Winter’s End

Another round of fluffy snow fell the other night, and the landscape is all whites and grays, cold loveliness. Despite what any groundhogs may or may not have seen earlier this month, winter’s grip remains and won’t loosen for at least another few weeks. Still, it’s time to start thinking about spring, with things to plant being ordered and the potting bench migrating it’s way under the living room window. My Meyer Lemon tree has begun to bloom, a tiny sign of hope for and warmth.

This year we’ll add blueberries, more mulberry trees, and replace a few of the baby trees that have not made it over the years. My son is lobbying for walnut trees as well, although I don’t really know where to put them. And with our parents starting to be vaccinated, hope of a different sort is taking root as well.

In between daydreams of flowers and sunshine though, pandemic reality continues to warp at Sithean. My 8 year old has begun to chart his speed and success rates at levels (worlds?) in Mario Odyssey with notes on paper, like a stockbroker from nineteen tickety-two. If he begins dressing like a Newsie I will find it only mildly odd, and would mostly wonder where he found brown knickers in a child’s size 10 and whose credit card he swiped to get them. The possibility that he’s founded a gaming platform since November and now is a multi-billionaire who can buy his own knickers is just the sort of thing that would turn out to be true.

Honey Locust in the Snow

Additionally mind bending is that my tiny baby daughter who only yesterday was dressed in a giant pink-and-purple fleece onesie, is now twelve and educating me on Cottagecore, which seems to primarily be about wearing floaty floral dresses and eating banana bread in fields of wildflowers. That the potential wildflowers are currently covered in several inches of ice and snow does not dissuade her, nor does the fact that she doesn’t even like floral prints. Or dresses.

Suggestions to add a thatched roof to Sithean do not go unheard so much as the general upkeep, lack of expertise, total lack of thatch material locally, and the fact that the current roof is only 2 years old leave me no choice but to reject her plan out of hand, with the counter-offer of a t-shirt with some fancily sketched mushrooms on it and some banana bread for breakfast paling in comparison, but deemed potentially acceptable. Maybe.

And so our pandemic winter treks onward. My brief fit of rejoining the world with Museums and cheese and outdoor brunch under patio heaters while a cold February rain misted in for my daughter’s birthday has passed, and I find myself content to return to my natural state of sweatpanted isolation. My web conference colleagues got excited about being ‘on video’ for a while, but that trend seems to be slowly trailing off somewhat. June sounds like a good time to get out again.

It’s time to turn inward again anyway. With impending spring comes the start to rush, and to finish the inside projects before the outdoors calls us to clean up and prepare for the next season. Before us is the final large stack of paperwork to initiate our home study and launch into adoptive parenthood, alone with our continued reorganization projects. Our decluttering efforts are showing their fruits in spaces that got- and remained – without piles of stuff on them. But there’s still more to do.

So today, in and around a short run, projects and lots of laundry, we’ll prep chicken parmesan, potstickers, and lots of other delicious foods for the week, as we do most Sundays. And tonight, as the 4 of us settle in for a simple evening with hamburgers, roasted potatoes and a movie before the week begins we’ll count our blessings.

Because while our ever-so-slightly-bent-reality pandemic winter treks on, we know spring is coming.

Radical Acceptance

I’ve started writing and stopped on multiple blog posts in the last couple weeks. The dark and cold of a pandemic winter overcame my generally positive mindset. My daughter was struggling in school, bad things kept happening to those around us, and the pandemic was spreading, and spreading some more. New variants, vaccines but not for us, even my walks, oases of time to think and breathe, were given over in service to ice and cold and dark and school schedules.

I started thinking about escape to somewhere warm and near the ocean, with a pool and where, just for a while, we could ignore the pandemic. Pretend it wasn’t. Since Covid-19 washed up on our shores I’ve been worried but calm about it, other than ensuring that every bit of pantry and freezer space is filled at all times. Did we need 4 bottles of lemon juice? No, no we didn’t, but it, and all the other things filling the cabinets staved off some of the stress. Finally I took a day and reorganized things, so I could stop the overbuying and easily see what we have.

But facing down another year without our people was maybe more than my always optimistic mindset could manage, and all the things, combined with the sheer relentlessness of work for me lately, I reached the tipping point. Even the Sweet Potato Gnocchi, Parmesan Tater Tots and other cooking I was doing, normally therapeutic, wasn’t helping.

Then the TV started having issues, and out the window went family movie night. Our Friday night homemade-pizza-and-movie is something that the kids participate in only some of the time, but I hold out as always there, a connection point that holds us together.

Of course, none of these things are particularly huge problems. We are warm, fed and housed. We have enough and then some. But I was tired and overwhelmed, and nothing felt quite right.

