Why Recipes Are Just a Starting Point

I am not a big YouTube watcher – after talking on Zoom all day 8-10 hours a day, the last thing I want is to watch videos. Also, I just generally prefer the printed word, but a recent profile of June Xie on The Guardian got me watching.

This woman is a badass cook, and is much more along the lines of mostly how I grew up, with a bunch of things throw in a pot or pan, and very few measurements. It was creative, and cheap, and while there were definitely a few recipes that were followed to the letter, most of the time it was simple.

This past weekend found us very busy on Friday and into Saturday. Friday afternoon my son had a haircut, I had to run to the farm to get the next installment of our winter CSA, and then we had a much-delayed Azure Standard pickup. All 3 of those things meant our plan for homemade MYO pizza was off the table until Sunday, so I started picking through our very full freezer for options. I pulled out some pulled pork from Walden Local to thaw, and noodled around the interwebs for ideas. And found it – a tamale pie recipe. Which called for things we didn’t have.

I had ordered groceries – mostly based around the idea that we need lots and lots and lots of cheese for Thanksgiving appetizers, so it wasn’t hard to add (gasp!) a box of corn muffin mix to the order. Do I normally buy pre-made mixes? No, not really, but with only a few minutes here and there to cook, and hungry cold kids after school, I figured I had better take a couple of shortcuts.

I didn’t have creamed corn, but I did happen to have one random can of corn in the house, nor did I have sour cream, but I did have plain Greek yogurt. So I added a full cup of that, more than the recipe called for to offset the lack of cream in the corn.

I baked that, then I covered the top with some of the homemade refried beans I’d made and frozen a while back. Then I added the pulled pork but I also sauteed half a red pepper in with the onions and garlic for a little color and extra veggies (our current goal is to eat 30 varieties of plant-based foods a week) put the enchilada sauce on top of that, and then topped it with shredded cheese and baked it.

And that was how I loosely baked Delish’s Tamale Pie, but not really. At the end of the day my oldest pronounced it good, but it really could have used more flavor. Still, it was filling and warm on a cold night.

I’m a huge fan of the food renaissance that has occurred over the last 2 decades, and I love that people who make food are just as big as rock stars, because food is literally life. I adore trying new recipes, mostly on weekends when I have extra time. I take delight in feeding my family wonderful, healthy meals. I love learning about different cultures via their food.

But look – we all have to eat, right? And not every meal we eat needs to impress Gordon Ramsey. And I’m a fan of the idea that most of the time you shouldn’t be trying.

I mean that. What you should try for is: healthy, nourishing, tasty, and with variety. Pretty, too, I like a good looking meal. But you know what you shouldn’t worry about? Whether you used Himalayan Sea Salt or plain old table salt. If you didn’t use the Burrata the recipe called for vs. just some mozzarella. The pressure to follow recipes exactly and use ingredients that may or may not be out of your budget should be jettisoned.

Completely.

It was just as busy Saturday, so I got up early and tossed some stringy cuts of beef from our meat share into the crock pot with red wine, crushed tomatoes, and onions and carrots – the recipe called for celery but we didn’t have any and I never use it fast enough to make it worth buying – sauteed and then coated with a combination of cinnamon, allspice, pepper and cloves. 10 hours later the stringy beef was shreddable and it went well on top of pearl couscous and a cabbage slaw I just made up, with a dressing of the juice of 2 limes, a couple teaspoons of sugar, a generous scoop of plain Greek yogurt and a little bit of olive oil. I topped it with toasted pumpkin seeds.

This pot roast is always a hit in our house.

The slaw turned out great, even for my not-really-cabbage-loving husband, a win for the ‘use what’s in the house and use a recipe as a jumping off point’ method of feeding everyone.

Because it’s Thanksgiving week and our autumn bulk food stock up time, even though we don’t host this holiday, the pantry and freezers and fridge are literally bursting with food. We’re on for starters Thursday and a series of sides and a dessert for the other side of the family’s Saturday feast. On top of that, it’s holiday cookie baking season, and we ordered our Christmas turkey – oh how i love turkey – so that’s taking up a bunch of space in the freezer. Because everything is so full it’s easy to lose track of things, so I’m working extra hard to try and stay on top of what we have.

