Category Archives: Life

The more things change…

I just finished reading Vanity Fair by William Thackeray for the first time. I waver between feeling like I enjoyed it and feeling like I’ll never get those hours back. It’s rare that I read a book and find nothing to like about any of the characters, but this one succeeds in that dubious distinction. The thing is, given that its a satire of the behaviors and psychology of people during the Regency period in England, and that the subtitle is “a novel without a hero,” I don’t think I was supposed to particularly like any of the characters. While a good plot is probably the most important thing for my enjoyment of a novel, liking even one character is also pretty important. (I’m also a sucker for “good writing,” which certainly existed in this novel, even though his sentences were sometimes tortuously long and winding…and then kind of irrelevant to the main plot.) The plot of Vanity Fair is well-woven and held my interest, but the characters fought against that and sometimes made picking up the book feel more like a duty.

I couldn’t help making comparisons of the world Thackeray is satirizing with modern times in America, and I was rather amazed that the follies and faults of his characters didn’t feel dated at all. Greed, a longing for power, a shallow fascination with being entertained above other matters, hypocritical piety, adultery…it sounds like a selection of articles in the Sunday paper. It seems to support the idea that human psychology is pretty strongly wired in certain ways (which I think is probably the case for the good in humanity, as well, but that doesn’t really show up in the novel, so…).

Oddly enough, as these things so often work, in the final episode of “Downton Abbey” on Sunday night, Mary alludes to Becky Sharp, the female antagonist of Vanity Fair. If I hadn’t been reading it, I would have missed the allusion entirely. It wouldn’t have made my enjoyment of the show any less, I think, to have missed it; however, knowing the reference did add a layer of understanding of the scene that would have been lacking. It’s this, I think, that leads so many educators to call for a canon of works that students read in school, and it helps me sympathize somewhat with their cause. When we read many of the same books, we have a common language that helps add layers of understanding to our communications through our allusions, connections, and references.

What should be in that canon, however, is not something easily agreed upon, and I don’t think I’m going there in this post.

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Daily play

I catered a dinner party last night, and it turned out that many on the guest list were teachers. It was the first time I had been in a roomful of teachers since I left a year and a half ago, and it was an odd feeling. Kind of like being stuck between two ex-boyfriends, one of whom you’re still friends with, and the other of whom you had hoped to never see again. In between plucking pin bones from nine pounds of salmon (motherflowersonofabiscuitwhatapainintheass) and cutting vegetables for stir-fry, I caught snippets of conversations that both reminded me why I left and reinforced why I still miss the classroom so much.

There was the usual griping about paper-grading, parents, and testing. There were the usual “funny things kids say and do” stories. I overheard conversations about school sports, math assignments, and not having enough time to go to the bathroom between classes. It was nice to hear what seemed to be a genuine camaraderie between all of these teachers, regardless of the grades or subjects taught. A few times, I had to resist the urge to chime in, but with all those pin bones to take care of, chatting wasn’t really an option, anyway. (Note to self: only do salmon for small groups.)

I do miss “talking teaching” with people who are passionate about the classroom, and I miss talking books and writing with students. I get a little bit of a fix during the book group I work with every other week, but that daily play of talking about the importance of words is definitely missing.

And I’m pretty sure this means I should be committed, but I miss working with teenagers. The kids were always the best part of the job, and as insane as they made me, they also brought a lot of joy into my life. Meeting new people at dinner parties does that a bit, but I find salmon to be lacking in the conversation department.

None of this is new, of course. I knew when I left that it would be like this, and often there are days (usually when the dogs let me sleep past the time I would have gotten up for work) that I think, “Ahhh, this isn’t so bad.” But to continue with the sleeping theme, we have to lie in the beds we make, and sometimes, the sleep is not as awesome as other times.

Getting out of my own way

I made bread this morning. It is absolutely delicious, and I think it’s going to be the “house sandwich bread” recipe*.

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I’m going to have to work on the whole “getting it out of the pan” thing, though.

No matter. I’ve already eaten three slices…or whatever you want to call the pieces I’m cutting off. Is there a word for a slice of bread that isn’t fully attached to itself?

It’s funny; I’m a pretty confident cook, and that includes most baking. But bread-baking, the kind with yeast, is something with which I haven’t become quite comfortable. Most of the breads I’ve made have been edible. Heck, sometimes they’re wonderful. And when they aren’t edible as toast or for sandwiches, I use them as breadcrumbs or in a strata, so they aren’t a waste. But I don’t often rush to make a yeast bread recipe like I might with another recipe that has caught my attention.

