Saturday, August 12, 2017

Living and dying...

Kali just headed out for duck chores and doesn't want me to start on her birthday meal preparations without her. Terah just came downstairs to help me do dishes but when Grandma reappeared the pull to go with her was just too strong and I lost my dish washing helper. So my choices are to do the dishes alone (but why do something alone that I can do with her), or check the hourly weather obsessively to see if we will be able to go forward with Kali's outdoor party this evening (which is pointless as it changes every time I look), or try to write a few of my deeper musings about life of late while I'm all alone downstairs. I'm choosing the latter!

When we were at UVA a few weeks back visiting B in the hospital, we were able to reconnect with Noreen, the doctor who was very near and dear to us in the last week of Nora's life and has become a special friend. We credit her, and those that helped carry out our palliative care plan for Nora, for helping us to care for Nora in her final days of living in a way that honored her, kept her comfortable and maximized our time with her. Every time we have been together in the 9 years plus since, we have floated the idea of doing some joint writing together around palliative care and our experiences working together (the shared perspectives of a family and a doctor). Our recent connection rekindled that interest and I'm putting out there the goal that sometime between Nora's 10th birthday in October and the 10th anniversary of her death next June that we at least seriously get the ball rolling on that project!

When we said goodbye at UVA, I again extended the invitation for her whole family to come visit us in Keezletown. While interest seemed high, they are a busy family with two growing children and so I wasn't getting my hopes up (too high). Needless to say, I was excited to receive a text last week with their one and only free day in August, which beautifully coincided with a day on our schedule that had nothing but "harvest day" written on it. I didn't delay sending my enthusiastic "please come" text back, and what followed was a beautiful day together!

The four of them arrived in time for a late Tangly Woods special brunch - the morning's harvests of veggies laid out on the table and surrounded by various potato crusted quiches and nettle cornmeal biscuits. Over the course of the meal we learned that their son was an avid fisherman and when he heard of the pond a meandering two mile hike away, the enthusiasm for grabbing our rods and checking out the spot was palpable.

So after a little spin around outside (side note: my favorite tidbit from the day was Jason sharing with me that Tom noted to him walking around our place that he experienced a combination of envy and relief - so well stated! It's beautiful, but what a lot of work), we took off for a hike (all of us hiking and Terah snoozing until we were at the lake and she roused in time for a little splashing). A few blue gills were caught but then TJ got serious about his pursuits and waded in (not to his parents' surprise). We were about to head back when he snagged a large bass and just as he brought it to shore it escaped. He was given the "just 5 more minutes" warning, and his determination paid off as he pulled in a nice bass right under the 5 minute mark.

As he cooked up the fish in our kitchen he told me how proud he was. He said something like, "I have to tell you that from the minute I caught the fish until now, I'm feeling very proud." He had every reason to be as the fish was delicious, with the lemon thyme and rosemary he had picked and the shallots they had made on the side with butter. I had made two kinds of lasagna and we enjoyed cucumber salad and greens beans and then some chocolate ricotta mousse to top it off...but it all kind of paled in comparison to the fish!

The day was just overall a very fun day. It was a day of rekindling friendships, enjoying delicious food, getting fresh air and exercise, and watching children enjoy the plants and animals surrounding us outdoors. But the preciousness of the day was not lost on Jason or me. To this day times with persons who knew us and Nora intimately rank among the most special ones to me. As we sat down for our first meal together, we pulled our little stack of meal blessings from the center of the table to see what was on top. It seemed so very fitting that "When the Rain Comes Down" was the blessing for that meal. That is the only song in the whole stack that comes from the lullaby CD that we had on repeat in Nora's room the last few days of her life. I'm all for making meaning of things like that, and so it just solidified the uniqueness and I'd go as far as to say sacredness of the day to be singing, "When a baby smiles, she's smiling for everyone. No matter if you're rich or poor, no matter if you're great or small. When a baby smiles, she's smiling for us all."

