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 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 Secondary Trauma of Doubt

I’m not talking about my doubt here. I’m talking about yours. Which in the sad circular way of emotional/psychological dynamics, can easily become mine.

Doubt that what I experienced was real, that is. Doubt that it matters enough to talk about it. Doubt that the healing process of dealing with what happened is fundamental to emotional wholeness. Trauma survivors already tend to question and second-guess themselves constantly: “what did I do wrong?/ what’s wrong with me that this happened?”, riffs on the “it was my fault” so common with battered wives. How much easier to yield to the powerful and popular attitudes of “it was a long time ago; the past is past; just let it go; aren’t you over that yet?” of those who have no experience–or understanding–of trauma.


Fear of not being believed is almost as traumatizing as whatever happened in the first place. Being doubted shoves the survivor further into isolation, when already one of the hardest parts about being a trauma survivor is the loneliness of the condition. Not only do you already carry the guilt and shame that “something must have been wrong with me that this happened,” which is the norm for victims of physical, sexual, emotional or psychological violence, you regularly face, if you are able to go public with your experience, the doubt, disbelief and, almost as lethal, minimization of it by those around you. It’s usually easier to say nothing, which means you continue on with a life where you live one way on the surface and a whole different reality inside. Which means you continue to feel different; estranged; less than.


Just as you did when you were a victim.

Is it any wonder survivors don’t speak openly about their experiences, even with those closest to them? Let alone speak specifically against the abuser, let alone do that in a public way.

All reasons it galls me, the doubt we’re hearing from those who are convinced the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh are fabrications because they are only now being brought forward.

Who in their right mind wants to go through the public trashing given to those who, to steal a saying of the Quakers, “speak truth to power?”

It takes more courage than you can imagine to open up about abuse of whatever kind. Survivors are extremely good at sensing the thoughts and feelings of those they interact with. For those who endured extended childhood trauma, for instance, safety and sometimes survival depended on reading every mood shift of the adults around them.  The least hint of a negative response in a listener–boredom, indifference, disbelief, rejection–and communication shuts down. Survivors expect rejection, and with good reason. Again, it’s no wonder that so many choose never to tell anyone about what happened. It’s also completely normal, so to speak, that decades would go by before speaking out. It can take that long to attain sufficient trust in a world that before proved nothing but threat or terror.

I’m sure people are tired of hearing about abuse, harassment, assault. Imagine living with the scars of the above for a lifetime.













Something For Nothing

Steaming over something or other with a little politics thrown in, I took myself for a walk up our long gravel drive the other day. Might as well get some exercise if you’re going to be in a fuming frame of mind.

So the gift I found at the end of the drive caught me totally by surprise.

We moderns don’t believe it’s possible that we’ll ever get something for nothing. We’re too well schooled in the ways Facebook and other “free” internet sites make millions of dollars out of us.

And yet–

Consider the humble persimmon. I had to, when right there on the road in front of my foot were four perfect little gems.

img_2621They hadn’t been there the hour before when I took our dog out for a walk. They had just dropped and weren’t yet squashed by a car or claimed by the hordes of birds and raccoons who wait for them every fall.

If you’re not from the rural South, you may be unfamiliar with the persimmon. Just think tiny mango, in a gentle red-orange instead of green.  They don’t fall till they’re completely ripe: completely squishy, that is, and if they’re not, you don’t want to bite into one.  Unless you like your mouth puckering up with an astringency beyond description.

The persimmon is the poor man’s mango, a fruit I didn’t taste until I was well past middle age. When I was a kid, fruit meant red delicious apples and canned fruit cocktail. Unless we were visiting my North Carolina grandparents in early fall. There we ate muscadine grapes warm off the vine and picked gnarled, sweet-tart apples from a hunchbacked tree behind the garden.

Now that our small-town groceries carry mangoes, I’ve had a few, and last week our neighbor brought us back several from her farm in Florida.



They’re huge, approaching the size of one of those souvenir mini-footballs.  Soft as butter, sweeter than honey: after one bite, I wondered who needs ice cream when there’s fruit like that?

(Scratch that thought: everyone needs ice cream.)

But mangoes, muscadines, and apples have to be tended by someone. Pruned, sprayed, you name it. The persimmon just–grows. At least that one does. I certainly didn’t plant it. I don’t do anything to tend it. And I sure didn’t climb the fifty feet or so to harvest it. I simply gathered what fell to me.

In short, I didn’t do anything to earn it, but I walked back to the house with a handful of soft, warm fruit. Where it struck me: isn’t that a lot like life? We didn’t do anything to deserve it. We certainly didn’t earn it. And yet–here we are. We’ve been given something–a whole universe of it, in fact–for nothing.

That’s a nice counterweight to this week.



The Sunday Afternoon Blahs





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.


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.


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? 








It Takes a Team



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.


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




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?


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.


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.


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,


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.


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.




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.



And no soggy bottoms!


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!