Monday, September 19, 2011

Drive in Movie Birthday Party


Just as I sat down to write (this, after looking through sixty pages of Emmy looks on Yahoo), Brenner marched down the stairs to my mommy-nook for a cuddle in my desk chair.  It's clear that blogging has been bumped down the priority list the last couple weeks, and this is among the many reasons.  Let's list them: 9/11 and planning for it, Gabi's birthday and planning for it, the beginning of school and adjusting to that schedule, the addition of an au pair to our home, and the fall garden's emptiness being less than a source for interesting storytelling, and an odd desire to sleep past five a.m.

Whew! There's so much going on, yet not much food to talk about or time for writing.  Pity.  While the focus of Wishful Thanking Farm is intended to be about food and backyard gardening, I've been thinking about it more broadly this past week.  Do I have to limit the topics to what I can put on the dinner table? I learn so much from the quiet, organized, peace of those plants, but I take those lessons into the rest of my life, too.  In that way, I suppose the rest of my life is pertinent and I should give up the self-imposed guilt and rigidity.  My writing is to remind myself of my dreams yet to come and to have gratitude for those already fulfilled.

Real Life:

My oldest son, Gabi, turned ten on Saturday.  I can't believe he's in double-digits and my little baby is so big.  Sometimes I hold him in my lap, cradle-style, and wrap my arms around his head like it's an infant.  But, his legs are stretched out across the couch, and there's no denying he's growing up.  What wonderful boy he is, too!

As much as I would have loved to take Gabi and his friends to a local farm for the day, or maybe go apple-picking, that would have been a party for me.  Fifth grade is all about being cool, and I'm afraid to say that gardening misses the mark with this age-group.  Oh, they all loved the novelty of the chickens, but I couldn't have built a party around them.

I did manage to maintain my values and have a pretty kick-butt party at home by getting creative.  I relied on my community of friends and borrowed an outdoor movie projector, an extra tent, some speakers, and a couple folding tables.  For fifty bucks, the party store had a bunch of movie-themed decorations that I can reuse for the other kids' parties.  Chad tucked a king-sized sheet into the top of our garage door to make a screen, we pulled the mini-van and SUV out so the kids could sit in the "way-back."  And, we set up a snack-stand, complete with tickets for purchasing popcorn, candy and soda.  Yes, I did at least make the popcorn on the stove.

Finding a movie for twenty ten-year-olds to watch together was a trial.  We need to have a moment of honesty here... My son watches PG-13 movies full of terrible language.  This is one thing I've just had to give up on at home and when he's at friends' houses.  There just aren't very many interesting movies that keep the language clean.  Still, I could hardly show any Will Ferrell movie, which would have been the preferred selection without getting calls from mothers wishing to wring my neck for publicly condoning such material.

Then, Gabi suggested Monty Python's Holy Grail.  Hallelujah! (so to speak)  To my great astonishment, it is only rated PG.  And, the kids loved it.  A few boys couldn't sit still for a moment, but for the most part, I've never had such an easy time containing so many boys and still having a good time.

A few kids went home, but most of them piled into tents in the backyard where I discovered my Collie-Retriever Mix had chewed a hole in my friend Samantha's tent.  Not a big one - but enough that my party became about a hundred dollars more expensive by virtue of replacement cost.  Oh well!  I now have two tents, and Samantha has a brand-new one.

But, I digress!

With two boxes of Dunkin Donuts in their tummies, and a latte in mine, we all settled on the family room sectional to open gifts.  I love watching the faces of the gift-givers as the guest-of-honor tears into the paper.  There's such anticipation!  "Will he like my gift?" they ask inside their heads.  I swear I can see the question on their faces.  And, when Gabi lights up to see the game or gift-card or autographed baseball, there is relief and joy.  So, another old-time value I maintain from my own childhood is refusing to open gifts after the party and then write thank-you cards.  Rather, my kids get practice in displaying their gratitude in person, and the guests have the experience of knowing their gifts actually mean something.