Nonetheless, despair and I are not friends, I’m deeply programmed with a little too much of ‘put on your big girl pants and deal with it-itis. So I did, a little at a time, after first, wallowing in feeling sorry for myself for a few days.

First, my daughter, putting in place tools to help her with her schoolwork and a lot of listening. Then, acknowledgement that winter in 2022 might include a warm-weather vacation away, but not this year, so alternative plans for some days off at home. Our de-cluttering and tidying continues, this time as much for mindset purposes as anything else. Normally I don’t get much of it done on weeknights, but this past Thursday I sat down and slogged away at a corner of the living room that was piled up with puzzles games and the last few things from Christmas that we forgot to put in the attic and started on it. There’s still more to do, but every little bit helps.

Eli and I planned our summer RV trip to the mountains, and a random day off later this month when we will drop the kids off at school and take some time to connect and walk and be together.

My daughter and I took the dog for a walk. Eli and our son took a quick trip to the Art Store and Target, a rare and tiny burst of normalcy, carefully timed to limit exposure. We cooked homemade Indian food, something I’ve been trying to master. Eli fixed the TV.

Homemade Onion Pakora, Palak Paneer and chicken Tikka Masala with Naan and some homemade tamarind and yogurt sauces.

But it wasn’t any of those things that truly made the weight of the world leave my shoulders, although at one point Eli offering to literally take it from me did leave me laughing.

It was a squirrel.

We have this one determined squirrel, whom we have semi-affectionately named Stinker, who loves to clean out the bird feeders. Some of our feeders are more squirrel resistant than others, but the one just outside the living room window is an easy access point for him (her?). Birds eat from it too, the birds of my grandmother’s house – chickadees and goldfinches and robins and Bluejays. And even some rarer birds like bluebirds show up. This week it got emptied, as it always does, and sure enough, when I woke up, there was Stinker, trying to glean the last few crumbs before another snowstorm arrives.

And I remembered. My job here is to tend this place and it’s denizens. Eli and I are both providers here, each with our critical and respective jobs in caring for animals, children and home, but even before him I took on the role of Provider, first when I became a mom, and then when we arrived here, promising leave this place only when my time on earth is over and in better shape than I found it. I had, amidst piles of laundry and long hours at work and worry about all the everything, completely lost perspective. I chose this work, and some days it’s harder and more than I can manage. But this the long game, and Sithean and I belong together. I will almost certainly get lost in the day to day again, but at least for today I know where I need to be.

Taking Stock

Early mornings are my favorite time. Before everyone is up, there I am, with a book or my computer and my cup of coffee, enjoying the quiet of being alone before the world starts up around me.

Yesterday morning after I put a pot of eggs to hard boil on the stove, I sat in the living room, which was still cozy warm from the previous night’s fire in the wood stove, and illuminated by the lights on the Christmas tree. With just a few days to my favorite holiday, we are starting to slow down. There’s still much to do – I am late to getting the last few packages in the mail (this is true every year), we still haven’t gotten much wrapped and there’s some baking to be done. But all of our shopping is complete, Eli continues to create Elf on the Shelf magic with our house elf, Elphidelphia, most nights and other than a lot of wrapping still to do, which I actually enjoy, there’s just not a ton left to manage.

This year we will not spend our Christmas Eve with my parents or Christmas Day with my former in-laws. We can’t – we made the decision a couple weeks ago to put the kids into a school that is open and in-person 5 days a week, and so all semblance of assured safety for those around us is gone. It was the right decision, but it comes tinged with regret. Our cozy 9 month long bubble popped, and now we go out into the world again, just as infections rage all around me. I can’t say it doesn’t worry me, but I also know it’s what the kids needed. So we rolled the dice, and the outcome is now one of crossing our fingers and hoping that the other families there are as careful as ours.

So Christmas will be simple, with a lovely cheese board and a ham and some simple, pre-prepped side dishes for lunch. Eli, I, my ex and the kids are the sum total of the humans we will be with, and for this year that’s just fine.

Our winters are always quiet, but this one will be so much more so. But as much as I miss our people, I intend to enjoy it fully, with long peaceful walks and runs, time spent in the kitchen, Friday nights spent with homemade pizza and movies, and books. My garden seeds – although I need very few this year – are ordered because I know there will likely be shortages again this year, even though I am several months away from the potting bench taking up residence in the living room.

After re-engineering our spaces last summer to make room for more kids to arrive in our lives in 2021, we ended up with a lot of clutter in various places. Little by little, I’m going through and clearing it out. This week I tackled the top of our bureau, which has long been the resting place for unmatched socks, outgrown kid clothes, and various things that we don’t quite know where to put. Now it has just a few items on it, all carefully placed, and it’s a serene view for when I sit propped in bed with my laptop on chilly mornings. Of which there are a lot of these days. Decluttering – it’s what’s for winter.

