All the Reasons to Love January

All the cozy

Most people I know hate January. Cold, dark, it is the month of giving up alcohol and unhealthy food, with it’s only holiday one that not a lot of people get to take off.

I used to feel the same, but after returning from a 2 1/2 year stint in Florida 5 years ago, I now love the it, dark and cold and all. As a recovering winter-hater, the peace and quiet of the month is a breath in our general busyness. There’s no birthdays, no major holidays, nothing that needs to be bought or wrapped or shopped for. Our weekends, even without Omicron putting things on hold, are calm and unplanned. Seedlings, unless I want winter lettuce or sweet peas aren’t planted. There’s no yardwork to do except the occasional shoveling.

It’s a time to get frugal and eat up what we have in our pantry and freezer. I try to limit what we buy, make meal plans, and find new and interesting healthy recipes to try with what we have. The winter squash start to soften up around now, so we need to consume them before they become compost-worthy. We still have tons of onions, garlic and sweet potatoes. Pesto, Kale, and other preserved foods are waiting to be used in cozy meals.

It’s also time to clean and declutter. On January 1, the lovely holiday decorations somehow magically transform themselves into annoying clutter that needs to be immediately put away. I like to hang on to the outside lights for a week or two, but the inside stuff needs to go. Along with that I spend my time sorting and clearing surfaces and spaces.

It’s time to be cozy. A new coverlet and knit blanket cover our bed in creams and whites with touches of red trim, making for a warm spot to curl up. There’s fires in the woodstove, there”s soup and stews on the regular, and lots of cups of tea after walks in the cold. We have throw blankets everywhere in the house, and we use them.

Hygge is a term that has been widely circulated in the US, the Danish concept of cozy, and we live it here at Sithean. Warm things, soft clothes, cozy homemade food, getting rid of clutter and time with people we love. Come February there are school breaks, my daughter’s birthday, Valentine’s day and the world starts to pick up energy again, but in January, restful and warm is the only way to be..

Over Easy

Sheep grazing in the field – Topsfield MA

After the holidays, the kids went to their Dad’s for a couple of days, and Eli and I finally took a breath. There were lots of chores to do, including deep cleans of the various bedrooms, and the start of dismantling the Christmas decor, but there was also quiet mornings sitting with coffee and my thoughts, and time together. I was also inexplicably cranky and mad at the world some of the time, despite getting more sleep than I had in probably years. Still, I managed to put my cranky down long enough to celebrate the 4 years, and immense changes in our life, since Eli and I had our first date on a bitterly cold December 30th night, a quick drink that turned into 6 hours, mostly spent laughing.

And then our New Year’s Eve feast, with our traditional homemade scallion pancakes (there’s non-paleo ones to be made as well of course, but these are so good I don’t know why you would bother), homemade lo mein and this year’s new star was Eli taking on Crab Rangoon that supplemented some take out, and was paired with the 2nd Harry Potter movie, now that the kids are old enough to work our way through the series.



The new year is coming, and I’m not too old or too cynical to set resolutions and plan for things to be different. Our eating always gets healthier in January, using up all the veggies we’ve preserved over the summer and fall, and trying to spend as little as possible on groceries. Tonight we’ll eat homemade Chicken Tortilla Soup, a simple pantry-based recipe

In addition to our New Years Day tradition of setting goals for the year, Melissa, my next-door-neighbor/close friend/life coach guru, handed me a tradition a few years ago of choosing a word or phrase each year that defines what you want of it – a mantra, so to speak, with an expiration date.

Thoughts of what it should be percolated in my head as I went to HMart to stock up last week, and as I went for long walks as many mornings as I could. This year is not one for radical change, that I knew. It’s for tweaks to make our lives more balanced, less cluttered, easier. It’s about acceptance, making peace with our loss and the things that I don’t love about myself. It’s about making things easier for myself and others.

And so this year, for 2022, Go Easy is my mantra. Go easy on the world around me, struggling with all the things. Go easy on my family, who do the best they can. Go easy on myself – I expect too much, and push too hard. I’ll invent recipes, blog and do a great job at work and as a parent and a spouse without having to feel bad when I sometimes miss the mark.

January and February are for decluttering, relaxing, exercising, and making cozy, healthy foods. Work and school of course. But I’m going to try to let up the pressure on myself and others to get it all right and go easy on all of us.

