Tips for the Modern Homesteader

In case you didn’t know, in addition to what I write over here on Living on the Diagonal, I also blog for Mother Earth News Magazine. This week, I’ve decided to lead you to some of my most popular Mother Earth News posts.

I Blog for Mother Earth News-1

You can find my tips for repurposing common household items here.

To get ideas for planning a memorable picnic, click here.

If you want to discover some of the easiest vegetables to grow in your home garden, this is the place to go.

But if, like me, your ideas for your garden outpace the space you have available, you can see how I choose which crops NOT to grow.

I love the look of Love-Lies-Bleeding amaranth, but it isn’t a feasible garden crop.

AND . . . if, like me, your knees are getting cranky, you might be interested in knowing how the Gnome and I are learning new approaches when age and illness invade the

homestead.

One tip is to take a break from backbreaking garden chores and just revel in what you’ve created. Actually, that’s a healthy idea at any age.

I write on all sorts of topics for Mother. You can find more of my Mother Earth News posts here.

 

E-mail Subject Lines in a Pandemic Age

Has the subject matter of your e-mails changed as much as mine have? Here’s a fairly representative sampling of mine over the last few months, pretty  much in the order in which they arrived in my inbox by late May. Maybe it will bring a smile to your face in these strange times. 

smiling man looking at his phone leaning on concrete pillar

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Thirty-four days of pandemic
Rising to the challenge—together
We’re here to help local communities
While you’re home
Take their temperature from a safe distance

Freeze warning this weekend
Never again fear empty grocery shelves
Help support local restaurants
Our ongoing commitment to our community
Thermometers have just been upgraded

Checking back in with our valued customers
We are open
The right way to check for fever during the outbreak
Not-so-ordinary gift ideas
Scan for fever from a distance

Bring the birds home to roost
New and inspiring ways to experience joy
Thank you for supporting local
Monitor your health
This is hands-down the safest thermometer

Keeping you informed
The perfect solution to the perfect sleep
Build thirty pounds of muscle in six weeks
Purge your plastics
Thermometers available despite huge demand

Stores in your state open today
Much more than a pillow
How to be responsible during the pandemic
Remove all insects from your home
No touch, quick, very accurate body temperature

April was death; April was hope; April was cruel
The fastest way to detect a fever
We’re here for you
A heartfelt thanks to our customers
Thermometers have just been upgraded

More tips for learning, working, and connecting from home
Together we can make a difference
Want to practice self-care—we’ve got you
Updated airport guidelines
Infrared thermometers available this week

Bamboo toothbrushes
Red, white, and an extra 60% off
Doctors recommend that every household has an oximeter
Spring recipes for a fresh taste
Instant infrared thermometers are back

This is not about fear
The top indicator of illness: blood oxygen levels
Memorial Day sale starts today
I feel better already

Reopening daily screening at home for employees
Own the summer with hot grilling recipes
All-in-one health kit
Five steps to avoid financial crisis
Touchless soap dispenser 50% off
Check anyone’s fever from a distance

The nation is opening
You need this automatic soap dispenser
Keeping in touch
Cultivate your own herbal medicines
Public temperature screenings are coming soon

Getting clean air wherever you go
Monitor your health with this new Smartwatch
Airmoisturize can prevent illness
Laser thermometer for your medicine cabinet
New guidelines on fever screening

Low blood oxygen levels are a silent killer
Rapid shipping on thermometers
No-contact thermometers reduce transmission
We can send a thermometer to your door
Are you prepared for temperature checks?

woman wearing a face mask getting her temperature checkedPhoto by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Rhubarb–The Bright Taste of Spring!

(Slightly modified from original essay published May 1, 2017)

Rhubarb stalks can be green, red, or in between. Victoria (pictured here) has strong growth and yield habits and produces some of the sweetest stalks.

Maybe you’re already seeing ruby-red stalks of rhubarb in the produce section of your favorite grocery store. If so, you need to grab them up and rush home to make your favorite rhubarb dish—in my experience, stores stock the stalks for only a few short weeks in springtime.

For this reason, I used to think rhubarb’s season was short-lived, but if you grow it, you know the plant continues to grow all summer long. If you’re like me, you have more rhubarb than you know what to do with. Rhubarb pie is phenomenal, but really, how much of it can you eat? (Don’t answer that!) I hate to see any food source go to waste—especially one that’s so chock full of important vitamins and other nutrients. So I looked for more delicious ways to use rhubarb.

Making rhubarb syrup for soda (and other uses) is one quick, easy, and delicious way to use up a fair supply of your abundant crop. Yes, it’s sugary, but much better for you than that bottled high-fructose-corn-laden stuff that comes off the grocery shelf. It’s simple to make, too—just three ingredients.

