Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How to garden in Virginia

Every climate is different.  I even have different results here, in my low-lying garden on a ridge, than a friend might have across town.  So when people from far away ask me "How do I garden?" I feel a little at a loss.  I'd rather have them ask their neighbors, or a local blog.  My next-door neighbor and I consult about when to plant stuff, and that helps.  I also like reading blogs of other gardeners in the area .... though unfortunately most of them are like me and don't blog every detail of their gardens.

Virginia is a great place to garden because of our long growing season and abundant rain.  I rarely have to water, but at the same time we also get plenty of sun.

It's an awful place to garden because of the soil, which is heavy and sticky -- especially gardening on a suburban lot, where the soil is just subsoil shoved into place when the house was built.  You can't work clay soil when it's wet, or you'll destroy the structure, compact it, and it will turn into brick the moment it dries.  But you also can't work it when it's dry because it's hard as a rock.  There might be one perfect day to work it -- and odds are, you're busy that day!

I deal with the soil issue by not digging in the garden at all.  In the fall I lay as much mulch as I can get -- leaves, usually, but hay or straw is fine, or grass clippings.  (If you are building a new bed, you might want to cut off the sod first.  Whether you do or not, that sod will try to come back for the next decade because that's what sod does.  Ugh.)  Manure is nice if you have it, under the mulch, to feed the microbes and worms.

In the spring, I pull back the mulch to let the soil dry out and warm up.  Clay is the slowest soil to warm up, and under mulch it stays cold and wet practically forever.  Pulling back the mulch gives me a huge thrill -- the soil is always soft and fluffy, due to worm action and frost heaving, and there are tons of worms and bugs eating up the decaying plant matter.  Who knew rot could be so exciting?

Every year is different, but in the years I've lived here, I've noticed a pattern to spring.  The dates aren't predictable, but the pattern is always the same.  First it's cold, cold, cold, with occasional warmer days that leave us all saying "maybe this is spring?"  But it isn't spring for a long time yet.  I start some broccoli inside as an act of faith.

There's usually a really warm week which gets you really excited.  That's when I get everything ready, pulling back mulch, yanking out weeds, and repairing the beds.  Then for awhile it's warmer and wet .... highs in the forties and fifties, lows in the thirties.  This isn't real spring either, because the plants know to hold back.  You do see some weeds starting to grow, though, and the grass starts to get green.  I start harvesting dandelions.

Ideally, I plant my first seeds on the last warm day before the wet spell.  That wet spell is sprouting weather!  I plant peas, lettuce, radish, spinach, beets, and chard.  Potatoes should also go in about now.  This year this time came right around the last week of March.  I wait till the whole ten-day forecast has lows above 30; that's my general rule.  Also the daffodils will have come up.

Because the soil here is so heavy, I don't actually bury the seeds -- not if the weather is damp.  At least, the lettuce just gets patted into place.  The peas get poked in and covered, but not deeply.  Carrots are the toughest, because they take so long to sprout.  I failed three years running to sprout a one!  But finally I tried this, which worked: I laid the seed on top of the soil, in a little groove I made with my rake.  Then I covered it with sand.  The sand keeps the seed from washing away and keeps it damp, but it doesn't crust over like the clay soil does.  I imagine peat moss or potting soil would do the same thing.

I transplant the broccoli a little later, but since it always grows so badly indoors, it's never really ready.  I try for maybe the second warm, damp spell of spring.  Transplants like overcast weather with light rain when they first go in.

To plant warm weather crops like tomatoes and peppers (from transplants), cucumbers, squash, beans, etc., you have to wait through several more damp spells.  You wait till the cool-weather crops come up.  You wait through one very hot week (we just finished it) where you just cannot beLIEVE it's not time.  (But it isn't, there's at least one more frost ahead.  Check the ten-day forecast; it's almost always on there.)  Then suddenly spring starts showing up in earnest -- redbud and dogwood appear; the trees all look covered with a green mist; cherry blossoms and magnolia flowers fly on the wind.  At that point we usually get another wet week.  It's amazing how it goes.  One day the trees have teeny little buds on them -- the next it's pouring rain so you don't go out -- and then as soon as you look outside again, everything has leaves!  It's an intense growing time; so easy to miss.  At Christendom it always happened over spring break, it seemed.  I'd leave on Friday with all the trees bare, and come back ten days later to find it now looked like summer.

And that's when you plant the warm stuff -- as soon as that rainy period ends and there aren't any frosts on the ten-day forecast.  (There may still be a frost yet; you just have to hope, and keep something handy to cover your transplants with like a row cover or mason jars or whatever you can find.)  Again, a day with rain predicted soon is a good choice.  You can plant seeds on a hot day and wait for the rain to activate them -- the transplants you want to do when it isn't too sunny, like when it's overcast.  Failing that, do them in the afternoon and water them well.  You don't want them to wilt in their first full day of sun.

Clay holds water so well, especially mulched, that you don't really have to water during the summer unless there's a drought.  BUT, during this first bit of spring when you've got fragile transplants and seeds, you do have to water.  Where you have seeds, you want the soil to be visibly damp.  If it isn't dark with dampness, water it (with a light spray so you don't wash away your seeds).  On some of these hot days, that might be twice a day or more!  The transplants can take a little more dryness, but not much -- there should be moisture right below the surface.

When the seeds have sprouted and the transplants have been in place about a week, you can stop worrying and let the plants grow deeper roots if they want water.  If you keep them waterlogged now, they'll never grow the kind of roots they should and they'll be fragile forever.  Especially considering the sort of wind and storm we get in the summertime, you want your plants to have deep roots so they don't get uprooted (as my tomatoes have!).  The crust that forms on the surface of the soil is now your friend -- it will stymie a lot of the weeds that try to grow.  You'll have to pull the rest, though.

