Author Archives: Margaret

About Margaret

My life centers around the homestead we continue to carve out in our mountain cove. A "far piece" from my earlier lives as Ivy Leaguer, Senate staffer, journalist and Suzuki teacher and janitor and cafeteria cashier and....you name a job: I've probably worked it. Some things are constants: I write, novels (published and non-), a play, columns and book reviews. I read, endlessly and compulsively. I swim, a mile a day during the week. And somewhere in there, I homeschooled and raised three marvelous children who are now out in the world doing good things. And now, I'm going to....?

The Sunday Afternoon Blahs

img_2615

 

 

 

What is it about Sunday afternoons? For many of us they’re a kind of melancholy time, a limbo between the earlier anticipation that the mere mention of ”weekend” brought and the rush of the work week to come.

Saturdays have a kind of energy about them: to-do-lists abound, and finishing them seems completely feasible, with the weekend stretching out ahead like a glimmering white-sand beach.

img_2619

Saturday night still feels like weekend, even for those of us who are decades beyond the “party!” that the night once meant. Sunday morning means church or other ritual for many and has its own rhythm until lunch. Which is when–wham! Sunday afternoon hits.

Blah.

Sometimes I think we still associate the time with schooldays, when it was so often the moment of reckoning for that long-procrastinated paper.

But really, I think the melancholy has a deeper root. Many of us aren’t good with times of transition. Work: we get it. Play: ok. But the grey space in-between? It can make us fidgety.

Not to mention the notion of sabbath rest. The idea that no matter what religion we have, or none, there’s a day set aside when we remember that we’re not in charge of the world. Which we hate to admit will go on functioning just fine if we take a little time off from running it. We’re not good with that idea.We prefer to believe our every act is so indispensable it’s essential we push on with work no matter what, charging ahead to fill every minute with tasks achieved and lists checked off.

It’s easier in some ways to treat Sunday like just another week-workday, or imitate those organized folk who skim past the afternoon altogether: they may be home from the office, but every moment is filled with prep for the week ahead.

I know that given the hectic pace of many people’s lives, Sunday afternoon leisure may not even be an option. But if it is, can we accept those quiet hours? Allow ourselves, with no distractions, to face ourselves and what we are? plain old human beings, that is,  not human doings?

How do you do Sunday afternoons? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

It Takes a Team

img_25841

 

As I’ve watched my son and and his wife raise their daughter from fragile, needy newborn to robust and smiling four monther, I’m struck by how many people it takes to keep one small life going along.

The parents, of course, who’ve learned to eat meals in shifts and trade off who sleeps when. And also that collapsing in the living room for a few minutes at the end of a day, before beginning the bedtime routine all over again again, is activity enough, no entertainment needed.

Add in grandparents, aunts, and uncles to occasionally baby-tend. Then all those professionals– newborn nurses, pediatrician, lactation consultants, pediatric chiropractor, day care workers. That’s a whole lot of people lavishing attention on one little bundle.

That’s a team.

img_25801The thing is, what happens to this team as a baby grows? Does it continue to hover, providing love, nurture, and age-appropriate guidance? Or as the child ages, becomes (perhaps) less adorable and (certainly) more independent-minded and mobile, does it kind of lose focus? The way some new pet owners lose interest when that cute fluffy puppy grows into a gangling, garbage-can-overturning dog?

One answer to that question is found over at the Department of Children’s Services, where the frequency of cast-off children can break your heart.

Another is in the isolation too many in our society feel these days, which we know causes all kind of physical and emotional health problems and addictions. Not to mention, this National Suicide Prevention Week, the rise in suicides.

Truth is, long after we need someone to feed and dress us, we continue to need our team, continue to need people to lavish attention on us. In more or less degree, depending on the day. The members may change over time, the demands be less intense, but we never lose the need for a core group of nurturers. Which nurture, I quickly add, we pass along as we serve on other people’s teams, in one continual giving and receiving.

Oh my gosh, I’ve just paraphrased John Donne’s 17th century, “No man is an island.” Or Nick Hornby’s  21st century novel and film, “About a Boy: ” your choice of genre.

But that’s because it’s true. For hundreds of years ago, and still today, not matter what age we are.

We need a team.

36654088_10106298142224385_4374032713296904192_n

Stayin’ Alive

No food or fancy pics today, just a few thoughts on National Suicide Prevention Month, which is now, National Suicide Prevention Week, which is now, and World Suicide Prevention Day, which was yesterday.

