Tag Archives: community

Rehabilitation

“Kathleen! Do you have a moment?” my neighbor asked after spotting Miles and I pull up by bike one afternoon last week.

“I’ve been wanting to tell you this for weeks. Has anyone told you about Mrs. Brown, who lived here until she died?”

She went on to explain that Mrs. Brown, a widow and a mom, tended the garden day and night, rain or shine. Mrs. Brown baked my neighbor a homegrown rhubarb cake after she gave birth and doted on her sons as they grew up. Mrs. Brown grew food and flowers, nurturing this land and her neighbors. I bet I would’ve loved Mrs. Brown.

“And you know what? You brought back Mrs. Brown to me. You have brought her back to life by restoring the beauty here. I’m reminded of her every time I walk by now and I am so thankful.”

I was so touched. I got teary eyed, and probably would’ve gone into an all-out shriveled up cry if Miles weren’t refusing to get off the bike, angry at me for not taking him That Very Moment to buy spy glasses at Archie McPhees.

I knew this place was treasured once upon a time because there were signs everywhere. The old plum and pear trees. The rhododendrons and azaleas, the hydrangea greeting visitors at the front door. I made a new discoveries almost every time I gardened during our first year. Bulbs would peek out and if I spotted them before the weed-whacking “landscaping” team arrived, I would try to prevent their demise. Sometimes I was too late to save a plant because it was too diseased or crowded. Other times I spotted them just in time.

One fortunate day a few years ago, while clearing a patch of weeds, I found five dying peony roots in a dry, barren spot that no longer received sunlight. (Three others were completely shriveled up.) I transplanted them with my fingers crossed. One flowered this spring. The others line our front window, growing stronger each season, and will likely bloom next year.

The neighbor who told me about Mrs. Brown used to run a rehab facility. Who better to understand and value the beauty of life restored? There is great joy in watching lives receive long-awaited nourishment after years of starvation. We rehabilitated this garden! When I think about it like that, I feel incredibly honored to have played a role.

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Surrender

IMG_9050IMG_9029Despite Harry having just recovered from the flu, we pulled off a stellar 8th birthday party for Charlie last weekend. Our house was covered with squares and cubes to honor his Minecraft obsession. It was nice to have his party to prepare for on the heels of our news. It kept me focused on celebrating. I served Smitten Kitchen’s so-crazy-addictive-they-must-be-cocaine-infused rice crispy treats with a hint of green as “slime balls”, and her amazingly fudgy brownies as “coal” and “redstone”, along with savory bites like bell pepper “TNT.”

I thought we’d spend this week pushing through a few of the woes of unemployment, like finding health insurance, but it has been a doozy. I threw out my back Monday morning while lifting weights, Friday I got word that my SLP license is going to be held up for at least a month unless I can convince someone that their red tape makes absolutely zero sense, and last night Harry began a round of GI eruptions. This time food poisoning has him prostrate.

I wish we would raise white flags during times of need and our neighbors would take turns dropping off meals, watching the children, leaving good books on our doorstep or pulling a few weeds. While overwhelmed by a three year old and a newborn, I remember dreaming of a service that hooked up grandparents missing their grandbabies with moms of young children desperate for help. Maybe there should be a similar set-up for families dealing with illness, unemployment, death and other major life events. (What’s that you say? Move to Sweden or Holland? Ok!)

My jerry-rigged white flag system involves texts and emails. I’m getting better at this, quicker to fill people in. It still feels scary because I have voices in my head that tell me people won’t show up, are too busy, or really don’t want to hear about this Yet Again. But, here’s the deal. Just like I don’t care if someone’s sick repeatedly or needs a break from their crying baby, they understand our situation. They show up because they love us.

