Interdependence and the Single-Car Family

The road to Kasese

In the upper-middle class suburban sprawl where J and I grew up, most of the kids at least had access to a car through high school. J and I entered marriage with two cars, but pretty immediately we spent six months in an impoverished corner of Uganda with no car at all, so when we got home and J’s dad talked about how much he’d enjoyed driving J’s little Echo, we sold it to him. (I recognize how privileged this is from a global perspective, but then again, our position was hardly unique.)

Boda boda life in Uganda

In over a decade since that initial decision, we’ve kept just one car, even as we upgraded from my gramps’s Accord to a hatchback, from the hatchback to a minivan. When we went to buy our first home, we intentionally chose one in town, close to campus, allowing J to easily walk or ride his bike to work, and with a park out back so we had plenty of at-home entertainment.

Still, here and there over the years the only way we’ve been able to attend certain things is through the generosity of friends who do own two cars. We would have missed parties and out-of-town events without these other people being willing to give one or the other of us a lift. At least once I would have missed work if a neighbor friend hadn’t loaned me back the Accord we’d sold him. I used to feel guilty because our choice means we rely on others, but then I decided that might actually be a strength.

Four wheels and freedom (from others)

There have been seasons, when we were low income in grad school, or when I was laid low by pregnancy, when we relied more heavily on others. Sharing a van now helps us maintain that reliance. Just because the system would be much less tenable if everyone we knew dropped down to one vehicle doesn’t mean it’s foolish (or worse, arrogant) of us to do.

Instead, we who are in the rare situation not to have so much vulnerability thrust upon us should look for opportunities to trust. Maybe your exercise in interdependence, in trusting in God’s Providence, is waiting to borrow kid snow gear from friends instead of just buying it, or trusting you can borrow camping supplies from your neighbor. Maybe you do something that terrifies me, like cohousing, or leaving your doors unlocked as a matter of principle, like friends of ours in New England. Maybe it’s as small as building your weekly menu off a farm share or the close out grocery instead of controlling every aspect and getting huffy when the big box store doesn’t carry that one ingredient, in or out of season.

Of course in twelve years of single cardom we’ve quarreled about whose need for the vehicle trumps the other’s. I have no idea if we’ve saved much money than keeping an old second beater, as we’ve spent comfortable spending more on our house location, really good soles for J’s shoes, and (too) many bikes. Certainly we’ve spent more time in the car together so we can drop someone off. (Probably not the worst thing, actually.) Quite possibly we’ve annoyed a person we’ve asked for a ride by our importunate request.

Inter-reliance runs those risks. The fortresses we build ourselves to protect against ever appearing mendicant prevent those risks, but introduce others: loneliness, a lack of resilience and flexibility when disaster and need do inevitably strike. We can pretend toward independence when everything is going well and never ask for any help, believing we never will need it. Or we can take baby steps toward trusting others with our needs, one rideshare at a time.

Luxury and Freedom in Travel

We spent a full third of 2019 traveling with our children on trips mundane and ambitious alike, short jaunts and long hauls, with extended family and on our own.

Along the way I learned many things — how to rig an iPad video monitor for hotel naptime; how to hang a rubber laundry line almost anywhere; how to pack incredibly lightly for a family of five (and more importantly, be mostly calm and nice while I do it). But I also learned about myself, and one of the things I learned is that I really don’t much like to be pampered.Read More »

Mary Azarian: Wendell Berry for Small Fry

Woodcuts are not a medium I naturally gravitate toward in children’s book illustrations. I miss the soft hues that characterize, say, Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, and will always have a weakness for watercolors, but Azarian’s strident, rustic woodcuts carry their own sparse beauty.

Here Comes Darrell: Schubert, Leda, Azarian, Mary: 0046442416054:  Amazon.com: Books

My introduction to Mary Azarian came years ago when her charming book with Leda Schubert, Here Comes Darrell was reprinted in a collection of truck stories I scored for Pippin. Darrell is a farmer in rural Vermont who fills his year serving his neighbors until he finally must accept his neighbors’ help in the end to repair his long-neglected barn roof. It was my favorite in the anthology and often found me tearing up by the end.

Rural community! Neighborly care! Small-scale agriculture! I thought of the story again while reading so much Wendell Berry this year, and so lugged home a stack of Azarian’s work from the library to read through and test out on my children/captive victims.