Once the plants are big enough not to be lost in it, you can replace your mulch.  That will do several things: it will keep moisture in the soil in hot weather; it will keep the soil from washing away and compacting in dry weather; it will add organic matter to the soil (which, in a suburban lot, you desperately need); and it will block all but the toughest weeds from coming up.  Keep that mulch on there, and add more if you have it!  Every time I mow, I throw the clippings on the garden.

After that, there's not much to say.  If I don't get a good rainstorm every week, I call it a drought and start watering.  You want to really soak the garden when you do water, so that the water actually penetrates.  Five minutes of sprinkling ain't gonna cut it.  I move the hose from bed to bed as each starts looking really flooded and puddly.  And then if I've gone through them all and the first one's puddles have dried up, I do them again.  Even so I never seem to water as well as the rain does, so I might need to water every day or two until we get rain again.

Stake the tomatoes, because the storms will rip them right up if you don't.  You might want to hill the soil around their stems too, especially when a storm is predicted.  Your bean trellises had better be sturdy.  I've had lots of things break.

Expect the growing season to go clear through October.  Around Halloween we get the frost that kills my tomatoes.  When it's predicted, you go through and pick all the green tomatoes to ripen inside, because if you leave them out, they'll be ruined.  (Or drape the plants with old sheets -- that sometimes works!  I actually had plants survive under snow if they were mulched.)  The hardy plants will keep going right through November -- I had broccoli still alive (though not really producing) till Christmas.  One year, lettuce that was up against the house lived all winter long.  But lettuce does not survive well here in summer, even the supposedly heat-tolerant kinds.  If you have a way to shade yours, you might have better luck.

My big successes here in Virginia are tomatoes, squash, and beans.  My big failures are peas ... they like cool spring weather, which we rarely have much of before it gets hot.  I keep trying, though, because I love them.  Bugs can be a real menace some summers.  All you can do is study up on common pests and pick them off.  I've suffered from Mexican bean beetles, squash borers, squash bugs, and cabbage moths.  But it really depends on the year.  I'm hoping for a mild bug year because our winter was so cold.

Does anyone else here garden in Virginia?  For those who garden elsewhere, is it very different?

Friday, April 11, 2014

7 quick takes, for real this time


Second trimester is really not bad.  First is full of sick whining, and third is full of feeling-like-a-whale whining, but second is being noticeably but not ridiculously big in the gut, having energy, and occasional twitches from the baby that aren't roundhouse kicks yet.

My back is still holding up okay, though I've thrown it out a bit a few times.  My stomach, though .... it's being weird.  I have had hardly any appetite since I got pregnant, which is weird because I'm trying to grow a whole new person while also nursing the one I already had.  Of course, it's hard to listen to your appetite when the kids are demanding "make yourself a giant sandwich so we can have bites!" and then taking two bites and leaving the rest to you.  So I am eating about what I always have.  I worry what it's going to do to me to always be eating like the human garbage disposal I have always been when suddenly I don't feel like eating.

Then just this week I have felt kind of lousy the whole time, and thrown up twice.  I blame Marko's birthday cake.  Even when I ate only a tiny bit, I felt like I'd been swilling battery acid.  And it was a good homemade cake!  So, either I'm developing a chocolate allergy, or SOMEthing, but you know it's bad when I willingly pass up cake.  Not worth the risk of seeing it again.  I'm also trying to be more conscious about how my stomach feels and not throw anything else down if it already feels iffy.


That reminds me to tell you about Marko's birthday!  It was Monday and now he is FOUR, can you believe that?  Four is a Big Kid!  No way is Marko a Big Kid!

Oh, sure, he's got no shortage of long arms and legs and certainly doesn't look like a baby anymore.  But just try telling him to put his clothes on, or his shoes on, or go to the potty all by himself.  He melts into a puddle of infantile helplessness.  My goal for him at three was to dress himself ... and he has not made one single step in that direction.

This never happens: Michael was napping (already not the norm anymore), then Marko and I passed out together on the couch, along with the cat.  The cat liked the snuggles a lot less when I subtracted myself from the pile, but she actually did stay there till he woke up!

I asked around and found lots of people who said their kids were like that too at four.  Perfectly capable (as I know Marko is) but just want to be helped.  So, whatever.  It's infuriating to do things for a kid who can do them himself, but it's not terribly much work. 

I also sort of hoped he could be helping me cook or clean by this age.  And it seems he could.  But he is the world's worst direction-follower, so while I'm saying "now we stir until it's all mixed together," he is grabbing more eggs and throwing them in the bowl.  I ought to stick with it, but BOY is it more work than doing it by myself!  It's like trying to bake a cake while also herding six cats.  And that's if Michael is napping and not trying to climb up the stool and grab everything off the counter.


Oh, I should talk about Michael!  He has hit that delightful stage of mayhem-causing, which I mind less because it's following a stage of weepy clingyness.  I feel proud of his independence, even if its main expressions are throwing my keys into the bowels of the couch, emptying a container of baking powder on the floor (which Marko had given him, natch), eating candles, pulling off computer keys, filling up vessels of water at the bathroom sink and then dumping them dramatically in the middle of the living room ..... ad infinitum.  He doesn't slow down.

Take this dialogue from the other day, after he had filled a container in the dirt pile (yeah, we have a dirt pile) and emptied it carefully into the plastic bag full of llama fiber I was spinning:

"You -- you -- how could you --- you're so -- TWO!"

