Chocolate feet and Vanilla Ears

It feels like I’ve had a long day already and I check the clock to confirm my suspicion. Unbelievably it reads 10:09, which means it’s still mid-morning, not even late morning! Saron and Vivi are at home with me and acting like two and five-year-olds. They want snacks, they want help with their shoes, they want me to go outside with them, they want me to come back inside with them, and the problem with this is not that they want so much, but that I do. Besides looking after them, I have my own agenda for the day. Unfortunately our agendas don’t complement each other very well. The grant application that needs to be finished, the phone call to Napa Auto for car parts, the basil that needs transplanting, or the pizza dough that needs mixing aren’t top priority for the vocal majority. When I feel myself becoming a little unhinged I know it’s time to sit and read a book with them.

“It’s Saron’s turn to pick,” I say.

Saron brings The Arrival, the book she always chooses, to the couch where she hops up beside me. When I see her choice I groan inwardly. It’s one of my favourites but it’s a graphic short story, the kind with beautiful drawings and NO WORDS, which means I have to make up the narration as we go along. Which means I don’t get to think about my to-do list as I drone on about Amelia Bedelia or Strawberry Shortcake. Which means I actually have to be engaged.

The story opens with a father leaving his home country for a new land. We talk about long journeys, learning a new language, eating strange foods, fleeing and finding a new home, migrants and refugees. When we get to the last page, the one with the migrant’s daughter helping someone else who has just arrived, we pause for a long time. Mostly because the story is so beautiful, but partly because it’s hard to know what to do with the next moment after finishing a good book.

My eyes drift to Saron’s and Vivi’s feet sticking straight off of the couch. Their toenails are long and dirty from all this barefoot weather.

“Ew! That’s disgusting. We need to cut your nails.” Nobody responds or moves as we all stare ahead, still subdued from the book.

After a bit Vivi says something and it’s far more diplomatic than my comment.

“I love your chocolate feet Saron.”

Saron looks at her feet thoughtfully. Then she looks across my lap at Vivi.

“I love your vanilla feet. And… and,” her eyes trail up and down Vivian’s body, “… your… vanilla EARS!”

Then they lean across my lap to to press their foreheads together and bathe in their mutual affection. Perhaps even they know the warm fuzzy feeling won’t last long. In the next 15 minutes they will be fighting over the trike or vying for the biggest cookie but this moment redeems my morning. It’s only 10:27 am and the day suddenly carries a little more potential.

Wishing you love for all flavours of ears and toes and moments that make your day move a little faster,

Tricia

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The gift of the almighty “NO”

Vivian has learned to put two very important phonemes together: the almighty /n/ and /o/. As she toddles around the house shrieking, whispering, chanting, singing, and repeating them over and over, she appears to get a charge out of simply uttering the word. Like a kid revving a dirt bike with more kick than they can handle, Vivian’s throttle is stuck on no and she’s loving the wild ride.

“Do you want some milk Vivian?”

“No.”

“Do you want me to pick you up?”

“NO.”

“Do you want a cracker?”

“NO!”

“Do you want to run around naked?”

“No-ooooh!”

Of course, she ends up taking the sip of milk, wants to be picked up, is reaching for the cracker, and loves running around naked. You might wonder then if she even knows what she’s saying, but she understands alright; the expression in her voice proves it. The sharp /n/ coupled with the stacatto /o/ belies her intentions. Dramatic body language often accompanies her verbal rejections. When she senses we might want her to stay put or come near, she arches her back, propels her tummy forward and sprint-toddles in the opposite direction. This, while yelling no, of course. She is clearly thrilled with her negative feedback and the fact she is the one in charge of giving it.

This newest obsession is different than her other antics. While writing on the walls, climbing on the piano, playing in the toilet, rummaging through garbage cans, and throwing books at me while I’m in the shower, might be troublesome from my perspective, that isn’t her intent. When she does these things she is simply exploring her world and leaving a trail of chaos in her wake.  With “no” however, being troublesome is the point. It is a conscious, even joyful, display of obstinacy. I imagine her growing sense of identity–that part of her just now realizing she’s a separate individual–clapping it’s hands gleefully while she decides I think I’ll be difficult today just for the fun of it! Just because I can!

