Monday, March 12, 2018

In My Kitchen

My kitchen.

Lately, it is the only place I want to be.

It almost never looks like this, though. That photo up top is an older one, "showing the house for the blog" clean, and well, we definitely don't live like that. Ever. 

It often looks more like this, when I'm in the throes of some manic baking (that's a thing, here.)

Women aren't supposed to cook the way I do, any more. We aren't supposed to have the time. I don't either. And yet, I still shove little bits and pieces of my schedule aside, put in some prep hours on Sundays, cook two meals on a free night to have a hot meal on the busy one, anything I can do to elbow other priorities out of the way so that I can cook.

I don't always want to. I cook regularly for five, all with different tastes and preferences, some of them finicky. Some (most) days I come home tired from work, and I get out of patience for everyone's delicate sensibilities when it comes to casseroles and vegetables and whatever else. Fine. Eat a sandwich for all I care. There's a local breakfast cafe that has its cheeky motto painted on the wall: "Just like home, you can't always get what you want." True that. There's not a lot of romance to the day in, day out aspect of cooking.

When the entire crew visits, which is my kids plus Tom's kids (eight of them), I cook for armies-- grandparents and significant others and friends. We budge around the edges of rooms crowded by expanded tables and cook extra potatoes in big pots and take out the trash, hourly it seems.

The kitchen is not only hard-used, it's showing it. When we moved into this house I had installed new Formica counters and a stainless steel sink on the early 70s-era birch cabinets, refinished those, and painted. I never got to the floor, which is fake vinyl parquet, with broken corners and permanently ground-in dirt.

There's almost always flour  spilled on it; it's ugly and dirty and mopping seems to make no difference.

The dishwasher keeps chugging along, but it is more than 10 years old and I fear every day might be its last. The refrigerator drawers make me cuss.

But I want to be here. In my kitchen. Even when it's a mess, even when it's just hot dogs, even when it's crammed to bursting with people and pots, even when I think for the billionth time that those janky casement windows are going to be the reason we freeze (winter) or roast (summer).

Why do I want to be here? It's too easy to simply say I like to cook, because there's more to it than that. There's something more essential going on. I know this because especially now, with the world gone mad and work gone dull and schedule so full, I find myself, every weekend, up in my own kitchen, scrubbing the counters and making grocery lists, chopping vegetables and inventing bread recipes.

Cherry-almond bread. It wasn't a failure, but the experiment needs further research.

Some of it is in the genetics. The women who raised me cooked because they had to, but also to sustain family labor, to celebrate milestones and endure griefs, to show love. I know there are dietary experts out there who decry the use of food as way to show love, but I feel they are dead wrong, feel it so strongly that it's probably worth an entirely separate piece of journal writing.

There's an old relationship self-help book called the Five Love Languages, and it names "acts of devotion" as one of those languages. Cooking and baking are my act of devotion. That's why, when people ask me "why are you going to that much trouble?" when I've dirtied every bowl in the house making a particularly difficult cake recipe, or decide that homemade tomato soup really is better than canned, I blink at them. The word "trouble" never entered my mind while I was doing it. It is why, even though I am an introvert and am sometimes overwhelmed by a packed household, I will gladly plan meals for as many as 15-20 people at a time, populate my kitchen with volunteer (or not so volunteer) potato peelers and dish washers, and siblings being silly. I may be on the sofa with a cup of coffee and a book the next day, restoring my introvert equilibrium. But I will never regret the act of devotion inherent in those meals, those cakes, those occasions.

It's not just the cooking, either. Acts of devotion have taken a lot of forms in this room.

Like flirting with the resident handyman as he passes in and out, working on his own acts.

And represented in items from others, like this pie plate from my sister and quilted runner made by my mother. I love all the warm colors.

 Celebrations of all sorts:

Ben and Joe are 14 now. That was fast, wasn't it? They still like as much candy and frosting on the cake as I can manage, though.

Spending time together, doing whatever:

Let me introduce you to Eli, Tom's son, who was teaching himself how to knit two Thanksgivings ago.

I'll also freely admit to some pretty low-rent drinking in this kitchen. Maybe not an act of devotion exactly, but there it is, part of the mix. Some of the best times I've ever had with friends have been drinking at my kitchen table with a bowl of chips in the middle, card game optional.

That goes for the refrigerator magnets of questionable humor, as well. We have questionable humor in this house as a general rule, though, and it gets us through a lot of days where the acts of devotion are harder to manage with grace.

It's been a trite turn of phrase forever that the kitchen is the heart of the home. I think it's probably actually the hands, because I keep returning to the idea of those acts of devotion. Those acts. Just like the cooking and baking, it must be practiced daily to keep getting better at it--not just the glory and pride of serving up some beautiful thing to others, but also the time, the preparation, the work, the attention to detail, the correction of errors, the cleaning up of the daily living of life afterwards. There must be rhythm, ritual, regularity, and maintenance. Sometimes there are messes to clean up. It can't be done any other way than getting your hands on it, and getting to work.

