"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

December 27, 2013

Blog Posts and Selfies and Technology–Oh MY!

This is about as "selfie" as it gets around here!
Dearest Reader (are you still out there in cyber space?),

I hope you had a lovely Christmas! I got a new replacement camera lens so I can take more photos again. I also got some lovely books and smelly things. I won't inventory everything here, but rest assured that I will be well-read and smelling fine. Give me a candle, some great soap, tea and wonderful books and I'm good to go.

As you may know from coming here off and on in the past eighteen months, I've not been blogging much. It is difficult to do on my ancient laptop––especially the uploading photos part––and I now find that trying to change my cover image, template colors etc. on Blogspot has been impossible. I found that this can be remedied but the instructions are so complicated that it leaves me overwhelmed and breathless. That, coupled with technical difficulties in camera world, and still no DSL on our ridge (oh my, you have no idea the pitfalls, excuses and everything that's been involved––and we even sold Windstream an easement and the boxes have been in, a mile or so down the road, for over a year now), I just haven't felt like blogging, let alone had much opportunity.

But I have been writing for publication and have a new book coming out––more about that later––while working on others. Writing is not easy––and anyone who thinks you can just whip something off is, well, delusional. Finding a publisher is even more cumbersome at times––and a goal of 2014 is to find an agent, as well, so they can do all of the stuff that I'd rather not. It is possible to sell a book to a publisher without one––and I've done it twice now––but I don't recommend it.

My daughter is on Instagram, which seems to be the new Facebook, and well, I've been so "off" the computer for the past eighteen months that I just can't keep up with it all. Where I used to spend, ahem, hours on the Internet a day, I now spend about four hours a week, total. And that's probably being generous. WiFi at home will change all of that but I think I've learned now that I can limit myself, and will, by just not thinking about it all the time––like any other addiction, I suppose. We don't even have television or phone at the cottage yet––and we moved there back in July! [Well, full confessions: both are still in the doublewide just down the road but even then I spend less than an hour on the phone each week and only a few hours watching television: NPR has become a constant friend. I LOVE RADIO!]

What else have I been doing? Reading a lot––staying more organized, writing more letters and cards (generally trying to keep the post office open and using up many old stamps!). Ferrying our boys to basketball practices and games. Nesting into our farm and trying to put down roots (being in the cottage helps immensely––I need to live in something old, something borrowed, not new and manufactured).

I've stopped trying to find a job in Kentucky in either writing or historic preservation: after over fifteen attempts and not one interview, despite one's qualifications, it gets a bit crazy-making. So this is freeing me up to focus more on my own writing––which I've been doing. It doesn't always pay the bills but it at least seems productive. Farm income can be just as fickle but I do my best to cut corners in the budget, grow and can our own food, shop sales when necessary. That said, I'm considering, when we get WiFi, opening up an Esty or blog shop of vintage things, and books, that I wish to share with those who might love them as much as I have [in other words: downsizing––isn't this what all baby boomers are doing once they hit 50? I won't in totality, but there are some things I might be able to part with...].

I do have to laugh about the new phenomenon of the "selfie"––some blogs have seemed like that for some time but now young people and attention-seeking older people, too, are posting photos of themselves doing all sorts of things. We've gone from our food and decor to showing off our selves in all of their guises and postures. I love to take photographs but I don't want to use myself as the subject––I'd rather that my words, and the people and places and things that I love, be the subject. Here is a recent commentary on NPR about the phenom.

You come back when you're ready!


October 28, 2013

Ode to Dad

My Dad, James H. Seiberling, and me on my
Grandpa Sei's croquet court in Akron, Ohio, c. 1976-78.
My father has been gone eleven years. Yesterday I was listening to some classical music on NPR that I know he would have enjoyed. For a long time I couldn't listen to any classical or nineteenth century music, or anything on the organ, without weeping. For my father, music was his lifeblood, his passion, his heartbeat. I am fortunate that he passed that along to me in a diffused but enthusiastic measure.

As I was listening to some child prodigies playing Brahms and other works while at the table in our quiet kitchen on a Sunday evening I was also rummaging through some old recipe clippings. I found them in the shed in one of many unopened, and as yet unplaced, boxes that have formed the detritus––and delights––of my middle-aged life. There, from Dad's college typewriter (he never did try to use a computer), was a recipe he had brought to us in an early autumn of our marriage, on one of many visits he made to New Hampshire to see us each year. I thought of Dad, of course, while reading it, and smiled at a frugal notation he made (see below) and thought, given the season, that I should make it again. Then I realized that October 27, Sunday, was the actual anniversary (and same day of the week) of his passing eleven years ago. This is usually a date that I would have anticipated weeks ago but I suppose it is a sign that the immediacy of grief has slowly left me, replaced only by the presence of my father in my soul and memory as I navigate through the rest of my time here.

Dad died just two days before my 40th birthday and at the very minute, at 2am, that the clocks turned back in the hospital for Daylight Savings time. My two brothers and I were with him for his last days which was a blessing and a comfort and we had all been in and out in the few months prior. Dad's doctor said at the time, "I called and you all came. Not everyone does that, you know." There were many profound and unexplainable things that happened during his last day, and at his memorial service a week later, and I've written about them privately. I always found the Daylight Savings timing to be a strange kismet as he welcomed the darker days of winter when he could be indoors and hibernate as he was want to do with his music and his television. It's not that he was antisocial––being out and about was just always on his terms, like so many things.

