Thursday, September 18, 2014

In Which We Declutter

My latest quilt top, sideways.

I am in the process of decluttering my life, which is to say my house. If you have read this blog for any amount of time, you are probably familiar with my attic and are aware that my attic is a problem. It's a large walk-in attic, and it takes twenty seconds to open the door and chuck something inside, thirty seconds to walk in and pretend you're storing something properly by piling it on top of something else.

My attic is filled with Legos and many, many empty Starwars Lego project boxes, lots of books, lots of archived manuscripts. My wrapping paper is stored in the attic along with the luggage, the board games, the Christmas decorations, the Halloween decorations, the linens that are used once a year, the boys' school papers and old toys. Magazines. Art supplies. Camping equipment. None of it remotely organized with the exception of the Christmas decor and the luggage.

And then there is the flotsam and jetsam. The phrase "flotsam and jetsam," let it be known, was originally defined as the odds and ends that floated up on shore after a shipwreck. This somehow seems appropriate.

It is the flotsam and jetsam that will break your heart.

Every year I make a little progress decluttering my attic, but I can never quite get there. This year, I've decided, will be different.

One thing that's making the process easier: Now that he's in sixth grade and almost twelve, Will has grown out of a lot of his toys, toys he might possibly have played with  a year ago but now don't interest him at all. So out they go. The good stuff goes to Good Will and the Rescue Mission, and the junkier stuff I freecycle with caveats.

There are also piles of books just right for a fourth or fifth grader, but as a sixth grader Will's looking for books about older kids, not younger ones. So I'm taking loads of paperbacks to the library and to the book bins for Our Fine School's spring used book sale.

Another thing I've figured out: Don't do the actual decluttering in the attic. It's way, way too overwhelming to stand in the middle of all the clutter and junk and try to go through it. No, the trick is to throw stuff in boxes and bring the boxes downstairs. When you have several boxes, you sit in front of the TV and stream "Friday Night Lights" or "Larkrise to Candleford" and start making piles. The piles are as follow:

1. Trash
2. Recycling
3. Freecycling
4. Keep

You must be ruthless when it comes to the "Keep" pile. If you keep it, you must have really, really good reason to keep it and a place to put it.

I personally love keeping cards and letters. Being ruthless, however, I've started asking myself the question, If I threw this away, would I remember that I had it in the first place? Nine times out of ten, the answer is no. Now, I keep letters from family members and dear friends, letters I might love to re-read twenty years from now, but I don't keep birthday cards my parents sent that just have "Love, Mom and Dad" written on the bottom. Greeting card humor or sentiment is rarely good enough to justify keeping a card.

The other benefit of bringing the boxes downstairs is that I can live with a cluttered attic, but I can't live with a cluttered living room. Clutter that's right in front of me is clutter that's got to go.

I'm very serious about tackling the Attic Decluttering Project this fall, so expect to hear more about it. Feel free to share your best decluttering tips. And don't laugh at the idea of me having an organized attic! Really, stop that laughing right now!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Is it Fall Yet?

Given that the high today is going to be 90 degrees, I don't think so.

I feel like I'm just starting to emerge from the bubble of summer, where I was very quiet a lot of the time. The person I saw most, outside of my family members, was my friend, Sarah, who took Will to the pool with her kids approximately 3,000 times. Blessings upon her head. But Sarah and I mostly saw each other picking up or dropping off children, and though our chats were always fun, they were mostly brief.

So I was quiet a lot this summer. I read a book called A Book of Silence by Sara Maitlin, and it took me most of the summer to read it, but I liked it and understood the author's desire for staying away from words. It made me turn off the radio more often and just work in my kitchen in silence. I read another book called The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane, about old roads and pathways, mostly in the UK. It also took a long time to read, mostly because though it was beautiful, it didn't have a lot of people in it to carry you along on the backs of their stories. I am a walker, and The Old Ways is a book about walking, which for me is a quiet activity, as I mostly walk by myself.

