Nimble

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“Nimble” is the word of the day.  As in a phone call from your husband at 7:55 a.m., “Uh, any chance that school is cancelled today?”  As in hours spent in the big blue chair, holding a little one with an earache, while a mountain of laundry taunts you from across the room.  As in, “Of course you can have Girl Scout cookies for a breakfast tea party.”  As in, “Hey girls, how about a little John Denver interpretive dance?”  As in, “Yes, sometimes we go to sleep before the sun.”

It’s been one of those days.  This is the fourth time that our family has gone to school, only to find the parking lot, the sidewalks, the school deserted.  Yes, I know that there is an early warning system.  I am sure that it is really easy to sign up for.  The problem, however, is that when I make out my daily triage list of Things That Need to Get Done, that particular task never makes it to the top.  Instead, I imagine all the other children in our neighborhood, noses pressed against windows, pointing to my bundled, school-going children, saying, “What are they doing?”

I was thankful for the closing today, though.  It meant that I didn’t have to take the babe with the earache out into the dank and damp.  My two eldest ran wild, spurred by that special kind of energy that only a snow ice day can produce (that and the cookies that kept disappearing from the pantry).

So, you know, some (many) things did not get done.  I suppose, however, that life is about more than that.  It’s about the moments when you can find grace in the chaos.  The gentleness that you find within yourself, in order to hold a little one who has surely used up his daily allotment of tears.   The patience you can locate (even if it means scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel) in order to start again after harsh words are spoken.  And if a can of refried beans surfaces for supper, and if there’s a little kitchen music to be had as well, then we’ll call it good.

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Blueberry Smoothies

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Our smoothie-maker exploded.  Seriously.  It was a Magic Bullet, circa 1999, that my brother ordered for me via a late night infomercial.  That’s right; we were making smoothies long before they graced the covers of food magazines and turned heads on Pinterest. During its employment with us, the Magic Bullet served us up a conservative estimate of 5,475 smoothies.

It’s been coughing for awhile.  Sputtering.  Leaking, even.  But I was not expecting the poof of smoke and the explosive “Pop!” that signaled its actual demise.  I will admit that I did not (yet) throw it away.  I will.  In a fit of spring cleaning I’ll get frustrated by all the “stuff” littering our kitchen cabinets and out it will go.  For now, however, it sits in the same corner of our cupboard, cord neatly wrapped, a kitchen gadget that–through daily service–has actually been deemed “useful”.

My grandma was the first one to turn me on to smoothies.  I was sitting at her kitchen table, drinking tea, when she told me about this recipe she found in Reader’s Digest: 1/2 a frozen banana, a cup of yoghurt, orange juice.  I went home, tried it: hooked.

The combinations are endless, of course, and precise measurements are not necessary. There is, however, one smoothie that our family turns to, again and again: Blueberry. Folks, we go through cases of frozen blueberries around here.  You don’t need me to tell you how good these berries are for you: they make the news on a regular basis.  I will tell you that my youngest demands one of these every afternoon.

Note: it is important to use frozen berries–it gives the smoothie a frosty, thick consistency. Additionally, during the summer months, I add a few mint leaves before I blend everything together: lovely.

Blueberry Smoothie 

1 banana

1 cup frozen blueberries

1/2 cup frozen cherries

3/4 cup soy milk (or other milk)

1/4 cup orange juice

1 T. ground flax seed

Blend until smooth and frothy.  Makes two medium or one large glass.

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Soon

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Sniffling.  Coughing.  Late nights.  Middle-of-the-nights.  Early mornings.  Cooped-up, we seem to be passing around viruses like a bowl of popcorn.  Someone takes a handful. Spends the day on the couch.  Then the next person.  Another day on the couch.  Dog laying on feverish feet.  Lots of Barnyard Tea (our family’s name for Buckwheat Honey with warm water and lemon).  Every day I wash a load of pajamas and hankies.

Tonight, walking the dog in the newly lit evening, it felt so good to be outside without a hat. The wind was not yet cold enough to be anything more than energizing.  The rain, that came earlier in the day, left behind a warm, muddy-earth smell that made me believe that we’d see the sun again.

Rain in February makes me cross.  Makes me look longingly at my cross country skis, standing in the corner like they’ve been bad.  But rain in March, that gives me hope. Soon our plain brown farm eggs will be boiled and dyed.  Dresses admired.  Cakes will be baked, dinners planned.  Baskets will be decorated.  The tulips are already starting to peek out beneath their beds of compost (part of me wants to shout out, “Be careful!  Not too soon!”)

We’re still snuggling under layers of blankets and winter quilts.  The snow shovel still stands at attention, next to our front door.  But just as we shed our own aches and chills, I expect that the world around us–soon–will do the same.