Happy New Year everyone. I hope 2022 is softer and gentler than 2021 for all of us.

The First Law of Thermodynamics

First Snow

Thanksgiving passed with light and food and joy and sadness as well, augmented by another death – this one of my brother-in-law’s mom, who had come to the end of her time with little quality of life, but so soon after her son, and on the Thanksgiving holiday as well is another brutal knife in that family.

This year, we are all winding more tightly together as a result for the holidays. Every candle in the window, light on the porches, and tradition that can be upheld will be. Every hug of our people is another candle lit.

Eli and I were fortunate enough to have a day out to do some small-business holiday shopping and even go out to dinner in an actual restaurant for the first time in ages. Of course, we woke up to headlines about the Omicron variant the next day, so it might be the last time in a while. While I don’t miss all the things of the before-times, before Covid-19, I do miss some. Restaurants are one of them, mostly because it often symbolized a too-rare evening out with my husband.

I miss my brother too, with a grief that is sometimes so deep I need an extension ladder to climb out and back into the world. Saturday morning was particularly tough. I woke up too early again, and prepared to go for a walk with my neighbor and friend, Melissa. I wasn’t feeling it, sad and unmotivated, but I had postponed enough times that I knew I was out of excuses, although she would have understood. There was an ever-so-tiny bit of snow on the ground, and the wind was biting. All too many excuses to stay home were there.

But.

I saw something oddly pink in the stark landscape as I stepped off the porch.

A Rose in Winter

Melissa describes the process of grief as much like the book ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ and I’d add to that the ever-pervasive pandemic as well.

You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You can’t go around it. You have to go through it.

By the end of the walk I was warm through from talking and smiling. And I kept returning in my thoughts to that one rose which really shouldn’t be blooming on a day like yesterday. It was too cold, too grey, too out of season, too-all-the-things. But bloom it did, if only for a day. By the time we got home from a lovely dinner at my parents that night, it had started to crumple and die, as all things must, leaving behind a photograph, and my memory.

Even though it only stayed for less than a day, it was enough to remind me that there is always magic here, and that nothing ever truly leaves us, that energy is neither created nor destroyed.

“You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen. Aaron Freeman, via NPR


The Last of the Sunflowers

Mexican Torch Sunflowers

Up until yesterday there was still no hard freeze, despite the chilly mornings and regular frosts, and as a result, a few hardy tomatillos ripened, and against all odds, a few last flowers grew into the middle of the month. They are gone now at last, as colder nights came, but the the lovely orange flowers in my garden served as a touchstone for me.

I mostly leave the sunflowers to the bees and the birds, but they were so utterly lovely that one morning I couldn’t resist a few to sit behind my desk while I work.

We tore out the garden with many more tomatillos ripening but not yet there. Next year I need to remember to plant them even earlier. Nonetheless I got about 3 more batches of salsa worth. Since we both gift it and eat it, I got to work on making a few more jars to finish out the season. It’s been an unusual year for us in many ways, but the holidays are coming, and packages of homemade goodies will still get mailed.

Indeed, the holidays are coming, and my response to them is to want all the merry. I want lights, lots and lots of lights to ward off the cold and the darkness, and the sadness that still flows through and over our family like a river. Celebrating does not feel like a disservice to the dead but instead is a gift to us and those around us – what is love of one’s family members if not a light against the darkness?

Sometimes a literal one or a few hundred is just what is needed.

I remembered as Eli and I ripped out the dead vines and plants how peaceful I find the garden. I haven’t spent as much time as usual in it this year after a rainy summer and a stormy autumn. I start to feel as though I am coming back to myself after a long absence, slowly. I am still sad, and I likely will be for a while, but I am incorporating it into my days rather than it consuming them. I’m sure I’ll have more recipes and things soon, but for now, the ability to take in air while swimming in a sea of grief is enough.

And to turn that into action has been our next step. Care packages for my sister. And more. Billy was, above all, kind. He would help anyone, and his sister asked all of those who grieved with us to do something kind in his name.

Last night, our daughter and I chose a little girl in Ecuador for her to sponsor from World Vision. This is something I’ve done for years, and it’s a wonderful feeling to know you’ve made an actual life better. She now has the responsibility to write emails and letters and send small packages over the years, in addition to our sponsorship donation. Tonight, we and our son will pick something to make the world better. Then Eli and I.