I guess the point is that I won't always be able to bake a cake a from scratch, but the cake isn't really the point.  The values I hold in my heart about caring for my world and my people are what matter.  And, with a little creativity, I can live a life of meaning - even with a store-bought cheesecake.


I am thankful for my little boy, Gabi, and for the decade of his life I have been privileged to witness.  I am thankful that he is happy and proud of his party - that his friends thought it was awesome - because this matters to him.  I am thankful for friends who are willing to lend me their things and don't get angry if my dog chews a hole in something.

I wish to remember that home-grown doesn't always refer to food.  I wish for our own outdoor movie projector because that was so much fun!  September is personally busy for me, and the holiday season starts with Halloween.  So, I wish that in these few weeks of reprieve I can indulge in some quiet joy.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Matt's Best Blueberry Muffins

My nephew, Matt, brought these giant, sweet muffins to a family gathering.  First, we were astonished that Matt was such an incredible baker - who knew! - but, these were clearly the best blueberry muffins I think any of us had ever had.  Of course, they disappeared before I had the chance to snap a photo, so I'll just have to make a batch.

I'm posting this exactly as Matt sent it to me, to capture not only the recipe, but his wonderfully intellectual style...

Matt's Best Blueberry Muffins Recipe:
Makes 8 large muffins. Approx. 400 calories per muffin.
2 large mixing bowls
1 sturdy (I prefer wooden) mixing spoon
measuring cups & spoons
1 muffin baking pan
non-stick cooking spray to grease the pan (or paper wrappers)
--Muffin Batter--
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1/3 cup milk
1 cup fresh blueberries
--Crumb Topping--
1/2 cup white sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup butter (diced)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ) Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease muffin cups.
2) Combine 1 1/2 cups flour, 3/4 cup sugar, salt and baking powder into mixing bowl.
3) Fill up a measuring cup 1/3 cup full of vegetable oil. Add 1 egg to the measuring up with the oil in it. And enough milk to make the whole thing fill up 1 cup.
4) Pour oil/egg/milk  into flour mixture. Stir 5 minutes with mixing spoon. Then fold in blueberries. (Don't stir overmuch, batter will get too tough.)
5) Make crumb topping (see below)
6) Fill muffin cups about 80% full of batter (makes 8 muffins), and sprinkle generously with crumb topping mixture.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 400F.
--To Make Crumb Topping--
In second bowl mix together 1/2 cup sugar, 1/3 cup flour, 1/4 cup butter (diced), and 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon. Mix with fork, and sprinkle over muffins before baking.

Taking Ten

Some days just shouldn't happen.  It's not even because there's something wrong with the day or what needs to get done;  It's just that, sometimes, a person needs a break.  For me, this break comes in the form of my favorite subjects... gardening and food.  (Did you think I was going to say NASCAR and scrapbooking?)

For the last several days I have been very busy and haven't made it out to the garden.  Nor have a spent much time in the kitchen. No, I can't claim I'm busier than anyone else - I've just had a sort of constant flow of to-do items.  And, I've woken up each morning with butterflies in my stomach related to nothing I can clearly discern.  I've tried to ease those queasy feelings by ticking items off my list and have done a decent job of it, but I still haven't felt quite right.

A connection?  I think so.  I've abandoned the care of my little patch of heaven so I can tend to the busy world around me, and I believe both the garden and my self have paid the price.  Instead of just taking ten minutes out of each day to maintain the fundamentals, I've made it an all or nothing proposition: either spend the whole day doing what I love, or don't do it at all!  I forget that those ten minutes, standing over the sprouting greenery with a hose, clears my mind and lets me go about my day with serenity.

I'd like to say today won't happen, that the kids will magically get themselves to and from school, that this blog will write itself, and I can hang out outside all day... but life doesn't work that way.  Things need to get done, and I'm the one to do them.  But, I am going to leave this post short, slide on my clogs, and take those ten minutes now.

