Hello dear friends! I just realized that I wrote to you all in May, but forgot to post my thoughts to the wider world. The post just went live. How odd to read what I wrote three months ago--I guess my forgetfulness speaks to the state of mind most of us had back then. Distracted, a little thrown. Maybe even spinning in circles.
Today is different. Many of us have been on real journeys of hardship during the stages of this pandemic. Some of us have lost jobs, and friends or family during this time. Some of us have protested. Some of us have fallen to pieces and been put back together again. Some of us have retreated into ourselves and found really good, interesting things there.
As for me, it's hard to know where to begin. I'm grateful for a thousand things, so I guess I'll share a little.
Backyard fire pits. My parents live in the same town as we do, and we see them every Sunday. They're in their 80's. At the beginning of quarantine we isolated, just my husband, son and I (and the amazing #ohzuko) but we quickly realized that my dad, a flaming extrovert, was going to die prematurely if he didn't have people around. So we started seeing them each Sunday in their backyard, sitting around their fire pit, and have kept that up all this time. I am grateful that they have remained healthy, and for all the good moments we've had around the fire.
Saints. Did you know that St. Cyprian also endured a terrible plague, helping people in his city when they were sick? And that St. Spyridon felt more comfortable wearing his shepherd's clothes instead of his clergy cassock, so that's how he dressed most of the time despite being a bishop? I've been editing three books for kids--each one about saints--one is a colleciton of 101 of saints; one is a graphic novel about Saint Katherine; and the third a middle grade novel about Saint Phanourios. Digging into their lives during this odd time in history has been the perfect remedy for any anxiety that has surfaced in my own life. Talk about sickness, isolation, starvation, and struggle! (Two million Russians died of famine between 1601-1603 when St. Juliana of Lazarevo was alive...) The saints went through it all. To top it off, my husband and I commissioned two icons of Saint Maria of Paris to be painted back in January. The iconographer, who lives in Italy, worked through the awful time of Covid in his country, and then with Italy closed down, the icons were quarantined in his studio until just recently. Fascinating that once they were shipped, they traveled first to Germany, where they spent a couple of days, then finally made their way here. I believe that the saints and angels have been working overtime this year. I'm grateful that they lived inspiring lives, which encourages me in my own...
Audiobooks. Almost every evening after dinner I head out into the neighborhood and walk for an hour. I started this habit mostly to get away from the house to feel a little less confined. I've listened to everything I could find of John O'Donohue, plus The Art of War by Sun Tzu, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Pushout by Monique W. Morris, The Year of Less by Cait Flanders, parts of Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman, Fertile Ground by Laura S. Jansson, and am currently listening to Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke and The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. My primary style of learning is not auditory so I grab maybe 80% of what I hear, but I've enjoyed this time of movement and learning, and listening to John O'Donohue speak with his heavy Irish accent was a balm.
The beach. I'm grateful that our beaches never closed, and that during the worst of the weeks of isolation, we were able to be at the shore and breathe. For those of you who didn't have a body of water to stare at, I honestly wish that I could pick you up and plop you by the waterside. I pray you've had moments of respite, and if you haven't, I pray many days of beauty and peace are in your future.
Work. I've worked more over the last few months than I have since my kids were little and I was on the job 24/7. For many years I've homeschooled, and only worked part time. This summer, I've been able to get a significant amount of work done on many big projects and it's been a wonderful distraction. My routine of prayer, exercise, family, garden, tea, and work--rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, has kept me sane--away from binge watching television and scrolling through the news. I'm grateful that my eyes have held up, but I am transitioning to fewer hours as school begins in about ten days.
The weather, plus Jaime and his crew. Being stuck at home, during these months of isolation, has been offset by projects. We have had gorgeous weather that has allowed us to have the doors open every day for months and months. We've been saving our pennies over the last few years, and decided that now was a good time to finish our backyard. We've had a plan ready to implement, turning a weed patch into a patio, so we hired a friend of a friend, who helped us make the small space we have outside into something functional. The project is now complete, and I'm grateful every single night as we carry our dinner plates to the back patio and sit in the fresh air next to our beloved lemon tree.
Grace. I don't know what my son would have done without his cousin Grace. Being alone for months on end with your lame, old parents, isn't the ultimate way to spend your 14th year on this planet. Okay, he's lucky we aren't lamer... But after the inital lockdown, we pulled Grace into our "quaranteam" so that our son wouldn't have to only be online to talk to friends. Grace, we love you!
Learning. I've learned that people really like the word "pivot." I've learned that I'm a really great hermit--truly, send the husband off to the market cause he needs to see people. I'm happy just sitting here, typing away. I've learned that if you wait too long to harvest chamomile flowers that they fall apart into a tiny little pile of pollen and seed. I've learned somehow I can manage to have a hemming project, a quilting project, a gardening project, a photograph project, a basket-making project, a fruit canning project, and a dog-grooming project all happening on the very same day, in the very same house! My husband says he's just fine with all my little piles of things popping up everywhere, but is he actually telling the truth, or just being nice?! The biggest thing I've learned. Ready? I've always thought that when I am old and frail, that I will spend my days like they do at the monastery, praying from dawn till dusk. That is my hope. But I've learned that if I'm going to get there, then I need to be in training now. That I need to develop some serious habits that will put me on that path. So I have a 50-year-praying-plan, and by the time I'm 100, maybe I'll be a miniscule prayer warrior mama (who has lots of projects all over the place). Pray for me, will you? If I'm going to live a bunch more years, I want to live them right.
Share what you're up to in the comments!
Written in Quarantine
Around the block! Have any of you made it any farther?
About to start on another batch of masks since they seem to be in our future for a long time to come. I finally figured out the pattern I like the best, and spent two full days sewing back in April and distributed the masks I made to lots of friends and family. The Star Wars fabric was everyone's favorite. Besides masks, I have some linen arriving from Lithouania and will be hemming a new tablecloth in the days to come. Note: I think this blog post is going to be really boring.
