Cold Season Outdoor Gatherings

When the pandemic and stay-home order hit our state, it was still winter, and since Minnesota’s early spring brings plenty of snow and chilly days, we were mostly inside and isolated for two months. After a summer of distanced outdoor activities – backyard campfires or gardening, kayaking, walks – we are looking ahead at a solid 5 months of isolation unless we figure out how to get together outside without freezing. Luckily, my family enjoys winter.

Distanced Social Activities for Fall & Winter

  • Campfire in the backyard or driveway fire pit
  • Campfire with sleeping bags, when very cold
  • Walking – daytime to get some sun, or night to stargaze
  • Yard cleanup with friends – rotate yards
  • Snow shoveling party!
  • Skiing or snowshoeing
  • Sledding
  • Ice skating

How will you gather with friends and family this winter?

Relief for this Insomniac

I remember being awake in the middle of the night from at least the age of 6. I never have trouble falling asleep at night, but after a few hours, anything can wake me and then my monkey mind is climbing trees and trotting through the forest. When I was young, I put myself into the books I was reading and let my imagination run wild. In recent decades, 3AM has been a time when my mind can process events (sometimes obsessively), let worries run rampant, repeat song lyrics endlessly, and simply think without interruption.

For a long time, I was able to function pretty well – or so I thought – on a few hours of sleep. When I began an extremely challenging job, it really showed me how much my brain suffered. In addition to feeling tired, I was far more prone to errors and missing small but important details. Still, wanting to sleep doesn’t mean being able to sleep.

A month ago I decided that I was going to add morning and evening journaling to my routine. I realized a few days ago that I have been sleeping much better since then, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. When I’ve processed everything already, putting it into words in a document, there’s less to ponder at 3AM. For my own sleep, I’m going to rank journaling right after exercise and regular hours.

The rest of my sleep toolbox includes more exercise (really, enough exercise so that I’m moving all day, but just shy of my entire body aching, which is unfortunately not compatible with my full-time job), and for those times I awaken, mindfully focusing on remembering a place where I felt completely at ease (I put myself back in the attic bed at my grandmother’s house, for instance), reading a few chapters of a book, or listening to an audiobook until I fall asleep.

But sometimes I just have to give up and accept that I am going to be tired all day.

If I don’t do it now…

A thought that has run through my mind many times since March is “if I don’t do it now, I will never do it.”  Well, at least not until long-off retirement, because I expect that is when I might again have time to get to things that usually fall off the radar… things that are not high priority, but that I’d like to do: such as make various things, learn languages (both spoken and programming); polish my microscopy skills; finish random projects around the house; establish a daily meditation practice; explore more of Minnesota; read various books; improve some crafting skills; pick up my old flute again, or dust off the piano.

During the initial stay-home order, while the ground was frozen and the wind still icy, I finally plowed through a shelf of books-to-be-read.  I still didn’t have time to actually read all of them, but I began each and finished the ones that passed the 50-page test.  I wrote my legislators, cleaned out my email inbox, filed taxes at the normal deadline, and deep-cleaned the house.  When the ground became diggable, I got a better start on my vegetable garden than I have in years, and I’m still eating the greens that I planted in April.  I joined a tiny outdoor tai chi class, and I’m moving through an online programming course.  I kayaked, walked, and biked. Throughout the season, I pruned and weeded and enjoyed the garden therapy.

Much of my want-to-do list, though, remains undone.  Time choices were made, and some roadblocks, small and large, appeared.  Time was spent, and now it’s gone. Even when some of the normal things are reduced, the time still isn’t there.

I generally try to moderate my expectations for most things, but obviously need to consider them with regards to time as well.  For me, feeling time-starved is a quick recipe to stress, so making all of my lists, mental and written, smaller might be one of the best actions I can take for overall happiness.   Much of the time,  I don’t need to do less, I just need to want to do less. 


Getting Unstuck


About a decade ago, I took piano lessons for the first time. It went pretty well for the first couple of months. My instructor gave lots of positive feedback but pushed me forward at a pace that my middle-aged, busy mom self found pretty relentless. Perhaps she was equating my brain’s plasticity with that of the college students with whom she spent most of her working hours, and my practice hours with those of students attending a music-based school. At any rate, when I progressed to needing to make my two hands do completely different things at the same time, there was a train wreck in my brain. I could actually feel and hear it.

This year has made me feel that way – over and over and over again. It has eroded my creativity, motivation, enthusiasm, and energy. Knowing that this year especially, we are so fortunate to simply be employed and healthy, makes me not want to say anything that could be construed as complaining. Hence being stuck.

A few things have helped… Our cats provide lots of entertainment, purrs, and kitty hugs. Completing projects around the house makes me feel somewhat productive when I’m not accomplishing my primary goals. Sewing masks for family and friends has been a good distraction that was also useful. Journaling gives me space to write whatever’s on my mind with no editing, either pre- or post-writing. Talking to friends when I can’t see them is a balm to my soul. Learning a new programming language has been an absorbing pastime that keeps my mind focused.

In The Upside of Stress, research psychologist Kelly McGonigal details that the way in which we view a stressful situation impacts our likelihood of success. If we view something as a challenge, we are more likely to succeed than if we view it as a threat. In an interview about the book, she stated that successful stress management is associated with a significant capacity for uncertainty, and that viewing stress as a growth opportunity is helpful.

I am a planner through and through. Unsolved problems keep me up at night, and although 3AM is an excellent time to deeply and thoroughly ponder just about anything without distraction, it’s not the greatest time for completely coherent thinking. 2020 has already provided many occasions to learn to embrace uncertainty, and it seems like more will follow. Here, then, is an excellent opportunity to both grow and extract something good from this year… so my goal for the coming months is to accept and learn to welcome the uncertainty.