The comparison between the two artist/thinkers is not unfounded, as it turns out — Azarian has done woodcuts to accompany Berry’s poems, such as here. Azarian grew up on a Virginia farm and, after an education at Smith College, moved to Vermont with her family where at various times she taught in a one-room school house, farmed, and worked full-time on her woodcuts. (I collected this last information from her wikipedia page, which is clearly and adorably edited by one of her grandkids.)

While Azarian serves as an illustrator to many authors, she’s definitely developed a particular niche. Here are some of her books our family enjoyed:

From Dawn till Dusk by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock

Discusses the protagonist’s siblings’ complaints about the hard work of their upbringing on a Vermont farm by juxtaposing each with the fun to be had in each situation. My girls especially loved the barn kittens.

Tuttle’s Red Barn: The Story of America’s Oldest Family Farm by Richard Michelson

This longer-length picture book is a great living book for moving through the history of one particular piece of New Hampshire farmland, continuously owned by one family since Pilgrim days. You can watch the permutations of each generation in many arenas: the evolution of the farm house, the diversification of the farm economy, the recycling of names from generation to generation. Spoiler alert: I read up on the place afterwards and it’s since been sold out of the family. (This is my second-most-depressing post-book research finding, second only to learning several people in On to Oregon were soon after killed in a raid.)

Barn Cat: A Counting Book by Carol P. Saul

For the youngest listeners — a vaguely Kliban-esque cat encounters a variety of animals around the farm in her quest for a bowl of fresh milk.

Before We Eat: From Farm to Table by Pat Brisson

The most Berryian of these books, Before We Eat is a simple litany of the people to whom we owe thanks as the producers of our food. The gentle rhyming text highlight the sources of various foods and concludes with an open-air intergenerational meal. “Sitting at this meal we share, / we are grateful and aware, / sending thanks upon the air… / to those workers everywhere.”

Image via

A Gardener’s Alphabet by Mary Azarian

We have a flower alphabet book already, so I was pleased to see the diversity of Azarian’s selections for each letter were not confined to just flowers.

Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel by Leslie Connor

In a vaguely Miss Rumphius story arc, Miss Bridie leaves Ireland with only a shovel and uses it to build a beautiful, satisfying life for herself in New England.

Have you read any Mary Azarian before? What other children’s book illustrators point to the beauty of a simple life for you?

Acts of Hope

The other day I was kneeling on our curb endlessly digging holes for a bunch of bulbs a friend had given me. They were bulbs she’d bought me to commemorate the loss of our little one, and they were bulbs instead of a bouquet because she couldn’t just casually run into the grocery store for flowers what with coronavirus. I know you don’t need me telling you this, but — what a year.

So even more than usual when it comes to planting bulbs, planting these particular bulbs felt like an act of hope. Who knows what my life and the world will look like when they finally open their bright faces on the world this spring? Maybe our guy will be in office, maybe not. (Maybe we don’t have a guy.) Maybe there’ll be a vaccine, or maybe we’ll still be waiting. Maybe I’ll be out digging in the garden then, or maybe I’ll be laid up inside with a new pregnancy, not a replacement for the baby we lost this year but a new adventure all his or her own. Maybe not.

It made me think about the other small acts of hope we are choosing right now. Ordering Christmas cards felt like another one this year for me — I always order ridiculously early, and who knows now what might change to make my message hopelessly out of date? But just like I know that whatever happens in the coming months, flowers won’t go amiss, I can be pretty sure that our people will still like getting a reminder of our love for them in the mail. (Provided we still have the mail. We’ll still have the mail, right?)

Maybe you’re hacking away at your own little act of hope right now. You’re growing that baby for the uncertain world she will face. You’re starting the next lesson in math with your kid even though concentration seems impossible or irrelevant in light of the headlines. You’re training for a marathon that may not happen this year. You’re doing the things you’ve always done because they’re the right things to do, and if your stance is a little grimmer, your confidence a little shakier, who cares — the important thing is you’re still doing them.

A New Template for Farm Share Season: Pad Thai

(A quick note: Although I sometimes post recipes, I’m not interested in being a recipe blog. Instead, I want to talk about the mechanics of using up, making do, and doing without when it comes to meal planning.)

Glamorous food photography as per usual

In the past, I’ve talked about the general concept of meal templates and pointed out the ones I use for frittatas, cottage pie, chicken pot pie, etc. But during our quarantine summer, I’ve been making pad thai once a week to use up bits and pieces from our farm share.

It’s a strange feeling, making this dish, because it makes me feel like when I first started cooking, because again I’m suddenly right at the very edge of my ability to multitask, handle pressure, think creatively. As when I first started learning how to cook, I still can’t make this one and still be kind if someone is in the room trying to help. Nonetheless, it’s a worthy recipe, and I pass it on to you as a way to hide vegetables in plain sight and make something a bit fancy or different after months of extra cooking at home.