Yesterday I did all my ordering of groceries from various locations, and stopped off at the Asian grocery store. From now until February 1, or maybe longer, other than milk from the local dairy, which we pick up 2x a month, and our Misfits Market deliveries, we’re on a grocery store & spending freeze. No going, no ordering. I stocked up this weekend because our holiday meals are important and there’s a pandemic on, but at the end of the day it’s time to get some daylight into the pantry and freezer, and one does that by eating it down.

Covid-19 is also spreading really, really fast in Massachusetts and everywhere, and we’re hunkering down for the next few months as much as possible, so having less coming in from the outside world while we eat through our stockpile is a good idea.

This year we have done so very much. As I look at the patched, and still to be painted walls in the bedroom, I think about the gift that new pipes throughout was to us and the house. There’s still more trees to take down, and I get a little sad about each one as they are removed, but the 7 trees we took down posed danger to the house and us, and now we have the start of a clearing that might eventually become something. An orchard? We don’t know yet.

And then there’s the RV, which sounds like a way too big investment until I tell you how very much I love it. It’s like playing fort, only for adults (and the kids, but mostly it’s for us, ha!). The sheer coziness and contentment Eli and I felt in the mountains over Thanksgiving weekend was not something I think you can put a sticker price on, as we lit candles at the little table after a day of hiking, and sat down to a delicious dinner of homemade enchiladas that he had prepped at home. Moments like that, when you realize you have everything you need and then some, are an amazing gift. Twenty years from now I imagine it will feel exactly the same.

And there’s been so much else. The pleasure of knowing that an entire bed of garlic for us and our neighbors is tucked away under the snow in the garden. The freshly painted walls in the living room and a comfy couch that will seat all of us and then some. The fact that we are moving along in our adoption journey. Our kids. One another. 2020 has been a hard year to sit with, with illnesses and mental health issues and job challenges for so many we love, plus a pandemic and so many people at risk and in need. We have been incredibly lucky, despite me getting sick and our work and life load having exploded in intensity. This meant that Eli and I had to team up on a whole new level, ruthlessly prioritizing our time. We’ve settled into most of a routine based around our various strengths and weaknesses, and I think we’ll just continue to refine that over time.

Since this year we tended to some very expensive items, next year will be a little different. Our focus, other than replacing the super crappy electric stove in the kitchen and adding a few needed implements like a leaf blower and chain saw, is savings. We have our RV, which means for us now travel is cheap and awesome and comes with our own private bathroom, which is wonderful in a pandemic (we love tent camping but communal restrooms are a no-fly zone for us right now). We are a few months away from being adoptive-parent certified, we hope. And we’ve been taking steps to get a better handle on expenses, cutting as many as possible. We’re also knee-deep in a refinance, dropping the mortgage down to 20 years at 2.25%. Our target is to pay it off in way less than that, but carving off a full percentage point and dropping the term from 30 to 20 years for effectively the same monthly payment will save us a ton of interest over the life of the loan.

We still have a lot of big goals ahead of us – an eventual renovation, kids to college, and a lot of expenses to evaluate and cut over the next several months. That includes some recurring expenses but also our grocery spending, which is a little uhm….well…never mind. More on that later.

But the name of the game for 2021 is using and enjoying what we have. We have spent the last several years building the life we want, and now it’s time to slow down and live in it for a while.

A Breath in Autumn

It’s hard to believe we’re already well into October. Time seems to be passing so fast these days.

It was down to 37 degrees F two nights ago here and while the garden once again survived, it’s end is near. Yesterday morning I pulled 3 last zucchini, a few tomatoes and enough tomatillos to make another batch of Salsa Verde. The zucchini will be weekend meals and the bigger ones will go into the dehydrator with a little olive oil and salt. The tomatoes, especially the Sungolds, taste of sunshine still, but they won’t keep long unless I dry them. But I’m reluctant, because I want that sense of fresh summer produce to last.

Still, I can’t really complain because Autumn here is profoundly lovely, and truth be told, I’m a little tired of canning and preserving after a couple solid months of it. I am looking forward to the rest that comes with winter.

But first we must prepare for it. A cord of firewood arrived on Wednesday, and I have reluctantly capitulated to the necessity of the central heat on sporadically. We have started to remove air conditioners from windows and insulate them. The kitchen smells of soup and warm, cozy meals.

We celebrated my son’s 8th birthday yesterday, a day of joy and fun for all of us. We worry a lot about family members that are going through some tough times. And I am torn between watching the news and wanting to shut it all off. Of course, I can’t, because this time so much of what I truly believe in, so much of what I am for is at risk. Women’s rights. Equality. Economic security for all of us. Social safety nets. Healthcare.

The things that make strong, open, trusting societies. We’ve lost too much of that here. And all the while, Covid-19 numbers have begun to spike.

