Sunday, February 27, 2011

More Writing and Friends

The last year flew by, and now my blog is TWO years old. I feel like giving a party for all my blogging friends, to celebrate. But that kind of thing does not belong to Blogland, so the best idea I can come up with to mark the occasion is -- what else? -- to write a long and possibly boring blog post.

What did I ever do before I started writing a blog? I wrote long e-mails, and real letters with ink, and articles about this and that which hardly anyone read. (And there was a homeschool newsletter.)

When I started Gladsome Lights I expected it would give me a convenient format for sharing recipes and garden happenings and such like with my longtime friends and family. At the time I did already have a manila folder full of scraps of paper on which I'd written thoughts that might turn into something, if I ever took the time to sit and ponder over them with pen in hand, but the potential was for more thinking with myself.

Suddenly I was connected with people who for various reasons actually take time out of their day to read what I write, or at least to check in and look at my garden or pie pictures, and it's not just because they are my children or feel otherwise obligated. I've always had several real-life friends like this, but there wasn't an easy platform for sharing. I've also had the third kind of friend, the authors with whom I interact, but reciprocity is lacking in that case.

If you are reading this, you might be one of these people who has been wonderfully stimulating to my mind and heart, just by offering occasional feedback. At some level you know me better, from reading my ramblings, than my nearby friends who aren't the blog-reading type, because it's a rare personal encounter in which I can find the words to express the things I do in writing.

Of course, words aren't everything. It might be wise to ease off, and spend less time exulting in the fun of working to crank out a few decent paragraphs every week. But my manila folder has only been getting fatter, and my Blogger drafts folder is virtually overflowing. Reading other blogs of homeschoolers, philosophers, gardeners and homemakers (some of you are all of those together) gives me even more things to think about, to read, to try and to do.

It feels like I'm just getting into the swing of this writing life, and I don't think I'll stop anytime soon -- unless God makes it clear contrariwise. It's an inestimable gift from Him, this time I have to think and to enjoy all the things I do, and to write. And if you are still reading this, know that you are a gift to me, too.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sweep away all false things...

St. John the Forerunner

"The sweet work of repentance that is set before us as followers of Christ, is nothing other than the return to reality."

"How we feel about many things has this same make-believe quality. We find certain styles of clothing and certain products (cars, houses, etc.) attractive and desirable, but often with little more than subjective reasons for our desires. The power of this make-believe is so great that it is well-known that many people “go shopping” to battle depression. It is a strange therapy."
Read the rest of the article by Father Stephen Freeman here -- about the real cause of so much of our grief and misery in everyday life, "a ceaseless struggle with things that have no true existence."

When I look around his blog I always find plenty to provoke my thoughts in a good direction. I'm assuming his book Everywhere Present that just came out will put a lot of this food for the soul together in one nourishing bowl.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Chinese Tea Eggs

For more than 20 years a photograph of Chinese tea eggs sat in my recipe folder along with instructions for making them. By the time I got around to the project I couldn't find the original article clipped from a magazine, and was inspired by reading on the Internet. One traveler said that in China a typical hiker will take along a sack full of these eggs the way American backpackers might put granola bars in their pockets.

Probably what stalled me was the thought that making hard-boiled eggs beautiful was only an aesthetic endeavor, and my creative efforts were applied elsewhere. But now I know that the interesting decorations on the eggs instill enough flavor to make them a complete snack without further additions.

I found lots of recipes, with few to many ingredients. The only constant is some tea leaves and salt. The first time I added orange peel, and used what seemed like an extravagant amount of soy sauce, but after perusing enough recipes and eating the results of that first batch, I decided that I could make a nice tea egg while using up some things that I have sitting neglected in the cupboards.

The flavor is so subtle, I'm pretty sure any elaborate recipe and combination of spice would be wasted on me. I don't see how you could go wrong adding too much or too little of anything, except for the salt. Some spices that were included in many recipes were star anise, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, cloves, and ginger root.

I used less soy sauce and more salt, and to make up for the loss of color from the soy, I added more tea leaves, because I had some loose black tea sitting around. Jasmine green tea is on my mind to try in the future. Instead of the cinnamon stick and star anise that I used the first time, I added a simple spice combination that I haven't needed for anything else lately.