It can never bring him back, but it’s a path back from sadness, to turn outward and add some love to the world.

Autumn Mourning

Pumpkins and Firewood on the Porch at Sithean – Photo by Eli 5 Stone

November has rolled in, and with it the cold nights. We lit our wood stove for the first time, and the heat has clicked on. It’s time to do the final preparations for winter – taking down the paper lanterns that adorn the roof of the porch in warm weather, insulating windows, covering the RV for the wintry weather to come. The last of the things that will allow us to curl up inside for the respite that we get when the cold finally takes hold.

In the mornings, frost covers almost everthing, but by mid-day the sunshine glow is glorious.

Our grieving is tempered by a return to life, but it’s still there, around every corner, commingled with love and worry for those he left behind. Big family celebrations of the upcoming holidays are being traded for something more quiet and simple this year. There’s an empty seat at our table, and none of us will recover from the loss very quickly.

Loss – not just of the person but also all the things they, and we, will miss out on. Milestones. Joy. Grief is not just for today and simple presence, but all the future things that no longer get to happen. It’s a perpetual gap in what should be, a future missed out on from all sides. Someday we will learn to move around the terrible hole in our midst, over time it will be less of an abyss, but not now. Not anytime soon. My sister grieves and we all join her in her sorrow.

I’ve noticed, a few weeks in, that my return to the topics of grief and loss and sadness makes others uncomfortable, but I’ve reached a point where I won’t apologize or speed it along to make another person at ease. I can’t, it consumes us all, and so be it. Someday I won’t wake up and hope it was a bad dream, someday it will be a loss that fits into the landscape of my family’s life. Not today.

Still, we continue to move, as we must. There are chores and homework to be done, yard work to be performed, work, school and all the interactions of our lives, food to be made, laundry to be folded, birthdays to be celebrated, vaccination for my son to be scheduled. We serve nothing and no one by stopping our movement. The show, as it were, must go on.

And go on it does, in this place that gives me a sense of the eternal. My brother in law and I were very different people, but we shared a sense of belonging to a place, him by his river, watching the sunsets with my sister, me with Eli, here in the garden of fairies and witches and ever-so-pink sunrises.

Sithean is a sanctuary, in all the ways.

Our garden has continued to grow despite the light frosts and so I harvested another pumpkin yesterday, and I think there’s hope for the last few still-ripening squashes. I picked them partially ripened and put them in the sunlight to finish their process, turning them every couple days. This is not a foolproof process, but it can work, and there are at least 10 more spaghetti squashes, so it is worth the effort.

A large number of tomatillos survived the frost as well, so one last batch of salsa verde is on the horizon.

The garden is dying down slowly this year, and I’m letting it take it’s time. We’ll get out and rip it out and plant our garlic when it’s all done. Leaves are still on trees, rather than the bare grey of November. My lawn is still green. The endless rains have slowed, but not stopped. It’s in the 50s and 60s still, for days on end after the night chill ends in the sunshine.

Still, I’ll plant my spring flower bulbs and we’ll prepare for winter, because it will come. My son yearns for snow that we hope will arrive soon. On weekend mornings, the living room stays warm if we throw one last log on the fire before bed and close the door, and becomes a cozy spot to return to after I brave the chill to feed the bunnies their breakfast. The wood stove can’t warm the whole house, but it does keep the living room nice and toasty.

I’ve begun to cook again and do food prep in earnest. This morning I made 2 meals worth of Beef Bulgogi and froze the beef in it’s marinade to be cooked later, and then started in on some applesauce. We have infinity apples, and they won’t keep forever, so preservation is key. Applesauce is another no-recipe recipe – apples, some water, maybe a bit of sugar to taste. It freezes well and is great alone or in baked goods.

2 large-ish zucchini were left from the garden, so a last batch of zucchini fritters will be part of tomorrow’s dinner, and for tonight I made popovers to go with Instant Pot Beef Bourguignon. Added to the leftovers from Saturday’s dinner, Oven Risotto with Kale Pesto and stuffed chicken.

Despite the days tinged by sadness, I am grateful for the peacefulness of my kitchen, and the love that surrounds me, the flowers that bloom still, against all odds, and the gift of each day.

A few Mexican Torch Sunflowers Remain in the Garden

At The End of The World, Plant a Garden

Part 1 of lots….