We start our final push towards our pre-adoption home inspection this week, we are decluttering still, and with some yard cleanup to do after a windstorm covered the lawn with leaves and pine needles.

I took a couple days off to extend the long weekend, celebrate 8 with my son, and to do all the things that need to be done. But I’m finding that I needed to take it off for other reasons – I’m getting burned out. I needed a couple days where schedules were more lax.

Some of my tired, our tired, because Eli is too, it is our own fault – we’ve done so much this year, too much. But some of it is the endless on button that is 2020, with always more meals to prepare, housework and yard work, schoolwork to help with, all the emotions (theirs and ours) of isolated kids, a job that basically runs 24/7 and and all the other things – chores, family time, etc – there’s this sense of never switching off.

And it’s taking it’s toll. Most of my friends aren’t sleeping that great. I know I’m not. Mental health is a huge thing for all of us, a large bucket encompassing everything from sleep to downtime to connection with others. The knowledge that it’s likely that we’ll still be in a similar situation – maybe a vaccine, but only 50% effective, and lots of people refusing to take it – at this time next year is a challenge to face. I’m profoundly lucky in all of this and my stress is off the charts. I think of those who are facing real challenges and then I feel kind of guilty for being so stressed, but that only makes it worse, not better.

So I’m going with one thing at a time. – one day, one moment, one tidied-up corner of the room, one more day when everyone ate and laughed and hugged. I’m counting my blessings. I’m going for walks. I’m telling people I love them more. Connecting. Letting myself go back to bed.

I can’t control the world around me. Some days I can’t even fully control my emotions. So I remind myself that so far, my track record for getting through tough days is 100%.

And so is yours.

Harvest

Photo by Eli5Stone

I woke up yesterday to a chilly morning, dark and 46 degrees F. It was cold enough Friday night that we brought the lemon tree into the house. Soon enough it will have to live inside again until May, along with the hibiscus trees, but not yet. Please not yet.

The garden seems to know that the end is coming. Pumpkins and squash are ripening faster, ready to be picked and cured for a few weeks – stored in a cool place before eating to let the sugars develop better – and the tomatoes require picking twice a day. Fall raspberries are producing in abundance, and the apple tree needs clearing off.

The dehydrator runs almost nonstop these days, mostly turning our cherry tomatoes into dried ones, to be packed in oil and used on our winter pizzas, pastas, and wherever else I can use them. My neighbors can the bigger tomatoes and the San Marzano tomatoes for me (I grow, they can, which is a fantastic arrangement).

Dehydrating tomatoes is easy – slice in half, coat in olive oil and salt, and pop in the dehydrator. Mine takes about 24 hours to turn into dried tomatoes but every dehydrator works a little differently. As soon as I get the next jar filled with dried tomatoes I’ll switch to making apple chips – adding a little lemon juice before drying keeps them from turning brown, but apples need no other help.

Our weekends are busy beyond compare these days, as we still work on cleaning and organizing on top of preserving, still finishing the projects we started in July and we have also started homeschooling, after determining that remote school wasn’t really going to work out for the kids. There’s more things to do than there is time, so we do as much as we can in priority order, jettisoning the things lower on the priority list for now.

Food preparation on weekends doesn’t get us through the whole week, but it does get us through several days each week. Today I’ll be making a double batch of Chicken Parmesan and thawing sausage for Lentil Sausage Soup. On top of that I’m going to finally make these treats for the kids, preserve some zucchini, which is still, unbelievably, producing in the garden, and start the process of making grape jam. My neighbors have Concord Grape vines, and there were more than they needed this year.

Despite all the things to do, the nonstop motion of our lives is winding down. In just a few more weeks all the preserving will be done. While housework, laundry and errands never end, we are beginning to see the end of the major reorganization and home improvement projects as well. This weekend, as we completely cleaned out and reorganized the living room and hallway closet, I could start to see the the light at the end of the tunnel. Sure, there will always be organizing to do, but the big stuff is getting knocked off. Soon enough, I’ll stop writing blog posts about how much we are doing and focus on one or two things (with recipes) to share again.

Even our newest household member, Teddy, is settling in. Teddy came to us from some family members, and is, even for me, who has never necessarily been a ‘dog person’ a fun addition. That he likes to canoe with us helps a great deal.

Teddy the Canoe Dog

But even despite that, we took the time to have a great dinner last night together, and watch a movie. In a few weeks we’ll take some time to do some fall camping. If the garden doesn’t get cleaned out and readied for the winter until November, and the laundry doesn’t get folded today, oh well.

When there’s everything to do, the best thing you can do is decide to focus on what you can, and avoid any pressure – internal or external – on your priorities. Through all this I try to remember the wise words that we are Human Beings, not Human Doings. And I rest, between whirs of the food processor. I hope you can too.

