediately responded with, "You're not here for all the yucky ones!"

After lunch, the afternoon hours are still spent in conversation, only now I'm one of the grownups doing the talking. When it's just Dad and me, we catch up on the news since my last visit and most always come around to some family history. When 4:00 rolls around, it's time for me to head home. Then comes the hardest part of the day: leaving. As much as I need to get home to my own life, leaving him there, old and by himself, is a heart-wrenching experience. Thankfully though, he's not alone all the time. My sister and her husband are the best and do so very much for him. He has a lot of good friends and neighbors who look out for him, too. It's just that moment of driving away, with Dad waving at the window. It gets me every time. I'm glad I don't get carsick anymore, but being heartsick is just as miserable.

Living a hundred miles away was good when my parents were younger. The distance was far enough away, but not too far, for all of us to live our lives and still visit easily. Now, though, a hundred miles seems like a thousand. This season of elder care is tough and tender all at the same time. I hope I'm being the daughter I should be. I just know I sleep a little sweeter after my Sundays with Dad.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Me and My Paintbrush

"Necessity is the mother of invention," they say. I say, "Necessity is the mother of learning how." It has become necessary in my adult life to learn how to paint. Not beautiful landscapes or stunning portraits, but walls, ceilings, woodwork, and shelves. Lots of them. I've spent an inordinate amount of time this summer with a paintbrush in my hand and a crick in my neck.


My first big adventure into painting was in 2003 when we remodeled the four rooms in the original part of our house. As a way of saving a few dollars, I painted the walls in a bedroom, sewing room, bathroom, office/library, and entry hall. Now I know that painting new drywall is fairly easy, but when I started it seemed a huge undertaking. The biggest learning curve came with the hunter green in the bathroom and the rich red in the office/library. Those colors taught me the value of tinted primer and multiple coats of paint. When I applied the primer and first coat of red paint, my husband took one look at the hot pink and said, "Are you sure that's what you want?" I have to admit I was a little worried, but I put on my brave face and said it would look fine when the room was finished. Thank goodness I was right!! But it took four coats of red to reach the color that was on the paint card and the addition of white built-in book shelves to tone the room down enough to keep it from feeling like the inside of a fire hydrant. The book shelves were no picnic either.  Besides painting the built-in cabinets, there were 39 shelves, nine drawers, and four cabinet doors. All needed primer and two coats of paint. That year I painted something every day from February to June. I learned a lot, with the most valuable lesson being that one cannot judge a paint job until it is completely dry.

Me and my paintbrush: from this...
Now we've undertaken another house to remodel. Robin's uncle's farmhouse became ours in the fall of 2004. Although it is in good shape, it has suffered from a severe lack of TLC for the last half-century. We're finally to the finishing point for the kitchen, pantry, dining room, bath, and laundry. (The rest of the house might take another half-century to finish!) My main summer project this year was to paint the kitchen, pantry, and dining room. Surely I could get that done over the summer... couldn't I? I started in the kitchen, where it was my bright idea to leave the wide-board walls and exposed ceiling and simply paint. Well, there's been nothing simple about it, and after six weeks of painting, I'm still at it. Those wide-board walls required hours of sanding, filling cracks and holes, priming and painting - I'm on the painting part now. But the walls pale in comparison to the ceiling. When I asked about filling the numerous cracks there, Robin said, "Are you kidding? You wanted character, didn't you?" By the time I finished painting the ceiling, I'd had about all the character I could take for one summer. I spent the better part of two weeks perched on a ladder, looking up, and moving dime store reading glasses from my head to my eyes to the end of my nose and back again in an effort to get my middle-aged eyes to focus clearly on what I was doing. Not to mention that the heatwave of the century turned our cool mountain clime into an sweltering oven, which mind you, was even hotter at the top of that ladder. And I had to paint that character-filled ceiling three times (primer plus two coats of semi-gloss), with each coat taking three or four days. I won't go into the color, and how it looked yellow instead of green, which meant I had to start over...

...to this!!

The ceiling is done now, and a friend stopped by today while I was working on the walls once again, and wonder of wonders, she looked up and said, "Wow, I love that ceiling!" I could have hugged her! Who knows when I'll get to the dining room and pantry (which, by the way, are easy for an old pro like me: new drywall and beadboard), but for my tired eyes, sore neck, and aching shoulder, that one sentence is about as sweet as it gets. "Wow, I love that ceiling!"

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Summer Vacation Revisited

I just read again my post of June 17th, written on the eve of seven long, uncluttered weeks of freedom. Ahh, summer vacation, that carefree time of year when I can set my own schedule, relax without guilt, and accomplish some long-overdue chores and projects. Well, I stand corrected. Those seven long weeks turned into seven very short ones that soon filled with jobs and responsibilities, few of which were on my to-do list. And here I am, at the end of summer vacation. It's Sunday evening and once more, "tomorrow's a working day," my first day back at school, so I must hurry and finish this post so I can get to bed as early as possible in hopes of getting up on time at 5:00 a.m.