This week’s meal plan is a little wonkier than most because of the holidays.

Sunday: Homemade pizza with various toppings – finally! Pesto, fresh mozzarella, sauteed onions, sun dried tomatoes, sausage, shredded mozzarella and tomato sauce are all good options, but really any veggie or condiment we have in the house is fair game. Everyone chooses their own toppings for MYO night.

Monday: Leftover night – Parmesan-crusted chicken I made a while back and froze for a future meal, leftover Italian pot roast, with noodles or more pearl couscous, whatever the kids want. Sauteed spinach on the side, simple with garlic, oil and salt.

Tuesday: Eli Cooks..maybe homemade Empanadas

Wednesday: Chicken Gyros with Naan and tzatziki, a house favorite with roasted Brussels sprouts and onions on the side. Probably a cucumber salad too.

Thursday – Thanksgiving: We make some appetizers and plate some cheese and things. Then onto mashed potatoes and stuffing! Oh, and I’m making these (with sprite for the non-alcohol drinkers and littles) and this amazing salad.

Friday: If we get lucky my older sister and her family will be with us at lunch, and that’s likely going to be a pizza order. Eli and I head out to holiday shop and maybe we’ll get some delicious Indian food out as well. Not a frugal day!

Saturday: Thanksgiving #2. We’re on for creamed onions, a dessert, some wine and Cranberry-raspberry sauce.

Sunday: Time to cut down our Christmas tree, and we’ll need warm comfort food after that outing. Bread of some sort, either Foccacia or our traditional Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. I’ll pair it with One Skillet Greek Meatballs and Lemon Butter Orzo.

And then I’ll prep a dish for Monday, just to get us through. Occasionally our meal plan holds us through the week, but often things change and our plans get upended. Still, we mostly eat at home, even if it’s just some Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken, rice and sliced veggies because no one had time to cook. Or some ground beef and veggies in a simple stir fry over rice.

But we’ll be flexible. And if we don’t have an ingredient, we’ll find something we can use in our house or we’ll move on to another more fitting dish.

When To Blow Your Budget

On a hike this summer

Yesterday I bought my oldest a pair of shoes. Platform Ugg booties to be exact, for $150, full price, at Nordstrom. They had asked to go get some concealer, and so we went off for a very rare trip to the mall. On our way out we spotted them, tried them on, bought them instantly.

It was neither planned nor budgeted. They were far out of the normal price range of anything I would buy for a 13 year-old. I don’t think they have taken them off since, they may have even slept in them. The delight on their face at their height and comfort could have been measured in kilowatts.

For me, it was a bit of a way to exorcise some anger at learning that last year a former friend had bullied them, hard, in an approach called relational aggression, which is the pointing, whisper campaigns, talking about someone loudly in their hearing at the cafeteria lunch table, etc. Hard to track or prove, it had been an undercurrent in an already hard year. When it popped up again last week at a shared extracurricular activity, I finally got the full story.

Of course the other child’s mom went into deep denial (Not her baby! We must have misunderstood!), and as there went 11.5 years of social niceties and casual friendship, so did all of my give-a-s**t about it.

I did what any Mom would, I documented, I notified the school it had happened and asked for future monitoring, and I informed the parent that we would be watching, closely in the event that her commitments that it would stop proved themselves not worth the air they were promised in.

And then I took my oldest child to Sephora, got what they needed plus a little, and then as we saw those shoes on the way back to the car, I figured my husband would forgive me (sorry honey, I should have called) and I bought them. Not as a te absolvo to myself for not realizing that their reluctance for school and stress was something bigger than the loss of the friendship compounded by a fall consumed with the loss of their uncle, but because as a result of that and other things makes them think they don’t warrant their parents spending money on them. So they don’t like asking for things.

So I damn well did spend money and reminded them they are worthy of attention, money, and to feel good about themselves. If that was received as parent-y gibberish or it landed I don’t know, but there was a day wreathed in smiles (also hugs as they reveled in their ability to be taller than me).

We’ve been being extremely careful for months and months now. We filled the year with trips and that plus some fairly major unexpected expenses and all the deposits and architect fees we put into the renovation have made things tighter than usual. Add to that inflation and we’re just being super thoughtful before we spend any money on nonessentials.