"I'm My-co."

He's trouble, that's what he is.  Thank goodness he's so cute.


John is working incredibly hard at his new job.  He comes home with a half-hour long run-down of all he did ... moved boxes of books from one building to another building, cleaned up messes that had been there since 2006 (that's how long they've been waiting to get a librarian!), taken over a job that "needed to get done" that no one's been doing for months.  I say, "Oh, poor you, having to work so hard."  And he's like, "No way, this is awesome!"

Hard workers are very weird to me.  It's not in my blood.


Spring is here at last -- took its sweet time getting here, didn't it?  I would love to compare this year's with last year's, but apparently last year I wasn't very good about updating my line-a-day journal.  I did work out that the last snowfall last year was March 18th, compared to this year's March 30th.  I was having migraines last year at this time "for no reason," but I am having them again now and I think it's because of the constantly changing weather.

My plum tree is blooming at last, but it has way fewer blossoms than previous years .... so perhaps for once we will not get a bumper crop.  It must have been harmed by some of the late freezes and snows.

Yesterday, though, was the first actual short-sleeve, windows-open day, and I loved it.  I just soaked it in.  I have been cold way too long.


I'm about a week ahead on gardening compared to last year, despite it being colder, because last year I was awfully behind.  I have planted peas, lettuce, spinach, beets, and chard, and at least some of each of these appears to be coming up.  I need to plant carrots, but first I have to get more seeds.  (That holds me up every year!  I need to check over my seed supply in January instead of waiting till it's planting day to find out what I haven't got.)

Yesterday I transplanted broccoli and cabbage .... mixed, because I forgot which were which and they look alike at this stage.  They are really too little to be transplanted, but I have so little sun in the house I'd be waiting another month if I waited till they were really ready -- especially since I lost a week by letting the seeds dry out and having to start over.  And so far almost all of them are still alive!

One of the biggest thrills of spring is pulling aside the mulch from winter (mostly just old leaves) and finding how soft and crumbly the soil is.  Soil left bare all winter turns into brick, or else gets covered by weeds, but mulched soil is worm heaven.  I don't dig or rake it at all -- just poke in holes for seeds, or even just sprinkle them right on top and press them in a little.  Seems to work.  Our heavy clay soil will brick the seeds right in if I put them too deep.


Seraphic coincidentally (unless she reads my blog, but I don't think she does regularly) talked about God not being masculine after all, and I loved her post.  Since she has a theology degree and everything, and is more traditional and less feminist than me, I think she's a trustworthy source!  In short, she says calling God "Father" is really only by analogy.  The only person of the Trinity with a gender is the Son, and only because he was made man.  This is oddly reassuring to me.

More of the same at Conversion Diary.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Being Mary

My conversation in the comments some posts back with Enbrethiliel and others has got me wanting to write a book.  I don't know what I would call it.  It would be something about how mothers can't just be Martha all the time, how we also have to be Mary -- in short, how love doesn't mean working yourself to death.

But in the interests of fulfilling all my Martha-duties (ugh, dishes) and all my Mary-duties (like snuggles for the kids), I don't have a whole lot of time for book-writing and I've got at least three on the queue to write already!  So instead of writing a book just now, I'm going to throw out a couple thoughts and maybe come back to elaborate later.

When I wrote about mother-guilt, I was talking about a truth that seems to absorb women everywhere, and not just mothers: when we love greatly, and when the needs are infinite, we run the risk of emptying our entire self into the infinite gulf .... and still feeling guilty because there isn't more of us to go into it.

I don't know the solution for nuns, women in careers, and so forth, but the solution for it for mothers is a complicated business.  I usually call it mother zen, but it's really a lot of different things.  I figure these rules could be the chapter headings of my hypothetical book.

First Part: the philosophy

#1  You are the emotional center of the family.  If you are the mother and you stay home, odds are everyone comes to you when they need something emotionally.  If you aren't careful, this is going to result in you feeling drained and resentful.  It's the worst when no one appreciates that giving emotional energy to them is actually work.  When a friend calls to tell you their woes, or your husband tries to hug you, sometimes you have the impulse to scream "Not another person with NEEDS!"  And they don't always see it as taking something from you .... they just want to be with you.  And yet that, too, feels like (and is) a service you do for them.

#2  A wellspring doesn't work unless it's fed.  If everyone is coming to the well with buckets, but there's never any rain, the whole thing will dry up.  If you're the emotional center of the family, you have to be refilled sometimes.  There are three things that can refill you: God, others, and yourself.  Don't think that any one or two of these are sufficient.

#3  There's a difference between selfishness and valid needs.  It is not selfish to advocate for your needs.  It's not a virtue to burn yourself out.  You are useless to anyone if you do that.

 #4  What your family needs is YOU, your talents, your interests, your vibrancy, your joy.  They do not need a faded, bitter simulacrum of you after you've sacrificed everything that made you come alive.

Part Two: the rules

#1  Find your bliss.  What recharges you?  What makes you feel happy, alive, most yourself, ready to give to others?  Don't let other people dictate what that is for you, or let yourself get talked into spa days or girls' days out if that's not it for you.  For some of us, it's getting out of the house; for others, it's getting some peace and quiet.  You might not be able, with all the demands on you, to have things exactly as you want, but what can you make a part of your life?  Is there a craft you can do with the kids around?  Can you take a peaceful moment to breathe and center yourself while the kids are playing outside?  Can you leave the dishes till morning so the evening can be your quiet time?  Do you have friends with kids who would like to form a weekly playgroup with you?  Prayer should be part of this, but it can't be all of it.  Even nuns have recreation!