Of all the gifts life offers us, this is one of them; the ability to choose the way we respond. Regardless of what life hands us we can decide if we want to be pleasant or disagreeable, to rage or keep silent, to ignore or address, to whisper or yell, to hit or hug, to yell no or yes. And what a marvelous gift this is. Is it any wonder Vivian can’t get enough of it? What power, what influence, what control is afforded us with our reactions!

Something terrible happened a few days ago. Our friend Jason died. He wasn’t just a friend though, he was his wife’s high-school sweetheart, his son’s favourite place to sleep, his daughter’s biggest fan (and security agent), and the best fishing guide our family ever had. I am still not sure how to write about it; I will need some time to think about it first. What I do know, what is easy to write about, is the beautiful way his wife Shelly has responded. She is the one we’ve all looked to, watching to see when it’s time to panic and waiting for her signal. But she never sounded the alarm. Instead, she opened her home and invited us for trout supper. She let family live with and care for them, week after week, so they could be part of her journey. She lay beside her husband in their own bed until the very end, reliving memories and making him feel safe. She planned a funeral with ice cream sundaes and mini-sticks. Shelly is answering the ugliness and pain with grace and spirit and although she and her 41-year-old husband were powerless to the cancer cells, neither gave up control of choosing bravery instead of despair, celebration instead of defeat, love instead of bitterness, and the hearts-open-and-honest bigger life instead of the isolated smaller life. For their children, for me, and many others, that has made all the difference.

During these last few weeks, knowing this hard thing was about to happen, nothing else seemed important enough to write about. But I was mistaken. Everything’s important. Every little thing is important and worth writing about. When, if not now, should we notice the December sun shining on the red willows? How my 83-year-old neighbour uses her new cane with panache? Or the way Vivian’s belly button sticks out when she’s running away from us? These ordinary details are worth paying attention to; Jason would tell you that if he were here. Vivi might even tell you this if she had more vocabulary, but she’s only got her NO and that’s amazing enough.

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cutting red willow for our Christmas “tree”

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Not about lacto-fermented carrots

I’ve read that successful bloggers always have something to offer their readers: a recipe, a bullet-point list on raising children, or step-by-step instructions for homemade deodorant. When I started this blog I anticipated doing the same but I don’t have nearly enough helpful hints as I thought. Take for example, my lacto-fermented carrots. I took pictures while chopping and prepping them, sure the process would be ideal blog material and today, three weeks later, when I should be uploading those photos all I want to write about is the November rain collecting like beads of glass on the plum tree, or the faint smell of smoke on my husband’s neck after he checks his honeybees. My inclination towards the poetic, instead of the practical, is partly due to the way my experiments usually turn out. Out of the six jars of pickled carrots, three are developing a furry cap of blue-green mold (more adventurous fermenters wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a little surface mold but I don’t need to eat carrots that bad). The other three jars turned out perfect, full of crunchy, zingy carrots marinating in probiotic goodness, but a success rate of 50% takes the wind out of my publishing sails. And even if I had loads of fail-proof DIY advice I’m too self-indulgent to dispense it. It’s more fun, and even addictive, to describe than prescribe. To relive a conversation or a scene that touched me, or made me laugh, or for some reason I don’t even understand won’t leave me alone. So today, all I have to offer are my eyes. It’s quite likely you’ll walk away empty-handed and for this I am sorry; you can scroll to the end of the post to find a link on fermenting carrots.

***

The line of vehicles outside my friend’s house surprises me. Could there be that many people here? I see the women through the lit-up kitchen window and her uncles and nephews in the driveway. A few of them are building a hunting blind and others are smoking in the garage. As soon as I step inside I’m offered a chair at the table and a drink. The baseball game plays on TV while one auntie snuggles her nephew in the recliner and another serves up beef on a bun. Grandma sits at the table, listening to her daughters and granddaughters make each other laugh. If a stranger walked in they wouldn’t guess anyone was sick here, but they’d be impressed by how much these people like each other. And they’d be right on the latter account. It reminds me of the velorios, or wakes, in the Bolivian village where I used to live–how the entire community would gather in the house of the bereaved family all night long, visiting, wailing, joking, playing drinking games and eating, but never leaving the family to face the dark alone.

