September Is…

…the sound of dry leaves.
… a glorious time to be a weed.
..mums dressing for their debut.
..time to thin the iris bed.
…always abundant, sometimes hot.
…when shadows begin to lengthen.

For me September is always a time of reflection on time. This is especially true now that I am older. Some things wither and fade, while others are just coming into their glory. The strawberries and the cherries are long gone, but the apples and pears are just beginning to bear. The flowers that blossomed in spring have put down their seeds and spread out their roots, already prepared to winter over and grace us again next year. The zinnias and golden rod are dressed in their finest while the mums are just getting ready for their debut.

It is also a time when squirrel gather and geese fly. “A time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away; a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silent and a time to speak” (Eccles 3:6-7) all in a single day.

What do you see when the shadows begin to lengthen?

I see the meeting place of time and eternity. As the Preacher said, “He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccles 3:11). There is no time that I hear the echo of eternity more clearly than in the passing of a brief autumn day.

September has slipped away.

The End of a Dry Summer

It’s been a summer of nothing: No Blog posts. No writing. No artwork. Little photography. Little cooking. Little rain. Little human contact. The garden did poorly. The weeds are wilting. Nothing is in focus. Yet at the end of the evening I am drawn out into the dim splendor of the waning daylight and the waxing moon. All is bathed in mysterious light. I instinctively grab the camera and wander through an enchanted landscape singing praise in my heart.

Will you walk with me through my messy yard as I resume my journey down a moonlit path?

A giant ragweed silhouetted against the evening sky. This photo sums up my life for the past few months. Nothing has been in focus. Everything is weedy and wilting. Yet reality has more depth and beauty than attempts to capture it might imply. In person the sky is stunningly beautiful; the photo only hints at the reality. The ragweed, though wilted is tall and making its seeds. It provides me with inspiration! (… as long as I overlook the fact that I don’t want it to produce seeds.)
Lamb’s ears always find a way to grow. In this light, even the tomato cages I never got put up and an old broken rake look interesting.
I’d never see the beauty of my sleeping hibiscus if I never took a shot in the dark.
Though the moon wears a veil of clouds and only a crescent shines, the whole moon is there. You can see it if you look carefully enough.

The moon is now in the first quarter. The night is a little brighter than it was the night I took the photos, but there has been no rain.

It has been a rough year for all of us. Yet there is always hope.

Take a little time today to look at the good that is there.

Peace be with you.

It’s Time to Start Planting Things!

This morning was exhilarating: I went to check on the seeds I planted and found that the first pepper had sprouted. Oh, the joy of it! I’ve been observing the sprouting of seeds for around 50 years, and it still fills me with delight and wonder. I grow my own food for many reasons: I was brought up to do it. (I’m incredibly grateful for that. Sorry, Mom, for all the times I complained about weeding and canning… ) I grow my own food because I like to have at least some direct control over the stuff I need to live. I do it for the shear delight of having green, growing things at my fingertips. Are you thinking of growing things this year but aren’t sure where to start? Here are a few questions to ask yourself to find the answer.

What do you like?

There isn’t a point in planting tomatoes if you don’t like them. Maybe you like tomatoes for their aesthetic value. They are beautiful, but if I’m going to plant something purely for aesthetic value it’s probably going to be flowers.

Make space for beautiful things that you love too!

What will you use?

I never met a vegetable I didn’t like, but I use some of them more than others. I don’t eat a lot of corn. I find it makes more sense to buy it from the neighbors than to plant it. If I’m going plant something I’m not going to use, I’d rather plant flowers.

I do eat a lot of lettuce. However, lettuce doesn’t preserve well, so I don’t plant much. (You can actually blanch it and freeze it for soup, but that’s not usually how I use lettuce.) Even if a food does freeze or can well, there is only so much of it you will be able to use. Frozen vegetables and home canned goods don’t keep indefinitely.

What do you have time for?

Spring planting is hard work, but it isn’t nearly as time-consuming as preserving a harvest. I always plant too much; then I hate myself in late summer. I can’t stand to see good food going to waste, so I usually spend the time to preserve it if I can. But as I said above, home preserved foods only keep so long. Sometimes I end up wasting the time and the food.

The moral of the story is don’t plant too much.

How much sunny space do you have?

Most vegetables aren’t going to do well with only a few hours of sunlight a day. If your sunny space is limited, you will need to plan your garden out more carefully. Seed packets will give you the spacing requirements of a plant. Choose compact varieties if your space is limited. For example, a bush variety of squash will take a couple up a couple of square feet while a vining variety may take a couple of square yards.

