Murphy’s Law

Memorial Day weekend has come to a close, and with it two 4-day weekends in a row off for me. The garden is partially planted, I got runs and walks in, and the kids rooms are super clean. We’ve also had some massive quakes in our life – the adoption we expected isn’t happening, and we’re shutting the doors for a bit, as heartbreaking as that is. And some health issues in our home have made things more complex, short term though they seem to be.

It’s been an eventful couple of years here at Sithean, and I’m a little tired of the persistent upheaval. A little boring would be nice for a while.

Also so my feet hurt.

Despite that, everything is green and in bloom, the baby chicks have grown into energetic teenagers, the yards of compost are being spread, ever so slowly, on the desperately nutrient-poor soil in the yard. In other words, even on our worst days, it’s pretty damn good here.

Even on our first days here, which were more challenging than I can describe, we found beauty and hope. And 2 very different guides to help us through it all.

Today I took my son to his pediatric rheumatologist for the 2nd time in a month. My son has polyarticulate psoriatic juvenile arthritis, although it is currently probably maybe in remission. Polyarticulate = multiple joints and psoriatic = amongst other things, a gratitude from me that it’s not rheumatoid, which attacks the organs and sometimes sight. It’s an immune disorder that came on on suddenly, shortly after his 4th birthday after a fall that had impact on his right knee. From there it spread from one joint to another, until a few weeks later he could barely walk, just as we were preparing a 1500 mile move to here.

Right after we got there, we found his doctor, and it felt like a small miracle when Dr. L asked what part of South Florida we had moved from, and we learned he had grown up literal blocks from where we had lived. For over 6 years he’s carefully managed my son’s disease, even shepherding it to remission, for however a short time. In our life, Dr. L is nothing short of a rock star. When we showed up in his exam room my son was on steroids, miserable and because he was 4, frustrated and unable to process what he was going through or what he needed. Dr. L gave us a road map and hope that it could be managed.

Today when we showed up to check on the knee, it was supposed to be another doctor. Dr. L was booked. But in he walked. “I am his doctor, I’m the one who sees him, that’s always the plan” was his explanation. In other words, this is my patient, and I’m invested. Finding Dr. L was one of the early signs that we had made the right decision to move here.

While Dr. L gave us a path to a future without crippling pain, there was one other….person..that gave us what we needed when we got here, cold, a little lost, not sure of our next steps, and with a budget so tight you could hear it squeak with both of our kids trying to find their way. My son, especially was having a tough time. Oldest at least was returning to friends and the familiar. He had left everything he knew for this place, having been too small to remember it from before we had left.

But in walked Murphy.

Murphy, who for the short 5 months he lived after we arrived, became his best friend.

Murphy lived next door with our neighbors, who also became friends and anchors. Murphy was their dog. And Murphy and my son became fast friends. Murphy would come looking for him each morning and the two would go off, as boys and dogs do, roaming around our yard and his. Without equivocation, I can say that he and Murphy loved one another. When he announced that Murphy was his best friend, I was hardly surprised.

If ever there was a dog that was almost human, Murphy was it.

Murphy died right before the first Easter after we came here, just as every day we discovered new green things and flowers on our property, just as the white lilacs started to bloom. He had already raised a little boy who was then a teenager and now a man, next door, and my son was his last little boy. He did his job, giving my son something constant to hold on to. Their joy was something to behold, it really was. I always knew he was safe out wandering with Murphy.

I’m not a dog person. But this was quite a dog.

The last couple of years have been kind of stressful. I’m trying to learn to step back, to breathe, to invest in ensuring that we have time to enjoy our place in the world, to work in the garden, to fulfill the promise of sanctuary this place has always had for me, and somehow it got lost in all the work and things that needed to be done and things that weren’t getting done. I’m trying to step back and remember why we came here, to this forever place, this drafty old gorgeous, closet-less spot and why we stayed, enduring a giant pine tree falling on the house, every year refining the garden we built, and appreciating the love that came to live here when Eli did, filling an empty spot we didn’t even know we had.

And part of that memory is paying homage to what makes home the nicest word there is, the place that bring us joy, safety and hope. We can’t go back to the start, and I don’t think I would if I could. But I have to remember what makes this place magic, and it’s not just the flowers and the sunsets. As I step back and breathe and appreciate my life just as it is, I am grateful every day to live here and share life with my family.

Here’s to you, Dr. L.

And here’s to Murphy. Thank you.

Staying in the Moment

I want to start this post with a celebration. No, not of adoption or spring or anything, but for the first time in approximately…5 years there isn’t a giant pile of laundry obscuring the end of my bed. Now, I want to stress here that the pile has shifted over time in size and scope and of course it’s always clean – there’s another location in the basement for the dirty stuff – and we do tend to be dressed fairly often, so I definitely keep folding stuff and putting it away.

But it has always been there, an omnipresent stack of cloth that has to be shifted and stacked ever-so-carefully so as not to fall on the floor when it’s bedtime.

When we put the house on the market briefly last summer, I might have hid the pile in the closet, so it appeared as though there was no laundry pile, but in fact there still was. The laundry pile is always there, like an immobile clutter stalker, greeting me every time I walk into the bedroom. Since the bedroom is also my office (that tiny 4×38″ – approximately, I think it’s really 36.5″ – area has a different kind of omnipresent clutter) I walk by the giant pile of laundry dozens of times every day.

It stares back at me, daring me to think I could clear it. I avert my gaze and keep walking to heat my tea.