With my husband home, and all travel at his company suspended for the rest of the year, I am only eating two meals a day or I'd be gaining a thousand pounds right now. He loves to cook and share the food, so I have tea in the morning, a healthy brunch, and then we have a nice dinner in the evening outside on the patio. When quarantine started we were all worried, weren't we, that food might run dry? (I wondered if it might finally be the moment when we break into our disaster preparedness stash, which I refresh each September...) And yet, besides the lines to get into the stores, not much has changed. The American overload of stuff is still available. There was a part of me that hoped that some of our supply chain would be impacted so that we, as a people, could learn some new habits. Like not eating as many potato chips as we usually do. But maybe things are different where you are? I'd love to know if you're expericencing something different.
With all the hours I've invested into the garden these last two months, you'd think our front and back yards would look amazing. But somehow everything is still a mess and I continue to wander the neighborhood looking at other people's yards for inspiration. Since we lost our giant cedar tree last November, many of our plants that were shaded by it are failing. I keep weeding our walkways just to keep my hands busy. Being creative right now almost seems impossible! I'm hoping I have some blasts of real originality soon.
The Chronicles of Prydain. I'm on book four. It's a little adventure story for kids that I've read before by Lloyd Alexander. I read a chapter before going to bed so that I have fun dreams about quests and being brave and stuff.
I'm also reading two books on politics--. For a long time I've been trying to figure out how my values relate to the current political landscape. The more I try to figure it out, the more I realize I just don't relate to politics! Ha. And yet, grudgingly, I'll keep trying...
...My son do school with his headset on. I like to put cut veggies or nuts or fruit down next to him when he's on a school call. Cause he'll just eat whatever I give him mindlessly when his mind is busy elsewhere. I should try pickles--thanks for reminding me. Maybe he likes them now?
...The dog lounge on the wood floor, no longer worried that we might leave him alone in the house for a few hours.
...The light filter through our Japanese maple tree that sits outside our bedroom window.
...Avatar the Last Airbender. Every night, two episodes, with tea.
Re-reading all that's here, I suppose what's revealing itself is that I'm in a holding pattern. I'm moving from one task to the next, gladly, with an easy, quiet acceptance. I'm not anxious about what's happening outside my front door until I dig in and really read the news. Therefore, I don't read the news much. There have been few ups or downs these last many months, just a lot of work, a lot of laundry, a lot of weeding. I'm grateful that we've been healthy, and fed, and have been sleeping well (with crazy dreams!). Our life probably doesn't look like yours. If you're needing a boost, and see something that I'm doing that might help you, please send me an email (email@example.com).
With so many ways to watch TV and shows--plus the addition of YouTube celebreties commenting on video games, and young folks showing us how to apply makeup, and then add the amazingly vibrant documentaries on anything from Japanese tea making to the odd habits of a wild turkey.... It's easy to sit in front of a screen for hours and just veg out, isn't it?
Because I'm a list maker, I started brainstorming things to do in the evenings that would easily accompany our evening, herbal tea-drinking habit.
Here's my list (which my friends on Instagram helped me build). Feel free to add more ideas in the comments!
Lots of you are already amazing board game players, and I salute you! Board and card games are the best. When my parents were remodeling their home they started a Gin Rummy tournament that lasted a year. They still talk about those evenings of competition, keeping track of who was up and who was down, and grunting at the bad hands, laughing when things got really out of control. We are currently learning to play a board game called Tokaido--I would love to hear some of your favorites...
Pull out your flashlights--or light a small lantern--put on your woolies, and head out into the neighborhood for a walk under the stars. Maybe you'll spot a racoon, or the Big Dipper--or both! If you don't want to wander, you could set up a telescope on your front steps, or simply sit and listen to the nighttime sounds. Then come inside and make that pot of herbal tea to warm you back up.
You can all find your own cozy spot and put some quiet music on in the background, or maybe find a family friendly book and read aloud as a group, taking turns. I spent one summer in my 20s reading out loud (to myself) all of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. It made that summer extra memorable.
Whip out those tambourines and harmonicas. Find the maracas. I made all my kids take music lessons--and some day they will thank me! My dad's favorite evening is still an evening with my mom playing the piano and all of us singing Oh Susanna and Silent Night.
Gather your prayer ropes, light some candles, fire up the incense, rearrange the icons, pull out some prayer books or an akathist, and pray together.
All you really need is a wall, and the will to kick your feet into the air. Make sure the area is clear and see who can stay up the longest. Or... turn on some fun music and dance around the house. You could even make up your own line dance that you could then share with others later on. At our last big family get together, my daughter coreographed a dance that we all learned. It was ridiculous, and a wonderful way to pass a bunch of hours together.
Find a table where the puzzle can be worked on over several days. Make sure everyone joins in, and not just those avid puzzle-doers who have quick eyes and quicker hands!
When was the last time you pulled out some paper and wrote a long letter to a faraway friend?
Nuff said. Having a salt soak before bed sounds like a dream.
Paint, Knit, Crochet, Whittle, Weave, Draw, Color, Sculpt, Sew, Mend... Put on an audio book or some Christmas music and create something with your hands. Maybe even make some holiday gifts for others. I'm at the end of a sewing spree, and am heading back to both my pine needles and some yummy yarn work soon.
Extra Credit 11. Do research--whether it's for the spring garden, or your next camping trip to see the Redwoods. 12. Learn a new language. Spend some time each evening learning to speak Arabic, or Swahili, or Yiddish. I spent a year learning Finnish, and have now moved on to Japanese! 13. Prepare food for the next day. I like to mix my bread for the next day during the evening so that when things get busy on that following day, I'm already half way into the process! 14. You could write a book! I know from experience, you just need to write one page at a time. 15. Organize a pantry, closet, drawer, or cupboard. Getting rid of uneeded things is such a great thing to do before the holidays.
Other ideas? Write them in the comments.
I grew up in a home with a revolving door. I had three siblings, but I don't think I could even name all of the people who stayed with us for a month, or a summer, or a year, or more. I loved that about our home. That others were welcome--and though my mom says she doesn't have the gift of hospitality, I would say
The Proof is in the Pudding, Mom!