I first discovered this recipe in John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist’s excellent Farmstead Chef. More than a cookbook, it’s about real food, sustainability, community. But it’s a darned good cookbook, too, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan recipes (and a few that aren’t) that take their cue from what’s in season, so if you grow your own or frequent your local farmers’ market, Farmstead Chef is going to be right up your alley.

Their recipes aren’t just tasty; they’re simple and sensible, too—you won’t have to go searching in specialty stores for ingredients you’d likely never use again for any of these recipes. Besides, Lisa and John are the coolest! You never know what they’re going to be up to next. I highly recommend this book (as well as their books on sustainability).

I’ve tweaked the instructions a tad to suit my tastes and food prep style.

Rhubarb Syrup and Soda

Put twelve cups of fresh, chopped rhubarb and 2 cups of water in a large nonreactive pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low. Cook until the rhubarb is soft and pulpy (approximately 20-30 minutes). Alternatively, you can cook on low in a slow cooker for a couple of hours.

Place a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and drain the juice into it. Use the back of a large spoon to press out as much liquid as you can without forcing the pulp through the sieve. (You’re done with the pulp now, so you can add it to your compost,okay?)

Return the liquid to the pot and place over very low heat. Add 3 cups of sugar, stirring constantly until it’s dissolved.

At this point you have rhubarb syrup, which you could use in any number of applications, but since this is a recipe for soda, we’ll stick to that plan for now.

Let syrup cool to room temperature. Now you have three choices. Refrigerate it or freeze* it for later use or enjoy it right this minute. Here’s how.

Lightly mix 1 part syrup to 2 parts unflavored seltzer water.** So, for a 12-oz. glass, 1/4 cup syrup and 1/2 cup seltzer. At this point, you’ll need to do a little taste-testing and, if needed, either add more syrup or seltzer to suit your taste buds. Be sure to make a note of your final proportions for future reference. Pour mixture into an an ice-filled glass (a 12 oz. glass is the perfect size) for some lovely, blush-pink bubbly. If you’re serving a crowd, you can mix up a bigger batch and serve immediately from a pitcher—you don’t want to lose the fizz factor.

* You can freeze your syrup in wide-mouth Mason jars. They’re freezer proof as long as you leave an inch or two of head space. I prefer using these white plastic lids rather than the two-piece contraptions that come with the jars. These days you can find the lids in most stores that carry canning supplies.

Frozen syrup–just add seltzer and ice for a refreshing summer drink.

Because of the sugar content, the mixture doesn’t freeze solid, so when you find yourself in a winter funk and need a pick-me-up, it’s easy to dish a few spoonfuls of this magical elixir into a glass and top it off with seltzer. Spring in a glass.

Cheers!

**I’ve also tried this with lemon-lime flavored seltzer, and really liked the extra flavor complexity.

It’s not all about sweet desserts and drinks with rhubarb. For more ways to use rhubarb, visit the Rhubarb Compendium or Rhubarb-Central.com.

But then again—rhubarb desserts are pretty special. Click here for my easy skillet rhubarb upside-down cake.

 

Finding Free Food in a Pandemic Age (or Eat Weeds!)

It doesn’t take long to gather a hundred or so dandelion flowers.

There’s a fair bit of talk these days about coming food shortages—or at least challenges finding what you’re looking for. It has convinced lots of people to try gardening for the first time. So many, in fact, that a number of seed companies have more work than they can handle and have put a temporary halt on orders.

But there’s another way to become more food self-sufficient. Eat what’s right under your nose. Or toes. And what better time to start foraging for your own food than these early days of spring. There is so much deliciousness out there just waiting for you. The flowers of early spring, both wild and domesticated, are plentiful, easy to identify, a simple and fun introduction to food foraging, and they add a much-needed touch of elegance to mealtime in these stay-at-home days.

Bonus: If you have school-aged children at home right now, a little foraging in your yard or neighborhood is not only a great diversion, but also a perfect opportunity for interdisciplinary and experiential learning: a walk on the wild side (physical education), plant identification (science); food preparation (math; home economics). It won’t even feel like learning. They’ll appreciate the adventure.

In my neck of the woods, violets and forsythia are in full flower right now. Dandelions, too—and they will be with us all the way through fall. If you think dandelions are just weeds, think again. Every part of the dandelion—except the sappy stem—is edible (petals for jelly, syrup, tea, fritters, and more; tender young leaves for salad or steamed greens; roots for vegetable side dish, tea, or wine). And who can’t find dandelions?!

