Cold Spring Nights

The weather here at Sithean continues to veer between summer-like warmth and chilly enough to light a fire in the wood stove.  Once, even, cold enough to turn on the heat, and usually I hold the line after May 1st pretty hard.  Sithean has oil heat, which isn’t cheap on the best of days.  Still, it’s starting to warm up generally, and the lilacs are finally starting to bloom.  The asparagus bed started producing about 2 weeks ago, and will go another 3-4 weeks.  I missed a few to bolting, but there’s still plenty for eating.

For most people, May probably doesn’t seem like a great time to recommend roasted vegetables.  But it’s an odd time for eating locally, barring making a few really delicious asparagus frittatas (asparagus, eggs, cheese, potatoes for the crust if you want one) from our eggs, and the occasional lettuce wraps. Farmers markets and CSAs haven’t started up yet, I’m basically out of everything I preserved last year, and it’s grocery store bounty until at least June 1.

I take advantage of the cooler nights to fill the freezer – come August when we go on vacation, I’ll take the meatballs I made tonight and froze, a couple pounds of pasta, and we’ll eat it for dinner our first night away with garlic bread and a salad – a tradition we have not broken in at least a decade.  I’ll be making Falafel for the freezer this week too, as well as Bulgogi , a house favorite, especially on the grill.  Food prep means there’s always something here to eat if I do it right, so no one (me) has to capitulate to the Takeout Gods.

There’s a few leftovers from my fall crops lying around too – a couple winter squashes that made it this far, and the last of the half-bushel of sweet potatoes to supplement what we are buying.  The squashes will be cooked down and the puree saved for soup, but the sweet potatoes are inevitably roasted.

I love sweet potatoes, and while there are lots of ways to prepare them, roasted with various spice coatings is my favorite.  It’s also the quickest and the simplest.  I keep spice mixtures on hand to toss them in, but salt, pepper and olive oil also works.

Roasting sweet potatoes is simple – preheat oven to 375 degrees, oil a pan, peel and slice the sweet potatoes into half moons or wedges, sprinkle salt, pepper, your favorite spice mixture and drizzle olive oil on top.  Bake until soft with crispy edges, 25 minutes or so.

My current favorite is Harissa seasonings, a mix of chili peppers and paprika.  I like the smokey flavor it adds.  I use Spice Road brand, but any will do.

Harissa_Silk Road

 

Harissa sweet potatoes.jpg

Another favorite here is Tumeric-roasted cauliflower.  When organic cauliflower goes on sale I always pick up a couple heads.  Cut the florets from the head (the bunnies get to eat the leftovers), put them in an oiled pan, sprinkle with salt, a generous amount of tumeric, and olive oil over the top.  Roast until tender, 45-50 minutes.

The great part of roasted veggies – aside from healthy, cheap and tasty –  is that the leftovers can be warmed in the oven repeatedly with no loss of taste or texture.

If you can’t have a warm spring night, at least you can have a warm spring meal.

The Domestic Arts

One of my greatest regrets as an adult is not having paid more attention when my grandmother and great aunt were doing things.  Like most children, I flitted from interest to interest, each for a duration that might be exhibited by the average myopic hummingbird.  As a result, I can sew passably well, but not very, I can and do cross stitch periodically, I sort of can make a granny square with a crochet hook and not much else, and I possess an odd requirement for Bleeding Hearts and Johnny Jump Ups to be planted wherever I live in order for it to feel like home.  All that said,  I have never truly mastered any of the domestic arts.

And arts they are.  Gram and Aunnie, as they were known to those of us in the knee-high-to-a-grasshopper set, knew them all.  Quilting, knitting, crocheting, tatting lace, sewing, cross stitch, embroidery, gardening.  I have pieces of their work scattered throughout my house, and memories of them knitting in their armchairs each afternoon.   When it came to teaching they were patient, seeming to know that teaching children was a short-term thankless task with long term results.

I think of them often when I wander out to weed garden beds.  Gram, whose home started out on a fairly quiet road that eventually became busy, would take off her shirt in the heat and weed and plant in her very robust white, pointy bra.  “Gram, people can see you!” I would say.  “I don’t give a damn” was her response.  I doubt I’ll ever feel a need to plant flowers without a shirt, but if I do, I hope it’s with the same attitude.

I thought about them again today as I, in shorts and a t-shirt paired with muck boots fed and watered chickens, ducks and bunnies, and planted two bush apricot trees.  They didn’t raise animals or cultivate fruit trees, but they would have appreciated it, I think.  They were believers in home, most of all.