I seem to need that part of my kitchen right now, and it's why I want to so fully inhabit it. I've got things I need to get my hands on. I can start, at least, with making dinner for the people I love. What comes next, I'll learn by practicing daily. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Love and Ashes

A Presbyterian minister friend of mine reminded me, via her social media post, that yesterday was not only Valentine's Day, but also Ash Wednesday.



Love and ashes.

First the love: Valentine's Day. Ick. For the last many years, I've been a staunch Valentine's Day protestor. Ick about the sentimentality, ick about the consumerism. Ick about about the sexism, the bad chocolate, the over-priced roses, the crowded restaurants, the unhappily married people pretending, the uncoupled people feeling left out and demoralized. Ick, ick, ick. Real love is grittier than red paper lace and candy hearts. Love in real life is troubled, loud, a little insane, playing balls out and for keeps, sweating and bleeding; but also brilliant, gentle, transcending, physical, drunken with joy and laughter. There is no greeting card that can encompass that messy glory and pain.

So much for the saint's day. I'm a little better at the religious observance of ashes, but not by much. Raised as a Lutheran, I'm (very, very) familiar with the church calendar, the cycle of penitence, death, and resurrection told and retold through thousands of years of Christianity. While I have deep respect for the tradition, faith and religion no longer inhabit the same place in my heart. I did not go to church; but I also would not refuse the ashes if a priest or pastor were to offer them to me. Because the truest gospel of all, regardless of belief, is that we are all dust, and to dust we shall return. We are all marked with that failure.

Because we fail, we also fail in love. Imperfect, selfish, uninformed, misguided, frightened, jealous, distracted, exhausted, addicted, proud, irritated, angry, bored, lazy, stubborn--we all get in the way of ourselves, even with our best and highest aspirations.

Because to love is to aspire. To die is to fail. We do both, but we are rather more honest about our aspirations than our failures, even the ultimate one. For me, right now at age 50, with aspirations and failures in roughly (I hope) equal measure, it's time to reflect. I will keep my aspirations, because even though they're battered, they still sing to me when I dream, and that makes them worth keeping. But it's time to be just as honest about the failures. It is time to gather my ashes, sweep them into a pile, inventory the remains of what has burned down.

That all sounds pretty dark, doesn't it? It definitely does in comparison to our culture's current, relentlessly cheerful continuous quality improvement model. The one that says if we can only buy this one thing or stick to that diet or earn that promotion, we'll be some better more perfect version of ourselves in some sunshiny point in the future, chasing an ideal of perfectibility that is always just out of reach, on the horizon. It keeps us forever on the hook of hope and optimism, which are awfully shiny and attractive concepts, but shallow ones. They never pay off, ever, with contentment or harmony or self-knowledge, which are ultimately more satisfying, but require an honesty so brutal that it's easier to stay distracted than face it.

Instead of darkness, though, I'm finding freedom and relief, coming to terms with the failure. Realizing that it's built into the system. All systems, all things. Relationships, bodies, cultures, objects. Me. You. Everybody. That doesn't change (or excuse) the consequences. People hurt because of failures. But the acknowledgement seems to bear a certain kind of witness and power, though, like the crosses of ash on the foreheads of Christians all over the globe. We are all weak together. So now what?

New things arise from failure. That's built into the system too. It runs through our folklore and myth across cultures, from Native American legends to Christ to Brahma and Shiva. It's right there in nature too-- organisms fail and die, are subsumed into the soil that feeds the freshest blooms, the sustaining crops, the ecological chain of life. Out of the ashes of failures and death, something else is born. But we can't love-- we can't aspire-- until we see our failures with clear eyes. Label our mistakes, repair our gates, tend to the wounded, grieve our losses, sort through the rubble to find what was worthy enough to survive and use again. The hard truth is that we'll cycle through love and ashes many times and in many forms throughout our life. I'm beginning to realize that although that part is unavoidable, trying to ignore the ugly half pretty much guarantees we won't get the half we want--anyway not in any form that really sustains us.

I'm living at that transition right now, learning to fully see and account for my failures while I build something new out of the rubble. My hands are dirty, my heart is full, and I'm making little piles here and there of what to keep and what to discard. I finally see that this is the real work of a fully lived life.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Start Writing

When I worked for a newspaper, the editor-in-chief was a kind, bespectacled man, but with a sort of roll-up-your-shirtsleeves attitude toward writing. While he firmly believed good print journalism can be both literary art form and an act of service to society, he also had a small and sometimes unruly newsroom of reporters he had to herd toward a press deadline every day.

News journalism has a standard form they call the inverted pyramid; there's a lead (spelled "lede") sentence containing the most newsworthy priority piece of information. Then other important and supporting details come next. Then, background details that help flesh out a more complete picture.

My problem as a reporter was that my mind did not and does not work that way. It does a lot of sorting of small details first, and then builds a picture of an entire situation. I'm not looking at the time of day, I'm looking at the back of the clock, and noticing how all the gears turn. I'd often return to the paper after interviews, research, and events with such a disorganized swirl in my head that I'd pace the larger circle of the first floor, through the coatroom, through the front office, back through the newsroom and loop through the print shop, restlessly, trying to wrangle my lede into place mentally.