Here is the current recipe:

Chinese Tea Eggs

--One dozen large to extra-large eggs - but however many you can fit in one layer in your pot, they will all get the same benefit of the flavors in the broth. One can make a smaller batch in a smaller pot, and reduce the amounts, but I personally didn't want to bother with fewer than a dozen.
--enough water to cover eggs
--4 tablespoons soy sauce
--1 teaspoon sugar
--1 tablespoon salt
--2 tablespoons Chinese 5-spice powder
--4 tablespoons black tea leaves (or use some tea bags)

Put the eggs in a pot in one layer, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer for 3-4 minutes. (Most recipes cooked the eggs firm at this point, but the first recipe I read interrupted here, so I am following that practice, though it can't be crucial, as the eggs will be overcooked by most standards by the end. Yes, they will have green on the yolk!)

Remove eggs from heat and allow them to cool a bit before handling; you can run them under water to speed cooling. Take the back of a knife and crack the eggs as evenly as possible all around.

Put the eggs back in the pot and add all the other ingredients. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for 1-3 hours, adding water if the level gets too low. The color and flavor will deepen with longer immersion. Remove from heat and serve as a snack or as an addition to rice or noodles.

If you have room, you can also leave the eggs soaking in the broth in the refrigerator overnight.

Last time I went on a road trip, I took along a couple of hard-cooked eggs to have when I stopped for lunch. But because I had forgotten to bring any salt to add, I didn't eat them after all. I know, too fussy. Now that I've learned how to make these pretty eggs that have the flavor and just the right amount of salt all locked in, I'll be more ready for picnics, and have an elegant alternative to the rustic method of salt sprinkling.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Patch of Greens

Swiss chard in foreground, sorrel in back.

You can't tell now, but I did weed my greens patch after New Year's Day. The rain brought up more weeds, but also the things I planted have grown bigger so that I can make a good soup with them tonight.

The broccoli rabe has gone to flowering and doesn't taste very good now. I didn't end up using much of it. Maybe if I plant some this spring it will produce better before going to seed; but I thought it would have been a good fall crop.

Above you can see some Dino Kale and the rabe flower, plus Red Russian Kale on the far right.

And the washed greens ready to go.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Taught by The Little Match Girl

It's quite cold today, and my feet are feeling it even though I am indoors; I didn't turn the heat on before I went to church, so now it will take a long time for the house to get warmed by the wood fire I built. And the computer is in the coldest corner. As I sit here with my cold feet and three layers of wool sweaters, blankets of snow can be seen on the surrounding foothills. Maria has a theme of children on her blog this month, and today she posted a lovely painting of a girl reading.

All of these factors combined to spur me into writing about a story that captivated me as a child and that became a foundational piece of furniture of my mind. When people suggest sharing a list of the books that were formative in our lives, I often think that only God could say what they are. I'm pretty sure that we don't remember in our intellect everything that our hearts know.

But "The Little Match Girl," by Hans Christian Andersen, is the one story I know would be on my list. It was in the anthology that provided most of my reading material when I was about 5-10 years old, which my children also read, and which now sits on my shelf in its duct tape bandage.

What did I get from this story, and why did I love reading it over and over? I lived a comfortable life, so it wasn't empathy with the poor and freezing child that held my attention. It must have been the attractiveness of God Himself, Who I understood was taking the child to be with Him, where she would also be with her grandmother. I learned from this story something about Heaven and death, and that suffering and neglected children aren't entirely alone. Indeed, they can have spiritual experiences that adults know nothing about and with which no one can interfere.

I easily found the text of the story online, in slightly different wording, but I couldn't find an illustration that seemed right. They all showed a girl of the wrong age, or they were too cute, or irreverent. Finally I took a picture with my camera of the picture in the book, but as I look at it I see that even it doesn't equal the much richer, if vague, images I retain from reading the words.

Evidently there have been movies telling the story, and perhaps most everyone is familiar with several versions of this tale, but I've never gone beyond that first encounter. For anyone wanting to read it once more -- or perhaps for the first time! -- I post it here.