You think somebody’s trying to get us to pay attention?

It’s a subject I’m not unfamiliar with. There have been three suicides and one attempt in my extended family. There was one suicide in my boarding school, with at least one “copy cat” attempt after. My psychiatrist brother, who served three tours of duty in Iraq helping soldiers cope with PTSD, could, if asked, offer anecdotes about the numbers of troubled vets in our country who struggle with the issue.

But most people don’t ask, because, let’s face it, it’s not a topic that wafts easily around a dinner table. Some people are embarrassed to say the word or find the topic “too depressing” to discuss. Others seem to think that if you don’t mention it, it won’t happen. You could call that denial, given the numbers of suicides in our society. I call it plain dumb. It’s kind of like not talking about cancer on the grounds that silence will make it go away.

When really, the opposite is the case: the more a medical issue can be talked about, the more information gets out about how to prevent the thing and the less death-by-whatever we have. Think of the lives saved when the dangers of smoking and lack of seat belts became public awareness campaigns.

Getting the thing out in the open is especially helpful when it’s mental/emotional health we’re talking about. Isolation in that case is just plain deadly. There’s an old 12-step saying, “Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood: don’t go there alone.” If a person is suicidal or depressed, the last thing he/she needs is to be left alone with the swirl of negative thoughts which if not checked can keep spiraling ever downward.

While the opportunity to open up–to be noticed, to be heard–can be life-saving.

Yet our society tries to keep the topic bubble-wrapped in silence:more comfortable that way.

Twenty or so years ago, I spent two months out west in a center for the treatment of people dealing with extreme trauma of some kind or other. Most of us landed there because old childhood issues had finally caught up with us; some of us landed there after being termed suicidal. One night, I remember sitting around the supper table with a few others talking about suicide in the kind of open, black-humor way that doctors and social workers and others who cope daily with extreme stress often adopt. Until a staff member came along and told us not to.  Suicide wasn’t a topic for general conversation, he said. Save it for the therapy rooms. You don’t want to give people ideas, he said.

Hold on a minute. If the idea hadn’t entered at least several heads, that center would’ve  been a lot emptier–and poorer– than it was. Did even that professional not realize the relief of actually being able to share openly with others who understood the struggle from personal experience? Not realize the relief of not having to act like all was well?

So, people, let’s talk about it. Let’s quit being afraid that using the word “suicide” is going to make it happen. Let’s get past the embarrassment, and frankly, the selfishness of not wanting to hear about “depressing” things. Do we not get that it’s a whole lot more depressing to be left alone with the issue?

Not to mention dangerous.

Let’s say the word, and maybe save a life.

close up photography of purple petaled flower

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

 

 

 

Bran New Start

My mood coach (aka my husband) has pointed out to me a number of times that improving your life in some dramatic way looks great in the movies, but isn’t so practical in normal life. Instead, what about making just a tiny percentage of it better? I was already aware of the how-to-meditate book and app by news anchor Dan Harris, 10%Happier, but ten percent seemed too ambitious a goal. Why not try for, well, 1%?

That is, instead of looking for some massive about-face–a new career! a new home! or, as some people seek, a new spouse!–what about tiny tweaks here and there to add a little more light and color to a day? Upbeat music instead of the news; an upbeat, inspiring novel instead of the latest gloomy literary fiction; choosing to play the piano for a few minutes instead of squeezing in one more chore.

It’s the oat bran muffin principle, really.

Say what?

Think about it. We all want to be healthier, right? And many of us make or feel we ought to make dramatic resolutions to get there. New gym membership, half marathon, going vegan.

Much more realistic to think of making tiny tweaks to existing regimens.

For instance, improve those dread cholesterol numbers and aging digestions by adding oat bran to the daily diet, which is both easy and delicious if you bake up a bunch of these muffins. I mean, they even look healthy, don’t they?

img_2539

An officemate of my spouse gave him the following recipe years ago and swore it turned her health around. My spouse already eats oatmeal every weekday, but these add much more fiber. And are portable. And imo taste a whole lot better than a bowl of oatmeal, no matter how much stuff you sprinkle on top.

