Saturday, January 29, 2011

Quote of the Week - may be only fidgets

I haven't kept up with my plan for a weekly quote, but it's a practice worth reviving, especially for those ever-more-frequent periods when I have nothing to say. Today, from C.S. Lewis:

“Don’t be too easily convinced that God really wants you to do all sorts of work you needn’t do. Each must do his duty ‘in that state of life to which God has called him.’ Remember that a belief in the virtues of doing for doing’s sake is characteristically feminine, characteristically American, and characteristically modern: so that three veils may divide you from the correct view! There can be intemperance in work just as in drink. What feels like zeal may be only fidgets or even the flattering of one’s self-importance. As MacDonald says, ‘In holy things may be unholy greed!’ And by doing what ‘one’s station and its duties’ does not demand, one can make oneself less fit for the duties it does demand and so commit some injustice. Just you give Mary a chance as well as Martha!”

C.S. Lewis, Letters to An American Lady

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Doll Clothes 2010

Brainstorming session
This story began around the end of October, and now that some pictures of the dolly modeling her togs have become available, I am giving the whole rundown. To begin at the beginning:

Back in the fall I heard that Littlest Granddaughter could use some clothes for her 18" doll Lucy, and that the craft store carries that sort of thing. It would be a welcome Christmas present. 

Coat lining from leftover dress fabric
But Lucy is a fancy doll, and it pained me to think of her wearing cheap clothes bought at the craft store, so what could I do, now that I have an organized sewing room (that's another post) where I can actually find the materials needed, but dive in and put scraps and patterns together and come up with some outfits.

I wanted to use scraps not just to save money, but because the constraint made it easier, somehow, to come up with ideas for outfits. If I had started out at the fabric store I'd still be wandering the aisles, overwhelmed with too many choices.

I didn't dream I would spend an impossible number of hours before I was through. But even now that I know, I would do it again. I learned a few lessons this go 'round, which should speed things up next time. I expect several more Next Times, because I absolutely loved doing it.

Would an aspiring painter count the hours he worked on one canvas, in order to calculate how much he might make per hour? If that were all there was to it, he might go into another line of business. Or if he needed a painting for his wall, he could look in galleries to find one. But there is joy in the creating, in the details that satisfy when they are done "right."

I did run across some handmade doll clothes online, while I was looking for a glossary of decorative braids. One would have to greatly streamline and simplify a doll dress in order to make any amount of money on it. One cute dress was $18; I hope there was no hand sewing involved in that one.

When sewing a collar or a sleeve cuff for a little blouse, sometimes it was easier for me to sew the whole seam by hand, rather than to risk bunching the edge of the fabric under the presser foot and having to take out messy stitches.

Attaching the two types of braid took forever; I won't ever used twisted cord again, and the Chinese braid I would sew by machine. My clever use of scrap fabric for the coat necessitated sewing the braid by hand so as not to spoil the lovely lining with contrasting thread. Now I know to plan that kind of thing more thoroughly.

Even though her mama likes to put her blouses on backwards, it appears that Lucy is very happy with her new clothes. And to complete the wardrobe, she got a new pair of black shoes from the craft store.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Vacation with Bread and Water

clumps of aloes in background
California's Central Coast was our vacation spot last weekend. We spent time with Soldier and Doll and with our friends whom I will nickname Mr. and Mrs. Bread. Their friendship is so nourishing on many levels, body and soul, that it demonstrates just how crucial phileo is to us humans.

Loaves of grain are humble and plain in a way, but throughout history people have often lived by this kind of food and little else. Thank God for friends who also lavish us with agape, ministering to us of the One who is our Bread of Life.

Piños Point Lighthouse

All six of us had a refreshing walk along the shore in Pacific Grove, where we saw the oldest active lighthouse on the West Coast. The light on Point Piños has never missed a night since 1855.

Mr. Bread played his mandolin as we strolled along under blue skies that reflected in the ocean, and we shared our discoveries of egrets and flowers and succulents. Doll found a rare black abalone shell, which was actually a beautiful blue-green. Some red-flowering aloes had long ago been planted along the path and grown into giant clumps.

We ate our picnic lunch in the courtyard of one of the many historic buildings in Monterey. This city was the capital of California under Spain and Mexico, not long after it was founded in 1700.
fava beans

I always enjoy visiting gardens that I have no responsibility to care for, especially if they are modeled on the historic, as was this one above. But I didn't get to examine everything in great depth. I was always falling behind the group when trying to get the perfect picture of an aloe flower or a grove of cypresses.

A good vacation, especially at our age, must include physical rest. We had a that in good measure, being lulled and comforted by hearing the waves crashing on the rocks below our bedroom window.