How Does My Garden Grow – August Bounty

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It’s been a little busy lately.  Late summer is easily the busiest time on the Sithean farmlet, and compounding our usual gardening/preserving/weeding/back-to-schooling of this time of year is some nuances related to the pandemic and some much-needed home maintenance as well as wrapping up our home reorganization as we prepare to adopt.

2020 is turning the year that both everything stopped being normal and we did absolutely everything. 

Just typing that reminds me that I’m tired.   I still watch the world, and there are wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Laura and police still detaining and shooting black people without reason and so many things that I see that just seem so wrong, but unlike the world of fear and chaos being painted by some, and not enough help for those in need, still I see hope.  Not Pollyanna-ish hope, but the tiny shoots through cracks in the pavement.   As the pandemic lingers and spins out of control in the US, reality is seeping through to all but the most denial-wracked.   My mostly-white community is awash in Black Lives Matters signs.  Protests continue, and the world is not complacent.  Whatever our new normal will be is not going to be as easy as what came before, but hopefully it will be more fair.  

This week is the first one in a while where we have time and the only pressing projects are cleaning and organization, and food preservation.   Well, and a long -needed hair appointment for me.  While Massachusetts case counts are low, I am scheduling key appointments – physicals, eye doctor appointments and dentist, and just a tiny bit of personal maintenance.  I’ve thought about giving up my hairdresser in favor of home haircuts  and no cost, but landed on keeping it in the budget 2-3 times a year.  

Rain has returned with some regularity to Sithean, for which I am profoundly grateful.  And just in time, because the garden is producing everything, all at once.  The tomatoes are ripening, the raspberries have returned to the vines, and all the pumpkins and squash are growing wherever they can throw out runners.   Which is everywhere.  Yesterday I found a pumpkin growing in the middle of the raspberry patch.  That should be fun to extract.  

This morning I blanched and froze kale, and this afternoon I’m starting another batch of zucchini relish, which fits right into my strategy of mass-produced homemade holiday gifts, making a pot of chili for easy lunches for a few days, and for dinner making a pot of cauliflower curry soup with goat cheese and pomegranate seeds, one of my favorite Halfbakedharvest.com recipes.

We have more basil than we know what to do with, and we’ll be giving away pesto as well as freezing as much as possible.  This year I’m determined to replicate the minestrone soup with pesto I ate one glorious day in Italy in 2004.  I’m going to start with this recipe and see if it needs adjusting.   

Because soup season is coming.  The nights are getting cooler, the geese are beginning to congregate in local fields before they head south, and my weekends are going to be spent in the kitchen.  

Garden season will last about another month, maybe 6 weeks, and at the end, the fruits of our labors will be waiting in bags and jars for us to eat.  

When in Doubt, Make A Plan

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It rained again the other night the tail end of Hurricane Isaias, which means now we have more zucchini the size of baseball bats to harvest from the garden.  Which is okay, because in addition to eating zucchini spiralized and sauteed in a myriad of dishes, zucchini makes amazing relish, and I’ll be making some more this weekend.  With, by the way, my new food processor, which a wonderful friend sent me after reading my last blog post.  What an amazing gift.  I cried.

This is a busy year.   We finished most of the junk removal this week (and by we, I mean Eli) and now it’s on to plumbing and tree removal, and we decided to splurge to have the living room and hallway painted for us in a few weeks, because we were buried in to-dos.  I’ll paint the kitchen myself this winter, but we have a sectional coming in a few weeks for the living room – a splurge because our existing living room layout will not easily accommodate a family bigger than 4 – and we want it done before then.   We don’t usually spend like this, but these are much-needed and budgeted things.

The garden is ripening fast.  I have a Red Kuri squash that’s almost ready to be picked, and pumpkins and squashes coming up fast behind them.  Winter squash storage is going to be a ‘thing’ this year, and a fun problem to solve.

 

 

Home life is somewhat all-absorbing right now, between kids, garden, projects and taking care of the house and yard.

Still, that’s okay, because I’ve been thinking.  Massachusetts Covid-19 cases are already starting to rise.  I have to assume that this is a result of re-opening, and it has already caused some slowing and cutbacks of the re-opening plan.  Plans for returning to school are underway, but it’s unclear what’s happening there too.  I certainly don’t have the ability to see the future.   So we are, in that absence of clear knowledge, making our plans.  Plans for school, plans to add more sustainable resources to our little farmlet, plans for saving, and plans for future fun.

I’m a huge fan of plans.  Do they all work out?  Oh, no, nope, not at all.  They stop, change and adapt.  But plans are a path to getting where you want to be, the project plan component of goal-setting, the process flow to set you on your path.