I remember a time when living in the US and occasionally traveling abroad, Americans were known as often loud and ignorant of other cultures, yes, but more importantly than we ever knew, we were seen as happy. “What are you all so happy about, anyway” asked a colleague in Munich, just after Bush v. Gore.

These days between political polarity and climate angst and the pandemic, cheery outlooks on life seem harder to come by. Everyone is mad or worried about something – I should add that they should be, absolutely, but let’s talk about mindset for a minute – and added to that is a nice topping of performative rage on social media. When I found myself apologetic for the lack of diversity in my community I received back “Well, you could move“.

Well, we could. But we’re planted here, and I’d rather do things to enact change than leave the home and space we adore. To live in a more diverse community and that would be valuable for sure, but to leave our home, the animals, the home we’re invested in and the soil we enrich and the gardens and trees and community we’ve so lovingly invested in would be a loss for us, and I believe for Sithean as well. We are tending and loving our land with the intent to leave it better than we found it. While 1.24 acres isn’t a lot of land, it’s enough to grant us a garden, fruit trees and a somewhat curtains-optional environment.

But this generalized sense of needing to feel bad about all the things in order to demonstrate commitment and depth of emotion seems a little…off to me. So I thought I would unpack it a little, and talk about some things anyone feeling like they aren’t doing enough.

So let’s talk about Climate Change for now. What are the things that don’t cost big piles of money – or any – that you, or I can do today? Recognizing that it’s fall and I’m writing this as the growing season is coming to an end in the Northern hemisphere, here’s some carefully chosen things you can do whether you have land or not, in the coming months.

You see, hope is about taking steps. Is one little compost bin going to change the world? No, but 50 might, and if all 50 people got one more person to add composting that’s 100, and then the next 50 and the next 50. Remember that Mother Theresa quote “We can do no great things, only small things with great love“?

So in the spirit of yes, there’s little time to act, but most of us will fail if we try to change everything about our lives at once, here’s a few things you can do.

  1. Compost. Whether you have land and can put up barrels (or just find a location for a pile if you aren’t in a heavily populated area) or need to enroll in a municipal composting program, composting is something everyone can do. And if you have neither land or one of those programs you can still do it! Have a rose bush in the window or on a balcony and once a week feed it your leftover coffee grounds. When you steam broccoli or kale or chard or cauliflower use the leftover water to feed your plants. You do not need a fancy compost container for the counter, anything will do. Need some help? Composting for beginners, right here!
  2. Find local food producers and buy from them as you are able. I’m fortunate to live in Massachusetts, which has an incredible local food movement I can take advantage of, but almost everywhere I’ve been has at least a farmer’s market, local farms or even local wineries. Between Eli and I we’ve found local meat, tea, flour and bread products, we have our garden and our CSA that we share with the neighbors, apple orchards….I haven’t found local coffee, so we try to buy as much as possible from Tiny Footprint. Many farmers markets take SNAP, and if you can, gleaning is also a great way to get free food and support your local farmers and community. Wherever you are, there’s a farmer or a community garden that needs you. The week I spent near Lancaster Central Market remains one of my favorite food memories ever, as is the pesto and fresh pasta I ate in Italy from a local shop, or the pesto-swirled minestrone I ate in the Cinque Terre.
  3. Plant something. Even some lettuce in a bowl – dirt, seeds, water – is a single ingredient of just a meal or two, but it’s one less plastic bagged salad to purchase. Imagine if we all did. But even if it’s just a tiny tree on a balcony, you are capturing carbon, my friend! Every time you water your tiny whatever-tree, you are
  4. Eat a meatless meal. I’m actually not an advocate for worldwide veganism or anything like it, but I do think that my family and I need to get better about thinking of meat as a condiment rather than the central component of a plate. Still, one meal a week is just grand. There’s so many choices that you probably already know and like, such as spaghetti.

5. Vote. At this point, it really matters at the local level as well as the national one to get involved. If you want a say, it’s a simple process. Add a letter or a call or a visit to your congressperson to ice the cake, but really – unless we want the world to burn, we have to care enough to take the steps to make it happen.

6. Bonus round: have a buy-nothing month. Eat down your freezer and fridge and pantry (full disclosure, even in buy-nothing months I have to purchase milk and fruit for kids lunches if there’s nothing from the garden or CSA, so it’s a buy almost nothing month). Don’t got to the store, just eat it up. By the end of the month you may have some fairly interesting meals, but if you try to view it as a fun challenge for the family rather than an experience of bleak deprivation, you might find it’s something you can all get into. Kids love a challenge.