Let's see, what did I do this summer? Cleaning took up a goodly amount of time: the screen porch was covered with last fall's ladybugs, sawdust from the kitchen remodel, and this spring's healthy dose of pollen; the house had been sorely neglected in the end-of-school rush, and I still haven't given my car it's once-a-year thorough cleaning inside and out. Once I made some headway in the cleaning department, I tackled the painting awaiting me at the farmhouse. Now that took way longer than I expected! My plan was to get the kitchen, dining room, and pantry all painted, and I never made it out of the kitchen! That whole story is another post I've been writing in my head for the last two weeks; obviously I haven't gotten it into the computer yet. Amid the cleaning and painting, my elderly father-in-law's health deteriorated to the point of a week of  intense care at home, followed by a hospital stay and nursing/rehab placement. And our garden, surprisingly enough, has done fairly well this year, meaning some time spent canning and freezing. There were some appointments and meetings, involving trips to Monterey or across the mountains, all of which took precious hours of summer vacation.

There were some good "summer" moments, though. I stayed up late several nights reading a wonderful book, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which I highly recommend. I slept in til I was ready to get up several mornings. Robin and I ate dinner on the porch most of the summer, and we still can for another month or so. My dog and I enjoyed some long walks in the cool of the morning. At last, I took a little time to play my long-neglected piano. For the first time ever I painted my toenails (soft pink).

As much as I hate to admit it, there are a few advantages to returning to work. (Eeek, did I just put that in print???) I do accomplish more when I have a schedu....uhh, routine, shall we say. When I know I have to get up, I do, even if it's not quite as early as I'd like. I plan ahead better when most of my days are committed to my employer. A paycheck is always nice, too! So you see, even if my "vacation" didn't seem much like one, at least it was a change from the same 'ole same 'ole. In spite of an incredibly busy summer, I don't have to look very hard to find this sweet life of mine.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Under Pressure

Yesterday I canned green beans. On a cold winter evening when I'm tired from working all day, I'll be glad I did. But yesterday, canning beans was just more work on a stifling July afternoon. That's the thing about raising a garden: it won't wait. When a vegetable is ready, it's ready. If you wait until it suits your schedule and/or your mood to preserve it, chances are it will be too late. Since I'm not good at last-minute changes to my plans for the day, gardening has a tendency to bend me out of shape a lot this time of year.

Temperatures have been in the 90s here for the past week, along with enough humidity to make the laundry stay wet on the clothesline until supper time. When it's that hot and humid, my brain turns to fuzz and about the only thing I can accomplish is a good nap. The thought of having the stove eye on for several hours in that kind of heat was daunting. Thank goodness Robin did the picking and snapping. My dad always said that you shouldn't pick beans while the vines are wet because it will cause the remaining beans to have rusty spots. That meant Robin couldn't start picking until almost noon, since we had rain the night before. He snapped the beans while I washed dishes, which helped a lot. Then I washed jars, washed beans, and packed them into the jars. At last, into the pressure canner they went. It takes about 30 minutes to get the pressure up, then 20 minutes to cook, and then almost an hour to let the pressure reduce so the canner can be safely opened. Finally the hot jars, usually with contents still boiling, were set out on the counter to cool and seal. All that is for one batch; I had to do two. It was after 6:00 before the beans were all done. By that time, everything was hot through and through: the kitchen, the house, me, ugh.

The good thing about the whole process was that after sundown, the air cooled and I sat on the screen porch reading a good book for a couple of hours. After I've put out the effort to get the garden produce ready for winter, I don't mind treating myself to some well-deserved rest and relaxation. Kind of like the beans in the jars: they're under a lot of pressure, then the pressure lets up and they get to rest a while. In the end, they come out of the jar better than they went in. In the grand scheme of life, with all its pressures,  I hope I do the same: finish up a better person than when I started. That would be sweet indeed.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

In A Pickle

I do not like dill pickles, but give me a sweet pickle of most any kind. My favorite sweet pickles are the ones my mother always made every summer. I just finished making this year's batch and I'm basking in the glow of accomplishment. These aren't just any 'ole pickle, you know.

When I share Mom's sweet pickles with folks they often ask for the recipe, but shy away when they see that it takes 11 days to make them! Most other pickle recipes take anywhere from a few hours to 3 days max, so you can see why 11 days sounds a bit extreme. I don't know where Mom got her recipe, but it is an old one.  I can tell by the way some of the ingredients are measured: "salt brine strong enough to float an egg" and "2 pieces of alum the size of an English walnut." When boiling the pickles on the 7th day, there is no amount of time given to boil them, just "until the slices become clear."

There is a bit of work to these sweet slices, but they are worth it. The first 6 days are easy. After you wash whole cucumbers, they soak in salt brine for 3 days. Rinsing them is a bit gross, as the water gets slimy, with some gunk on top. You can pour the whole business into the sink, getting rid of most of the yuk, and it doesn't take long to wash each one. Then they soak in clear water 3 more days. On the 7th day you need to set aside some time to slice the cucumbers, which now seem kind of rubbery. I haven't yet figured out how long you have to boil them, since some slices do get rather clear, while others don't change at all. I just boil them about an hour, and it works just fine. The syrup is easy to make, but the secret to these delicious treats is in draining the syrup off the slices and reheating it, every day for 4 days. Then, on the 11the day, it takes a while to pack the pickles in jars, cover them with hot syrup, and boil the jars in a hot water bath. Now you see why I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when those jars are finally lined up on my kitchen counter.