But since we’re deep in preparing for children, and while I really don’t think a 4 or 7 year old is going to judge me but their social worker, current foster families who want to stay connected and all other the people who are starting to want to visit and meet our fabulous new family members, and presumably also enjoy seeing the not-so-new ones, might, I decided to make it go away.

I should note that this anticipation of judgement has also got me bleaching grout and contemplating if we have just enough time to paint every single wall in the house so it looks fresh and pretty.

Eli says we don’t have time, but I don’t think he’s being fair – he could do it in his copious free time if he really wanted to. Did I mention he doesn’t have any free time?

Just ignore that point – not pertinent.

But the laundry pile. It meant turning the accidentally bleached black t-shirt that I had to secretly replace for my oldest child into rags, actually putting outgrown kid clothes into labeled bins and transporting them to the attic (or an attic-adjacent location with good intentions of getting them to their final destination soon) and actually folding fitted sheets, which no one on earth except my ex-husband actually knows how to fold flat.

And NO, I emphatically didn’t stay friendly with him so that I could occasionally implore him to fold my fitted sheets, although I freely admit I’ve wondered if that’s over the line to ask a few times. He stresses that I could learn if I just took the time, but clearly that’s not the right solution.

In any case, for a brief, shining moment, the foot of the bed is almost laundry free – almost because of the giant pile of unmatched socks that still linger on the bench that sits in front of the foot of the bed. These too, morph and evolve, but there’s always a really spectacular number of unmatched socks. If it wasn’t so annoying it would be impressive.

Are you ready? You must be so excited!” says people. “Huh, I say. I had forgotten that the end of the bed matched the headboard. I mean I sort of knew, but it’s been so long, you see...”

I think they are talking about kids, but I’m busy being mesmerized by the clean spot in the house I’ve made. It’s also distracting me from other things that are far, far weightier like how in the world I’m going to parent 4 kids, work full time, garden, run, manage the house, find time to occasionally lob a kiss at my husband and remember that friends and family need me too. Oh, and also we have to feed everyone. 2-3 times a day, every day.

Totally excited.” I murmer. And while truly, I am, I am also worried.

You see, I’ve done this before, well, not really – but I had babies and neither one slept for a year and I was so tired I forgot to pay bills and the exhaustion was so bad I would go to the store for bread and come home with no bread and 14 kinds of cheese because it was just so exciting to be alone for a little while even though there were almost certainly other people in the grocery store, I would think.

I don’t know, I don’t remember.

And your life gets down to the minute. Will I make it through this hour, to bedtime, to Friday. But the difference this time, accounting for the extra complexity of caring for kids, integrating our family with them here, dealing with their traumas and losses, keeping our eye on the ball with the older, biological kids to make sure that they are okay too, and do this while juggling housework, laundry, meal-making, groceries, yard work and work work.

And that’s where truly living in the moment has to come in. In order to make it all happen, it’s really fine to break life down into 15 minute chunks where maybe some laundry gets folded (but please not at the very clean foot of my bed kthx) or dinner gets prepared, at least in some part, or you get that thing that’s overdue at work finally completed. I used to write down the 6 things I was going to do each day, often only getting to 3-4, but writing them down does indicate that there’s a strong likelihood you will get to them.


And that’s going to be our lives for a little bit. And with that comes the other piece – acceptance. This is a phase. It’s a phase where there’s too much to do and not enough time, but it’s also our last round of littles, and Eli’s first true round of them, so we need to be present and enjoy it. Is it all going to be enjoyable? Ohhellzno. But some of it is going to be really, really fun. The next 2 weeks while we drive 60+ miles each way for transition visits and upend everyone’s schedule and I cram in 2 more work trips, not so much.

But after that there’s a little downtime. Just enough to go to the playground and come home and eat string cheese with a very small little person who just needs somewhere to belong. The laundry can wait.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time…..

How is it even late April? Garden season is upon us, and I don’t feel ready. Wasn’t it February last week?

I’ve been transplanting some of the bigger seedlings, and getting the garden cleaned out, something I ran out of time for in the fall. This year I have fewer seedlings, as I’m trying to be strategic about what I’ll have time to tend as we add children, and also what we tend to need to supplement from the CSA. I rarely need lettuce for the 20 weeks the CSA runs, or kale. So this year, I simply haven’t planted any. I will later on in the season, but not yet.

But spaghetti squashes, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes – there are never enough of those. Apparently I planted garlic last fall because it’s up, and I had completely forgotten. I mean, I vaguely remember, but that was a lot of busy ago. Nonetheless it’s there, in neat rows in the back of the Potager garden, so hooray, there will be garlic this year. I mean, so will there be from the CSA and by fall we’ll probably be drowning in garlic but I planted it so it must be a good idea.

Somewhere along the line in the last year I lost my sense of humor, and I’ve been working on transplanting that, too. We’ve had a decidedly un-funny couple of years, to be sure, and I have tried to not see folks going about their lives all cheerfully are total aliens, but it’s been a little like that. In my defense, a steady stream of pandemic, family deaths, money stress and not enough time will do that to a person.

But I’ve realized that taking everything seriously is actually kind of…boring. It shrinks your world and your interests.

And I really, really hate the idea of being boring.

So my new plan is to be amused by (almost) everything, because life is in fact really funny and weird, and embrace the chaos. I have always joked that I want “It seemed like a good idea at the time…” on my headstone when I die along with a recipe for something that someone 100 years from now will try to make and now I think I mean it. I also want a Viking burial, but those are not really a thing, so maybe I’ll just be composted instead.