***

The boy from down the street takes off his superhero mask when he comes to our door for treats. I hold Vivi with one arm while I drop chips and chocolate bars into his bag with the other. When they leave, Vivi starts barking (a breathy impression, vaguely reminiscent of the sound dogs make) and I know why. She’s trying to tell her daddy about the boy that just came to the door, the one we’ve seen once or twice with his new puppy.  We clap when we realize her message–she recognized the boy and made the connection! I tell her how smart she is. Stan says, “We’re so happy. You DO have a brain in there!”

One of our favourite things to talk about at the table is Vivian, and the barking incident is perfect content for our meal-time entertainment. The girls love it when I re-enact something that happened during the day and often beg for a re-telling as soon as I’ve finished my story. On Sunday it’s Stan’s turn. He recounts what happened on Saturday night after the girls left their Halloween candy unattended on the couch. How Vivi quietly unwrapped the foil from a ball of chocolate. How she licked her finger after touching the treat tentatively and then investigated further by scratching it with her fingernail, as if she were a scientist. And how she brought this small sample to her mouth for a second taste. While Stan watched from another room he could tell she’d reached the conclusion of her experiment by what came next: a high-pitched “Oooh… ringing with unexpected pleasure. Maybe this is just what babies do when they discover something all on their own, something brown that tastes of milk and sweetness, but we don’t think so. We think it’s another sign of her brilliance.

***

The church is solemn and quiet while the pastor begins the communion service. “It’s a celebration,” he tells us. “Just as Christ wanted his disciples to remember him every time they ate and drank together, we do likewise.”

Then I think the same thing I do every time. Why so little? Did Christ really want us to nibble squares of bread or stale crackers, as if we have appetites of small birds and enjoy awkward parties? Personally, I think Jesus was picturing something more natural, with real food, wine, maybe some music, and good conversation. The guy sitting in the row behind us must be thinking the same thing because he interrupts my thoughts in a loud voice.

“Hey Stan, I saw a documentary on TV this week.”

Maybe the guy isn’t thinking about communion after all.

Stan turns his head half-way around but doesn’t make an audible response. Soft music is playing. People are searching their souls and praying quietly.

“It was about wasps.” The man continues, detailing more fascinating facts.

I doubt anyone within 20 feet of us is praying anymore. They’re thinking about fatal wasp attacks. Stan nods slightly, as if to say I hear you but won’t be adding any more to this conversation. I turn around and see his wife’s sweet, God-bless-you smile shadowed by worry. She leans in on her husband and tries to cue him with her hands but he doesn’t notice. Or if he sees her, he doesn’t care. Her expression turns to a grimace and she whispers urgently. I feel sorry for her and wish I could tell her I don’t see her any differently, no matter how loud her husband’s interruptions, and that it’s too hard for any of us to hinge our identities on our husbands’ behaviour. At last he heeds his wife and quiets down.

Stan doesn’t say anything about it until we get home and he comments, “Well he certainly took the celebration part to heart, he sure seemed relaxed enough.”

***

Stan strums his guitar and shrugs his shoulders up and down to the beat. Belén sings an octave higher than her dad, matching the soul in his voice… I am a poor and wayfaring stranger… She concentrates on her finger, sheathed in a piece of steel conduit custom-made by her dad, skating along the frets while improvising a slide-guitar solo. Her face creases with a frown/smile as she experiments with the syncopated beat and searches for the right notes. The sound is wrong. And wrong again. Then it resolves itself and everything is right, even what I thought was wrong.

***

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after our first snowfall last week…got more today

***

Here’s the lacto-fermented carrot recipe I loosely followed. I added garlic, dill and a grape leaf (the tanins maintain crunch)to each jar. The jars bubbled and got really foamy on the surface for about a week and now they look flat again. I think the bacteria have stabilized and should keep the carrots in good shape in my basement for a while. The taste is what I’d hoped it would be.