Here is the recipe I use. It’s written exactly the way I like a template recipe to work, with a mix-and-match approach of tried-and-true ingredients. A few notes: I’m cautious about buying exotic ingredients that might go to waste, but if you can get tamarind concentrate, it makes a noticeable difference (even for someone with an iffy sense of smell/taste!), though I just subbed sugar at first and that was still good. Also, you can definitely cram more than a cup of sautéing vegetables into your batch if you’re feeling desperate to use things up — the sauce stretches just fine. And finally, you can use whatever Asian noodles you have (I made a batch with a combination of Chinese, Thai and Japanese noodles and I had to stagger the cook times but it was still delicious.) Probably you could just be an ugly American and use angel hair, but I haven’t tried that. (Tell me if you go the ugly American route and it works. Or doesn’t!)

What new recipes or approaches to cooking have you adopted since all this coronavirus craziness started?

A Little Game Called Hide the Squash

(Slimy flying saucer)

OK, so here’s a little secret: I hate summer squash. Ditto zucchini. Eggplant as well. Cucumber, if you really want to know. Actually, a lot of vegetables. I’d prefer to live off carbs forever, thankyouverymuch.

But also, I want to model good eating to my picky eater tribe, not die a stupid and preventable death, support local farmers, etc., and so I try to eat vegetables anyway, ugh.

If you or someone in your life is similarly afflicted, here are some methods I’ve adopted:

  • Grate into pasta sauce
  • Grate into zucchini bread (cheating, because this turns it into a carb.) Note: Only use zucchini. The seeds remain when you use summer squash, and if you use cucumber, even though the internet swears it’ll be the same, your husband will consider mutiny.
  • Chop into ground beef and saute. A friend taught me this. Basically anything works, but I use it most often for eggplant.
  • Mandoline it up! If I had to make a hall of fame for completely unnecessary kitchen gadgets I adore, a mandoline would be top of the list. (Also, I’m assuming you say “mand-o-LINE” not “mandolin,” right?) It effortlessly juliennes the vegetables you already feel resentful that you’re having to prepare, and then you can toss the thin disks into stuff like frittatas or pad thai where they will obligingly melt away. And hey, you can use it to make potato chips, too. All work and no play, you know?
  • Purée it into a smoothie. I do this for the kids, who refuse to accept it in any of the aforementioned disguises, but they actually really like half a zucchini in their berry smoothie…so long as I only reveal its presence afterwards.

How do you work vegetables into meals so they’re not noticeable?

Frugal Accomplishments from the Month of April

Schoolwork in pajamas. We NEVER do schoolwork in pajamas, but I guess this is our Pandemic Normal.
  • I mean we are all saving from the things that were canceled that we wish weren’t, among them for me the Motherwell Charlotte Mason retreat. But let’s not get too bleak and move on to the things I’ve intentionally accomplished.
  • I used Gap rewards to buy new pajamas for the kids, since that’s pretty much all they’re wearing during quarantine, a maternity shirt for a newly pregnant friend, and a dress for myself, as a treat since I was supposed to currently be in maternity clothes myself. The total came to $11. I am really missing thrifting and this was a pleasant approximation.
  • From scraps and bits I’ve made dandelion green pesto, candied violets, chicken stock, meatballs with bacon (from an unsuccessful roasted uncut bacon venture) and bread crumbs (from frozen ends of sandwich bread and sourdough). Most of these have also been free entertainment/education for the kids, too, as they’ve helped me.
  • I’m still enjoying the bounty I lugged home from a local pharmacy’s going out of business sale just before the pandemic broke: greeting cards, Easter basket craft kits, batteries and vitamins were among my biggest wins at 75% off.
  • As the warm weather approaches, I’m sorting out castoff clothes for friends and pulling from the basement things I’ve saved in future sizes, and we will swap with porch drop offs, no contact required. As a bonus, we decided that both Pip and Scout can still wear last year’s sandals.
  • On a walk around campus we found a bunch of tulips beheaded by a severe thunderstorm the night before. The girls and I gathered them up and distributed around the neighborhood in jam jars.
And then I washed the grit from them in the salad spinner.
  • In clearing grass from around my raspberry plants, I discovered new volunteers from the main plants, and in digging, realized they were a sort of sucker situation. I tried to carefully separate them from the main plant with plenty of root, and if they make it, I have three new raspberry plants. I also learned how to use a similar method to score free blackberries from roadside clippings, so I’ll try that, as I killed all my blackberries from last summer.
  • I signed up for the local college’s seed library. Next month I’ll pick up hollyhock seeds and Brussels sprouts seeds, and in exchange I’ll leave behind Mexican sunflower seeds. I also dug up and left out for neighbors day lilies, which continue to be the bane of my gardening existence.
  • I bordered new garden beds with rocks from a vacant lot in the neighborhood and bricks that I keep excavating from the site of our old shed.
  • We had switched Roo to a floor mattress at the beginning of quarantine when we found her sneaking out of her crib, but it wasn’t a permanent solution because mattresses will mold on a bare floor. So I looked into a sort of slatted platform like we have for Scout’s floor bed but a crib-sized one was as expensive as a toddler bed — and a twin mattress. So we just bit the bullet and ordered the twin mattress she’d eventually need anyway, used the old bed frame from the basement and figured out a way to fit three beds into their postage stamp of a bedroom.
Their room is basically impossible to photograph because it’s so tiny.