And watching the waves -- I think I would never get tired of it. It seems healthy to have in one's field of vision the things that are obviously not man-made; compare that to a busy city with traffic, stores and offices. The ocean stretching away as far as I can see, or the stars and constellations that glittered above us all weekend, fill my conscious mind with the reminder that there is Something Bigger Than I Am going on here. And it's been going on longer than men have been remembering.

Today I was lucky to be able to stay home and rest mentally from the excitement of traveling. This quiet day, combined with the nurturing gifts I received on the weekend, have given me some energy to get out of my January slump --just in time to look up with some hope at what February has to offer.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Four Storybook Friends

Who are my "fictional best friends"? This meme was going around some time back, and got me thinking about "The Top Ten Characters I'd Like to Be Friends With." I don't aspire to be Best Friends -- that's too big an idea -- but to be A Friend is something I would consider. You see, not being a People Person, I don't really feel like taking on ten more friends with problems, which book characters always must have, preferably a few of them in order for it to be a good book.

But these characters came to mind:

1. Harold of the Harold and the Purple Crayon because he is so creative and resourceful in his solutions for all the predicaments he gets into, and I'd like to go with him on his adventures. I would never tire of watching him draw whatever he wants, so quickly and easily. When he goes to bed he even draws the moon out the window so I know we think alike.

2. Natty Bumpo of the Leatherstocking Tales. He is a real gentleman, but not a fussy one. He would have wonderful tales to tell and philosophizing to do as we took long walks in the woods, and I'd be perfectly safe with him, as he is pretty much king of the forest and could protect me from any Indians or wild animals, and trap or hunt for all the meat we could want.

3. Kristin of Kristin Lavransdatter only because she seems to badly need a good woman friend. Besides her mother, who isn't even nearby to have a chat with, I can't see that she has one female friend in the whole three novels about her life. I wonder, if I were her friend, if I could make any positive difference in the drama? I know it would be a lot of work, but in her world I think I could do it. Back then I wouldn't have all the stresses pulling me away from home so I would have more emotional resources to give to Kristin.

4. Winnie-the-Pooh would be a good friend to have for the times when you just wanted to throw sticks over the bridge or sit around eating condensed milk and thinking deeply about thoughts that other people don't even bother having. He and I would understand each other.

I haven't given a lot of thought to this, maybe because I have so many real friends whom I'm already neglecting enough that I somewhat begrudge the time looking for imaginary others. And when I do bring to mind the sort of characters I have met in books, for the most part I'm quite content to let them live their lives without me, as I have more enjoyable ones right here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A gift becomes a bisque

Two weeks ago I was given a hunk of very orange volunteer squash by the nuns at the monastery. After I baked it in the oven I wanted to eat it all just plain, because it tasted that good, and as sweet as candy. 

But I had in mind to make soup using the same recipe that Kate (new nickname for my youngest) had found at Epicurious and cooked for us when she was home for Christmas. We collaborated on the soup, actually, and I'll post here how we made it, not quite as the recipe instructed.
before puréeing

For example, the recipe told us to take two 2# butternut squashes, bake them, measure out the flesh and use three cups of it, then "reserve any remaining squash for another use." If I did that sort of thing the remaining squash would get moldy in the fridge or sit in the freezer for a year or two and dry out. So we used all our squash (when Kate made it we used the true Butternuts from my garden, and they don't come in even pound weights, by the way) and increased some other ingredients proportionally. 

Curried Orange Squash Bisque

  • 3-4# orange winter squash
  • olive oil
  • 2-4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, chopped
  • 1 peeled apple, chopped
  • 2-3 teaspoons Thai red curry paste (ours was Thai Kitchen)
  • about a quart chicken broth
  • 2 bay leaves (optional)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon honey (or more if your squash isn't sweet)
  • 1/2 cup or more sour cream, stirred smooth
  • chopped fresh cilantro
  • salt and pepper to taste
 Brush or spray the cut side of the squash with olive oil and place cut side down on a baking sheet. Bake at 375° for about an hour or until tender. Scoop out the squash and measure it if you care to know how much you ended up with.

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrots and apple. Sauté 5 minutes. Add curry paste; stir 2 minutes. Add broth, bay leaves and squash. I used the bay leaves but Kate didn't, and I liked her soup better, though I don't know if it had anything to do with the bay. Maybe it was the variety of apple, or some other slight difference in our preparation. 

You have to accept this degree of inconsistency when you cook -- well, I do.  If it's not the amounts of ingredients that affects the finished product, it's the differences between one squash and another, or the change from 1/4 to 1/3 teaspoon of pepper that wasn't measured. We are aiming for a hearty pot of soup, and not to become epicureans, even if we do like to search that website.