Dandelion syrup is my favorite, and it tastes almost exactly like honey. Here’s a simple recipe: https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/264167/dandelion-syrup/ You can find a bunch of other recipes for the pervasive dandelion here: https://www.growforagecookferment.com/dandelion-recipes/

Years ago, the Gnome and I gathered lots of pretty little violet flowers from our back yard and turned them into the most exquisite, lavender-colored jelly. https://afarmgirlinthemaking.com/lilac-flower-jelly-a-delightful-floral-taste/ If your jelly doesn’t jell, no worries. You’ll have a delicate syrup to pour over vanilla ice cream or a simple cake. Yum!

Both the flowers and leaves of wild violets are edible.

Violet flowers can also dress up a salad; leaves can be added raw to a salad, as well—or steamed like spinach. By the way, the flowers of pansy and viola (Johnny Jump-Up) can add a colorful zing to your dinner salad, too—all edible, of course.

Then there are lilacs—try lilac sugar, lilac cake, a fizzy lilac mocktail: https://www.brit.co/lilac-recipes/

For other scrumptious ways to use lilacs, check out this site: https://practicalselfreliance.com/edible-lilacs/ (It’s not all about food, either.)

Did you know forsythia flowers are edible? Neither did I until just recently. It’s another way to create your own flavored syrup or homemade jelly. https://www.ediblewildfood.com/forsythia-syrup.aspx ;

https://homesteadlady.com/edible-flowers-forsythia-jelly/#wprm-recipe-container-12748

Magnolias are edible, too—both the creamy white flowers you see on Southern lawns and the delicate pinkish Japanese variety so prevalent in springtime. Try them in a cake. https://www.backyardforager.com/magnolia-blossom-cream-cake-recipe/ (By the way, this site is an excellent one to follow for all sorts of seasonal, easy-to-forage foods. Her book on backyard foraging is excellent, too.)

Magnolia blossoms taste slightly of citrus and spice. Use sparingly to adorn a salad. Or pickle them.

For a different take on magnolia blossoms, try pickling them. https://medium.com/invironment/pickled-magnolia-flowers-7c2aad06edf9

And yes, it’s another choice for syrup. https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/magnolia-syrup-recipe

Hosta shoots make a good asparagus alternative. Wild mustard and lamb’s quarters can cover the spring landscape and make excellent salad ingredients or steamed side dishes.

Clover flowers, purslane, chickweed, watercress, sorrel, nettle leaf, and plantain (all those weeds that are the bane of gardeners everywhere)  can be added to those violet and dandelion leaves for a perky spring salad with no trip to the grocery store needed.

Try the flowers of redbud trees, black locust (raw, fritters, stir-fry), and wisteria (flowers only—the rest of the plant is poisonous). Here’s a recipe with results too pretty to pass up https://www.wildedible.com/blog/wildflower-spring-rolls ,

In the electronic age, it’s never been so easy to find recipes for eating wild. But before you go on a hunt, be sure you know your stuff. Dandelions are easy. Some other plants are a bit more tricky; many have not-so-tasty (or healthy) lookalikes. A good field guide is essential if you’re unsure what’s what.

Four more caveats: (1) Be sure the plants you select are free from toxic chemicals, including car fumes (the shoulder of a road is no place to look for food). (2) Unless you have a permit, its’ a federal crime to pick plant parts from national parks, forests, and monuments. You’d hate to end up in a federal prison for picking flowers! (3) Harvest ethically—never take more than 1/3 of what you find. Leave some for the next forager. And most importantly, leave some for Nature. Bees need it. Birds need it. The plant needs it to continue to thrive. (4) Some of these links refer to home canning. If you try that, be sure to follow basic safety instructions from the US Department of Agriculture or your local or state extension service. (But you can always store your product in the refrigerator if you plan to eat it within a few days or weeks.)

Happy foraging. And happy eating.

Our Modern Homesteading Journey

I’m not sure how it started, or when. But I do recall that the Gnome and I were early, early disciples of Mother Earth News Magazine. We landed a first edition copy of the Whole Earth Catalog and thumbed its pages until they were ragged and yellowed. We briefly considered looking for an old farmhouse somewhere in eastern Nova Scotia and learning to grub a subsistence living from the land.

We’re still the proud owners of this 1975 Mother Earth News Almanac. It’s where we found the easy, rib-sticking recipe for potato-cheese soup–the perfect way to cap off a cold day working outdoors.

There was a time, prompted by finances as much as a back-to-the-land ethos, when we quite literally stalked wild asparagus (and wild cherries) in Louisville’s magnificent city parks. We dug day lily tubers from our back yard for food. We made jellies from the thousands of purple violets which had overtaken our lawn and from rampant patches of mint. More than once we attempted a vegetarian lifestyle. (In those days, vegetarianism was considered the true sign of a back-to-the-lander in some quarters.) We got into crafting and selling our wares—mostly weaving and macrame—at local and regional street fairs and festivals. My favorite was ‘barefoot’ sandals. Sound a little hippie? You bet!