I’ve played with the recipe so much over time to make it healthier that I don’t actually remember what the original is. So here’s my version:

Stir together:

1 1/2 cup oat bran

1 3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour (depending on my mood, I’ll substitute white flour for some of this so the muffins are a bit lighter)

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp soda

1/2-3/4 tsp salt

1/3-1/2 sugar of some kind (white, brown, splenda)

tsp each of nutmeg and cinnamon, or more to taste (You can play with the spices, or add grated lemon or orange peel or a splash of vanilla extract).

If you want raisins, now’s a good time to stir in a good 1/2 cup or so. I prefer frozen blueberries, which add all kinds of antioxidants.

Beat together by hand:

3 eggs (original recipe used egg whites only, I think. I’ve never bothered, since the medical world seems to be in favor of eggs again.)

2 TBS dark molasses

1/3 cup low fat buttermilk

6 Tbs unsweetened applesauce (I generally have some in the deep freeze from the fall crop. If you mistakenly buy sweetened applesauce, you’ll need to adjust the recipe’s sugar.)

1 Tbs plain nonfat yogurt.

(Note I’ve removed the oil from this recipe. The applesauce and yogurt add the moistness. If you want to use oil, just substitute a couple of TBS for the applesauce.)

Fork stir the wet ingredients into the dry. Do not over-mix. Use ice cream scoop to drop into muffin tin: I use a silicone one, which eliminates the need to grease the tins or use paper cupcake liners, which tend to stick to the baked muffin.

img_2537

Bake about 10 minutes at 375, until a toothpick comes out clean. Recipe makes about 24 muffins, depending on how large you make them. These freeze well.

img_2538

Happy health!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the Bake Goes On?

For my first personal baking endeavor, I dove right into the deep end with Paul Hollywood’s classic British Egg Custard Tarts, the technical challenge in season 3 of “The Great British Baking Show.” Why? Well, I was pretty confident about the pastry part, since I have a reputation for turning out perfect pie crusts thanks to a recipe I inherited from a friend’s grandmother. (Though there was the Thanksgiving I hurled an uncoooperative and crumbling ball of dough across the kitchen–the last time I’ll ever try adding whole wheat flour to the recipe…)

As well, whenever I “rub in” cubes of shortening with the flour, I hear the soft, faintly-Scots-inflected voice of our teacher talking us through the process–my family lived a year in England when I was a pre-teen, and I had a double period of Cookery each week. Every Thursday, I’d trot off, wicker basket over one blue-blazered arm to the bus stop to catch the red double-decker that took us to Bramcote Hill Grammar School. I’d return home at tea time bearing some treat for the family: scones, rock cakes, lemon curd, and kedgeree, which is a kind of casserole made with fish and boiled egg that I’ve happily never encountered since.

What I didn’t realize is there’s a big difference between making one pie crust and twelve little tart shells. What I also didn’t anticipate is that it’s one thing to try a new recipe that has one new technique. It’s something else entirely to try a recipe that has a whole bunch of them.

Plus I didn’t actually even have the full recipe, since the measurements were all in British and had to be converted. I also didn’t have most of the equipment you’d ideally use.

Well, Google took care of the conversions for me, and I discovered that a plain old blender is just fine for grinding raw almonds–though did you know that if you grind for too long, you risk turning them into almond butter?

 

The crust itself turned out to be not all that hard to put together, despite the use of almond meal to the usual flour/fat. It was just a little stiffer and more crumbly than plain pastry. I was careful to let it rest,  as I’d seen on the show,

img_2493

and meanwhile turned my attention to preparing the tart pan.

What should have been a tart pan. All I had was a silicone muffin tin. But I figured it would work, especially since I planned to use a tip I’d learned from the show: criss-cross strips of parchment paper beneath the raw crusts so I could easily lift them out. This was a whole lot harder than it sounds: those little strips of paper didn’t want to stay put and kept popping and slipping out. But eventually I forced them more or less into place.

img_2496

Time to cut out the shells but–no tart cutter. I improvised by free-hand-cutting circles a bit larger than an old jar lid. They weren’t pretty, and even less so by the time I’d poked them into place–none of the elegant crimping I usually do with pies–but–they were ready to blind-bake.

img_2498

 

 

The recipe doesn’t actually call for it, but everything I’d read talked about pre-baking pastry for eggy mixtures.