As I approach my 50th birthday, speaking of the impossible, I have concluded that it’s really important to know what you want to happen when you die. I don’t really care if there’s a party, but if there is, there should be a wide variety of appetizers, because those are everyone’s favorite’s anyway. No stuffed chicken thank you.

And everyone should take something and use it. I still regret not taking my grandmother’s deviled egg plate, and although I have one now that is probably much nicer, it’s still a regret.

That said, my plan is to go on living for quite some time, enough to be annoying to everyone, so don’t come for my egg plate quite yet. I have a lot to do, and my intention is to be a very fun old lady.

Just not yet.

Yesterday was my probable last day of no-real-plans aloneness for what is probably a long time to come, and I tried to get everything done. Eli is still recovering, so I spent time in the garden and dealing with the laundry that needs to be folded and put away, did some cooking, including clam chowder and organized and cleaned out kids drawers, including starting to load up drawers for the kids who have not arrived yet.

The yardwork is especially a challenge – we have 1.24 acres, and we are the clean up & maintenance crew. Before the giant tax bill we were occasionally able to pay for a spring clean up, but those are pretty expensive, so we just do it as we can. This year that’s going to mean every time we have a free half hour we’ll need to be out there, but it does eventually get done. And in a couple weeks we’ll lay down a few yards of compost. Much of the soil here was pretty bad, so we’re slowly and iteratively working on it, building it up a bit more every year.

And of course, there’s our weekly meal plan and weekend meal prep, which is essential.

Clam chowder was dinner because Eli is finally be able to consume somewhat real somethings, as long as I cut up the Canadian bacon really small. That said, I was probably blithely optimistic about the switch in diets in my last blog post, this is really going to take some work and preparation to make sure there’s food he can eat, and while he eventually will be able to help, not yet.

The rest of the week is going to quite be busy so meal prep and planning is critical, for all 3 meals of each day. And because we have been tightening our belts more, I’m making snacks and things as much as possible.

So this weekend has been heavy on batch cooking. To help make breakfasts easier, I made egg muffin cups – this time with sauteed leek, zucchini and little bits of bacon – quick to grab, easy to chew, good for the freezer. We have a dozen, and I froze all but 4.

There will be leftover clam chowder for a couple lunches during the week, and I may make myself some chicken or tuna salad.

Today I’m going to make these Malted Milk Ice Cream Sandwiches with my son for desserts. We started making them during Covid lockdown, and they are worth all the time and effort. I’ll make tonight’s dinner, the meatballs for Monday, and then Monday evening I’ll mise en place for Tuesday’s dinner.

My target is things that all of us can eat – that the kids like, that Eli can consume, and things that aren’t too stressful for me. It’s going to be an interesting challenge. I might have been wildly overconfident in my last blog post about this. It’s definitely doable, but it is going to take some real prep and planning.

Sunday: Dinner will be stuffed Shells with Ground Beef and Spinach, which is always a hit meal in our house. I’ll probably make popovers to go with it

Monday: Garlic Butter Meatballs with Orzo with some onion and other veggies cooked in. I may make a salad on the side for myself and the oldest, and cut veggies for my son.

Tuesday: We need easy, quick and filling. Creamy Parmesan Sausage Soup should do it. I can do the prep work quickly Monday night or early Tuesday, and then finish the soup with the dairy later so when Eli and my son get home from Fencing class around 6 pm I can feed the hungry folks.

By Wednesday we should have enough leftovers we can have a night of everyone-present-feeds-themselves.

Thursday: More soup! This time Creamy Chicken and Mushroom but with boneless, cooked-until-shreddable chicken. Or maybe Chicken Tortilla Soup. Not sure yet. But definitely soup.

Art by 10 years old

Friday: Eli and I have to travel out to to do a transition visit with the little one, so we likely won’t eat until later. My current plan is to have soup leftovers, but if not I’ll quickly throw some meatballs into broth with sauteed onions, finely chopped and whatever other veggies I can squeak in, unless I manage to make Pav Bhaji in the instant pot that we can come home to.

By Saturday I’ll need another meal plan, and I definitely think that Shepherd’s Pie and Potstickers will be part of it. I also want to get Masarepa next month and make stuffed Arepas, which are a soft corn-based thick pancake that can be topped or stuffed.

I wanted to note a few things here. One, because we’re tightening our belts, we carefully choose the places we spend. Most of our meat comes from Walden Local Meat, a meat delivery service that specializes in local, organic, and sustainable animal welfare. Its important to me if we’re going to eat meat that we do it thoughtfully. We do end up supplementing our chicken and if we need – very occasionally – ground turkey, because there’s never enough and it’s really expensive, but we’re also trying to eat less meat, and less generally.

It’s a pretty expensive investment, so we’re cutting down in other ways. We have a budget and we plan around that based on what we need. Because I don’t always know what Walden local will bring, we often pick our protein and then plan the meal around that. I view this mostly as a fun challenge.

I really focus on things that can make multiple meals. Time is at a premium here, with careers, 2 going on 4 kids, and house and yard work. We have enough going on to keep 4 or 5 adults busy all day every day. In order to sustain that, batch cooking on weekends is essential.

And lastly, I rely on frozen veggies as much as fresh. I have found i sometimes don’t get to Cauliflower when i mean to, and after throwing a lot out, I sometimes buy frozen, which means our Pav Bhaji maybe won’t be quite as authentic as it should be, but I’ll make it when I have time.