Towards the end of the day the adults had this short luxurious block of time where all the kids were outside playing and we got to talk about writing - not just our writing together but writing in general. I found the conversation fascinating as we talked about the kinds of writing Noreen does for medical journals and how often she feels the need to try to remove her bias or emotions or experiences that have impacted her deeply from the research. I understand the pull towards that notion and possibly the pressures felt to do so in scientific publications. At the same time, it was for us her choice to engage with us fully as human that were experiencing loss and grief to a level we had not previously faced that was so powerful and life altering for us, and I also believe for Nora. I believe Nora died well in part because those helping us care for her at UVA, approaching us not as a number or a case but as people with a family and a history together and values that mattered. It made all the difference in the world. And I feel like communicating those kinds of stories is an excellent complement to also sharing the quantitative data that I think will likely only back the qualitative stories.

So we'll see what comes of our conversation! There is no lack of interest, it's all about carving out the time and space and prioritizing putting energy into that - which I want to do badly enough to put it out there in this space as a goal for the coming year!

Going into our day together I felt almost pure excitement for our time together. But there was (and is) on my mind and heart the reality of our neighbor Samuel's decline. We had offered to be on call as needed that day and so were unsure, until we knew that his care was adequately covered, if we would stray far from fruit farm lane. As we hiked and talked about Nora and talked about the plants growing around our place, our neighbors and dear friends were never far from my mind. This journey of loving and losing hits all of us in waves at different times.

When Nora was with us, Samuel and Margaret were some of our key supporters - making sure a fire was in our wood stove when Nora came home for the first time, bringing a meal to UVA and playing music for us as we comforted her, being part of her memorial service, and being part of our lives all the years since. The journey has twisted and turned since then, bringing us two more daughters and them two granddaughters, our lives overlapping and in touch more at times and then seasons of less regular contact. But always the assurance of them being there, just up the hill. Neighbors that are also close friends are truly precious, precious gifts.
But then it makes the losing so much more painful. Last evening, thanks to my parents' arrival and willingness to hang with the girls, Jason and I headed up the hill as daylight was waning. Jason had popped in for a few hi's here and there since I was last up for a visit but lingering colds and other things had kept me from visiting for awhile. When a baby is born and you miss a few weeks seeing them so much changes. Similarly, and yet not similar at all, Samuel seemed very changed (now in a hospital bed most of the time and spending much of his time sleeping, thankfully mostly comfortably thanks to the amazing care being provided to him!).

It was easy to be focused on the changes and the obvious decline in health. But he only had to rouse briefly for us to see the glimmer of his light and humor and care shining through. When he first woke briefly and saw we were there Jason let him know that he had been working on rehabbing a chicken coop that Samuel gave to him. I can't remember the exact words but without missing a beat, Samuel said something like, "of course you were." He knows Jason well! We then went on to share how our chickens were taking more than their fair share of our tomatoes. He said something like, "You'll get'll eat them." He had a smile on his face as his eyes drifted open and closed as we talked to him and to Margaret and then as he drifted into a deeper sleep just with her about these days and the ones ahead.

When it was time to go, I had to pull myself away. I felt the tug to go relieve my parents and also just wanted to sit there for hours rubbing his leg in their cozy home that houses so many precious memories. Finally, we said our goodbyes and I approached Samuel to give him a hug and a kiss. When I kissed his cheek his eyes came open and he smiled. He then offered me the most precious gift murmuring: "You've been a good neighbor...and friend." It was yet again a testament to Samuel's kindness and generosity that he gathered the energy to share this gift with me, to have these words ringing in my head and heart (which do nothing more than make me want to be an even better neighbor and friend to those around me). To be someone that brings out the good in others is nothing short of beautiful!

As we walked up the hill, I told Jason I feel like every time recently that we have been able to slip away from our crazy and chaotic brood and head to their home, I feel like I'm exiting one world and entering another. As we walked home, I wondered out loud to Jason if we'll experience this - if one of us will provide 24 hour care for the other and vigilantly journey with them in their dying. I only hope that if I am the caregiver, I can be as present and loving as Margaret. And if I am the one dying that I can do it without fear and with love for those around me and even a sweet smile like the one Samuel shared with us last evening on my face.
Kali is done chores and ready to get party preparations underway!