The Gnome had always had a hankering to design and build a home with his bare hands. In our first years of marriage, he got a little—and I emphasize little—experience working on home remodeling and repair jobs with a high school shop teacher in summertime and on weekends, which made the itch that much stronger.

Time passed, life intervened, and homesteading on any level seemed an insurmountable pipe dream. But the longing for a more sustainable, self-sufficient way of living never left us. Almost twelve years in, we decided the time had come to take that giant leap. We found a few rocky, sloped acres in the mountains of western North Carolina—way out in the country; sold our Louisville house; packed up children, cats, and our most essential belongings; and headed east.

You can start here to read the nine-part series (it’s long but chock full of fun pictures) about those days living in a tent, clearing land, and self-building our forever home, so I’m going to fast forward—but not before sharing this photo of me putting up corner bracing on our entirely self-built post-and-beam home oh so many years ago.

Too soon,  we found our dream of living an old-fashioned homesteading life a little too big to handle. We both had to find full-time jobs just to pay off the loan on our land, not to mention building materials; the kids were growing up and into extracurricular activities with college in their futures; and more than ever, health insurance was a priority. Jobs turned into careers.

Round and round the circle went. Finally, we were able to retire. Only then were we able to dedicate ourselves to gardening, food preservation, rehabbing our home, drying clothes on the line, cooking and eating at home instead of on the go.

Along the way, the term ‘modern homesteading’ began to surface. As I learned more about it, I realized that’s what we were doing, what we’d been doing all along to one degree or another.

What is modern homesteading? In short, it is a way of finding your own path to a simpler, more self-reliant life. Modern homesteading allows a person to weave old-fashioned skills into modern life. To find what—for you—is the best of both worlds. By this definition, even city-slicker apartment dwellers can be homesteaders. Personal values, life circumstances, and individual demands make both the path and the destination unique for everyone and allow anyone who wants to give it a try.

Our path? We built our own house with our own hands. We’re definitely on the grid, but a chunk of our electricity comes from a community solar garden, and we have lots of south-facing windows for passive solar heat gain.

We compost and recycle. To the extent our skills and tools allow, we do our own maintenance and make our own repairs. We prefer giving and receiving simple gifts, homemade if possible. When the weather cooperates, we line dry our laundry.  For several years, we’ve grown and preserved enough vegetables to pretty much get us through the year. We even continue to forage a little.

Our typical grocery list during gardening season

We support and encourage wildlife. We prefer spending time outdoors to seeing a movie. We support local causes that matter to us personally.
Of course, we’d done some of these things all along, even in the midst of child-rearing and busy careers. Things like recycling, loving the earth, conserving electricity, making do. But now, we have a name for it. And these days we are even more conscious in our earth-friendly decision-making.

We’ve cobbled together a life that teaches us resilience. One that keeps us closer to the land even as we type on our computers, drive our gasoline-powered car, and use electric tools and appliances. We try to live with purpose, asking how little rather than how much is necessary for living the good life. We don’t feel the need for the newest, best, or most. To be sure, it hasn’t always been a smooth journey and we’ve had bouts of backpedaling. But it’s not about perfection. It’s about striving.

Overall, our lifestyle gives us vast satisfaction as well as the confidence that, should circumstances dictate, we might be competent at true self-sufficiency, at least for a while.
We have found our own middle ground. As time and circumstances change, so will our relationship with this lifestyle. Age and illness will have their impact. But we’ll continue to do the best we can to increase our self-reliance and walk gently on this good earth.

That’s what the modern homesteading journey means to us.

The journey is different for everyone, of course.  At its core modern homesteading relies on exercising any or all of what I’ve dubbed The Four Esses: sustainability, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, subsistence.

Do what you can. Do it the best way you can. Do it one baby step at a time. It all matters.

 

Resolutions, Habits, and Intention

I can’t remember the last time I made a New Year’s resolution. Certainly not after young adulthood.

Before that, making a long list of things I would change about myself as each new year rolled in was an act I never questioned. But then it came to me. Resolutions rarely accomplish anything—unless it’s to make you feel bad about yourself. If you were like me, you tended to think of resolutions in terms of negatives, things you’d been doing wrong or at least were not doing right.

I made resolutions the wrong way, too: broad generalizations which couldn’t be quantified and which, even if they could, were usually impossible to live up to. New Year’s resolutions were downright disheartening. They emanated from guilt and were generally doomed to create even more.

So, no New Year’s resolutions for me.

But as we rang in 2020, I realized that 2019 had taught me something immensely important. Not about resolutions, but habits. Resolutions are so often built around breaking bad ones. Hard to do. What about building good habits instead? Practically by accident, I developed several new habits—all good—in 2019. Along the way, I discovered good habits are as easy to form as bad ones.

