Learn Something New

My first skeins of mohair yarn, showing improvement from left to right.

Not long ago I learned to spin. I should have learned earlier, right after my angora goats were shorn the first time, but I looked at all that mohair and lost heart—it was too much for me to deal with. So I dropped it off at a commercial spinner.

A year later, the spinner still hadn’t spun my mohair and finally admitted they had no intention of ever getting to it, so I picked it back up and brought it home.

It was time to learn to spin.

At first I hated it. It was fiddly and frustrating. The resulting yarn, if you could even call it that, was thick and lumpy. I was set to give up on it.

But a friend who spins encouraged me to keep working on it—it’s always hard at first, she said, and that lumpy thick yarn is beautiful and artistic in its own right.

I took her advice, and kept at it. A hundred metres of thick lumpy yarn later, I suddenly found I was producing fairly consistent worsted-weight yarn. And I was enjoying it!

Learning something new is never easy. I know I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s worth repeating. We watch accomplished people at the task, and we think, “I’d like to do that.” Then we try, and our efforts are fumbling, the results uninspired. It takes determination (and often encouragement from others) to push through the initial discouragement and get to the point where you can enjoy the new skill.

I’ve tried to teach my kids that it’s worth pushing through that learning hump to gain a new skill. Sometimes I need reminding myself.

Healthy Cookies? No Thanks …

Seventeen years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, I tried very hard to do everything the pregnancy books said I should do. Exercise, diet, sleep … the pressure to be perfect so my baby turned out okay was something all mothers can relate to, I’m sure.

My biggest pre-pregnancy vices were coffee and sweets. Coffee was easy to forgo—the moment I got pregnant, it made me sick to even smell it.

Sweets were harder to give up. I vowed not to eat any sweets I hadn’t made myself. But that only encouraged me to do a lot of baking, so then I vowed not to bake anything. That make me miserable.

I decided to adapt my favourite recipes to make them ‘good for me’, so I could justify eating them. I started with a cookie recipe I loved that was already full of whole grains and nuts.

Following the advice for pregnant mums (which I’m sure is completely different these days), I eliminated the sugar, sweetening the cookies with fruit juice instead. I cut down the butter by half, removed the chocolate, and added more nuts.

The resulting cookies nauseated me.

I don’t think they were necessarily bad, but they were emotionally unsatisfying and difficult for my stomach—a bit wobbly already from pregnancy—to digest. I choked them down anyway.

I thought maybe if I tweaked the recipe a little bit …

The second batch made me feel sick, too.

For over a decade, I couldn’t even look at the recipe for those cookies (not even the original recipe, which I loved) without feeling a bit queasy.

I’ve recently rediscovered those cookies, and am happy to report I’ve recovered all my love for the original recipe.

This comes from Farm Journal’s Cookies. Don’t change a thing. Trust me.

Wheat/Oat Crisps

3/4 cup shortening (I use 190g butter)
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup water
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
3 cups quick-cooking rolled oats
2 Tbsp wheat germ
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1/4 cup chocolate chips (I actually increase this to 1/2 cup now)

Beat shortening and sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in egg, water and vanilla until creamy. Stir together flour, salt and baking soda. Stir flour mixture into creamed mixture and blend well. Add oats, wheat germ, coconut, nuts, and chocolate chips. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto lightly greased baking sheets. Bake at (180ºC) 350ºF for 12 – 15 minutes. Cool on a rack.

Love your Library

I’ve blogged in the past about how much I appreciate libraries, but it bears repeating. I can’t deny I prefer writing in my lovely office, but modern libraries are beautifully set up for those who need to work away from the office, with power points, standing desks, and quiet spaces. I’ve spent the past two days in the public library. My word count is down, compared to working at home, but I’ve enjoyed the people watching.

One of my key observations from the past two days is how the library is a safe space in the middle of the city. A fellow at the table next to me spent an hour working on a jigsaw puzzle while his computer and phone sat unattended and unobserved on the other side of the room. Parents of toddlers calmly browse the shelves while their little ones scamper around happily out of sight. Those same toddlers swagger through the library to visit their favourite books, posters, and egg chairs as though they’re in their own living room. When their parents eventually look up and find their children gone, they don’t panic, but casually stroll after them, stopping now and again to check out an interesting book on the way. After three o’clock, kids of all ages descend upon the library to read, hang out, and play games until their parents are able to pick them up. The implicit assumption is that everyone in the library is kind, helpful, and honest. I’m sure that’s not entirely true, but the expectation is so high, I think anyone who tried to behave in a socially unacceptable way would be instantly frog-marched out of the library by all the other visitors.

It’s good to have these spaces. It’s a reminder that we can create safe spaces, where strangers from all walks of life can mix and mingle over a shared love of books.

Gluten Culture

“I’m allergic to gluten-free.”

That’s my son’s line when people ask.