The Little Match Girl

Most terribly cold it was; it snowed, and was nearly quite dark, and evening-- the last evening of the year. In this cold and darkness there went along the street a poor little girl, bareheaded, and with naked feet. When she left home she had slippers on, it is true; but what was the good of that? They were very large slippers, which her mother had hitherto worn; so large were they; and the poor little thing lost them as she scuffled away across the street, because of two carriages that rolled by dreadfully fast.

One slipper was nowhere to be found; the other had been laid hold of by an urchin, and off he ran with it; he thought it would do capitally for a cradle when he some day or other should have children himself. So the little maiden walked on with her tiny naked feet, that were quite red and blue from cold. She carried a quantity of matches in an old apron, and she held a bundle of them in her hand. Nobody had bought anything of her the whole livelong day; no one had given her a single farthing.

She crept along trembling with cold and hunger--a very picture of sorrow, the poor little thing!

The flakes of snow covered her long fair hair, which fell in beautiful curls around her neck; but of that, of course, she never once now thought. From all the windows the candles were gleaming, and it smelt so deliciously of roast goose, for you know it was New Year's Eve; yes, of that she thought.

In a corner formed by two houses, of which one advanced more than the other, she seated herself down and cowered together. Her little feet she had drawn close up to her, but she grew colder and colder, and to go home she did not venture, for she had not sold any matches and could not bring a farthing of money: from her father she would certainly get blows, and at home it was cold too, for above her she had only the roof, through which the wind whistled, even though the largest cracks were stopped up with straw and rags.

Her little hands were almost numbed with cold. Oh! a match might afford her a world of comfort, if she only dared take a single one out of the bundle, draw it against the wall, and warm her fingers by it. She drew one out. "Rischt!" how it blazed, how it burnt! It was a warm, bright flame, like a candle, as she held her hands over it: it was a wonderful light. It seemed really to the little maiden as though she were sitting before a large iron stove, with burnished brass feet and a brass ornament at top. The fire burned with such blessed influence; it warmed so delightfully. The little girl had already stretched out her feet to warm them too; but--the small flame went out, the stove vanished: she had only the remains of the burnt-out match in her hand.

She rubbed another against the wall: it burned brightly, and where the light fell on the wall, there the wall became transparent like a veil, so that she could see into the room. On the table was spread a snow-white tablecloth; upon it was a splendid porcelain service, and the roast goose was steaming famously with its stuffing of apple and dried plums. And what was still more capital to behold was, the goose hopped down from the dish, reeled about on the floor with knife and fork in its breast, till it came up to the poor little girl; when--the match went out and nothing but the thick, cold, damp wall was left behind. She lighted another match. Now there she was sitting under the most magnificent Christmas tree: it was still larger, and more decorated than the one which she had seen through the glass door in the rich merchant's house.

Thousands of lights were burning on the green branches, and gaily-colored pictures, such as she had seen in the shop-windows, looked down upon her. The little maiden stretched out her hands towards them when--the match went out. The lights of the Christmas tree rose higher and higher, she saw them now as stars in heaven; one fell down and formed a long trail of fire.

"Someone is just dead!" said the little girl; for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now no more, had told her, that when a star falls, a soul ascends to God.

She drew another match against the wall: it was again light, and in the lustre there stood the old grandmother, so bright and radiant, so mild, and with such an expression of love.

"Grandmother!" cried the little one. "Oh, take me with you! You go away when the match burns out; you vanish like the warm stove, like the delicious roast goose, and like the magnificent Christmas tree!" And she rubbed the whole bundle of matches quickly against the wall, for she wanted to be quite sure of keeping her grandmother near her. And the matches gave such a brilliant light that it was brighter than at noon-day: never formerly had the grandmother been so beautiful and so tall. She took the little maiden, on her arm, and both flew in brightness and in joy so high, so very high, and then above was neither cold, nor hunger, nor anxiety--they were with God.