She came back

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Millie ran away.  Well, okay, she was outside, on her lead.  She barked; I came out. Somehow my presence signaled, “Chase!”  So wild was her running and jumping and diving and twisting, that the force of her movements opened her collar.  (This is a collar safety feature that I was unaware of until today.  This seems like an important piece of information that should be included with your purchase, similar to the little warning that they post about airbags on car visors: will open in the event of a crash.)

I could hardly blame her.  How good that must feel.  To run.  To really see what those legs of hers can do.  I get it.  The best piece of advice I got at puppy school was “Sometimes you gotta let a dog be a dog.”  But still.  There I was, baby on one hip, barely dressed, busted collar at my feet, puppy with a wild look about her, zigzagging out of sight. I honestly thought, “That’s it.  That’s the last of Millie.”  (Can you tell I’m a new dog owner?) I went into the middle of the street to stop traffic (well, okay, the one car that ended up parking, two doors down), “If a wild brown puppy comes up to you, will you hold onto her for me?”

“You talking about that dog that just ran in front of my car?  She headed south and she had some look in her eye; I don’t know that she’ll be coming back.”  Huh.  Not encouraging.

The superhero of the house, my five-year old, chose that moment to barge out the door, barreling down the steps, a squeaky toy in each hand, “Millie!  Come home!”  I shook myself out of my resigned stupor to join the chase, “Millie!  Millie!” –Squeak!  Squeak!–

Our little parade got as far as the corner, when we spotted our pup trotting through the neighbor’s backyard, “Millie?” –Squeak! Squeak!–  It was a strange, frozen moment.  I saw the three of us on one side of the street.  Me: disheveled and desperate.  The babe: hair sticking up in every direction, blueberry smoothie mustache, terribly excited by this wild new game.  The five-year old: hot pink from head to toe, mud splattered, achingly earnest, a one girl squeaky toy punk band.

Millie lifted her head.  I saw her hesitate.  Consider the lure of compost, yet to be discovered.  Dreams of wild bands of squirrels, conquered.  Oh, the places she could run! But when she cocked her head to one side, that sweet little gesture that I’ve come to know, I knew we had her.  A shift happened.  So far we had been the ones doing the choosing, but now she would choose us.  Crossing the street, tail wagging, as if to tell us about everything she’d seen and smelled.  That was it.  It was a good day to be a dog, and now she’d come home.

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Biscuit and Tea

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“This is Biscuit.

Biscuit is small.

Biscuit is yellow.”

Every day it is the same.  See the girls off to school.  Feed and walk Millie.  Make a cup of tea.  Read Biscuit (by Alyssa Satin Capucilli).  Read it twenty times.  Take my last swig of tea.  Rally the troops–me, the toddler, and MIllie–for morning chores.

All of my children have had favorite books.  Some last a few days; others are stories that they will most likely read to their own children.  But when they love something, they love it. Like, let’s sit here and read this book twenty times love it.

Confession: there are times when we get to the end of a story and I have no idea how we got there.  Somewhere between “This is Biscuit” and “Good night, Biscuit” my mind goes on a little vacation, visiting the Land of Lists:  Things I Need to Do; Important Phone Calls to Make; Supper Ideas;…

Likewise, although it is perfectly understandable that my mind may go numb after a few readings of Biscuit, list-making while reading doesn’t make me more productive, it makes me irritable.  Not only am I not enjoying the time that I set aside to read with my son, but I end up feeling rather anxious about all the things I have yet to do.  The Land of Lists is not a relaxing place.

It is also about the quality that I bring to the task of parenting.  This is what I’m choosing to do right now, and physically showing up is only part of the job.  When I can be there with my child, really there: When I feel the warmth of him sitting beside me, notice the way he giggles when I bark, “Woof!”, enjoy my cup of tea, and the stillness that we share before continuing on with our day.

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Take a walk

Sunday.  A good day to take a walk.  Hear stories along the way.  Throw stuff (sticks and rocks and leaves and bits) into the creek, and–plop!–watch it drift away.  If you’re local, check out the University Nature Preserve: eight acres of trails, Riley Creek, the preserve pond, and an iconic swinging bridge.  Our family enjoys snow: skiing and sledding and building forts, but when the snow doesn’t stick around, there are times when we tire of the same old mucky-muck puddles that define our alley, our backyard, our dog-walking route. We need to get out.