My husband and I have been talking about hospitality a lot these days. Not sure why, but living in our little home--our sweet tiny space that we love, in this beautiful community--our one heartache is that we just don't have space. We have folks over for dinner. We offer up my office for sleeping when we can, but we would like to do more. We would like to have room for two people, or five, or thirteen! We'd like to feed them, and do their laundry, and send them home with kumquat marmalade.
I'm curious about your thoughts on hospitality. There are so many beautiful traditions around the world, and I fear that here, in America, with our phones, and our binge watching, and our Career Goals, that we're losing out on Giving. On Hosting. On Loving through the small actions of a clean room, and a hot cup of coffee, offered with two hands, to guests in the morning...
For those of you who have been praying for our community during this really stretching time of fire and flood here in Santa Barbara, thank you. I have been up and down, sick and healthy, sad and joyful every day, almost every moment for weeks. It has been tiring. But it feels like it's finally time to share. Probably for my own healing more than anything else... So feel free to just move on.
It seems like an eternity since my son and I were at Saint Barbara's Monastery in Santa Paula on their feast day, December 4th. We passed the day singing, staying out of the wind, talking with new and old friends, and drove home so happy to have been there. Two hours after we left, the Thomas Fire broke out, starting only a stone's throw away from the monastery. Thankfully everyone there was able to evacuate quickly and move out of the fire's path.
Somehow, the monastery buildings didn't burn--though their land did, and many homes and businesses nearby were lost.
The fire moved across the foothills and we watched its progress, our family becoming more and more concerned as the fire spread into Santa Barbara County. The first day that our city was filled with ash I drove around with the windows down, not realizing the hazard. I got sick from inhaling the ash the next day. Many people left town, but we stayed. We drove out of town to purchase two large air filters to battle the smoke. For several days we didn't go outside. We listened to helicopters and airplanes making their water runs all day long. Fire engines were parked in all the hotel parking lots. I can't now remember how long it was that we stayed cooped up...
Right before Christmas the fire hit its zenith. It was a Saturday night. The wind was whipping the fire into a frenzy, and it felt like anything could have happened. Everyone's eyes were on the approaching orange glow, wondering how quickly it would make it into town. Our cars were packed, ready for evacuation. We knew where we would land if we had to leave. So many people offered us refuge.
But with over 8000 firefighters working on our behalf, they halted the fire as the weather began to shift. By morning we felt as though the threat was diminishing. And it did. They halted the fire right as it was exiting the Montecito hills, and entering Santa Barbara. They stopped it just a couple of miles from our home.
So. We celebrated Christmas! Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. We were so very thankful that we didn't have to leave, but equally saddened by all the devastation many of our neighbors had endured. So many were displaced and lost their homes. So many lives were disrupted. And we were all fatigued. I remember that there were a few days mixed into that crazy time when I just curled up in bed and listened to the news for hours on end. I had very little capacity for getting things done besides cleaning (which seems to be my default during a disaster), and though I had planned on doing a fair bit of book writing over the holidays, being creative simply wasn't possible in that time-of-tragedy brain of mine.
And then the rain came. They predicted flooding, and ordered some to evacuate and others to keep watch. We woke to the sound of torrential rain at 2am and sat there wondering about others, knowing our home would be safe. And the next morning we heard the news. Homes below the fire burn were washed away. People were stranded on roofs, and in trees, and swept away with the flow. The freeway was ten feet under, drenched in mud and debris. A baby was plucked, still alive from the mud. Boulders the size of houses had washed down the river beds, wiping out bridges. Battered cars were flung down the streets and landed at the water's edge. We were in shock.
They described streets in nearby Montecito as a war zone. Streets that we drove daily, places that we knew by heart...
So, here we are on the other side of disaster. Almost three weeks have passed since the rains. Twenty-one lives have been lost. Hundreds of homes are gone. The community has rallied, the freeway finally opened. Two people are still missing. It's been a lot.
I ask your good thoughts and prayers for our community. We hear new stories every day, of people who scrambled to their rooftops with their pets, who trudged through the mud to save a friend, who found a precious item washed up on the beach and located the owner.
At the start of this year, for whatever reason, I decided that my son and I would add disaster preparedness to our school work. Such an odd thing to "study." I don't know what prompted me... But school started and there were the hurricanes, and then more hurricanes, and we watched from afar and learned about emergency food storage. And then the fire in Santa Rosa happened, which we watched from a little closer, and we studied ways to shelter. And then disaster came close. And though we felt slightly "prepared" for the events that came our way, I'm still wondering what the underlying lesson is that I'm supposed to learn. I do know that my love for this community has deepened, and that I feel a desire to better know the people that I pass on the street, and I want to serve more than I ever have. When you're pushed to just think only about survival, things shift. And though I haven't yet unpacked all that has changed within me, I trust that it will be revealed over time.
That's the scoop! I pray that all of you are well, enjoying this beautiful new year, and I look forward to whatever this new normal will be for our community. Memory Eternal to those who are gone. Sorrow and strength for those who have to rebuild. And so much gratitude for all who kept more disaster from happening...
Prayer. Tea. Tea. Prayer.
They are somewhat intertwined in my life. And just like I have prayer books, and a space for prayer, and implements that help me pray... I have tea books. And a tea drawer. And six tea pots, and four water kettles.
Wait, I have FOUR kettles for boiling water?!
Right now, my favorite is a whole leaf green that is fresh, herby, and slightly sweet tasting that we purchased in Finland. But some others that I love, and almost always have on hand are pearl jasmine, coconut green, genmaicha, and a hachija tea that I buy from a local Japanese market.
I'll make a cup and take a break from my writing or helping with homeschooling, and sit outside on the back steps and sip. If it's an afternoon when I'm driving around, I'll brew it and put it in my thermos to drink at horseback riding, or in the car at group therapy, or in the studio at piano... Earl grey. Sometimes I'll go with an aged black, cake pu'er, which has a fermented, smokey flavor that I love. Or I'll warm up some of my homemade chai masala that I keep in the fridge.
