All around the mulberry bush

A few years ago, I took a walk in my neighborhood and found this strange tree. It was growing what looked like blackberries – only a bit skinnier and thornless. I, of course, did not eat a strange plant randomly growing by the side of the road. But not too much later, I got my copy of my much-thumbed, much-beloved foraging book. Reading through my book, in the cold winter nights, and contemplating how I could possibly make up flash cards to teach myself the identifications, one of the entries flashed past my eyes with recognition. “If I hear someone say they found a blackberry tree, I know it’s a mulberry”.

Huh. A mulberry.

Like so many people, my full experience of mulberries involves a monkey and weasel, engaged in not-too-good-natured athletics. But that had led me to expect a bush. This was a tree, half crowded over with invasive vines and taller trees. But half in and half out of the shade, it drops its bounty onto the sidewalk.

I had a hunch that it was about ripe, this time of year. And so I walked down with Thane to check it out. And lo, there were mulberries. I tasted one. It was delicious. I shared one with Thane. He liked it too. We came back with a sheet and two big paper bags.

The foragers
Mulberries don’t all ripen at the same time
Not all the mulberries were easy to reach
Berry stained hands
The bounty
Next generation of jam makers

Thane and I had a lovely time gathering the berries. There was a bit of climbing involved. I tried the recommended trick of shaking onto a sheet, but it didn’t work. We had very hard rains last night – I wonder if they knocked all the ripest ones down ahead of time.

Once Thane and I got (most) of them home. They’re pretty tasty. There wasn’t really enough for a pie, or a batch of jam. But I decided the opportunity was too critical to let pass, and I decided to make *half* a batch of jam, using a “berry” recipe from one of my books. It worked. Thane now filled with a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and the new but fervent belief that his favorite berries are mulberries.

To the victor, the spoils

Leaving behind the rough

This weekend, we got kicked out of our house. Something about it being a formaldehyde-filled death trap. We have finally gotten to the phase of the attic project where the windows are in, the wiring is done, the plumbing is roughed and the walls are where the walls are going to be. So it was time to insulate the attic for the first time in its 120 year old life. As long as you have the walls and ceiling down to studs, it’s a great opportunity to do it right – floorboards to roofline. But you can’t be in the house for 24 hours after they finish (the off gassing can be dangerous). And it took them two *full* days to do our attic – they still need to clean up & do the fireproof spray paint, despite working from 7 – 6 for two days.

During this period, I’d been planning on getting hotel. It’s a bit annoying to get a hotel in your neighborhood (and expensive when that neighborhood happens to be Boston!) Plus with my folks here, I’d definitely need to get two rooms. But when I was complaining to a neighbor, she generously offered us the use of her house while they were on vacation! It was fantastic, although super weird to come home to your street, park your car in your driveway, and then not go home.

We’re three months into the project. It started in early April, and now it’s nearly July. Despite pretty consistent work, I feel like we’re about halfway there. But perhaps we’re at the beginning of the end? And maybe someday soon my bathtub will no longer be on my front porch? That seems like an impossibility. I really do miss my quiet spaces – both the attic as it was and the porch as it was. I’m also tired of my house being a constant mess. I blame that less on construction than kids. When they leave for summer camp, Imma gonna clean this place thoroughly and enjoy the rare sensation of having it stay – mostly – clean.

MJ Clothing in Lowell

We had a lovely weekend. I loved having my mom and dad here. They took the kids off to Great Wolf Lodge for one of the days of this weekend, letting Adam and I have a lovely evening full of a run & a dinner at the Stones. We watched a lot of World Cup, both with and without the kids. I wish I could take a day off and just watch all the matches! Alas, work is very busy. My mom and I went to an African clothing shop run by a friend of mine (MJ Clothing) and I got to help her pick out an African outfit that is going to be tailored for her. When the new shipment of fabrics comes in, I think I’ll get an outfit for me too!

We finished off that fantastic day at a friends house celebrating the start of summer with a BBQ that somehow ended up with Rock Band – the way the best of parties do.

One of my favorite pictures of our pastor emeritus

Today was a pretty special day, too. It was the Pastor Emeritus service for our beloved pastor of 36 years. I really enjoyed getting to sing in the choir today for the celebration. And it was such a joy to get to show off all our progress to the folks who helped set us on the path.

So what’s up with you?