Breath in Our Lungs

It’s easier for me to see God in retrospect. Maybe I’m too full of myself in the present moment. Or maybe the present is too ordinary, or too painful, and I’m too blinded to see Beauty. But whether I realize it or not, every moment is holy, infused with Life itself. Even Vivi’s wobbly steps, to the last gasps of the dying, are fueled by the God “who made the world and all things in it… He Himself gives to all people life and breath.”* This is the song all around me but I don’t always hear it. Today I’m singing along.

It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only**

My sister shows me a picture of her friend’s newborn baby, her perfect face framed by swaddling blankets. Looking at the photo, I wouldn’t know she has skeletal dysplasia, that her lungs will never develop, and that as soon as she was born her parents wondered when she might die. After preparing themselves for the possibility of a stillbirth, or perhaps meeting their daughter for only a few minutes, they are thankful for 30 hours with her. For thirty hours of a beating heart. Thirty hours of inhales. Thirty precious hours of exhales.

It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

The gravel road winds through poplar groves, swamp, then spruce trees, and finally an open vista of the valley. Goldenrod decorates the ditches flanked by swaths of canola. I am running alone, waiting for my family to catch me on their bikes, when I turn around and see the bear. It’s big, black, and looks smooth to touch. It’s also about 200 meters away which makes it all the more beautiful. Seconds later a cub bounds after the mama. I wait to be sure I won’t miss another cub and to confirm they aren’t moving in my direction. Soon the rest of my clan catches up and passes me. Grandma and Grandpa lead the pilgrimage down the mountain. Cousins switch bikes. Uncles add stragglers to their loads. After ten miles we wheel, and limp, into Tim and Kristalyn’s driveway. Alive. Sore, but alive.

It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

I’m loading the dishwasher and sweating. Stan is pounding up and down the stairs to his tool room; he is a man on a mission. But it’s the wrong one. According to me, he should finish installing a screen door so I can get some cross-breeze in this place. Instead, he’s building a bee hive.

“Would you be alright if I duct-taped some screen up?” I ask. Stan can tell I’m not just trying to be creative and answers as if I’d been nagging him all morning. Which, in my mind, I had been.

“Well what do you want me to do, Woman? Put up a screen door or capture you some feral bees?”

My sweat glands scream Are you kidding? while I say,Capture feral bees of course,” knowing Stan sees right through me.

A few days later he brings home a souvenir from his mission: a piece of honeycomb. We offer dessert to anyone who stops by, which means dipping fingers into the honey puddle or chewing on a piece of comb and letting sweetness gush into your mouth. Parts of the comb are capped brood which we get to see hatch in our kitchen. Stan studies the perfect hexagonal artwork in between google searches on bees and wild hives.

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It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

Last week Vivian learned two important survival skills: walking and killing mosquitoes. I’m not sure which is more helpful or more entertaining to watch. When she comes back from toddling outside she re-enacts what happens by slapping her head and making serious guttural sounds. She will tell dramatic stories about the winged predators on demand. You just have to crouch down to eye-level and whisper the trigger: mosquitoes.

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It’s your breath in our lungs

My sister Tara and her kids visit us. We bake, swim, cook, clean, yell at our kids, cook, clean, walk, read to our kids, supervise sales of all kinds (garlic, baking, and ice cream to name a few), bike, hike, and cook and clean some more. Occasionally we manage coherent conversation. One night, after all the kids are asleep I’m reminded she has a life of her own I ask her questions about her friends, church, and future plans. I wonder why we are only getting to this now, when they’ve been here for two weeks already, and then I remember. The children. Mainly the two smallest shysters who take turns loving and hating each other. Eli alternates between offering her his soother and charging at her; Vivian screams and pinches then ducks in towards his neck while he hugs her. They are learning about the push and pull of relationship.

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It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

The cancer has grown back. It’s in his esophagus, bones, lymph nodes and spread to his lungs and liver. This is not fair. Not how the game is supposed to go. It makes scared and sad just to write it.