I knew the show’s bakers weighted down their empty crusts, so I carefully poured dried garbanzo beans into each one. A few minutes in the oven, and–another unknown skill. How do you get those beans OUT of the shells? They never showed that part on the show. Now obviously, I should have Googled for how-to, but by then I was too irritated by the amount of time all these new steps were taking to bother. I tried lifting those things out with my fingers. Nope, too slippery to grab more than a couple at a time. I tried a spoon: ditto. I tried carefully tipping the muffin tin up, but only a few beans tumbled out and all the shells threatened to.  I finally resorted to lifting each shell carefully up (thank goodness for those parchment strips) and c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y dumping out the beans. I only broke one shell, but since it wasn’t fully baked, was able to kind of squeeze it back together into a facsimile of what it had been.

About then was when I was tempted to hurl the whole project across the kitchen and to heck with it. But, like that long-ago Thanksgiving pie disaster, I knew who would have to clean up the mess.

Thankfully, the custard itself was easy to stir up, and I was proud of myself for figuring out on my own to pour the warmed milk extremely slowly into the egg mixture so it wouldn’t curdle.

The finished tarts weren’t at all beautiful, but they tasted great.  The custard had just the right sweetness, with a delicate hint of the nutmeg sprinkled on top. Which is good, because the recipe made a lot more custard than it did crust.

img_2501

 

And no soggy bottoms!

img_2504

Now I know what I’m doing, kind of, I’m going to make these things again. Maybe. Though it’s tempting to think of making just one single large tart…. And next bake, I’m going to choose a recipe with only a single new technique.

These are the American measurements I came up with:

  • For the sweet pastry
  • 165g/5¾oz plain flour=1/1/3 cup
  • 25g/1oz ground almonds=5.3 TBS
  • 120g/4¼oz chilled unsalted butter, cubed= 1/2stick
  • 55g/2oz caster sugar=4.5 TBS plain granulated sugar (which I blender-ground VERY slightly to make it finer. Beware: grind too long, and you’ll get confectioner’s sugar.
  • 1 free-range egg
  • For the custard filling
  • 700ml/1¼ pint full-fat milk=2 1/2 cup
  • 7 free-range egg yolks
  • 90g/3¼oz caster sugar=1/2 cup
  • freshly ground nutmeg

And no, I’m not including the actual recipe because it’s not mine. I refer you to the PBS Food page (clink link).

May your tarts hold together, your kitchen hold the right equipment, and your soul a whole lot more patience!

The Peace of Cake

img_2468

 

I have a low tolerance for disorder. Though not as obsessive as friends at the gym where I work part-time who actually fold and tidy the tumble of t-shirts, towels, socks and what-have-you that make up our lost and found bin, I think I spend too much time picking up and putting away.

With our nation in a mess, the Church in chaos, and my mind in its usual muddle, to quote from The Mikado, “a thing of shreds and patches,” it’s no wonder that my urge to organize is on over-drive.

The reality is I can’t do a lot for the nation other than raise great kids, which I’ve done, unless it’s to help get out the vote for our next election. The Church? I’ve written what I can for the appropriate channels. And my brain?

Oh well.

So, perhaps time for a kind of retreat from the mess to what I can do, a kind of “il faut cultiver notre jardin,” to quote Voltaire’s oft-quoted phrase from the conclusion to Candide.

Not literally: until the weather turns, I have to leave the gardening to James, who isn’t bothered by heat and humidity.  It’s books, baking, and the small things of domestic tranquility I have on the brain right now.

The baking isn’t exactly a new interest. I’ve been doing that since my grandmother gave me this now much-battered cookbook for Christmas the year I was eight. IMG_2532 (1)I pored over its recipes and anecdotes the way other kids  read comic books, which weren’t allowed in our house anyway. Betty Crocker’s Boys and Girls Cook Book  had everything from scrambled eggs and Mother’s Day menus to a castle cake complete with turrets and drawbridge which I longed to create but never had the ingredients for. My first-ever bake was much simpler: “Sparkling Sugar Cookies,” which I still make to family applause.

img_25421

As a young parent, I baked all our family’s bread, cookies, cakes, bagels, and muffins from scratch with as much whole-grain and as little sugar as possible. To the point that my kids accused me of adding bran to their birthday cakes (nope: that was grated zucchini). We even had a grain mill attached to our porch railing, and one of the kids’ daily chores was to grind a cup of fresh flour.