As well as music and playing the organ, Dad loved all things autumnal, like I do. He liked Halloween and unpasteurized apple cider (from an old mill in Loyal Oaks near Norton), pumpkin pie and apple crisp and he especially liked homemade apple butter stirred into large-curd cottage cheese. He sometimes joined us for Thanksgiving and appreciated my stuffing (there were several dishes that he liked me to make when he visited but he always preferred his friend Alice's potato salad to mine!). He liked the cooler days and the thrill of the baseball playoffs and World Series, no matter who was playing. Of course, he was a born and bred Cleveland Indians fan and even though I could care less for the sport, I enjoyed going to home games and feeling the breeze from Lake Erie and being a part of the roar of the crowd and sharing this great American tradition with my father and brothers and cousins. [We would also meet my cousins each summer in Boston at Fenway Park––usually for an Indians-Red Sox game.]

The year he brought me this recipe, for Jacobs Field Apple Crisp (once served at the home of the Cleveland Indians and now called Progressive Stadium), he also sat in our darkened kitchen and played spooky music on our daughter Addie's electric organ while trick-or-treaters came to our porch. Hancock was the perfect small village for door-to-door goblins and we must have had several hundred children each year from the village and surrounding towns. Dad delighted in seeing the costumes and our decorations and enjoyed many meals around the same table that now graces our small Kentucky kitchen. There he was comfortable telling us stories of his childhood and so many memories that he'd never shared with me before. Perhaps it is something about a kitchen table and a good meal that evokes such spirited remembrance.

So yesterday I was able to listen to beautifully played music, all of which my father would have known by composer, title, and movement. I savored a favorite recipe in his typewritten hand and I was grateful. I know he is still with me, every day, and I know we will be together again. And I know that he is in the great celestial realm, somewhere, playing the organ and singing in a choir. When I hear music that he once shared with me, it is a kind of connection to the divine. And that is why I have always sung, too. After all, singing is like praying twice.

Of course, I plan on making this recipe again very soon. Here it is written exactly as he typed it (if I had my scanner set up I would just scan it!):

Jacobs Field Apple Crisp

  • 15 apples (4.5 pounds) such as Macs or Golden Delicious
  • 1 cup brown sugar packed down
  • 1.5 tsps ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/2 cup cider or apple juice
  • 1 Tbsp. cornstarch dissolved in 2 Tbsp. water
NOTE: Allspice and cloves may be omitted if not already in your spice rack as they are quite expensive today! [Dad was a bank branch manager and always frugal and I appreciated his concern about my spice cupboard and finances.]

Crumble Topping:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup brown sugar packed down
  • 4 cups granola cereal [CSP note: I've also used plain rolled oats.]
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/8 tsp. allspice
  • 1/8 tsp. cloves
  • 3 sticks butter, melted
For the filling: Peel, core and slice apples. Combine apples, sugar, spices and cider in large pan or wide kettle. Simmer uncovered over medium heat until apples are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Be careful not to burn. Stir in cornstarch mixture. Simmer several minutes, stirring occasionally until thickened. Remove from heat.

For the topping: Combine flour, sugar, granola and spices in a bowl. Add melted butter and stir until dry ingredients are thoroughly coated. 

Place filling in a baking dish and heap the crumble topping over the filling. Bake at 325 degrees for 15 minutes or until golden and bubbly. [CSP note: I've not made this in a while so baking time might be longer.] Let cool and serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

Recipe can be halved for smaller amount.

He added: "This is awesomely delicious. I know you'll enjoy!"

Happy Halloween to you all ~

You come back when you're ready!


September 7, 2013

Country Auctions & Other Musings

My son Eli at the Highway 127 Yard Sale in 2009. We love to "troll" together.
Today I went to a country auction in King's Mountain, Kentucky and didn't spend a dime. But it was worth going just to see everything, to observe the (rather small) crowd, and to head off ridge by myself to do errands, have lunch and borrow some free WiFi. The highlight for me was hearing our Old Order Mennonite friend Paul doing the auction and holding up a pseudo-bronze wall plaque. "It's of some people having supper!" There were a few chuckles from the crowd as it was a bad copy of Leonardo DaVinci's "Last Supper"––you have to really appreciate the lack of worldliness in their culture, especially in the crazy, instant world we live in today. It made me smile.

There were other things, too, but nothing I absolutely needed. One intriguing lot was a grouping of old photographs of people in the mid-late 19th century. I asked the former owner's daughter if she knew who they were. "No, they were relatives of my step-grandmother." The photos were marked with a Louisville, Kentucky studio and the groupings were typical of the period. It always makes me sad when I see old photographs of people in antique shops or at auction. They are the last vestiges of a life and when someone casts them away it usually means they are no longer remembered or known by any living person.

On Labor Day we were invited to a picnic on the ridge—a time of year that people often have family reunions down here. There is a saying in the South that I have found quite true: "God, Guns & Ground." To that I would add "Clan" as family is as important as church here and usually families stay together or at least nearby in Kentucky (and it's a given that almost everyone is related to someone in a small region or on a ridge so you always have to be mindful of that!). Two daughters and their families, and their younger brother—just married—and his new wife, all live on adjacent parcels of the original “homeplace” where their parents still farm. So there they are, altogether: family and neighbors through thick and thin, and they even garden together. It made me sad because that is what we always wanted for our (former) family farm in New England. It was great to be included in their gathering but there was this persistent longing for what will never be in my own family of origin—two (nuclear) parents and their children, and spouses and grandchildren, all gathered around. I hope, at least, to create that kind of matriarchy for my own family while honoring my ancestors with them. It is the least I can do—but also the most I can do—for my own clan. I never want to preside over a fractured matriarchy and neither will I ever allow my children to be separate from each other: I will get them home to sort things out if there is any discord between them. Period. And if I should ever be widowed, there is no way in hell that I will ever let another man come between me and my time with my children and grandchildren. PERIOD!