Last night I saw my friend Tracy. She is one of my lunch friends. During the school year, I do most  of my socializing at lunch, and Tracy and I have lunch every few months. She works at home, too, and admitted last night that she's having a hard time re-entering the stream of school and practices and games and assemblies. It's like, once you commit to being in the thick of things again, there's no stepping back onto the shore. Well, that's not true, but that's how it feels, and for us introverts the very thought is exhausting.

Anyway, Tracy and I have seen each other several times the last two weeks since school began (Our Fine School starts in mid-August), and each time we say, Let's have lunch! But I don't think either of us have been ready for lunch. Finally, last night, we bit the bullet and settled on a date and time--next Wednesday at one o'clock. I have a speaking engagement next week, too, and my Bible study starts up again, so there you have it. And on Saturday my book group is having a pot luck. I will not be dipping a toe into the stream of life, I will be jumping into the deep pool. Well, it's about time, I guess. A summer of quiet is nice, but it does a body good to make some noise every once in awhile, too.

Monday, August 4, 2014

I am having a Beatrix Potter moment.

It is Monday afternoon. In a few minutes, Will's friend Gavin will be here, and we might go to the pool, or the boys might play here. Their game-playing is eclectic--some Mindcraft until I make my usual "time to get off the screens" announcement, a round of checkers, some soccer outside, then inside for a game of Stratego. Depending on how hot it is, and how buggy, they might go out again, this time to toss around the football.

Whether we go to the pool or stay here, I plan to lounge about reading this absolutely wonderful book I ran across in the library yesterday, Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, by Marta McDowell. If you have the least bit of Beatrix Potter love, you should read this book. It's filled with art and photographs and Beatrix at Hill Top, her farm in the Lake District.

Did you ever read Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis? In it, he describes a feeling he often had as child called "northerness," feelings of intense joy and longing that he felt when reading Norse myths. He wasn't sure what he was longing for, only that the longing itself was deeply pleasurable. Beatrix Potter's art triggers that sort feeling in me, the same way I feel sometimes when I think about autumn. I can't quite put a finger on the source of the joy or longing, but it's there, and bigger, I think, than Beatrix Potter's gardens and rabbits or red leaves floating down from the tree branches.

So I've just ordered a book of her letters, because I would like to be inside her head a bit. Did I mentioned that I watched "Miss Potter" for the umpteenth time this weekend? And now I'm on a kick.

I have been thinking a lot about dailiness lately. It's one of my favorite things to think about, and I've wanted to write about it here, but I don't know what I want to say about it yet. Only that I'm still trying to pay attention to my day-to-day life, and lately have been practicing what I call "The Liturgy of Making the Beds." One of the definitions of liturgy is a rite or body of rites prescribed for public worship, and although my bed making is done in the privacy of my own home, I do like making a kind of ritual of it. I like making it important. Which seems silly to some, I suppose, but at the end of the day, it is a pleasure to lie down in a well made bed. And it is good to thank God for that particular pleasure, I think, and all pleasures of any given day.

Beatrix Potter's art has a dailiness to it, and a life in the garden is most certainly a daily sort of life, with its chores and concerns and little joys. It's satisfying that way a daily life is, when your chores are done, and the kitchen counters are clean and the laundry folded and put away, and you pick up your book or your knitting or your sketchpad.

Well, one day I'll figure out how to write about dailiness in a complete and satisfying way. For now, I'm back to Beatrix and her farm and flowers. You should come, too.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

In a Pickle

The cucumbers just keep coming. Yesterday I canned pickles for the first time. They look like real pickles! The directions say to wait two weeks to eat them. So for now, I'll just admire them.

Speaking of pickles, some of you asked for Jody's refrigerator pickle recipe. You'll find it here: We eat these pickles at every meal (okay, not with breakfast), and then I cut up some more cukes and refill the jars. They are addictive.