When my best friend first came to visit me here at Sithean, she said that the house fit me like a glove.  But it isn’t just the house, it’s the land too.  There’s something about digging in the dirt and collecting eggs that makes it feel like I belong.  Every day I find something new here, and I know instinctively I will never tire of it.   Which is why often, whether I find myself  cleaning out the refrigerator, or planting flowers, or cutting into fabric to make valances for my dining room, I feel so very satisfied.   I like adventures, but if I could never travel again my life would not lack a thing.

Someday I’ll learn more of the domestic arts that I forgot to pay attention to, but for now, I feel an overpowering gratitude to the two women who first taught me that making home is as important as being home.

flower May 2018

 

 

 

 

Friday Wisdoms or Something Like That

Robert Frost wrote “The Road Less Taken” in 1916, and it has been lauded as the ultimate paean to following your own path.  The reality of the poem is a little fuzzier, and Frost alluded quite a few times to the irony of regret for what’s on the other path.  It’s easy to get caught up in what could have been.  The regret for zigging when you might have zagged comes for all of us.

I write this sleep deprived, with a very busy day of client work and chores ahead, plus I have to drive to get my kids who have been with their grandparents for a few days.  Last night I chose to spend time with a friend rather than cleaning the house and the bunny hutch like I was supposed to.  I might regret that today when I am getting ready for company for dinner, but then again, I had a wonderful evening, and that too, is valuable.  The vacuum will be there, waiting.  Sometimes nachos and conversation is the right choice.  Almost always, actually.

I wander off the path in life regularly.  If someone asked me how I got to where I am today, the conversation would go something like “Well, I started out going over here, but then I stopped in this field of sunflowers for a picnic and found this other path so I went there, but that one was a bit to brambly so I tried this…”.  I’m a huge fan of taking alternative paths to whatever destination you want to get to.  I always have goals, but I never assume the bullet train is the best way to get there.  Sometimes it’s on foot, stopping off to see the sights.  It’s a complicated way to live, but somehow I always get where I want to go.  From my messy, complicated, beautiful life I have learned a few things, often the hard way.  There’s still so much more to learn, but these are the things I live by, when I don’t forget and lose perspective.

Don’t only spend time with people just like you
Most of us have community -friends, family, neighbors, colleagues that are just like us.  Maybe they like hummus more than guacamole or watch basketball instead of action flicks, but commonality is the name of the game, be it lifestyle, kids activities, or politics.  But it is from those that are different from me in culture, background, perspective and choices that I learn the most. There’s more than one way to live and experience the world, and seeing it through other’s eyes is going to make you a bigger, better person. Plus fun.

Comparing yourself to others is the worst thing you can do
It’s hard to avoid, I admit.  It’s so easy to look at others who have more money, perfect outfits, perfect marriages, kids who eat their broccoli without an argument.  They aren’t always fighting some secret bad thing either, maybe everything is really just good for them.  But looking at other people’s assets and finding your own lacking is a quick way to feel bad and not much else.  Set your goals, check your compass, and go towards what you need.  You don’t actually want their life or their spouse or their broccoli anyway, you want your own version.  Trust me.  Your broccoli is just as good.

Navel-gazing is going to stop you from living 
Self-introspection and awareness are important, but so is actually doing stuff.  Don’t get so caught up in self-examination you forget what you are here for, which is is live, to build community, to add love and good things to the world, be that anything from bad puns to fostering kids to feeding the neighbor’s dog while they are away.  Look up and out most of the time.  I promise you will feel better about yourself and be surrounded by far more love and support as a result.

Exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk
I know, I know, you are busy, and when you aren’t, you are tired.  I get it.  I really do.  Taking the time and effort to build in an exercise routine is hard,  It isn’t always fun.  But here’s the thing – you will feel better, look better, and you just might find your mind working better too.  Those endorphins do eventually come, and when they do, they are awesome.  We all have 15 or 30 minutes a few days a week.  Use them.

Money is just money
Sure, having some is way better than not.  But money as a sole scorecard of success is toxic, and culturally, it seems more and more like that’s the only measure that seems to matter.  Money typically takes our life energy to accumulate, and our life energy is ultimately finite. Here’s my take – give away enough of your time to make what you need and a little on top.  Know that if you lose some of your assets to job loss, divorce, illness, home repair….well, that’s not fun, but it’s not the end of the world either.  Money is handy, but it is not the measure of a person or the value of your life, it is merely an exchange vehicle.  Put it in it’s place, and your decisions around it will be cleaner and less emotionally charged, and chances are it may make you more generous overall.