I do miss blogging but it is so difficult and slow on my ancient (c. 2004-imagine!) MacPowerBook G4. DSL still eludes us on the ridge and the boxes, installed in October 2012, are covered in weeds. I'm ready to get a "HotBox" through Verizon or some such and looking into options. I haven't had my trusty camera with me for some time as I have a bad lens that needs repair or replacement (and I've also enjoyed taking a break from taking photographs of everything of interest). In the meantime I'm hashing out a contract with a publisher for another book deal. I'll keep you posted and it relates, in some way, to pantries and kitchens and all things retro.

Fall is coming. I love the change of light, the cooler nights and mornings, the beautiful pageant of yellow, purple and mauve along the roadside––and here in rural Kentucky the smell of leaves burning around the ridge! After April and May, I do believe that September and October are my favorite months on the farm. The boys and my husband are gathering in the large round bales from our third cutting of hay as I write this.

I'm also canning up a storm (Stanley plums a few weeks ago, Kentucky white peaches for the freezer, and beets for the freezer are up next) and hoping to get in my fall garden––broccoli and Brussels sprout starts, and beet/lettuce seeds––over the weekend (but it's been so hot during the day that I fear bolting).

I hope to be doing a bit of off-ridge traveling in the next few months before the winter ahead. The almanac is talking about a colder winter for Kentucky. I wouldn't mind: nice, cozy, good for writing and reading, and full freezers and pantries to raid.

You come back when you're ready!


June 14, 2013

"Just Sit at Your Desk and Write"

A Lady Writing, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
This is what my husband always says before––and after––I've applied for each of the thirteen jobs for which I've been well qualified––with no interview (not one).

"Just sit at your desk and write." 

Even though there is laundry. Even though there are meals to prepare. Even though there are happy boys haying and swimming and tracking in endless piles of farm dirt. Even though the house is always generally a mess. Even though we are moving, at last, into our farm cottage in the busy middle of our farm, from a more commodious, but stifling, doublewide across the road.

So yes, there is still the "stuff" and there is the refiguring of the boxes and the storage issues as we await our once and future farmhouse.

There is still no DSL (which is why I do not blog as much as I would like to do).

But there is a desk. There are many pens. There is much paper. There are computers. There are summer breezes sailing over the knob even on the hottest days and into our farm cottage. There are cattle lowing and birds chattering. There is bountiful broccoli and other emergent plants. There are full pantries and freezers.

And there are words––always the words.

"Just write," he says, partly from exasperation––perhaps because he knows me better than I do myself. Or maybe he is just weary of being a cow-man with a perimenopausal, somewhat haphazard, farmwife.

"We are a team. Just write."

And so I shall.

You come back when you're ready! 


June 6, 2013

A Hymn to Mrs. Butterworth's®

My Mrs Butterworth's® Tryptych, along with a painted version, and an
"Aunt Jemima Breakfast Club" button (I'm embarrassed to share the price).
Mrs. Butterworth's® keeps appearing in my life. Last week I posted about baking a cake in her name so I thought I'd elaborate a bit more about my obsession. As a child in Akron, Ohio, I was intrigued with her brown glass, apron-clad, bun-wearing visage—and in the television ads I believe she even spoke. We were a Log Cabin® syrup family and it wasn’t until we moved back to New Hampshire that I truly began to appreciate the wonders of real maple syrup. There we watched it being boiled down each March (it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of syrup) and had it drizzled onto spring snow (most sugar houses serve this with a popsicle stick—for twirling your maple “candy”—as well as dill pickles and old-fashioned donuts). Any cook worth their syrup knows that most stuff sold as “maple syrup” is actually just glorified corn syrup with caramel coloring and artificial maple flavoring—even the Cracker Barrel® restaurant chain has started cutting their real Vermont maple syrup with the fake stuff. [Since moving to Kentucky we import it each year, or buy a case when we visit, from Carol and Bill Eva at Longview Forest Products in Hancock, New Hampshire.] We certainly appreciate the locally-made sorghum, too, boiled down at Oberholzer’s in Casey County, Kentucky each autumn, but it’s just not the same thing on pancakes or waffles or French toast.

Like the fictive Betty Crocker®, Mrs. Butterworth's is a product—an ad agency conjuring of homey goodness. Here is the guise of a nice plump woman who is so caring and kind that she’ll whip up a batch of pancakes or waffles in no time—perhaps the less multi-cultural echo to Aunt Jemima® (who, I don’t believe, ever had her own matronly-shaped syrup bottle). I assume that every kid wanted a Mrs. Butterworth in their childhood kitchen—a beguiling presence during a time when many of our mothers were starting to work outside of our homes. Buttery, syrupy, sugary down-homey comfort—a nanny in a brown glass bottle. When you grow up to learn that all artificial ingredients and refined sugars are bad, you consider, too, that Mrs. Butterworth's® is just diabetes in a beguiling bottle. As children, we don’t even think about these things and as adults we should know better. Yet, as a store-aisle icon, Mrs. Butterworth's® is right up there with the best of them. [The Jolly Green Giant® and Mr. Clean® aside, because they both scared the hell out of me—yes, I am clearly a child of television and was highly influenced by advertising, even if most of it was in black and white until we got our first color television in the very late 1960s.]