I will, however, post my nephew Matthew's stellar blueberry muffin recipe.  You'll never go back to store-bought mini-muffins again!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Honesty... Is Such a Lonely Word

Nature is a great teacher, and a garden is her classroom.  I suppose a mountain would be a classroom for a climber, a reef for a diver, and so on.  In any case, it is all Nature, and we are her students.  As with any great teacher, she uses a particular subject, be it trigonometry, grammar, or gardening, to teach life lessons.  Soil conditions, watering, choosing seeds, and what to do about a blight might be the topics, but underneath all that are patience, discipline, faith, honesty, and how to cope with disappointment.  And, the better student I can be, the more I see how intertwined are these lessons from my 10-square-foot patch, as well as how learning these virtues is the fastest way to success in the discipline at hand.
(a tiny pumpkin, just beginning)

Perhaps it's a throwback to my own back-to-school days. (I just received an invitation to my high school reunion, by the way - I won't say which year!) Or, perhaps it's a reaction to the build-up and recession of the 9/11 anniversary and the desire to start my life again on September 12th each year.  Whatever the impetus, fall feels like a new beginning to me and a time to learn with a fresh, open mind and a renewed earnestness.

As much as I'd love to catechize, I am not the teacher but the student.  And, I am learning so very much.
(the garden expansion.  it's a blank slate, kinda like me.)

I must be honest with myself if I am to grow a darned thing! Are the tomatoes blighted because there's been too much rain, or because I do not have them in a properly draining pot?  Are the pumpkin vines taking over the garden but refusing to produce any fruit because pumpkins are simply fussy, or because they are essentially growing in mulch and not getting enough soil nutrition?  Are the carrots straight and bright because they are inherently able to withstand compacted soil, or because I actually spent the time to prepare a bed that was deep and soft enough for them?
(the tomatoes are doing okay, but the acorn squash have faltered.)

What have I done well, and where have I fallen short?  If I fail to see the mistakes I've made, I will certainly repeat them and end up with tough, bitter lettuces in my salad.  Or no salad at all. If I blame the acorn squash without taking responsibility for my part in its stunted growth, I will likely never enjoy its sweetness...  Unless I buy one that some other successful gardener produced for me.  (That's enabling, in my opinion, but I'll save that for another post.)  This isn't judgement of my quality as a gardener or as a person; It's just honesty.

Patience is a virtue, as we all know, and there is no place better to practice it than in a garden.  No matter how many times I inspect those peppers, they are not going to grow any faster.  Oh, they'd be fast and large with a bit of chemical fertilizer, but they'd also be bland and would leave me feeling cheap and empty.  No, sometimes, I just have to wait.
(bell pepper buds)

And, sometimes I wait indefinitely and... nothing.  I face defeat and disappointment.  Sometimes, I'm just not going to get what I want no matter how long I wait or how hard I try to coax it out of the ground.  I suppose I could get all infuriated at those stubborn potatoes.  I could curse and turn myself red and shake my fists.  I could tear up the ground or weep.  I could go back to blaming the stupid weather - something that feels good in the moment but guarantees continued failure.

I could also take a deep breath and inhale the freshness of the dew on the cabbages.  And, when I'm calm again, I could dig down deep enough to discover the rocks and debris below the pretty, superficial topsoil.

Oh, sure.  The kids might go in there and knock something over or a mole might get in and munch the root vegetables.  A hurricane did actually hit!  But it doesn't help to curse at the wind.  Maybe if I spend more time showing those kids how to treat the stalks gently...

Yes, this is metaphor, folks.  A little trite, but nonetheless true.

Chances are, I can always look to myself for a solution, even when there is a confluence of events beyond my control.  I just ask myself what my own part might be.  If I'm honest and patient and hard-working, if I enjoy the successes and bear the failures, then I will be rewarded with a gold star in the corner of my paper.  Or a big bowl of bush beans.