The ticking deadline clock usually caught up with me. "Start writing," Editor would say, more advice than command. And so I would know that regardless of the state of my thoughts, it was time to pour the coffee, get my ass in the chair, and get something to the copy editors before they became volatile.

While his words were primarily about meeting the demands of the news cycle, it also put a simple, two-word directive on the circular conundrum of my writing life. I want to write words that have order and meaning.  But I also depend on words to help me find order and meaning. I cannot seem to have both at once, so I'm both afraid to start (where is the meaning?), but afraid if I don't I will never find it or the right, beautiful, true words.

That conundrum has had me stuck in place for months, both professionally (I still write for a living, though not for a newspaper), and personally. I'm supposed to love this. This is supposed to be who I am. But for the longest time, writing has been an act of pacing the perimeter of the room. For the longest time, I forgot the wisdom of "start writing."

I'm trying to remember it now. I'm trying to put my finger down on a place in that circular conundrum, and write forward toward meaning, rather than trying to pluck all the right words from the swirl of chaos, both good and bad, that life presents to me.

Stay tuned. Because my ass is in the chair.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The 'Laundry Basket of Home Improvement Updates' Post

It's not that I've been holding back on my blog readers, exactly, but there's a point at which you're so busy you can't put down the paint brush/nailer/shovel to write about what you're doing. I suppose "too much to write about" is a good problem to have, but it does tend to pile up like baskets of clean laundry. Sooner or later you feel guilty that you haven't gotten around to folding it and putting it away. So this post is a folding and putting away of home improvement news, a big update with lots of things to offer, including sunflowers at the beginning and at the end. Ready?

There have been a lot of exterior home improvements checked off the list in the last few months and even more going back almost a year. I mean A LOT. As in punch-drunk with exhaustion and still juggling paint brushes, power tools, sunscreen, and wasp spray a lot.

Well, at least I am. The exhausted part, anyway. Boyfriend Tom is one of those cheerfully energetic people who can work their way through a long DIY to-do list with amazing speed. That's mostly awesome. But on the days where I think I might need a nap, or a beer, or some time for my anxiety-predisposed brain to hyper-analyze the situation, he keeps the table-saw running, and pretty soon I've got another paint project to follow up with.

Except for one thing: the roof. That we hired done. It was well overdue; it was past 20 years old and while I had not had any problems with it yet, I didn't want to wait until I did. Here's a before, from June of last year:

Not only was it looking pretty tired and worn out, it was a pale gray that didn't really "go" with the warm red/browns of the brick foundation and chimney So we picked out shingles that we hoped would pull the entire exterior together. Here's tear-off day. The house is old enough the roof was decked with boards rather than sheeting. Still sound, after all these years!

Here is the finished roof: 

Not shown is a new gutter and downspout system which went in a few days later, routed in a different direction to address some damp basement issues we'd been having. While it has been too dry of a summer to really say for certain that it solved the problem completely, our foundation stayed dry through the last two flash-flood level rains that we have had, which makes us hopeful.

It is embarrassing to admit how long exterior painting has gone on around here. Seasons. Years, even. Too long. That's totally on me, but I'm going to plead single parenthood. But guess what? It's done! (hugs herself, giggles maniacally)

Here's a "getting close" photo of the south (driveway) side of the house.

We had to borrow a longer ladder to get to the peaky-peak of the gable.

And here's the back of the house, a screen-porch, kitchen, attic bedroom shot:

But we are not done with exterior home improvement yet. Wait, there's more!

Tom, with help from me, and various of our boys at various times, built a fence across our back property line.

We "stole" the design from a fence in a neighborhood where we like to walk. Here's some during shots. We also had the yard all torn up, since we were not only digging post holes, but planning a garden bed.

Here it is finished. We plan to let it weather. I like the silvery gray of weathered wood with garden greenery and flowers. 

Here is what my backyard neighbor sees. I think she was as tired of the peeling pink paint as I was, and now we have our backside (ahem) all spanking new. 

But wait, there's more!

A vegetable bed!

This was my son Grant's gift of labor to me while he lived at home between college and the start of his new job. It was an enormous undertaking, and Tom is still hauling dirt for it, since it has settled some since we first filled it.

Here's what it looked like yesterday evening.

The bed was done in the last weeks of May. We got a late start on the actual gardening part, but we put in tomatoes, peppers,  and summer squash, and we've had a decent amount of produce considering the season was shortened on the front end. The tomatoes caught up pretty admirably.

And here's the fence row again, now in late August:

I got a packet of sunflower seeds that said it was mixed varieties 4-6 ft in height, to fill in some space quickly in a flower bed that was just getting started with new perennials.  Um, yeah. Right now we seem to be in the 5-8 ft. range with these babies, and no end in sight. There's a rose bush hidden in there somewhere, believe it or not. The rose will survive the shade in the short term and I don't plan to plant any annuals that are quite so large next year. But they're impressive, aren't they?

While Tom has taken the lead on the outside projects shared here, I've been working on the inside of the house this summer. I'll share some of those with readers soon. It's been a busy year!