Early on I figured out one way to make this pickling project a little easier than it was for Mom. She always used crocks for the whole process. I'm not sure why. Maybe because they were the only thing she had that was big enough (sometimes she made a double batch). Then again, maybe she used crocks because they were what her mother used. I found out very quickly that I couldn't handle crocks. They are just too heavy, even when they're empty. And they can break. I use plastic buckets. They're not nostalgic like crocks, but they sure are a lot easier to handle. When you soak both the whole cucumbers and the slices, you must weight them down with a plate and something heavy on top to keep everything submerged in the liquid. Another improvement I made on Mom's method is using a quart jar filled with water to weight the pickles down. She use half of a brick, which was dedicated solely to this purpose. Even though it was clean, it seemed a bit out of place sitting in something we were going to be eating.

I have fond memories Mom's sweet pickles. I recall watching her slice what seemed like mountains of round discs. Once the reheating stage began, it was my job to dig around in the crock after she drained off the syrup to find the spice bag. The best part, though, was snitching slices from the crock. Even though they weren't "done" yet they were especially delicious because they were stolen. I got a scolding if I got caught. Now I know it was not because Mom didn't want me to have them, but because making them was a lot of trouble! I thought I was pretty good at getting my fill of the forbidden unnoticed, but as I look back, I think she probably knew I was making regular stops by the crock on the back porch table. I haven't reformed my ways much. I still make regular stops by the back porch table during pickle season.

Once the pickles were canned and stored in the fruit room of the basement, they were a gold mine for our kitchen. As a kid, I always put ketchup and Mom's sweet pickles on my hamburgers. I didn't discover the wonders of mustard, onions, lettuce, tomato, and mayo until I was well into my teens. When I packed my lunch for school, sweet pickles turned a cold cheese sandwich into a yummy main course that I was not willing to trade. I got a lot of practice with a paring knife as I chopped up pickles for Mom's potato salad and I think the only reason I ever tried tuna salad was because it had Mom's sweet pickles in it.

Now you know all the ins and outs of my mom's sweet pickles. If you think you'd like to try your hand at making them, here's her recipe with some details added by me. I hope they make life a little sweeter for you!

SWEET PICKLES
8 pounds whole cucumbers
Wash cucumbers. Arrange tightly in a large crock or clean plastic bucket. Make a brine of water and salt, strong enough to float an egg. Pour over cucumbers and weight down with a plate and large jar of water. Soak three days. Rinse and wash cucumbers. Return to bucket or crock, cover with clear water, weight down, and soak for three more days. On the 7th day, drain and rinse cucumbers. Slice thinly (about 1/8 inch). Place in large kettle and cover with a weak solution of 1 part cider vinegar to 2 parts water. Add 2 pieces of alum the size of an English walnut. (I use 2 heaping tablespoons of powdered alum.) Boil until slices become clear, about an hour. Drain. Put hot slices into a smaller crock or bucket. Make syrup of 3 pints vinegar, 7 pounds sugar, and spice bag of 1/3 ounce (1 heaping TBSP) whole cloves and 1 large stick cinnamon. Bring to a boil and pour over slices; weight down. Each day for 4 days, drain off syrup and reheat to boiling, making sure to include the spice bag. On the 11th day, drain syrup off slices. Pack cold slices into clean pint jars. Heat syrup to boiling and pour over slices. Remove bubbles with a table knife. Boil jars in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Makes 10-11 pints.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lost Dogs and Answered Prayers

I hate looking for lost dogs. It brings back sad memories and makes me sick at my stomach. My mind runs away with me, thinking of all the worst-case scenarios. But oh, the joy when the lost dog is found! And all the more joyful when the finding is the direct and instant result of prayer.

Let me explain. If you read an older post, (click here to read this post) you remember Leah, the Kelpie puppy we got in April after a 2-year search. This afternoon, around 4:00, Robin returned from a trail ride and unloaded horses. We stood around visiting a few minutes with the other riders, and their dog was visiting with our three. But as we talked, we realized Leah wasn't around. Not to worry, though. We were all right there, and the other dogs were right there, so she would show up momentarily. Didn't happen. The friends left, and no Leah. We walked to the neighbor's. Their guest's dog was safely in her portable pen, but no Leah. We called and waited. No Leah. We looked in all her usual spots. No Leah. Then we looked everywhere else we could think of: the basement, the horse trailer, the cab of the truck. No Leah. After about an hour, we drove up and down the road, looking. No Leah. Heartsick by now, I was consumed with worry and pleading with God to bring her home safe and sound. Robin went to check on his dad and look there, at the adjacent farm where he works, and at our other place just up the road. We used the walkie-talkies to stay in touch. Our message was the same: no Leah.