One way you can maximize sunny space is by gardening vertically. A few pole beans will produce a nice crop of beans. Cucumbers can be grown on trellises. Plant the tallest plants on the north side of the garden so that they do not block the sun for shorter plants. You might do something like plant pole beans on the north side of the garden, with cucumbers on a trellis in front of them, followed by tomatoes then smaller things like beets and onions.

You can maximize space by using intensive gardening techniques. If your soil is well prepared, you can plant things more closely together. This requires a bit of thinking ahead. I’m not doing it this year because I didn’t start soon enough.

What’s your growing season?

When buying seeds, pay attention to the days to maturity and frost hardiness of the plant. Some species such as radishes and spinach have a short growing season and do well in cool weather. Tomatoes, as a general rule, have a longer growing season and require warm nights to ripen well, but some varieties are better adapted to cool weather and short growing seasons than others. If you are new to gardening, consider going to a gardening center and purchasing plants. Most garden centers will sell the plants that are adapted to the region. If you haven’t started tomato and pepper seeds yet, you’re better off going to a garden center anyway. It is getting late to start them now.

Go out and play in the dirt!

Go have fun playing in the dirt! Don’t wait till you have it all figured out. Garden is a matter of trial and error. If you enjoy the fresh air and sunshine and the wholesome way to get a bit of exercise, you win even without a great first harvest.

It won’t be long before the produce starts to come in!

Gratitude

Today I am grateful for little things:

For shovels full of rich soil and seeds to put in it.

For growing grass and delicate blossoms.

For my two furry friends who console me in my solitude.

For silky, soft yarn that slips through my fingers as I knit.

For fresh cool air and the ability to breathe it in deeply.

For sunshine and clouds.

For the way black beans combine with rice for a hearty simple supper.

For the sound of the windchime dancing on the breeze.

What are you grateful for today?

Nettles: A Delicious Spring Treat

One of my favorite things to do this time of year is go out and forage for wild spring greens. There are a variety of things growing that I enjoy: chickweed, dandelions, wild mustards and cresses. My favorite of the early edible weeds is stinging nettle.

Nettles have been used as food since ancient times. They are also used in herbal medicine for anemia and other blood ailments. They are rich in vitamins and minerals. They can also be used as a tea. The Amish kids next door taught me how to eat them raw! You pinch the leaves from the top and roll them up so the stinging hairs are inside. I like them best for soup.

Harvest nettles when they are young shoots. Be sure the wear gloves through out the process of harvesting, cleaning, and preparing. Remove the leaves from the stem before cooking.

Spring Green Soup

  • 6 medium potatoes, sliced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 1-2 carrots, sliced
  • One stalk celery, sliced, or crumbled dried celery leaves
  • 2 cups nettle leaves, or a mix of chickweed and dandelion leaves
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 ½ cups shredded cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the onion in a little butter or olive oil. Add the garlic and sauté another minute. And the potatoes, carrot and celery. Cover with water and cook until soft. Add the nettles. Cook another 10 minutes. Allow the soup to cool some. Puree in a blender. Return the soup to the pan. Add the milk. Heat to just below boiling. Add the cheese and stir until the cheese is melted. Add the salt and pepper.

Variations: I enjoy playing around with this soup. I’ve made this with cheddar, Swiss, hot pepper cheese, or no cheese. I’ve made it without the carrots and celery. I’ve used fewer potatoes for a thinner, greener soup.

Hope Amid Darkness and Mist

The past three weeks I missed posting. My world went upside down, and I was at a complete loss for any practical ideas. We are all going through chaos and stress right now. We are all dealing with different problems right now; I don’t want to elaborate on my own. I’ve been trying to get myself to write a practical post, but I’ve been reeling in the reflection that there are so many things we cannot control. Anything I could think of to say seemed like shooting a popgun at a charging bear. There are things in life that we cannot control or have very limited control of and the current pandemic and the world’s reaction to it is one of those things. I’m personally struggling with hanging onto hope right now. I offer this reflection out of my own struggle.

Hope Holds Hands Prudence.