And this was a nonessential, but in the end…also kind of essential.

Money really can’t buy happiness after a point. Given how often Elon Musk whines on Twitter I observe that no matter how wealthy you get, you can’t escape yourself. Often I feel as much or more delight hiking or sitting with a book as I do in the bigger experiences. I love to travel, and I used to like shopping a lot, although I really don’t now. But sometimes money buys not just a pair of shoes, but a demonstration of value, an experience of real joy along with the stuff.

And that is worth a broken budget once in a while.

Summer Eating

Roses on the garden gate – photo by Eli 5 Stone

Summer mornings, even the weekday ones, are my favorite time. The air is cool enough for a light blanket over my legs. Everyone else is asleep, and I can watch the sunrise through the living room windows while I sip coffee.

Taco the rooster starts crowing far too early, but even that is part of the ambiance here, although I do occasionally consider really how badly we need his company in the here and now, and come up fairly empty on what he’s useful for.

This year is flying by. Everyone I talk to agrees, and no one is exactly sure where the time is going. It’s crawling up on July. The garden is planted, the world is green, but won’t be for much longer – we desperately need for it to rain. School is out and there are two full, lovely months before we have to start gearing up for it again.

And we’ve been busy, with every weekend being filled with commitments. After 2 years of quiet weekends, I’m happy to see everyone and feeling quite overwhelmed, and wishing for time in my garden. Unstructured time is good for all of us.

But on a rainy Sunday last weekend, I was able to slow down. While it was, in fact, Father’s Day, my husband was in Los Angeles, my bestie, who had come to stay for a few days left early that morning and the kids were with their Dad. Other than the dog, who decided to nap through the morning, I was alone and not on a schedule for the first time in ages.

The rest of the country was experiencing a heatwave, but it was downright chilly in Massachusetts. I sat in bed under the blankets and contemplated all the things I could be doing, which included nothing. I sipped my tea and pondered more, occasionally getting up to do a small chore, such as laundry or dishes, then returning to my seat.

Even that time though, was productive, as Sundays are the days to make our meal plan. As we go into summer, time becomes more fungible, and meals more flexible, fresher and based on local ingredients. Our CSA is heading into week 4, and while the garden isn’t producing yet, it will be soon enough. This week I brought home the first zucchinis from the CSA, and cheerfully broke out my spiralizer. I don’t eat zucchini noodles because they are just healthy, I eat them because they are completely delicious, absorbing whatever flavors you add to a saucepan.

We have lettuce and bok choy and turnips galore right now, along with farm-fresh scallions, so my daughter made us homemade Ramen. All you need are noodles, broth, soy sauce and some seasonings, eggs and cut up veggies. It’s cheap, delicious and most of all, accessible, i.e. you don’t have to have a pantry full of fancy ingredients to make it. Slicing up scallions, cucumbers and carrots to go in keep it healthy and they are all affordable veggies.

I do have a pretty diverse pantry, but these days, with grocery prices skyrocketing, I’m focused on how to do it better, cheaper, and full-flavor, with a focus on using up what we have. We love Moroccan and Israeli pearl couscous, and I finally bought a 5-lb bag so that we can have it any time (for comparison,Whole Foods sells 12-ounce boxes for $3.19 each) and 0ver the next week we’ll add Moroccan Chicken and Couscous to our repertoire. The cost of it on Amazon has gone up to $23 but I think we paid $17. Bulk food purchases pay off in the short and long haul if you can store them. I regularly make Dal and my own Lentil Sausage Soup and a 5-lb bag of red lentils still lasts me quite a long time. 18-24 months maybe?

This week I bought some beef (ouch! So not cheap) so that I could marinate some Beef Bulgogi, and pop it in the freezer. Two pounds will feed us for dinner and a couple lunches at some point when no one feels like doing food prep. While it was a bit of a splurge it is very handy to have ready to thaw. And tomorrow we’re going to give Pesto Chicken Saltimbocca a try. I have lots of cherry tomatoes on hand from my last trip to BJs, and I bought some chicken cutlets.

But otherwise, we’ll eat the food we have. The raspberry bushes are starting to produce and we have some other fruits. It’s prime grill time and most of our meals will be focused around that. Hamburgers, grilled veggies, and simple sides, lots of no-recipe recipes. And occasionally just cereal for dinner too. Because it’s summer, and we can.