I’ve ordered some homeschool books, had the kids started listing things they want to learn about and been working with our babysitter to figure out how to keep her as long as we can, both from a financial and time perspective.   While we’re still holding to see if our schools can make something work that doesn’t mean the kids will have a challenging experience, we know that we’re not the experts.  We’ve been working on lists of what the kids might want to learn about (thanks for the idea, Mom!).  And I’ve been soliciting help, most specifically from my ex-husband’s Aunt Mary, who is a retired educator and author who homeschooled her now-grown son.  My older sister and my brother-in-law are also very experienced in this area, as are others.  They can’t do it for us, but they sure can help.   We’re planning and that plan will allow us to be ahead of the curve this fall.

Which brings me to an important point about setting goals and making plans – don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it (and give when it’s needed in return).  When I bought Sithean, I had basically no business buying a 170-year old house in need of tons of maintenance on 1 1/4 acres by myself.  There was so much, from plowing the driveway to tree removal to even basic things I couldn’t do myself, and in most cases didn’t have the budget for.  Once Eli and I met – actually re-met – my life became much easier, but before there was him, there was my neighbors, my parents, my ex and others who just…helped.  I still remember one night when the kids were with their Dad and I was going to do just one small thing to make the house nicer.  The toilet paper holders in the house were silver-painted plastic, and ugly.  I bought nice ones, and towel rods, just to do a little thing – I was on a very tight budget, and this was a splurge.  So off the kids go, and I open up the toilet paper holders and all there was in the box was drywall screws.  Mine were both installed in the side of vanities.  I didn’t have the right hardware, it was 9 pm at night (not my best time anyway, as I’ve mentioned) and I couldn’t even do this one little thing without assistance.

I sat on the bathroom floor and sobbed because I was so overwhelmed.  The next day as I relayed this to my neighbor over wine she said “So why didn’t you call us?  Jay would have come right over to help”.  My ex said “Next time, call me.  I’ll help” and proceeded to install them.  And so on.  And you know what?  Next time, I called.  Not too much, and so many times I returned the favors with another favor, but still – just because it was my goal doesn’t mean others wouldn’t help me to get there (she says, sitting in bed under the gorgeous red ceiling her Mom painted for her and for which I will be eternally grateful).   This was the true beginning of a mutual-help arrangement that my ex and Eli & I have, and I value it so much.

When you set your goals and make the plans to get there know that especially for the big ones, there will be a lot of unknowns about how you get from where you are to where you want to be.  They need patience and periodic revisiting.  I wanted a rose covered garden gate.  So I bought a gate and then 2 years later the rose bushes.  This year, they are starting to climb. I water and fertilize them as they need, tending to my goal every day.   As I walk through it, I stop to see if I can weave the growth through the gate.  In a few years, I will have a rose-covered garden gate.   Was this practical?  No.  Could that money have gone elsewhere?  Sure.  But every time I walk through the butterfly gate I’m happy.  Every, every time.

That too, has value.

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In the background is one of our less-than-mentally -gifted hens, who still gets confused about how to go back in the coop. Every single time.

Start with ‘this is what I want’ and then figure out what it will take to get there.  Do not be disheartened if you can’t right then and there.  That’s okay.  Take a step.  Then another.   Even if you get somewhere you didn’t quite expect when you started,  it will be closer to where you need to be.

And then, as you find yourself weaving rose canes (did you know the branches of a rose are called canes?  I didn’t either) through your proverbial garden gate one summer, you will think “I’m here”.  And the joy and gratitude will flow like a river.

Christmas In August

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As it rolls into late summer, and we begin to harvest more and more from the garden (translation: the zucchini is becoming unmanageable and we start to consider leaving bags on our neighbor’s doorknobs, and running away before they can catch us doing it and try to give it all back), our thoughts turn to the winter holidays.   No, it’s not that we don’t have enough to do – there is always way too much to do – but because this is exactly the time to get the winter holidays under control, or at least something resembling under control.

And this means I’ve been dicing a LOT of oversized zucchini.  I mean, a lot.  Because I do’t have a food processor. Yet.  It’s on my list but it will show up in my life when it does, and I’m in no hurry to shell out $200 for a good one, so instead I mince.  This is a fair bit of work but kind of mindless and I don’t really mind it.

More concerning is that the zucchini plants keep producing and if I take my eyes away for even 5 minutes they grow to the size of my leg.  If I left them there they would probably grow to the size of Godzilla, develop Artificial Intelligence and take over the world.

I pick them to save all of us from that fate.  You are welcome.

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But back to Christmas and getting that sorted.   The monster zucchini and endless chopping is a key component.