The news has no shortage of stories of people who did stupid things ended up with corona virus. Some have died. Some people trusted in youth. Some people trusted in God. I’m going to pick on the ones who trusted in God, not because I am anti-religious. I am deeply Christian. That doesn’t mean God wants me to throw my brains out the window. God gave me a brain and the obligation to have regard for my life and the life of my fellow human beings. In the Gospel, it wasn’t God who told Jesus to throw himself off the Temple; it was the devil. There are times when we really need to take risks for a greater good, but to do so without need is to substitute wishful thinking for genuine hope.

Wishful thinking—or idealism apart from concrete realities—whether you dress it in religious clothing or secular clothing—will do nothing to protect people from viruses and will do nothing to rebuild our society when all this is past. Prudence, in classical philosophy, is the virtue that helps a person apply timeless principles in concrete, changing circumstances. It is the “hinge” on which the other virtues turn. Prudence looks at the known facts of a situation and decides the best course of action. It distinguishes between courage and foolhardiness; it also recognizes the time when we must hazard everything for the some greater good. In other words, sometimes it will look like fear and other times like foolhardiness. We all must make our own decisions in light of our own circumstances.

I hope that my life is in the hands of a loving God. It means that I will hope that God will guide my prudential judgment, and if my judgment should fail, I hope that God will bring a greater good out of it.

Hope Holds Hands with Humility.

Something that calls itself hope but doesn’t have humility is not genuine hope.

All

Of us

Make

Mistakes

Hope sometimes means letting good of our own ideas about what is best. Maybe the best ideas are coming from someone I disagree with.

Hope comes from learning to see beyond ideological differences, working together, and learning to compromise. I hope that the future will bring a return to focus on the common good over party politics. In human terms, that is the only hope that I see for the future of our world.

Hope Transcends This World

“I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and life of the world to come.”

This week is Holy Week—the week when Christians around the world commemorate the death of Jesus and prepare to celebrate the Resurrection. We look forward to our own resurrection. It isn’t trendy these days to continue to believe in the Christian faith. I’ve never had much use for trends. God has held my hand through every crisis, and I trust He will hold my hand through the ultimate crisis— my own death.

Maybe you don’t share my faith. I do hope that you believe in something beyond a blind physical universe that cares no more for you than it does a virus. If all you believe in right now is in the possibility of goodness and love that transcends this poor world, I hope that together we can make it through this crisis and into a better future.

I have no more words for now. I feel that Pope Francis said everything better in his Urbi et Orbi address than I could hope to say it. I refer you to that.

Maybe next week I’ll write about foraging for spring greens or something. In the meantime, I hope your trials are not great, but if they are, I hope you have the strength to bear them.

Have a blessed Holy Week and a joyous Easter.

A Bit of Butter

Sometimes the deliciously simple solution to our problems is right in front of our eyes.

I’m a bit of a Lord of the Rings fan, as much for the nuggets of wisdom and the rich symbolism that are strewn about the books as I am for the story. One of my favorite lines is spoken by Bilbo, “I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that is scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right.” This scene takes place at the beginning of the story. Gandalf the wizard realizes the Bilbo’s magic ring is gaining too much power over him. Bilbo has possessed it so long that he is beginning to get thin. Gandalf urges Bilbo to let go of the ring. The rest of the three novel story revolves around the struggle to destroy this ring—this ring that gives power and extends life without giving life. The ring becomes a powerful symbol of possessiveness and the desire to control.

I often feel like Bilbo—a bit of butter scraped over too much bread. I have said that before and added with a bit of bitterness that I don’t even have a ring of power to show for it. But as I sit and analysis why I feel this way I wonder: do I have a ring of power that I try to hold onto even though I know it hurts me? I feel thin and stretched because I tend to have too many personal goals that I feel I need to accomplish; then on top of that I pile commitment after commitment. I feel that I need to do everything everyone asks me to do.

Why? I often feel powerless when I say yes to too many things. But if I’m honest, this tendency to take on too much is a bit of a power play. When I say yes to too many things it usually comes about because I want people to like me: I want to control how others feel about me. When I have all these goals I want to reach, it’s because I want to feel accomplished; I want to be a type of wonder woman, a super hero who manages all the challenges life throws at me. Of course, I have better, higher motives as well. Those are what I focus on until I realize I’m too thin and stretched. Then I have to ask myself where I’m overreaching.

Maybe it’s time to do a little interior spring cleaning. Maybe it’s time to dust out the corners of my heart. Maybe I need to dig a little to see what I need to let go of.

But that that’s a long term project. I need to feel less thin and stretched today: when I’m pressed for time and need to somehow need to finish writing my blog post, take a relevant photo, get to work on time. Oh yes. And eat. I forgot about eating.