I’m pretty sure this is psychological. The whole “bread is the staff of life” thing is pretty engraved on my psyche, and the thought that every week people have been making bread at home, by the dozens of loaves if the family is large, since time immemorial should be a comforting one. Instead, it turns me into this timid mouse. I tend to mentally over-complicate the whole thing, building up the time required into this mountain I can’t possibly cross in a day, never mind a morning of baking. Ridiculous, but there we have it.

I think people do this with tasks/plans/dreams a lot (or maybe I’m hoping it’s not just me…). We build them up in our heads until they become these insurmountable, unattainable things (that’s the technical term). I did it with starting a business. I assumed that getting a business certificate that would allow me to open a business in my county would be a months-long, millions of papers to fill out odyssey.

It took ten minutes.

I was so tickled, I went and got one in the neighboring county, too. (Okay, I had to have it because my business will operate there, as well. But really, it was so easy. In both counties.) I’m embarrassed to admit that I put it off for a few months because I couldn’t mentally deal with what I had built it up to be in my imagination.

It was a good lesson.  Unfortunately, it was not the first time I learned it. And it won’t be the last. Sometimes, getting out of my own way is the most important thing I can do. And the hardest.

*This is the recipe, if you’re interested: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/classic-100-whole-wheat-bread-recipe  I used the maple syrup option. It really is delicious. But use a well-oiled pan.

Things that matter

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This morning’s Facebook feed had one of those “your memories” photos from a year ago today. I’m wrapped in a blanket, one eye and part of my nose showing, and wishing it would be warm. Last winter was brutal, no doubt about it. Today is very different, with blue sky and sunshine currently holding out against the encroaching clouds that are pushing in over the mountain. According to the weather channels, the gray skies are going to win, but right now the sun glinting on last night’s very crunchy snow is beautiful.

When I pulled into our driveway last night, I had to brake hard. Standing in about fifteen feet from the road and grazing on the grass at the edge of the pavement were two deer. One spooked instantly and ran off to the north, but the other stared at me as if to say, “Oh, is this your driveway?” It sauntered off into the yard about 75 feet away, stopped, and looked back at me. I’m pretty sure it said, “Could you drive on now? That patch of grass is pretty tasty, and you’re in my way.”

I peeked out at it once I was in the house and it was right back where it had been, and stayed there for about fifteen minutes. The gardener in me kind of wanted to shoo it away, since the rotten animals have been nibbling the tips off of all my young trees in that field, but I’m still always so amazed to see them, and feel kind of honored that they stop in our yard.

Moments like these–sparkly snow, deer so close you feel like you could walk up and pet them–are good reminders of what matters in the world.

It’s 5:31 p.m. and as dark as midnight

I haven’t posted much since early spring. But I have been writing every day.  As I go about my chores, sit and stare out the window, hang out with friends, I’m composing at a furious rate.

I’ve written about my “a-HA!” garden moment, when I realized that all of the things I’ve been doing to be a “good organic gardener” have gotten in the way of being a sane organic gardener…and therefore, kept me from being a particularly good one.

I’ve written about my excitement over growing more than 19 carrots (10 pounds!).

I’ve written about the presidential primaries, and the candidates on display for our amusement entertainment education.

I’ve written about my frustration, sadness, and impatience with the fact that Larry’s company won’t let him work from the farm, though it’s fully possible.

I’ve written about the abundance of flowers that grow around the house and land, and how they make every day better.

I’ve written about being overwhelmed by peppers and spaghetti squash, and finding recipes to help use them. (Jalapeno-Bacon Poppers with an Avocado, Cream Cheese, and Cheddar filling.  Trust me.)

I’ve written about working as a personal chef, and having it go well while being absolutely exhausting, and figuring out how I want it to look so that I enjoy it.  (Cooking in other people’s houses for them, and putting it on their tables family-style, and hearing the hum of conversation and laughter.)

I’ve written about the hesitation I feel about becoming “an official business.”

I’ve written about missing-not missing the classroom and teaching. Wow, do I miss talking to kids about good books.

I’ve written about the amazing (mostly) books that I’ve read.

I haven’t written any of it down, though, because I have really felt that the world is so very loud and full of words already.  It seems like we are all so busy trying to be heard that no one is listening anymore.  I’ve enjoyed (mostly) just listening.