‘Sorted’ has multiple parts.  The first is budgetary – we’ve done varying degrees of spending on holidays, but we’ve really been working to ratchet it down, both for our immediate family and those around us.  Which means a lot of what we do is homemade.  This year, Eli will be making some gifts with his woodworking skills, and we as a family always do food gifts.  Baked goods, for sure, along with our ubiquitous Peppermint Bark, but there is always food in jars to accompany, along with a handmade tag by my husband.  Last year we made infinity jars of Salsa Verde, this year it’s masses of Zucchini Relish.

Here we come full circle to the dicing effort.

By my estimates, we need 16 jars of the stuff and some to keep, but maybe more.  I can make 3-4 jars at a time, and each batch takes about 24 hours, because the onions and zucchini bits need to brine in salt overnight.  So for right now, each day I make a batch of relish, and then chop the onion and zucchini for the next batch.

Once the 16 – or 20 – or something jars are canned and ready next week, they will be stored for the holidays, which is when everyone wants sweet pickle relish, right?  I mean, what’s December without that.  But seriously though, this stuff is really amazing, and a complete labor of love.

And then, we will set aside the jars in a cool dark place (translation: box in closet) until it is time to line them up, apply tags and add them to boxes of cookies to share.  But the effort will have been expended in August, also the planning.  There’s no need to think of what to get the people we love, because it’s there, complete and ready.

 

Zucchini Relish to Eat and Share
Makes 3 pints

8 cups zucchini, finely chopped or shredded
4 cups finely chopped or shredded onions (yellow or red)
1 tablespoon of salt

Combine zucchini, onions and salt in a bowl.  Cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.

Rinse and the zucchini and onion mixture, then add to a large stock pot.

Add:
2 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups vinegar
2 1/2 tsp ground tumeric
3/4 tsp ground pepper
1 tablespoon of mustard seeds (any color)
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 red pepper, finely diced
1 jalepeno pepper finely diced

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Bring the zucchini mixture to a boil for 5 minutes, and then turn off heat and let sit for about 15 minutes, which will allow the relish to thicken.  If you have hand-chopped the ingredients, use an immersion blender to process the mixture, leaving a fair amount of chunks.  Return relish to a boil and prepare your jars.

Here’s how I do the jars: I fill our water bath canner (this is an old enamel pot, but calling it my water bath canner is both accurate and sounds nicer than ‘old soup pot’) with water, and put it on to heat, immersing pint jars and rings. Wash the rubber lids separately, and don’t boil those.

Bring everything to a boil, and then when you are ready to can, pull out the jars onto a waiting towel.  Use a towel you don’t mind getting stained or dirty for this.

Fill the jars most of the way, leaving about 1/2 inch at the top.  Wipe off the rims with a wet towel and place the lids and rings on.  Be careful, because the jars will be pretty hot between the boiling and the relish.  Using a jar lifter or pair of tongs, place the lidded pints in the boiling water bath, making sure there’s enough water to cover them completely.

Boil for 10 minutes, remove the jars and set them aside to cool.  Once they are cool, remove the rings and lightly test the lids to make sure they have sealed by pulling on them just a little tiny bit.

Store in a cool place without the rings over the lids.

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How Does My Garden Grow – July 2020

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Spaghetti Squash

I figured I had better get motivated and publish this post before you know, July ends.  Which it’s going to, very shortly.  Which brings me to – holy heck this year is traversing it’s portfolio of months fast.  Except the back half of March, which lasted 3 years, I feel like every month of 2020 is lasting about 6 minutes.

I admit it, other than watering and checking in on the plants (okay tomatoes, RIPEN!) I’ve been ignoring the garden.  I did get a little weeding in the trench bed done last weekend, but between the fact that it’s been well over 90 degrees on the weekends, the work we’re still doing on the house and some commitments, the garden has mostly had to tend itself lately.  Which means it’s very weedy, but doing just fine.

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Birdhouse Gourd

But it’s gone completely insane.  In a good way.  The squashes and pumpkins are trailing everywhere, despite my efforts to make them stay up and orderly in their spaces.  Our zucchinis are regularly growing into things that could more accurately be described as baseball bats, and those are in the process of mostly becoming Zucchini Relish for holiday giving – it’s a bit of work, but this stuff is really delicious! And when we’re done with that, anything we don’t immediately eat we’ll shred and freeze the rest for baking.

Pumpkins and butternut squash, as well as one Red Kuri squash are also thriving.  From a curcurbita perspective, the garden is the most healthy and productive it has ever been.  The Rouge Vif D’Etampes pumpkins, lovely Cinderella pumpkins that are gorgeous to display and eat – I have at least 4 growing healthily on the vines that I can count.   I’ve always felt lucky to get even one.  This year is a squash year for sure.

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While my Son’s Jack Be Little pumpkin plant looks healthy it still doesn’t have any tiny pumpkins yet, but there’s time for that.