#2  Be as gentle with yourself as you would with others.  You know you can't expect the best of your kids if they don't get enough sleep -- why do you imagine you will be able to handle it?  Do what you can to take care of your needs, readjusting the family's schedule if necessary, just as you would if you found one of your children had a true need.  And when that isn't possible, give yourself grace.  Don't expect to be able to have a spotless house when you just had a sleepless night.  Learn to apologize to your kids if you get grumpy.  You aren't perfect any more than they are, and it won't traumatize them to learn this.

#3  Learn to ask for and receive help.  Who was it that told us we would be failures if we ever needed help?  It's so easy to resent not receiving help, but never ask for it because that would imply we needed it, which would imply we are not handling everything on our own, which would imply we are failures.  Why not admit that we do need it, because households weren't meant to be run with zero help, and ask specifically for what we really need?  Some husbands aren't as good at service as others; but it is your duty to teach him, because you can't do it all on your own forever.  And seek out what support networks you can.  It is a crime that there is not more available for us; that it isn't just part of our culture to have lots of older ladies and young unmarried sisters and maiden aunts who can swoop in and help.  But sincerely ask yourself who could be helping, and then tell them specifically what you need.  It's hard to do, it's humbling, and you just have to do it.

#4  Monitor the energy that leaves your home.  Are you spending all your time on Facebook debates that leave you frustrated and drained?  (Guilty!)  Does your husband have a million voluntary activities evenings and weekends?  Do your kids have a zillion activities that leave no one any downtime?  Be ruthless in paring down these things.  You do have the right to tell child X that the family has no time for him to be in soccer this year.  You do have the right to tell your husband that you really need him on Saturdays and ask him to choose between his activities to make sure there is time for him to be home.  If the family is truly the most important thing, then other things have to be sacrificed so the family as a whole can prosper.  Don't make it always be your things.

#5  Cultivate peace in your home.  Plan moments when everyone is relaxed and quiet, when you can snuggle with the kids, listen to what's on their minds, watch how they interact.  Learn sometimes to set the tone for the family, and other times learn to be a passive listener and let them show you what they need and where they want to go.  Kids' problems can be big puzzles, especially when they're young and not very good at explaining.  It sometimes takes a lot of quiet watching, a lot of asking questions, and a lot of reflecting on your own before you understand what's going on with them.  Then once you know, the answer might be to spend time snuggling with or focusing on that child.  If your time is tightly scheduled from sunup to sundown, when will you be able to do that?  Leave things as loose as you can, with empty space for taking care of needs that arise, and be willing to shelve other projects you wanted to get done if your kids just need your quiet presence.  I'm a believer in schedules, but they have to be able to flex a little, or they aren't good schedules. 

#6  Prioritize.  Not everything urgent is important.  Some things are going to fall by the wayside, and there will always be someone ready to condemn you because you aren't making healthy food, or homeschooling, or volunteering the same priority as they do.  Some people seem to be doing it all -- guaranteed, they are skipping something, perhaps that very thing that you and your family couldn't get by without.  Those ultra-fit moms .... perhaps exercise fills their cup and drains yours!  You don't need an excuse not to accomplish everything they do.  It can help to write your priorities down somewhere: "Number one is that we all live in peace with one another and are kind and respectful.  Number two is that we are happy and emotionally fulfilled.  Number three is education.  Number four is keeping our bodies healthy.  Number five is social opportunities."  That can be useful to refer to when you need to decide that today is the day to have PBJ for dinner because your children desperately need attention and snuggles; or that you have to turn down that great co-op invitation because you already feel overwhelmed.

#7  Be tough.  Sometimes being a Mary actually takes some real backbone.  You have to stand up to critics, insist your husband pitch in, say no to things that don't work.  Sometimes your kids need a snuggly teddy bear .... other times they need a lioness who isn't afraid to say and do things that will cost her, if it's what the family needs.  Mothers don't have the luxury to be shrinking violets; our kids demand whole, strong women who can advocate for them.

I could go on, with each of these points, till I actually had a book!  But when I monitor the energy in our house, it does not have enough to spare for a book right now.  Someday, perhaps.  In the meantime, what else would you add?  How do you keep yourself from burning out?  What do your family's priorities look like?

Friday, April 4, 2014

7 quick meatless meals

Because I've decided to make non-take takes a Thing.

Fridays can be an issue for us.  I like to serve plain pan-cooked whiting because it is cheap and easy, but no one actually likes it except Michael.  The grownups eat it because it's not bad, and Marko gets bribed to eat a certain number of bites and then fills up on mashed potatoes.  So I'm really trying to move away from that.

However, without gluten to fall back on, we have to be creative.  Here are a few we like.  Warning: I don't do fancy.  None of these are Impressive.  All of them can be done in half an hour or less, though, so that's a perk.


Oyster Chowder

Aldi sells canned oysters quite cheap, but this would work fine with clams too.

Saute half an onion, or so, in butter.  Add flour and make roux out of the remaining butter.  (I've been using corn flour, which makes a roux just like wheat flour does -- but you can omit this step if you don't have a flour you can use.  You'll probably want less liquid.) 

Then chop up 3-4 potatoes and put those in.  I peel them for this soup, because I think the peels make it look dingy.  Also 1-2 carrots if you have them.  Add water, milk, and/or liquid from the can of oysters -- I usually do some of each, enough to barely cover the vegetables.  Simmer until everything is soft.  Add in the oysters and get them warm, and perhaps some frozen corn if you have and like it.  Throw in some chopped garlic or garlic powder.