And that is the true key. It would be easy to get all depressed and angsty about the future, and if you did, no one would blame you. But depressed and feeling like you have no power to change anything at all is a surefire recipe for nothing to ever change. The first thing we must do is feel hopeful, do things we are proud of, and build on that feeling.

I’ll have lots more to say on this, so consider this Part 1 of ‘How to live with Climate Change’. Today’s lesson – even the small stuff matters.

3 Rules to Make You a Better Cook

Squashes Growing Out of the Garden and Into The Yard

As July trails into August, the rainy weather continues a good deal of the time, with sunny days here and there. According to a local paper, we’ve received over 10 inches of rain this month vs. an average of 2.95, and last year’s low of just 1.9 inches. Even when the weather predicts sun, we see bouts of rain that hurls itself into the already-soaked ground. Other than a few basil plants I have not lost any garden plants yet, and most seem to be thriving, but I’m watching them all carefully.

The Ipswich River, where we canoe, has never been so high on the banks in my memory. Our paddles are peaceful and lovely, but the usual plethora of turtles and wildlife seem to have retreated. Hopefully just until the water table is lower.

Teddy objects to my ‘no jumping off the canoe into the water’ rule. Like the other members of my family, he acknowledges me as our household Fun Sponge, diminishing all the joy of wet dog in car. Photo by Eli 5 Stone

We are starting to hunker down again, with the Delta variant spreading. I’m grateful we got our vacations in this year, and some time to feel almost normal. And it’s time to turn inward anyway – not only is our prime food preservation time coming, but it’s time to focus on preparatory chores for the fall and winter. Getting our septic system pumped, cleaning windows, taking down some trees, and scheduling chimney sweeps and furnace maintenance are the top of the list. And then there is the back to school supplies that need to get ordered and the summer reading to be managed. All in all, we’ve got plenty to keep us busy at home, with occasional weekend hours devoted to hiking, canoeing, family activities or just doing nothing.

The first few zucchini have ripened in our garden, and more will follow soon enough. We still have shredded zucchini in the freezer from last year’s batch, but I’ve been rushing to use up the preserved everything so that I have space in the freezer for this year’s bounty. I am expanding my zucchini repertoire, so last night we tried a slightly modified version of this Zucchini Involtini. Instead of the pesto being spicy I used spicy italian sausage from our meat share. It was delicious, but it shows the benefits of recipe modification. I didn’t have the chicken sausage the recipe called for, but I had a perfect alternative.

Photo of Dinner by Eli 5 Stone

I am tending to devote one day per weekend to inside chores and one day to outside (this primarily consists of weeding, which I could do 24/7 for weeks and still have work to do). On weekends I prep much of the week’s food. Yesterday I roasted eggplant and beets, cooked up sausage to go in our dinner, made a batch of fresh Pesto, and worked on Healthy Blueberry Cake, a favorite of Eli’s.

But I am working harder on a double challenge – to limit food waste (I’ve written about our food waste strategies here) and to get creative when I am out of something rather than just running to the store. This is a lifelong challenge for me – I love a good challenge, but sometimes lack of time impedes me flexing my creative muscles. On the weekends though, that’s often less true, and so I try out more complex meals, and work to get ahead of the week. Still recipe modification inherently limits food waste because you are using something you already have.

And more importantly it will make you a more confident cook. Which is really the goal. In order to get there, there’s just 3 rules to follow.

I made the pesto early in the morning after my walk, and then later in the afternoon I got to work on the rest. The eggplant was roasted for Baba Ghanoush, the beets to be Balsamic Roasted Beets for tonight’s dinner.

When it came time to make the Blueberry Cake I had to get more creative. I didn’t actually have applesauce, but I did have apples, having had a craving for them the last time we grocery shopped. So I peeled 3, chopped them up and cooked the apple pieces down in water.

The peels go to the chickens, the cores to the bunnies, the homemade applesauce into the cake. For us, apples are the perfect zero-waste food. Same with kale, where the leaves are food to humans and the stems are delicious bunny food. I also didn’t have 2 cups of plain yogurt as the recipe called for, so one of them is a cup of strawberry yogurt, and we’ll see how that goes, but I wasn’t driving to the store for a cup of yogurt.