Garden update!

So I've got two posts brewing and this is the decidedly quicker and easier reflection to write so here goes! It seems appropriate to do a little post dedicated to an update on what is coming from the gardens on the day that I hope to make the first batch of fresh salsa. To sum things up, this year has been one of various successes and various failures. Not all of either of those categories are pictured here (quite frankly because the camera battery died, again, before I got around to all the gardens). So here's a far from comprehensive update!

We've got hot peppers! I guess you call this a success, though we have never really failed at growing those. They are beautiful as always, I look forward to making the first batch of hot sauce and this past year for the first time I have even used a few drops of it on select occasions! We continue to also foist it on anyone who comes over, uses it and expresses a liking for it! I was just about to make the first batch when friends (to be mentioned in the next post) came, liked the hot sauce and gladly took all I had picked off our hands! Happy them, happy me!

We have squash. Do we have "enough" squash? We are definitely not trying to leave squash in people's cars in a church parking lot. We have yet to feel "burdened" by it. But we normally have one or two when I want to use them in a recipe. We grew a type that is good for drying and I've done one round in the solar dryer. We have a beautiful one pictured here maturing for seed but that has more or less taken that plant out of commission, as it is busy getting this one matured! It seems once again our squash plants (especially the trombone) are giving us abundant flowers, some fruits and also aborting a good number. Part of it could be that we are trying to leave most of the trombone on the trellis to do their magic and become winter squash for us to enjoy for months to come. So we may be being a little too greedy, asking the plants to give us summer squash and winter squash in abundance. We are enjoying what we are harvesting - had summer gravy with fresh corn over some fried new potatoes and it was nothing to sneeze at!

Tomatoes, oh what to say about tomatoes. Let's start with what is doing great - the drying tomatoes and the sweet Noritas! We are getting LOTS of drying tomatoes and since we aren't getting a lot else yet we are eating them like cherry tomatoes, in large quantities! I haven't dried a single one. I harvest them, put them in a large bowl on the dining room table, and over the next two days until harvest time again the level goes down to nothing. We've also enjoyed a few platters of colorful slicers. I have yet to can a single tomato product. Most of what we have gotten to date has been very much seconds (what I can salvage from pecked ones or ones with blemishes), and they have made great shallot tomato sauces that we put on everything and anything, or eat plain. If you have never eaten cooked tomatoes with shallots and a little salt, you really must try it. It's an amazing combination that I can't believe I was only introduced to in the last year or two. I said the other day it should be a summertime staple the way cottage cheese has become a staple - always a pot or container of it from the fridge. So, lest my blood pressure rise too high, I will just briefly mention here that the chickens are doing a royal number on our cooking tomatoes and our slicers when they get into the main garden (a good feather clip on the troublemakers has hopefully solved the latter problem and the former won't be solved until we execute our wintertime "expand the main garden fence" project). They are ruthless, really. They go even for green tomatoes. Ok, I admit, that once again we have somewhat brought this on ourselves - Jason is feeding them less feed to encourage forage. And foraging they are, we were just hoping that they could forage somewhere else. So we'll see if I can replenish the tomato products in the root cellar. Some butchering has happened, some shuffling of chickens and some moving of coops has happened and will be happening to hopefully reduce the pressure on the cooking tomatoes so we can get a portion of the crop - in tomato form, rather than egg and meat form. 

