Archive for the ‘ homemaking ’ Category

Winter Solstice: An Advent Collision

Last night crept in, longest night of my life–farthest north I’d ever been on a winter solstice–and I dissolved into the sort of writhing, fearsome sobs that feel like they ought to produce something. I hoped they would.

“I am feeling overwhelmed,” I told my husband. “I think I’d benefit from some time alone.” I imagined the angels looked down upon me, sorry I was in such consternation.

Two Mary figures vie for my affections. The first, Lady Mary of Downton Abbey. She is not the exemplar of success; it’s only that she fell into the comfort of an aristocratic family and has the pride, class, and stubbornness to hold onto it. And then there is Mary, mother of God. Her most confident cry is one of praise that God has favored her in her humility.

I want to be both, to stop sniveling in apology and worry, to be the listener and accepter that Mary is: Let it be unto me. For three years running, that line grips me. But couldn’t I yet know the graces of being a confident woman, whose etiquette and words are so deftly handled that it’s a social comfort to be with me in any circumstance? On the other hand, if I choose let it be, then I fear my natural foibles will fall undisciplined upon and around me, an embarrassment to the potential of beauty in the universe. In short, surely both Marys cannot coexist in me.

If I accept that I am growing and not seeing my own growth, then I accept that it is okay to be in the dark, to be ignorant. Maybe it’s never a lingering thing, of course, but it seems a weak word anyway: ignorance. Pressing on, accomplishing my version of good, making and remaking–in the name of glory (but never, admittedly, in the name of greed)–those are the prizes of success: not that we are given to, but that we are able to give and must, by all means. Christmas giving, after all.

Oh, our tilted axis, and oh, earth orbiting round the sun–you mean dark days. Clark Strand, in his New York Times article “Bring on the Dark: Why We Need the Winter Solstice”, honors the idea of darkness as something robbed from us in our modern generations’ immersion in artificial light. Darkness used to be a holy space, when people of old “touched one another, told stories and, with so much night to work with, woke in the middle of it to a darkness so luxurious it teased visions from the mind and divine visitations that helped to guide their course through life….It was once the hour of God.”

The hour of God. The hour of open hands. The hour of sleep, when there is ample space for rest. Darkness puts a stop to our constant seeing, our intentional discovering. Perhaps it leaves space unfilled, so that we may be recreated and named by God instead of giving in to “the impulse to remake the world in our own image.”

There will be light in time; there will be springs and summers in which to walk and plan and build. But in the darkness, we open the habitual possibility of listening to the words of a messenger angel, who may tell us what great blessing comes to the world beyond all that we could ever dream, through us (see Mary mother of God’s story) or through others (see Joseph the carpenter’s story).

Or maybe we will grow to savor the darkness, when nothing of consequence at all is announced, when we realize that peace has already come.


Laundral Impasse: another Tweetspeak link-up

Tweetspeak Poetry invited me to write a poem about laundry this week, tossed in with an offer to be entered in drawing for a Scratch Magazine subscription. How could I resist? Laundry is so present, I might have more than one in me if you beg me to wring another out.


Laundral Impasse

Only walls know how I
laundered by hand and—
by back, arms, by this body—

how little I’ve laundered in compare
to the matròn bunched, swayed
over Riviere Cotes de Fer—

only my one day paused enough
to wonder why I’d relegate
this tactile communion
to a mechanical cube three
times my size when I am muscle,
I am water, I admit dirt hunkers
against the fibers—scrubbing,

I have had enough! I sever
myself from the wash of women’s
fortitude that binds us all in

unity. I can take the grace—oh!
and couldn’t I have more?—

my Western wringing has left me
hanging for a generous Wind—

lay me limply, let me fold. I can
claim the four-four measures,
of garments in quadrants if only

to be clothed again. It is a small
preparation I can handle, this dress
over my head—

I’m in My Kitchen… Come on In!

Oh, I love food. And I love how celebration includes feasting. But this Thanksgiving had me chewing on my own food control issues and ingratitude when it comes to feasting. I have places in need of healing right along with my son Ari. As I turned to second pieces of pumpkin pie with near panic, I began to gain solid understanding why Kimberlee Conway Ireton in The Circle of Seasons speaks value into some form of fasting in the dark waiting of Advent.

Because Advent is a season of preparation and penitence, fasting has historically been part of Advent observance, a way to clear away the detritus of the year and create space in our lives for Christ to come.

I love that idea of making space for Christ through fasting. Where there may be grabbing panic in my eating habits — Quick! Cram it down so nobody sees! — there can perhaps be a new emptiness. And that emptiness can turn me to the One who fills.