I am really so stupid that I was taking pictures of dense, healthy, substantial bread wondering what I was going to make for breakfast this morning. Then I asked myself if I was try to make everything more complicated than it needs to be. Then I saw my solution right before my eyes. Then I ate my solution without toasting it, with nothing but the butter that was there. And it was delicious. It gave me strength and an idea how to wrap up my thoughts.

Sometimes the deliciously simple solution to our problems is right in front of our eyes.

When I feel too stretched, it is usually because I am trying control every aspect of my existence. I try so hard to cover all the bread with butter that I forget that for the moment all I need to do it cover a slice or two for breakfast. When I’m trying to look in every direction, I forget to focus on what is right in front of me. I wonder how many deliciously simple solutions that were right right in front of me throughout life that I’ve missed because I was trying too hard to control the situation.

Spring Cleaning and Organizing

It’s that time of year when I start my spring cleaning. It’s really the only time of year I do a thorough cleaning of the whole house. It’s also the time of year I focus on organizing things and getting rid of stuff I never use.

Sometimes I like to watch home organization videos on the Internet, but honestly, I rarely use the ideas I see. I might take an idea or method here or there, but I find if I try to have everything in the house perfectly organized all the time it backfires. Before very long, instead of being the paragon of neatness and order, I turn into the queen of messy mounds and greasy grim.

My organization system has to be simple and easy to use. Here are my three principle of home organizing.

Keep like things together.

Socks go in the sock drawer. Hang pants in one part of the closet, skirts in another. It’s a simple idea and generally easy to maintain.

The difficulty comes when you don’t have enough space in the sock drawer for all your socks. Maybe the solution is to use a different drawer. Maybe it is to get rid of some socks. But the solution isn’t to have an overflow sock area somewhere else. When I do that, I forget they are there and go buy more socks that just add to the overflow.

Keep things easily accessible in the place you use them.

I like to do crafts. I usually do them in my living room, but I was storing them in my bedroom because that’s where the storage space was. With a little creative rearrangement, my crafts are now beautifully and efficiently stored in the room where I use them. Current projects are easily accessible in baskets. Future projects are tucked away in a nearby trunk.

I find beans in a jar more aesthetically pleasing and more easily found than beans stacked in bags in a cupboard. Frequently used items like clips for closing bags are easily accessible in crocks.

Keep things beautiful.

I like things to be beautiful. Plastics do not please my eyes. No matter how efficient plastic storage systems are for organizing, they have no place in my house unless shoved under a bed.

Maybe your artistic sensibilities are different. Don’t sacrifice them for the sake of efficiency unless pure efficiency is beautiful to you.

Efficiency is beautiful. I just love it all the more when I can make it go hand and hand with the aesthetically pleasing.

What works for you?

Do you organize your house? If so, what principles do you use to organize it?

Would you be happier if your house was better organized? If so, what is stopping you from organizing it today?

Rest

Today I sat down to enjoy a cup of tea and take a little break between morning chores. The earth around me lay dormant, though somethings were starting to wake up for their yearly growth spurt. A pair of mourning doves landed on a sleeping maple to take a little rest. My cats stretched out lazily at my feet. It was a moment of quiet content broken only by my slowly and quietly getting my camera to capture a few images of the birds before slipping back into the moment of rest.

I wonder why it is so hard for me to take a rest. Rest is as natural as breathing. It is essential for health and wellbeing. I know this. I am my best self when I observe a day of rest, take times of rest throughout the day. I am not less productive when I do it. I am more productive, especially in terms of quality. Yet I more often than not run around like a hamster on its wheel wearing itself out while getting no where.

We have a culture that is driven by efficiency. I believe that efficiency is a good thing. So is water, but I don’t want to drown. Are we drowning in efficiency today? Would our efficiency produce more of quality and less garbage if we allowed ourselves more dormant time—time to watch a pair of mourning doves preen on branch, time to rejoice and give thanks for the shear wonder of our existence?

Tools for Time Management

Today I want to continue talking about time management tools. Different people have different relationships with time. Time management comes more naturally to some of us. Some of us are going to thrive with a schedule, while others will find following a schedule too limiting. But all of us need to come to grips with our relationship with time. Here are some tools I’ve found helpful.

Have the Right Attitude Towards Time

The most useful time management tool I have ever used is a simple attitude adjustment. When I realize that I am the one who chooses what I do with my time, everything changes.