What tools help you with uncertainty?

Return to intention

CC0 image from Pixabay

All I’m going to say about the past few months is this: It has been and continues to be grueling and arduous, for everyone, in so many ways, at so many levels.

My days, weeks, months have felt unfocused, mechanical. It’s been far easier to get things done than to sit down and think or write. While working and programming have forced times of focus, clearing brush and weeding, painting and organizing, and walking the dog are all meditative on their own and have provided time to sort thoughts, to mentally plan and file, while permitting distractions. As I view the shrinking number of days to the fall semester, I realize that the task at hand is to ready myself to support and mentor, and to do that I need to get into the quiet space that has been uncomfortable.

I need a plan.

There are many ways that I could improve my lifestyle, but I have a specific goal and want quick results. For the next week, I’m going to eliminate my biggest time waster: reading news and other things online. I’ll add my most effective tools for reflection and purposeful time: journaling, which I do on the computer, and my catch-all notebook, in which I log various lists, ideas, etc so that I can get back to what I’m working on. Morning and evening, I will sit with these tools and clear the mental clutter of these months.

Pantry Cooking

Our actual, not-made-for-photos pantry, obviously in need of organizing,
and brown lentil pancakes.

Perhaps this is indicative of articles being written far ahead of time, but recent food articles in newspapers don’t seem to reflect the reality that people aren’t going to the store as often, and that stores don’t have the selection they usually do.

My last grocery trip was over 3 weeks ago, and I don’t plan to return for another week or two.  I did not enjoy the stress of being at the store or coming home and washing everything.  I usually fill our fridge with fresh, colorful produce weekly, but now, aside from a pound of carrots and a half stalk of celery, our fresh produce is long gone.  However, I enjoy a good challenge, and we have ample frozen vegetables and a pantry with sufficient staples to produce some interesting meals.  We’re a very long way from subsisting on wheat kernels as was chronicled in The Long Winter, or from the limited food choices of many countries in present and past times of war.

Our pantry consists of an old shelving unit from my college days in a small basement closet; it always holds sufficient dried beans, pasta, rice, canned tomato products, and other staples to see us through a snowstorm. It is one of my favorite frugality tools, as it allows me to stock up when there’s a good sale, and saves trips to the store.

Without commuting, I’ve had more time and energy this week to look up some new recipes to try.  Here are some of the things that the pantry provided (all made without onions, because those were not available in the store):

Brown lentil pancakes, from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, made by soaking and pureeing lentils into a batter and adding shredded carrot and spices.  This is a good cookbook for pantry meals because there are so many options on every recipe, and he generally eliminates non-essential ingredients.  We tried these with various condiments that happened to be in our refrigerator and they were good enough to cook again, but we all agreed that we prefer potato pancakes (when stores have potatoes).

Salmon cakes from canned salmon, with barley and frozen green beans.  This provided an opportunity to use the barley that I bought some time ago and was the reason for the next meal, using the leftovers.  Frozen green beans are okay steamed, but delicious roasted.  We always have frozen green beans on hand – they’re a huge time saver and very versatile.

Tortellini soup with carrots and celery and some kale that I had cooked and frozen a couple months ago.  Aldi sells dried tortellini that we all enjoy.

Baked Italian arancini, with leftover barley instead of rice, dipped in marinara, and carrot and celery sticks on the side.  I used frozen spinach, omitted the Parmesan, and did not roll in breadcrumbs because that’s just too fussy for my kitchen.  Everyone liked these, but if I make them again I will add a healthy dose of garlic and oregano.

Black bean burritos, with frozen spinach and corn and a lot of spices… and no onions.  Luckily, there’s always salsa in the pantry.

Pasta with sauce and frozen peas, Mari’s standby dinner.  I asked her to cook on Friday night so I could take a long post-work walk on a beautiful sunny afternoon.  It’s as basic as it gets, but no one here ever complains about pasta for dinner.

I look forward to seeing what the pantry provides next week.

Has your cooking changed during the current situation?



Weekend Cooking – Rosemary-Raisin Buns

P1020223It’s going to snow tomorrow.  I’ve lived here long enough to expect one last round of snow shoveling in mid-April, and flurries for a few weeks after that.   My parents once considered moving here and visited in late April to look at houses.  As we were driving to a nearby town with snow blowing horizontally, I knew that Minnesota had lost out on that chance.

I’ve lived about 1800 miles distant from my family since I finished college, and therefore have created my own local “family” and holiday traditions in the places I’ve lived.  Our Easter is usually a celebration of spring with our fellowship – music, stories, conversation, laughter, and food.  Tomorrow we will meet online with some of theses folks who have watched Mari grow from 3 to 17.  Toddler Mari used to hunt eggs on the grounds of the old one-room schoolhouse where we meet, and older Mari used to hide eggs for the little ones.  Between the stay-home order and the snowstorm, it might be hard to make it feel festive, so I’m thinking that there will be a mandatory snowball fight in the afternoon.

I was leafing through a book that I was excited to find on the library discard shelf, Anissa Helou’s Savory Baking from the Mediterranean, and landed on Pan di Ramerino, Rosemary and Raisin Bread.  When I read that it was an Easter specialty of Tuscany, and saw that it required only ingredients that are available in our pandemic-depleted kitchen and pantry, I decided that it would be our Easter breakfast. Helou writes, “In ancient Greece and later in the Roman Empire, rosemary was used as a remedy for coughs and liver aches, whereas in medieval times, it was used to repel evil spirits.”  Sounds perfect all around.

Wishing you a joyful Sunday whether or not you’re observing a holiday, free of both coughs and evil spirits.

Shared with Weekend Cooking