But there is hardly a shortage of food around our house. Oh, my! We hardly have places to store it all! As I plan and prepare meals and snacks to nourish our bodies between these times of feasting, I am finding a new gratitude in the preparation. It’s probably even more exciting than pumpkin pie.

Do you want to step into my kitchen for a moment? Our woodstove in the living room is warming up the whole place, and I’ll light a candle for you to cut the dark of these December days.  Do you like chai, yerba mate, chamomile tea? I’ll set the kettle to boiling while we take a peek around at what I’ve been up to:

Cortido! (Spicy, Latin American sour kraut) I just got my first batch of this packed into jars tonight, so it can ferment for a few days before it moves to the refrigerator.  When it’s done, it’ll be delicious eaten on salads and sandwiches, or — my favorite way — straight out of the jar. How can such a party in the mouth be so soothing for the stomach?

Sprouts! This alfalfa, radish, lentil, red clover seed mixture has just started sending out tiny little sprouts. Making sprouts at home is so easy, I can hardly say I’ve been making them at all. It’s food so fresh it’s still growing!

Soaked, dried almonds! I used the Healthy Home Economist’s method for soaking and drying almonds, and I’m loving it. Last week I concocted some sweet almonds with honey and salt, and tonight a plain salted batch is drying in my newly calibrated oven. Who knew I could turn my oven into a dehydrator?

Coconut milk! I really love the taste of commercially produced coconut milk, but it just strikes me funny to be drinking added ingredients like evaporated cane juice and carageenan. So I made my first successful batch with just coconut and water, amazed at how cheesecloth so beautifully strained out the coconut pulp.

Soap! Even though we decided not to eat it, hopefully we can nourish our bodies with the Holiday Spice Soap I made with Isaiah last week. While I confess I started off my soap-making with too complicated of a recipe for my blood, I think it’s going to be okay after all. It’s terribly exciting to be making. soap. It’s all set to curing on my laundry closet shelf.

Whole chickens! The herb roasted whole chickens featured on Pioneer Woman’s website have been knocking my socks off lately. We usually prop up a seasoned whole chicken on a beer can and grill it, which is mighty tasty too, but the combination of lemon, garlic, onion, and herbs in our newly found recipe is to die for. I always boil my chicken carcasses for broth, and these chickens have made the best ever. I love having plenty of broth for winter soups.

Now, you can’t tell me food like that isn’t exciting! For me, it’s a welcome alternative to my traditional Christmas cookie baking marathon. And I just got something like 50 pounds of apples from Azure Standard today, so I can already smell some applesauce cooking in the coming days.

Real Life and Work: Shedding the Substitutes

The other night Baby Ray and I sat alone at Bluestem Bistro, just in case any ladies showed up for Mosaic’s coffee night, a connection opportunity for adoptive and foster moms in our community.  Kyle and I started Mosaic of Manhattan because of our strong intuition that in the midst of life, people need people.  But in the space of life after Ray’s birth I grasped hard to fulfill my organizational duties by planning events, getting them on the calendar, sending emails.

Though the logistical side became my little pet, my waiting for people at a peopleless meeting pointed me to the reason for it all: life.  And the meeting was empty.  My stab at life came up empty.  Well, not entirely; there was Baby Ray, squirming in his wrap.  Ray cried in the coffee shop, and I found myself outside rocking him.  I couldn’t find any anger for him because rocking him is my purpose.  A friend happened to come by my table, and we connected over one commonality: we both had spent our morning glued to the blog posts we were writing while our children needed us, grew frustrated without our attention.  Life was happening, and I was stretching for more, more, more, as if  three noisy, beautiful-eyed boys weren’t enough.

So after the coffee shop — a ladies’ night where I was the only lady — I went home again and pondered over what the purpose of an organization is without people to organize.  It’s a grasping in the dark, really — grasping for more glamorous substitutes than the real people with real stories who sit on my couch.   People who don’t need more events.  I can send all the emails in the world, create a Mosaic logo, create a personal “Carrie Beyer” logo, for crying out loud, and never come up with an ounce of real connection.  My husband encouraged me to take a break from the computer for the evening.

In the aftermath, I peeled myself away from my Facebook account, permanently.  It sounds drastic, doesn’t it?  Why would I…?  I mean, Facebook?  (Apparently, Facebook thinks it’s drastic, too.  They don’t actually erase your account for another two weeks just in case you change your mind.)