I'd say half the time, we simply pick fresh mint leaves from our backyard and boil them for a mint infusion. On the other nights, when we want something that sends us more toward sleep, we brew a blend that we buy locally. Always, we make a giant pot of this herbal tea, and each person usually drinks at least two small cups. There's something really lovely about an evening tradition where everyone joins in.
Speaking of everyone! What is your favorite tea? Please share, because there are plenty of opportunites for another cup (and prayer) somewhere in my day! And in case you're an avid coffee drinker, I dare you to take a look at the Bellocq website and not start to shift--at least slightly--in your thinking...
I'm getting older, you know? I've been a parent for over twenty years now... And when it comes to educating kids, we've tried just about all of the available options. Public school, private school, church school, homeschool. Just haven't quite gotten to the outer extreme of unschool--but I have to admit, I might be on my way.
This fall, I'll be homeschooling our littlest--he's ten now, and in fifth grade. He's smart, and curious, and has a fascinating brain. He's adventurous, like I am, and so we're a pretty good team. I feel fortunate to have this time with him, and he says fairly often that he feels lucky too.
I used to think that the best sort of educated kid was the one who listened to classical music, who read beautiful and poignant literature, who could tell you all sorts of cool things about the ancient world, and maybe even pass the national Latin exam while still in grade school. I still kinda think some of this is important, and it certainly won't harm your child if he or she is pursuing these things, but I've come to see education from another vantage point.
As individuals, we are all constructed so incredibly different. Some of us learn beautifully through reading text. Some of us become creative thinkers while rock hopping. Some of us need to use our hands in order to sift through our thoughts. Others of us are masterful with oral language, but see only blurred lines while trying to write on paper... I think we should push our brains to do the things that don't come easy to us, but... I believe we should dedicate the majority of our time doing those things in which we excel. And maybe, as parents, more than anything we choose to send into the lives of our children, we should teach our children to love.
I am homeschooling my son so that he can learn to love. And love in all the ways possible. To love himself--to recognize those gifts imbued in him, and learn to use those gifts. To feel comfortable with who he is--so he can understand his own strengths and weaknesses and work on being his own person instead of mimicking those around him. To love others--to develop a sense of compassion for those he encounters, accepting others just as they are. To serve others, even those he doesn't appreciate and like. To love creation--to explore the beauty of the natural world, and learn to be responsible for it... To not hate.
Though some children seem to love more naturally--to be more selfless than others (I know, I was a pleaser)--this active education in loving fits all types. Doesn't it? It doesn't matter where your kids are going to school--it doesn't matter what grades are on their test scores (as long as they are working hard--I'm a BIG believer in working hard...) All of our attention as parents should be on love. Giving love. Modeling love. Teaching love. Encouraging our children to love more.
I know, this totally sounds like a blog post from the 60's! But some messages are timeless.
What does this have to do with Finnish? Ha!
Next summer we are planning a trip to Finland. I've longed to go since I was a little girl, when Raija Rauhamaa came to live in our house. She brought with her salted licorice, a fascinating language, cigarettes that I flushed down the toilet repeatedly, and a contagious laugh. I wrote reports on caribou and the Lapland, and the older I get, the more visiting there seems important. I believe in learning foreign languages (despite Google Translate) and so instead of embarking on Spanish, or French, or Japanese, or Russian--we're diving into Finnish, because, in the end, why not?! We don't have to follow the classical music/ancient history/national Latin exam model. We are Jane and John Ronan, and we are going to Finland.
And maybe the year after we'll go to Japan. Who knows? Why not learn twelve languages? So that we can love more people, in more places.
Rotating through several families, every few weeks it's my time to bake loaves of prosphora for church. Yesterday was my day.
The early morning was spent walking the dog, preparing breakfast, starting laundry, stretching, and trimming the lemon tree. It's still not fully trimmed because once I begin baking, I give my full attention to the six loaves, barely leaving the kitchen for the next couple of hours.
I always begin with music. This time I was lucky, and had the house completely to myself (except for the dog, who made himself comfortable in "his" chair)--I set Pandora to my Arvo Part selection and began with a background of choral and liturgical music to help transport me a step closer to a place of prayer...
With the dough already through the first rise (that's what was happening when I was out chatting with and working on our beloved lemon) I start the molding process. Since I bake two full batches (three loaves in each batch) there is almost always something to be doing, with only a few breaks over the next couple of hours. When I do have an extra moment I heat up a cup of chai, find a book, and sit on the floor next to the sink. If I leave the kitchen it's certain I'll forget some major something--I know myself well enough, and have baked long enough, that I don't trust my trips to the backyard, or to the front porch, and definitely don't want to get sidetracked by my writing. (I once forgot to pick up my toddler from preschool because I was in the middle of some really lovely sentences! Oh, my...)
When the loaves are cooling, I say a prayer of thanks, breathe a long sigh of relief, change the music to something more upbeat, and clean up for vespers. It's one of my favorite ways to spend a Saturday. I plan for it, and am thankful it doesn't come each and every week, but when it's my turn, I give my full attention to this lovely act of service and prayer. What if we lived every day that way--as an offering, prayerful, intentional?
Coming to the end of the school year, my son and I had already attempted all sorts of dyeing projects together. Eucalyptus bark, fig leaves, and oak galls are just a few of the natural materials that we tried. In April, we made a list of the strange things we hadn't yet experimented with but had considered:
Nasturtium flowers, indigo, moss or lichen, red onion skins, coffee grounds, dandelion root, beets, and sour grass. We chose three projects; this is what we got!
We literally hammered stems, leaves, and flowers into a pre-mordanted fabric. It was strange. I liked this process way more than my son. I thought this would be the highlight of his year (in the dyeing dept), getting to be a little dramatic by using a hammer, but he petered out pretty fast, and I happily finished the project with zest. After the transfer of color, we (I) rolled the napkins and tied them with cotton string. I follow a woman on instagram who dyes this way all the time, so I tried to mimic her work. I then simmered the bundled fabric in oak tannins, and let them sit for a day before unwrapping. Big reveal was the intense color of the sour grass petals. Very bright yellow...