I think key to the ability to modify a recipe is that rule 1 is: ‘what do I have’ vs. ‘what is it telling me to buy’. I could have mashed some bananas I have in the freezer as an alternative to applesauce as well. Would it have changed the flavor? Oh, sure maybe some. Probably it would have tasted just fine. Which leads me to rule 2: Who cares? So what if it changes it some? Maybe it will be better, maybe it will be fine, maybe you’ll decide it isn’t your favorite, but it’s food, not your best friend. Changing it up is just dandy.

We live in a world of celebrity cooks who write cookbooks that are full of good and interesting recipes and have lots of TV shows to tell us how to cook and also show us. I’m a huge fan of street foods and foods that mash up multiple cultural influences. I learn from other cooks all the time and I am grateful for it. But at the end of the day, learning how to chop onions really fast or certain kitchen tips is wonderful, empowering – but if it makes you think you aren’t chopping onions right and therefore not qualified to cook – then it’s time for rule 3: It’s what you want that matters because you, my friend, are the eater here. Gordon Ramsey or Ina Gartner are not cooking for you tonight, you are (I mean unless they are in which case, can I come over?).

You have pots, pans, food stuffs and a stomach. Don’t like pine nuts? Swap them for walnuts. No malt powder for your recipe? Try Ovaltine. Hate chestnuts in your stuffing or giblets in your gravy? Don’t add them. Love them? Add more! Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Recipes and guidance from cookbooks and videos are awesome and can help.

But like all things in life, apply the universal wisdom of a checkout counter ‘penny dish’: take what you need and leave the rest.

The Long Pandemic Teatime of the Soul

I drink a lot of tea in the winter time. I do not like my tea very strong, and after I drink the first cup until it has cooled down – I do like it very hot – I often top it with water and reheat, sometimes over and over again. An old friend once referred to it as me liking ‘scent of tea’ and she definitely nailed it. I’ve never reverted to drinking hot water with lemon slices, but that probably would be fine with me too. It’s warmth from the inside, which is helpful because our house isn’t well insulated, and cranking up the heat isn’t a constant option.

Last week, after watching and reading about how new strains of Covid-19 are spreading and far more infectious, we decided to accelerate our big grocery stock up and so on Friday and Saturday, shopped like food and household goods were going out of style. We have some bulk items coming from Azure Standard – a test run of their co-op – in early February, and will continue our Misfits Market and Walden local meat deliveries, but the intention here is to have enough of our core needs to last about 60 days. Things like bulk pasta, dried beans and flour will last much longer.

And now that we have the storage space, it’s feasible to buy 5 lbs of Parmesan cheese at a time and freeze it in bags until we need it. And yes, we use it.

Associated, as it is intended to be, with desperately needed pantry and freezer inventory and organization, it offers us a chance to mostly take ourselves out of circulation other than school for the kids and occasional runs for fruit and milk.

On March 8th, we will have been in our new normal for a year. While Covid-19 just passed it’s 1-year anniversary as a human disease, it took a little longer for us. As I look back, in mid-February I started stocking up. At first, I, and others thought I was a little nuts. On the evening of March 8th I flew home from my last work trip, unmasked as we all were, as I chatted with a fellow passenger. No one was talking about aerosol transmission then. He shared his Lysol wipes with me, something that was already in short supply. I had a reservation to return to my office in Michigan in 2 weeks, but I was pretty sure by that time I wouldn’t be going.

By the end of the following week we were all in lock down. The schools closed for ‘deep cleaning’ never to reopen, at least for the rest of the school year. Stores were running out of absolutely everything, and toilet paper was the new hot commodity.

A year and more than 400,o00 deaths later, we are preparing for a potential lock down and shortages again. While I think that things will begin to turn a corner in the spring, we are mindful that it is going to get worse before it gets better. Whether we will see similar food supply shortages as we did in the spring is unclear, but we know that the pandemic is running unchecked globally except in a few select places, so I have to assume this will be an ongoing issue. While everywhere there seems to be the idea that we will be back to normal by summer, I hope so while planning for another year of plague.

So how to get through that if it comes, and what to do to keep you and us safe and sound and well is on my mind. We are taking a very conservative approach to exposure, and I don’t intend to change that. So here are the things we are doing to get through this endless dusk, when the lights are dimmer and the weather is colder and our days are filled with our missed connections.