Getting out is particularly important when you are outnumbered by young children.  When you are chopping vegetables; helping your youngest to “cook” alongside you; and stopping every thirty seconds to firmly shout “Off!” at the dog, who is on her hind legs, snitching a pepper from your cutting board: it is time to go outside.  When you hit your head trying to push said dog into her kennel; simultaneously coming down with a rollicking case of hiccups; and then turn the disposal on, only to have shards of a misplaced paintbrush shoot up at your face from the bowels of the sink: it is time to go outside.  When your husband discovers that he has not only neglected to wash his hockey jersey from his last game, but that it’s been balled up inside his bag for an uncomfortably long time: then it’s definitely time to go outside.

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I wish I could say that a stroll through the woods trumps domestic chaos, hands down. The problem, however, is that the chaos is strolling along with you.  Prepare for everyone to get muddy, for at least one person to get wet, for tears, complaints, and tired legs.  But also anticipate holding on to warm little hands, as you cross bridges and climb fallen trees; the joy of spotting a cardinal at the same time; the feeling of sun on your face; the crisp air; the crunch and squish of frozen mud beneath your feet; the look that you share over your children’s heads: “This is exactly what we needed.”

A boy and his pup

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“I have a puppy.

My puppy is very small.

He makes me feel very big.

He’s mine.”*

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Our pup is not so very small, but I can see that she makes my son feel big.  Perhaps it began the evening when he accidentally dropped a cookie down his pajamas.  Millie followed, nose first.  A pint-sized Pied Piper marching around the kitchen table, flaunting his newfound power, little teeth flashing in a grin: ear to ear.

The first month after we got Millie, I often found myself attempting to give dog treats to my boy, and even once (or twice) caught myself saying, “Sit!”  I was (and still am, truth be told) slightly horrified by this oversight, and yet I can see how such a mistake could be made: those two are thick as thieves (you must know, reader, that I use this allusion intentionally and literally).  Where there is one, there is often the other, and then there is trouble.

Developmentally, they both are into everything, everywhere, all the time.  I am already familiar with “baby-proofing”, as this is my third child, but now I have to think about “puppy-proofing” as well.  Between the two of them, my brain is stretched and reshaped and stretched again, several times a day:  Furniture is shuffled, gates are built, plants are moved to higher ground, gates are re-built, choking hazards are put into storage, toys and books and shoes and slippers and anything that can be placed inside a mouth are put away, outside ruckusing is prescribed, gates are re-built and re-inforced with towers of chairs, food is stored on high shelves, counters are wiped clean, art supplies (one likes to draw on walls, one has a peculiar appetite for crayons) are placed in high cabinets, granola bars and bags of flour and stray potatoes are confiscated, food is stored on higher shelves.  And nap time, my friends, is strictly enforced for all:

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*Rutherford, Bonnie and Bill.  How to Love a Puppy.  Norwalk: C.R. Gibson Company.  

Making friends (with people and dust)

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I was a new mother in a new town, eager for new friends, and I remember that first playdate well: a little girl with red curls, and her pregnant mama, whose husband had just started medical school, too.  I picked up.  I dusted.  I mopped (yes).  When they arrived, the table was set with a pot of tea, a warm coffee cake, candles (I know), and–most likely–Joni Mitchell playing in the background.  We did become friends.  But it wasn’t my clean floors, the way I set the table, nor my baking that brought us together.  Instead, we bonded over dirty laundry, and husbands who stayed up all night studying, and preschool-sized tantrums.

I’m going to be perfectly honest.  I love the details.  I do.  I like scouring cookbooks for a new recipe.  I can spend whole afternoons sketching out themed tea parties.  Cupcakes and savory galettes and coordinating craft projects are the kind of things that can keep me up at night (I’ve got some creative energy to burn).  One night this month I found myself–at midnight, mind you–cutting out tiny penguins to fix atop sprinkled cupcakes (a birthday treat for school), and there was a moment when I stopped and actually said to the dog, “What am I doing?!?”  Strangely enough, my immediate reaction was, “Oh.  I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”

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The flip side, however, is that people–and a puppy–actually live in our house.  Right now the contents of the art cabinet are spread out on the guest room bed, waiting to be organized (emphasis on waiting); there is laundry in various states in every room in the house, but mostly concentrated on our living room sofa; the Christmas decorations were finally wrapped up (but not yet put into the garage) last Monday, and this only happened because I paid my eldest children a dollar apiece to get the job done.

When I first moved to this town, I ended every conversation with, “If you’re ever in the neighborhood…,” and I’m still waiting for someone to take me up on it.  People are considerate.  They want to give you the opportunity to vacuum before descending on your doorstep.  My vacuum, unfortunately, has been broken for months, and I’m realizing that I would rather have friends than dust-free exchanges over perfectly turned out coffee cake.