If not you, who?
This is one of the hardest things I have learned.  I always assumed that others were smarter, more creative, more competent than I was.  It took a great deal of time to learn that my perspective, my creativity, and the way I think were something that no other person can mimic.  If you are waiting for permission to write, do art, start a company, speak about your experiences, consider this permission to stop waiting.

There is more right with you than wrong with you 
So go ahead, wear the pink kitty hat when you need to, screw what everyone else thinks. kitty hat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Small Improvements to Your Wallet, Your Time, and Your Footprint

It is almost feeling like spring these days – still cold some of the time, but more and more days are over 50 degrees, Forsythia and Crocuses are everywhere and the trees are in bud all over.  It’s been raining a lot lately, and today it decided to snow.  Still, I am choosing to believe in Spring’s imminent arrival, mostly because otherwise I will just be one more grumpy New Englander.

It’s about time to move the ducks outside to the coop.  They are big now, and need more space, and honestly, they are very messy.  Adorable, with great personality, but their bin needs cleaning out every day, and even then the smell is hard to miss.  We started with 4, but one, a little Campbell duck named Gingersnap, didn’t make it past the first week, declining food and failing to thrive.  It was heartbreaking to see her go, but accepting that I am going to lose some of my animals is part of the deal.  Still, it was the first time I had lost a little one.  The other 3 are thriving though, and are taking daily swims in my downstairs bathtub.

I am no model for homestead or environmental perfection  – I work, which often involves travel.  I use my dryer.  I am busy and use shortcuts that sometimes have more packaging than I would prefer.  I am often time-constrained too.  In other words, pretty much like everyone else at my stage of life.

Despite that, I try very hard to reduce my footprint and my expenses whenever possible, and often those things go hand in hand.  When there’s an opportunity to simplify or improve my life as well though, I jump on it.  Here are 3 things that cover all of those areas – they save money, they are cheaper, and they make life easier all at the same time.  You can get everything at the grocery store at the same time you go for anything else, no special trips.  If your store doesn’t have essential oils, try Thrive Market or Amazon.

  1. Homemade laundry detergent
    Making homemade powder laundry detergent is a money-earning chore for my daughter.  Every month or two we mix up a batch and I pay her a dollar. The ingredients are inexpensive and they last.  Plus, the laundry smells amazing.  I buy Borax and Washing soda maybe every 10 months, at about $4 each.  I was using leftover hotel bars of soap (free) from my business trips, but I do like the Fels Naptha better, and that’s $1.19 a bar.  Essential oil lasts for about 6 batches at $7.93 per bottle – I use orange because I like it, but any scent will do.  I figure it’s about $3.31 for me to get a 2-month supply of laundry detergent, which is way better than any generic brand.
    Ingredients
    2 Cups Borax
    2 Cups Washing Soda
    1 Bar Fels Naptha Soap
    Generous glug of essential oil

Grate the soap with a cheese grater and mix all the ingredients together well.  Store           in a covered container (I use a quart-sized food storage container).  1.5 scoops                     handles a large load of laundry

2. Dryer Balls
I like the Woolzies kind, although I freely admit that’s the only kind I have ever purchased.  Every month or two I remember to drop some essential oil on them so the laundry smells better, but even if I forget there’s no static and no dryer sheets to buy or throw away.  My dryer balls are several years old at this point and still look and work great.

3. Pots of Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs are expensive, and even for city dwellers or those in small spaces, herbs on the windowsill are a good investment.  Seeds are cheap – your gardening friends may even plant you some free of charge.  Pots don’t have to be flower pots – leftover pasta sauce jars work and look nice too. If nothing else, Basil, Rosemary, and Parsley are high use and low maintenance.  Give them sun and water and you should reap the benefits year round.  No more herbs to buy, your dinner guests will be impressed by your ability to whip up a Caprese salad with your home-grown basil.