Four happy thoughts

1) Hooray for fathers!
For the first time in… maybe ever? I got to spend Father’s Day with the top 2 dads in my life. Both of them, I have great first hand knowledge, are superb dads. My father has always been a warm and loving presence. His bad jokes are legendary, his grounding in all the things I needed to know was thorough and he’s always the first one to lend a hand or solve a problem. He made it to every single one of my sports matches growing up – surely a purgatory when one’s daughter was a perpetual bench-warmer. He and my mother, in keeping with their generosity of spirit, drove out to Boston to help cover that awkward week where there is no child care. Thanks daddy!

The other father in my life is an excellent one. Adam spent his day like he does so many – teaching his kids, enjoying their company, spending time with them. He fixed Thane’s laptop (with several hours of labor) this morning. He is currently downstairs watching the Incredibles to prep for The Incredibles 2. He cares so deeply about his sons, and invests his though, labor, skills and heart into being the very best dad he could be for them, and I love him so much for it.

I hold a space in my heart today for that third missing father – Adam’s father. He lives on in story and song, but his daily presence in our lives is much missed. I’m sad that there are no new memories of him to be had, but I’ll cling to the beautiful ones I have.

We choose welcome

2) I’m really proud of my church
As many of you know, I worked really, really, really hard to help my church through the retirement of our pastor of umpteen years (his emeritus service is next week!), the death of our interim, and the really long hard pastor search. There were more than a few times when I wondered whether I’d completely burn myself out on this labor, and possibly have nothing left to stay with the church after I’d completed my work. But the last few months have been just a joy. Our music program, under the loving direction of my dear friend, has become a source of inspiration, enjoyment & pride. The music ringing from within that sanctuary seems like the sound of hope to me. That pastor we hired after long seeking has done me proud. Today’s sermon was truly excellent. On Father’s Day, we are remembering too those fathers at the American border whose children are being torn from them as they apply for asylum. But we, in our church, choose to welcome those immigrants instead, as much as we can. It’s remarkable to see something go from careworn and tired to joyful and vibrant, but that is my beloved congregation.

Preparing for kickoff on a perfect day

3) Stoneham Soccer
Have you ever encountered a group doing so much stuff right you can’t think of a single criticism, or improvement? As in the weight of my years, I come to understand how hard it is to do things well, I get more and more impressed with the group that runs Stoneham’s soccer program. It’s one of the most reasonable sports programs around, for cost. And for this modest investment, we get this amazing community. The refs are teenagers – and they’re 99% of the time treated with respect by kid, coach and parent. The parents are positive and yell out support and encouragement – not abuse. The coaches are all volunteers – a mix of parents and people who love soccer. Saturday was the end of year tournament and cook out. Seeing the kids play really pretty excellent soccer was awesome. Watching the community enjoy the games, their kids, the company of each other and the darn good and free hamburgers, hot dogs, watermelon & sodas. Well. Honestly, it restores a bit of my faith in humanity every time. It’s somewhat remarkable to see competence, good faith, great intentions and excellent skills all come together in something you can sign your kids up for.

Hanging on

4) There’s still one plum left
It even looks like a plum. It’s maybe the size of a cherry tomato. Despite the dour doom of plumdom, not all hope is lost for this year, yet.

What about with you? What fails to make the news, but brings joy to your heart? What has gotten better? What is excellent? Tell me!!

Three square meals a day

I’m usually pretty good with food for my family. Most of the time I cook a fair deal, and enjoy feeding people. I get a farmshare about a third of the year, which helps get the creative juices (by which I mean sheer panic) going. But I’ve been in a serious cooking rut the last few months. There’s the constant battle with the kids about what they will and won’t eat. (They philosophically know that veggies are good for them, but Grey’s current favorite food is the whitest of white bread with JIF peanut butter – which is basically peanut butter candy.) There’s the ever present time constraints. And honestly, I just got sick of all my recipes. I recently attempted listing them in a spreadsheet to see if there were any I wasn’t sick of, and there are 37 of them on my list. I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten.

But I was definitely sick of all of them.

I trolled through my cookbooks looking for new or forgotten recipes, and considered how much things have changed. My earliest recipe book, the Whitehouse Cookbook, called for difficult to acquire ingredients. Like bear. Or possum. And it made rather large presuppositions about my cooking facilities – I have rather a dearth of earthen pits. But I have plenty of recipe books that lean rather heavily on cream of mushroom soup, as a genre. The cookbooks I got when I was first married, like Betty Crocker, still hold up in some arenas, but are on the whole more processed, less vegetably and not so healthy as I want to eat. (They’re tough to beat in the pie-zone though.)

So I ordered a bunch of new cookbooks, and complained on Facebook.