I feel like a genius!

A couple of my habits have taken the form of lists. I began 2019 by listing EACH BOOK I COMPLETED, mostly out of curiosity. How much was I actually reading?. Before I knew it, recording my reading became second nature. Keeping a log of one’s reading material may be kind of neutral as habits go, but I count this list-keeping as a positive, if only because I stuck to it. But there is more to it. My list gives me information to feed on. It helps me remember what I’ve read and reminds me what I want to follow up on. It helps me clarify what I like and why I like it so I can make more informed reading choices in the future. It’s a reference point for issues to develop in my writing, philosophy, and more.

About midway through the year, I began a Moment of Joy (MOJ) journal. I’ll write more about that in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that what began as a whim became a habit, almost overnight—to someone who with a lifelong ineptitude when it comes to keeping any sort of diary or journal. My MOJ journal became something bigger. Unintentionally, it became a practice in intention.

I formed another intentional habit quite unintentionally when I read Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North. She wrote about a spiritual retreat where participants were instructed to chew each bite of food, even their breakfast porridge, thirty times. Was that even possible? I had to give it a try.

It felt a little silly at first, counting every time my teeth met. But as I learned it was possible to chew one type of food thirty times, I wanted to test another. And again, without realizing it, I had developed a new habit. I began to catch myself, just below my consciousness, counting. My mind was at work building an intention, slowly ticking off the chews: twenty-seven . . . twenty-eight . . . twenty-nine . . . thirty. And sometimes up to forty or more. I was no longer chewing for the counting. Counting became a means—a pleasant way to be more intentional about the process of eating.

Not only can thirty chews per bite be done (usually); it has tremendous emotional and physical benefits. I stopped choking on food, something that happens far too often, usually because I’m in a hurry or talking or trying to multitask as I eat. Other digestive problems began to lessen or disappear altogether. I found myself more tranquil, more aware of my surroundings. It turns out that chewing each bite thirty or so times is intensely calming and refreshing. What I took on as a one-time challenge became another intention, one with far-reaching results.

Well, the new year is here and I’ve begun yet another project. This gal never before succeeded in developing a journaling habit just gave herself a five-year, line-a-day journal. It’s really more like four or five lines a day. Three hundred and sixty-seven pages, each with space for five years’ worth of notes for every date on the calendar. I’m hopeful that the constraints of this journal will help me stay on track, especially since I’m incorporating my MOJs into each day’s notekeeping. In 2025 I can, at a mere glance, look back on five years’ worth of entries for any given date for the last half decade. I think the comparison will be fascinating.

Now that I think about it, it’s a huge statement of optimism for a septuagenarian to purchase a blank book in anticipation of adding to it for 1800 days. That’s a pretty hopeful intention itself.

I’ve even started a weather diary–another five-year project.

What I learned during the past year has changed me. I’m learning to think more intentionally about lots of things—to BE more intentional. That will surely lead to more good habits, easy to keep.

Who needs resolutions?

Fifty-Two Books in Fifty-Two Weeks

That’s right. I wanted to see if I could read as fast as my mom seems to, so as we rang in 2019, I began keeping a list. And I just counted them up. Fifty-two. I don’t mind telling you, I was a little impressed with myself (especially considering I was consumed with writing my own book throughout the entire year). Admittedly, some were children’s books—quick, easy reads. But I made up for that with some massive, heavy-duty tomes.

For the record, I don’t waste my time with bad writing. But my reading habits are a little out of the ordinary, so who knows if anyone else shares my eclectic reading preferences. I rarely read a best-seller, nor do I read hot-off-the-presses books. Those two facts alone mean I’m not your typical reader.

At bedtime, I read for fun—light stuff so I can sleep. I often read books recommended by writer friends whose tastes I trust. And I’ve read quite a few books as research for my writing—or others that the research led me to as I became obsessed with a particular area. This year I’ve also read several deeper books, volumes by wise women and men who write words that inspire and push me.

Here are my favorites of the year—the best of the best.

FICTION

Don’t you just love this cover?

My favorite fiction book of the year, for all kinds of reasons, was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.: iI’s about Kentucky, a state I think of as my second home; it’s about the magic of books; it’s a history and civics lesson about pack horse librarians, the Great Depression, and the blue-skinned people of Kentucky. Kim Michele Richardson, whose own story is compelling, dug deep in penning this book. She moves from fiction to fact and back again with such deftness you never notice the switch. And her love for her subject shines through every word. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Hint: check out the pictures and information at the end of the book before you dig in to the story. I think it makes a difference to know a little about the actual history of the pack horse librarians. Rather than ruining the story for the reader, I believe this foreknowledge can only enhance your reading. Buy it or check it out from your local library—and if they don’t have it, ask them to order it. In spite of some hard truths, the story and Richardson’s telling of it are simply beautiful.