I try not to be a worry wart, try not to jump to conclusions. I believe we should be able to trust God and rest in his care, knowing that He will give us the strength to endure whatever comes. I believe that.  But when it comes to a lost dog, I have reason to worry. You see, we've lost dogs before. And they weren't our dogs. They were dogs we were taking care of for friends. If you think it's hard having your own dog lost, try losing someone else's! I could write a short book on those two experiences, but we'll say for now that I do not ever want to go through that kind of anguish again. And then, I've lost my own dog, too. Way back in junior high my beagle, Bojo, left one morning and never came home. I've not forgotten what that felt like.

So, while Robin was out looking, I sat at the computer, trying to keep my mind from thinking about the sleepless night ahead if we didn't find Leah before dark. Over and over in my head ran the phrases, "Please bring her home safe, and soon." and "Where did she go? Where could she be?" And then I did a childish thing. I stopped and very deliberately prayed. "Dear God, please send Leah home safe and sound very soon. Before dark. Or show us where she is. In Jesus' name, amen." And almost instantly, I heard Leah bark! Only twice. But I was out the door in a flash, radio in hand, calling and running in the direction that bark came from. I called and called, but didn't hear another bark, didn't see even a glimpse of her. And then for some reason, I walked over and looked in the horse trailer. Robin had already looked there. But there Leah sat, looking up at me as if to say, "It's about time." She'd been locked in there almost two hours.

To my mind, the reason I walked over and looked again in the horse trailer was because God sent me there. I didn't hear a voice telling me to look there, but I had prayed not 5 minutes earlier for God to show me where Leah was. And He did! Just like that! He answered my heartsick prayer instantly. Life doesn't get any sweeter than that.
Living proof of answered prayer: Leah home safe & sound!

Stuff

I often wonder what it would be like to live without stuff. You know, the stuff we move around all the time, like books, knick-knacks, furniture, dishes, bed linens, family heirlooms, appliances, gadgets, mail, and such. I remember when I graduated from college, with my life before me, wanting to live one of two ways: either being able to put everything I owned in a backpack, or having a house complete with all the stuff. Guess which one I got!! Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed by stuff. It seems like I'm always moving stuff, putting away stuff, loading stuff into the car, unloading stuff out of the car, sorting through stuff, organizing stuff, throwing away stuff, giving away stuff, deciding whether to keep stuff or get rid of stuff, cleaning stuff. Stuff, stuff, stuff!!! It doesn't help that Robin and I have had to dismantle two households after an elderly aunt and uncle died, or that both sets of parents have loads of stuff to pass on to us and our siblings. And we can't forget that we humans actually buy stuff with our hard-earned money. There comes a point when one just can't handle any more stuff. I'm almost there.

I recently spent a couple of days with my two sisters at my dad's house. He's 91, and since Mom died a couple of years ago, stuff has been weighing on his mind. He'll say something like, "What are we going to do with all these books? You all need to go through them and take what you want," or "We need to get those old trunks out of the basement before they ruin. You all should take them if you want them." We three daughters are determined not to empty the house around him, but let's face it: a house full of stuff can be a burden to a 91-year-old man. Contrast that with the descriptions of moving into a new home in the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her family of five could pack and load all their possessions in a morning, and unpack and settle into their new abode in less than a day. The thought of having to pack up our house after filling it with stuff for the past 20 years scares me silly!

Life, however, does require some stuff. The basic need of shelter means we need a house. And with a house comes at least the bare necessities of furniture: beds, tables, chairs. Another basic need is food, which dictates a kitchen and all the appliances and gadgets that make cooking possible and easy. Water is another requirement, which gives rise to our convenient bathrooms.  Once the basics are in place, then comes the smaller stuff that makes them work: dishes, pot and pans, linens, lamps, etc. Most folks like to put their own personal touch on their surroundings, so in come the pictures on the walls, the figurines that reflect our interests, the books we love to read. Add to that the gadgets for entertainment, the family heirlooms (that may or may not mean a lot to you), and the tools and supplies we need to fulfill our responsibilities to family, work, church, and community. First thing you know, you have a house chock-full of stuff! It doesn't take very long to accumulate it, but down-sizing or disposing of years of stuff is a monumental task.

This need to get rid of stuff has created an interesting event known as the estate auction. When the older generation has passed on, there usually remains a houseful of their stuff. Everything is displayed in the yard, people come and look it over, and bid on and buy items as they are auctioned off. I used to wonder how families could put out such nice antiques and vintage things in an auction - the tangible evidence of life and living - to be looked over and bought by strangers. Didn't they want to keep these reminders of family and days gone by? The answer is yes and no. You can and do keep some things, but there's just no way you can keep everything and cram it into your own house, which is already full of stuff. In my opinion, deciding what to keep and what to let go is one of the biggest challenges of  life after 50 (I'm 51).

As I sit at the computer writing this post, I can turn in my chair and see a lot of stuff. Right now, most of it can stay put, but some day I, or someone else, will have to deal with it. That reality gives me pause: just how important is all this stuff, anyway?  I certainly hope I can leave a more valuable legacy for others than material things. How I treat people, how I've shared my faith, and values like honesty, kindness, and compassion are far more important than any thing I could leave behind. Although I am thankful to be blessed with stuff that can make life a little sweeter, I don't want to be burdened and overwhelmed by it either. All my contemplations about stuff have led me to a resolution. When I turn 75, I will start giving something away every day. But then again, maybe I should make that 55???