Our neighbor, Mrs. Emily Wirth, in Akron days, was a great comfort cook. She liked to make fried chicken and waffles when we were invited for dinner, served with a side of buttered corn and delectable currant scones (I still have that recipe). For some reason, I began to associate her with Mrs. Butterworth's®. It may have been because she made doorstops out of the amber bottles—filled with sand and outfitted with crocheted aprons—or that she was a kind and welcoming woman who loved to cook and provide love to everyone around her. The wife of the assistant pastor at our Presbyterian church, she was prayerful, genuine, and full of laughter—and she was my mother’s best friend during some difficult times. She was my first exposure to someone who had been “born again” and I admired her belief and her faith especially because she lived what she believed. I know she would have taken in total strangers or homeless people—and maybe even did—and fed them chicken and waffles. There was always someone in her kitchen and you just wanted to be near her. [I recall her—and her faith—with great longing because she was never the disingenuous kind of believer that is all too common in today’s world.]

A few years ago, at a yard sale in Kentucky, I had to buy Mrs. Butterworth's®—three original bottles in three sizes. [I call this my “Mrs. Butterworth's® Triptych” and she/they live in their amber-glass idolatry on a shelf in my cottage kitchen—I don’t know about the Renaissance artists, but Andy Warhol might have appreciated them.] I picked up another during the same annual Highway 127 yard sale—only she has a painted red dress, a cream apron and cream-colored accents. The modern Mrs. Butterworth's® bottles are now made of plastic and she has had some kind of makeover. I’m not impressed. [My husband wasn’t impressed, either, that I paid $8 for three c.1970 fake syrup glass bottles. But he knows me well enough by now to just say, “Oh, isn’t that nice, dear,” while quietly gnashing his teeth.]

You come back when you're ready!


June 3, 2013

Sunday Evening Supper

A week or so ago, we stopped to see our friends Melvin and Anna in Casey County. We don’t get over there as much any more since our boys started going to school in our own county. Now it is a rarer treat to do some shopping in the valley at the Mennonite stores and produce places and to visit with friends. [As a point of references, Kentucky counties—all 120 of them—are large in area: we live on the western edge of Pulaski County and one of my dear friends here—also on a new farm created out of someone’s former, idle homeplace—lives clear across on the western side of Casey County—and we are a 45-minute drive apart (if you take the shortcut, that is). Diana grows amazing heirloom tomatoes, by the way, at MeadowBrook Farm—they will soon be available at a variety of vendors in Lexington and at a specialized market forming in downtown Somerset, Kentucky on Saturdays.]

My son and I were waiting in the car—Anna wasn’t home—and I heard Melvin’s booming voice, “Catherine, get in here!” I thought, uh oh, what have I done now? [Melvin, like my husband, can be a big tease—and quite funny—I often say they are “twin brothers from different mothers.”] So in we went and there was my husband, and Melvin, in full visitation mode, at the kitchen table (we were only supposed to stay a few minutes as I had produce in the trunk and chores to do).

“Pull up a chair and have a piece of cake!”

You don’t have to ask me such a question twice. We gathered around the table and tore into a beautiful sheet cake that Anna had prepared. I thought that Anna would be pleased to learn later that Melvin was such a gracious host in her absence.

We ended up talking and visiting for some time and Melvin showed us some old Casey County News clippings he had cut from a cache of papers a neighbor had given him—going back to the 1960s. After a bit Anna came home, walked in the back door, and, for some reason, didn’t seem too glad to see us.

I realized it was the cake—we soon found out that she had baked it for a Sunday afternoon youth gathering and there we were, sitting around smiling and laughing, with almost half a sheet cake gone. As a home baker myself, I know how crestfallen I would be, and so I was the first to ask about it (I also like to know when or why people are mad at me so I can remedy—or try to—the situation). So, long story short: I insisted that I bake her another cake—it is called “Mrs. Butterworth’s Cake” and calls for that syrup. We were then invited to join them for supper with the youth from the church—who gather at different houses on Sunday nights (ages 17-21 years) to play volleyball, have a meal, and hymn-sing into the late evening.

On Sunday we arrived around 5pm to a fully set table for twenty. The young people were playing volleyball. A cooling breeze, after a humid and stormy morning, filled the kitchen as Anna and I put food into many serving dishes and poured cold spring water into glasses. Anna had prepared “Poor Man’s Steak” (another favorite dish), a rice casserole, homemade crescent rolls, a Jello salad, from-scratch caramel pudding and strawberry cheesecake. I brought a large spinach-strawberry salad (with local strawberries, at last!) and the remade sheet cake. It always amazes me how much food is served at large Old Order Mennonite and Amish gatherings—and how effortless it seems (and leftovers are rare).

After the dishes were done (many hands truly make light work), the day faded into twilight and we talked on the porch and in the house. The youth gathered around the large kitchen table and sang hymns after supper—a cappella—from hymnals that they brought. There is something lovely and moving when hearing a group of young people—or any people—just breaking into shared song. We don’t see this too often outside of church in our own culture.  Their singing has a less melodic, shape note quality and I realized that they have probably never heard recorded music or musical accompaniment. So the melodies are learned and passed along by others in their community.

As I looked out across the fields, I felt the embrace of the westerly wind after the morning storms. We were surrounded by song and praise—with a background chorus of evening birdsong—and two people who have become dear friends to us in the past five years. How could I not feel grateful and blessed? I savored this reality, in quiet benediction, and I smirked to myself when I realized that this is exactly the kind of interaction we are missing when we post on Facebook or “tweet” something into the universe—or even blog about trivial, useless, or important, things.

E.M. Forster wrote in his novel, Howard’s End: “Only connect.” How prophetic he was at the turn of the last century—even then, the modern age was presenting a certain sense of disconnection. The writers and artists felt it first as they are always the empathic pulse of the zeitgeist. [Not long after we met about ten years ago, one of my best friends back in New Hampshire gave me a copy of Howard’s End—I hadn’t read it in a very long time. Edie reminded me of that line and I’ve been saying it, as a mantra, ever since.]