Whining

What I really want is a cookbook that does all of that:
– Pairs ingredients that are available together seasonally (like brussel sprouts and sweet potatoes)
– Uses the stuff I get a lot of (hellloooo kale!)
– Can feed between 4 – 12 people (the range of eaters at my table)
– Can be made in an hour or less
– Is healthy
– Doesn’t use extra weird ingredients (looking at you asafetida)
– That my kids will like
– That my husband will like

In this season of whining, my friends really came through for me. Prior to my Facebook posting, one friend sent me a free week of Hello Fresh, which did end up making two very tasty meals that fit all my criteria. I’d tried Blue Apron before, but found it really hard to work in a meal service PLUS a CSA. I think that I may sign up for another meal service in the fall when my farmshare is done.

Another friend actually found the right cookbook for me. Two of them actually. And she sent them to me, which was incredibly kind of her. My own explorations were not nearly so successful. They’re both from America’s Test Kitchen (as is about 70% of my in-rotation cookbook collection). And they look AMAZING. Nutritious Delicious seems very much a response to “oh crap, my farmshare sent me kale again”. I particularly appreciate the nutrition information, but sadly it doesn’t tell me recipe prep time. I’ve definitely missed a “simmer for two hours” instruction before in recipes, so I really like the prep time estimates, even though I always assume they’ll take a little longer.

A package waiting for me

But the one I’m *really* excited about is “Dinner Illustrated“. This is the cookbook I’ve been waiting for all my life. OK, for at least a few years. It’s done in a meal-plan style, where the sides are included in the recipe. All the recipes take an hour or less, soup to nuts. There’s step by step picture instructions. There’s a huge section of vegetarian recipes, making reducing your meat intake an appealing prospect. I was a little disappointed to see that it didn’t have nutritional information on the recipes. I don’t normally care, but my father is visiting me and he’s working on handling his diabetes with better nutrition. (Given my life at work is helping people manage their diabetes better, I’m fully in support!) So knowing how many carbs are in a recipe is important. But then I flipped to the back and discovered that there’s a full accounting of the nutritional information in a handy table, helping me find lower carb, higher protein options. FTW.

I just came up with my meal list for the week, and I’m very excited. Rut, busted.

All this made me feel happy and grateful for my good friends. It also made me remember to stop and think of how lucky I am. My oppression by the boredom of my favorite recipes, while a real problem for me, is the very best problem one can have with food. I can afford healthy food. I have easy access to a wide range of fresh ingredients. I have time to cook healthy food. I have a fully equipped kitchen, ready to zest, peel, slice, blanche and otherwise prepare healthy food – and I have all those skills to do it. (Although my knife skills are no better than meh.) I don’t need to consider any eating disorders. My family does not need a specialized diet – no food allergies or intolerances or religious restrictions. Then to top it off, I have friends who are able to help me out. Not for any dire need, but even for small things recipe malaise.

How fortunate I am. How easy it is to forget. So today, as I write out my grocery list, I am grateful. And remembering that the list maybe should include some of the things my local food pantry needs, too.

Come, Labor On

I’m chronically busy and oversubscribed. Like so many in this day and age, I have to fight the tendency to wear my busy-ness like a badge of pride, or a competition. The last week or so I’ve been particularly hard-working. I think a bit of that is a burst of energy from the renewal I got from camping. I now have the capacity to work just a little harder, so I’ve been tackling the small things and the backlogs that drain energy from the every day. Much of my weekend was given to the domestic labors and to do lists that eat at my conscience like a black stone dropped on a field of ice.

Then today was a particularly rigorous day at work. Instead of writing blog posts, I should definitely be catching up on my backlog of unread emails. I had one of those days where you end the day with more unread messages than you start it – not a good feeling. And tomorrow will be more of the same, except capped by a (likely) three hour church board meeting (session, for the Presbyterians among you) in which I will remember that as chair of personnel I should probably, you know, do something.

And Mondays are a hard-working night for me. Adam has aikido, so the kids and I are on our own. There’s dinner to be arranged, recycling to be put out, the house must be prepared for the cleaners (so much less work than doing it yourself, but not no work. I go through the homework with Grey. I also needed to tackle the bills – a chore that has become less frequent with the advent of bill pay, but hardly absent.

As I loaded the dishwasher, I was thinking about one of my undone tasks. Adam and I need to revisit our will. I also need to fill out my care choices and end of life choices. I have strong opinions on my own funeral, which if I want them heeded I should probably write down in a place where my family can find them. The short version is that I’d like to be cremated and buried at the base of a fir in Wellspring’s dreampt of funereal forest – you can only learn more by talking to Sunny during a massage. For my funeral, I’d certainly want the hymn “Abide With Me”. I was contemplating what other hymns I can’t make it through without tearing up and “Come, Labor On” came to mind. (Not sure I’d want it for my funeral, though.)