But in the corner, at the cold hour of dawn, sat the poor girl, with rosy cheeks and with a smiling mouth, leaning against the wall--frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. Stiff and stark sat the child there with her matches, of which one bundle had been burnt. "She wanted to warm herself," people said. No one had the slightest suspicion of what beautiful things she had seen; no one even dreamed of the splendor in which, with her grandmother she had entered on the joys of a new year.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Quote of the Week - Regret

Regret is an appalling waste of energy; you can't build on it; it is only good for wallowing in.  
--Katherine Mansfield

This contrast of building vs. wallowing is a good one for me to keep in mind as we approach Lent. Today is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. This young man probably didn't exactly grunt around in the mud with the swine even if he did covet their food, but I wonder if he wasted a lot of time feeling miserable before he said, "I will arise and go unto my father."

Glory to God, we can get up every time we fall and by the power of the Holy Spirit go to our Father in prayer, saying as did the Prodigal, "I am not worthy to be treated as your son." And we can expect to be embraced, and to be built up in Christ.

Addendum: By the Linked-Within feature I discovered that I did in fact write about the Sunday of the Prodigal Son before, and even used the same icon. It's sort of a sequel to this part, discussing what happened after he left the pigsty.

Friday, February 18, 2011

W'y rain's my choice

Street lights shine down throughout my neighborhood, but I was wishing I'd brought a flashlight nonetheless when I went out earlier this evening with my umbrella to deliver a package that had been delivered to the wrong house. In this town we have confusing arrangements of names and streets. Today's error resulted from something like this: One address is 5211 Fred St and the other is 5211 Frank St, with Fred and Frank being short loops off of Fritz St.

Our mixed-up houses are only two blocks from each other, so it didn't make sense to drive over there. I would get wetter climbing in and out of the car than if I just took a short walk. I had to strain to see the house numbers, even the ones that have a light behind them. Until I got my bearings I took a few steps up two or three driveways in order to read the addresses.

Rivers of water flowed across the sidewalks, in many places pooling into lakes before they reached the gutter. But that's not a problem if you have sturdy galoshes like mine. I found that my mind was singing the first stanza of a poem that I learned from Goldilocks when she came for her sewing lesson yesterday, barefoot because her boots had gotten soaked at recess.

This very night her school is having a fundraiser and all the students are reciting together:

It hain't no use to grumble and complane;
      It's jest as cheap and easy to rejoice.—
When God sorts out the weather and sends rain,
      W'y rain's my choice.

That's only the first fun verse of James Whitcomb Riley's "Wet-weather Talk." I bet the children are all glad that we've been having steady downpours for a few days, because that will help the audience get into the spirit of the poem that goes on for a few more stanzas exhorting us not to be "lockin' horns with Providence."

We are likely to rejoice in rain here in dry California. I was also happy to go on a little expedition, and only slightly disappointed when no one answered the door; I left the package on the step and came home again. I passed a man whose taxi was just driving away, and he laughed and said, "Another fine night for a walk!" and I answered with the other lyrics that popped into my head, "Splish splash...I'll be takin' a bath...."

But no, I wasn't even very damp when I came in the door to the lovely warm fire that I'd got going a little earlier. The time to write this blog post was also here. It is certainly easy to rejoice when Providence gives me opportunities and the strength to take them.

Of course, other days rejoicing can cost more. But "sufficient to the day is the evil thereof," as the Bible says somewhere. I don't think I need to worry about those other days right now. A Russian proverb says, "Every day is a messenger of God." My little delivery errand turned out to be a gift to myself, and that could only come from God.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A New Apron for Bird

The beloved apron
From about 1930 my friend Bird spent a lot of time in a closet turned into a sewing room, stitching away at shirts and dresses and whatever was needed to keep her twelve children clothed. All of them were born before I was, and Bird is now 99 years old. I didn't get to see her on her birthday last September, but shortly before that I paid a visit and was concerned when I saw that Bird wasn't wearing an apron.

New and old fabric compared.

She doesn't do much cooking or cleaning anymore, though she lives by herself in an apartment. She wears an apron because she has tied one on every morning for most of her life and she doesn't feel right without that part of her attire. I knew all that, so when she was lacking the essential garment I asked what was wrong.

Her apron was so tattered, she said, she didn't want to wear it when she was having company. Oh, yes, she did have a newer apron that her children had bought her, but it didn't fit right. She brought it out of a drawer, and I could see that it was way too large, made to accommodate the great number of our generation who fill more of an apron than our grandmothers did. Though I didn't have a measuring tape, I took some measurements from the old favorite, using a sheet of paper for the ruler, and when I went home I drew up a proper design, thinking I could make her one. But nothing came of my idea for a long time.