Then you have a choice.  If you like it chunky and brothy, you can leave it the way it is.  Or you can mash with a potato masher to make it more chowdery, or take a wand blender to get it really smooth.  I go the potato masher route usually -- it breaks it up without making it homogeneous.

Then you season however you like.  I do salt, pepper, marjoram, thyme, and rosemary.  It's good garnished with sour cream.  This amount always gives us a little leftovers after feeding the four of us, but I don't care for the leftovers of it, so keep that in mind when scaling the recipe.



Mussels are the cheapest kind of shellfish, almost every time.  Aldi sells them frozen for quite a decent price.  You can just put them, fresh or frozen, in a pan with a little water and steam them till their shells open.  They're good with tomato sauce or garlic butter, served over rice or pasta.  The kids like pulling them out of the shells.  I have been intimidated by shellfish my whole life, but I actually like mussels.  Lobster is still a big No, but this rarely comes up in my life.


Tuna Noodle

This is what we call it.  I serve it for Friday lunches or when John's not there, but it can be made gluten-free with gf pasta and an alternate flour.

This is just mac 'n' cheese with tuna in it, but I'll tell you how I make it.

Cook the pasta.  While it's cooking you make the sauce.  Start with 3 T of butter and about 2 T of flour.  (Again, corn flour works well.)  Once it's all melted and mixed together, you pour in about a cup of milk.  Add the spices: garlic, salt, pepper, and mustard powder.  Don't skip the mustard powder -- a couple of good shakes.  Sometimes I like curry powder or chili powder in there too.

Bring the white sauce to a simmer while you grate the cheese.  I do cheddar, the sharper the better, about a quarter of a pound.  More is better, but this is true of cheese in almost every instance.  Throw it in as the white sauce starts to bubble, and stir it really well to make sure there are no floury lumps in there.  I also throw in 1/4 cup or so of pumpkin puree if I have it.  It makes the sauce nice and orange, and the kids never notice it.  Once the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth, I add two cans of tuna and a handful of frozen peas.  Then mix in the noodles and serve.  Some people like bread crumbs or more grated cheese on top.

For a totally different recipe, you can omit the cheese and tuna and increase the pumpkin to a cup or more.  Then season with sage and thyme instead of mustard powder.  I was surprised with how the kids wolfed it down.


Mock lasagna

Lasagna is a lot of work, right?  All those layers, and you end up chewing and swallowing it all.  So I like to make it all mixed together: tomato sauce, spinach, ricotta, and herbs for the sauce, then serve it over noodles, rice, eggplant, and/or mushrooms.  Each bowl gets a grating of mozzarella.  We love this.


Fried fish

Take a fish fillet of some kind you like -- cod, whiting, flounder, tilapia, whatever.  Make sure it's defrosted and heat maybe 1/8 inch of good oil in your pan.  You can saute okay in butter or olive oil, but for high heat it's better to use something with a higher smoke point, like peanut or coconut oil.  The USCCB says frying in meat fat is okay for Fridays, did you know that?  (They say stock is fine too.)  So I use what I have.

Dip each fillet in beaten egg and then roll it in cornmeal.  It's good to season the cornmeal with salt, pepper, paprika, even cayenne if that's how you roll.  Once the oil is good and hot, throw your fish in.  When the first side is brown, flip it over and do the other side.  It turns out tasty and crunchy.  Serve with oven fries and coleslaw, maybe?  You can easily make a decent tartar sauce, if you like it, by mixing mayo and sweet relish.  I can make both of those from scratch, but since I don't usually have both on hand, I just serve with ketchup.  Malt vinegar is traditional too.



Make enchilada sauce.  That's pretty much tomato sauce, tomato paste, chili powder, onions, garlic, all to taste.  A veggie puree would probably go totally unnoticed here.

Layer the sauce with corn tortillas and shredded cheddar cheese in a casserole dish, making sure no corn tortillas stick out over the sauce.  Cover the whole thing in cheddar cheese and bake for 20 minutes or so.


Salmon casserole

Brown some rice in butter in a pan, like you were going to make risotto.  When it starts to smell toasted, add the right amount of liquid (twice as much as the rice).  You can use water or milk, or vegetable stock if you happen to have it.  Let it simmer till the rice is cooked and the water is absorbed.  Then add a bit more liquid and stir while you start throwing more ingredients in: a can of salmon, with the bones removed or mashed up with a fork if it has them; sauteed onion; frozen vegetables of some kind (broccoli is good for this); garlic.  Stir until the rice is really soft and gooey and the liquid is absorbed again.  At this point you can mix in some sour cream if you have it to make it even creamier.  Then throw in some cheddar cheese and stir it in till it melts, and serve.

More quick takes at Conversion Diary.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Big news

Well, it's Facebook-official now, so I may as well make it blog-official too.

The next baby is on the way, due around the end of August.

I have had very mixed feelings this whole time, so that's part of why I haven't told you yet, even though I'll be 20 weeks on Sunday.

Was it planned?  That's the sort of question people expect an answer to, but there isn't one.  Certainly we knew it was a possibility.  Certainly we didn't do anything to stop that possibility from happening.  I usually answer "It seemed like a good idea at the time," which is true.  I thought, with Michael 18 months old, it was time to stop being so scared of having another baby.  I hadn't really processed that just because I should stop being scared, didn't mean I was going to stop feeling scared, just like that.

For a long time I just panicked.  Michael is not weaned.  He is not potty-trained.  He is not sleeping through the night.  I see no chance of getting any of these achieved in the next four months, except maybe potty training.  And yet I can't nurse TWO!  I can't wake up at night with TWO!  So what am I going to do?