Too often I feel at the mercy of time: It passes too quickly. There are so many obligations that I have. I have to go to work. I have to write a blog post on a certain day. I have to make supper. I don’t always feel like I have a choice about what I am doing. Somehow life planned my day out for me, and there is nothing I can do but respond.

A family heirloom clock that inspired me to write a fairytale. If only I could find the time to polish it up and get it published!

When I am feeling overwhelmed, I find it useful to remind myself that even my obligations are things that I have chosen. I choose to go to work because I want to be able to pay my bills. I choose to write a blog and post consistently because I have ideas that I want to share with the world. Of course, I need to eat to live, but when and what is my choice and I often make it more complicated than I need to.

Switching around how I think about these things helps me feel empowered to face them. I’m no longer at the mercy of time and a thousand obligations. I am an artist painting my life in the medium of time and obligations. Time has its limitations like any medium, but just as the limitations of oils gives character to the oil painting, the time in which we find ourselves gives character to our lives.

Creating a Schedule

I like making schedules. I don’t always have them, but life seems to go better when I do.

Scheduling works best for me when I jot things down on a piece of paper rather than when I go out and buy a fancy planner. I’m not sure if that is just because I haven’t found a planner I like, or if there is something liberating about writing things down on a scrap. Does it give a sense of order with a sense of flexibility built in? If buying a planner works best for you, go for it. But if you are new to scheduling, don’t wait till you buy a planner. Try it first on a scrap of paper and see if you take to it before you spend money on a planner.

The beauty of a schedule is that it helps me figure out how I can accomplish everything I want to accomplish. It also helps me be realistic. I might want to get 30 things done in a day but only have time for 10. A schedule gives me a visual image on how impossible my ideas are. It helps me adjust my expectations so that I am not constantly feeling inadequate. It encourages me to prioritize and to phase out or defer the things that aren’t as important to me.

Write Down What You Actually Do

In addition to making aschedule ahead of time, it can also be helpful to write down what you actually do. I usually do this on the same paper that I used to make the schedule. I find this at least as useful as having a plan to begin with. It helps me identify time drains. Say I had yard work scheduled but first I wanted to watch a YouTube video about organic weed control. One hour later I realize that I am watching habanero eating contests on YouTube and no yard work has been done and haven’t even watched any weed control videos. Writing it down helps me become more aware of my time drain quirks.

The reverse of that is that writing down what you do also helps you see when you are using your time productively. Some days we get a lot done, but maybe it isn’t what we set out to do. If I go out to do yard work but suddenly feel inspired to write a blog post, making the note on the schedule gives me a sense of accomplishment. It also lets me see how I might fit the yard work into another time slot.

Do It Now

We’ve all heard the adage: “Never put off till tomorrow that which you can do today.” I don’t think that is always good advice, but it has enough wisdom to be useful. Some projects are just going to get larger and larger as you put them off. Some opportunities will be missed if you don’t act immediately. Sometimes waiting to do something only prolongs the agony. You know you have to do that dreaded thing. You put it off because you don’t want to, but the dread hangs over you the whole time. It would be better if you just did it.

Bribe Yourself with a Promise of Free Time

All work and no play make Mary a dull girl. I believe we all need leisure to be our best selves.

One technique I use is to promise myself 15 minutes of leisure to every ____ minutes working on a project. The amount of time on the project depends on the day and the project. Sometimes I go 15 and 15. Other times I go 45 and 15. I wrote the draft of this blog taking a 15-minute break after 15 minutes of cleaning, then 15 minutes of writing.

Choosing the Right Tool for the Job

No single time management tool is going to fit your needs all the time. I started this post on a free day using the promise of a 15-minute break to get myself to write when I didn’t fel like it. I’m finishing it in Do It Now mode because it’s Thursday, and I am choosing to follow my plan of posting on Thursday. Mastering a time management tool does not mean that you will be bound by that tool in the future. It means that you now have another tool that you can pick up and put down at will.

What Works Best for You

What works well for me might not be the best for you. I don’t function well when I am constantly in Do It Now mode. I function best with a general plan. Other people do well in Do It Now mode. If that is how you operate best, fantastic! Just make sure that you aren’t so much in the habit of responding to things as they arise, that you never make time to reflect on what it is you truly want to accomplish in life. Make sure you are giving yourself time to accomplish them.

What works best for you? Do you have favorite time management technique? Is there something that you haven’t tried yet that might make your life run more smoothly?