Unlike the simple living models I’ve followed from an early age, I don’t live in a rustic cabin in the Alps, or in charming Concord, Massachusetts, or in Avonlea. I live in a small suburban house from the mid-80s that lies in a flourishing lawn of creeping charlie surrounded by my homemade landscape and garden. My husband Thom, daughter Mari, and I enjoy books, learning, cooking, the great outdoors, and our cats and dog. As I’ve experienced and observed my life, I’ve evaluated what brings me happiness and where to spend my life energy. I look forward to exchanging thoughts and ideas with you.
Today was cooking day. Although my weekend cooking routine results in a kitchen disaster one day each week, it generally is much more efficient; I can reuse pots and pans with just a quick rinse between vegetables, for instance, the oven can cook multiple dishes, and I can reduce kitchen time significantly on weeknights. While Mari dyed her hair blue and Thom mowed the backyard despite the falling snow, I made cardamom raisin and oat sandwich breads, yogurt, a wild rice and vegetable salad, tapioca pudding, and Mari’s lunch lasagna.
Of all the ways in which our 16-year old has surprised us, one I really was not expecting was the return to dietary preferences typical of a toddler. We’ve always eaten a wide variety of fresh foods, and the sudden rejection of some foods was quite a surprise to me. To be honest, though, Mari does still eat many things that I know her friends don’t (case in point: the teen who picked all the vegetables out of our lo mein dinner), even though she would probably eat pizza for every meal if left to her own devices. Her lunch of choice so far this academic year is spinach lasagna, so I’ve been making a lasagna nearly every week. My pan makes 8 servings, which is perfect for one weekend dinner plus 5 lunches.
Yesterday a college student said to me, “You are very organized. How can I be more organized?” I was surprised; we have worked in the same office for a couple of years, but I am not sure why I would seem any more organized to her than would the average person. But I do know that weekend cooking makes it much easier to keep the family fed , and also allows me to have more time to exercise, read, spend with my family, and catch up with friends during the brief after-work hours.
Orion is high in the sky now on my early morning walks with our dog. Today is a perfect, crisp autumn morning, with a lovely chill in the air. Our hours of sunlight have rapidly decreased and the frogs and crickets are subdued when I can hear them at all. The rustling of the leaves, near peak color now, is this season’s music.
The first autumn that I lived in Minnesota, I was so happy to observe all these signs of the season that I kept the windows open all the time even though I was freezing, having just moved from a climate in which the average day was 50 degrees warmer. I had moved to the desert Southwest with great excitement 10 years earlier, but had not anticipated how much I would miss the annual cycle with which I grew up.
It’s very cold here in the winter. There are days when the streets and sidewalks are too icy to walk safely. Some days it’s a horrible time getting to or from work – and some winters, like our last, it’s like that most days. But I learned that observing and experiencing the cycle of the temperate climate four seasons is absolutely essential for me.
This is the final month in the garden – I’ll be raking leaves and using them to cover the vegetable and herb beds (which allows kale and lavender to overwinter), cutting back summer’s amazing greenery to allow for new growth in the spring, and putting away irrigation lines, watering cans, and shovels. By October I’m always ready to put the garden to bed for winter, to allow time for festive holidays, indoor projects like sewing and writing, and baking, both savory and sweet, which fills our home with warmth and delicious aromas all winter.
This weekend, Thom and I will spend as much time as possible in the sunshine and garden… walking, raking, listening to the birds, talking. Mari will go to a gigantic corn maze with a friend. I’ll harvest the last of our apples (perfectly tart Harelsons) and bake a pie in honor of my mom, who makes the world’s best pies. All simple and frugal activities – and all so rewarding in body and mind.
I popped Mari’s well-worn CD of Anne of Green Gables into the car stereo this morning and from the first lines was whisked to a comfortable home in my memory. My mom bought this book for me when I traveled with my aunt at the age of 9. Once I got through the wordy descriptions in the first page, I was hooked. I finished it and immediately began reading it again. I read the series countless times over the years, continuing to read it into adulthood on occasion. The books have always been an escape for me; I recall taking an Anne book and my lunch to a park near my engineering job, sitting under a tree and reading to forget work stress for a while.
It was a pleasant way to spend the commute – listening to L.M. Montgomery’s loving descriptions of the natural beauty of Avonlea, every sentence a mark of her craft. The activities of the characters were a reminder of the world pre-technology. Anne fantasized about living near a babbling brook and spending the night in a wild cherry tree; she didn’t spend all her hours with earbuds and a smartphone. Rachel Lynde observed everything that happened in the neighborhood because she wasn’t parked in front of a TV. An 8-mile horse-driven buggy drive was a pleasure, not a time-sucking chore as it can be today in a much faster car. I’m sure there will be a million more examples; I’m only on chapter 2.