I tried denial for awhile.  That worked until I started feeling sick.  Then I tried whining, which didn't help.  I felt guilty for robbing Michael of the spot of youngest child when he doesn't seem ready to leave it.  I felt guilty for not wanting a baby that already existed.  I felt guilty because so many of my friends have suffered losses and I never have, and it seems ungracious of me not to be over the moon that I have what they want to have.  There was an existential phase.  It doesn't help that pregnancy, three times out of three so far, makes me depressed for no reason.  I told a few people, they would congratulate me, and I would cry because I didn't think it was good news, and I felt like I was supposed to.

I worried myself sick about John's job and travel and our lack of money, until he got a new job and then I started worrying about whether or not I should wean Michael.  I woke up at night to nurse Michael, which hurts now, couldn't go back to sleep because I needed to go to the bathroom, and after I'd gone I would just lie awake staring at the ceiling, wondering how many minutes of sleep I could get before Michael woke up again, wondering what the heck I was going to do.

I've pretty much made up my mind not to wean Michael, because I think the guilt of doing it would be worse than nursing two.  I still feel guilty sometimes about Marko, even though he had 19 good months of nursing and didn't fuss about weaning.  He just had so many awful tantrums after that, lasting for HOURS, and I couldn't soothe him.  I wonder how those months would have been better if I'd had the option to nurse him.  And then after that he had a long anxious phase, and I wonder if that's the fault of not being nursed long enough, or if it's just his personality.

Michael is so much more attached to nursing.  He rarely goes more than a couple hours without it.  Even though there can't possibly be much there -- and he's finally eating and drinking to make up for that -- he insists on it when he's hurt, when he's tired, or just when he sees me.  I don't like how needy he is about it.  On the other hand, he's not really needy about anything else.  He's pretty happy and independent so long as he never gets put off of nursing for five minutes.  And I know from experience that you can't cure a child of clinginess by taking away what they're clinging to -- they will just demand other things, or just be miserable.

So I am trying to read up on tandem nursing, trying to make my peace with it.  It's hard to imagine I won't be constantly nursing one or another child, or both.  It sounds kind of awful to me.  But then again, some people have told me it reduces jealousy and the difficulty of adjusting to a new sibling, so maybe it will be for the best.  I am working also on helping Michael be okay with a brief delay, with knowing he will get to nurse eventually, even if it's not the moment he asks.

Night is another animal.  I am not okay with night waking for two.  I did it with Marko and Michael, and it was terrible.  Each child needed one adult's total attention to get back to sleep, and the times there were only one of us there, no one got much sleep at all.  The one thing that made it possible most of the time was that Marko didn't need me at night, John could take care of him.  That .... is not the case with Michael.  He wants to nurse at night too.  And that is something we are working on.  Sometimes John will try to handle a waking, and after a few tears he sometimes does get Michael back to sleep, but then Michael wakes up again half an hour later and wants the nursing he didn't get before.  I'm working on switching him to a sippy cup if he's thirsty at night, which I think he must be, and working on not nursing him all the way to sleep, but just nursing a few minutes and then rubbing his back. 

It's going okay.  He still wakes up 2-4 times a night, every night.  If he had his own room, we'd let him fuss a little before getting him, but he's either in with Marko or in with us.  If he's in with Marko, he wakes Marko up.  If he's in with us, he climbs right in bed and starts pulling my shirt up.

What else is there to do to prepare?  After quite a lot of delaying and denial, I found a midwife who seems to be excellent.  Michael loves her.  Marko ignores her and then cries when she leaves.  He also threw a massive fit over the doppler machine because it makes noise.  I'm afraid he is going to find this whole thing more traumatic than Michael does!  In any event, Michael says we should have another baby, and Marko says we never ever should.  All I could say was, "Well, we won't just yet!"  But the time is sneaking up on us!

I'm not planning on buying anything; we have all the stuff we need.  Most days I don't think about it a whole lot at all.  I've been pregnant enough before that it isn't that exciting, it's just something going on in the background of everything else.  I struggle not to be crabby with the kids, not to yell at them for behavior that is age-appropriate but just worries me because I don't know how I would handle three of them.

I remind myself that I didn't think I could ever handle two, and now it's a great deal easier than one was because they play with each other all day.  I remind myself that the two I have are getting older all the time.  I reassure myself that John isn't traveling anymore and will be here to help.  And I remember that even if the transition is every bit as hellish as it was when Michael was born, it won't last forever.

Meanwhile the pregnancy is going fine.  I was about as sick the first trimester as last time, certainly no worse.  I have been the most depressed of any pregnancy, despite trying all the cures people will tell me about, but I am beginning to feel better.  I guess the winter was making it worse, and it is so nice to be able to get out in the sun again.  And the really good news is that my back hasn't been bothering me at all.   I can still lift Michael, take walks, push the stroller.  The one thing that makes it flare up is kneeling down to garden; I don't know why.  But I can work around that.  Ditto for kneeling down to pick up toys or clean -- I can always squat instead.

So, there you have it, a heads-up to my loyal blog readers of what's coming up.  I won't be offended if you congratulate me, but I'll be happier if you send a story about how going from one child to two was sooooo hard but going from two to three was sooooo easy.  Everyone tells me the opposite and it makes me want to hide under a rock.  Or send prayers, hugs, good wishes, boxes of chocolate.  Whatever.  It's all good.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Good eatin's

Lately I've been on a foodie kick.  Translate that to, "I am actually bothering to make interesting food instead of just English muffins for breakfast, PBJ for lunch, and chicken with rice for dinner."