In part, it’s true; he’s allergic to buckwheat, which is often used in gluten-free products. But what he’s really saying is that gluten-containing foods are a staple at our house. Our diet and our family culture would break down without gluten.

It’s been a while since I blogged about a bread day, but they still happen. Every two or three weeks my husband fires up the bread oven and bakes two dozen loaves of bread. I follow with a couple of cakes, cookies, or whatever sweets I feel like baking. On the tail-end heat, my husband might throw in some bac-un or seitan—gluten-based meat substitutes.

Between the bi-weekly gluten fests, we make pastries, muffins, scones, crackers, and all manner of other gluten-containing food.

If we took gluten out of our diet, we’d lose a protein source and a suite of family activities.

And, yes, you can bake gluten-free bread, cakes and cookies.

But they’re not the same.

There is something fundamental, something visceral about the feel of gluten—under your hands as you knead bread, in your mouth as you chew it—something that is integral to my family’s enjoyment of food.

Yes, I think we’re all allergic to gluten-free.

Hiking Under the Influence of Parenthood

My daughter and I went hiking for two days this week, taking advantage of the school holidays to get out. On our first day, we summited Little Mount Peel. Several years ago the whole family hiked the same track, though not to the top. In those days, my husband and I pulled the kids along behind us. Encouraging them on, waiting for them while they took breaks.

These days, it’s the other way around. I determined we would go at my pace, not the 14 year-old rock climber’s pace. She pulled me up the mountain, stopping occasionally to let me catch up. (Where did she learn that bland, patient smile, calculated to hide her boredom?)

I wish I could be as oblivious as the children I used to pull up the mountain.

Though I hiked behind her, I was still out in front, assessing risk, calculating her need for food and rest, figuring hiking times and return times, keeping an eye on her warmth. I was still the worrier, still the responsible parent.

When the kids were young, I dreamed of the day they could keep up. Now I fear the kids’ ability to get into trouble has outstripped their ability to manage risk. Not surprising. That’s what teens do.

But now I dream of a day when I can simply hike, without worrying about anyone’s safety but my own. I will go at my own pace, stop when I am tired, sit on rocky outcrops for hours contemplating the patterns of ridge lines in the distance. Perhaps once again I will experience a place fully, and not through the fog of parental responsibility.

Home Fires Burning

Cat enjoying a good book by the fire.

I woke yesterday morning shivering under the summer quilt on the bed after a restless night listening to icy rain on the roof.

Time to switch to winter mode, I suppose.

I lit the first fire of the season.

It wasn’t long before the cat joined me by the fire. Then my daughter, then my husband, then my son…Nothing like a hearth to draw everyone together.

I think about the angst over today’s youth, separated from face-to-face interactions by their devices, and I think that perhaps what we all need are small, poorly insulated houses heated by inefficient wood burners. In a big, centrally heated house, it’s easy for everyone to retreat to their own rooms—shut the door, pull out the phone and troll the internet. But in our house, the only comfortable room in the winter is the 3×4 m living room. A teen who retreats to their room and shuts the door pretty quickly returns to warm up by the fire.

Yes, we may all sit here doing our own thing, but by gathering around the fire together, we share what we’re doing with each other. Someone might share a good line from the book they’re reading, or show a dumb cat video they thought was funny, or ask for help on a maths problem. Simply by virtue of proximity, we connect in other ways.

I will admit that on winter mornings, crawling out of a warm bed into the freezing air to light the fire, I dream of luxuries like heat pumps. And sometimes it would be really nice to have some space to myself, rather than do my knitting cheek-by-jowl with a teenager practicing a new juggling trick. But on the whole, I suspect the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. We humans are hardwired to sit around the fire talking to one another. Our ways of relating to one another, passing on wisdom and culture, and finding our place in a community evolved around the fire.

So, again this winter, I will keep the home fires burning.

Watermelons Rule

Nothing says summer like watermelon—a seasonal fruit that matures during the hottest days of the year, and doesn’t keep.

Watermelon is an unreliable crop here. Twelve years ago, when we first arrived, I was told watermelon doesn’t grow in Canterbury. I’ve planted it every year, regardless, because I can’t imagine a summer without it.

Some years we get nothing. The plants don’t grow at all, or they grow too slowly to produce mature fruit before the first frost, or they’re nailed by herbicide overspray. Some years we get a few smallish fruits that we savour as rare delicacies.

This year we are awash in watermelon. The fruits aren’t big—even the largest hasn’t reached the weight the seed catalogue says this variety should—but they’re the largest watermelons we’ve managed to grow here. And most importantly, they’re sweet, crisp and delicious. And there are lots of them!

As I sit on my office deck spitting seeds, I am reminded of the magical poem by John Tobias—Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity.

I wonder if my kids will remember this year of watermelon as Tobias wrote…

“…During that summer—
Which may never have been at all;
But which has become more real
Than the one that was—
Watermelons ruled…”