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There are times when a themed tea party hits the spot.  And it’s nice to make an effort for company.  Ridding your bathroom of any scary, accidental science experiments is polite. But there’s something about sharing a cup of coffee with a friend, laughing while folding laundry, lingering over a sink of dirty dishes, or maybe ignoring the dishes altogether while you attempt an actual conversation in a child-free moment.  That’s when the friend part happens, and that’s the part I’m looking for.

Baked Oatmeal

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My friends, if you’re local, get yourselves to Town Hall.  Not only is it a beautifully restored space, but it’s something special when a town of our size has quality musicians performing on a Sunday evening–an intimate gathering of neighbors.  Relaxed enough that you’re dressed in jeans, but lovely enough that you want to sit up straight and pay attention.

Last night we enjoyed a rare solo performance by Robert Clemens, an eloquent cellist with the Toledo Symphony, and nibbled on delicacies prepared by the upcoming new eatery in town, Mustard Seed Cafe. My eldest, a cellist herself, on one side, my other daughter, the violinist, on my lap: an hour set aside for listening together.  Not a bad way to spend an evening (and the chocolate torte with lime custard sauce made it that much better).

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After our fine evening out, the kids woke up to baked oatmeal: a regular in our breakfast rotation.  It’s easy–I often mix the dry ingredients together the night before–and brings warmth to a cold, dark Monday morning.

Play around with it; it’s a forgiving recipe.  If you don’t like the tang of yogurt, we sometimes substitute milk (soy, in our case, but cow milk works well, too).  I give a range for the sugar. In my quest to use as little refined sugar as possible, while still enjoying what I’m eating, I often substitute maple syrup for some of the cane sugar.  My daughters beg for the addition of chocolate chips, and I occasionally add shredded coconut when no one is looking.  Eat it sliced up like a coffee cake, or in a bowl with milk and berries.  Whatever you do, enjoy!

Baked Oatmeal

Mix together:

2 large eggs, beaten

1 cup greek yogurt

1/4-1 cup brown sugar

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. vanilla

Stir in:

3 cups quick oatmeal

Pour into greased pie plate.  Bake at 350 degrees for approx. 25 minutes.  Serve warm.

Rest Stops

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A good friend of mine has banned glitter in her house.  Banned glitter, can you imagine?  I like things tidy.  I do.  But I also adamantly support mess in the pursuit of art.  All week, though, I’ve been hearing a lot of “Uh-oh.”  Followed by, “Mama, can Millie eat glitter?” There is enough glitter in my toddler’s hair, that if we turned him upside down and gave him a couple of shakes, we’d be able to decorate a few more doilyed red hearts.  I have new empathy for my friend’s position.

All this is to say that there has been a lot of deep breathing this week (and, admittedly, several of those long sighs that aren’t fooling anyone).  Life is messy.  Our life is messy multiplied by 3 children and 1 puppy and 2 parents who really just want to eat cake and watch Downton Abbey.

Yet there is work to be done, which brings me to another cornerstone of my parenting: Rest Stops.

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Let me explain.  When my school-aged children wake up on a weekday morning, the first thing out of their mouths is, “I don’t want to go to school!”  They enjoy school, but when you are warm and cozy, and a little hungry, and look kind of funny from a night of sleep, it is hard to imagine going out into the world beyond your bed.  So we don’t talk about “getting ready for school.”  We take it one step at a time.  First it’s, “Let’s put on some warm clothes,” and then it’s, “A little oatmeal?”, and then, before you know it we’re braiding hair, and daddy’s playing loud music in the kitchen, and we’re putting on boots and heading out the door.

Similarly, when we take a 12-hour car trip, we go little by little (unless we’re on one of those “drive through the night while the kids sleep” marathons–not advisable on a daily basis), stopping before our patience fails us: to move our bodies, rearrange our seats, and take a break from the road. Likewise, I take my day one step at a time, with little rest stops along the way: a morning cup of matcha tea after walking the dog; an after lunch piece of dark chocolate, consumed in the pantry on the sly; a few moments with a good book during quiet time; 4 o’clock espresso or a fine cup of coffee (or two)…

You see, I’ve tried it the other way.  I’ve tried to get up and go(!), but by the end of the day I am burned out, the kids are wild, and supper still isn’t made.  Taking rest stops in my day replenishes me: physically and mentally.  Oh, how I look forward to 4 o’clock!  When I’m sitting in the big blue chair, sipping a cup of coffee, I can handle the haze of glitter, and crumbs, and partially chewed puppy toys that is our life because I’m not driving down that road right now.

A rest stop is not for living in, of course, I always know that I’ll soon get up, and find the broom, and rally the children and puppy for a walk.  But right now I’m parked, the keys are in my pocket, and it’s just really nice to have a break from the road.