It’s fair to say that these are not things that are going to save massive amounts of money or time.  But they are three things that are easy, satisfying and good for the environment.  Few things are going to cut a mortgage in half – almost none, actually.  But little things add up, and the satisfaction of knowing you did it yourself is priceless.Laundry detergent

The Worth of Things

I recently finished a book called ‘The Sparrow’.  By and large I loved it and simultaneously found it very difficult to get through – the book is well written, the premise fascinating, but sometimes it moved frustratingly slowly.   I finally finished it, after picking it up and putting it down for a few months, on a plane ride last week.  And yet I can’t get one of the final pages out of my head, in which a conversation takes place between a Jesuit Priest, broken in spirit and body, and a fellow priest.

“What were you before?  A nurse?  A therapist?”
“Not even close.  I was a stockbroker.  I specialized in undervalued companies.”
Pause.
“It involved recognizing the worth of things that other people discounted”.

I am not always a patient person, and I tend to want things done, done correctly, and done right now.

So the fact that I ended up in a house built in 1850 that needed so much immense care is kind of amusing.  I like old houses, I like land, but the list of things I could and will spend money on here seems near-endless, and what feels like almost perpetual stuff happening that impedes progress can be daunting.  Yesterday I started yard cleanup again, and after making some headway I had to look around, sigh, and go back inside.  Tired from a long road trip in the car for a road race, then spending multiple days onsite with a client, and not nearly enough sleep had exhausted me, and instead of seeing progress all I saw was work.  I know it will get done, but yesterday wasn’t that day.

I’ve been working on a wish list of all the things the house wants and needs, and that I want and need for it.  It would be lovely to endure a few months of renovation and have it all done at once, but that’s not how it is going to roll – I want to do all the renovations in cash, which means a slower cadence.

My house sat on the market for a long time – the previous owner was reluctant to make the kind of updates that make houses appeal to most buyers, like adding a third bathroom or updating the kitchen.  I saw plenty of houses that were fully renovated and likely much easier to manage than this one – for a working single mom, it seemed almost nuts to sign up for this kind of effort.

But as I’ve said, this house is also special, the bones of it are perfect, and I know we belong here.  There’s only the 3 of us, so extra bathrooms aren’t important right now, and 2 of the 3 are reasonably small, which makes any space constraints more manageable.  Sure, more closets would be wonderful, but so is less stuff,

The upside of a slower cadence of remodels is I get time to think about what I really want at any given time.  I’m not just pointing out a pretty picture in a magazine and saying “Give me that.”  I have to think, really think, about what time and resources and available help can gain me, and as a result, I’m determining the true value of each item to me and to the house.

Sometimes those things get supplanted by what’s needed – a roof was on the critical path list after a tree fell on the house, and even with insurance there was out of pocket cost to me.  The house needed a new roof anyway, and now a big item is crossed off my list.  Same thing last summer when I realized that without a massive chimney repair there was a good chance a windstorm could take the chimney off the house.   Those are the kinds of things that make non-essential renovations even further down the list.  Yeah, I want to renovate the bathrooms, but this year I choose to invest in basic infrastructure and the garden.

I reaped the benefit of other buyers undervaluing this place and walking away.  I have vision for it, and I know what it will become.  But what it already is was enough – underneath chipped paint, old sinks and tangles of weeds is something inestimably beautiful.  I lose sight of that at my own peril.  I remind myself I don’t want to buy the magazine picture.  I want my hands in each and every change and improvement, not because I am especially perfect at it, but because I want the craft of turning this place into what I see in my mind, and the gift of seeing the value that is already there.

My house is a metaphor for my life – 5 years ago I was where I had always wanted to be in life materially and financially, but I was also very unhappy.  Today my life is infinitely messier and more complex, and far more full of those moments where I sigh and go sit down because it’s all so much work,  but I am so much happier.  Every day it gets better, not because it’s all perfect, but because I am in exactly the right place at the right time, recognizing the worth in what other people discounted.  House with new roof

Planning the 2018 Garden

I started seeds a little later than usual this year.  Even though I have had some time off from work, I got more than a little busy over the winter, and the days and weeks snuck by me.  Suddenly it was mid-March.

My seed-starting is very low tech.  Tinfoil trays filled with potting soil, covered in plastic wrap.  I don’t really need grow lights, as the sun through the living room picture window is intense, even blinding sometimes.  I don’t rush – a tray or two a day until the bench is full, and then I come up with creative ways to plant even more, moving tables and other surfaces under windows until there’s no space left.

We gardening addicts are an odd bunch.  Presented with seeds and soil, we begin to think, like dirt-mad scientists, that anything is possible.