So, back to that cake. On Friday, I brought home the phone-book sized cookbook from Anna’s kitchen—one I’ve not seen before so I’ve been furiously copying recipes out of since: Kitchen Capers by Jean Donovan [Shelbyville, KY: 1985]—and had at it. The cake actually has a pancake-y flavor—likely the yellow butter cake paired with the syrup flavor. Only I used real, 100% maple syrup (which provides a much better and authentic maple flavor)—and I used real butter (and, as I didn’t have any fresh orange rind, I added a liberal tablespoon of Grand Marnier). I think even Mrs. Butterworth would approve.

Mrs. Butterworth’s Orange-Pecan Cake

1 cup butter, softened
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 ½ cups Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup
6 eggs
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
3 tsps baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup orange juice
1 cup finely chopped pecans
1 Tbsp grated orange rind

Cream butter until fluffy. Gradually beat in sugar. Add ¾ cup of the syrup and beat until well-mixed. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add dry ingredients alternately with ½ cup of the orange juice. Mix in grated orange rind and nuts. Pour batter into a greased and floured 13x9x2 inch pan and bake in 350 degree oven about 1 hour or until cake tests done.

Topping: Heat together the remaining syrup and juice and pour evenly over hot cake while it is still in the pan (I poked holes in it, first). Garnish with whipped cream or orange slices, if desired.

[Original recipe from Mrs. G.C. (Irene) Brown, Shelbyville, KY.]

You come back when you're ready!


April 23, 2013

Random Acts of Violence

Menacing storm clouds over our ridge farm last spring.
On Monday, April 15th, after a late afternoon at the library helping my eldest son gather research for his World War II project, we came home to our ridge. As we drove down our farm lane, I shared my benediction with my son as I noticed the fringes of redbud along the greening forest and our cattle grazing on pasture after a prolonged winter. Each time I come over the rise and dip of our knob and behold the picturesque meld of landscape that defines our farm, I am grateful. No matter what has happened in my day, I feel nestled, even safe, in the sustenance that is our homeplace.

My husband greeted us at the door. “Have you heard about Boston?” I had not even checked Facebook at the library, as involved as we were in our short research of the enormity of World War II. “Bombs went off near Copley Plaza at the end of the marathon.” Without knowing anything more, I felt sick. Boston is a city where we are both familiar, where I once lived, worked and went to graduate school, and where my husband was planning to be this week for an annual club dinner (he did not attend, after all, but had a lovely visit with many old friends in the area). We moved to Kentucky five years ago but we will always be New Englanders at heart.

Before I could process the Boston Marathon horror, my husband came closer so our boys would be out of earshot. “I picked up some trash on the side of the road and got pricked by a hypodermic needle,” he said. I went into my usual mode of rapid-fire questioning when presented with something jarring. Yes, he’d called the doctor and made an appointment for a blood test the next morning. No, he’d burned the evidence in the stove, left in its Hardee’s bag, after a fit of anger and so no one else could be harmed. We called a neighbor, not telling her why, to ask if she’d seen any vehicles drive past when we were both off the ridge to get our boys from school. Any vehicle driving past our farm is cause for a pause and a wave. No one lives on the county road but us so it isn’t especially well traveled—however, it is a short-cut connector between our larger ridge road if you don’t mind the bumps.

I saw my husband and our youngest son as I passed and waved to them at an intersection before they headed home. I remember thinking, with their arms outstretched towards me from their car windows, “They look so joyful!” They came back to the ridge before we did, a few hours later. My husband notices details and stopped to pick up the Hardee’s bag. The constancy of trash along the roadside, or dumped wholesale down a gully, is a sad occurrence in parts of Kentucky where there often seems to be little regard for the land or its intrinsic beauty by the people who were raised in these hills. This is not a judgment call, just fact: just as many seem to disregard their pets by not spaying and neutering them and allowing them to roam and become other people’s problems.

My husband has built a working cattle operation in the past few years from run out farmland and he works very hard. Even though we struggle at times, we don’t even take the farm subsidies that are available to us through the Farm Bill because we regard it as unnecessary welfare. [“Send it back to Washington to pay down the deficit!” my husband said when our local agency said it was there for us. “That’s not how it works,” was the reply. Just imagine the logic, for a moment, of being paid to not grow something?] I admire someone who, in his 50s, has the conviction that this is what we should be doing with the rest of our lives. Neither does he hesitate to pick up trash, barehanded, on our barely-traveled farm road where it always seems such a deliberate violation.

My first thought regarding the needle prick was that he has health insurance (I was denied). My second thought was more selfish and entirely mother-driven: “thank goodness it wasn’t one of the boys.” My final thought was “what if?” I didn’t linger long with that question. In my upset over the needle incident and its possible outcome, as I watched the coverage of the tragic Boston bombing, I realized there is no predicting the senseless events that occur in our world. Neither is any place safe or immune from the possibility of tragedy, whether natural or triggered by human interaction. There is a strange calm in this knowledge. My anxieties do not revel in the things I can’t control but in the things that I can.

I winced at the irony of receiving a “service message” phone call as I wrote this: “The FBI says there is a home invasion every fifteen seconds,” it began. “If you allow us to install a new security system…” at which point I hung up the phone. If bombs can burst and kill and maim in a crowded city street in America, or a troubled person can enter a suburban school with a semi-automatic weapon, then a tossed and dirty needle can pierce a hardworking man’s hand on his own peaceful bit of farmland. No one is exempt from being violated and, like everyone, my family has had its share of harmful acts from external sources. Yet we can never allow ourselves to be defined by our misfortunes or the difficult things that happen to us along the way: victims always wallow in the mire and blame while victors rise and move forward from the wreckage.