For many years, it was my fantasy to live far from the bustle of cities and suburbs, in a country cottage with a large garden and abundant physical and mental space. My parents moved to such a place when I was in college, and on my occasional visits I loved the sounds of the owls at night and roosters and cows early in the morning, the always changing landscapes of the Shenandoah foothills, and the lack of busy-ness. Oh, there was lots to do: painting outbuildings, harvesting berries, making jam, weeding, hanging laundry, painting the long stretches of fences – but there was also time to climb into the hills and marvel at the views, to enjoy a visit with the sociable barn cat, or to just think. For about a decade until upkeep became too much work for my aging parents, it was a much-loved refuge for me from the various cities in which I lived.
When, as of late, I begin to feel a real need for that refuge, I know that I need to step back and reconsider commitments. When home feels less like a cabin and more like a hotel, I know I am too busy. Recently, the fantasies of moving to the country resurfaced, and I asked myself why. It’s been a busy few weeks back to work and school, and we’re all still adjusting: we will adjust. I have given myself the position of always-willing-to-drive mother for Mari and her friends; while this can take a lot of time, there are benefits, such as knowing they are all safe, and the opportunities for conversation in the car. This is also temporary and will likely ease by the end of the winter; after her friends have navigated Minnesota winter roads, I will be more likely to consider them safe drivers.
When I was finishing my grad degree, I realized I had always been waiting for the next stage. As a young child, like many kids, I always wanted to be older. In high school, I couldn’t wait to get to college. The rapid, always-changing pace of college suited me, but I was eager to finish. The summer job I had between college and grad school was perfect in that within a few weeks I was ready to be a student again. And then I was done — I moved across the country and I was on my own… to discover that the grass was not as green as I had expected. After a couple of years I just wanted out of the corporate world. I realized that there was always something to be finished, always something new to begin that probably wasn’t going to match my expectations.
The stress of this time will pass, and I will have some fond memories of it. Doing what I can now to make each day enjoyable for all of us will give us each a better time now and better memories in the future. And part of making every day better for all of us means giving myself more breaks.
A year ago I read the idea of a “20-minute daily vacation” in Laura Vanderkam’s Off the Clock. It’s time to implement it!
My mom and I both enjoy cooking and cookbooks alike, and as our elders have passed, their cookbooks have found a new home on her shelves or mine. Today’s pancakes were modified from the “Favorite Pancakes” in the 1950 edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, courtesy of my maternal grandmother.
(Makes about 12 3″ pancakes)
1 1/4 c sour milk
2 T canola oil
1 1/4 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 t baking soda
1 t sugar
1 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
1 c shredded zucchini, dried on a towel
Beat egg well, then beat in milk and oil. On top of liquid ingredients, add flour through nutmeg, then stir the dry ingredients together gently. Mix dry and wet ingredients and then stir in shredded zucchini. Cook on hot, oiled griddle or skillet.
My mom learned about Sammeltassen from my Oma, her mother-in-law: individual place settings for coffee from assorted patterns, with a cup, saucer, and dessert plate from each. It was always fun for me to choose the plate on which I would eat from Oma’s china cabinet. I think this particular plate survived more household moves than its cup and saucer. The Sammeltassen is making its way to my house now, as my parents slowly downsize, and although I do not have the energy to use dishes that require hand washing on a daily basis, I do pull them out fairly regularly. I don’t know if Mari will have fond memories of them, but I hope that she will. I’m one of the few remaining people who remember my Oma’s kitchen, but I think of her every day as I work in my kitchen, and I hope to one day observe Mari continuing those traditions in her own home.
It hasn’t been a great year for my garden. Although the farmers market tables are thankfully, as always, overflowing with beautiful produce, my garden suffered from our travels and unusual weather. Too cold for the tomatoes, too wet for the peas, but always, no matter what the weather, just right for zucchini.
Zucchini is rarely the star of anything. I love roasted zucchini, but Mari and Thom require that zucchini be dressed up or disguised. Of course, they both love zucchini bread, which tastes as good as anything laden with sugar and cinnamon. Most of the zucchini from our garden ends up in savory meals, but I have so many this year that I’ll probably bake some chocolate zucchini muffins and zucchini cornbread this weekend.
Our Savory Meals Featuring or Disguising Zucchini
Vegetable Pancakes with Soup
Veggie Burgers & Coleslaw(salt zucchini and press out liquid before adding to coleslaw)
Frittata (precook zucchini)
Zucchini Pizzas (with roasted zucchini slices as “crust”)
Polenta with roasted vegetables and cheese
Potatoes or pastry with spinach, feta, and zucchini