Friday, June 17, 2011

Summer Vacation

"School's out for summer" goes the old rock 'n roll song. And indeed it is, finally. Today was my last day at work until August! Sometimes it seemed like the school year would never end, but really, wasn't it just a few weeks ago that it started? How is it that time seems to crawl and rush past simultaneously? Does it have anything to do with being 50-something? A Sunday School teacher once explained that when you're five, and waiting a year until next Christmas or your birthday takes forever, it's because a year is 1/5 of your life. That's a pretty big chunk. On the other hand, when you're 50, a year is a mere 1/50 of your life, and thus goes by much more quickly. If I accept that reasoning, my summer vacation will fly by, feeling like a few days instead of seven weeks.

But wow! How many working people get seven consecutive weeks of vacation?? Not too many, I don't think. Even though I have no choices about timing, what a blessing it is to have most of the summer off from my job. I'll still be working, mind you, on painting the farmhouse kitchen, pantry, and dining room, cleaning my own house, yard work, canning our garden, and various other projects that have been piling up since last August. You see, when school starts, normal life ceases and for the most part, I'm in survival mode until summer vacation rolls around once more. I hate living like that, but the stress of public education these days saps most of my energy, and by the time I get home and get the necessary chores done, I'm beat. Now you understand why I love summer vacation so much! At least when I'm beat at the end of the day, I've hopefully made some progress on that long to-do list that persistently waits for attention at home.

Many years ago I found out that I can't cram 10 months of catching up and leisure activities into two months in the summer. If I try, I'm just as stressed out as when school is in session. I'm still learning, but I'm getting a better at living spontaneously during the summer. It's nice to be able to stay up late watching a good movie, reading a good book, or visiting with friends and know that I won't have to drag myself out of bed at 5:00 a.m. the next morning. When my husband says, "Come with me to do this or that," I can go, knowing I'll be able to get to what I had planned later, or tomorrow, even. And it's sooo nice on Sunday evenings to realize that I don't have to start another work week the next day.

Here I am, on the eve of yet another summer vacation. The whole seven weeks is before me, with only a handful of meetings or appointments on the calendar. I'll try not to think about going back to school in August until August gets here. And I hope I can keep my mind from wandering to school thoughts again and again, like it tends to do from August until June. It's summer vacation at last! And that is sweet indeed.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Living at the End of the Rainbow

They say that there is gold at the end of the rainbow. I haven't found it yet, even though I discovered this evening that we're living right where it should be. It's been a stormy Saturday, one of those when the sun shines bright and hot, not a cloud in the sky. Then the white puffy clouds that are so pretty begin to move in, and before you know it, someone turns out the light and the air smells like rain. The thunder rolls over and over itself as the storm moves in, the rain pours down, the lightning flashes. Then, before it's had time to get a good start, it's all over with the sun beating down once more. An hour or two later, the whole process starts all over again.

It was after one of those storms this evening that the rainbow appeared. A double one, actually. I almost missed it, and wonder of wonders, this time I had the camera handy. This rainbow was an arc of color spanning the sky right above my house, pulsing with intensity. All the colors were easily visible: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. (You remember the ROY G BIV acronym we all learned in school.) I snapped some photos and didn't realize there were actually two rainbows until I uploaded them to the computer.

I've often joked about needing to find a pot of gold on our property to fund our dreams. This evening I could have started digging right behind the house. But if I dig around in my heart a little, I think I'll find that there has been golden treasure here all along. It shows up in small ways: my husband's little love notes on my shopping lists, our dogs who always love me, no matter how grouchy I am, the night noise of insects as I drift off to sleep this time of year, the comfort of a safe, peaceful home where love dwells. So, I have found my pot of gold after all. It's the sweet life at the end of the rainbow, right here, right now.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Getting the Kitchen Out of the Guest Rooms

     Last fall we completely remodeled our kitchen. We didn't go down to the studs, but the drywall was the only thing left standing. It was quite disconcerting to see such thorough destruction of the heart of our home. I thought more than once, "What have I done??" and "Will the new kitchen come out all right? What if it doesn't?"

     We've lived under construction before, so I had some idea of what to expect. I planned over and over again in my head how I would set up a temporary kitchen on the dining room table, complete with microwave, a few dishes, and other necessities. We would wash dishes in the basement, where we have a regular kitchen sink. Thank goodness we wouldn't have to bend over the bathtub to get them done. The refrigerator would be moved to the screen porch, just outside the door near the temporary kitchen.  We'd have to go out in the cold to get to it, but not very far. I was sure we would manage just fine for the two or three weeks we were completely without.


Our Temporary Kitchen
      I should have known better. Construction projects never go exactly as planned and they always take a lot longer than they should. I started packing and moving out of the kitchen in mid-October and we weren't back in with the new appliances working until December 20th! All in all, it was quite an ordeal, and near the end I wondered whether we'd ever have a real kitchen again, much less a beautiful new one.