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Friends have been my rays of light. They have been the bright notes to counter the gray. One arrived at our door holding enormous bottles of beer and a bottle of wine. (She knows we stop buying alcohol when future income is unclear, so she became our party Jesus, turning our water into wine.) Another friend’s thrift store birthday party provided some serious belly laughs. I realized that even though I wasn’t buying clothes, I could still try them on. I found the most horrifically ugly outfits to model, an activity I can’t recommend enough. My BFF Anne Lamott retweeted one of my tweets. (!!!) Another friend sent a link to a blog post she “knew” I needed to read and, indeed, it contained words that powered me through the week.

I also savored an evening with my graduate school girlfriends. The plans were made long before Harry lost his job and I re-injured my back, but I kept them because I knew time with them would be therapeutic. We can laugh, be sarcastic, cry and be ridiculously silly within a ten minute window. I’ve known these women over a decade and we’ve walked each other through major piles. We know how to show up for each other, in celebration or consolation. I feed them chocolate, they bring wine. An additional bonus is that they don’t mind the obstacle course of Legos, crumbs, nerf darts and discarded crafts covering my floor.

There is an abundance of beauty in my life. I feel deeply loved. I feel cared for. I am excited about what opportunities may arise from this shift. I’m just equally scared they may not happen soon enough. That we might have to let go of a few dreams that made my heart flutter. My little control problem turns me into an unpredictable geyser during these periods, erupting in tears at the wrong look from a dog. Stability and predictability are my game. However, I don’t wave my white flag when I’m in control. And I receive the most amazingly rich food for my soul whenever it waves. So, I’ll keep surrendering. Again and again.

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The lone remaining slice when I decided I would blog this. Isn’t she pretty? Imagine an entire loaf!

Dressy Chocolate Loaf Cake

Yet another from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking. Yields 12 servings.

Cake batter

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup sour cream

Filling

  • 1/3 cup raspberry or cherry jam
  • 1 teaspoon water

Frosting

  • 5 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350℉.  Butter a 9 1/2 x 5-inch loaf pan, dust the inside with flour and tap out the excess.  Place the pan on two stacked regular baking sheets or on one insulated baking sheet.

Whisk or sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Using a mixer, beat the butter and sugar together at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs individually, beating each for about a minute. Reduce the mixer speed to low to add the sour cream. Still working on a low speed, add the dry ingredients but mix only until they have just disappeared into the batter. Stir one last time with a sturdy rubber spatula and scrape the very thick batter into the pan. Even it out using a spatula.

Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. After about 45 minutes if the cake looks as if it’s browning too quickly, loosely cover it with a foil tent. Let the cake cool on a rack for about 5 minutes before turning it out. Cool to room temperature upside down.

Bring the jam and water to a boil over low heat. (Or make your own and just don’t let it get too thick. No need for water. This step was fun for me because I had some raspberries in the freezer begging to be used up.)  Stir to smooth it.

If the loaf cake is extremely uneven on top, slice off the very top using a serrated knife so it will lay flat on a plate. It will serve as the base of the cake. Slice the loaf twice more, creating three layers. Put the first layer (originally the top of the cake) cut side up on a serving plate and spread half of the jam on it. Top this with the middle layer and the rest of the jam. Place the top layer cut side down. Use a small pastry brush or a gentle hand to remove any crumbs on the top or sides of the cake.

To make the frosting, use a double boiler or fit a heatproof bowl into a pan of gently simmering water. Add the chocolate and stir it occasionally until it has melted. Continue working over the hot water and stir in the sour cream. The cream may tighten up, but just continue to stir gently and the frosting will become smooth enough to spread. Once it’s ready, remove the frosting from the heat and cover the sides and top of the cake with the warm frosting.

You may serve immediately or wait a bit. It will last covered and at room temperature overnight, otherwise it is best to refrigerate it. Just bring it to room temperature prior to serving. Serve with pretty much any sort of cream and you won’t regret it.

Celebrating in both spaces

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Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

 

 

Like all holidays past, and all holidays future, there are other thoughts racing around in the back of our heads beyond whether or not the turkey will taste good and the pies will turn out. We miss loved ones. We ache for relationships to be healed. We want the children to stop pestering each other. We long for patience and wisdom.