Even if we are able to find the person who used and threw away the needle, the damage may have already been done. So now the question is do we live in disgust or fear of every bit of “trash” or person who wishes to do harm or do we listen and look for those moments of quiet beauty, as when the whippoorwill calls across our fields at the edge of twilight? Or when neighbors let us know that they saw one of our cows struggling to give birth and then offer to help our boys while their father is away? [But I do need to boast for a moment: by the time the neighbors arrived, our boys had corralled the mother and pulled its calf safely and with all the finesse of seasoned midwives.]

I had to cheer what David Ortiz said at the Red Sox game on Sunday: “This is our f@#$ing city!” This is our f-ing country, too. I don’t often say this, and at the risk of sounding jingoistic: “Love it or leave it.” At least respect, nurture and honor it. Don’t trash it. Please don’t deny that we have major environmental or societal problems and accept that our own small orb in this immense universe is in trouble—and, God willing, or not, we can affect the outcome of our planet and how we interact.

My heart is with the families who have suffered loss of life or massive injury in last week’s bombing and as a mother I also feel for the family of the brothers in the Boston tragedy. At nineteen, the youngest brother is only four years older than my oldest boy. Where was his mother or his father for the past few years? Even though he seemed Americanized and had even become a citizen, did he feel alone and homeless? Without home or country? Feeling displaced, or without place, are disconcerting places to be—sometimes with no firm or familiar ground. We may never know what drove these young men, or other people, to hurt innocents in the name of a cause or personal hurt. What causes someone to explode rather than to quietly implode? I will never understand a religious faction that advocates killing or hatred—and, throughout its long history, Christianity, as a religion (not the person in whose name it exists), has not been immune to this, either.

While we live on an inconsiderate planet, where people, animals—and the land—seem increasingly disrespected, I still know there are those who run back into the fray to help or who stop to assist a stranger, to take in a stray animal, or who are willing to share their time or what they have with their neighbors. When there are random acts of violence and terrorism—as there have been throughout our world’s history—we must also assure that we never lose our humanity and hope for goodness. If we do, those who terrorize, or who bully or disregard the rest of us, will have won.

Each spring, violets bloom from the detritus of fall––always a reassuring sight in a weary world.

“Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If we could just remember this basic creed and put it into more regular practice, whatever our religion (and it is a tenet of all faiths), the world would just be better. Practice random acts of kindness—daily, even hourly—in quiet benediction or loudly to the hills or the city canyons. And pray—pray especially hard for those who wish to harm us or through their own sad lives, can’t seem to help it (whether from their hatred, envy, greed, ignorance or inadequacies). Sometimes, in a crazy world, it is all that we can do.

You come back when you're ready! 


April 10, 2013

Signs of Spring –

Spring has been stealthy and late this year on Hickory Nut Ridge. March was cold—record cold apparently for Kentucky—and a complete reversal from last year’s record high warmth in the 70s and 80s (which also brings many storms––something we've not had yet this year). So the Bradford pears, always the first to bloom, did not come out until early April and the forests remain brown and bleak, while the wild red buds and dogwood have yet to emerge.

It has been a busy winter. In addition to working on several books, which I will soon be pitching, I have applied for a few jobs in public relations and, my first love, historic preservation—both professions where I was once gainfully employed. I remain hopeful about one job in particular but my “Plan B” of staying a full time farmwife, mother and writer is fine, too: even though it does not help pay most of the bills on a growing cattle farm. The reality is, when you’ve left the work force to be a mother, even though you may remain as a published writer, there isn’t a huge amount of interest in your return [I wonder what Facebook’s Sheryl Stanberg, author of Lean In, would say about this reality.] Not only are you competing with others your age in a diminished job market, there are 15-20 years of people younger than you who are eager and, well, younger. This is the reality of middle age—at a time when many of my peers are at the height of their professions, I am willing to enter back in for less pay or prestige. 

Fortunately, published writing seems to remain an ageless profession—all it demands is talent and/or marketability and a persistently annoying modern term called “platform.” [Which is why, in the past decade or so, many popular bloggers have become published writers—I started blogging after publishing articles and while writing my first contracted book—a bit of a departure, but there you are. I blog because I enjoy it, if for no other reason—and am delighted when people read them.] And, let’s not forget the biggest asset to a writer or to any pursuit: perseverance, which really, much of the time, would seem to trump talent.

Cows grazing on new pastures that we are leasing down the road for our growing herd.

I have not blogged much in the past eight months because we are still without DSL on our ridge and my PowerBook is hopelessly slow so it is difficult to blog on my slow server––it takes a long time to post a blog with photos! [I cannot even upload Firefox because my laptop, at the ripe age of seven, is considered a relic—the guys at the Mac Store in Lexington laughed when I brought it in for advice. It was likely made before they were out of diapers.] My entire laptop experience has been symbolic of my life right now: a bit slow, creaky and, apparently, very much out-of-date. Emailing on iCloud is even a challenge—again, laborious to upload emails or to send them—so I read my emails, respond briefly if I have to, and then usually type or pen longer missives via Snail Mail. How very retro! But delightful—it has been great to be away from the noise, chatter, and occasionally obnoxious clamor that is the Internet and Facebook (or Twitter, for which I refuse to sign up—mainly for the same reasons I refuse to get anything other than a track phone for travel emergencies: I’m just not that important.).

My chickens are laying again but some are getting older and in perimenopause, no doubt.