It’s “a hymn of a certain age” – that age being one of my soft spots. There’s something about those mid-1800s hymns that hits me right in the heart. When I sing them, I feel like the rearguard of a dying era. I wonder if I’m the youngest person to know all the words to these old chestnuts, and love them dearly. At my funeral, will the congregation hearken back to a lovely old hymn none of them had ever heard before, as I did at my grandmother’s? The carillon in our town sing sweetly on the hour (or rather, five minutes before the hour) between 9 am and 9 pm. That bell and I have a lot of hymns in common, and it’s a moment of worship for me in those quiet hours when it makes it to my ears. I checked to see if Google Music had a version of this hymn. They do, but it’s a big choir-and-organ version, lugubrious and hard to hear the words to. I’m not a choir-and-organ Christian. I’m a piano and if we’re lucky one or two voices of harmony Christian. Most hymns I love, I cannot hear “properly” without just singing them myself.

I absolutely, positively cannot make it through this hymn without choking up. The whole hymn is about working. “Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain” and “No arm so weak but may do service here”. So totally Protestant Work Ethic FTW. But then, ah, the last verse. As with so many hymns of this era, the last verse hints to what happens after our labors cease. Here it is in full:


Come, labor on.
No time for rest*, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
“Well done, well done!”

I totally teared up just typing that. I’d blame it on fatigue, but it happens every single time I sing this song.

When is the last time someone said to you, “Well done!” When is the last time you believed it when they said it? What would it mean to you if it was the person who’s approval you most sought – the hardest judge of you – who said those words at the end of your labors, and you really believed it? What would it take for you, yourself, looking back at your life at the end of all things, to judge for yourself that your work was “well done”?

I have no answers here, only feelings. There is honor in our hard work. There is much to be done. “Redeem the time; it’s hours too swiftly fly. The night draws nigh.” But make sure that the work you are doing is the work that will earn you at least your own “well done” when the long shadows over your pathway lie.

*We Presbyterians get a lot of sermons about keeping the Sabbath and the value of rest, including this last Sunday’s, all of which we sincerely agree with and completely ignore.

Something I’ve never done before

The older you get, the fewer things you get to do for the first time. I wonder how much of the perception of the speed of life has to do with that diminution of novelty. I can see it in even the difference between walking a path for the first time, and walking back along it. Anyway, on Saturday I got to do something new.

On Saturday I learned that some friends were going to a paint and wine night and I managed to cadge an invite. Now, I was a band geek of the first water. When electives were coming around, there was absolutely no doubt which one I was going to sign up for. So I never did art in high school. Or college. Or, well, ever. In fact, my nascent art career was cut short with one of the more bitter regrets of my young life. I begged my parents for art lessons when I was about 9. I remember going to a stationer’s store (I’M SO OLD) and buying the pencils, the sharpener, the paper and the special eraser. I was out of my mind excited. The teenager who showed up was an excellent artist at the high school level. But I was so wound up and energetic that I was hard to teach. She got frustrated with me in that first lesson and never came back. I ended up having been taught one method of drawing fir trees, but with a far more useful life lesson: If you want to learn, you had better make teaching you be a pleasure to your teacher.

Painting with some friends – maybe next time we’ll do an all group outing!

My art skills completely stalled out at that level, and if you ask me to draw today, chances are excellent I’ll make a fir tree for you.

Intimidation factor: high

So when confronted with a blank canvas, I was unsure what the outcome might be. Complete humiliation seemed plausible. Fortunately, middle age also carries with it this glorious lack of caring about complete humiliation. I uncovered the paper plate with my paints. Our instructor was reassuringly clear. Plus, this was just the base layer. At this layer most of my mistakes would be covered later. I slapped on the paint with aplomb.

Base coat

Then things got more complicated. We had to make rocks! Worse yet, rocks that actually looked like rocks. Woe!

Rocks and hard to make clouds

Our last step was buildings. I have some regrets about the choices on the lights, but none about my lantern lit landing on the water, or the expressive stars I added.

I improved the clouds
My masterpiece

It was a really enjoyable experience. It required attention, but it was a different kind of attention than I’m used to having to expend. My hands and mind were busy, but it was rather restful to be busy with skills I knew I didn’t have on an outcome that didn’t need to make it past the garbage can on my porch. (Have no fear – Thane has claimed he wants it for his room so it’s not intended for the bin just yet.) I would totally do that again!

It’s amazing how slightly differently we can all interpret the same thing!

It takes my mind off the near-complete-loss of all plums currently bedeviling my poor tree. Next year…

On a sadder note