In the words of Billy Joel, Honesty is such a lonely wo-ord.  It is lonely sometimes to take responsibility, to be honest, in a world that seems to be built on deflecting blame and stealing credit.  But, there's no room for that nonsense in a garden.  I go to my classroom, especially in autumn, and my teacher pats me gently and knowingly on the back and says, I am here with you and I will help you learn.  Let's start with these cucumbers...

I wish today for patience and to look to myself, not just in the garden but in life.

I am thankful for all great teachers.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tuesdays with Betsy

Each weekday afternoon, Luba and I wait for our kids at the bus stop on my corner.  If it's rainy, we wait in her car.  We usually get there early to have some girl time, even though we know the bus won't arrive for half an hour.  Friends are like that. On Tuesday, Luba handed me a box of a dozen Godiva Dessert Chocolates, telling me that they go good with a cry.

And, crying is on my agenda this week.

Friends and food and feelings are all intertwined in ways we don't often stop to ponder.  But, they are the crux of my thinking and the hidden impetus behind my writing.

I realize I'm being a bit vague, to I'll just get to it... This Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  I am not just another blogger making note of it, though.  I am among its widows.  Those of you who know me personally know this story by heart and probably have your own memories to share.  For the sake of readers who don't know - and, frankly, for my own healing - I'll share some of this story.

Friends and family had just surprised Ari with a birthday bash for his upcoming thirtieth birthday.  But, he didn't live to see his actual birthday or the birth of his son, Gabi.  We wouldn't celebrate the first anniversary of our BBQ-style backyard wedding, either.  All of these, September celebrations. Ariel Louis Jacobs - Ari - was attending a conference at Windows on the World on the top floor of the North Tower on the morning of September 11, 2001.  He died, and all the what left, four years later, were a few bones and a frequent flyer card.

I was a twenty-seven-year-old, widowed, single mom.  And, grieving horribly.

My family drove from Minnesota to wait with me, knowing. We waited in my house for two days for my husband to come home.  In the dawning hours of September 13th, I perched lightly on a couch next to my dad and said, "He's gone, isn't he."  It wasn't a question.
(Ari and me at our backyard wedding in 2000)

Cheese platters and cookie trays and pans of baked ziti arrived along with the throngs of people who decorated my home for the two weeks following 9/11.  There was no room on my countertops, my fridge.  We borrowed space from neighbors.  My mom chased me with bananas, and my dad ran out for milkshakes.  I couldn't eat any of it.  And, I didn't want to talk to anyone.  I hid in my baby's nursery, organizing the jumpers and onesies people were leaving on my doorstep, grateful for the hum of activity in the rooms beyond, and staring at the little airplane-and-cloud border I'd painted a few weeks earlier.

It is friendship that ultimately brought me to food.  And, food that brought me to nature.  And, nature that is bringing me, each day, to myself.  For me, these are the elements of health and healing.

(a photoshop rendering of what would have been my family.)
Betsy Mitchell knocked on my door, while I was nursing one day, and gave her number to my mom.  Betsy checked in on me occasionally.  She was specific in offering me help, as when she offered to stay with baby Gabi so I could visit Ground Zero.  Later, the most important offer, to have dinner with her family on Tuesday night.  I went back every Tuesday for a year.

Her sons would play with Gabi on the family room floor of Betsy's perfectly warm and wonderful home while I sat at the butcher block island pouring out my grief and shoveling in hors d'oeuvres.  Betsy's husband Mark would get home from work, and we'd share a meal of the most delicious home cooking I've ever had.

Every Tuesday.

I met Chad in November of 2002, and we quickly moved in together, which required me to sell my beloved Westchester home and relocate to Connecticut.  (Goodbye Tuesday dinners.) I played house again.  I fell in love again.

Chad and I married on March 1, 2004.  We had two more boys to add to my son and his daughter.  We had a family.  But, we were both still grieving our respective losses.  We will likely always be in recovery from our pain, to be honest, but we've come a long way.  In part, this is because we have both embraced a philosophy that respects our natural world, and we share this love for "all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small."
(a newly married family, 2004)

In our new home, new town, I discovered nature that existed in neither suburban home of my childhood nor the bustling energy of the city.  I wasn't gardening yet, but I spent time in the quiet of the woods or the rustling of the lawn.  I made dinner for my family with the freshest ingredients I could find.  My neighbor had chickens, which I thought was kooky-but-cool.  I learned.