I recommend an Internet and/or social network sabbatical for the purposes of actually living or savoring your life or for creating something within it. And what is it in this virtual realm that compels us to crow about everything all of the time (but I should mention that my hens are laying again after a long hiatus and that my roosters are finally crowing)? I am also proud to say that the oft used “I’ll Google that” is no longer in my daily dialogue and that I can now better appreciate my husband’s resolve to remain a Luddite. It’s just easier to stick with what we know and to eschew the rapid-fire fervor of the latest, always evolving technology. I believe we will experience an “Arts and Crafts” revival in the decades to come—the current artisan and “slow food” movement is testament to this. All of that said my laptop, while not so good for the Internet these days, still makes an excellent portable word-processing device, so I shall keep it.

One can never have enough gnomes around!
I have missed blogging for the connective fiber of it as well as the occasional virtual scrapbooking of my life (as “scrapbook crafty” I am not—and I haven’t even been on Pinterest in months, either). My camera has also not been cooperating, so I’m going to have to send it somewhere and will likely be reliant upon my extensive photo archive for future blogging in the meantime. The photos in this blog entry are the last gasp from my faulty lens that works when it wants to in fits and starts (ok, I admit—it got dropped a while ago, so I can’t blame Canon).

Anna, right, and her daughter Norma amidst the tea spread at our Chick-a-Biddy Cottage at Valley View Farm.

A chance to use my lemon fork!
On April 7th I hosted a 60th surprise birthday tea party for my Old Order Mennonite friend Anna. It was a great reason to get the cottage in order and to do some cooking and entertaining, which I do enjoy, forgetting the fact that I was more or less comatose for two days afterwards (and that I was reliant upon Trader Joe’s for some of my savory items). This will likely be a long aside (see, I still am not a brief blogger after seven years!) but people who cater, bake or cook professionally—from scratch—have my complete respect. 

I am reminded of the forty-year plus dedication of my baker friend (and part-time boss for ten years) Robert Koerber who, five days a week, without fail, got up at 2am to prepare his homemade dough, breads, donuts and pastries for his 7am opening. For over three decades his admirers came from near and far to his Kernel Bakery in Peterborough, New Hampshire and, during the 1970s, at his Cyrnel Bakery in Forest Row, England. I enjoyed Robert’s discussions on Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical beliefs as much as I did his ricotta cheese Danish, fat chocolate croissants, and tasty fig bars—to name but a few delights—outdone only by his seasonal chocolate éclairs, on Saturdays in the colder months, with their sublime vanilla custard filling.

AFTER THE PARTY: Cleaning up is half the fun! Here is some of my favorite
"Mythologique" silver set that once belonged to my great-grandmother Manton.
(one of my brothers has the other half of the set of twelve).
AFTER THE PARTY: I used my great-grandmother Manton's pink for-12 dessert set for the tea,
complete with small demitasse cups and saucers–the set in the foreground was her
breakfast-in-bed set. [It is often used on Mother's Day, thanks to my husband.]

An angel on an early headstone at
the Abbey of Gethsemani.
During Holy Week I treated myself to a five-day silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky—a belated 50th birthday present to myself. This is the subject of a future article and book chapter so I don’t want to blog too much about it but I highly recommend the experience. The day before Easter I was delighted to be a participant in my friend Jamie Aramini’s first “Kentucky Green Living Fair” in nearby Somerset [see her fabulous blog, Sustainable Kentucky]—now to be an annual event. There I signed and sold The Pantry, met many interesting people and some familiar faces, and reacquainted myself with some other Kentucky writer friends. It was a great contrast to having been more or less silent the week before.

Every year I welcome the Earth’s renewal and spring’s return with the open arms of Persephone’s mother, Demeter (and how I miss my daughter who often returns to the farm for a visit at this time of year after a long winter working in the ski industry—not this year, sadly, I don’t believe, as she is recovering from a wrist break in Colorado and is working so hard, right into the summer season—she is almost 25 and I am so very proud of her!). The world is warming and things are beginning to grow. I become more sociable, less introspective, and ready to be in the dirt. Every day now, after school and on their Easter break, our boys, 15 and almost 13, help their Dad with farm chores––we are so proud of their responsible and hard-working natures.

Five healthy kittens, here at seven weeks: two look like Mama and are female (black & whites), two are male and female tigers with white markings, and one is an all tiger taupe & gray male. Some have names, some not yet! All will be well-loved barn cats–but will be spayed and neutered, including Mama Mittens.
Boris and Natasha, to whom I am quite partial, at seven weeks.

Boris, Natasha & Chumley.
Mama Mittens–aka "BooBoo Kitty"
so named by my husband!
We have five, now eight-week old, kittens ready to roam our barns with their Mama (who, after she wandered up our driveway last October, has used up two of her nine lives in the past few months—I am in awe of both her will to survive and her natural mothering instincts after her unplanned pregnancy—but aren’t they all in the animal kingdom?). Calves are being born daily. Our chortling mockingbird and bluebirds have returned to join the chorus of spring and I’ve even heard the barn swallows as they swoop about looking to nest in our now-empty hay shed. [The fields are greening up just in time for hungry cattle.] 

The recent comet at sunset soars into the depths.
It is that reaffirming time of year that whispers life is good, that there is profound beauty—and immense order—in the natural realm, and for no other reason except to proclaim that **God is great, Sabu.

You come back when you're ready! 


**A favorite line from a favorite film—and a favorite book, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen—although I don’t recall the actual line in the book.

January 23, 2013

National Pie Day

Pie (and cake) being served in Pie Town, New Mexico, c. 1940s, Russell Lee (for Works Progress Administration)

I couldn't very well let this day pass without notice, even if I am not making any pie in its honor. The last day I wrote about National Pie Day was just after Obama's first inauguration in 2009 (on my dormant blog, In the Pantry: just go there and do a "Search" on anything related to "pie" and "bakery" and you will find many writings). Then I was going to write about the many wonderful things I learned from Robert the Baker in the ten years I worked for him––but that will become its own sort of essay (and many years ago, probably about seven or eight, I wrote about him, too). And this is a blog, after all.