Without shame, I returned to visit last month and found Bird in the oversized apron. But knowing that I would be returning to her city in about three weeks, I asked if I could take her old apron with me this time, to use for a pattern. She took it out of a drawer, clean and neatly folded, though unusable, as the neck strap was broken through.

When I returned with the old apron, I looked among my stacks of fabrics and was amazed to find something that resembled what I imagined the old apron had looked like before it faded. My piece of Guatemalan fabric had been bought to fix a mistake I made in measuring for a tablecloth fifteen years ago, a tablecloth that never got made at all. So the fabric waited around, being the perfect replacement for the old apron, until all the parts of this story came together.

Today was the end of the story, or the beginning of the life of the new apron. I managed to meet my own deadline of this day, when I went to an appointment in her town and dropped the apron off beforehand. Bird was very pleased. She tied the apron on immediately and said that she felt properly put together again.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Blossoms Here and There

Our manzanita joins the Show of Valentine-y Pink
pruning with antique saw
It's raining, thank God! We were worried that all our rain had fallen early in the season, that we would be left high and dry against the summer drought.

I'm looking out the window at the lovely cherry plum tree. For a few weeks it's a pretty tree, while the blossoms draw the attention away from the ungainly shape. B. has to do several hours of trimming every year to keep both the tree and the nearby wisteria from invading the house.

Trees are flowering all over the county now and I'm relishing the fact that God willing, I'll be repeating my experience of two years ago, when I got in on Spring here, and two months later, in Maryland, watched a slightly different version of the performance. Because I do have a ticket to fly in late March.

It's Valentine's Day, and love is being expressed all over the place, like bursts of flowers showing that the plant, or marriage or friendship, is still alive and fruitful. Last year my Valentine and I ate dinner at a Japanese restaurant that gave us this origami money with our dessert mints. Is it a lucky Japanese tradition? Maybe. I do know that I am a lucky woman. I have the same Valentine this year.

Maryland blooms 2009

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Crosse

Friday is a day to remember The Cross. This poem by John Donne (1572-1631), which I first read at least 15 years ago, contributed to my own alienation from modern minimalists and anti-sacramentalists. It is long and full of theology, and by the time I get to the end I am always lifted up by joy. It must be that cup of joy He gave us by taking the cup of death.
I've put it with the old spellings and words, to remind me of the historical context in which it was written, but it can be found in an updated form here.  
I wonder if I wasn't imbued with a love for The Cross from my earliest Sunday School classes; my teacher gave me a small plastic cross with adhesive on the back, which I stuck to the wall above my bed. I looked at it every night before I went to sleep, for years, as it was the sort of material that absorbed light and glowed for a while after the electric lights were put out.