Here are a few of the delicious things I've made lately:

I have wanted to make sprouts for ages, and I heard it was really easy, but it takes an awfully long time for me to go from "want to" to "actually doing it."  I finally tried it with some lentils.

First off, yes, it's ridiculously easy.  You put the lentils in a jar.  Soak them for 12 hours.  Then drain and just rinse them morning and night till they're how you like them -- which takes about a day for little sprouts and a couple more days for long sprouts.  The longer they sprout, the less they taste like lentils and the more like .... hm.  Pea pods?  Raw broccoli?  Something fresh and green, anyway, and it's really hit the spot with my spring fever and, of course, nothing growing yet outside.

The first way I had them was as a salad: sprouts, cucumber, onion, olives, and a mustard dressing.  That was pretty tasty, and the kids kept stealing it.  I'd have added some cabbage shreds if I'd had any, but I was out of almost anything green.

Then I found that lentil sprouts are much better cooked.  Some people steam them, but I gave them a light saute and put them in a pita with kimchi.  That was pretty awesome too.  Soy sauce would have been a nice addition, but Aldi has not had any in a month.  *grumpy face*  I like Aldi's because it's made with just soy and not wheat, meaning John can have it too.

Buckwheat crepes (galettes)

I try to keep buckwheat flour around as an alternate for when I want to make something gluten-free.  In reality, its flavor and texture are so different from wheat that I mostly just use it to make soba noodles.  These are awesome; I just cook them right in chicken soup ... it makes a chicken noodle soup an order of magnitude better than the traditional kind.  Since soba noodles are dense and chewy, they don't fall apart in the soup; and they also give off starch as they cook which thickens the broth a bit.

But this time I went to the cuisine from a completely different place, Brittany, where buckwheat is a traditional staple.  I used this recipe to make crepes, but instead of stuffing them with greens and Gruyere, neither of which I had, I stuffed them with swiss cheese and sauerkraut and they were delightful.  Then for lunch I had them again with eggs, onions, and mushrooms.  I'm not sure which was better!  My philistine children had a couple with jam and then asked for PBJ ... le sigh.

Definitely want to try these again -- especially since buckwheat is so fantastically good for you.  Though I may try a more authentic recipe -- just buckwheat flour and water -- instead of the one I did, which added eggs to make them easier to make.  On the other hand, easy is pretty good, so.... we'll see.

Masa harina 

At Aldi, I got a bag of masa harina (traditionally-made corn flour) in the hopes of expanding my gluten-free repertoire.  I cannot describe how tired I am of rice and potatoes, night after night.  I think the kids are tired of them too, and that's why they keep not finishing their dinner.

The Maseca website has oodles of recipes.  On Tuesday night, I made tamale pie, which everyone devoured.  It was hard keeping back anything for John's lunch!  And it's really quite easy to make -- just my usual meat, tomatoes, and corn mix seasoned with cumin, plus a little corn batter baked on top.

Then on Wednesday I really knocked myself out and made gnocchi.  They were quite delicious and a good texture ..... though they took forever to make, and in the end I wished they tasted less like corn.  So I don't know if that's going to join the regular rotation.

I also made corn pancakes on Sunday morning, which were tasty, though I was wishing for maple syrup.  They were just like regular pancakes in texture, but that corn flavor is pretty distinctive. 

This morning, I made corn tortillas and then huevos rancheros out of them.  This was absolutely delicious, but the kids were impatient with how long it took to make them, then refused to eat them when they were done.  And then they ate mine.  KIDS!  I learned a trick for rolling out tortillas, which I've never had success with before: I folded my Silpat baking sheet in half and put the ball of dough in the middle.  Then it was easy enough to roll them out without sticking or cracking.  For lunch today, I'm going to fry up the rest of the tortillas I made for tostadas.

After that I think I might give corn a little break .... that's kind of a lot of corn!

I have it in my mind that on my dream farm, I'd like to grow an heirloom variety of corn and also buckwheat -- both grains that grow well where I live, and which are easy to harvest by hand.  So perhaps recipes like these might come in handy!

I've always felt that I couldn't eat interesting food because interesting food uses unusual, expensive ingredients.  More and more, I'm discovering that isn't so.  I might buy one new ingredient and get half a dozen new, delicious recipes, or even find new uses for things I've always had.  And there's a lot to be said for googling "what to do with _____" or "______ recipes" when you have something that you want to use, and no clue where to start.  That's how I found most of the recipes here.

Making new things is work, and it's a bit of a risk because the results might not taste good.  (I didn't even tell you about the dosas I made, because they really were not good at all.)  Or the rest of the family might turn up their noses at something you spent an hour making.  But when it does work, it's pretty exciting!  And I get to eat food that is not boring.  That's really what this is all about. 

Have you made anything exciting lately?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mystical theology of gender

I've already discussed pretty much everything infallibly defined by the Church about gender.  There isn't much -- in fact, the only things that separate the sexes is that men can be priests and women can't, and that each may only marry a spouse of the opposite sex.  And while there were isolated saints and catechisms which suggested women should always stay at home, that women were less rational, or that women were an inferior helpmeet of men, there are also writings not on the infallible level suggesting the opposite.

But what if we talk about some of the mystical and theological tradition of the Church about gender?  Is there anything we can learn here that could shed some light on what the nature of men and women is?

A recurring thread I've heard discussed in many places is the "mystical parallels" theory.  I don't know who came up with it; I've seen it in discussions on the theology of the body, but I haven't seen it in any of what I've read of the theology of the body itself.  Certainly a beginning of it is mentioned by St. Paul, when he compares a husband and wife to Christ and the Church.  In the past I've shied away from thinking this way, but I feel it's time to face it dead-on and see if I can come up with some answers.