Bring the soup to a boil; reduce heat to medium and simmer uncovered 1 hour. Now, we couldn't figure out any reason to cook it for an hour unless it was to get the flavor of bay into it, and when Kate made it we didn't have time for that. You really only need to cook it until the vegetables are tender.

Discard the bay leaves, and purée the soup in batches in the blender or food processor. Return to the pot, stir in cream and honey and sour cream. Season with salt and pepper. Rewarm over medium-high heat. Divide among bowls and sprinkle with cilantro.

I forgot to take a picture with the cilantro on top....

I just now noticed that the sour cream was for drizzling over the top of the soup after it is already in the bowls. That would be pretty! But we mixed ours into the soup, and it was very tasty. The sour cream and curry gave the bisque just the right amount of zip, though I suspect that some brands of the curry would add more heat than Thai Kitchen did. If you want something spicy you'll need to add more curry paste.

Even my husband, who despises squash, liked this soup!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

My Valley Oak

My father bought 30 acres of land with oranges and lemons growing on it, and no house. There was a large oak tree looming above a spot where a house might have stood in the past. And he thought that the tree was pretty much grown up, so he planted a house nearby.

This is the oak under which I lived after we moved in, until I went away to college about twelve years later. Only twelve years? Those formative years have an impact far beyond their numerical value, and that tree has to be my favorite tree, because there hasn't been a particular beloved tree between then and now that I can bring to mind.  I realized that this week when Elizabeth was telling about her favorite trees and I wondered if I had one.

In these first pictures, taken decades after I had married, the tree had recently been trimmed with great care and patience by a tree man who was in love with it. I was amazed at its beauty and took a lot of pictures.

At that point the oak had grown mightier than my father ever expected, and its limbs were leaning dangerously over the house. My father said that if he had known how big it would get, he wouldn't have built the house so close to it. At least one large limb had to be cut off to protect the house, and the whole tree was refreshed and lightened by being pruned all over.

When I was growing up I only knew that it was an oak tree. If someone told me it was a Valley Oak I didn't remember. People in our family rarely talked about the birds and trees in those days. I didn't know those were mourning doves I used to hear every evening as I was lying in my bunk. But one year a flock of bright orioles lived in our tree for a few weeks and we heard some talk then.

When I used to play under the tree, this is the way I mostly saw it, as a thick trunk. There was no reason to look up into the branches, excepting the times when orioles visited, and it was usually so messy up there that some twigs or dirt or even tree frogs might fall in your face.

oak galls/balls in winter
Yes, more than once we had veritable plagues of tiny tree frogs swarming in the branches, on the trunk, hopping all over the ground under the leaves. When we walked under the tree they jumped onto our legs as though they were little trunks. And our tree suffered many times from all varieties of galls, the most common of which we just called "oak balls."

Always Daddy had stacks of firewood under the canopy of branches, usually fruit wood that he'd gleaned from neighboring orchards that were being replaced. But here we see it is logs cut from our tree's own pruned limbs.

One year my grandma gave me a little tent for my birthday and I set it up under the tree to lie in the summer long, reading comics and books and sucking on cubical cinnamon suckers.

Doghouses were common at the base of the trunk, and one year we had a banty chicken coop there. The basketball hoop that my father built for me was shaded by this tree friend. And as I think more about the shade it provided, I wonder how much money was saved on cooling bills because we had a partial shield from the burning Central Valley sun.

In his last years my father would walk out under the tree to the edge of the orange grove and scatter grain for a family of wild pheasants that visited. You can tell that this picture was taken pre-trim. One pheasant can barely be seen between the rows of trees.

One view of our tree that we didn't have as children was from above. But some time after we were all grown up an aerial photographer took the photo below and came to the door after the fact to present his wares. Of course Daddy couldn't say no. As he studied the picture he could see his spray rig in the driveway and him bending over it. And soon each of us kids received a gift of a framed picture of our childhood home -- and my favorite tree.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Goldilocks and Jim

Goldilocks is the nickname I am giving to the little girl who had her first sewing lesson from me yesterday. I was very nervous leading up to the appointed time. She's only six years old, for one thing, but she's been using a needle and thread (and even Scotch tape) to construct clothes for her stuffed gorilla toy and a naked doll she inherited. I hadn't had a look at her stitches until our first class, by which time I had come up with a few ideas we might pursue. It seemed wise to have a few projects in case her attention span was as short as I imagined from what I know of her from church.