I just couldn’t shake the image of my boys and how much they need me right now.  There’s barely enough of me to go around, and if I’m filling my time with cheap substitutes for real life, there most certainly isn’t enough.  Cloning may sound appealing, but until I am made superhuman, I only have one face.  I have one pair of eyes to lock with someone dear to me.  I have two arms for holding, one set of lips to press against another’s.  My brain cannot process the depth of everyone’s stories.  If I were to track all the lives of all the people I have ever known (read: Facebook), there would not be space in me to contain them.

But I have my strong husband to lie with at night.  I have two boys bursting with ideas and words and energy, and another who prefers to stay cuddled against my breasts.  In our open spaces in life, we swing wide our doors to new friends and old ones, while they widen our world with their stories.  And so I have to let substitutes go.  There is only me.  There is only here.  There is only now.

Me, here and now, is good.  (Me is good.  How do you like that for a sentence?)  Me, here and now, is a house in a college neighborhood, sidewalks adorned with chalk and newly fallen leaves.  It is shelves of books, but only one at a time.  It is blonde, black, and brown haired boys, superhero underwear, and pee-soaked diapers.  Me, here and now, is supper in our kitchen when we can; it is always dishes, always laundry, and always traversing the obstacle course of toys.

The routines of cooking, feeding, cleaning, talking, digging, swinging, and making love sustain our lives and bring health.  It is in stirring pancake batter with Ari that I fall deeply in love with him through warnings, laughter, and flour.  I watch Isaiah wield a plastic sword and claim his knighthood and am drawn to his boy-man courage.  And my breasts let down milk and out pours my heart all over Ray.

Listen to Wendell Berry’s words from his necessary cultural epistle The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture:

Connection is health.  And what our society does its best to disguise from us is how ordinary, how commonly attainable, health is.  We lose our health—and create profitable diseases and dependences—by failing to see the direct connections between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving.  In gardening, for instance, one works with the body to feed the body.  The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food.  And it makes one hungry.  The work thus makes eating both nourishing and joyful, not consumptive, and keeps the eater from getting fat and weak.  This is health, wholeness, a source of delight.  And such a solution, unlike the typical industrial solution, does not cause new problems.

The ‘drudgery’ of growing one’s own food, then is not drudgery at all.  (If we make the growing of food a drudgery, which is what ‘agribusiness’ does make of it, then we also make a drudgery of eating and of living.)  It is—in addition to being the appropriate fulfillment of a practical need—a sacrament, as eating is also, by which we enact and understand our oneness with the Creation, the conviviality of one body with all bodies.  This is what we learn from the hunting and farming rituals of tribal cultures.

As the connections have been broken by the fragmentation and isolation of work, they can be restored by restoring the wholeness of work.  There is work that is isolating, harsh, destructive, specialized or trivialized into meaninglessness.  And there is work that is restorative, convivial, dignified and dignifying, and pleasing.  Good work is not just the maintenance of connections—as one is not said to work ‘for a living’ or ‘to support a family’—but the enactment of connections.  It is living, and a way of living; it is not support for a family in the sense of an exterior brace or prop, but is one of the forms and acts of love.

So, drudgery: begone!  It exists, to be sure, but not in the hanging of laundry on the line and not in the jumble of forks and spoons in my dishwasher.  Work and sweat, people — elbows, toenails, and all — these are the ingredients of life, the very fabric of the heart, and the resurrectors of passion and purpose.

in which food makes me angry

Maybe it started last night when I instant-messaged my husband:

“my motivation to cook supper is falling out of the window….  can it be a palio’s night maybe?”

So we went out for pizza.  It was fine.  Under twenty dollars, easy, quick.  It was fine.

But I knew I had to face grocery shopping today, so I finished out my menu for the next week, and went on my way.  I only needed meat (yes, I know:  I never need meat) for a couple meals, so I thought I’d just knock the whole grocery list out at Whole Foods.  The list wasn’t too long, after all.

One complimentary sack of cookies, two trips to the bathroom for my potty-training two-year-old, and over an hour later, we checked out.

One hundred eighty dollars.  Seriously?  One hundred eighty dollars? I mean, sure, I picked up a few extras: a new bottle of raw agave nectar (It’s cheaper than honey.), some raw carob cacao nibs (I had always wanted these when I was on the raw diet and just found them today, only to find out I misread the package and they weren’t carob. At least they really were raw.), a new mint plant for my pot (surely it will produce mint for many months to come!), some extra Food for Life bread (it’s cheaper at Whole Foods than at the standard American grocery store).  Things like that.  They weren’t stupid, unnecessary foods.