Sunday morning brought news of my parents’ decades long neighbor passing away. Though her death was expected, I am never ready for the wave of grief that inevitably crashes into me as the words are spoken, and this time was no different. I sobbed, first to my mom on the phone and later in my bedroom while the boys played. It’s an odd experience to cry loudly while your kids are laughing and tearing apart the house. They were completely oblivious to my sounds. This isn’t too surprising since I could probably walk past them naked wearing a Frankenstein mask and they also wouldn’t notice if they were fully engrossed in their play, but it’s still strange to experience.

Once I calmed, all I wanted was to recount the stories. There are many, starting with my birth. Louise’s oldest daughter and I share the same birthday, a decade apart. My brother, nearly nine years older than me, spent the night with a swarm of ten-year-old girls at a birthday party while Mom labored and delivered. (I don’t know whether or not he enjoyed the party scene, but I like that it happened on account of me. My earliest successful attempt to mess with a sibling.) Several years later Louise baked me my favorite birthday cake- heart’s desire of every little girl of the 80s: the kind with the doll awkwardly sticking out of the middle of the cake while wearing a giant, impossible-to-walk-in dress, of course!

Louise lived across the street from me during my entire childhood, and she loved to garden. These two things ensured that our paths crossed frequently. Nearly every morning and afternoon of elementary school, as I hopped on and off the school bus, I’d look for her cats. Talkative, snuggly Cookie would cross the street, waiting with me in the morning and walking me partway home in the afternoon. Sugar or Pepper (I can’t remember which- they owned a lot of cats over the years and their food names always confused me) would wait in their yard, knowing I’d eventually come scratch behind her ears. If the cats weren’t outside, I’d inevitably ask my mom if I could go visit. I was always welcomed inside.

Routine, everyday encounters were the norm, but there were exceptional moments, too. One winter evening, a friend’s mom dropped me off at home after a dance recital. My mom and sister stayed for performances later that evening, but I was only six years old, exhausted and ready for bed. The woman didn’t wait to see if I got in, driving away before I even reached my front door. I stood knocking and ringing the bell, increasingly scared and lonely. The house was dark. The porch light wasn’t even on. The bushes grew big enough for people to be hiding behind. The night grew colder and darker. The wind hissed. My dad and brother were supposed to be home.

I was so young that I’m not sure if I’d even crossed the street by myself yet. I clearly remember being terrified to do it,  especially in the dark, but I knew where I wanted to go. Their porch light was on. The cats would be inside, too. I was even happy knowing that I could peek at the little world inside their enormous terrarium, which I found both odd and amazing. I remember my run across the street vividly, though more like I recently dreamt it than that it really happened. My heart pounded as I rang their doorbell. (I vaguely remember also feeling nervous about bothering them late at night or waking them up. It was probably 8pm.) A warm blanket of comfort covered me as the door opened and my neighbor took me in.

Both of the neighborhood women that nurtured me in special ways are now gone. There were countless simple, beautiful acts that only thoughtful neighbors can do: daily greetings, inviting me in for tea or kitty-cat petting, running little treats outside because I was spotted passing by. These women were present for my family during our most challenging and celebratory moments, too. They threw parties, brought food, gave hugs and ran errands. Their presence made our surrounding neighborhood pretty close to the elusive village “it takes” to raise kids.

The holidays have always felt hard to face when grief is fresh, but I’m realizing part of that is because I bought into a lie. For too long, I equated thankfulness with smiling and good cheer and felt like I’d somehow ruin a holiday if I was sad. So, I wore my emotions tightly, holding myself in a protective stance that didn’t allow for either extreme to be expressed. Finally, I begin to make room at the table for tears. What could be a more pure reflection of love shared and missed? And, of course, I set a place for joy. We would experience a different sort of grief without the warm memories of playing, dancing, laughing and telling stories. Without those elements, our grief might actually be regret. This year, I’m beginning to see how I can hold both joy and sorrow in my heart during the holidays. It starts with making space at the table.