Cooking in the Time of Coronavirus

(Linking up with friends over at This Ain’t the Lyceum!)

So many folks are now thinking about meals in a way they never really have before. Maybe you went grocery shopping every evening on the way home from work, or leaned hard on restaurants. Now is a chance to carry out resolutions — whether financial or healthy — that, whatever ends up happening the coming weeks, will put you in a better position when we come out the other side.

1. First, two pieces I really loved from others. Katie at Hearts Content Homestead outlines all kinds of ways to prepare for difficult times through household decisions and skills in How to prepare for hard times. And The Kitchn has been collecting a lot of its content to demonstrate how to cook using pantry staples, most of it linked in this moving letter from the editor about how we can serve our communities and the world through our kitchens.

So, without further ado, here is a brain dump of various thoughts, from me and others, about Food in the Time of Coronavirus.

2. Some categories to consider when you’re shopping:

  • Here is an exhaustive list from the NYTimes (which I’m hoping is not under paywall) to get you thinking about foods to consider.
  • Comforting food — things that might excite the rest of your family if you pull them out on a dull day. For us, that’s things like marshmallows for roasting one evening; a couple secret bags of barbecue chips; some random kimchi mayonnaise I’m betting my husband will love, etc.
  • Nourishing food that will last awhile (ideas: frozen vegetables that can be roasted or hidden in soups; dried or frozen fruit that can go into yogurt, oatmeal, smoothies, etc.)
  • Vitamins to try to keep everyone strong and healthy

3. ALSO VITAL: Caffeine in large quantities if you’re addicted — my husband has always supported a local coffee shop and would never normally deign to freeze his beans, but since he’d go through actual withdrawal without coffee, we bought and froze a few bags in advance.

4. How to think about making meals without shopping:

I first learned to cook while we were living for six months in rural Uganda with very few ingredients available. That mindset is a helpful one to try to adopt now, instead of roaming the packed grocery store thinking of all the meals you might want later this week, or month, and trying to remember all the ingredients involved for each.

Learning to cook with intermittent electricity and the world’s slowest internet connection
  • Think about how to string together meals to use up each ingredient.
  • Now is the time to dive deep into something you’ve always wanted to learn how to fix. Choose something you’ve always bought pre-made and attempt it yourself. Learn how to make sourdough (but not from me — I’m little haphazard about the whole enterprise, with mixed results). Bake with your kids.
  • Think in terms of staples: easy things you can stockpile a bit and use as the building blocks for a variety of meals. The structure of constraints will also help you feel less adrift and overwhelmed.

5. Freezing: I’m shooting for a combination of:

  • preassembled meals (especially important if my husband or I get sick and can’t cook, but also to preserve fresh ingredients that won’t keep several weeks in the fridge); and
  • bulk ingredients (butter, frozen berries and vegetables, the meat we have from our beef and pork share, a batch of caramelized onions, ICE CREAM OF COURSE, etc.).
  • Plus: News to me! Note that milk, unshelled eggs, yogurt and shredded cheese can all be frozen but there’ll be a noticeable change in texture — use them only where you can hide them in recipes.

6. This is just anecdotal, but an ER physician friend is recommending that store pickup, if available, is probably safer. We had been leaning towards selecting all our groceries on the shelves ourselves on infrequent trips going forward, but the friend thinks probably grocery workers will be wearing gloves at this point. There’s more advice from Consumer Reports and NPR reports many stores are encouraging online pickup as a way to prevent the spread.

