There’s a First Time in Everything

There is nothing quite like watching your children experience things for the first time… or the first time they remember… or the umpteenth time with the enthusiasm of a first-timer. There is magic in childhood and, if we let it, it rubs off on us. How many times have we been through the same holiday traditions; the same transitions between seasons; the same tasks of everyday life? Too often we let their repetition entrance us into a certain apathy, where we go through the motions because… well… it’s what we do this time of year, and we check them off our to-do lists without ever having really done them in spirit.

But children change all that. They make us see the enchantment in things we’ve done a thousand times. They inspire us to dream up new ways to make old traditions special again. They remind us with wide eyes and huge grins that lighted faces carved out of pumpkins really are amazing.

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That the very first maple leaf to turn red is a treasure worth saving.

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That cupcakes make everything better…

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And a roller coaster conquered is worth every ounce of fear felt along the way.

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That sometimes, the sixteenth trip down the slide really is the BEST one of all.

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That friends and family are always what make any event special.

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And that, no matter how much water life seems to dump on you, sometimes you just need to go with the flow, kick of your shoes, get a little wet!

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You’re Missing the Point

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For all my efforts at trying to see the beauty in the small stuff and not let life’s little joys go unnoticed, sometimes I really miss the boat. My four and a half year old has finally learned that, when he wakes up, he does not need to immediately wake up Mama and Daddy simply to inform us that he’s awake. However, sometimes this means that he’s up incredibly early and we don’t know it and thus cannot tell him to go back to bed. The other day he apparently arose early enough to witness the sunrise. When his daddy got up, he exuberantly declared, “Daddy, you missed it!!! The whole sky was orange. It was SO beautiful!” When hubs told me later about his sweet enthusiasm for beauty, my first thought, riddled with anxiety about the day ahead, was, “Greaaaat… That means he was up before sunrise. *Sigh*” Jonathan just looked at me and said, “You’re missing the point. Our 4-year-old was excited to see the sunrise all on his own.” I felt like I had been slapped awake. Pessimism and anxiety can be entrancing. We have done such a lovely job instilling an appreciation of beauty and nature in our children that the sunrise excites them. His wonder and enthusiasm have not been squelched. Just another example of how my children are often better teachers to me than I am to them – even if their lessons sometimes require a daddy translator. It is comforting to know that even if I miss the boat from time to time, my family is there to throw me a line and get me back on board.

A Beginner’s Foray into Canning

Having recently shared my thoughts about the need for more sustainable food choices and my family’s efforts toward that end, I thought it would be àpropos to show you what I’ve been doing with all the proceeds from my backyard garden. Since we do not have an extra freezer, nor the funds to get one at the moment, canning was the obvious choice for preserving our produce. And, oh boy, did we get some! I was pulling two or three cucumbers every day. The tomatoes came in spurts, ten at a time. The peppers stayed small, but we had lots of them. The cantaloupes were like nothing you’ve ever tasted! And we had herbs galore. Some things, like the peas and beans, struggled due to pests and I plan to look into some more organic options for controlling that in the future. But for a first time effort, I give myself a hearty pat on the back.

Now for my disclaimer: All that I learned about canning, I learned from Google and YouTube. I did not have a mother or grandmother who gardened or preserved to show me the ropes. So please, take everything I share here with a grain of salt and do plenty of research on your own. I am not claiming to be an expert by any means, but merely trying to help other beginners like myself get started and overcome the fear of the unknown. ‘Cause, let me tell you, it is not nearly as difficult as you may think! I was initially dreading the process, but knew that it was a necessary evil given the incredible amount of effort I had put into the garden – I wasn’t about to give it all away or let it go to waste. So I bought myself a stock pot and some canning jars, watched some online tutorials, and dove right in. And, much to my amazement, the evil turned out to be good! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just like the garden, I found it wholesome, earthy, rich, and fulfilling. There is something so satisfying about taking a small, insignificant seed, and, through much love and hard work, turning it into rows of food that line your pantry throughout the year. So far, I have canned 20 jars of pickles, 11 jars of salsa, and 10 jars of pear sauce – and I could have done much more had I overcome my fear sooner and started the whole process right away.