Still. It’s your breath in our lungs…

We’re listening to Joni Mitchell and the girls are trying to sing along but it sounds terrible. I’m drafting this post with one hand and eating hot nachos with the other. I look up from my paper and say, “I don’t care what happens tonight except that you have to get your butts in bed by 8:00.” I’m determined to stick to my guns on this one. That is, until Stan gets his guitar out and starts figuring out a Civil Wars song. Susanna slides her fingers up and down her violin until she lands on the harmony. Her eyes get big when she surprises herself with the right notes. A nervous smile turns into a wince when the chords turn sour. We press play on the youtube video over and over again, straining to hear all the notes and who sings what. Belén sings along, even when we want her to stop. We shush her; gesture wildly at the screen; and glare. Nothing works. Her voice floats on top of the recorded music. We shoot more dirty looks her way. She cups her hands around her mouth and resorts to humming. She can’t stop singing.

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…And we pour out our praise to You only

It’s your breath in our lungs. It’s in every creative impulse, song we sing, and story we tell. It’s in every ordinary conversation, and every milestone reached. It’s the trace of you in every bee, bear and bone in our body. In every mother’s desperate cry, and even every cancerous cell. It’s your sustaining power. It’s your breath in our lungs, and we pour out our praise, pour out our praise to You only.

*Read Acts 17:22-30

**Listen to All Sons and Daughters sing their song here.

Beans, Wine, and the Real Vivi

“Mom, do we have to clean today?”

“Nope, no cleaning. I mean, no extra cleaning. We just have to tidy up after ourselves–like if we eat, we’ll clean those dishes,” I explain nonchalantly. It’s a bit of a lie, and by now all of us know it. Because somehow this cleaning up after ourselves seems to take most of the day. The summer is more than half over and I’m still mystified by how much work the four of us create. No sooner do we clear the couch of one load of laundry than the next fills the cracks between the cushions. Lunch dishes crowd out breakfast dishes that are nesting in last night’s supper pots. This kitchen was perfectly clean at five o’clock yesterday I’ve been known to say, hoping everyone else will realize the gravity of the situation and acknowledge the mess we make. But I don’t expect them to understand it because I certainly don’t. I’ve been looking after myself for at least 20 years now (running a household with children for the last eleven) and still don’t understand the math of household maintenance.

I do know green beans are part of the equation. Each time I pick them I feel incredibly grateful to be growing our own food. I also feel incredibly sweaty and itchy. The mosquitoes ascend like plumes of smoke, attacking my neck, wrists, and ankles as I swish through the plants. Swatting and blowing them out of my face I remind myself that this, too, is one of the benefits of gardening. It’s called appreciation. The next time I open up a plastic bag of store-bought beans and dump them into my pot I will be thankful. Instead of balking when the cashier tells me the total for my groceries I will wonder how such a great amount of energy can come so cheap.

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I love purple beans

It’s not just the beans. The ruby-red siren song of cherries, raspberries, strawberries, and tomatoes are factors in the formula we never seem to balance. For the last six weeks I’ve kept a stack of empty buckets at the back door so we can fill them at a moment’s notice. Which, of course, leads to other urgent jobs, like stomping cherries for wine. Another reason our days at home get hijacked by nagging and the tiresome task of looking after ourselves is because it’s hard to keep up while we’re at the beach. Which means I have no right to complain about anything.

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All three girls treading Shelly’s cherries with very clean feet. I promise.

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Garlic harvest!!!! The girls garlic did better than mine. I planted mine in a heavily composted bed; theirs was in poorer soil. Not sure if that was the reason?

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Belén skiing for the first time at the Whyte’s cabin

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Susanna after her ski. Thanks to Duane!

***

When babies reach their first birthday it’s cause to celebrate. According to me, all the hoopla should be for the parents; the ones who give up so much to ensure those helpless, seven-pound, naked creatures survive. In Vivian’s case, it wasn’t just her parent’s lives that were turned around. Her sisters’ world changed too. Which is why her birthday party was more about them than Vivian. They planned the games, bought prizes, and helped with the cake. It wasn’t baby-friendly either. No healthy rice cakes here to mark the occasion. No siree! We served New York style cheesecake with cherries—because that’s what we like. I didn’t get the obligatory picture of Vivi blowing out the candles, and I don’t even know if she tasted it. Did I mention this was more about us?