Two other favorite fiction reads of the year were Sonja Yoerg’s True Places and Bren McClain’s One Good Mama Bone (That one was a recommendation from Richardson—an excellent recommendation.) What I liked about both of these books is that the characters are believable and the reader learns from them. Yoerg’s career as a biological psychologist definitely influences her insight into the human condition. Like Richardson, she researched the Blue Ridge flora and fauna and incorporated facts with such skill you don’t notice it. While McClain’s protagonist is human, you will become deeply attached to the cow, Mama Red. In the end, McClain has written a love story to Mama Red. It’s well worth the read.

I couldn’t make myself read Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s breakout debut novel. But I was drawn to Thirteen Moons when I read that it was a fictional account of William Holland Thomas’s life. Thomas plays a minor role in my family’s genealogy. For reasons unknown, my great-grandfather was named for him And I recently discovered that Thomas married a distant relative—my second cousin three times removed. Those two facts were all it took to hook me. This book is decidedly not everyone’s cup of tea, but I was captivated. The story is episodic, almost diary-like. And there’s a reason for that. Frazier wrote that his protagonist, Will Cooper, is not Thomas, but that they share the same DNA. I’ll say. Frazier clearly read his way through Thomas’s prolific papers. There is definitely fiction here, but underlying it is far more biography and history. If you contemplate reading this book, be sure you read about the real Will first—his fascinating story as an orphan, lawyer, chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and colonel in the Civil War is larger than life, both heroic and tragic. Knowing it will deepen your appreciation for Frazier’s story.

FOOD

I read three books on the subject of food, though they come from distinctly different points of view. I would never had given Tommy Tomlinson’s The Elephant in the Room a thought except that I saw and heard the author on two occasions. I could tell his writing would be superb and bewitching, regardless of the subject per the subtitle: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America. With that bit of knowledge, you may have deduced the double meaning in the title. This book is brutally honest, funny, painful, and masterfully written. It’s worth the reader’s time regardless of your relationship to food, but especially worthwhile for anyone struggling with any kind of addiction or anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of that struggle. You might recognize Tomlinson’s name from ESPN, The Charlotte Observer, or WFAE Radio. No wonder he’s such a good writer.

Shawna Coronado’s Stacked With Flavor is both a cookbook and a guide to wellness, full of gleanings from her own experience and personal growth living with severe food allergies and osteoporosis. The recipes, though, are not just anti-inflammatory, dairy-free, grain-free and low-sugar, though they are all of these things. Her method—using herbs and spices to stack flavors—makes every dish endlessly versatile and delicious. That’s what caught my attention, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. Coronado did her own photography and it’s delicious, too.

Georgann Eubanks may be best known for her North Carolina Literary Trails series, but she’s branched out. The Month of Their Ripening takes the reader through a calendar year of foods that, while not necessarily unique to North Carolina, are among the state’s heritage foods. She features foods whose seasons are short and which are best eaten at the height of their season. Your mouth will water at Eubanks’s delicious writing as she travels through the state’s nooks and crannies in search of Tar Heel foodways via interviews with farmers, cooks, historians, and—best of all—taste tests.

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

I came to That Book Woman after reading Richardson’s tale. Both it and Ernestine’s Milky Way tell stories of rural life with stunning illustrations. I had to have them both to share with the grandkids. Both books are magical. With Ernestine, you’ll even learn how to make butter.

Rabbit Hill is an oldie, written in 1944. It’s worth reading just to see how children’s books have evolved. This one, full of sophisticated grown-up words, was clearly meant as a book to be read to children by adults who would use the story to teach vocabulary. It’s a lovely story that any animal lover has to appreciate.

Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum was not written by the famous author, but uses a newly discovered manuscript and sketches by Seuss to create a playful art book for children and features a few classic Seuss characters to help tell the story. If you love Dr. Seuss, horses, or art, you’ll fall for this unique book. A terrific way to help children learn about great art.

POETRY

I’m not even going to try. Native Kentuckian Frank X. Walker’s small volume, Affrilachia, must be read and savored, one morsel at a time. Even if you’re not big into poetry, you can appreciate this one. Walker says he coined the word Affrilachia to make visible the black experience in the Appalachian South. And he succeeded

MEMOIR

If you value excellent writing, I believe you’ll love anything you read by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg. I happened upon him quite by accident and have now read three of his books. I found Ava’s Man particularly compelling. He writes as only a Southern writer can and your jaw will drop at the sheer poetry of it. His books will make you laugh as hard as they will make you cry. And you’ll learn a few heart-breaking truths along the way.

Also see Leigh Ann Henion and Kate Bowler in the following category.