And lastly, I love to experiment, especially with foods from other cultures. Often those mean much cheaper ingredients, like lentils, where a 5-lb bag goes a very long way, is a complete protein, and really tastes good. Dal is something I’m working on mastering, as it’s really good, and a great quick and easy lunch. Also there’s just infinite varieties of it, and other uses for lentils – here’s 25 possibilities. Not everything I try is a hit, but by providing variety I find that our options for inexpensive, filling meals grow every month.

Spring Beginnings

The first of the tulips started to bloom yesterday, and they make me so happy to see. I love flowers generally, but tulips for me, even more than daffodils, are the harbinger of spring and green and warmth and gardens. My delight in them is endless, and I plant more every year. Cheap entertainment, are tulips if you add a few at a time and then forget what you planted in the cold of fall, so you get a gorgeous surprise in the spring.

We have been getting a lot done. I ran a 10-mile road race under a canopy of cherry blossoms in Washington DC, much more slowly than in 2019, but as a return to running it was pretty good – I finished, and I definitely wasn’t last. We had a 4-day weekend in DC as a family as well, and it was wonderful.

The giant split-trunk pines are down, and my relief comes every time I look out the window. Yard cleanup is in process. The old, broken attic stairs are out, and the new ones are in, needing just some trim and paint to make them look like they have always been there. Eli’s surgery was this week, just as the kids are on vacation and I’m working straight through, so I’ve prepped self-serve foods for myself and the kids, and this weekend we stocked up at the Asian and Indian grocery stores so the house is filled with fruits, veggies, yogurt drinks and ice cream for Eli as he recovers, and all the snacks.

In addition to a few things from Amazon Subscribe and Save, we’ve spent $621.28 on groceries this month, and that’s the bulk of what we expect to spend, with only fruit and milk for the rest of the month, and probably not much of that, as we have at least a week’s worth still. I tend to prefer to buy more in bulk and then eat it down than go to the grocery store every week, but when we’re deep in savings mode, which we’ll revert to for most of this year, it’s cheaper to do smaller shops on a weekly basis. We went to Costco in March, and will likely do that or BJs in June again, but in between we’ll spend as little as we can and eat up what we have.

Shopping at multiple grocery stores over the course of a month is a big part of our food strategy, and comparing prices is essential. For example, 10 lbs of onions at HMart, the big Korean grocery store near us was $10.99 today, but at Spiceland, the smaller Indian grocery store we frequent, that same bag was $5.99. By waiting, I saved $5 – not much in the grand scheme of things, but I got the same exact thing for almost half the price by paying attention. Because it’s a bit of a trip to go to these stores, we only go every few months, but it’s a fun outing Eli and I really enjoy, and we mostly go by ourselves, since The Adorables, now ages 14 and 10, can be left to their own devices for a few hours here and there.

The next time we go though, we’ll be taking kids with us. 4 arrives mid-May, and her older brother, 7, will arrive in July after he finishes first grade. We’re madly doing projects and going through saved clothes and supplies to get ready, as well as taking on some cleaning projects. This past weekend I emptied and scrubbed out the fridge, did some yard clean up, deep cleaned 14’s room, and several loads of laundry while Eli helped on all fronts and removed the old attic stairs & replaced them to boot.

We have a lot to do in the month before 4 gets here, and not a lot of time to get it done in.

We’re excited, nervous…all the feels. Going from 2 to 4 kids is going to be a thing, and these kids have had some trauma, and for at least a bit our biological kids are going to have it somewhat worse, to be sure. But we’re pretty good at rolling with things, so we’ll go day by day and do all the things we can in order to make it work. But in so many ways, this spring feels like we are in a brand new place – this is a real beginning for us with a larger, finally complete family, renovation on the near horizon, and other big life changes.

During the big things, it’s easy to lose sight of the small ones, but I never try to lose sight of food in the form of meal plans and our budget. We’ll be cooking a lot with the new kids and our existing ones. This month my food splurges – I do have small ones each month – were Tomato Passata and Fennel Pollen to make the now-famous Red Hen Pasta when Eli recovers, a dish apparently so good that your date will order the same dish and never share.

Eli will be on a modified diet for a bit, so my challenge is can i fill our weeks with healthful, varied foods that don’t require a knife to cut? The answer is challenge accepted. Hello to dal, soups and curries. And pasta, of course. Ragu bolognese, in all likelihood. Soft breads, like English Muffin bread. Maybe this Crispy Fried Tofu recipe. And a thing I am so excited to make – Pav Bhaji, served to me by my friends Kalpak and Preeti for dinner this winter. I bought and froze some Pav rolls to go with it already and they gave me the just-right Pav Bhaji Masala. It should be a fun experiment.

As we go into summer, and heavier soups and stews give way to simple things, this is still a good challenge. Dal, of course, is good all year long. Burrata and sliced tomatoes with a little bit of basil and balsamic vinegar over a soft bread is a good dinner when it’s really, really hot. And then there’s Gazpacho. I’ve made a lot of gazpacho in my time, and I can’t say enough good things about this one and then this one, which I was fortunate enough to have several times at Charley’s Crab in Palm Beach before it closed. And then of course fish – lots and lots of fork-tender fish.

And then as the weather cools later this year, I’ll probably splurge on some good Hungarian paprika in the fall and make Hungarian Goulash, which honestly, I’m thinking needs a side of pierogies.