It goes, more or less, like this.  God is masculine, and we can think of creation as feminine.  Christ is masculine, and we consider the Church to be feminine.  A priest is masculine (standing in for Christ), the congregation is feminine (a part of the Church).  And a husband, being male, is masculine, while the wife is feminine.

In each of these relationships, the masculine principle is the one who initiates, who begins a process of creation.  Then the feminine principle is the one who carries it out, who receives it within herself and brings it to reality.  This was what Milton was talking about when he said "Thou O Spirit ... from the first / Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread / Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss / And mad'st it pregnant."  It is always the masculine begetting something within the feminine, and the feminine gestating it and bringing it to birth.  Of course it's all metaphorical, except in the case of individual couples specifically when they are engaged in procreation.

In fact, it isn't even unique to Christianity.  There are many pagan religions that had the same concept: some kind of father god who was identified with the sun or sky, and a mother goddess associated with the earth.  In some cases, the male god is the dominant one, in some it's the goddess, and some focus on duality in a roughly equal sense.  In some cases the sexual metaphor was taken so far as to be carried out in a "sacred marriage" in which the priest and priestess would be publicly joined together; in others, regular people went and had sex in the fields to guarantee fertility for the coming year.

It doesn't bother me that this isn't at all new.  After all, if it's this deep of a reality within the universe, it's no wonder other people have had the same idea.  What interests me more is how the dominance of the male god corresponds usually with a male-dominant culture, whereas goddess-dominant religions often were matriarchal.

In Christianity, there is no doubt about which is dominant.  In all the spiritual applications of the metaphor, the masculine is greater than the feminine, even though this domination is always in a loving sort of way.

This brings up the question, how far are individual men and women supposed to fit into this metaphor?  Aside from procreation, there is no sense in which all relations between the sexes are characterized by male initiation and female receptiveness.  Some say there should be -- that even if it isn't going on in a hierarchical sense, of the man making decisions and the wife obeying, that there is some sense in which the man should be the initiator and the woman the responder.

Melinda Selmys said, when I asked her about it, that this is defining the metaphor much too narrowly, and that it is completely possible for a woman to be an initiator while being 100% feminine -- that femininity is a great deal more than can be described as simple receptiveness.  She might be right, but if so, the mystical parallel is not all that exact.  And that's all right, it doesn't have to be.  I know my husband is not entirely like Christ, nor am I a perfect image of the Church.

It's also not impossible to say that the spiritual realities of masculine initiator and feminine receiver might be enacted across gender lines in individual men and women.  There are times when a man might partake in the spiritual feminine, and a woman might take part in the spiritual masculine.

That's easily proven in the case of men.  Individual men are part of the feminine Church -- it's fair to say that their relationship with God is a submissive, responsive one.  In the Mass, the congregation might be symbolizing something spiritually feminine, but about half the members of the congregation are actually male.

I can't come up with any examples in the case of women, though.  The "feminine" congregation might be made up of partly men, but the masculine priesthood is exclusively male.  There is no room whatsoever for an individual woman to be enacting something spiritually masculine in this case.  Is there any case in which she could take part in what is spiritually masculine?  I can't think of one.

Complementarian Protestants have no problem with this, because they aren't thinking in terms of duality, but of hierarchy.  A man can be submissive with regard to God, but in authority with respect to his wife.  The woman is submissive to her husband, but in authority over her children.  But Catholicism, as I understand it, doesn't necessarily say this, because it isn't so much about authority at all.

At least, I don't think it should be.  But if the gender metaphor isn't about hierarchy, but duality, why is there an unevenness in so many places?  Why can men be in the place of the feminine Church, but women can never stand in for Christ?  Why is God masculine?

I was told, growing up, that one of the ways humans are in the image of God is that we exist in a community of love, just as the Trinity does.  And just as the love between the Father and the Son results in a new person, the Holy Spirit, the love between a husband and wife becomes a new person, the child.  But why then are all three persons of the Trinity generally considered to be masculine?  Is the feminine not really necessary or eternal?

This does not, in itself, make me unequal.  But it would make me feel much better as a woman to know that one of two things were the case: either that the feminine is equal in greatness with the masculine, or that I as an individual woman can have both a masculine and a feminine side and can act at different times in a masculine or a feminine way.  Otherwise I am forced to identify myself solely with something lesser, and I don't care for that.

You see why I've avoided this topic for such a long time.  I can't see how the mystical view of men and women is at all compatible with equality.  It seems if you follow the metaphor strictly, you will wind up saying women may never lead, women may never initiate, and that women's main place is only in nurturing areas.  True, the Church doesn't teach infallibly that this is so.  But I don't know how the Church's view of gender could develop any further than it has, without developing in a direction I don't much like.  What already has been said seems to place us on a course toward teaching women's inferiority -- a course we've been on since the rather sexist patristic and medieval writers.  The best the Church can do is refrain from teaching that sort of thing -- I don't see a way that it can teach the opposite without abandoning things we are already infallibly committed to, like the male-only priesthood or the book of Ephesians.  Meanwhile in practical terms, the voice of women isn't heard much simply because most Catholics are married, faithful married Catholics usually end up having lots of babies, and in most cases the women are all too busy being pregnant and nursing to contribute very much.

Am I missing something?  Or should I just be grateful I am not being forced into lifelong subjugation to a man, because being lesser in some vague metaphysical sense is -- especially in view of human history -- really not so bad?

Or is this just a metaphor stretched waytheheck beyond what St. Paul ever intended?
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