  1. Routine is your friend. If you know what to expect of each day it’s much easier. If every Saturday morning it’s bacon and pancakes for breakfast, hold that line and make sure there is bacon and all the things. Routine brings relief and clear expectations. And that translates to activities – my son has an Outschool Roblox class on Thursdays while my daughter has a horseback riding lesson (well ventilated – actually freezing cold – barn, good social distancing), and knowing that Thursdays host ‘their’ activities helps.
  2. Nourish your body. Cook good, healthy food as much as possible. Generate excitement and ask for participation in food preparation with your household. As you have time and money, now is a time to experiment with new foods and to refine others.
  3. Get outside. As cold as it is here in the north, I still make a point to walk and run as frequently as I can. My son practices his bike riding skills. My daughter hangs with her chickens, Eli plays fetch with Teddy the Doggleby and he and I try to walk together whenever we can get out for an hour.
  4. Create some holidays. We celebrate Surprise Day here once a year – a day off for everyone where we go do fun things, and pre-Covid, we would celebrate Mama Pajama Day, a day where everyone stays in pajamas all day and we eat ice cream sundaes for lunch. During Covid, there has been a lot more pajama-filled days, but now that the kids are back in school we plan to spin it up again. And it’s probably about time to bring back France Day, created in response to our cancelled trip to Paris last April, in which we eat french food and do activities related to France. Last year it was a 3D Eiffel Tower puzzle, croissants and a french chicken dish. In the end it doesn’t really matter what you do (give your dog a birthday party? Celebrate the color blue?), just do a something.
  5. Make the everyday fun. For nights the kids are with their Dad, Eli and I often make a nice dinner, light a fire in the wood stove, and snuggle up for a movie. We don’t really care what movie, but having a thing that we look forward to makes it fun, and while we always miss the kids, we look forward to time together. If you live alone, maybe pick a night where you do something indulgent, like a glass of wine while in the bathtub.
  6. Give yourself a break. We are human beings, not human doings. If it all gets to be too much, it’s okay to shut down for a while.
Homemade Chicken Massaman Curry

How are you getting through?

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.

Warm Things

The snow came to Sithean, more than three inches of it, and stayed as the world succumbed to a deep freeze. When I woke up Saturday morning it was 21 degrees F and the world was coated in an icy white blanket, a cold finale to all the things that grow.

I can only hope that the baby fruit trees survive, since we ran out of time to wrap them in their winter covers. I had expected chilly and a few snow showers this early, but not a freezing snowstorm. They look okay, but time will tell.

We all stayed curled up under blankets for a while, but eventually the need to get things accomplished pulled me from my cozy spot, and I started my final round of food preservation. Kale chips, which are simply washed kale, pulled in bite sized pieces off the stems, tossed in olive oil and salt, and baked for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, are some of my favorite treats. I made that last batch of salsa verde – possibly my best batch to date – and put together a simple chicken broccoli pasta with pumpkin-shaped pasta and then roasted a bunch of root vegetables in balsamic vinegar and olive oil at 400 F for several hours while my amazing husband pulled together a Halloween Scavenger Hunt, since trick-or-treating didn’t fit our risk model this year.

Which is hard, because the kids were pretty sad about it. Still, we counted our blessings and at least managed a quick hello to our amazing nanny/teacher Lauren, who had bags of treats and hugs for the kids.

By this morning, the snow was gone, but the grey skies remained. November, and Daylight Saving time is upon us, and we are in a rush to prepare for the rest of the cold weather – insulating windows, putting cozy flannel sheets on beds, ensuring that the log holder in the living room is well-stocked for fires.

And the season for warm, cozy food is upon us. This morning I tested out Gingerbread Brioche Cinnamon Rolls, and while the dough was far too dense and heavy for me and the kids to really enjoy, the flavors are amazing. If you make it, start with a 1/2 cup flour less than the recipe calls for, and roll the dough thinner.

I’ll be perfecting this one over time.

Sunday dinner is a revisit of Instant Pot Beef Bourguignon. Add to that a little prep work on Italian Pot Roast that I will put in the crock pot tomorrow morning, and thawing some chicken meatballs to go in lemongrass miso broth and we are set for a while. My goal this week is to have enough leftovers to get us through lunches and at least one dinner.

The chill may be creeping into New England, but inside Sithean we are cozy warm.

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