We definitely won’t starve. And soon enough the seedlings will become the garden and our CSA, and we will be living in sunshine. Happy Spring!

Sunday Food

It looks like November outside, but it has remained unseasonably warm, a thing both enjoyable and worrisome. But what it does mean is that this morning I went out and picked a few tomatoes, peppers and the only butternut squash to survive drought, bunnies and groundhogs eating the garden, and rot.

A hard freeze is coming this week, finally, so I want to be prepared. By next weekend it will be time to rip out the last of the garden and prepare it for next year.

We spent a lot of of money on groceries and supplies this month. I don’t know what it is about November that leads me to stock us to the gills, but every year it’s the same.

This weekend I went to Trader Joe’s and Costco, borrowing a friend’s card for the latter, and stocked us up on bulk items I know we’ll use, plus a start of things for the holidays. I’m not even close to done for Christmas but I am picking things up here and there.

We literally have almost everything we need, except twice now I’ve forgotten to get garlic powder.

Next week comes Azure Standard – huge piles of squashes, canned tomatoes (since our garden really didn’t comply this year, largely because of drought), seeds for next year and some other pantry supplies. Also our meat share and the next drop of our CSA.

So at the end of this week we’ll be in eat-down mode again. After 2 back-to-back trips to my office in Michigan to meet with clients, I’m home for a month, with the exception of a weekend away with my oldest, just us.

We have a busy week ahead with lots of appointments, kid activities and things we absolutely have to get done, so this week’s meal plan was made with that, and the target of eating a lot of veggie varieties in mind.

Knowing that Sunday was my best day to cook, I made the meal plan and then headed into the kitchen. First up was using the last of the farm apples and making Spiced Apple Butter. If all goes well we’ll have enough to give away as well as use. My travel lately meant I was a bit behind on using up the apples, so we lost a few to rot. A couple cores went to our bunny, Marshmallow and the rest of them plus the peels to the chickens, who were very happy about it.

Tomorrow’s dinner is meant to use up the Tomatillos that are still coming out of our garden, so right after that I pan-roasted 2 Poblano Peppers, 1 Jalapeno, 6 cloves of garlic and about a pound of tomatillos at 400 degrees F for about 15 minutes. Taking that prep step out will allow me to do the rest of the cooking during small breaks throughout the day. The recipe calls for carrots and onions as well, so we’ll get a large variety of veggies into our diets tomorrow.

And then my son requested chocolate chip cookies again, so I went to my go-to recipe, which makes enough to eat and some to give away.

Tonight Sunday 11/13: Chicken Parm, pasta, garlic bread, broccoli & the last of the Shishito peppers from the garden roasted with olive oil and salt

Chicken Parmesan will make plenty of leftovers for lunches this week, and we still have a couple servings left of Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen for lunches too.

Monday 11/14: Instant pot chili verde, rice, salad. I combined a couple recipes to make ours, which I’ll post soon.

Tuesday 11/15: Eli Cooks, kid friendly, protein TBD.  Our monthly meat CSA comes today, so plenty of choices!

Wednesday 11/16: Simple garlic chicken, roasted Brussels sprouts and onions, pearl couscous

Thursday 11/17: Just Eli and I, possibly Clam Chowder. Great for leftovers too.

Friday 11/18: It’s pickup #2 of 4 of our winter CSA share. It’s going to be a cold one, so MYO pizza (dough is prepped on Wednesday and cold-proofed in the fridge) topped with tomato sauce or pesto, caramelized onions, sliced San Marzano tomatoes, the last few from the garden, fresh mozzerella, spinach and whatever anyone else wants.

Saturday 11/19: Busy day – High school open house in the AM, the Moms church fair PM.  Days like this call for the crockpot! Italian pot roast, noodles, salad.

Sunday 11/21: Home day!  Roast chicken with roasted veggies and maybe Parmesan Tater Tots, a house favorite. I might get motivated to make some meatballs for Couscous Meatball Soup on Monday

Sundays in the kitchen are busy but fun, and at the end of it the house smells wonderful.

Planting Flowers in a Year of Grief

One year ago yesterday, my brother-in-law of nearly 20 years died of a massive heart attack, the kind of which in the aftermath there is no pulse, no chance of revival, no going back with a lifestyle change, a stent, a caution to rest. After a reportedly very good day, it became a very bad night, for my sister, her 3 children, and all of us.

After all that time, if one is lucky enough and puts the effort in, the in-law part drops, and one just has a brother. We weren’t confidants or buddies, but we adored one another, with our texts filled with ‘brother mine’ and ‘sister mine’. As someone who grew up without brothers, save for a brief stint with a stepbrother, having them via my sisters has been especially delightful.

The last thing I gave him was some of our homemade Garlic Scape Pesto, and this year I looked at the pile of scapes and let them rot in the refrigerator. I just couldn’t.

Maybe next year.

I describe it as a bomb going off in our family, leaving a smoking crater where there was once just level ground. Everywhere you look is smoke and blackness. A year later, the blast is tidied and no longer do waves of smoke rise from it, but it is still hard to look at. Eli and I brought yellow flowers to Billy’s grave under a tree, leaving them next to the mums from my parents, and then left a bottle of wine for my sister on her doorstep.