It's a sad fact that even though I like coffee, I can't drink it. My system is hyper sensitive, and being awake for 72 hours in a row after an accidental cup (oops, sorry, forgot you wanted decaf!) is not fun. My husband, however, is an addict. With permission, we emptied our cabinets and freezer of all our old coffee, and made a strong brew, which the little one wanted to try. The orange cup from France came off the shelf (bordered by the two undyed napkins), and he got his first taste of probably the worst coffee ever made.
Once the napkins were dyed, rinsed, and dried. We popped one into my purse, went to our favorite coffee spot, and treated ourselves to proper coffee. The latte colored napkin took its very first field trip!
We waited all year before embarking on indigo. I knew it was a tricky dye to work with, and that there were some extra chemicals involved, so I wanted us to have a little bit of experience under our belts before this adventure. Making indigo dye from scratch is tricky business. First you need to grow the plant, then harvest and ferment it (kind of like tea), and then process the fermented leaves into a dye mixture (watch this awesome video!). Instead, I bought dehydrated dye mix from a supplier, and made the indigo dye vat from the crystals. Even at this point there was soda ash and another strange chemically thing to add in.
Handling the dye is altogether different, too. You have to be extremely gentle while working with the liquid dye, careful not to mix in much oxygen. So we read the instructions carefully--four or five times over. In the end (after a very dramatic color change when the napkins came out of the dye vat green, shifted to a shimmery purple, then eventually landed on deep blue), our napkins came out very indigo-looking--and with leftover dye in went a t-shirt, and a few other garments that needed a boost of something new. I'd say this was the most fun and rewarding dyeing experience of the year.
So that closes out our year of homeschooling science, folks! I can pretty much say that I enjoyed every minute of it--and the student, well... he's ready for some airplane launching and microscope gazing... :) In the meantime, we have a tablecloth to dye, because look at all of these amazing napkins we need to put to use!
During the month of March, John Ronan chose to explore the color red for our natural dye experiments. Looking through the lists of potential plant materials that are available in our area, we stumbled on two that seemed practical.
You know, (actually you probably don't know) I studied landscape architecture in my twenties, and learned to identify quite a range of plant material. Granted, I was living in Northern California then and the plants found there are wildly different from what is available in these southern parts. However, sycamore trees are pretty easy to guess at. When we pulled into the parking lot where John Ronan takes swimming, and I noticed that all the trees lining the creek there were of the sycamore variety, we rooted around in the fallen leaves together and picked up shed bark, plus we peeled some loose skin off of the trees as well. After our fantabulous success dyeing with eucalyptus, I was excited about getting a really wonderful red from the sycamore.
I would love for someone to look at my pictures here, and really tell me what tree bark I was dyeing with!
Because the red never came. A slight peachy color was boiled out of the bark, and then we added iron to half of the batch, just to see what in the world might happen, and a grey appeared. Once rinsed, we had two very pale but lovely napkins. I'm not complaining--they just weren't red.
Cochineal is a reliable source of red. Also known as carmine, Natural Red 4, C.I. 75470 or E120, this natural dye is made by grinding up the dried insect (which makes its home on the prickly pear), and is used in all sorts of food stuff that you eat. If you're a vegetarian, and don't know about cochineal, you might want to do a quick search so you can avoid foods that contain this red dye. It's interesting, as I type, I'm aware that all of the dyes we've made so far have been from plant material. Probably because I didn't harvest these bugs myself, but instead pulled them out of a bottle, I didn't think much about the live bug that this dye comes from. But now... Now, I'm thinking. I don't even kill the spiders that come into our home. I name them, then cart them outside. I doubt I'll work with this dye again, despite the deep and lovely color that comes from it.
We simmered the ground cochineal, then split the batch, adding lemon juice to one pot. That pot turned orange.
We simmered the napkins in the dye for an hour or so, then let them cool. Because the colors were so vibrant, and vibrant colors are hard to come by in the natural world, we decided to split yet again the plain dye (the one without lemon juice) and add iron to see what might happen. Not surprisingly, we got purple.
But everything changed when we began rinsing the napkins in our ph neutral mix. They all devolved to pink--almost to the exact same pink. I'm wondering... if I had doubled the amount of cochineal used, perhaps we may have come a bit closer to red. I'm also wondering, if I had added some tannins, maybe the color of the mixes may have deepened... Hard to say. What we can say is--that we missnamed our month. Red was no where to be found.
But the year isn't over yet, friends. We're onto some wild experimenting in April and May, and I'm sure the results will be just as strange and unexpected as they've proved thus far.
This was my staple when I recently got the FLU, and for pretty much any time I need a healing, warming drink. (The flu stinks, by the way, but you already know that...)
Squeeze the lemon juice into a teacup and add the honey. Boil the ginger, simmer, strain into your cup. You could add a little more water, and add a second teacup to the mix, sharing your brew
with a friend.
During the month of February, the little one and I tried our hand at making natural grey dyes. There were many ideas online to think about, but only a couple we could expect to find locally. All month I hunted for black walnuts, since we have a few trees in our neighborhood, but being out of season, we came up empty--I even offered to gather rotting shells from under backyard trees, maybe that was creepy of me since no one gave me the thumbs up?!
However, we had great luck with a dye made from oak galls, acorn tannins, and iron from a rusted vise.
Oak galls have long been used as a source of tannin, ink, and dye. The gall is actually made by the oak tree, to protect it from an egg-laying wasp, and you can find them throughout our area, distributed on the forest floor, under and around oak trees.
The little one and I took our breakfast to a nearby park that is filled with oaks--so we drank hot chocolate and gathered galls and acorns, and let the puppy roam. I love homeschooling!
Later we smashed up the galls with a giant stick the puppy had carted home, we boiled the mess in a pot, and things were looking very un-grey with the first napkin, so we found a vise in the garage, split the dye bath and added it to the mix with a second napkin.