The Crosse  by John Donne

Since Christ embrac'd the Crosse it selfe, dare I
His image, the'image of his Crosse deny?
Would I have profit by the sacrifice,
And dare the chosen Altar to despise?
It bore all other sinnes, but is it fit
That it should beare the sinne of scorning it?
Who from the picture would avert his eye,
How would he flye his paines, who there did dye?
From mee, no Pulpit, nor misgrounded law,
Nor scandall taken, shall this Crosse withdraw,
It shall not, for it cannot; for, the losse
Of this Crosse, were to mee another Crosse.
Better were worse, for no affliction,
No Crosse is so extreme, as to have none;
Who can blot out the Crosse, which the'instrument
Of God, dew'd on mee in the Sacrament?
Who can deny mee power, and liberty
To stretch mine armes, and mine owne Crosse to be?
Swimme, and at every stroake, thou art thy Crosse,
The Mast and yard make one, where seas do tosse.
Looke downe, thou spiest out Crosses in small things;
Looke up, thou seest birds rais'd on crossed wings;
All the Globes frame, and spheares, is nothing else
But the Meridians crossing Parallels.
Materiall Crosses then, good physicke bee,
And yet spirituall have chiefe dignity,
These for extracted chimique medicine serve,
And cure much better, and as well preserve;
Then are you your own physicke, or need none,
When Still'd, or purg'd by tribulation.
For when that Crosse ungrudg'd, unto you stickes,
Then are you to your selfe, a Crucifixe.
As perchance, Carvers do not faces make,
But that away, which hid them there, do take.
Let Crosses, soe, take what hid Christ in thee,
And be his image, or not his, but hee.
But, as oft Alchimists doe coyners prove,
So may a self-dispising, get selfe-love.
And then as worst surfets, of best meates bee,
Soe is pride, issued from humility,
For, 'tis no child, but monster;  therefore Crosse
Your joy in crosses, elso, 'tis double losse,
And crosse thy senses, else, both they, and thou
Must perish soone, and to destruction bowe.
For if the'eye seeke good objects, and will take
No crosse from bad, wee cannot scape a snake.
So with harsh, hard, sowre, stinking, crosse the rest,
Make them indifferent; call nothing best.
But most the eye needs crossing, that can rome,
And move;  to th'others th'objects must come home.
And crosse thy heart:  for that in man alone
Points downewards, and hath palpitation.
Crosse those dejections, when it downeward tends,
And when it to forbidden heights pretends.
And as thy braine through bony walls doth vent
By sutures, which a Crosses forme present,
So when thy braine workes, ere thou utter it,
Crosse and correct concupiscence of witt.
Be covetous of Crosses, let none fall.
Crosse no man else, but crosse thy selfe in all.
Then doth the Crosse of Christ worke fruitfully
Within our hearts, when wee love harmlesly
That Crosses pictures much, and with more care
That Crosses children, which our Crosses are.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Scouting Around

It was great fun to follow little Scout around the yard for an hour while he explored his world. I took a slew of pictures trying to catch something of the Serious Scientist and Joyful Naturalist I was observing.

He is so good at walking on icy snow...I wonder how it feels to be so close to the surface and have a short toddly stride. Evidently pretty secure. Walking on snow was part of the adventure he was enjoying, and he never once slipped.

Scout is also an expert at recognizing a crabapple, even if it has lain under the snow for a few months and doesn't look like its former self. He can get one into his mouth, avoiding the large piece of gravel that is also in his fist, and calmly remove the pit, enjoying what little "fruit" was left. I was a bit concerned when he picked up a specimen that had decomposed to an ugly state, but after squeezing it through his fingers for half a minute he rejected that one.

The main project of the hour was picking up stones, acorns, pine cones and sticks. He's not yet at the age when sticks are preeminent, but he did carry a few for a while, which meant that his capacity for rocks was less.

But when he found the field of acorns, the sticks were dropped.The question is, how many acorns can fit in one little fist?

In spite of the sun, I'm sure his hands felt pretty cold after splashing in little puddles and patting ice, but he was oblivious to anything that would distract him from his Purpose.

However, Grandma did feel the chill, so we went inside and took a few acorns with us.

Monday, February 7, 2011

New Friends on the Way

Heteromeles arbutifolia - toyon
On my way to visit Pippin, The Professor, and Scout last week I stopped to see some of my tree friends. The lovely bay tree was blooming, all tangled up with the madrone, whose berries were almost gone.
toyon with manzanita behind

Also in the jumble was the toyon, with slightly fresher berries. I read in Pippin's tree book that toyon is the only species in its genus, and it grows only in California and Baja California. Though I'd been introduced to Mr. Toyon many times in the last 40 years, I didn't seem to pay much attention to him. I think we'll be friends now. On this occasion I had the time and Google to help me focus and learn more, and I also have a blog where I can find him again if my memory fails.

another view of toyon

I did see quite a few of my most beloved manzanitas as well. Manzanita means "little apple." The botanical name arctostaphylos means "bear berry," though of course other animals also feed on these fruits. The common name of some varieties is also bearberry.

Right now the bushes are in bloom (so is the one in my yard); I saw pink- and white-flowered variations. There are about 60 species total, and most of those are native to California, so it's a hard one to pin down as to which species you are seeing.


Many of the trees I saw on this outing are growing on the slopes of that volcanic mountain I told about before, Mt. Saint Helena, in Napa County. On the weekend scores of cars were parked at the trailhead for hikes up to the top. The spot is in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, so named because the author and his wife honeymooned on this mountain in 1880. He went on to use it as the model for Spyglass Peak in Treasure Island. One New Year's Day a decade ago our whole family made the trek up and got amazing views.