It’s been a busy autumn. The garden didn’t do so well this year, between drought and rabbits and groundhogs. There’s still some tomatillos, tomatos and squashes in there, and I’m hoping we have a week or so before a hard freeze in order to let them fully ripen. Our CSA ends this week but we’ve signed up for a winter share. Our usual trip to my sister’s to get our fall stockpile of veggies is going to have to wait a year. Our son turned 10, and we spent a brief few days in Florida celebrating. He has taken up trombone and the gardening club at school.

Work is busy and Eli continues to launch his work into the world. We have a teenager now, so we see her less, but are delighted at her friends and social life, delayed due to the pandemic.

The children are thriving after a tough couple of years

We prepare Sithean for winter as we always do. Our pantry is stocked, our freezer is full, and it’s time for fires in the wood stove.

But this year it’s also time to plant bulbs. Missing from Sithean’s legacy plantings were tulips and snowdrops, which are the first flower here, often appearing on a crust of snow, and now is the season. Over the next few weekends we will dig our bulbs in to the chilly ground, cover them, and hope that in the spring another area of the yard is covered in a profusion of oranges, pinks and purples, with a little bit of cream and some blue alliums tossed in for good measure.

When I arrived here the soil was dead and dust in most places. Each year, we amend it with compost and plantings and try to make this place better than we found it. With vegetable gardens and fruit trees for sure, but also with things that just exist for beauty and the benefit of the insects.

We’ll bring a few snowdrops to plant by Billy’s grave too, just because.

None of us know our time left, so our job is to fill it with life and joy and love. As for me, I’m going to fill my world with gardens.

When A Door Closes, A Window Opens

Hibiscus in bloom, Photo by Eli 5 Stone

Our summer of nothing and everything had more twists and turns than a miniseries plot, but somehow we landed in a peaceful Labor Day weekend.

The children are back to school – 4th and 8th grade respectively – and Sithean is off the market. There’s nothing to buy in our town, keeping the house show-ready was an exercise in exhaustion, and we may have the general lines of a solution on how we renovate without having to move out and to get the space we need.

We’ve jettisoned the architects, the builder we were talking to jettisoned us after we declined to go along with an out-of-control cost per square foot quote – lovely people all I’m sure, but not useful to us now, and we are starting the process of drawing and researching for a new builder.

We’ve taken the control back into our hands and it feels so, so much better, not to mention the relief we feel at no longer having people wander through our house on demand.

So what happens now is that we figure out the path forward without the stress of more architect bills, or without feeling like everything has to be a negotiation downward on a non-realistic construction quote. It’s freeing.

I mean, it wasn’t fun to be dumped by our builder, someone the neighbors raved about – but at the end of the day, he was never accessible, and non-responsive, so what he was to them was a different thing than what he was to us. And that’s okay, because in the end we need to focus on what we need. And what we need is reasonable and decent communication, for a start.

I do believe that sometimes the universe throws up walls in your way when you aren’t walking where you are supposed to go, and that happened here, over and over again. So much so that we started to believe the only thing we could do was move. Once we started to let go of some pre-conceived notions about what our options were things started to open up, in our minds and in the world.

For now, we’re staying put and getting estimates on our newly designed-by-us plan to get our needed space not by lifting the roof and flipping the stairs, a move that would require us to move out for 6+ months, but to go back and to the left, creating a bit of an L-shape for the house with a wrapping porch.

But for today, there’s pesto and zucchini fritters to make, and food prep for the week. For today, we can let go and let things play out over time.

And for another day, Sithean is home.

Farmlet Retreat

Twilight in Topsfield

At 3:46 pm a couple Friday nights ago, I decided to stop adulting.

The kids left for their Dad’s for the weekend. My husband was tired. Work had been relentless and my daughter had been sick most of the week. I had woken up with a headache.

So I cooked some frozen dumplings, put on pajama pants, and ignoring the sun and nearly 60 degree weather, climbed into bed under the blankets with a copy of a book I had previously read and loved, The Wilder Life, and decided that everything in the world could be dealt with – later.

I should have gone out to clean up the yard and weed. But I didn’t.

It felt glorious to just check out. And retreat into Laura World, which is what the author, Wendy McClure calls it. And yes, I know Laura Ingalls Wilder is complicated and there’s ugly parts of her books and opinions and perspectives, this is not lost on me. But when life gets too much, no matter my age, I find myself craving the simplicity of butter churns and cheese making, over 401k balancing and client issues. I don’t actually want to live a life where I sit on tree stumps for dining room chairs, but I do always feel a little wistful that I don’t want to be that person.

Most of all, I took the signs that my body and mind needed rest very seriously. I slept, I did some chores, ran, and went for a walk with my husband at twilight on a nearby trail. When Sunday arrived, I had a long list to cook, and some things to do before the kids came home, but I did just about all of it and then some. I went into Monday not fully restored, but better rested and with my batteries charged again.

When I returned to the world, so to speak, a transformation had taken place. Daffodils were in blooming, the apricot tree was starting to flower, and everything everywhere was green and in bud.

Daffodils in bloom on the front lawn – Photo by Eli 5 Stone

My seedlings are huge now and some are in need of transplanting. Eli and I are spending countless hours designing next year’s home remodel – from counters to paint to sinks and hardware, and everything in between – thousands of decisions to be made. I can’t wait to share how it will all look, as much art installation as house, in large part because of my amazing and talented husband.