This was my first time adding iron to any of our dye mixes, and really you shouldn't just put a rusted anything in the dye mix, especially with cloth present. But I'm working with a ten-year-old boy, and we wanted to see some magic color transforming happen. The move paid off. Very grey. Very awesome. We like the rust stains.
Knowing that oak galls used to be one of the main forms of black ink, we simply boiled down our dye to see what might come of it. According to all the recipes, we were missing gum arabic, and the mix was supposed to cure over a couple of weeks, which we didn't find out until later. Oh, well. We pulled out other inks, and played with a glass fountain pen. Super fun for a Friday morning...
On to March, and red!
Once you start buying beeswax candles, there's a lovely leftover bit of beeswax that begins to pile up. You save every extra hardened drip of wax, in a little bag, tucked away in a wooden drawer... You do not throw away beeswax!
And then one day you notice that your cutting board needs some care. That your favorite spoon, made of olive wood, could use some conditioning, and to top it off, it's winter, and your hands are AWFULLY--HORRIBLY dry.
This recipe is for you! I don't think you can run out and buy this most awesome, amazing wood balm. Can you? If so, it's probably expensive. I keep mine in a glass mason jar, along with my other cleaning supplies, and it takes just a tiny bit of time to make.
Heat the beeswax in a double boiler type of pan, or simply over very low heat. Heat s l o w l y, until it's melted.
Pour in the olive oil, also slowly, stirring as you go. If the beeswax hardens a bit, no worries, just leave the low heat on until it's all melted and happy to be together. Stir.
Once both the beeswax and oil are melted together, turn off the heat, and stir with a wooden spoon.
Stir about every five or ten minutes as it's cooling. It will change from melted liquid, to a lovely, moussy-texture. Once it's cool-ish, take a rubber spatula and transfer the balm into your glass jar and close with a lid. Spread the residue from the spatula onto your hands, just because you should...
That's it. The balm will stay good for ages.
As a side note--this is the varnish that I put on my pine needle creations. I simply heat the balm back to a liquid, paint it all over the baskets or trivets, then bake the balm into the needles in my little oven. It seals the needles and helps make the basket water-resistant, and once it's baked, there is little residue left, just a naturally lovely, handmade creation...
Despite December being dominated by Advent and Christmas and all that that means, the little one and I were able to do two natural dye experiments during the month.
Orange, orange, orange! I love orange. I'm weird that way...
My parents have a sloped openspace on their property. It's sort of a buffer between them and a nearby road, but we've found several ways to make this space useful. The first is that we set up a small archery range on the only flat area so we can practice being archer/elves. The second is that it's filled with eucalyptus and oak trees, so we've pulled out some of the dead wood for firewood, and this last time round, we collected a whole huge pile of eucalyptus bark that had peeled from the trees.
Because so many of our dye baths have been weak in color, I decided to completely stuff our pan full of bark, to see if that would help deepen the color. We added tannins to both dye baths, too (pomegranate in one, acorn in the other) and alum was added as well...
Hooray! It didn't turn out quite orange, more like a burnt rust. But lots and lots of color--just what we had hoped!
We've done enough dyeing now to know that the added tannins are making a real difference in color absorption. But as a last test, we dyed one napkin in alum/carrot dye, and the other in alum/carrot/acorn tannins... As predicted, the one with the tannins was decidedly more orange flavored. Not quite orange, more of a light peach. Carrots obviously don't make the best dye, but they were fun to chop and play with!
January has been declared a no-dye month, since we have started some new classes, but February will be GREY to encourage rain clouds to come and stay...
The natural dye experiments continue at Chez Meyer. November was a bit of a crazy month, with several trips to LA, which zap the life out of me, except I get to see my daughter! Here's a glimpse of the experiments we were able to fit in between traffic jams.
In Santa Barbara, since most things grow year round, ivy can be a menace. We have one side of our yard, where we are constantly battling the ivy hedge, trying to keep it trimmed so that it doesn't trail onto the ground and propogate into more, and more, and more, and MORE ivy. So, trimming ivy to chop and boil was a delight.
And doesn't it figure that this ivy that I care so little for, not only gave us a lovely yellowy-green dye, but that it surprised us with the most beautiful aroma while it was on the stove? Truly, I think I learned a little lesson that day...
We tried to add some iron to the mix by soaking our rusty red wagon with water then letting it sit.
But the dog kept drinking it...
Both napkins were simmered in alum, but to continue to see whether the added tannins really do make a difference, one napkin had just the alum and ivy dye, and the other napkin was steeped in a triple concoction of alum, pomegranate tannins, and ivy dye. The pomegranate tannins definitely help to make a deeper color...
We didn't really get a green, but close!
To make tannins from acorns. I simply collected acorns from the pavement in the parking lot where my son goes swimming, put them in a large mason jar, filled the jar with boiling water, then left them in a sunny spot for about ten days. I strained the liquid, and put it in the fridge for future dyeing...
(The acorns started to sprout in the water so we took them to my parent's house and planted about thirty seeds into the ground. All we need now is rain to encourage our new oak forest! My son is very hopeful that he'll get a treehouse out of the deal.)
Napkin One: Pre-simmered in alum, then acorn tannins and artichoke dye
Napkin Two: Pre-simmered in alum, then artichoke dye.
Note: We didn't strain the artichokes cause we were both feeling lazy, so dumped the napkins in the pot with all the chopped leaves, etc. Please be smarter than we were...
Apparently, we are very good at making yellow dye!
On to orange, all through December!
The color experiments continue!
October meant purple--because that's what the nine-year-old boy chose. We had some good fun over the course of the month. And our napkin collection doth increase!
Three boxes of blackberries later, (two for dye and one for munching) we had a pot full of very purply/pinky-looking liquid. We continue to experiment with tannins and mordants, from pomegranate rinds, and alum. This round, the big excitement was when both napkins, after sitting in the dye pot over night, came out of the pot--one pink, and the other bright pink, but when washed in a ph neutral soap and our sink water, which has some salt in it from our softener, the colors turned one napkin purple while the other remained pink. THEN, the sun turned the purple to a bluey grey, and the pink to a muted mauve. So. Many. Changes. All in one blackberry day...