We have five weeks of summer vacation left. Jack still hasn't found a volunteer job, but he's going to resume his search tomorrow now that driver's ed is over (he has his permit now--yikes!). He seems more motivated since I mentioned to him that if he has a volunteer job this summer, he might be able to get a real job next summer. Employers like kids who have some work experience under their belt.

This is the first summer that I've managed to come up with a chore list for the boys and enforce it. Jack does the trash and recycling, mows the lawn when it needs it (which hasn't been often--we've hardly had any rain all summer), does his own laundry and cleans the boys' bathroom (I can't believe I finally managed to lob that job off on someone else). I suppose exercise isn't typically thought of as a household chore, but it's on Jack's list--he has to exercise at least thirty minutes a day. He's taken to riding his bike for close to an hour every night.

Will's chores include cleaning the downstairs bathroom, doing his own laundry, vacuuming the living room every day, pulling up the trash and recycling bins after pick-up, and baking cookies at least once a week. He gets at least thirty minutes of exercise a day without even trying, so I didn't have to put that on his list.

I am very pleased with myself for finally treating my children like hired help (or more to the point, unpaid labor). And I'm pleased with the boys for doing their work without too much prodding from me. The only thing neither of them seems capable of is remembering to rinse their dishes and put them in the dishwasher. Easiest thing in the world, and it slips their minds every time.

Well, as long as they keep cleaning the bathrooms every week, I'll cut them slack on the dishes.

I am less pleased at how much time I have to spend shooing Will off the screens. Jack has more computer independence, as long as he keeps up with the various things we ask him to do (chores and other things as well), but Will's time is limited. But he has taken to reading ESPN sports news on the computer whenever I have my back turned. "I'm READING, Mom," he'll say. "I thought you wanted me to read." Well, I do, but I want him to read novels and interesting nonfiction books as well as the sports news.

I'll have to ask my mom what she had to nag us about back in the day. Watching TV probably. Screens. It's always the dang screens.


A friend posted a list on Facebook a month or so ago called "Zen Things." As you know, I'm not a zen practitioner, but I play one on TV, so I posted the list on my fridge. Right now I'm focusing on the first three items:

1. Do one thing at a time.
2. Do it slowly and deliberately.
3. Do it completely.

I'm not good at this--I get distracted. I start doing one thing and then remember another thing I need to do. But I'm trying, and I feel a bit more centered when I do. I'm working my way up to number ten on the list: Make cleaning and cooking become meditation. Not there yet, but maybe one day.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Garden Report

Gretchen-Joanna, affectionately known in my book as GJ, left a lovely comment on my last post, complimenting me on the neatness of my garden. Now, normally I would just sort of duck my head and paw the ground with the toe of my shoe while mumbling "Ah, shucks," but the fact is, I've worked very hard on my garden this year. I built the beds and the paths, hauled in the mulch (lots and lots of mulch), and have spent the week since returning home from the beach weeding like a madman. So GJ's comment felt like a little valentine.

In the past, the Man has been, well, a bit of a garden hog. He is a more knowledgeable gardener than I, having spent years helping his granny garden back in the day, and he's of a more scientific mind than I am. He is also a manager by nature, and is good at thinking things through, while I'm more likely to jump in head first and hope the water's deep enough.

But this year, we have His-n-Her gardens, and I got the big one. The Man is very busy at work, and he knew he wouldn't be able to keep up with a big garden this year. He has the small garden by the side of the garage, where he is growing tomatoes, cucumbers and crowder peas. He waters but does not weed. Weeds have not been a huge problem in his garden, in part because it has been a dry summer, discouraging weedy proliferations, and in part because he laid down some serious mulch this spring.

I weed. I tend. I putter and fuss. I am pretty much in love with my garden. I stare at it from the porch the way you would stare at your baby's face while he's napping in the crib.