The world continues to be unsteady around us, with the IPCC’s new climate report, war and famine in Ukraine, Yemen, Sudan, the bent to autocracy here in the US – we walk a fine line between aware and engaged, and trying to maintain our shields against a constant barrage of bad news, with nearly no mention of all the good in the world. Worrying about the explosion of weeds and how to manage them, or what to have for dinner is a relief, in a way. I can’t apologize for needing to retreat to Laura World or my garden or kitchen. My mind and home and family need tending to, and while I can participate in making the world a better place, I can’t change the course of world events, or only a little, so I do what I can and try the best to preserve space for joy and flowers and love.

And after a long, cold, sad winter for us, there’s starting to be all those things. But the honest truth was that despite all the joys of spring, I was just teeth-grittingly, bone-wearingly tired. It wasn’t even one specific thing, although work had been unusually stressful and more busy than usual, and crossing the 6 month mark of our loss of my brother-in-law Billy is a gut punch even now. The loss of him, the loss for my sister and her daughters, and the idea that we’ve now entered a phase of life where losing people may become common is is a cord that runs through our days.

And even renovation planning is tiring – as we make renovation decisions that will both restore and improve Sithean, the sheer daunting volume of them overwhelms.

So when the kids schools broke for vacation, we vacated our life in the most literal sense, and drove to the mountains, Eli, I, the kids and their Dad, for a few nights of escape. We cooked meals in advance, packed all the snacks and games one could possibly want, sent Teddy the dog on vacation to his grandparents (and original owners) house, arranged for the chickens and bunny, for we had lost Clover in early March, leaving only Marshmallow to be fed by my neighbor Melissa, watered the seedlings heavily and got out of dodge at 9 am on a Wednesday.

Despite the Jenga-esque efforts of packing coolers, 3 seasons worth of clothing for the ever-changing mountain weather and all the aforementioned snack foods, we arrived in Jackson NH just past lunch time on a Wednesday and breathed relief into the rented house. We heated our chicken parmesan with some garlic bread, salad and pasta and then I went off to nap.

When I woke up Thursday (my nap didn’t last that long, we did manage to have an evening) I felt somewhat restored. I love to travel, but the feeling of ‘I have to get out of here right now so I can rest‘ has become recurring lately at Sithean. ‘When did I lose that sense of sanctuary at home’, I not-infrequently wondered, along with ‘and how do I get it back?’. Maybe it’s just going to be more going to be more transitory until we’ve renovated and moved back in, late next year. Maybe home is a project, not a sanctuary for now, and I just have to ride that out.

I miss that feeling of sanctuary though.

So it’s not surprising I needed to retreat into Laura World, even though it’s impossible to not see the grinding poverty and endless tragedies she endured as an adult. But maybe that makes it all the better – she went through all that and could still see the magic, and create her own Laura World. And maybe that’s the lesson – even when grasshoppers eat your crops and your house burns and you literally lose your farm, if you can still see the magic and the beauty in the world, you can create some for yourself.

Maybe that’s enough.

So I rested and was ready to come home to the sunshine and the flowers and my garden.

Springtime Grace

Moonlit Spring Night

All of a sudden, the bitter cold transitioned to something resembling tolerable, and we even had a day over 70 – concerning if you think about climate change, deliriously wonderful after 4 months of shivering – to cap it off.

Seed starting is in full swing, and so is planning for our renovation next year, with an infinity of decisions to be made, we’re starting now to reduce our stress later, and get a better grip on our budget.

But mostly we are focused on spring. The first of the seedlings have started to come up, which gives me a sense of hope, and the yard is slowly starting to turn green. I don’t have to travel for work again for a while either, which is nice. After 2 trips in 3 weeks, which was immediately followed by the annual butt-kicking that is Daylight Savings Time, I can rest and enjoy being home before the hectic spring yard work really kicks in.

Seed Starting is the Best Kind of Magic

There’s a bit to do now, as it’s time to mow down the trench bed, and Eli is removing debris, including a huge branch that took out some of our old lilac bushes after a recent wind storm. The lilacs were going to have to go in service to renovation anyway, so maybe in the end that will turn out to be a gift, Mother Nature taking them down for us so I don’t have the heartbreak of watching them dug up.

Next year, it’s unlikely we’ll have a garden, and even this year I’m shying away from planting trees or perennials, other than a commitment to start working on turning at least some of the front yard into a wildflower garden in front for my son and a few varieties of poppies, which I’ve been meaning to add for years.

We begin to use the last of the winter vegetables. A few remaining onions from our 50-lb sack, the last few of the half bushel of sweet potatoes, one of the last 2 spaghetti squashes. Once spring warmth comes they will not last any longer. We’re also walking the line between keeping stocked, with food prices soaring, and eating down our pantry and freezer space. As we eat through the last of the pesto and kale from last fall, we won’t be filling that space up again until after our big renovation. I have mixed feelings about that, as I view a full larder as an edible emergency fund, but it is the most sensible approach for us.

As we pass the 5-month mark of loss, the gut punches of memory are less frequent, but no less powerful.

Which is why my thoughts return to my 2022 mantra, Go Easy, and the idea of grace for myself and for so many others. The pandemic, climate change and Russian war-making, and the return of famine to the news have left me worried, angry, sad, stressed. Inflation is real, and has seen our gas, food and energy costs spike. We’re anxious about the costs of our renovation, even while acknowledging that the time has come for it. We’re grateful for warmer days, even while recognizing that perhaps it just shouldn’t be this warm in March.

But we are blessed with family, friends and a safe home, and my endless gratitude for it all. I’m grateful for the grace of today, and right now, that’s enough.