To date we have never maxed out our capacity for fruit! We love it, the girls love it, much of what I harvest never seems to make it into the house. I have yet to bring a red or white raspberry in but hopefully that will change here as the season gets further along. I just put the first quart of blackberries in the freezer, but prior to that they joined the tomatoes on the table and slowly disappeared. The chickens like the berries too and will even eat them green, but I'm ok with that. There are so many fruits on and what they aren't getting the little fruit flies are waiting to descend upon. So it's a mixture of delicious blackberries and some soft ones, but we are getting enough to enjoy them and share some with the chickens and fruit flies. They are spread out in various places and that is probably my greatest challenge on harvest day - hitting all the gardens and keeping track of what I'm harvesting where (especially when I have one or two little ones in tow "helping" me). We just picked our first cantaloupe and it is sitting on the pass through making our mouths water. There is one lovely watermelon in the patch. It won't be a great melon year, but those tend to be "bonus foods" for us and we'll just savor the few we get to enjoy!
Gotta mention cucumbers yet - it's been a batch of pickles here and there, a supply good enough to keep us enjoying fresh cucumber dill salads when we get a hankering for one, and there's pretty much always a cucumber to grab and chomp on fresh. But I'd call it a mediocre cucumber year - we've got 4 nice seed ones just harvested so maybe getting those off a few vines will reinvigorate them and we'll get a few more nice flushes?! I have not canned nearly as many pickles as I did last year. It might just not be a "eat a quart of pickles for a snack anytime you want kiddos" kind of year. We'll have enough for the essentials - pizza nights and with pesto or egg salad sandwiches..

I feel pretty content with the beans in the freezer. I didn't do as many dilly beans this year BUT for the dilly beans (and pickles) that I did, we had enough dill. It's the first year that I can remember that I didn't reach out to our neighbor to beg some dill heads from her abundant patch. That is a success for sure! I decided to go light on dilly beans as we have some leftover and freeze more beans. We have one large shelf full in our standing up freezer. They won't last all winter by any means but will take us for awhile and I couldn't really fit more in anyway. Every other day we are still getting a nice mess of beans - though the bush beans are over, the yellows are getting so ridden with bean beetles they aren't worth much and the rattlesnake beans in the kitchen garden have yet to come into their own. It's mostly the purples that are still producing really well. I'll get out there to see what we find today as soon as Terah decides to get started with her day! We decided this year to not do successful plantings of bush beans and instead snuck in some buckwheat in the one row. So right now we are waiting for that the mature and the seed bean patch to be ready for harvest and then out come the beans/buckwheat and in go fall carrots!

I still think one of the most beautiful things in our summer garden are okra flowers. They are exquisite! Our little patch of okra is doing good and I'm adding a little handful of chopped okra to my quart bag in the freezer every other day. It never is a lot at one time, but over the course of the season we get a nice stack of quart bags that will provide us with a hearty supply for gumbo stew over the winter - another winner with the whole family! We haven't done any fried okra yet but that is just around the corner as Jason saved some "fryers" when butchering this past weekend and Kali's eggplant are looking good! So proud of her success in that realm!

Our pepper plants look better than they have in a number of years and are loaded with fruit. The ripening process for them (and the tomatoes) has been slow and I think that is in part due to a cooler summer we have had. I think it doesn't feel like August in part because we haven't been sweating buckets like we often do in August. Days in the 70's or maybe low 80's and often getting to 60 or below at night. I'm not apt to complain about that but the tomatoes would take hotter and likely the peppers would ripen faster. Let me be clear that I'm not sitting around twiddling my thumbs waiting for any of these things. Quite frankly, I sometimes even feel a moment of relief when I see a tomato mostly eaten on the ground (that's one I won't have to chop or can!). But that is fleeting as I really do love seeing the color move across the canning shelves and the pops of cans sealing will always be one of my favorite sounds. That said, I'm not sure how the peak of tomatoes and new student orientation are going to mix. Time will tell, and so far I've always survived August!

It looks like I'm about to have two side kicks awake and ready to head out with buckets and bowls to see what we can find. Every other morning is harvest day so we'll go searching for all the things mentioned above. Today that will hopefully not be too long of a job because there is also pie crusts to get made for a birthday brunch tomorrow and ice cream custards to get chilling for a birthday party tonight! We are 3 days shy of having a 14 year old in the house and the celebrations are getting underway!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Oh this life...