I'm celebrating National Pie Day this year with two healthy fruit smoothies and some homemade soup. My husband and I are doing the 21-day Digest Diet to get ourselves on track and to boost some needed weight loss. So no pie for the Ponds right now. I'm not ruling it out in the future but, well, let's just say that I like this "diet" because it clearly tells me what to prepare each day in an easy-to-follow format and I'm too busy right now to worry about meals. If someone is telling me what to prepare, and it is easy to do (sort of like spa cuisine), that's half the battle. If we can get through the more restrictive first four days, we can do anything. I'll let you know how it goes.

For now, I am enjoying a lot of food porn: in cookbooks, recipe clippings and favorite cooking shows. It really does help.

You come back when you're ready!


For more about Pie Town, New Mexico, here is a great online article in the Smithsonian.

January 1, 2013

“Recieved book all right-I will tend to other.”

One of my recent blog posts was framed by the joys of reading a delightful Christmas story called Christmas at Eagle Pond by Donald Hall. I continue to be impressed by one small detail from the book: that his grandmother, every day, wrote on the back of a penny postcard to each of her three daughters (including Hall’s mother)—and they, in turn, wrote back to her their own daily postcards. Imagine: a few lines scrawled on the back of a card with brief news or observations about one’s day.

I have saved all of the cards and letters my maternal grandmother, paternal grandfather—and many other friends and family—have written to me through the years. They are treasures but few are as concise as a postcard. A stack of memories like that is so much better and more tangible than a silly “tweet” on Twitter or even a random Facebook musing. I imagine they are more comparable to the few lines a day that my great-grandmother kept in her voluminous daily dairies or what I write in my few-line-a-day 10-year journal (a gift to myself a few years ago): “Quiet day on the ridge. Our cattle are well-fed thanks to the boys, in Temple’s absence. Put up the last of the applesauce. Needed rain is coming.” 

This is the verso of the above New Year's postcard. I love that it is also to a woman named Addie as that is my daughter's name and she, too, is far away. Ironically, "Miss Addie Marel" was a resident of Gallupville in Schoharie County, in upstate New York. That is a very special part of the world and home to two dear photographer friends.

Of course, to mail one postcard today is the cost of a month’s worth back in the 1940s and with unlimited minutes on phone plans and email, sending any handwritten correspondence has become a lost art. Notes and written greetings have gone the way of the telegram (my parents received several when I was born in 1962 and I’ve only ever seen one in my baby book).

In recent months I have actually written more cards, letters and postcards than I have in the past fifteen years (ok, a few I have typed—or, rather, word-processed). Call it an email backlash (I will never Tweet, I can assure you, even if a future publisher might beg me to do so) or blame it on our lightning strike back in early August which limits my Internet use to a few WiFi hours a week in nearby Somerset (ironically, DSL is all set to go in on our ridge after years of pleading—but I’m actually considering not getting it!). My Old Order Mennonite friends, who rarely have phones and certainly no Internet access, like to send around “Round Robin” letters—a delightfully archaic act and something that seems more like an enjoyable chat among many on a Facebook wall in lieu of actual conversation. The difference is that it is handwritten and slower in its arrival.

After years of writing emails—some that should not have been sent, I admit, but rather said in person or a more considered letter (and one problem is that I type as fast as I think which either can be dangerous or long-winded or both: 100wpm is either a gift or a curse, depending on the situation)—I am going back to my postal roots. In the last few months I have found many stashes of stationery, note cards, postcards, and even unused Christmas cards in a massive post-move (even if it was four years ago) box cleanup. I have even found many well intentioned and numerous stamp purchases that had been tucked away. So, like everything in our pantries and freezers (and even present stashes I’ve been finding—this is the first year in forever that I’ve actually bought less than five items at Christmas for my entire list of people—you see, hoarding can have its advantages if you are at least semi-organized), I’m using them all up. It might take me a decade but I’m determined to contribute to the struggling U.S. Postal Service along the way—perhaps even to brighten the days of my friends and family, on occasion, too.

I still don’t have a “SmartPhone” (just a track phone that I take, begrudgingly, on the occasional extended trip or solo overnight) and I don’t even want one. The computer—with its limited weekly hours of Internet on my (already ancient) Mac PowerBook—is sufficient. Facebook is fun and occasional and I do like being part of a wider network there (but am no longer addicted or afflicted with it). Blogging is something I miss—although I have not figured out how to be concise in this medium, I admit, after almost eight years of having blogs—but even that can be arranged with some finesse and photo uploading. On occasion, it has seemed, I was living to blog (and to photograph everything)—which isn’t always a good thing, either. I am even picking up the phone more often despite a long and tempestuous relationship with this intrusion.

So here is to a very and blessed New Year to you. I can promise that mine will be filled with words and good books (with no domestic distractions of the Internet, I’m actually reading much more these days, too) and much writing in and amongst our days on the farm. After a very busy 2012 reconnecting with old friends and family in real time, I am ready for a quiet few months on the ridge before our glorious Appalachian spring (and the inherent ease of socializing that comes to me with brighter and longer days). Like Persephone, I have learned to welcome both the inevitability and the inward retreat of darkness and seclusion each year—I no longer fear it.

And I will still send out the odd peep or two to a mailbox near you. If you’d like to receive a carte de post, just email your address to info@CatherinePond.com. I promise to mail you a note as a gesture of good cheer—just promise that you’ll do the same thing for someone else.

You come back when you're ready!