     Our house is a two-story one, and the floor plan downstairs is fairly open. There are few places to stash things out of sight. Consequently, most of the kitchen stuff got moved upstairs to our two guest bedrooms. Boxes packed with china, crystal, and other breakables filled all available floor space, leaving only narrow paths for access. Every horizontal surface was covered with pots, pans, bake ware, mixing bowls, small appliances, and various and sundry kitchen tools and gadgets. It was all quite a jumble, but I wasn't worried. It would only be that way for a little while. When I had to empty the pantry and coat closet so the new flooring could be installed, most available floor space downstairs was also filled and stacked with more stuff. It was a bit daunting, but I still had hope of being settled in our new kitchen in time for the holidays.

     As construction progressed, I kept having to scrunch into the other rooms in the house. Our kitchen, living/dining room, and hall are all open, meaning I also had to move knick-knacks, pictures on the wall, lamps, books...more stuff to find a place for. When the drywall dust and sawdust began, it went everywhere and covered everything, including our temporary kitchen, which ended up covered with plastic sheeting for what seemed like forever. There was also painting to do, which meant covering, moving and working around furniture. We even had to unhook the satellite TV for about a week. That didn't bother me much, but Robin suffered terribly from withdrawal.

     When the new cabinets finally came, the installers worked a 12-hour day to get them in. But much to my dismay, the counter top would take another entire day, and it wouldn't come for another week! In the meantime I worked at spring-cleaning and moving back into the coat closet and pantry. By December 15th, everything was in and working except the new gas range. I began moving in, only to find that everything had to be washed before it could go into the cabinets. At long last, the range was hooked up on December 20th. When my family came for Christmas Eve, I barely had enough dishes back in the kitchen to serve soup, which only required one pot to cook. I thought I would surely get everything put back over Christmas break.

Our New Kitchen Complete
     This is Memorial Day weekend, and I finally got everything that belongs in the kitchen back in the kitchen. There's a long story about getting clear shelving for the three lighted corner cabinets with glass doors, but I won't go into that. Suffice it to say that it took five months. And all that time a lot of the kitchen was still in the guest rooms, which now have only bedroom things in them. Well, almost. There's still an antique coffee grinder to find a new home for, and some old bottles that need to go somewhere else...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sick Leave

     I'm finding that keeping up with this blog is a challenge for me, but I'm off the hook for the past two weeks. I've been sick. Really sick. Stay-home-from-work sick. Not-even-going-through-the-mail sick. And for two whole weeks! I've never been that sick for that long in my life. I'm usually pretty healthy, and for almost 29 years I've rarely succumbed to the various germs and viruses that circulate in the public school where I work, but wherever this one came from, it got me.

     It was a weird illness from the beginning. I can tell you almost exactly when it started: Robin and I were visiting my dad on Sunday afternoon, May 1st. We had finished lunch and dishes and were sitting in the family room. I was going through the grocery coupons that Dad faithfully saves from the newspaper for me. It was probably 2:30 or 3:00 when my throat started hurting. Not much, just a little soreness when I swallowed. I didn't give it much thought, figuring it would soon go away. Little did I know! By Monday morning I was coughing and felt terrible, achy all over. So, with plenty of sick leave built up at work, I did that thing that I almost never do. I called in sick. I stayed in the recliner all day, tending only to the new puppy as necessary. Tuesday morning came, and I did feel a little better and had no fever, so off to school I went. Shouldn't have done that. By evening I was full of congestion in my nose and chest, which thankfully, was loose and flowed freely. But I was definitely not pleasant to be around, and my cough sounded like I'd been a chain smoker all my life. And my throat was so terribly sore.

     Thus began my odyssey into what the doctor called a "monster virus." Apparently I had all the symptoms: severe sore throat, congestion, low-grade fever, extreme fatigue. When he said it would take 14-21 days to get over it, I didn't really believe him. After all, I'm the healthy one! But sadly, he was right. The mail piled up, along with the dirt on the floor. Dishes were left in the sink for someone else, that would be Robin, to wash. The necessary load of dirty underwear and socks got done, by the hardest. I always thought that if I ever got to stay home sick, at least I could read...not so. Almost no TV either. Interestingly (and thankfully) enough, there was no nausea and no headache to speak of. If you asked me what hurt, other than my throat, I couldn't have told you. But I was sick. Sick, sick, sick. Every night I went to bed thinking, "Tomorrow I'll feel better." Every morning I got up and found out I didn't.

     Oddly enough, one thing kept bubbling up to my conscienceness: I missed my mom. She's been dead almost two years now, but while I was so sick, I missed having a mommy.  Her passing left a big void in my heart, but I felt it while I was sick like never before. No matter how grown up we get, we're always a child in our mother's eyes, and mothers take care of their sick children. And I no longer had a mommy to worry about and take care of me. It was a lonely feeling.