Vacationing in the Suck Palace (and Maybe How to Check Out of It)

The Moon On October 20th of Last Year

Warning: This isn’t my usual kind of post. There’s no recipes, for one. There’s a pretty picture, but a sad one.

Sometimes bad things happen to perfectly good people and families. The call in the night. The diagnosis. The accident. And a terrible, horrible no good very bad moment turns into a very long and crummy time.

I’ve done it a bit in my my life, and I call it Taking a Trip to the Suck Palace. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s like that book We’re Going on A Bear Hunt. You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you can’t go around it, you have to go through it. Whatever the it is, there’s no way other than to acknowledge that for a while it might just be kind of, well, shitty.

For us, it’s been 3 extended family deaths in 4 months and a lot of other crises in between, the kind of run of things where you start making dark jokes with others about how you might be able to open your own morgue and call it Dying to See You. But whatever your ‘it‘ is, sometimes life is kind of hard and sad and difficult, and you have to go to the Suck Palace.

Maui it isn’t. I visualize it as a depressing motel room that needed to be renovated about 30 years ago with grimy 70s orange carpet and a window that looks out onto the dumpster.

Your job now is to be in that room.

And you have to visit it while you are also simultaneously doing your regular life. Meals need to be made. Laundry done, work attended to, bills paid.

I woke up this morning in a good mental space despite it all, knowing that this too, shall pass, even as I was choosing what to wear for a drive to yet another memorial service, this time for an Uncle I adored, who lost a 2 year agonizing battle with cancer. It was no life for him at the end, but his going leaves yet another empty seat that can’t be filled. No one again is going to show my children how to find hermit crabs on the beach in Cape Cod, or help my daughter find so many shells I have to take off my shoe to hold them all.

Even though at night when I step outside, I look at a certain point in the sky, where we noticed an ultra-cool moon at about 9:20 pm on October 20th, 2021, not then knowing an hour later we would get the call that changed all the things, I still know that even if it will never feel ok to lose my people, I will be ok. We will be ok.

But I also remember what it’s like not to know that.

To not know that grief, which is truly physical as well as emotional – it really hurts – will become less of a pile of bricks, less pain. It doesn’t go away, and if you are in the first of the concentric circles of loved ones around someone, their spouse or their children, it’s different than it is if you are in a different concentric ring, a little further away. It’s still awful, it’s just different.

Visits to the Suck Palace last longer than anyone wants to hear about, and even the most patient friends just wish maybe you could just get over it and move on? Gently and politely they push you to talk about something, anything else, and talk about getting your mind off. You know, like even a liquid lunch isn’t likely to make you forget unless you drink to the point where you probably need to get some help for it. I don’t suggest that, as it creates it’s own crisis, although a few well-placed margaritas here and there can help some, if that’s your jam.

In the end, your visit to the Suck Palace will last as long as it lasts, and the more I talk about our losses the more I hear from others who lost multiple family members in a year or less – it’s more common than you think, as are the secondary challenges as you watch grief in action. I have a new boss, and I wasn’t sure how he would react to yet another impact – but instead of frustration, he told me about his year of it, when there were so many deaths so close together he and his siblings had to juggle who could make it to what funeral.

His kindness was everything, as are the random texts from friends just checking in. It really is the little things.

If you are in an outer ring, you send support inward, and any other feelings outward even when that’s hard to do. Finding a physical way to support, such as meals or notes or texts or visits or flowers is a good place to put that energy, even if you don’t get much back in the beginning, consider it an investment in being kind without expectations in return.

Gratitude helps, sleep helps, connection helps more, and giving yourself all the grace in the world. These days my exercise routines are shot between weather and just nonstop demands on my time, so I’m getting a treadmill to help squeeze in the workouts, but I’m also cutting myself a whole bunch of slack.

Hug your people, tell them you love them, plant some flowers, make donations, go for walks, bake…there’s no one right way to do this. And one day you’ll open the door and step out onto the beach and remember how to find a hermit crab in the sand.

And you will smile because it happened and that person’s gifts are still here. Even if through tears.

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.

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