I have discovered the amazing powers of chicken manure. See that corn (above) at the end of the path (the recently weeded, soon to be remulched path)? Last Wednesday, I side-dressed it with chicken manure and it shot up a foot practically overnight. In the plot next to it, my little sugarbaby watermelon vines looked healthy, but lacked vim and vigor in terms of real growth. After a healthy application of chicken manure, the vines grew six inches in twenty-four hours. I kid you not.

Unfortunately, chicken manure stinks for a few days after you apply it. It's also very expensive--in fact, it's probably cheaper just to keep chickens. The Man is iffy about having a flock, and I respect his hesitancy--sometimes even a good idea can feel like just one more thing to deal with, and I believe right now the Man's plate is fairly full--but, boy, could we use that poop.

Right now we have a bumper crop of cucumbers. I don't know why our plants are doing so well. Usually we have a good week or two, and then they get a case of some sort of wilt or another, and that's it for the cukes. But they've been producing for several weeks and are still going strong. They're in a different bed this year, so maybe that's a factor, or maybe this dry spell is good for them.

So I've got excessive quantities of cucumbers, and while I can easily eat one or two a day all by myself, I can't keep pace with the vines. Back in 2010, Jody over at Gumbo Lily sent me her refrigerated pickle recipe, the one she received at her bridal shower from her high school chorus teacher many years ago, and yesterday I dug it out and made me some pickles. I haven't tried one yet--I thought I'd give them a day to marinate--but I have three beautiful jars in my fridge and I'll be opening one of them at lunch.

(ETA: The pickles are amazing! Wow!)

One of my favorite things about having a summer vegetable garden is that at dinner I can lay out plates of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes (and now a bowls of pickles) and crunchy green beans, and I just feel rich with good food.

I'm re-reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek, which I first read about twenty years ago. In one passage she writes, "That it's rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. But at the same time we are also created. In the Koran, Allah asks, 'The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?' It's a good question."

On my walk this morning, that's the quote I pondered. "Do you think I made them in jest?" No, no I don't.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

And So the Summer Begins ...

The path through the Spring Point Preserve on Ocracoke Island, NC 

I know for a lot of people summer began a few weeks ago when school ended, and for the more literal-minded among us, summer began on June 21st, the summer solstice. But for me, summer begins now. My calendar is clear. I've been on vacation, prepared for my week-long creative writing workshop, taught my workshop, recovered from my workshop ... and for the next five weeks, I ain't doing nothing. 

Okay, so that's not true. I'll be revising a novel, tending a garden, bossing around boys, driving around boys, hopefully making a quilt and putting in some serious housekeeping time. But I'm not going anywhere until the second week of August, when we head to Kentucky for a family reunion, and I don't have much on my calendar except for minor appointments and the like.

It has been a long, long time since I've posted, so let me catch you up on what's been going on or is about to go on:

1. Jack starts behind-the-wheel driver's ed today. He's totally ready. I am totally not.

2. Will has caught World Cup fever. His life currently revolves around the games, especially if the U.S. is playing. I don't understand why the U.S. is still playing. It seems to take a lot to get eliminated from the World Cup. I mean, like you have to lose fifteen times or something. I wonder if everyone gets a trophy at the end, like they do here in Pee Wee soccer?

3. We spent last week on Ocracoke Island, which is part of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Would you like to see some pictures? Of course you would!

The house we rent every year. It's called the Mary Frances, 
and it was built in 1920.

The edge of Springer's Point, the nature preserve on the island. The pirate Black Beard hung out here back in the day and is said to haunt the area, but so far I haven't run into him.

One of the ancient live oaks on the nature preserve. 
I walked here every day of our vacation. 
When I asked the Man if he thought the preserve was enchanted (the trees have a very enchanted feel to them), he said, "No, but it's complex on an astral plane."
 I thought that summed things up quite nicely.

Stacks of netted clam shells on the edge of the Point. I've been reading a wonderful book called The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane, which is in part about walking on old roads and pathways in the UK, and these shells made me think of the cairns that he sometimes found marking trails.