But I left angry.  Isaiah and I were not on good terms.  I really just felt like a hamburger.  That is, I felt like eating one.  You know, I do pretty well with the whole eating-sustainably-grown-meat thing until I’m in a bad mood.  Then I think to myself, “You know what?  It is all just hopeless.  I try to be a good steward of what I eat, and I end up being a bad steward of my money.  I am a lost cause.  I may as well just eat fast food.”  Do you feel sorry for me at all?

Anyway, as it turned out, there was no mouth-watering hamburger joint between Whole Foods and home, so we got tacos.  Isaiah liked that.  And I sucked in my Coca-Cola like it was a drug.

On the drive home, I decided that at the soonest opportunity possible, I needed to take a course in organic gardening.  Really, it seems to be the only reasonable way to be be a good steward of earth, body, and money.  And I have failed enough in my own gardening that I think I could use a little help.  It was a little spark of hope, thinking about taking a gardening class, but still… I still had one hundred eighty dollars worth of groceries in the trunk of my car.  Today it didn’t make me feel much better.

Isaiah spilled his fast food water when we got home.  I yelled at him, which hurt his feelings, so he cried.  I felt more like a hamburger than ever.  That is, I felt as lowly as ground beef between two pieces of bread.  So I told my little boy I was sorry, held him a few moments, and admitted to him that it was only water.

We were on better terms when it was finally naptime.  Isaiah smiled at me before I left his room.  He forgives and forgives.

I set off to the kitchen to do some baking.

Sometimes I slap myself over the head for thinking I have to make food from scratch* — like the pecan rolls I want to serve to some valiant moms of toddlers tomorrow.  I mean, pecan rolls?  Really?  The expense is no less than a simple can of Pillsbury whatever-rolls.  And the work is enough to make me dread my entire day.

But then, in the middle of kneading, I looked down and saw my hands working the dough on my wooden board.  My arms hurt; my breath came out in little puffs.  The exertion grounded me.  I felt human again.  It was like the simplicity of hands in dough — working it, working it — washed away all my guilt and self-hatred for failing again and again in the food department.  If I could only only make bread, and see a few ingredients and a little elbow grease somehow turn into this beautiful, simple staple of the human diet, I could see transformation in grocery shopping, in growing food, in my rocky rollercoaster of a soul.

*One exception to this — an occasion when I never feel like I’m biting off more than I can chew — is when I make this beautiful recipe for crusty, chewy artisan bread.  It is so easy.  Believe me. You should try it at least once.  And the result is something you might buy in a good bakery.  And the best part is that it makes four loaves, only you don’t have to bake them all at once because the dough stores in the fridge for up to two weeks!  Mmmm.  I am salivating right now.  Oh, bread, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways…

courage to create

Today I’m taking inspiration from my husband, Kyle, who posted a collection of notes and reactions to Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.

I’ve never linked creativity to risk, but tonight it makes sense to me that taking risks may help me live more creatively.  It’s fear that keeps me from living life more creatively and passionately.

This year and probably next, we’re living in a rental house.  But if we ever end up in home we own again, I want to create an art wall.  I’m not talking about a wall where artwork is hung.  I want take a whole wall of our house, and let it be turned into whatever the members of our family want it to be turned into.  Everyone can and should contribute to the masterpiece.  Old things can be covered up (though I’d like to take pictures of the wall — maybe every night — to help me remember how the wall used to be), and any art medium can be used, including the writing of text and the posting of photographs.  Hopefully the wall would always be an artistic representation of what our family looks like at that moment.  It would be a way to relieve frustrations, celebrate joy, and commune as a family.

But it’s risky, you know?  It would mean you’d have to give up the idea that your house can look like a decorator’s dream.  Beige paint, begone!  And then you’d have to admit to yourself that it’s okay if the wall isn’t pretty.  And you’d have to be okay with visitors seeing all your struggles and ideas splashed up against the wall.  Yeah, it’s risky.  It’s scary.  But just think:  isn’t it scary to think that whatever beauty that could be expressed on that wall may never have a chance to be released unless it has a canvas?

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I had ever heard of relactation.  I hadn’t.  But I went home and scoured the internet for all the information I could find about it.  I discovered that I could train my stagnant breasts to produce milk again.  With enough regular demand for milk, the supply could be rebuilt.  I could actually breastfeed our adopted baby!  Though the process of training a baby to nurse when he has only been bottlefed may turn out to be grueling, the opportunity for bonding through breastfeeding is invaluable.  I imagine this is a little crazy to some people.  But even if I face failure, how can I not try to take advantage of something so perfect?