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The girls had games for both the moms and the dads. Here Stan is asking his Dad to answer one of the questions on the beach ball: “What is my favourite toy?”

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The moms’ game: be the first to find your crying child while blindfolded. Even the 40-year-old children had to cry so their moms could find them with the candy soother. (I’m looking for Susie in this picture.)

I’m not sure what I would’ve done without Belén and Susanna this past year. Susanna seems to have extra patience when mine runs out. Like her dad waiting for fish to bite, Susanna sits quietly by Vivi’s crib humming lullabies while Vivi tosses and turns, making sure she’s asleep before she tip-toes out of the room. Belén is the one who hates for her to cry, who hears Vivian screaming while I’m giving her a bath and appears at my side with graham crackers. While the tap water pours off Vivi’s head and body, Belén plies her with crackers and soothing words, anxious to stop her tears. And though it’s probably not best-practise to stuff your baby with treats while bathing, I don’t tell Belén to stop. It’s hard to argue when the baby is happy.

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The walker Stan rigged for Vivi works well. Maybe too well. She hasn’t really struck off on her own yet.

But, despite all this care, something has happened to Vivian lately. I think it has to do with becoming human–like she’s got a brain of her own or something. Imagine! Never mind that she can’t talk yet, she’s got opinions alright. She probably has political preferences too, we just don’t know them yet. We noticed all of this because of the way she throws her head back and cries now. It’s not a hungry baby cry, but more of a I-need-my-way wail. It’s the way her limbs turn to wet toilet paper when we want her to stand and the way she stiffens them like iron when we want her to sit. All of this makes me think she really is her own person. At first this was disheartening, realizing she won’t be perfect or even what we projected onto her infant-self, but I’m coming to terms with having another complex human around here. So much for sweet baby Vivi without personality. Here’s to the real Vivian. Happy birthday!

Tricia

PS. The math of household maintenance got a whole lot simpler with Stan’s parents around for the week. There are good reasons why three-generation households are common in many cultures.

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doughnuts

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We played a little game that landed us up at the ice cream shop. Can you tell who lost?

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Different

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Lamb’s quarters

If you have jumpy little black bugs in your garden, and if the arugula you planted has holes in it one day, is shriveled the next, and totally gone the third day, you might have flea beetles. I love arugula, especially with feta cheese, toasted pecans and cranberries, so I plant it every year. This year I planted it twice–both times the seedlings succumbed to flea beetles resulting in my sixth consecutive arugula crop failure. Which of course doesn’t matter one whit when I consider real crop failure and livelihoods on the line, but in my little world it is something to take note of. Don’t plant arugula…will not survive flea beetle.

Besides the arugula fiasco, I’ve taken note of something else. Just about the same time my second planting of arugula went down, lamb’s quarters started elbowing out the Orca beans. I always have these weeds in my garden, and I often munch on them before pulling them, but today I had an idea. Why don’t I let a few of these silver-powdered plants reach maturity, harvest their seed, and dedicate a whole plot to them next season? It’s a nutritional powerhouse, doesn’t cower to the flea beetle, and best of all, grows like a weed!

Once upon a time, lamb’s quarters greens received more respect. Their ancient name was “all good,” and all good they are. They contain more iron and protein than raw cabbage or spinach, more calcium and vitamin B1 than raw cabbage, and more vitamin B2 than cabbage or spinach.  According to Joan Richardson’s Wild Edible Plants of New England, lamb’s quarters “even outclasses spinach as a storehouse of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin C, and great amounts of vitamin A, not to mention all the minerals pulled out of the earth by its strong taproot.” (from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association)

What makes arugula so much better than lamb’s quarters anyway? I did a taste test with the greens I harvested from my garden today (butter crunch lettuce, red leaf lettuce, spinach, and lamb’s quarters) and enjoyed the young lamb’s quarters as much as the rest, if not more. The nutty flavour is not as bitter as the lettuce and will go fine with pecans and a balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve read the seeds are also edible and can be ground into flour or cooked whole (like quinoa), but will update you further when I have some more first-hand information!