We had a very nice vacation, in fact probably the best family vacation we've had. Usually we're all a little tired of each other by the end of the week, a little surly and rundown, but for some reason that didn't happen this year.

Oh, I wanted to tell you about an author I discovered this vacation! Her name is Alice Taylor, and she's Irish. By chance, I picked up her book The Village, a memoir about village life in the early 1960s, at the library, and I found it absolutely charming. Now I want to read her book about growing up in the country, To School Through the Fields. I'll let you know how it is.

 4. The garden is growing! Get ready for more pictures!

 Butternut squash to the left, black beans to the right.

More beans.

The world's tiniest cornfield.

We are starting to get tomatoes, and there are peppers on the pepper plants, but it may take awhile for them to turn yellow and red. Lots of cukes, lots of green beans.  The watermelon plants are not growing vigorously, nor are the zucchini. It has been a dry summer so far, and I fear they haven't gotten enough water.

5. Big news: I got my braces off! I will end this post with the before and after pictures:

Before (as in about an hour before the braces came off)

And after ...

 Now I am all grown up.

More soon!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Now I Am 50

Doesn't it look like the tree on the left is hugging the tree on the right?

So I turned 50 on Friday. It wasn't so bad. It was a little strange to wake up and think, "I'm 50." The idea was a little more weighty than I anticipated. But by the end of the day it felt very normal to be 50. Isn't everyone?

On Saturday we had a birthday party with forty of our nearest and dearest, and I enjoyed it very much, much to my amazement. Of course, being the hostess, I spent most of the evening running around making sure everyone had someone to talk to and that the introverts weren't suffering too much. We ate barbecue pork and hush puppies and banana pudding, and my friend Doug the fiddle player and his friend Rick the guitar player played Old Time music out by the garage.

The Man and I have decided we like throwing parties more than we think we do. The introverts among you will understand what we mean.


School is out. As usual, we have very little planned. Drivers Ed and some volunteer work for Jack, a few camps for Will, a week at the beach for all of us, a trip to Kentucky to see my parents before school starts again. Other than that, it's the pool for Will and the garden and writing for me and texting his friends for Jack.


Will's baseball team has a game on Saturday. If they win, they will be League champions. If they lose, they will play one more game, and the winner of that game will be champions. I have no idea how Will's team got in the position of being one game out from league champs. His team last year was full of stars (including Will, naturally). This year? Will is a standout fielder a good pitcher and a consistent hitter, Luke can hit like a champ, and Leo is a great pitcher if he doesn't get psyched out, and Alec is an inconsistently good pitcher. Sam is growing into first base, and Henry is steady at third. Maybe that's all it takes? A couple good pitchers, a solid infield, and one or two go-to hitters? I guess.

But I have to say, I'm ready for the season to be over. I get too nervous watching the games. I don't even know why. Will always plays well, and he doesn't fall apart if they lose. He doesn't take it too hard. And I don't take it too hard if they lose, either. But in the heat of the game, I'm absolutely miserable from nerves. I try to be zen about it; I knit, I practice mindful breathing. I remind myself that in the scheme of things, this game matters very little. None of it helps.


Here's what we have planted in the garden: Lots of flowers and a wide variety of tomatoes, French breakfast radishes, yellow squash, zucchini squash, sugar-baby watermelons, eggplant, red peppers, yellow peppers, pimento peppers, corn, green beans, french filet green beans, lima beans, black beans, Mother Stallard pole beans, Jacob's Cattle beans, butternut squash, cucumbers, lettuce (in its last days), okra, and one sweet potato plant.

I bought six sweet potato slips through the mail, but only one is doing anything. I don't know if I didn't get them in the ground quickly enough, or if I didn't get good slips. Next year I'm buying plants from the garden store.

Anyway, the weather has been cool and dry, which is lovely for living, but my plants want warm dirt and lots of rain. So the garden is pretty, but it's behind. Which is okay. We'll be here when it catches up.