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Nurtured by Food– Moving Towards Awe

“The words “wow” and “awe” are the same height and width, all w‘s and short vowels. They could dance together. Even when, maybe especially when, we don’t cooperate, this energy–the breath, the glory, the goodness of God–is given.

Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention: mangoes, grandnieces, Bach, ponds. This happens more often when we have as little expectation as possible. If you say, “Well, that’s pretty much what I thought I’d see,” you are in trouble. At that point, you have to ask yourself why you are even here. And if I were you, I would pray “Help.” … Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Let it be. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.”

–Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow

If you had told 26-year old me that 36-year old me would say that food is one of her biggest passions, I wouldn’t have believed you. I also wouldn’t have been sure what that even meant. Was I consumed with filling my belly bite by delicious bite? Was I baking and cooking during all my free time? Did I now weigh twice as much as I used to? Those were probably the only questions I would’ve had because I was ignorant about issues surrounding food. I certainly couldn’t have grasped that many bits of information, gathered over a decade’s time, would transform my eating habits. I wouldn’t have had a clue regarding the broad range of emotions paired with this journey: tears of joy hearing about teenagers experiencing their first fresh raspberries, savoring each bite of a new dish with surprisingly flavor combinations, deep sadness and anger reading about the atrocities committed by many pursuing profit through the corporate food system.

Maybe you’re on this journey with me. Maybe you’re watching it from a distance thinking I’m off my rocker. I know those passionate about food can look that way. I’ve made my share of mistakes in how I express myself about it. Since eating is a common way to celebrate relationship and build community, awkward moments easily present themselves. Nobody wants to have just made dinner for someone only to have them tell you that they could never eat “x” food product again, while that very product is ready to be served for dessert.

This is a complicated, touchy subject and new information arises almost daily. No matter how hard one tries to do what’s best for their health, humanity, and the environment, it can feel like it’s not enough. Or that it’s all too much. I frequently feel the tension. I can be really passionate and committed to some things, only to see it slip away a year later. Other times, I am surprised by my own consistent, growing devotion.

This is what I’ve realized: Knowledge shows me the road. Inspiration and courage lead to my first steps. Wonder keeps me walking.

SKEPTICISM and CURIOSITY

During my twenties, conversations with a few classmates and coworkers about their amazing homemade meals for weekday lunches, vegetarianism, or gardening adventures all made me a little quizzical. Sometimes I was jealous, eating my boring sandwich and mealy apple while they ate incredible smelling leftovers. Often I was skeptical of their enthusiasm. I didn’t really want to make any changes nor hear some of the truth they were speaking. I didn’t want to pay more money for organic food. I didn’t really know how to cook. I didn’t know how to garden. It all felt too big.

I was also naive. I wanted to believe that big companies had the best in mind for their customers. I believed that the US government monitoring agencies were capable and protecting us. I didn’t think about real ingredients versus additives. I didn’t think beyond the 1990s nutritional education that low fat is best. (I’m definitely over that.)

Eventually something one of these wise souls said to me years ago would make it into the bigger news rounds. And it would happen again. And eventually it happened enough that I began to realize they really knew something about food safety and health (the first things I cared about) before the general public did. I began to trust them and seek out more information. I was always a bit amazed at their knowledge and humbled by my naiveté.

MOVIES and BOOKS

Harry and I watched Super Size Me together one night upon recommendation of a friend. From that point forward, we were deliberate about avoiding fast food. We weren’t serious consumers prior, but it was a fall-back for us on road trips or long days away. I’m happy to see some big chains making baby step commitments to sustainable practices and more nutritional food, but I still greatly prefer to pack meals from home. I find it’s tastier, healthier and more economical.