So without further ado, let me tell you about the basic techniques that I followed. I will start with the process of making pickles because it is the most involved (and the one for which I took the most pictures). Sadly, the pickles turned out softer than I would have liked, but I think this is because I used ordinary garden cucumbers instead of pickling cucumbers. Next year I will plant the pickling variety and hope for a crisper result. I am told they are just as good to eat raw, so it’s a win/win.

1) The first step is to slice and wash your cucumbers. They can be wedge slices, like I’ve shown here, or they can be sandwich slices, or even whole if the cucumbers are small enough. It is important to cut off the ends as there are enzymes on the blossom ends that can spoil the pickles. Also, it is best to use under-ripe rather than over-ripe cucumbers because they will likely be crisper. (This may also have been one of my mistakes leading to softer pickles than I’d like).  Put these washed and sliced cucumbers in an ice water bath for an hour or two while you get everything else ready. This is also an ideal time to put all your jars, lids and rings into the dishwasher on the sanitize cycle since this cycle takes a while to complete.

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2) Next, prepare your brine. I used a pickling mix, plus a few of my own garden herbs. This takes the guess-work out of how much of each ingredient to use. I used Mrs. Wages brand and it tells you the exact of amount of vinegar and water to put in the mix. Be careful not to use an aluminum pot though as this could leach a metallic flavor into your pickles and cloud the brine. Bring this to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer to keep it hot.

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3) Now, while your brine is simmering and your pickles are chilling, prep your additional herbs and put them in the jars. I used one garlic clove, about 10 peppercorns, 3 small green onions, and one medium size dill flower in each jar. The green onions and dill flowers came from my garden. If you don’t want to use any of these additional herbs, don’t worry about it, ’cause the mix you use will work just fine. It simply adds a bit of visual interest and flavor to each jar. Also, start your canning pot boiling at this time. I used a LARGE stock pot filled about half full so it won’t overflow when you put your jars in.

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4) Next you get to fill the jars with your chilled cucumbers. Load them tightly to keep them from floating to the top of the jar and add your dill flowers last.

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5) Now fill each jar with the brine mixture, leaving an inch of head space. Wipe the rim of each jar with a clean dry towel to ensure a good seal and put the lids and rings on the jars and tighten by hand.

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6) Lastly, process your jars in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes for pint size jars. The water should be about an inch above the tops of the jars and the time should start when the water returns to a boil after adding the jars. The first batch I processed, I did not have a jar grabber and attempted using tongs. Needless to say, there were a few close calls with disaster and I highly recommend buying a jar grabber. You’ll thank me later.

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7) After removing the jars from the water bath, let them sit, unmoved for 24 hours to ensure a proper seal. Within an hour or so, you should hear the delightfully happy sound the lids pinging down as the jars seal. If any jars do not seal properly, you can either reprocess them, or put them in the fridge and use them first. They’ll be good for weeks in the fridge and the ones that did seal properly will keep for years in the pantry! Let them sit for 4-6 weeks to give them time to ferment and absorb the flavors. The wait will kill you, but it will be worth it.

Salsa: There are so many versions of salsa out there, just pick one that suits you. This is much easier than pickles because it’s not so scientific. I simply sliced and mixed up all the vegetables raw – tomatoes, green onions, white onions, bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, cilantro, and garlic. For everything but the tomatoes and the cilantro, I used a food processor. Then I added an appropriate amount (this will depend on your quantity of vegetables) of tomato sauce, vinegar, salt, and cumin. Next I mixed everything up in a big bowl, filled the sanitized jars to within an inch of head space, removed air bubbles with a rubber spatula, wiped the rims clean, sealed and processed them in a water bath for 20 minutes.

Pear (or Apple) Sauce: This was the easiest of all the canning and, although we didn’t can it when I was a child, I did make a lot of applesauce with my mother so the process was particularly nostalgic as I worked on it with my son. We used pears because I have two friends with pear trees who gave me a LOT of pears. The texture is slightly different but not significantly. The important thing here is that you buy a conical strainer with pestle or a food mill so that you don’t have to peel, core, and seed all of your pears. All you need to do is slice them and throw them in a pot to boil. Boil them until they are VERY soft and then drain off any excess water. Process them through the strainer or food mill and return them to the stove to simmer if you have to do multiple batches. Then add any additional spices to taste. It shouldn’t need any sugar if the fruit is sweet enough, but I chose to add some cinnamon. Fill the jars – leaving an inch of head space, wipe the rims clean before sealing, and process them in a water bath for 15 minute.