I picked Goldilocks up at school and brought her here, so we needed to have a snack before beginning our work. Offering a child cake and milk sounds like something a woman in a storybook would do, so I felt very romantic about it, and I didn't mind changing the liquid offer to hot cocoa, it being a rainy day and all. This yummy marzipan cake came in a heavy foil wrapper all the way from Germany so that our Czech friend Jerry could give it to us for Christmas. I had stowed it in the freezer for such a time as this.

As it turned out, my student didn't yet begin any of the projects I had in mind, which included a 9-patch potholder, a hat for her, a blanket for her gorilla, and embroidering a dish towel. She seemed to want to get some clothes on that doll (poor doll doesn't even have a name), so we started on a skirt. I showed her how to plan for the right amount of fabric based on measuring the doll, and she took home a rectangle of flowered cloth which she had started basting along one edge. I will show her how to pull up the gathers and sew it to a waistband.

Earlier in the day it was raining when I first came downstairs and found "my" feral cat Jim sitting outside the sliding door with his fur getting sprinkled as he waited for me to feed him. I thought perhaps he would be willing to stick his head in out of the wet this time, so I set the bowl just inside the door, and went away a space. After some deliberation he did partly enter the house, so I took his picture.

I hadn't put quite the usual amount in the bowl, though, so he waited outside again after finishing it.  I added more food and set the bowl even farther into the kitchen. The temperatures have been higher lately and I hadn't turned on the heat yet, so I didn't mind leaving the door open for Jim for a little while. He came in again, and I busied myself building a fire on the other side of the room.

When I turned back around, he was sitting all the way inside on the rug, while he ate. But when he saw that I saw, he was greatly embarrassed, grabbed one more bite of food and ran out the door with it.

The sun is shining today, but again, the air wasn't too cold, so I put the bowl inside, and once again he came part way in and ate it. When he had finished and was walking around the corner through the gate, I looked out the door, he looked back at me, and I told him to have a good day. He switched his tail. So we have leaped a great hurdle, Jim and I.

This morning I've been researching flights to take me across the continent in about two months to visit Pearl and family. It seems that the two airports I want to use have almost no direct flights connecting them. I had thought that if I paid enough money or reward miles I could make the trip less exhausting. Now I find out that not much can be done to make traveling easier, and I'm suffering a temporary setback in my excitement. I will have to focus on taking healthy snacks, and on the wonderful reading I can do. But for now I'll just be glad I don't have to go anywhere today.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Days Empty and Full

Me in a past epoch

It's the season for extolling the benefits of homeschooling. January in this Northern Hemisphere brings cold gales and pouring rain, and who wants to go out? Who wouldn't want to build a wood fire, curl up with a book and some kiddos on your lap, and glory in having a cozy nest?

Children need time and space and quiet, people say, so that they can concentrate, and not be constantly interrupted to run errands or take part in some group activity out of the home. I agree heartily. I'm not going to post links to these blogs because there are too many good ones. You've probably read or written one yourself.

And I realized, as I was pondering the excellent explanations, that I am one of those children still. I had the kind of upbringing that some people might look at and say, "How boring!" But I never felt that. I thrived in the timelessness of those long country days with not much to do. There was always a book or magazine to read, or a letter to write to Grandma, or a new pattern to try sewing. This poem that Marigold posted hints at the blessedness:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

- Philip Larkin

For over 30 years I had my own children filling my days--at first, it was easy to stay home a lot, and everyone could pay attention to whatever it was they were focused on. As the children got older we were running around more.

Now, I don't often get a whole day to be home. Going out in the morning, to the gym or shopping, makes it a challenge to gather my wits when I get back home. It seems that I am scattered for hours. I am particularly aware and thankful when I get one of those homey days that I took for granted back then, and this poem that Maria passed on tells how I feel.


An empty day without events.
And that is why
it grew immense
as space. And suddenly
happiness of being
entered me.

I heard
in my heartbeat
the birth of time
and each instant of life
one after the other
came rushing in
like priceless gifts.

~ Anna Swir (1909-1984), Polish poet

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

One wants a shawl

Something I'd like to do in 2011 is read more poetry than I did last year. I'm printing out quite a few I like and hope to spend time with, and will keep my new friends in a notebook handy. I have an old three-ring binder that can't hold another sheet, and I'll like to get re-acquainted with some of those verses, too. As I was browsing my computer collection I ran across one that I'd like to have written myself this morning.
Today's a nipping day, a biting day;

In which one wants a shawl,

A veil, a cloak, and other wraps:

I cannot ope to everyone who taps,

And let the draughts come whistling thro' my hall;

Come bounding and surrounding me,

Come buffeting, astounding me,

Nipping and clipping thro' my wraps and all.