After repeated prompting from a close friend, I got up the courage to watch Food, Inc. It was my first introduction to government subsidies, our reliance on petroleum, the overuse of corn, and the oh-so-lovely details surrounding factory farmed meat. It, and what I’ve since learned from champions like Michael Pollan, is why I usually do not eat meat if I don’t know where it came from. (Sometimes I forget and still do. Sometimes I don’t forget and still do.) Anyways, this means I don’t eat meat if I’m dining out unless sources are listed. Thankfully, many restaurants in Seattle are committed to sustainable, local food sources. (This Portlandia clip highlights just how funny it can get in the Pacific Northwest.) I think the limited options have led to increased creativity in the culinary scene. Our chefs make radishes sexy.

GARDENING

FIve years ago, under the amazing tutelage of my master gardener father-in-law, I began growing food. It was miraculous to me. I don’t think I’d planted a seed since preschool and I’d certainly never harvested food I had nurtured. Growing food is magnificent. Smelling the dirt while planting seeds. Watching the first sprouts. Anticipating the first harvest. Witnessing a “mostly dead” (I will always love Billy Crystal’s Princess Bride character), under-watered artichoke plant pop back to life because I decided to not give up on it. These are all mini miracles to me.

Often, there is just as much pleasure in the harvesting as there is in the growing. Sometimes more. I love growing rare varieties or using parts of plants that can’t be found at grocery stores or even farmer’s markets. I find tremendous satisfaction taking a colander outside and coming back with dinner. My personal favorite is harvesting herbs by hanging my body out our kitchen window. I planted them in the perfect spot.

Having a garden with high yields of any particular vegetable forced me to broaden my cooking horizons. I experienced my first zucchini fritters the first year I had a zucchini plant. As I grew to love cooking more, my palate began to change. This marked the beginning of my path to preferring fresh food over processed alternatives.

(Just like our bodies don’t begin to crave exercise and healthy food until they’ve experienced them regularly, my experience is that our palates aren’t tuned in to fresh flavors until they’ve been surrounded by them for awhile. If this is new to you, be patient. Your palate probably needs a tune-up. This is one reason I don’t like the term “food snob” / “coffee snob” / etc…. There is nothing wrong with being more aware of flavors. Would you tell someone who prefers Fat Tire to go back to drinking Keystone?  A chocolate lover to move from Theo to Hershey’s? These refined tastes can happen across all foods and drinks with practice. This type of practice is really, really fun. Unless it’s with whiskey. Which will always taste like band-aids to me. I refuse to practice more.)

ENVIRONMENT

Growing produce has taught me how intricate our food system is and the crucial aspect of biodiversity. We inherited decades of weeds with our rental, but aren’t using herbicides and pesticides. Of course our place would look better with much less work. Don’t get me wrong, it can be tempting. But ultimately I think it’s a selfish choice. Soil is alive and these chemicals can kill the vital microorganisms, as well as beneficial insects. There are systems that work beautifully to keep it healthy without toxic synthetic chemicals present. Places where these chemicals are rampantly used now have resistant bugs, previously unheard of pesticide resistant-weeds, and poor soil quality. Additionally, they get into waterways and hurt the overall ecosystem, including salmon. They are also being linked to bee colony collapse. Bees pollinate a lot of our food, people. That isn’t good. Perfect grass is not more important than food. There are countless other reasons why pesticides and herbicides make me angry. This is the biggest reason I’m passionate about organic food. (Truly. Not my family’s physical health, though I think it matters for that, too.)

There is stunning beauty in the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, even though how out of whack we are scares the daylights out of me. When systems are right and we’re growing food using sustainable practices, everybody wins.  (Or at least has potential to prosper more. The social / racial / class divide here is not lost on me.)