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If you are more experienced at canning than I am and have any helpful suggestions or tips (or corrections), I’d love to hear any feed back. This has been quite a journey for me and one I hope to continue well into the future.

Happily Ever After – Learning to Love the One You’ve Found

This is a blog about finding making your own happiness and learning to appreciate all the little things while they’re happening instead of waiting till they’re gone to fully grasp their worth. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I thought that I would share something I’ve been pondering lately. Brace yourself, you may not like it. When it comes to relationships, or anything really, there is no such thing “Happily Ever After”. I know this is not a new idea. Most of us outgrow our concept of ‘happily ever after’ very shortly after we think we’ve found it. We believe that we’re mature and self-aware and recognize that relationships take work. But deep down, after so much inundation through fairy-tales and films, self-help books and motivational seminars, billboards and commercials and ads, oh my, we cling to these ideals that breed doubt and plant seeds of resentment. They consistently whisper in our ears, “if this takes so much work, it must not be right.” Or perhaps they cause us to whisper in the ears of our friends who are struggling, in a genuine attempt to encourage or help them, “you just haven’t found the right person yet,” implying that once they do find the love of their life they’ll find happiness… forever after. These latent ideas, stuck deep in our subconscious, lead us to believe that struggle is bad – having to “work at it” is a sign of a problem, rather than a part of the solution. They insinuate that happiness is easy and, by definition, cannot co-exist with pain or struggle. This is poison. And, if it takes root in your thought life, it will lead to bitterness, which, if left to grow unchecked, will turn your relationship doubts into self-fulfilling prophesies. I am convinced that the divorce epidemic in our culture is as least partly due to the fact that people don’t expect happiness to be hard sometimes. Trust me, it is. But just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s gone. It usually means is growing.

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Too often we expect to find… hope to find… believe we have found (or begin to doubt whether we’ve really found) the “love of our life”, and we hope this discovery leads to remarkable, life-changing feelings of happiness that never take a sabbatical for growth and development. But, more and more, I am discovering that, in all different kinds of relationships, be they significant-others, spouses, or BFFs, it’s not about finding the love of your life. It’s about learning to love the one you’ve found. It’s always easy in the beginning. When everything is new and exciting and every time you turn around you learn something new about this person you’ve come to admire. But what about when everything is old news, surprises are hard to come by, and you know this person so well you can finish their sentences. Or life grows ever-increasingly intense with the addition of kids, a promotion (or job loss) requiring travel or ungodly hours, or the loss of someone close to you? What does love look like then? At this stage of the game, love doesn’t always come easily to you. Sometimes you have to give it for a while before you get it back. You have to study, not what is the most natural way for you to show love, but what is the most natural way for the person you are trying to give it to to receive it. What speaks most strongly to them? As our circumstances change and our lives and beliefs and inner-selves change, we have to re-learn how to love the person we easily loved in the beginning. Yes, we have to be mindful of our own needs and communicate them effectively, but we cannot allow them to be the primary focus of our attention. Self-focus breeds discontent. Other-focus breeds fulfillment. And loving someone who is constantly growing and changing, as healthy people should, requires that the love itself also grow and change to adapt to the person it’s bestowed upon. This is tricky business. And doesn’t always feel happy. But it always builds it.

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And what is the return on all this investment? Why put forth the effort to continually re-learn how to love? Why not just move on when love gets hard or the relationship requires too much work? It will be easy again at the beginning of the next one. I think the answer to that question lies in the immeasurable value of having someone who bears witness to the entirety of the artwork that is your life and having the privilege of being that witness for someone else. Loyalty and commitment afford the unique benefit of having someone who understands YOU not just through the lens of your current life circumstance, but with a broader understanding of who you have been in your weakest moments and how those moments have produced times of shining strength. They see all the layers upon layers of your glorious painting that many who just entered the picture can only see the surface of. They appreciate the light because it’s balanced by the shadow – that they walked through with you. Darkness is where light is born and it’s contrast makes it so much more radiant. I don’t know about you, but for this reward, I am willing to put in the work.