From ‘Winter: My Secret’, Christina Rossetti.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Old Year Resolve

My new year resolve is phantom; perhaps it will become more real in the coming weeks. But looking for it engendered some substantial end-of-year resolve to get a few loose ends tucked in so that the to-do list for 2011 could be a smidgen shorter.

The two ingredients for this rice-bag project had been purchased months ago, and I put them together before New Year's Day. We warm them in the microwave at night and hide them near our feet under the bedclothes, where they have been a great coziness, providing extra heat for many hours. For days fog has been hanging over us like a cold uncomforter -- is this not the worst combination of weather elements? -- requiring extra weapons in the war against shivering and sadness. Pippin taught us this technique that she learned in those northern reaches where one can't go to bed without a rice bag. Ours are red because they were the cheapest tube socks I could find at the time.

A couple of other major accomplishments last week were a thorough cleaning of my expansive bedroom and cheerful progress in getting pictures back on the walls. Our bedroom had become the overflow space twice in the last nine months, and took a full five hours to get spiffed up. Moving boxes of this and that, and stacks of books, bedding, and folded laundry from one room to another is the kind of highly-skilled labor I'm getting really good at.

The walls required a lot of thought, but once I ordered the new picture on which everything seemed to hinge, I was able to figure out where all the old ones could fit in. When the new art arrives and I can take pictures, I'll write about my other pivotal piece of woodsy decor that I started crafting last spring. On New Year's Day B. and I ordered one picture and hung four. It's beginning to feel homey around here again.

These snowdrops also were news back in December. And now I think I've finished with that year, which was Very Good, thanks be to God.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Blessing the Waters

from Google images
Church fathers tell us that the love of God warms the soul. Hell and sin are cold. So this photo, so striking in its whiteness and cultural drama, also is highly symbolic of Christ's incarnation and salvation of the world.

I begin to grasp what Fr. Stephen writes, (link from yesterday) how the tradition of the Church "sees the Baptism of Christ in the context of Pascha (Easter) as it sees everything in the context of Christ’s Pascha. Christ’s Baptism is a foreshadowing (and on more than a literary level) of His crucifixion and descent into Hades, just as our own Baptism is seen by St. Paul as a Baptism into Christ’s 'death and resurrection.' ”

These Christians are blessing the waters on Theophany as Christ blessed and baptized a cold and needy Creation when He went down into the Jordan.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


It's the Feast of Theophany. Special services for the commemoration of the Baptism of Christ began yesterday and culminate tomorrow. I was so happy to be able to have a fairly contemplative day, morning and evening.

In the middle of the day we celebrated at church with a Vesperal Liturgy, after which nuns from a nearby monastery (a different monastery from the one where I got the big squash) brought food for us who had been fasting: warming vegetable soup, salad with lots of trimmings, bread and spreads, and even halvah for dessert.

Last year I wrote a bit more about Theophany. This year I don't have anything new to say about the feast; I am trying to just soak it up and be changed by it, though I feel too dull to follow Father Stephen very far on the topic. I do want to share an icon I found on where I spent a while browsing. This mosaic is from 11th-century Greece.

Here's a teaser clip from Fr. Stephen's post that I linked to above:

     The world and all that is in it is given to us as icon – not because it has no value in itself – but because the value it has in itself is the gift of God – and this is seen in its iconicity.
     At Theophany, the waters of the world are revealed to be both Hades and the gate of Paradise.... Love alone reveals things for what they are, and transforms them into what they were always intended to be. It is the gift of God.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Substantive 11th Day

I don't think I ever knew what a substantive was before today, which is surprising, as tuned in to grammar as I try to be. (Don't laugh, all you truly educated people.) I was looking up a word in my French dictionary, the original one I bought as a freshman in high school for my original French class. Just the kind of thing one might do during Christmas -- it is still only the 11th day of Christmas! -- and I wanted to know if this particular word is feminine or masculine. However, the first abbreviation after the entry was neither f. nor m. but s. ... S? The list of abbreviations in the front of the book said that  s. stands for "substantive."

I had to look it up on I wonder if any of my many language teachers ever told me that it means noun? Or, why did that word never enter my radar all these years, and demand an explanation, hanging around as it was right there in my tattered dictionary?

Not a half hour passed before I was reading an editorial on a news site, in which the word substantive jumped out at me, in that case being used as a synonym for "substantial" and having nothing to do with grammar.

It's a very small thing to write about, especially during this week of the year when everyone is exhorting or inspiring or discouraging me with talk of goals and change and revolutions -- oops, I mean resolutions. But it's the most substantive thing I could come up with today.