I left the forest and after driving a while longer I caught a glimpse of something off the highway that made me flip a U across three lanes to go back and take a second look. I was lucky there was a turnout right opposite the meadow where 20 elk were grazing!

Later The Professor told me that he had seen this herd of tule elk many times over the years, in this their winter home; it is the largest migratory elk herd in California. Tule elk are a subspecies of elk only half the size of Roosevelt elk, whose habitat is even more narrow than the toyon: they only live in California. I stumbled through the star thistles and got my socks full of prickles, trying to get as close as possible and watch them for a few minutes before they escaped.

On the way home I looked and looked for the spot where I'd pulled over three days before, but I couldn't even find the turnout across from the meadow, much less see any animals. If I can get a view of the elk another time or two, I might put them in the category of friends, though they didn't show any signs of wanting to get to know me. So far I'm content to thank God for this happy meeting.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Quote of the Week - beauty hidden there

"Unless we look at a person and see the beauty there is in this person, we can contribute nothing to him. One does not help a person by discerning what is wrong, what is ugly, what is distorted. Christ looked at everyone he met, at the prostitute, at the thief, and saw the beauty hidden there. Perhaps it was distorted, perhaps damaged, but it was beauty none the less, and what he did was to call out this beauty." 
~ Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh of blessed memory.

Mostly I know Metropolitan Father Anthony Bloom from his writings on prayer, which have been very encouraging. They convey a fatherly exhortation, as much as to say, as our Father might, "Child, why have you delayed so long coming to sit on my lap?" There is a flash of sadness that you did wait so long, but it is swallowed up in the joy and comfort of sitting there, and the love that flows, even though, like a child, you are fidgety and not paying attention as closely as could be desired. You find that you have hopped off His lap, hardly noticing yourself, but He smiles and enfolds you the moment you climb back up. 

Fr. Anthony shows you how this is so, and makes you want to get on with the work of repentance, of coming back into God's presence again and again. Of course it is from Him that I have any hope of acquiring the loving attitude toward people that he talks about in the quote above. So the topics are connected. 

This afternoon I went to a lecture by Father Mel Webber, author of Bread and Water, Wine and Oil. When he speaks I want to write down every word, which of course I can't. But I hope to glean at least one good quote from my notes for next week's posting.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A botanical theme has emerged.

Decorating is a homemaking job that I wish I could get over and done with and on to other things. This post is about how the realization of that wish is a long time coming. On one level the story bores me to death, even though it's my own house I'm writing about, the house I've been investing in for 20 years. That should warn most of my readers to leave right now and go read something more entertaining.

What's makes me want to tell this too-long tale anyway is the way it illustrates how an incredible amount of mental and physical labor can go into what seems a simple project. I suppose I'm not used to this precisely because I'm not into home decorating and haven't applied my perfectionistic creative energies to it so much before. In a way it's a larger-scale version of my doll clothes effort: what I envision doesn't come in a kit.

If I could make a kit out of it no one would buy it. It's just the best that we could do given our priorities, and with a tract house that doesn't have enough walls to be cozy or enough windows to brighten the view. The story I tell is also amusing if one considers the output of my mental energies compared to the mediocrity of the results.

G.K. Chesterton said,
It is the main earthly business of a human being to make his home, and the immediate surroundings of his home, as symbolic and significant to his own imagination as he can. 
I'm not sure what all G.K. meant by that, but he does seem to give me liberty, and even to tell me it is my duty, to spend time on my house and property with the purely physical and aesthetic aspects in mind.

One year ago
So, I push on. Last year we changed the arrangement of the living room furniture so that the pictures on the wall didn't work anymore. It seemed that the painting that used to be above a couch was too "heavy" after we moved the piano under it. It was then the largest wall item above the largest piece of furniture. Also, the TV had come out of the closet and found a new and permanent place in a corner, and the emptiness above it bothered me for months while I tried to figure out what to put there.