***

Our annual skip-school day is a sacred tradition the girls talk about months beforehand. This year I send them ahead with Shelly while I stay home for Vivian’s first nap, hoping she will be well-rested and ready for the dunes just like her big sisters. While she sleeps, I ready the back-pack carrier and envision walking for miles along the shore, like always. I grab wieners and anticipate roasting a perfectly salty hot dog. Like always. I fold my towel and look forward to laying in the sun, water evaporating off my freshly cooled skin. Like always.

When we arrive at the dunes the sun is high. It’s just past noon and Vivian is starting to get hungry. Should I feed her now or put sunscreen on her or try to build a lean-to shelter for shade? I set her down to look for baby food–which I forgot to bring, while she cries and eats sand. There are tent caterpillars everywhere; on our blankets, our water bottles, our sandals, and our legs. I flick one out of Vivi’s hand and try to cover her up from the sun with my long-sleeve cotton shirt. It doesn’t work. She crawls forward and bungles her knees in the fabric, the sun beats hard, and I’m wondering if it’s okay for her to eat chips all day. I’m also wondering how long we can last.

This isn’t like I planned and doesn’t match my memories of visiting with the other moms, laughing while kids vault off sandy cliffs, and joking with them about what “all the children in school are doing”. I haven’t taken one picture of the girls jumping off the dunes or heard any of the conversation around me, much less contributed to it. I am too worried about Vivi, the worms, the wind, getting her to sleep again and why this feels so different than last year. After nursing her awhile with her fleshy white legs jutting out from my sweaty belly, I know we need shade. I walk down the beach while the wind pushes hard against me and dig my heels into the sand. Towel whipping in the wind and cooler tugging on my shoulder, I yell back to my mom trudging behind, “The ambiance isn’t quite like I’d hoped!”

It’s true, the ambiance is different with a ten-month-old. My mom and I whisper about it while Vivi snoozes on the blanket beside us; how this summer will be hard and so will the next, and then maybe, by the time she’s three, things will go back to normal. How relaxing at the beach really means multitasking: conversations that ebb and flow while chasing a little one, filling up buckets of sand, monitoring liquid intake and readjusting sun hats.

When I worked as a liaison with high school exchange students, their orientation manual included a section on making judgements and how things don’t have to be “better” or “worse”.  Sometimes they are just different. Now, like the exchange students, I am learning about my new landscape; calibrating expectations so my internal gauge reads different instead of worse. Instead of leisurely roasting my own hotdog like I imagined, I go without until Belén finds us in our new spot. She comes back shortly, kicking up sand and running with a sizzling wiener at the end of her stick, cooked just for me. Later, Susanna and I count to three and dive under the water. It feels like freedom and I manage a few strokes before my Vivi radar turns on. I look back to see her with my mom at the water’s edge. They are just fine.

Back on shore, the day stretches into its finest hours–the wind dies down and the sunshine sweetens into a gentle heat. Belén is dangling her feet from the dinghy and Ainsly floats beside while they make up terrible jokes in a secret language. Susanna is throwing a football with Jack, and Shelly sits nearby in the sun. I watch water droplets disappear from her tanned shoulders, instead of my own, while sitting with Vivi under the shade of a poplar. Vivian is bare-bummed (sure to pee any minute), her mouth is mustached with grit, and I just gave her another potato chip, but she is quiet. Perfectly still. This is when I decide we can stay just a few minutes longer. Everything is going to be okay.

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My mom and Vivian

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Tricia

PS. Here’s a quote I forgot to add to my last post. It’s one of many I highlighted in Ueland’s book:

“Art is infection. The artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too. When I read this in Tolstoy it seemed like a great flashing discovery. But perhaps I would not have been so struck by it if it had not been for my class. I saw in their writing how whenever a sentence came from the true self and was felt, it was good, alive, it infected one no matter what the words were, no matter how ungrammatical or badly arranged they were. But when the sentence was not felt by the writer, it was dead. No infection.”