     Finally, after 13 days, I truly did start to feel better. Today is day 15, and other than tiring easily and an annoying cough, I'm pretty much back to normal. I'm headed back to school tomorrow. I'm sure there will be a mountain of work to wade through, but I'll be well enough to tackle it. There's that sweet life peeking through: I may have been sick, but I'm better! Some people don't get better, don't ever feel good. And so I'm counting my blessings this evening. I'm back among the land of the living, and that's sweet indeed.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Let The Puppy Fun Begin!

What chews on everything, pees on your floor, and steals your heart in less than 10 seconds? A puppy, of course! And we have one! Meet Leah, a 4-month-old Australian Kelpie. She's black and tan, marked very similar to a Doberman. And at the moment, thank goodness, she is sleeping soundly on the living room floor. Ahh, a few minutes of peace. You see, she's a busy girl, what with snooping, and chewing, and making friends with Red and Cheyenne, and chewing, and investigating, and chewing, and playing and chewing...and chewing. And we've only had her 24 hours!

Our older Kelpie, Red, is a really good dog. He's a great stock dog who goes to work every day with Robin and is invaluable when it comes to working cattle. He's obedient, calm, great with people and other animals (except groundhogs and raccoons; these he kills), and he doesn't really have any bad habits unless you count peeing on my flowers. We quickly saw that it would be a shame not to pass on such good traits to a new generation, and so we began searching for a female. Little did we know it would take over two years to find one.

Kelpies are not very plentiful in the U.S. Breeders usually have long waiting lists, and for the most part, seem to breed responsibly. That means they don't have an over-abundance of available puppies. We were fortunate to get Leah when plans for her litter abruptly changed. The whole deal transpired within a week, and here she is!

We picked her up on Good Friday from a very gracious couple in Strasburg, who were caring for the litter during its transition to new homes. Even though the weather was cold and rainy, we were given a very warm welcome to the farm, and some fascinating demos of what a herding dog can do.

When we got home, Leah did well with her new surroundings. She ate her supper, knocked over a lamp, and took over Red's bed. She was unhappy in the crate at bedtime, and after a couple of ups and downs to take care of business, she cried, yipped, howled, and whined for about half an hour before settling quietly for the night.

Red and Cheyenne (our Sheltie) are completely befuddled. You could say Red is crushed! We often say he is going to start talking any time, and yesterday could have easily been the day. We had no trouble understanding his message: "What have you done? Don't you love me anymore?" Cheyenne, our little sweetie, is being a little testy with Leah, but they are making up. I think they will be friends soon, as long as Leah doesn't try to hog the food. Red is still pouting.

Sometimes it seems that life just keeps grinding away, without any changes in positive directions. And then one day, it does change. Something big, something good happens. And you know you are blessed. And that's the essence of the sweet life. And so, let the puppy fun begin!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Honing Hurts!


In my opening post for this blog, I said I wanted to hone my writing skills. That sounds like a worthy goal, one that should bring some satisfaction at the very least. So far, however, my efforts have brought quite a bit of discomfort.

It's not very often that the mood to write strikes me. As I said, I think a lot, and I usually envision my thoughts as well-received pieces of writing. However, it is rare that I actually get something written down, and I'm finding that doing so is akin to work. It takes effort, discipline, and perseverance. And lots of re-writing until the words are just right. And when I've finally finished a piece that I am happy with, it is a good feeling. There's part of me on the page, right there for the reader to discover and, hopefully, like.

Recently, I wrote a short essay about my bird watching hobby. I really liked it; I thought it expressed the pleasure birds bring me in a comfortable tone that readers would identify with. I got brave and submitted it, along with some of my bird photos, to a regional magazine. I got a quick response from the editor, which is great! Even better, he is interested, but with a "slight re-casting" to take what I wrote from "just-me-with-curiosity-and-camera" to "anyone-can-do-it," all in about 300 words. (My original was almost 600 words.) Now, one would think that would not be too hard to do: just pare it down a little and include a sentence or two about how the average Joe can take good bird photos. Well, let's just say I've been at it for over a week now.

I quickly found that paring it down was hard: there wasn't anything I felt could easily go. And when I did cut out phrases or sentences, it hurt! I'd put those words there for a reason, and without them, the whole tone of the essay changed. What I discovered is that I don't really want to change what I wrote. I like it the way it is. But the truth of the publishing world is that rarely do submissions get published without some revising and editing. And if I want to see my writing in this magazine, I'll have to be willing to change it. Therein lies the discomfort: letting go of what I thought was already good, and working to make it better, or at least better-suited to the editor's purpose. All this leads to a larger question: who do I really want to write for? If I want to write for an audience then I'll have to be willing to be edited. If I want to write just for me, well, that's what journals (and blogs) are for.

I hope this whole process is making me a better writer. At this point, I'm squirming a bit, reluctant to change what I think is good. But I've done it. I've re-written my essay, and it's shorter and quite different from the original. We'll see what the editor thinks.
Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Remembering

It's St. Patrick's Day, the day on which everyone can claim to be Irish. I, like millions of other Americans, do have some Irish blood in my veins, watered down a bit, I'm sure. My maternal grandmother was an Eskew, which was Askew only a generation before her. This family came from Ireland in the 1740s, I think. I have the straight razor that came over on the boat with that first Askew long ago. I also have some Scottish blood, along with who knows what else. Sometime between the arrival of my ancestors in the New World and my childhood, interest in our family's heritage went dormant. When I was a teenager that interest was awakened by a 4-H agent who treasured her own heritage and that of the mountain people of Appalachia.