7. Also, pretty much unrelated but worth a shout out if you’ve suddenly got kids unexpectedly at home with you:

Don’t Let Hand-Me-Downs Get You Down

 

Excellent hand-me-down winter wear

When I was eight months pregnant with my firstborn, I was on my way into the university health center with J when we ran into a very slight acquaintance of his. Upon learning we were expecting a November baby, she exclaimed, “I had a November baby last year! Come by my house! I’ll leave bags of clothes outside for you.”

I was floored that someone I didn’t know would gift this poor grad student so generously, and still more so when I arrived at her porch to discover heaping trash bags full of lovely little things. I hadn’t yet learned the rule of motherhood: stuff, stuff, ever going in and out of the house.

Since then, I’ve learned to embrace the constant inflow and outflow of Stuff. I try to pass along things we are done with, and in turn, to accept and make good use of what we are given. A lot of that has to do with organization, so I thought I’d outline my approach.Read More »

Your Eco-Friendly Friendships

Recently, I’ve been revisiting Radical Homemakers almost ten years after it rocked my world back in grad school. Parts are brilliant and parts a bit flaky, just like I remembered, but the overall effect is to fire me up. And I came across a cornerstone of X’s vision for domesticity: Save the planet, make a friend!

“Solid and satisfying relationships are beyond a doubt the primary step in building a sustainable home.”

This was good news to me. I don’t recycle anymore and I have a list as long as my arm of domestic skills I should probably cultivate, but I do invest in friendships.

When I think about the claim, I sort of see it. There aren’t all that many days anymore when I don’t feed someone outside my immediate family or get fed in return. I don’t buy many children’s clothes. We do very few formal cultural events –good and wholesome though they are–because much of our time is spent in pleasure and duty to our network of friends: just passing time and sharing meals at one home or another. All of this reduces consumption and waste.

We also are able to sidestep some childcare costs by swapping care for appointments and other one-offs. When we do have to pay for services (childcare, lawn care, tailoring, etc.) we can also often keep it within the church or homeschooling community. We are keeping our money hyper-local and practicing frugality while we’re at it.

J, vanquished by the children of our community of friends

Here is a fairly typical day:

  • At preschool drop off, I pass one bag of Pip’s hand-me-downs to a friend who passes me two bags of her daughter’s for Scout. (Everyone needs a friend with children the same ages as her own but opposite genders.)
  • I go through an IKEA bag of stuff from another friend who’s in the process of moving. I set aside the things I can’t use to find homes for.
  • At naptime a friend’s high school daughter brings by the duvet she finished making as a commission for me.
  • In the afternoon, I work out a complicated childcare scenario where a friend piggybacks on my mother’s helper, who subcontracts with her little brother. It ends up costing us $10 each for two hours of childcare, during which time I listen to an audiobook uninterrupted and wrap birthday presents. On the phone, I also walk a friend through setting up an evite for an All Souls prayer potluck.
  • A young friend’s husband is finishing up work on our back deck. She drops him off, grabs an apricot and leaves some vases I’ve left her
  • Dinner is pasta and homemade meatballs from our yearly cow. I double the recipe and drop half off at the home of the farmer friend who raised the cow, who’s having a difficult recovery from surgery.
  • When I get home J is having a beer on the porch with the wife of our deck repairman and the father of the extra kid our mother’s helpers watched.
  • After kid bedtime, I eat a brownie baked by one friend and enjoy a cup of tea from the hostess, when I meet to plan our Blessed Is She Advent retreat.

Pretty potatoes from our farm share, run by a parishioner, some of which were delivered to a friend of a friend recovering from a concussion

These friendships are different, more demanding and deeper, than those friendships when you get together when your life is under control for a night that feature fancy food, sparkling conversation and clean countertops. Sometimes we have those things and they are good things to be sure. But this life of ours paradoxically requires more mess and more order. When your child outgrows her wardrobe, you can’t just bag it up for Goodwill or simply toss it; instead, you divvy and deliver it between friends, and you accept hand-me-downs in advance that you’ll have to store. You invite people into the nooks and crannies of a busy family life and hope they don’t walk away when you run late because of a diaper blowout or you offer them half of the non-gourmet thing you froze weeks ago. It’s harder and more vulnerable than the independent suburban way I think a lot of people live, but its porosity and clamor and warmth are a comfort in times of trouble (and morning sickness) and a fortress against the materialism of the world in which our children can flourish.

PS–Would it be helpful for anyone if I did a detailed post on my system for storing hand-me-downs?