 

 

Puddles

The leaves on our birch have unfurled themselves (on May 6–I won the bet) and the tomato seedlings we started so many weeks ago are now in the garden. The evening sun warms our yard until about eight o’clock and we hear disc-golf players in the park long after. Last night, looking past my patch of dirt and into the green space beyond drenched with evening light and shadows I asked Stan, “Doesn’t it feel like we’re on a Hollywood set?” The temperature was perfect and there were no mosquitoes. Feet planted firmly on the scaffolding, arms stuffing insulation in the attic, and head hidden by rafters, he didn’t answer. Underneath where he worked, long grass smothered ripped up soffit and fascia, rusty nails, and construction debris. Maybe he didn’t feel like much of a celebrity, having gotten up for work at 4:30 am then returning home to spend his last waking hours with our roof.

Last Sunday felt a bit Hollywood-ish too. Not in a glitzy way exactly, but in a mud-between-the-toes, walleye-sizzling-over-the-fire way. Being in the middle of nowhere with friends, lake-swimming, and piling fishing poles, chips, and kids into a jeep is just about as perfect as Beverly Hills…

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All cleaned up after the mud (mostly) with a stomach full of pickerel.

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Vivi is getting bigger each day. Literally. I know this because she waits for the girls to get off the bus at the living room window where the changes can be measured easily. One day just her eyes peeked over; the next, it was her nose; now Belén and Susanna can see her huge four-tooth grin while she clings to the sill with her stubby fingers. As she grows she’s becoming more of a force to reckon with. I’m not sure if it’s all the touching, tickling and cuddling she gets at home, but she seems to intimidate other children with her intensity. I tried to explain to the two-year-old, who cowered behind her mom’s leg yesterday, that Vivian was more like a puppy than a baby, but it didn’t help. Vivi clambered closer, unleashing her zeal, while the toddler broke down in tears (which wasn’t the first time this has happened). Afterward, I reported on her social skills at the dinner table and her sisters lectured her on “how to get people to like you” and personal space. We’ll see if she learned her lesson.

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I didn’t think I’d plant a garden this year. The weeds that grew up some time between my 38th week of pregnancy and Vivi’s umbilical cord drying up, puffing their seedy heads into the wind, seemed unbeatable last year. But the month of May brings hope. Like a mother who can’t quite remember what labour is really like, I’ve decided to try again. It can’t be that bad, right? Only I’m not birthing a new crop, I’m just the midwife; transplanting calendula so it can buddy up with tomatoes, thinning fall-seeded butterhead lettuce in hopes of crunchy heads, scavenging branches to trellis sugar snap peas, and forcing everyone to eat asparagus. Every year I like to try something new. Last year it was the beautiful orca beans Bonnie gave me. This year it’s anise, a feathery herb grown for its seed that looks like cilantro. While living in Bolivia my neighbours encouraged me to drink anise tea to fix my broken stomach. It didn’t help, since I was eating bread along with the tea, but I am looking forward to trying it again–this time without the wheat.

The midwifery image is accurate but perhaps more poetic than reality. In truth, the garden is one more thing on my to-do list that doesn’t ever seem to get shorter. With Vivi crawling everywhere, house renovations, and stomachs that need to get filled three times a day–yes, that’s three times a day!–I feel as if I’m drowning. I really start thrashing when I look at the lemon balm drying up in their plastic greenhouse containers, the cucumber seeds on the counter, the dandelions overtaking our lawn, the plywood I said I would cut for Stan, the sawdust we drag through our house, the sticky mess in the fridge drawer, the pile of clothes on my nightstand mixed with bills, receipts and mother’s day cards, and the list of people to whom I casually mentioned coming over for a drink or a meal. Then, something catches my attention and I quit splashing. Some call this gaining perspective, I call it the work of the Holy Spirit.

I talk to my mom and she tells me the flea beetle is damaging Tim’s canola. I also remember the lady from church whose daughter committed suicide. But it’s not only the bad things, it’s also bigger things. Beyond-my-doorstep things. Like Joey and Anissa preparing to take their family to Africa for the summer, instead of booking campsites. It’s Alden and Aida moving back from Nicaragua and finding new jobs in Canada. It’s Janelle and Ryan adopting the baby boy they’ve waited for for so many years. Remembering these things doesn’t shorten my to-do list; I still feel like I’m drowning, only now I know it’s a puddle. To breathe all I need to do is lift my head up from time to time.

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my helper

Looking up, if only for a quick breath,

Tricia