I come to the end of today feeling very, very full! I'm physically full - since we just wrapped up a late dinner of nettle garlic cornmeal buttermilk biscuits with summer zucchini and corn gravy and hardboiled eggs, along with roasted green beans and garlic and purple sauerkraut to the side. A pretty typical tasty Tangly Woods summer menu. But my feelings of fullness are much deeper than my full tummy - it's a feeling that I won't likely do justice to with words in the time that our three gals are content in their dance party in the front room, so I'll do what I can and like in so many things of late I will then need to leave it be and say "good enough!"

So this week was my last of working exclusively from home before the real rush and crunch time of another fall semester start - August is here in all its fullness! One might think it would be a week to take it more easy before things really get rolling. It didn't quite pan out that way. We had already scheduled to take a meal to friends who welcomed a new baby recently and to take a meal to friends who were moving soon and we wanted to help do some packing. It just so happened that a corn gleaning opportunity came about for those exact two days. We have one bag of corn in the freezer from last year. We love freezing corn. We did not turn down the opportunity!

Jason and Kali headed out early Tuesday morning and came back with over 6 sacks of corn. We got busy and spread the work and fun over two days - and the chickens and pigs also enjoyed the process immensely. We were able to freeze what we are likely to use in the coming year, as well as freezing some for our neighbor friends who are diligently and so wonderfully caring for our dear friend in the final stages of prostate cancer. I thought of them and hummed All Will Be Well as I worked. I remembered how much it meant to me when Nora was with us for friends to ask if they could freeze some strawberries for us. It was such a touching gesture and one that continued to remind me of their care and thoughtfulness all winter, every time I pulled a container of berries from my freezer. I hope the corn provides those same reminders for them!
The second day we froze corn I also thought about our friends who were moving. We froze corn together for a few years and I picked up tips from their process that I still use. It was fun to quickly scrub our sticky corn floor (with my very enthusiastic helper) and then load up a trunk full of food and head their way. We ate, chatted and packed boxes. Many memories have been created together at their home and ours, and it felt like the end of a particular era. Our friendship started when Kali was in utero and we shared the joy of welcoming our first babies. The picture I have of the dads with the babies is in a photo album, but here's an updated one!

Friday we had just enough time (kind of) to catch our breath before today - Kali did a planned "schedule day" to see if she could keep herself on a schedule. She did, mostly. Alida had her planned cooking day and we worked together to make homemade basil pesto and homemade lambsquarter pasta for dinner, along with green beans and corn on the cob. It was delicious and she was rather impressed with herself. I was proud of her too, especially sticking with cutting up all the green beans even when it felt hard to her. She wasn't the only one doing hard work. When Kali got off schedule it was due to her "duck selection process" taking her several hours rather than the allotted one. It was not difficult physically but my what an emotional challenge - she engaged with Jason in the decision-making process and showed a deep reservoir of strength and courage, then and especially today!
Jason butchered a record number of birds today - a friend brought 13 to do with Jason (and brought along a plucker that saved some time) and another friend came for a few hours for a refresher butchering course. I think Jason's final count was 30 chickens and then 5 of Kali's ducks. He's in the shower now and I can only imagine how good it must be feeling. It was a long day but went well and when we shared our high's and low's from the day at dinner he said the low was each life that he took and the high was watching Kali do the hard work of processing the experience and being present to the emotions - the good and hard ones! Up until today, Kali had not decided if she wanted to be part of the butchering but she told me this morning she wanted to be. She wanted to be the one to get them and she carried each one to Jason, selecting a feather from each and clearly processing it on a deep level. She helped some with plucking and remained out there until it was over, at her own choosing. She gave me a long hug and expressed relief when it was over but I also sensed a feeling of being glad she had made the decision to be part of it. I felt proud of her! I feel like she is more thoughtful and mature, not to mention intelligent, than I was at her age. I would have run from the emotions (ok, so I more or less did when I rashly decided to be a vegetarian, I think in part to make me feel innocent).
It is not easy to articulate how I feel about this (as one child keeps coming my way saying "need mama" only to have her older sisters try to engage her in play again so I can finish), but I want to be clear that I feel a lot of respect for anyone trying to engage how to feed themselves in a way that is in tune with the values they hold deeply. I also feel within myself the desire to somehow not feel responsible for taking life to sustain my own. Yet over time it has felt more and more like a cop out for me to say that I am uncomfortable with choosing when an animal looses its life and goes into our freezer and so I don't want to participate in it. That is what would be "easier" in some ways. And yet it feels like it lets me off the hook. It doesn't get old or easier but I'm going to keep challenging myself to feel the discomfort, to reflect on how I can live in a way that causes the least suffering, that respects life, and that honors the lives that are given for my own sustenance. For me that's a much harder, but in the end more fulfilling, path. Does not make butchering days exactly "good" days, but ones where I feel in some ways most deeply what we are trying to be about here.