But I am still waiting on the first ripe tomato.  Yellow tomato flowers and green ones abound.  But for Sungolds and slicing tomatoes, along with the San Marzanos that feed my desire to make sauce – messy and time consuming, but so delicious in the winter when it’s cold and dark and nothing is growing – I continue to wait, making my pesto, watering my flowers, and dreaming of red and gold.

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How To Be More Effectively Productive

I have what is known in my family as ‘The Busy Gene’ .  For those of us with the Busy Gene, we are compulsively occupied with projects and things to do.  Leave us alone for 5 minutes and we’ll come up with 10 crackpot ideas that must be started immediately.  And we’ll want everyone else to do them with us.

Insufferable?  Possibly.  But never, ever boring.

In order to be effective though, I have to be productive in the right ways.  With a job that consumes me 50+ hours a week, 2 children, an old house, giant garden, animals, and my marriage, there’s a lot going on.  Add to that exercise, friends and family, and all the projects I take on, and being smart with my time is the only thing getting us through.  And honestly, that’s not always the case – sometimes I manage my life, sometimes my life manages me.  But as much as possible, I try to control the parameters I can, so that I’m ready for the things I don’t control.

What does that mean?  Well, first of all, it means planning our time here as well as possible.

This morning I had the day off, and we’re neck-deep in renovating a bedroom for my son, having spent the weekend rearranging the house to a large extent.  My job, before I go back to my 9-5 profession tomorrow, is to get as much of painting of trim and edging done today, so that my husband can just use rollers on the walls.  We made some good progress on the room yesterday, but there’s a lot more to do today.

I have observed there are three things that make me both productive and effective, and when used in concert, the sheer amount I can accomplish in a day is huge.  I mean, after a few days of that I need a nap, but hey, this life thing is a marathon, not a sprint.

First, Know Thyself

Despite the sheer amount of work waiting for me in the room we’re working on, I didn’t start there.    I started my morning doing chores and in the kitchen, figuring a little investment of time might make our day and week easier.

See – I know myself, and boy, howdy, am I an extreme morning person.  This means I can wake up at 3:30 am and function just fine but by about 8:30 pm you might as well be talking to a soggy towel for all it will get you.  Just ask my husband, who is just waking up and ready for prime time at that point.

So by 8:30 am, I had eaten, checked emails at work, scheduled our septic system to be pumped, popped in a load of laundry, made 48 paleo turkey meatballs for tonight’s dinner and for the freezer, roasted some pumpkin seeds and made some tuna salad for lunch.  In addition, I had thawed some pulled beef for our lunch tomorrow (I don’t know, it came with out meat share)  Oh, and the dishes were done too.  Also, I was thawing sausage and rinsing spinach to make some Paleo Egg Muffins for tomorrow’s breakfast.

So when I headed upstairs to start laying painter’s tape on my next section of trim,  I had our lunch prepped and made, our dinner mostly prepped and some basic daily chores handled, along with the start of breakfast and lunch for tomorrow.  Later on, when my brain is the consistency of a damp sponge, we’ll at least be fed.  I have learned if I don’t have a meal planned and food prepped at dinner time we’ll be eating takeout pizza every time.  Which brings me to point #2.

Leverage Your Strengths

Why me on the meal plan?  Under normal circumstances, with the kids away for the week with their Dad and Eli and i working on projects, I’d have jettisoned the meal plan and left us to scrounge.  But a few factors are at play – we have our CSA and meat shares coming this week, so freezer and fridge space will be at a premium.  We’re also starting a modified Whole30 until our vacation in August, so if we want to eat healthy and stay on track, we have to think about it.

And I do it because I’m good at it, and it will free my husband up to put all the bedroom furniture together for my son’s room when the painting is done.   He doesn’t have to think about food, it’s just there.  Which plays to his strengths –  I am lucky to be able to assemble basic things, but anything with more than 5 pieces tends to have to be left to the professionals.  Not so Eli, who can turn a bunch of sticks of wood into a custom canoe rack seemingly overnight.  Assembling things mostly makes me cranky and frustrated, but I can contentedly feed us for weeks on end.  For him, planning meals is enjoyable but significant mental load.  So we divide and conquer.

Know When to Focus

As I was writing this, between putting some of those meatballs, now cool, in the freezer for a later date I realized it was getting late.  My 9:15 target start time for painting had passed, and it was time to bring this blog post, as well as my other chores to a close.  It wasn’t that there weren’t more chores – there are always, always more chores in my life, but it was time to ignore them and spend 4 or 5 hours on accomplishing the things that we set out to do for the long weekend.  Are there weeds needing to be weeded in the garden?  Of course.  Tidying to do? Sure.  But not if I want to get this thing done, and as a side effect – because my husband really hates trim and edge work in painting, I want to make sure I make as much progress as possible for him.

Besides, the weeds will still be there next weekend.