Today on NPR’s Studio 360, green architect William McDonough spoke of the inspiration he takes from nature.  He admits that humans have pretty lame design skills:

“I reflect on the fact that it took us 5000 years to put wheels on our luggage.  So we’re not that… smart as a design species.  But if you look at a tree and think of it as a design assignment, it would be like asking you to make something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, provides habitat for hundreds of species, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, changes colors with the seasons, creates micro-climates, and self-replicates.”

Yeah, my God is creative.  He’s an artsy guy.

I grasp the scrap of paper that is my hope of relactating and breastfeeding our new baby.  It’s a small innovation, a small hope, a humble dream.  But it is my risk; it is my bit of innovation and creativity.  I’ll trudge through weeks of sitting at breast pumps and sopping up leaked milk.  I’ll remember what full, sore breasts feel like.  And I’ll take that scrap of paper and pray for it to be turned into art.  Dare I hope it could become something as complex and beautiful as… a tree?

an update on nothing

Well, this is a post on something, after all.  It’s a much-belated update on my 30 29 Days of Nothing.

What a month this has been!  Full of blessings and bounty — far from nothing!  There was so much bounty, in fact, that I expected to look back at my five resolutions in my original post and have to tell you that I failed at nearly everything.  But today I read my resolutions again (they had always been in the back of my head, but I couldn’t have told you exactly what they said), and I realized we had met almost all our goals!

1. No lunches out except Sunday.  One dinner out per week, with no drinks or appetizers: On this one, I messed up twice, I think, with the lunch thing.  But the lunches were not unplanned splurges in a moment of weakness.  They were both lunches out with friends, for social and relationship-building purposes.  Justified, or not?  (I could have cooked those meals, after all.)  As for dinner, I think I succeeded 100 per cent on that one!

2. Meals planned around grocery store sales. Eh, I tried.  But I don’t really enjoy going through fliers.  So, how’s this?  I planned a meal, and then found the grocery store that had that item on sale — beef stew meat, for instance.  Since I have decided that buying all organic produce is not conducive to saving for an adoption, I am buying most of my conventional produce at the dirt-cheap Korean market.  Meat, though, kind of freaks me out at the Korean market.  So, I’d either bypass the meat altogether, justify a really good meat sale at Kroger or Albertson’s in the name of frugality, or when feeling particularly sustainable, I would go to Whole Foods to get a small serving of the good, organic, free-range stuff.

3. Stay under budget on groceries by at least $50. Everybody say “Wooee!”  Wooee! I am officially done getting groceries for the month.  And guess what?  I am under budget by $105.  Yeah.  I will attribute this in part to the bounty of food my parents brought from Kansas, but I could also argue that our grocery budget was more stressed because we had two weekends with houseguests.  It all balances out.

4. Limited electricity use, including air-drying clothes and turning off lights. I’d say the month was about average in this department.  I wasn’t exactly a stickler about turning off the lights — not more than usual anyway.  But just to make up for it, I am sitting in the darkness with my laptop right now.  And then there was one weekend I totally broke down and used the dryer for two loads of laundry, which I almost never do.  I enjoyed the luxury and felt little guilt.

5. Cloth diapers. The next weekend I broke down and used disposable diapers on Isaiah during the day.  I did feel guilty about that.  Other than that, I stuck to my guns.

As I’ve said, I didn’t feel very deprived during September.  I received bounty.  The hardest moments were in the late afternoon when I was tired and felt like doing anything but cooking.  Those will always be the hardest moments.  Perseverance is rewarded when I realize that in our budget, we were able to pay for a three-night stay at a condo in Breckenridge, where we’ll be two weeks from tonight.  If I had planned better, maybe that money could have gone to someone in need, rather than to give ourselves some late luxury that we missed out on this month.  But whether we had done this experiment in September or not, we still would have taken our mini-vacation in Breckenridge.  And now it’s paid for.

I believe these exercises can and will become habit for me.  In the kitchen, I have become less scared of cooking from scratch.  I have learned a little more about balancing frugal shopping with ecologically responsible shopping; I don’t have to feel guilty about buying organic milk or zucchini.

But I can do without a weekly coffee shop indulgence.  It’s a nice and perhaps much-needed reward on occasion, but I don’t have to do it to satisfy my consumerist cravings.  As Suzy recently reminded me through the words of Gandhi: “We must live simply so that others may be able to simply live.”

All discipline is hard in the outset.  But the fruit it bears will sustain not only our family but maybe also many others.  That’s my dream.