Jane T. George and her husband, Frank, came to Monroe County some 35 years ago and stirred up the sleeping Celtic gene in a lot of us kids. It started with a folk dance team that progressed from simple square dances to English Contra, Scottish Country, and Irish set dances. There were also individual Scottish and Irish dances, along with traditional clogging, that built self-confidence along with pride in our heritage. Some of us went on to develop musical abilities by learning to play and sing Celtic music, even making recordings that were mildly popular among other Celtic enthusiasts.  Into our 50s now, some of us "kids" are still reveling in the many layers of fun, beauty, and mystery that make up the world of Celtic music and dance.

Why, do you suppose, in the mid-1970s did a bunch of typical teenagers in a small West Virginia community become hooked on something our friends considered old-fashioned and definitely uncool? Why did that first immersion into the Celtic world end up lasting into middle age and probably beyond? How has it survived in our busy lives, among jobs, families, and all those other adult responsibilites? Perhaps the answer lies in a quatrain written by former West Virginia poet laureate Louise McNeill in her book Gauley Mountain: A History in Verse.

                  I call no muse, for the sandaled foot
                  Should never tread where the brogan lumbers.
                  I have gulled the pith from a sumac limb
                  To play a tune that my blood remembers.

A tune that my blood remembers. Perhaps that explains why, after generations of family who paid little, if any, attention to their heritage, the wail of Highland bagpipes can bring tears to my eyes. Or why the driving beat of an Irish reel can make me giddy with joy, and my feet can't keep still. Or why the haunting melodies of Uillean pipes (think Titanic movie) make me long so deeply for something that I can never put my finger on.  And it probably explains why, among all the genres of wonderful music so easily available today, I still choose to spend my money and time on Celtic music. A tune that my blood remembers. What generations of ancestors have long forgotten, my blood remembers. And I'm so glad it does!

Oh, and a Happy St. Paddy's day to you, too!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Furnaces, Frustration, & Finding Blessings

So...my first challenge in blogging is, well, blogging! That is, actually sitting down at the computer and writing. It's been a week since my first entry. I've thought about writing several times since, but never when I could get to it. And when I could have done it, other tasks consumed my time. But I'm here now, so I will blog.

Events of the past two weeks have caused me to count some basic blessings. Last October we got a new (and expensive) outdoor wood furnace, which we have been having problems with. These problems result in heat, but not very warm heat (I do not like to be cold in my own house), hot water that is not hot, but barely luke warm (I love a hot bath every night, as hot as I can stand it), and high water use to fill the "bladder" of the furnace every day, when it should need filling only occasionally (which taxes our well and our water treatment system). Now where we live, March is a long way from warm weather. We're looking at about three more months of needing to heat the house. Thus, problems with our heating system call for immediate attention. So far, the distributor that installed our furnace has not been very prompt in coming to check it out and fix it; in fact no one has come, even after two weeks of phone calls.

So what blessings does this major inconvenience cause me to count? Hot running water on demand, for one. There are millions of people the world over who can't imagine having that. Another blessing is consistent, dependable heat that I don't have to fuss with. Many folks don't have that. Less obvious blessings are the financial wherewithal to purchase such a system, my husband's health that enables him to cut wood and fire the furnace, and the practice I'm getting at controlling my temper and being a polite customer when I speak with the distributor. And then there's the challenge of not allowing all this to steal my peace and ruin my day. It's hard to "look on the bright side" of a situation like this; the truth is it makes me quite angry. But buried among all the inconvenience and frustration are some drops of the sweet life. It's up to me to find them.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Sweet Life Redefined

I'm new at this; blogging, that is. I think a lot, but seldom get my thoughts down in written form. This blog is an attempt to do just that. Whether or not anyone wants to join me remains to be seen. Also still to be seen is whether or not I can keep this up on a regular basis. Time will tell!

I titled this blog "The Sweet Life" for two reasons. First off, our little "farm" is named Sweet Run because we live on Davis Run, and because we make maple syrup, and because life in our little corner of the planet is indeed sweet. However, I do need to remind myself of my many blessings, since I tend to let day-to-day irritations cloud my view. And so, perhaps this blog will help me pay more attention to the ordinary wonders all around me. Perhaps it will help me focus on all the positives in my life. Perhaps it will even help me get better at turning negatives into positives. So here goes!

Maple syrup season is winding down. It's a lot of work, with some good fun thrown in, but it only lasts a few weeks and is therefore pretty intense. Sometimes I get weary. But there's a lesson in syrup. Since it takes about 40 gallons of sugar water to make one gallon of syrup, all the extra water has to be boiled away. That takes time and effort, but once it's done, sweet syrup remains. Life also takes time and effort, but when we sort through all the extra stuff, the sweet life remains.