We were after purple, remember? We read that by adding salt to red cabbage dye, that the odds of getting purple were better, so our (very stinky) dye mixes had all sorts of things happening. Tannins, extra doses of salt, alum, etc. We thought the blackberry change from pink to purple was cool, but goodness, we were dancing up and down in the kitchen when our purple turned to green, right in front of John Ronan's eyes. The rinse cycle can be exciting, folks! Since I was unprepared, there are no photos, but strong remembrances of screams. :) Red cabbage dye yielded two napkins--one minty green, and the other a beautiful pale blue.
This day was just silly fun. Trying to make purple paint from black grapes and blueberries. We boiled things, ate things, painted things. We aren't the greatest tempera paint makers yet, but every test is good learning, and this time we were inspired to make pancakes to go with the blueberry sludge, so there's that!
Off to November's green. :)
Have you ever had a dye pot on your stove?
At home we are exploring color this year--mostly color that we can pull right out of our backyard or kitchen. So here's September Yellow.
We chopped fresh leaves, and dyed one napkin just in fig leaf dye, and the other we combined pomegranate tannins (from pomegranate rinds), and the fig leaf brew. That one actually worked and held the color!
We smashed nasturtium flowers and combined them with an egg yolk and water to make a lemony-colored paint. We also mixed ground turmeric with the same tempera mix and made a gritty, but deep orange-ish/browny-yellow paint.
Oak trees are common here in Santa Barbara, and their acorns are filled with tannins, which help bind a dye to fabric fibers. We gathered acorns, hammered the shells, crushed and ground the acorn meat, then rinsed the tannins into a pot to use later. Easy peasy, plus the hammering part was super fun.
We ran around our yard chopping yarrow leaves and gathered both dried and fresh flowers. We simmered the leaves and flowers in water to create the yellow dye, then added alum, a mineral mordant to one pot, and our acorn tannins to another pot. The alum/yarrow pot turned lemony yellow, while the acorn/yarrow pot turned a blotchy brown.
And here is September's yellow, nicely folded, and ready to meet October's purple...
Fourth Grade means so many new things for our family.
My husband has taken a new job. If you can believe it--he is a Sometimes Commuter between Santa Barbara and Seattle.
My oldest son is getting his first working experience post college.
My daughter moved to USC, and is singing her ginormous heart out.
And the little one and I are embarking on fourth grade together--no private schools, no public schools--just the two of us setting our sights on lots of adventure and learning.
Despite all the swirling in circles because of these changes, and the recent heat that had me contemplating a move to Finland, I am crazy-excited, feeling awfully blessed, to be a fourth grader again!
In case you're wondering what homeschooling looks like in our house, right now. Here goes:
8-9:30: Morning prayers; Life of Fred; Gospel reading; cursive
10-11: Drumming; sketchbook; then science notes, editing, foot races with the dog, or updating book logs
11:10-noon: The Hobbit; vocabulary.
After lunch: Independent reading, free time (Minecraft--my archenemy), and off to the beach, or the natural history museum, or the library, or to a coffee shop... (And that's when I get my work done...)
Fridays: After math, etc... we do science, or take field trips. Right now we're exploring making our own yellow natural dyes and paints during the month of September.
Things will change as the year progresses. We will add subjects, and subtract subjects, except for reading, writing, math, and running mad dashes around the yard with the dog. Those few never change.
Hope your start to the 2015/2016 school year is going swell.
The pine needles blow through my back door and land at my feet while I type. Our tiny little urban homestead is a trio of buildings all circling a giant Canary Island Pine. The tree towers over 150 feet above us, and we love its presence, despite the falling cones that endanger our noggins and the needles that we constantly rake and gather and heft into the green bin. The tree brings shade, and birds, and a feeling of permanence in this place.
We have a lemon tree, too, and many other fruit trees. We make lemonade, and plum jam, and eat our figs fresh for breakfast.
After trying pine needle tea, which is high in vitamin C and fairly awful, I finally have found a way to enter into the life of this tree. No longer am I merely an observer (there is a whole story that unfolds up there daily) and cleaner-uper of its ways. For once I'm actually celebrating the mess that season after season drops onto our little plot.
It has been a fun shift, thinking of pine needles as a tool for making something new, and maybe even making something useful--beautiful. But more than that, there's a joy in learning a new craft. A new way to use my hands, another learning curve that causes creativity to emerge and shift, and that touches other areas of my life.
And like knitting, or sewing, it's another repetitive art, where I can settle into a rhythm, and where prayer becomes a partner as I stitch round and round and round...
When I was a little girl my dad, who was a baker, opened up a restaurant. The first idea for the restaurant was for it to be a soup and bread establishment. And since they already excelled at the bread part, all he needed was a wonderful soup chef, whom he found! He was Greek, and used to sneak quarters and fifty-cent pieces into my pockets when I wasn't looking.
My mom hates to cook, so I was raised on soup.
(And bread of course!)
Eventually, with my father's creative whims, the small restaurant grew until we took over an entire city block and were serving some of the first cappuccinos in LA. Plus there was the gift shop, the wine shop, the pastries, the cake and the cheese shop. There was an outdoor cafe, and an upstairs Basque dining hall. I started working there when I was 12, and my last day was a few days before my wedding when I was 23.
Thankfully, despite all the changes, there was always soup.
My biggest regret, when the Pioneer Boulangerie closed its doors, was that I didn't corner the chef and drag every soup recipe he made out of him...
Over the years I have fiddled, and this lovely broccoli soup approximates the cream soups we once served. Cream of Broccoli, Cream of Asparagus--of cauliflower, and of celery. All. So. Good. You can make these soups without the cream, and you can easily interchange the broccoli with the veggies I've mentioned above. Maybe you have another variation you can share with me here?
Cream of Broccoli Soup
Place broccoli, potatoes, leeks, onion and salt in a soup pot. Fill with water (or stock or a mix of the two) until everything is just barely covered. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes.