My relationship with food has, in many ways, been an evolution like any other healthy, dynamic relationship.  The more I learn, the more I fall in love.  From getting recipes from friends to visiting farmers markets, from watching documentaries to planting my own garden, I have grown as a human being.

When I stand in my garden in my muck-boots and my nearly ten-year-old son's rain jacket - a gift from summer camp for 9/11 kids - stringing twine around bamboo poles for my bush beans to climb, I feel at peace.  There is something beyond me, a greatness in the all-encompassing universe.  The drizzle isn't cold at all - it's exactly what it needs to be.  And, my heart warms against the icy pain of my loss.  Tending my garden is tending my soul, which needs care each and every day.

One thing has led to another across the todays of the last decade. From loss, there is healing and hope.  There is friendship, food, and the ability to remember without crumbling...  And, to feel truly happy without forgetting.

I am thankful to have had love with Ari, and to have found it, revised, with Chad.  I am thankful to be so in love with my children.  And, I am thankful for the friends who support me and the garden that heals me.

I wish to remember these lessons on days when love and gratitude feel distant. (Yes, we all have those days, including me.)  I wish for those who grieve to have friends bearing chocolate.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Labor Day

My six-year-old has been obsessed with his baby pictures of late.  Especially since we don't have much "electronic time," he's taken to watching photos flash by on my computer screen and calling out when Brenner-as-as-baby whizzes by.  Now, he's figured out how to get to iPhoto and look up my 2005 album so he can have himself all to himself.  I think it's more than just screen time that he's seeking, though.
(Brenner's favorite picture, 2005)

We all want to remember the baby months, that mythical time when Mom and Dad must have been perfect and all our needs were met on demand.  For most of us, that might have been nearly true.

"Tell me about when I was born!" Brenner insists when I tuck him in at night.

"Okay, babe." I say, then tell all about how the nurses took him for a bath then came back without him so I could sleep, how I told those nurses that I didn't want sleep -- I want my baby!"

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, "Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.  It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."
(Westley, 2007)

I am a stay-home-mom, so my contributions to strength, prosperity, and well-being are in the form of my children... and the way I choose to care for them.  One day I will send each of them out into the world to make their own contributions to the world.  For me, Labor Day is literally a celebration of the labor and delivery of my children.

Remembering each of those days through baby pictures seems an appropriate celebration.

We spent time together yesterday, just being.  We put the bikes in the back of the minivan and unloaded them at Sherwood Island State Park.  A ride along the beach, with Westley on the "tagalong" behind my own bike, was delightful.  We pulled off and walked down to the jetties so the kids could look for crabs under the rocks.  Hundreds of fiddlers and hermits, wet and racing, entertained them just the way kids should be entertained.

No day of reflection would be complete without a little time in the garden, too.  I had intended to write today about what I did there, but, really, how interesting would another list about what I'd dug up and re-planted be?
(Gabi, 2001)

That question posed, my backyard contribution to the well-being of our world isn't insignificant.  Oh, I'm not feeding Africa exactly, but I'm feeding my family and feeding our souls.  When I'm tilling the soil, which desperately needed tilling, I think not only of my own labors, but of those of American farmers without government subsidies who work the land the way it's supposed to be done.  What a contribution there!  And, I think about a woman in Afghanistan clinging to the one cracked pot she might have to cook whatever she can find for the children she lovingly labored into the world.
(Maddie is my step-daughter, so my labor of love began in 2003 when she was 4 years old.)

As I watch my investments decline again, and worry about my own future, it's the simple things that bring me back to the glories of this very day.  The luxuries are nice while I have them, but all I really need is my family and a little garden.

At this point, anything I plant probably won't have enough time to produce anything edible, but I plant it anyway, just to watch it grow.  Just as I had my children, just to watch them grow.