PERSONAL AND SPIRITUAL GROWTH/AGING

Not necessarily religious, these books are intellectually spiritual, some of them particularly relevant for those of us who now qualify as elders. Each one is intimate, honest, thought-provoking, vulnerable, and filled with deeply perceptive perspectives.

I’m way over my self-imposed word limit, so I’m just going to list them here with links. Sorry to give them short shrift, but perhaps it is enough to say I found each one enlightening. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say they were all seriously life-changing for me.

Leigh Ann Henion, Phenomenal (beguiling imagery; hauntingly beautiful)

Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything

Mary Pipher, Women Rowing North

Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved

Happy Reading in 2020! (And I’d love to hear about some of your favorite books.)

Note: For simplicity and universality, I’ve linked to online sources. But may I gently encourage you to seek out your local independent bookseller (if you should be so lucky as to have one) or your public library if you’re interested in reading any of these books.

P.S.: I’m laughing at myself right now. Just counted up and realize I’ve included a whopping 30% (almost) of my year’s reading list as the best. I’d never succeed as judge of a writing contest. Told you I read nothing but the best!

 

Thanks Giving

“What is the best moment of your day?” she asked.

That turned out to be a question I couldn’t answer directly. Let me put it this way.

The best moment of my day is . . .

when a sun’s ray beams onto my face, wakes me, and bird songs welcome the day;

when I eat a breakfast of eggs from the happy chickens who live just down the road;

when the cacophonous chatter of crows having their morning “coffee klatch” interrupts the still of my morning;

when I sip a cup of honeyed herbal tea as my mind loosely organizes my day;

when I check on the latest thing to pop up in the vegetable garden on a sunny summer morning—or later in the season, when I harvest what I’ll eat that day and preserve more for chilly winter nights;

when the comfort of a snuggle under the covers overtakes me upon waking in the morning and again as I fall asleep each night;

when a few hours of dedicated writing time come my way;

The best part of my day is . . .

when the all-day antics of squirrels and chipmunks capture my attention as they battle each other’s wits over food intended for birds;

when I take a twilight summer stroll listening to the quiet, watching the synchronicity of fireflies light up our woods, and catching whiffs of honeysuckle;

when I gaze at the star-studded sky on a clear, crisp wintry night and maybe catch a meteor streaking through the atmosphere;

when I spy mountaintops peeking through a sea of clouds;

when the nighttime call of an owl seeps into my consciousness;

when the early springtime sounds of wood frogs and peepers shatter the otherwise quiet of my bedroom—all night long;

when I’m graced with the giggles and confidences of grandchildren;

when the season’s first wild daisy shows itself in our meadow.

The best—and sweetest—moment of my day is a spontaneous embrace anywhere, anytime as my sweetheart and I sway ever so slightly—the way young lovers move to a slow dance at the prom—for no particular reason and for minutes on end.

With all these best moments, I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn: “How can I keep from singing?”

And I give thanks.

 

 

Everyone Knows Someone

(If you’ve been reading my blog recently, you know why this issue is ever-present in my mind.)

I read this comment the other day: “Everyone knows someone who has had cancer.” Someone? As in one? Off the top of my head, I can name ninety people I’ve known personally who have had a cancer diagnosis. Ninety! Not ninety people I’ve heard of. Not celebrities or friends of friends. Ninety people whose hands have touched mine. People I love—family and friends, work colleagues, teachers, childhood play pals or schoolmates, and a few more distant acquaintances.

If I try making a list tomorrow, it will be different. I’ll remember new folks and inadvertently overlook some on today’s list. But today’s list looks like this: breast, 34 (!); prostate, 11; blood, 5; brain, 5; colon, 4; lung, 4, skin, 4; tongue, 2; cervical, 1; and others—those diseases whose names I don’t know or are too complicated to spell out here, 20. (btw, 34 related to me, 17 of them by blood)

And those are just the people I happen to know about (and that my brain recalls). There are friends and relatives I’ve lost contact with. I don’t know their stories. And some people are more private about personal issues. My best friend might have cancer and decided not to share, at least not yet.

Is this—ninety—is this normal? Seventeen blood kin? Is that the way it looks for others? Or am I the only one in touch with so many whose lives have been hijacked by this awful disease?

Now, I know cancer is an inclusive term for more than a hundred so-called different diseases, but they are a family, all identified by abnormal cell growth that spreads and crowds out healthy cells and interferes with necessary body functions and steals nutrients from tissues.

Cancer is a cruel disease, mean, vicious, painful. One whose treatments can be as bad or worse than the disease itself. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how old or young, what gifts you have for the world—cancer doesn’t care.

At least some people with cancer have found unexpected gifts along the way. Some of us know how to do that—to find some good, to learn something valuable, to grow, even in the most difficult of circumstances. But that doesn’t negate the atrocity of the disease itself.