While Jason was outside butchering, I was doing a second dairy workshop for 6 women this time, and they came with 10 kids who played tag, hung around the workshop, added to the chaos, and all came flocking when it neared snack time. The youngest participant was just shy of three weeks old, and was my biggest distraction (such sweetness)!  It was just as fun as the first! I learn so much each time. And I definitely today had the rammy child on my hip to really show that these products can be made with multiple distractions. Terah didn't really calm totally down until she got the chance to hold the baby. My goodness our rambunctious mischievous child LOVES babies and little things! She just looked at her, stroked her head and put her back to sleep. Yep, it was precious.
Ok, my time is up. I'll end with a few pictures that didn't get included elsewhere but I don't want to leave out! Just to note that the other day I realized that I had yet to have cheerios with blueberries and milk this year. I am not positive it will be our last fresh blueberries, but it seems likely at this point. So I snuck a few of the girls' cheerios and enjoyed a small bowl. It's not even my favorite food but there is hardly a food that takes me back more easily to my Grandma and Grandpa Myers' breakfast table! And, finally, this little gal's sprouts on the top are too much. :) 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

We are all reunited!

Super duper short post just to note that we are all back under the same roof (well, actually the younger girls and I are just about to go pick up Kali from a playdate so currently we are not all under the same roof) and it has been reaffirmed for me yet again how wonderful our three gals are and how exponentially more complicated life is with three wonderful girls rather than one!  It was so very good to see them walk up the front walk on Sunday and it was also so clear what a wonderful week they had with cousins and grandparents. Special times full of memory-making!

It also felt like a good week on the home front. Towards the end of it, Terah was talking more about her sisters and when I talked about them coming home she would say "yay!" Jason and I had an easier time getting out for morning runs with Terah and also managed to squeeze in a walk, some blueberry picking and a morning coffee and Wendell Berry reading time. Not a bad start to the day (especially when the mug of coffee is accompanied by a bowl of our new favorite chocolate mousse made by blending homemade ricotta, cocoa powder and maple syrup - YUM!)

Speaking of food, yes we do still photograph our food and sometimes the simpler the better. This was a recent lunch that highlighted this season - the first tomatoes and peppers, fresh cucumbers and blackberries, cooked down blueberries, fresh cottage cheese, and some veggie fritters and stinging nettle biscuits. I don't get tired of summer meals, in summer anyway (I guess come winter I don't get tired of squash soups but I sure wouldn't want that now). The jury is out on how many tomatoes will get as our chickens have learned to get in our main garden and are also doing a number on our cooking tomatoes outside the main garden. Time will tell!

Here's a few more pictures of the girls - Terah enjoying the sticker books her sisters got for her while they were away and then some snuggle times with our two younger girls who are either loving on each other or picking on each other (spending most moments together with lots of joy and some angst). I guess it's nice to not picture the angst but it is definitely part of their experience living together!
I'll end with a short video and a reminder about our Tangly Woods website. Jason has not appeared for a guest post here for awhile because all his writing time has been devoted to his monthly blog posts at The most recent one on "Our Work of Grief" is a bit more personal in nature, including some poems and reflections on losses we are experiencing with those close to us. You are welcome to sign up to receive those blog posts on the right side of that home page - scroll down just a bit and you'll see the option.

And finally, here's Terah using a little horsey we are borrowing that she loves. I don't remember our other girls flying around the house on it. She does get bucked off sometimes but normally is back on after a hug and some sympathy!