Last year, my neighbor and I expanded the existing garden space with the help of her father and his rototiller, which has been going strong since 1971.  It was a productive 18′ (ish) x 30′ (ish) space but by the time we got a fence up, it was a mad rush to plant, and the garden was messy and barely navigable.  This year we sat down over tea to discuss how to create a true potager garden with paths and beds, and ensure we plant the right quantities of what we really need.

When I moved, I had no idea that in addition to the wonderful home, I would be surrounded by wonderful neighbors.  In particular, my closest neighbors have become friends, co-chicken parents, and garden conspirators.  Melissa and Jay are some of the best magic I have found here on the Fairy Hill.  Always game for a new project, when it comes to gardens we have aligned interests – my land gets more sun, so it is the natural location for a large garden space, and many hands make light work.  Also, we love the garden produce equally, and are in general agreement that there can never be too many Sungold tomatoes or zucchini.

You can debate me on the zucchini, but I have yet to grow tired of it, sliced and baked with parmesan and cracked pepper, sauteed as noodles with homemade pesto and chicken, or grilled with balsamic vinegar on a hot summer night.  Zucchini can get a bad rap, but it is easy to grow, prolific, and tasty.

A potager garden is an ornamental vegetable, herb and flower garden.  Around since Medieval times, it centers primarily around food production, with edible florals and a cutting garden often tossed in.  Our garden was going to be a loose mimic of that designed by Carolyn Roehm.

The outlines will be 48×36, with 2 brick-lined 14×14 garden beds laid out in the square-foot method.   Surrounded by 2 1/2 foot wood mulch paths, rows for vegetables and flowers, and with hollyhocks and kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate joining the vining vegetables, such as beans and cucumbers along the fencing, reinforced with wire to keep out wild bunnies, squirrels and other visitors.   We will be bringing in compost to fortify the soil, and lay weed cloth down to ensure that we don’t need to spend every weekend fighting unwelcome guests. It will all be painted slate grey, as the house someday will be.  This is a permanent structure, a year’s effort for a lifetime of productivity.

It’s hard to imagine that the snow will melt and the seeds will grow, with the snow still blanketing the ground, but to garden is to have faith that the cold and darkness will someday depart, and the warmth and sunshine will return.  Because it always does.

Seeds

A Perfectly Imperfect Life

Set back off a quiet road, in a country town dotted with stone walls and rolling fields, at the top of a rise called Witch Hill for its association with the Salem Witch Trials, lies Sithean.

Once the servants quarters for an old estate, then the housing for the estate’s unmarried daughters, earning it the nickname The Nunnery, it finally came into the hands of the previous owners from the original owning family 24 years earlier. While I was in no way ready to worry about my love life after the end of a decade-long marriage when we arrived here in late 2016, a single woman living at a place called The Nunnery felt more like a life sentence than a nod to history, so a new name was needed.

My daughter, then 8, believed wholeheartedly in fairies. Her capacity to see magic is profound. With my son, we decided that this house was a special place, perhaps somewhat magical, and so we went seeking the right name. In my searches for a place-name, I came across, again and again, the Scottish Gaelic word Sithean, pronounced shee-an, which means fairy hill.

͛ I didn’t like it at first, but the word, like the house itself had when I first saw it, lingered in my head. Sometimes, I think, we decide. And sometimes we just accept the decision. And so our home became Sithean, even before we moved.

When we moved, I knew this house was going to be my last stop in a lifetime of moving, 5 of them in the previous 2 1/2 years alone.  This was home, and it felt like it, from the first time I came up the long driveway and saw the asparagus fronds, long since bolted, waving in the breeze in the backyard.

Most newly-divorced, not-that-handy women would have faltered and picked the fully renovated Cape, but there was something about this place that called to me, which is to say that the romance of it overruled my common sense.  It had been neglected from needed maintenance for over a decade, the windows leaked cold air, and in the first 14 months, 4 large trees fell in storms, one making a direct hit to the roof.  Sithean is lovely, but not for the faint of heart.

It took a year or so to truly settle in and make it my own, but that first year was productive, with chickens, bunnies, a big garden, and a view that displayed scenes like a Maxfield Parrish painting daily.

Our life here is imperfect.  There are always messes, chores and infinite repairs and maintenance.  The kids fight,  I get tired and order take-out, the laundry sometimes doesn’t get folded.  But it is also a magical mini-farm, a place for daydreams.   As I look out the picture window, over the seedlings that are sitting on my potting bench under it, I am reminded that this place is the only place I ever want to be.

I hope you will love it as much as I doSithean Winter 2018