For forty percent of the people on my list, cancer, or complications thereof, was their cause of death—mind you, some of those deaths are from as far back as the 1950s when early detection and advanced treatment technologies we have today simply didn’t exist. Others have almost sailed through treatment and are, at least at the moment, cancer-free. For still others, an uncertain prognosis hangs over them like the sword of Damocles. That sword actually hangs over everyone who has received a cancer diagnosis, whether they’ve been declared ‘cured’ or not, because those potentially deadly cells can hang around, unseen, for years. Every next check-up is a question mark.

People live with that question mark or that sword in different ways, but are rarely, if ever, unaware of it.

The same is true for those who love them.

Three Little Words

(I wrote the following a little more than two years ago, knowing it wasn’t yet time to post it. Now the time has come. It may be a little disjointed since it was more or less stream of consciousness. I thought it better to leave it as it was, only adding an update.)

Three little words. Thirteen letters. Words that will dramatically change your life.

You hope not to hear them. But you have that feeling in your gut. You wait for them.

He has your fate in his hands. Why is he keeping you waiting? Doesn’t he know you’re anxious?

Finally, you hear the light tap on the door before it opens and he walks in.

And there they are. Those three little words. Laid bare.

“You have cancer.”

You’re different now.

Except that you aren’t. The truth was already there. The cancer was already there. You are the same today as you were yesterday. Your fate wasn’t in the doctor’s hands. What he said didn’t change a single fact. It just changed what you know.

Today you know a thing you didn’t know yesterday, or even a moment ago. You suspected it. Maybe you feared it. But you didn’t know it. Yet, it was there.

You have cancer.

You had it yesterday.

You had it last week.

Nothing is different today except that you know it. And you’ll know it tomorrow. And the day after that. And the next day. Forever.

If you hadn’t made that appointment, you wouldn’t know it today, either. But you’d still have it. Nothing can change that truth.

* * * * *

For the few weeks we were waiting for the biopsy and then the results, we made a conscious decision: we weren’t going to worry about it. It either was or wasn’t. Nothing we could do, say, think, or get worked up about would change a thing. We could hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but nothing would change what was. We went on about our daily lives.

And now we know. The question now is what to do about it. Here’s what.

Get informed. Listen to the doc. Take notes; review them. Ask questions. Read the literature. Research.
Get a second opinion or consultation, if we want. (We didn’t. It was pretty straightforward.)
Make a treatment decision.
Tell the family.
Make plans.
Do what it takes: schedule surgery, get radiation, take meds—whatever the regimen is.

But most of all, meanwhile and forever, live life.

You can’t change what is, but you can decide to continue doing what matters. You can make the best of what you have. Cancer may change you. It may not. It may shorten your life or it may not. So may or may not any number of other things. With or without a cancer diagnosis, your decision should be the same: live whatever life you have the best you can. On your own terms.

I’ve heard it said everyone will get cancer if they live long enough. Some people get it sooner, but eventually, if something else doesn’t do you in first, it will be cancer. It is part of life itself. At a certain point, your body starts to turn on you. Metabolism slows. Bones get brittle. Joints creak. Age spots and wrinkles appear. Hair thins. Minds become less elastic, less quick. And maybe your cells get all out of whack. It is all part of the end. The end starts at the beginning.

We won’t forget those three words, those thirteen letters. Certainly not that one, loaded, six letter word. We’ll do what it takes. But we won’t stop living. Tonight we’ll sleep snuggled together (maybe a little closer). Tomorrow we’ll get up, dress, make and eat breakfast, check e-mail, harvest vegetables, mow the grass. We’ll plan our upcoming trip. We’ll laugh.

Cancer is now a part of us. But cancer will not define us. Cancer will not control us.

P.S. The cancer diagnosis was not for my body. It was for his. But it somehow feels the same. At least for me. He agrees, but there’s surely a difference when it’s actually your body. Nonetheless, from the first moment we heard the three word pronouncement, both of us have thought in terms of “we.” The surgery, the treatment, the decisions, the life we lead—they’re ours together. And we aim to make the best of it.

Update: The diagnosis was prostate cancer. For eighteen months after the surgery, there was no evidence any cancer cells remained. Then, just like that, it was back. (If you’re so inclined, you can read Ron’s version of this story and journey here and here.)

The very good news is there is no indication that it has spread beyond the prostate bed, and a combination of hormone and radiation therapy seems like a winning strategy. For now, we’re waiting for the radiation oncologist and his team to complete mapping a therapy plan so radiation treatments can begin.

Off and on, I’ll likely use this blog space to share more thoughts and experiences about how we’re navigating this new territory in our lives. Stay tuned.