The first thing that came to mind was a manzanita branch such as I remembered my grandmother having in her living room for a while, a natural curio of sorts. Hers had sat on the coffee table, I think, but mine would hang above the TV to fill some of that airspace and balance out the piano nearby. (We'd need to get a smaller something to put above the piano, too.)

I started looking online for manzanita, but I found only small and twiggy, pale specimens, for use in flower arrangements. So I gave up for a while and spent hours looking for a decorative mobile. Nothing pleased. By that time we were in the middle of the remodel, so it wasn't urgent.

Then in April we went north to Pippin's place, where the previous winter's record-breaking amounts of snow had piled up everywhere. As we walked through her forest we saw several manzanita bushes with large branches broken off. My mind started twirling around the idea that I could prepare my own decorative branch. The others helped me choose a couple that might work and we hauled them home.

Nine months ago
I still didn't know if I could accomplish what I envisioned; I've never been one to do woodworking of any sort. I knew enough to trim off the flowers and small twigs. Then it occurred to me that wood needs to dry out before one can work it. I read that manzanita tends to split, so people have trouble making furniture out of it. Maybe my branches would split too much as they dried?

I left them sitting around in the garage for a couple of months and they only split a little bit. On the Internet I read somewhere to paint them with Danish oil to preserve the wood, so I did that. And one of my children said I should stain the trimmed ends of the branch so the whiteness of the wood wouldn't distract from the lovely smooth and dark bark.
I think this is the one I didn't use.

It was B.'s upcoming birthday party that put the fire under me to get the chosen branch up in the corner. We bravely screwed two hooks into the smooth new ceiling, and I painted them white so they would fade into the background. Then three strands of fishing line were tied to those, and to the branch.

Soldier was here and helped me position it just so; he's tall and strong and could stand there calmly holding it in midair while I fumbled with the almost invisible threads. Then voilĂ ! At last, that one part of my decor was in place (now we only had to ignore the empty space above the piano) and all our party guests could admire it. I began brainstorming on a solution to that remaining space nearby.

Three weeks later I dusted the manzanita with a feather duster and the next morning it crashed onto the TV and to the floor. Nothing was harmed. Guess we needed stronger filament. It took me about two months to get to the store to buy it. Then it took another month before B. and I could make ourselves re-hang the branch. See what kind of do-it-yourself-ers we aren't?

I was sure I knew how to orient the branch, the way Pippin had told me to, but after B. and I got it centered and hung and he'd gone bike-riding, I realized by looking at previous photos that I had it exactly backwards, and it truly didn't look the best. I tried just flipping it over, and that sort of worked; I only had to re-tie one filament, and we were o.k....except that now the branch was a little closer to the ceiling than ideal, and the top of it was vaguely lined up with the curtain rod, which didn't look right. I suffered with that all through Christmas, trying not to care. Of course most people said it was fine because no one wanted to go through the difficulty of doing it over.

I had to buy a piano lamp before I could decide what would go behind it; our old one was shot. Piano lamps are expensive! The cheapest one I could settle on was out of stock for a few weeks, so we waited on that. I had looked at so many paintings or other wall decorations, many hours of browsing over several months, and found nothing I wanted enough to spend money on.

So I thought I would saw and paint some wooden birds to hang up there...they needed to be warm and colorful, because the corner with a black TV and a stark naked branch turned out surprisingly modern and chilly. (Maybe what I need is a branch about five times that big, just sitting on the floor behind the TV and reaching toward the ceiling...and permanently trimmed with Christmas ornaments...? )

But then we must return to how I'm not a woodworker, or a painter for that matter. I think it was on New Year's Day that I felt desperate to make some progress; I decided to spend money and get something. B. and I knew we needed color there, and we knew the parameters of what the measurements needed to be. I bookmarked some paintings, and when B. came home from watching a football game we chose one and ordered it. Whoopee!

The painting arrived and sat on the floor near its destination for over a week. I knew we needed to be in the right mood to even talk about putting it up. In the meantime, one day I got a burst of courage and all by myself re-did the lines supporting my manzanita. I think it might be as much as an inch lower. A most satisfying inch.

Last week we hung the picture. Those are giant poppies providing the splash of color. I hope Mr. Chesterton is happy and won't mind if I get back to my sewing and reading now.