As an older parent, there was just too much else to do to bother with baking, and anyway, any one of the kids could turn out a batch of cookies. A skill they all retain: Tommy drove down from Indiana last Mother’s Day to present me with a Death-by-Chocolate pie he’d created.

img_22301

 

So why mess with baking now, especially as an empty nester? Well, I haven’t much–until Tommy introduced me to The Great British Baking Show.

Watching those gifted, patient contestants turn out elegant petit fours, show-stopper cakes, filled and braided and sculpted breads, I realize how creative an act baking can be, indeed, in their hands, an art. I started wondering, can it also be a meditative act, as mind-calming as being lost in a good book?

That’s what I want to find out, as I try for the next few weekends to make my way through some new recipes. Some will be British classics; others, my more health-conscious offerings, though I have to admit I have a much more liberal hand with sugar than in the old days.

I invite you to join in the journey.

Do you bake? Favorite recipe?

 

 

 

 

 

Warming Winter Books

IMG_1753

 

I lied.

The books I’m thinking of will only warm you up by contrast. No Caribbean cruises here.

Every winter, sometime after nearing the bottom of  Christmas stocking chocolate and before Lenten discipline begins to pall, I find myself craving the sparseness of black tea and its literary equivalent. In such moods I often turn to books like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter,” her semi-autobiographical novel about the endless blizzards of 1880-1 in what was then Dakota Territory. Impassable snow lasted from October to May, and the townspeople nearly starved to death before the trains could run again.

IMG_1778

Wilder’s book , with its description of long, grey, claustrophobic days spent huddled around the meager warmth of a stove fueled with twists of hay always makes me grateful for the light, color, and warmth of my life.

This year, I ran into Ruth Sapetys’ “Between Shades of Gray,” Weather again becomes a matter of life and death, this time because fifteen-year-old Lina, her younger brother and mother are dragged from their home in the middle of the night by the Soviet police and thrown into a packed boxcar bound for Siberia. Their crime? They’re in Stalin’s way.  They are Lithuanians, and in 1941, Stalin has taken the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia for his own. This strenuously-researched young adult novel depicts a time of history that few people are aware of and with good reason. The Soviets didn’t begin to withdrawn their troops until 1993, and for all that time, the few survivors of the deportations lived in terrified silence because to tell their story would result in re-arrest or death.

I had a college friend whose family was from Estonia. I told her I’d never heard of it. Now I know why.

The story of Lina and her fellow prisoners is such a compelling one that once I began reading, I couldn’t stop. The prisoners are worked to death, first in frigid Siberia, subsisting, if they can stay on their feet and work and don’t run afoul of the Soviet guards, on a daily piece of bread. Then Lina and her family are transported to even worse –believe it or not–conditions: taken by barge to a spot in the upper Arctic Circle where they are to build a fish camp for the Soviets.  When they have time, they’re allowed to gather driftwood, moss, and frozen mud to create flimsy makeshift huts in which they must somehow survive the Arctic cold. When Lina comments that the ground is already frozen when they arrive in August, you get a faint inkling of what the long, dark Arctic winter will bring to these scantily-clad, emaciated prisoners.

Yet this is also a story filled with hope, with heart, with the power of love to transfigure the grimmest of moments. Each character becomes someone you care about, someone whose survival you root for.  A gifted artist, Lina decides early on to get word to her father of their whereabouts by sketching snippets from their daily life on bits of paper or bark which she passes along whenever she gets a chance. You find yourself willing each scrap to reach its destination, to survive as testament to the lives they document, even as so many of those lives end. I reviewed it in my “Bookmarked” column in this week’s edition of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger.

“Between Shades of Gray” reminded me of a paperback I bought for something like fifty cents decades ago through one of those Scholastic magazines we used to get in grade school. I still have it: “The Endless Steppe: A Girl in Exile.

IMG_1775 In it, author Esther Hautzig tells her own story of the years she spent in Siberia after she and her Polish family are arrested by the Soviet police in 1941 for the crime of being “capitalists.”   As in Sapetys’ novel, this is one of survival, but also hope and love.

These books are like Lina’s drawings, documentation of vibrant human life in the midst of death.  Somehow they suit winter, when all of nature sleeps, when I most need reminding of life.  They make me aware of the light and laughter that exist in spite of cruel weather or crueler man; they make me actively grateful for the ludicrous number of comforts that cushion our cold winter days.

Your winter reading?