SOCIAL JUSTICE

Books like Barry Estabrooks’ Tomatoland and articles from Pollan highlight the frequency with which farm workers are enslaved and the power of Big Food. Small farmers regularly get sued by Monsanto. (Watch Food, Inc. or Seeds of Freedom.) I do not want my money to support slavery or bullying companies. I try to be very careful about this and doing so often eliminates a lot of food and seed choices. (That being said, I have a lot of learning to do when it comes to understanding when other purchases are ethically problematic. The Bangladesh factory tragedy should open all our eyes a little wider, right?)

I actually find having fewer choices freeing. I feel good about not giving money to companies with questionable practices and fabulous about giving money to those going against the flow. The icing on the cake for me is that the latter companies almost always have better tasting products. More expensive, but I’d rather eat really delicious chocolate treats once a month than semi-tasty ones every week.

TASTE

I had the incredibly weird and highly unrecommended experience of losing most of my senses of smell and taste. The etiology is unknown, but my doctor guessed this was from a particularly bad sinus infection paired with massive sleep deprivation during Miles’ first few months. Also, possibly nasal inhalers I used for allergies years prior. Regardless, for a solid six months I could only taste bitter and super sweet.  (We lived down the street from one of Seattle’s amazing bakeries and I was far too frequent of a chocolate ganache cupcake and cappuccino customer.)

During that time, I was still eating processed food on a regular basis. By “processed” I mean food that I could not replicate at home. If ingredients aren’t real food, I consider it processed. My definition doesn’t eliminate all store bought food. I began to notice that most foods with preservatives had a bitter aftertaste that I didn’t notice before my smell went awry. I began to understand why so many additives were in those foods-not just to cheaply sweeten, but to mask the bitter. It was a huge turn-off to me.

I began purchasing more locally grown food, including participating in orchard and vegetable CSAs last year. I love supporting small family farms for the obvious reasons. But the taste of those fresh foods and unusual varieties have brought me to tears. One of my neighbors, who grew up in Hungary, told me she hadn’t tasted fruit like our CSA fruit since she was a little girl. There is splendor in those bites.

We are missing a lot of amazing flavors when we depend on big farms. The ideal harvesting times are skipped and varieties are chosen to tolerate weeks of transportation in trucks and big boxes. Plus, refrigeration often ruins flavor quickly. Most of us know how delicious homegrown tomatoes are. The same difference in vibrancy goes for all other vegetables! If you haven’t had fresh from the farm broccoli, do yourself a favor. It isn’t bitter. Carrots are bright and sweet. Onions and garlic are juicy. I relish the taste of a freshly picked red to the core strawberry. June! Come soon! After years of Driscoll’s, that’s a jaw dropper.

Maybe desiring good tasting food, and being willing to wait for it, is also a commitment to maintaining a sense of awe with food. Just like we wait for tulips in spring, we wait for peaches in summer. I want the glory. I don’t want it to fall flat.

“If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we die there. We become like mushrooms, living in the dark, with poop up to our chins. If you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. You’re saying: Leave me alone; I don’t mind this little rathole. It’s warm and dry. Really, it’s fine.

When nothing new can get in, that’s death. When oxygen can’t find a way in, you die. But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing– we had this all figured out, and now we don’t.

New is life.”

–Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow

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A final little note-

I understand that this is a personal journey. I may hope for people to walk the road with me, but if they don’t, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to share a meal. Being invited to someone’s home is a huge gift to me. Please don’t apologize if something isn’t organic or local. Don’t even mention it. I’m not going to tell you these details, either. Maybe we can all try to keep our meals shame-free? (I have my own issues with this.) For some this means not apologizing about nothing being homemade, for others it’s not worrying that the tomato sauce comes from a can. We all have our issues, and the spectrum is actually quite hilarious! There are people out there making their own pots and pans for their 100% homegrown food, too. They probably feel bad that they didn’t build their own house. I’m sure of it. So, invite people over! Share what you have. Cook rice and beans, boil pasta, get take-out if you need to! Community is so much more important.