To Aiden On His First Birthday

Since there was such positive response to the letter that I wrote recently for Owen on his first birthday, I thought that I would share this letter I wrote years ago for Aiden on his number 1. It is amazing to look back and see the similarities and vast differences between both our two boys and our outlook on parenting. Time does move SO fast. And I don’t always cherish every moment (like all the old ladies tell me to) because, let’s face it, they’re not all cherishable! But I have more than my fair share of wonderful memories and for that I am grateful.

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To my darling little boy,

It is amazing to me that, so quickly, that is what you have become . . . a little boy.  The tiny 7 pound baby that I brought home from the hospital a year ago is only slightly visible still behind your adorable blue eyes.  Eyes full of mischief, intrigue, growth, understanding, confusion, questions, happiness and spunk.  I have always believed that there is something prophetic about a person’s name.  When we chose the name Aiden for you, meaning “Fiery Spirit,” we could not have hit the nail more on the head. You are definitely full of fire and vigor for life – so eager to experience all of the world.  I think you get that drive from your daddy and that independence from me.   I am amazed every day as I watch you grow and change and develop into your own unique individual.  Part Daddy, part me, and ALL you.  You are an unceasing source of inspiration for me.  Also frustration sometimes, but that’s all part of being a kid.  It is wonderful for me to see the world through a fresh set of eyes.  Your eyes.  Everything new and exciting and strange.  Fearless and ready to take on anything.  And to help you see the world through more developed eyes.  My eyes.  I am blown away as, every day, you learn a new accomplishment.  At two months you started sleeping all the way through the night and finally letting Mommy and Daddy rest.  At that age you also started coming to work with Mama and sleeping on her desk or playing on the floor.  These were precious times and I am so grateful that I was able to spend the first six months of your life with you all day every day.  At four months you started rolling over and 6 months you could sit up by yourself.  This was a major development because then you were able to see the world from an upright perspective, reach for and hold toys, and stay so much more contented.  But this is also the age at which you had to start day care.  You were getting too big for Mama to take care of and work at the same time.  We put you in a full-time day care called the Little Samaritan that was only a block from where I worked, but it was a very difficult time for both you and Mama.  Having always been together for 6 months, you did not like the idea of spending all day with strangers and it broke my heart every time I checked on you during the day and you were crying your little eyes out.  This only lasted a month before I found a new job that I could work part-time in the mornings and spend the majority of my time with you.  It took a little while, but this is also when we found Jen to be your sitter while I was at work.  Mrs. Jen loved you and you adored her and her house and your friends there.  Even though you were only 7 ½ months when you started going to her house, you were at home there within a week.  It was such a refreshing breath of air to pick up a happy baby and get to go home and spend more time with you again.  Then, at 8 months, you celebrated your first Christmas and got your first two bottom teeth at the same time.  Grandpa and Grandma, Aunt Jenniffer, Aunt Susan and her family, and Aunt Sarah and her family all came to visit and brought you wonderful presents which you opened with vigor.  We very much hoped that you would be crawling by Christmas, but you had other plans.  You didn’t want to crawl till you KNEW you could do it well.  So you waited till you were about 10 months old and then you took off across the room.  There was no squirming or army pulls.  You just went from nothing to complete crawling and we loved it!  Everyone told us that we would pine for the days when you were stuck in one spot and could not get around.  I never did.  I loved that you could now go after things on your own.  Express more individual desire and drive. Follow and lead.  Get into mischief.  It was wonderful and I never looked back.  You were contented to get around that way for quite some time and did not learn to walk before your first birthday.  Which came faster than I could possibly have imagined!  In the month leading up to it, we were slowly cutting back on nursing to prepare you (and me) for weaning.  I wanted it to be a gradual and natural process, but one week before your birthday, you decided you were done and you never really looked back.  You were a sippy cup man now.  Your birthday went beautifully and, just like your daddy, you started crying your eyes out when everyone sang you happy birthday. I mean, what’s scarier to a tiny person than everyone staring at you and singing loud, off-key words you’ve never heard before, right? But you got over it quickly once you got your bright blue, cookie monster cupcake! It is hard to believe that, already, you are turning into the kid, and eventually the man that you will one day become. I am so proud of you! I’m still going to hold onto these sweet baby cheeks and kisses and smiles for as long as I can, but I know that no matter how big you get, you will always be my baby. I love you sweet boy!

Love Forever and Always,

Mama

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