Puree until smooth (I use an immersion blender. You can also put the soup in a conventional blender. Or use a hand masher; it will be chunkier).
Add the desired amount of cream. Add pepper. Adjust salt, if necessary.
Enjoy! If you've never made a soup, now's your time. Buy an artisan loaf of bread, pair the two together, and you are living the dream, folks! My dream, at least...
Masala chai. Perfect cure for those grey days when you're perturbed by the constant drizzle; for moments of being overwhelmed by too many toddlers and their lack of sharing ability; or for planning out future adventures while you write down how and when you might be able to finally take that road trip to Alaska you've always dreamed of.
I was given a typed-out recipe back in 1988 by some friends who were missionaries in India. We've been making and drinking homemade masala chai ever since, and if you don't like the pre-mixed, overly sweetened "chai" (which simply means "tea") that you find these days at coffee shops, then I am here to help :) (And if you do like it, well, maybe I can convert you?)
Masala Chai means mixed spice tea. There is no exact recipe, but these four components are always included: a strong black tea (such as Assam); spices (typical spices used are cardamom pods, ginger, fennel, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorn and sometimes salt, saffron, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg or licorice...); milk (in India they use buffalo milk--you can also use almond milk as a replacement if you don't drink cow's milk); and a sweetener (such as refined sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, syrup or honey).
I love my spiced tea to have a bit of a "burn" in my throat and so my mix is fairly spicy. I make a homemade concentrate that I keep in the fridge and then simply mix with milk when I'm ready/needing/dying for a cup.
8 cups of water
3 inches of fresh ginger, diced
2 cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons cardamom pods
1 tablespoon whole black pepper
1 tablespoon fennel seed
1 tablespoon whole cloves
6 tea bags or 6 teaspoons of strong black tea, such as Assam
2 tablespoons of honey
Bring 8 cups of water to a boil. While the water is heating, lightly pound the cardamom, cloves, fennel and whole black pepper with your handy mortar and pestle. Add dry spices to the water. Add diced ginger and cinnamon sticks as well. Bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover and let steep for 10 minutes.
Bring spiced water to a boil once again, add black tea, turn off the heat, cover, and let steep for three minutes.
Add 2 tablespoons of honey (or more if you like it sweeter--I like mine barely sweet), stir to incorporate, then strain the entire mixture into a large bowl or pitcher or mason jar.
When making a cup of chai to drink, use one part tea blend, and one part milk. Either heat or pour over ice.
You can fiddle with how you like your blend, adding different spices or amounts--maybe you prefer to use dried ginger instead of fresh? Or perhaps you have a particular love for nutmeg? It's all fair game.
And if you want to see masala chai made with flare on the streets of New Delhi, then check out this video.
I do lack flare. I'm considering adding a little flare to the next batch...
Every year, around the 15th of November when Advent starts in the Orthodox church, I amble out to the yard to gather greens and berries and dried flowers. These offerings from our little space of outside are heartily appreciated.
Some years I have made wreaths from the leaves on our bay tree.
Other years I have used a wire circle and have threaded acacia leaves from my parents' tree round and round it.
One year, maybe next year, I will make a wreath from pine needles. Because WE. HAVE. THE. BIGGGEST. PINE. TREE. IN. ALL. OF. SANTA. BARBARA! And that amazing, awesome pine tree comes with needles. So many needles.
This year we decided to make Advent wreaths with our Sunday school classes--purchasing grapevine bases, red burlap ribbon, votives and candles, and I brought in hundreds of succulent trimmings to help the decorating. Once home, out into the garden I went to add rosemary, pyrancantha, and a few more succulents...
Since we won't be home for the holidays, this wreath, and the one on our front door, is the extent of the decorating. We will be taking our Christmas cheer to France, and maybe we'll make a wreath there--from heather and other greenery that the mountain might offer? Who knows. It will be an adventure...
Sending you all lots of love and good cheer as we march through December. May you and your family and your friends enjoy a season filled with joy and reflection, peace and goodwill!
Hand work is hard for him. Pencils. Paintbrushes. Notes and notetaking. He struggles to control the lines. He gets exasperated. Frustrated. Mad.
Let's do something about it. Let's build you up, my sweet boy. Let's find a way for you not to struggle, but soar!
So all summer long after second grade had finished, every single weekday the cursive lessons came out. The book was opened, and he and I practiced. I practiced mine; he practiced his. Ten minutes, maybe one minute more. We were a sloping, curving, laughing, growling, handwriting duo.
Every grade is all about science, and language, and math, and visits to the library. Every student, every year has P.E. and gets to do drama with Miss Emma Jane. But only third-graders learn cursive. It's how every day begins.
And being frustrated with third grade because of loopy letters,
seems upside down,
Summer is for tealights in the garden, for simple meals, and picnics at the beach. I hope you've been able to have some of those moments this past summer. For us in Santa Barbara, summer is at its best in September and October; we are still basking in warm beach days, but the cool nights (and the departure of the tourists!) mark autumn's entrance.
And in autumn and winter we light candles indoors, to lift our spirits, help lengthen the days and brighten the mood, and to send our prayers soaring toward heaven. And maybe even to accompany a bit of rain falling on the garden?
I just noticed last week that the bees are hungry for the oregano blossoms.
And the butterflies are spending much of their days on the yellow lantana out front. There is so much simple beauty to admire when you spend a whole day in the garden. Sometimes I dream of Syria, of Liberia, of Israel and Palestine, of the Ukraine and Iraq, and I wish I could just transport all those hurting people--moms and dads, children and their elderly uncles--and magically fit them into the little playhouse we have under the orange tree. I would bake chocolate chip scones for them and we would drink fresh mint tea. With the fountain running, and the mottled sunshine all around, and the view of the mountains, might that not produce peace and healing?
Here at home, my candle drawer is stocked full, ready for the rain, for cups of tea with friends, for midnight prayer sessions, and for the coming of another season. The bees teach us many lessons: work hard, be faithful to your family, and use your gifts as a prayer to make sweet and useful things.
I'm off to pray too...