(Brenner, Gabi, Maddie & Westley, September 1, 2011)

I am thankful for the fulfilling work of raising children.

I wish that those who are without employment find enriching, well-paying work.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Back Online After Irene

Whoa!  What a week!  To be honest, I loved every minute of powerlessness, in the electrical sense and metaphorically.  It is with respect to those that lost their homes - their lives - that I truly enjoyed the time with my family that was made so special by being without luxuries like tv, the Internet, hot water, night-lights.  I'm sorry, but I have nothing to complain about.

My kids and I slept in one bedroom with blankets all over the floor, did bicycle triage in the driveway then went for a ride, played guitar and made up verses to "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain" out on the deck when it was too dark inside the house.  The stars, without all the light pollution, were spectacular.  No one begged for television or Nintendo.  I was unable to do a good portion of my usual work because I had no working computer - only my iPhone - so I had to accept that slow pace that I so dream about most other days.  For five days, I was gloriously free!

As always, new circumstances provide an opportunity for adventure with food.  Hmm, let's throw out that nasty ranch sauce!  What was I thinking with that anyway?  And, what will go bad first?  I'll make a meal out of that tonight.  We tried two new restaurants, and discovered that Roly Poly actually has a couple really good vegetarian wraps.  Who knew?

After uprighting all the garden pots that had blown over, I plucked some tomatoes, beets, carrots, the last bell pepper, and combined them with market-bought eggplant and zucchini.  With a little balsamic marinade, the grill, and a pot of bamboo rice, we had a meal.  Another night, we had a roasted quash and some leftover Endive Salad with Roasted Brussels Sprouts.  This has got to be one of my all-time favorites!  In the mornings, the kids had omelets while I heated coffee on the stove and learned to sip it without cream.  (I am back to cream, though, I have to admit.)

We did have one near-catastrophe:  The sunflowers.  The soil under them was so saturated, it was like quick-sand, and the giant nine-foot stalks just fell over.  But, with some patience and twine, Chad and I tied them up to the side of the chicken run, gently mushing the roots back into the soil.  Today, they are standing on their own, only a little worse-for the wear.  Five of them were genuine fatalities, and I brought the flowers in to brighten the somewhat dim kitchen table.  Now that I have the Internet back, I can easily research how to harvest the seeds!

My neighbor's ground became saturated, too, and a gorgeous red oak fell over at the root.  It took out power to their house, and they are now the only family in the neighborhood without power.  It was sad to see my sunflowers laying on the ground, but it's all about perspective.  I didn't lose an oak, and I have electricity again.

As I look around, I see that Nature has a plan for herself.  The experiment known as my garden is a microcosm of this plan.  I have new cucumbers, the tomatoes are still ripening, the pumpkin vines are crawling along, and there are brand new bean shoots climbing up their trellis.

Now we are back to normal.  While most of the nearby schools postponed their opening day until September 6th, our schools started last Thursday, only two days late.  I have restocked the fridge with essentials, and that's all we really need anyway.

Well, we are almost back to normal.  I am still getting out the guitar in the evenings, and the kids are only mildly annoyed that I won't let them watch tv.  The boys no longer need a bright night-light to go to sleep.  They're enjoying each other's company a bit more, too.  We're out of the habit of turning all the lights on, and we are only using what is most needed.  Now if only I could get Chad to shut off the air conditioning!  Well, I guess it's okay, as long as we know it's luxury and not a necessity.

I have an oven again, and I'm grateful to have it.  But, I know that sometimes the tastiest meal is the one you need - not the one you think you want.  Maybe I won't stress out so much now when I don't have a gourmet meal prepared.  I can walk twenty steps from my back yard and just pick out something delicious that Nature already prepared.

Today, I am thankful for what Hurricane Irene taught me about necessity vs. luxury.  I'm thankful for getting back to the basics with my kids for a few days.

I wish that those who are still suffering or recovering from the storm have their necessities restored and peace in their hearts.