But now it’s 5:31 p.m. and as dark as midnight, and I’m going to need to fill the dark with something, because the garden is almost done and winter will be long.  So it’s possible that I’ll be here a little more often.  At least until spring, when the light is back and there are seeds to plant.

Except for this

Our house seemed like the dividing line for tonight’s sky. To the north of us, the clouds were a heavy, low-hanging gray with one bright circle of blue. To the south of us, puffs of clouds scooted across toward Vermont, while the sky around them was a clear-all-the-way-to-another-galaxy icy blue. At the tree line between us and the neighbors, a herd of deer stopped to graze on the newly uncovered ground.

The wind is gusting at us from the northwest, but the spruce trees outside my window seem to only be doing a slow-motion wave in response. Those trees are currently home to a male and female cardinal, a whole bevy of black-capped chickadees, and other birds that I see flitting about but haven’t yet been able to identify.

With the turning of the calendar to March, the earth around us seems to be breathing again. The ice that had everything locked in its grip is losing its hold, and the snow and low temperatures seem unable to stick around for very long. The air outside no longer feels like a slap with an accompanying two-fingered jab up my nose, and when I was scrabbling around in the garden this morning, I found chives starting to poke their pointy green heads out of the ground. Green things! Growing!

As the snow and the earth start to melt, gravity and the slope of the valley are pulling the water toward the lake to our east. The driveway has a creek running down its right side, and the culvert opening across the street by our mailbox has a whoosh of water flowing out of it. At night, the puddles in the yard crust over with ice again so that our evening walks include that satisfying crackling-crunching noise.

Most of the main vegetable garden is showing again, and the tiny hoop tunnel I put over the escarole last November is still standing (though I’m placing no bets on the remaining two escarole plants). The garlic and shallots are still covered by their blanket of leaves, and the row of asparagus gleams a faint yellow when the sun hits the layers of straw. Last fall, I planted daffodils and tulips at the ends of rows, and I walk by and squint to see if any of them are making an appearance. Not yet, though it won’t be long.

I have celeriac, onions, and parsley seeded, a gentle easing-in to the extensive seeding that will happen in April. There are forsythia, lilac, and apple blossoms just around the corner. (And mud. A lot of mud.) The clothesline will be stretched between buildings soon, and that fresh smell will fill the drawers again. The grill will be rolled out, fired up, and cooking by Easter weekend.

I don’t particularly like winter, except for this: without winter, the euphoria that is spring in the Northeast doesn’t happen. I am reveling in the changes.

Love me, love my unpainted walls

     The southeast corner of our bedroom had to be repaired two years ago. The drywall corners hadn’t been sealed by tape and mud, so over time the corners pulled away from each other. We had a contractor repair the problem, and said that I’d paint.
     It’s still unpainted.
     The hallway upstairs needs to be painted; the closed doors in my office need to be painted; the drywall in the living room needs to be painted.
     I get tired of painting. So I live with the consequences of not doing it. Consequences that, in the scheme of things, are not so bad. I’m a little embarrassed when I give a tour of the house to someone visiting for the first time, but I just brightly say, “We still have some work to do!” Eventually, I’ll get all of that painting done. Love me, love my unpainted walls…or something like that.
     One of the things that I have learned about myself is that I can live with a certain amount of dirt and mess (as long as no one is coming over) if there are other things I’d rather be focusing on (and there usually are). The dog hair tumbleweeds into corners, the piles of cookbooks and recipes and life’s paper trail multiply, a jacket lives on a chair-back for a week. But I might be absorbed in a good book, or cooking a bunch of new recipes, or planting seeds, and that thing is more important than the other stuff (as long as no one is coming over). I tell myself that we’re building up our resistance to germs. (My mother is probably banging her forehead on her computer desk right now. I know, Mom, you taught me better. Love you!) The exception is my cooking area, which I keep cluttered-but-clean. Because otherwise, gross.
     I know this isn’t particularly socially acceptable—we’re all supposed to have sterile-looking Pottery Barn houses—but I don’t particularly care, usually. There are, of course, those days when I look around and say, “Holy cow, this place is a pigsty!” and I get busy with the vacuum and dust rag. Or there are days, like today, when I have to clean up after our latest construction project. (Today’s is red brick dust from our chimney repair. Worth it, but ugh, that stuff is EVERYWHERE.) But I’d rather read, or write, or try out new recipes, or…you get the picture.
     I’m learning to stop beating myself up about these things, because as that meme/poem/thingy that goes around the internet every so often says, dust if you must, but there’s more to living than a clean house. As long as no one is coming over.