Meal Plan and Batch Cook Your Way Through Anything

There is always something lovely to see on my walks

The weather continues to be challenging – first a giant, but rather pleasant snowstorm, then rain, then sleet and snow followed by another drop in temperature. Saturday afternoon was warm enough for us to bundle up in snow gear and take Teddy for a walk on nearby Greenbelt land. Sunday morning I woke up to 5 degree temperatures, with the bunnies having to take up residence in the basement for the 3rd time in a month. If it stays above 10 degrees, their hutch & run, which is covered in a tarp most of the winter, plus their winter coats keep them warm enough. Below that and we’re likely to wake to bunny popsicles, so in they come, bunsicles being on no one’s list of favorite things.

Challenging these days is more than the weather as my uncle is likely to succumb to his cancer soon enough. We’ve lost a lot in the last few months, my family and I, but I am trying to appreciate and hold gratitude every day as a result, and hold on to all my people.

The lingering warmth in the living room from the fire was lovely, as were my cozy blankets, but I had spent much of Friday afternoon and Saturday morning running errands, primarily food related – Costco, Trader Joe’s and Market Basket, plus our local dairy for a week’s supply of milk, and then the Co-op for bunny food and treats, and suet cakes for the birds. At this time of year, there’s not much for the wild birds to eat, so we try to keep our feeders full. By the time I was finished I had spent $518.41, which is the bulk of our grocery budget for the month. I’ve lately been returning to my old habits of buying most of our groceries at the start of each month, and supplementing fruit, veggies and milk in.

We’re also coming to the end of stock-up shopping, as we’re going to renovate the house next spring, and that requires us moving out completely for a while. Moving some food is inevitable, but it’s time to start emptying the pantries and freezer for real. I tend to view a full larder as an edible emergency fund, and that thinking has served me well, but it will be kind of fun to start to see empty spaces too.

To do that we’ve got to eat what we have and carefully manage our inventory and stockpile. Some things we simply can’t run out of – coffee, cereal for my son, olive oil and spices, things like that. Others I want to make sure we see how long we can go before we need any more. And to eat healthy and stay within a reasonable food budget, meal planning and batch cooking.

I’ve also made the commitment to make 1 dinner and 2 lunches each week for my younger sister – she’s still dealing with the death of her beloved husband, and while I can’t make the loss easier, I can ensure that once a week she and the girls have a hot meal, homemade bread, and that she’s got a couple lunches to take to work each week. Sometimes I add cookies or a treat, sometimes I don’t. But it’s forced me to be a creative and thoughtful cook, since variety and healthy is very important. And it’s making me way, way more efficient in the kitchen. It’s a small thing, and my target is 12 months of food delivery, once a week. Eli helps too, last week we sent over a big pile of his homemade Empanadas. My take is that their life is hard enough, and a little help is sometimes the difference between being able to tie a knot in your rope and hang on, and not having enough rope left to tie.

This week’s meal plan is varied, healthy and yummy, and I’m excited about it.

Pre-prepped Lunches
Lemon Cranberry Quinoa Salad topped with chicken – this stuff is so, so good and filled with fruit and veggies. I subbed in the apple since the store didn’t have jicama
Falafel and Tzatziki

Sunday: Roasted chicken and vegetables, homemade dinner rolls
Monday: Creamy sun dried tomato pasta for our family and for hers (this is also an insanely good and easy recipe, just use a very deep skillet)
Tuesday: Beef Bulgogi (I made a triple batch, with 2 in the freezer for later)
Wednesday: Salmon over cauliflower rice with Garlic Scape Pesto I froze last summer
Thursday: Eli cooks, always delicious
Friday: Homemade pizza in the oven or chicken soup with rice, depending on moods and motivation
Saturday: Whichever one we didn’t make for Friday

While I’ve made all sorts of breads and baked goods, I’ve never made a dinner roll. This week I decided to tackle that gap with a recipe for Scotch Baps. I took the recipe from one of my oldest cookbooks, one I got in my early 20s, called Soup and Bread, by a writer and chef with the worlds coolest hippie name, Crescent Dragonwagon. Soup and Bread is a contemporary of The Moosewood Cookbook, a cookbook I bought about the same time and proceeded to hate every recipe I tried from it. Some I made twice thinking it was me, and never have I disliked a cookbook so consistently.

Maybe it’s me though, because it was a bestseller. If Mollie Katzen, the author, taught me anything, it was that it’s okay to be disinterested or even loathe things that everyone else seems to like, which is perhaps why I was always so comfortable disliking Sex and The City. I tried – and by that I mean I toughed it out through 2 episodes – and always thought that show would be improved by all the cast being taken out by a wayward Zamboni.

By 11:30 on Sunday the Baps were in their final rise (more on them in a moment), everything else was either made or in the oven and my wonderful husband had rescued my too-damp falafel in the air fryer.

So about that cookbook, and those Baps, Soup and Bread (and if you want to have a splurge to the tune of $4.59 you can have a wonderful read and a happy belly) – Baps are a dense roll, with a butter and milk base. I think I would use less flour than the recipe calls for, maybe 4 cups total for the rolls and more for dusting, and they really weren’t terribly photogenic, but these things are good. It’s my understanding in Scotland they are morning rolls, toasted with butter and with some sausage on them, but we’ll eat them with our roasted chicken for dinner.

As we roll into another busy week, the peace of Sunday afternoon with warm food and loved ones is something I treasure. The cooking is done, the preparations are complete, and there’s nothing left but to sit and enjoy the last of today’s sunshine before twilight comes again.

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