Friday, February 26, 2010

Planning for Perfect Enough

At long last (OK, after three weeks), version two of our possible house plan arrived from the draftsman. It's closer to what we want but still got covered with pencil scratchings. Finding the right plan is proving harder than I ever thought possible.

Oh, I expected to spend some time on the process. And I know that I am one to analyze and dream and research, so I was prepared to do all of those and enjoy them very much. But I had no idea that I would obsessively search every internet plan seller on nine Googled pages without finding a single plan that was basically right enough to just tweak and use.

Objectively speaking, any number of plans could work in some fashion, but I'd like to do better than that. The site seems to me to require certain things, like making the sweeping back view available to all the main living areas and locating the very necessary mud entrance on what will be the garden side of the house. Those requirements dictate a general placement of spaces that wasn't all that common in the stock plans I viewed. Nor did I find a single workable plan with the type of gables we'd like, a version that's currently uncommon for new construction but so right for our desired salute to the history of our area. And, with an average building cost of $100.00 per square foot around here, it has to be as economical as possible to construct, with enough space but no wasted space.

Luckily we're blessed with our talented preacher-man who started out to be an architect before God called otherwise and who does house plans for his church members as a hobby. Without this gift, we simply could not afford the architectural fees to design our own home. We would have to be OK with making do or finding a talented builder who could possibly make suitable changes. With this gift of a friend, we have the luxury of custom design.

The custom option is wonderful in that it allows us to craft a house to suit the site and the way we live, and daunting in that we have to decide everything, from the exterior style and roofing to windows and basement (or not). And there are so many options, in stair placement and form alone. Then there's the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the kitchen layout, the porch detailing... I'm trying to stay with the creative thrill of designing our own home and the challenge of making our dreams fit our budget, but there are moments when I think it would be easier to just move into an existing structure and adapt ourselves to it. But that's wimpy thinking. Yes, it m
ight be easier, but not more satisfying.

I remind myself that this is the messy back and forth part of project planning, which I remember from designing custom built-ins in the cottage we sold.

The vision seemed fuzzy at first, but gained clarity with each pass. All the discussion, thought, and imaginary versions meant that there were only minor details that I would possibly have changed on that project. I hope for equal success with our dream house.

I have even more confidence that we can do this thing since finding this blog. It contains lots of useful information and pictures of their completed house which has just the look we're going for--both old and new at the same time.
In fact, they used the same siding, roofing, window style, and porch construction that we are considering. Seeing a real example of what we have previously only imagined makes me certain that it can work.

With all that said, I have to remind myself occasionally that there is no way to get it all right on the first house one has ever designed. My mother-in-law, who helped plan the house in which we are currently living, has already advised us that there will be things we'll wish we'd done differently after it's completed. I'm willing to make peace with the fact that it won't be perfect, but I'm determined to exercise the necessary patience with this exciting but agonizing stage to make it, as my friend Melinda says, perfect enough.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Footprints in the Waning Snow

These are mine heading out for a walk.

These are father-in-law's heading over to the barn.

I wonder what made these?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Birthday Neurosis

I have a confession to make: I am an absolute baby about my birthday. I am pitiable enough to wish every year, in the needy recesses of my mind, that the fairy godmother of birthdays would bestow upon me a magical day filled with presents and goodies and adventures. My wretched heart would love to wake up to Queen for the Day treatment and soap operatic outpourings of love that would convince me once and for all (until next year) that I am truly so loved and valued that my poor family and friends just couldn't help but devote time and effort to displaying how very glad they are that I was born. Two weeks ago, I even tearily asked my husband to please not let my birthday be just a regular day. (No pressure, right? In my defense, it was bedtime. I'm at my lowest then.)

I realize that I may feel so strongly about this belief because I not so secretly want to make up for past deprivations. I didn't grow up feeling, shall we say, treasured; birthdays were a mite predictable in my past life; and there were years when those who were supposed to love me didn't seem glad enough that I was born to do anything about it. Those neglects hurt, but they forced me to stop using my birthday as a test of my worth to the world and to take responsibility for my own day in the same way that I try to take responsibility for my own life. They also made me determined to let others know that I'm glad they were born, so they'll never have to feel unimportant like I did. Besides I can't expect to get what I don't give, now can I?

So you see, I've had my therapy. I do not let my inner child terrorize the household. I'm honest about her whining, but the considered adult in me mostly commands the executive desk of my mind. I long ago quit expecting that others should provide for me. However, I still believe that birthdays should not be ordinary days--for anyone. In fact, I staunchly maintain that everyone's special day should feel special, full of treats from morning til night. We should all have at least one day each year to feel happy to be born.

For me, having the same old day doesn't produce the glad-to-be-here joie de vivre I have in mind for a birthday. To this end, I usually begin thinking about how I'd like to celebrate (taking personal responsibility, remember) and making countdown announcements well in advance. I'm not playing emotional games, I enjoy the anticipation, and my loved ones are properly advised in case they might want with me (not that I expect them to).

Well, Wednesday was my birthday, and I hadn't even noticed it's approach until it was nigh upon me.
This year I was too preoccupied with other things to plan my own party. First, I was scheduled to be in class on that day. Then there was the unpredictability of my son's schedule and the unending snow, both of which made planning any outing problematic. I also wasn't enthused about spending a bunch of money right now that could be saved for the house building in our future. I have no place to put most material gifts I might want anyway. Plus I was experiencing heart palpitations and chest pressure. And my grandfather died, producing my biggest hanging decision in the days before my birthday. Could I make it to the funeral two and a half hours away or not? (I didn't. Cursed snow!)

For all those cheery reasons, by Tuesday night I was fending off micro pity parties caused by the lack of anything to anticipate, and on Wednesday morning when my husband said "Happy Birthday" first thing, my only response was a weak "Whoo hoo."

But once I was up and cognizant, I shifted into grown up mode and had chai tea with milk and honey to wake up, and French toast and bacon for breakfast--both different, special, holiday worthy. Then I asked myself what treat I could provide for me in the city before class started. The answer? Tour the biggest Liquor Barn in that town for some expensive chocolates. Reading David Lebovitz's archives has reawakened both my Francophilic tendencies and my passion for good chocolate, so my plan was to look for some of the brands that he had mentioned as being particularly delicious. Of course, a few other things jumped into my basket. I didn't throw them out because it was MY BIRTHDAY!

I welcomed the Comte cheese, just because I've heard of it and never tried it--and it's French. The Paris tea couldn't be rejected because the tin was just too pretty, and it was the last one on the shelf (Always a sign, right?). The other tea was one of my favorite brands and a half price orphan. It needed me. And though I blanched at the cost of those mostly teeny bars of chocolate, I bought them anyway because it was MY BIRTHDAY! The names alone made me feel like a princess: Valhrona, Dagoba, Scharffenberger. Mmmm.

And yes, that torn wrapper means I sampled in the parking lot. Hey, it was MY BIRTHDAY! And now it felt as if it was. I had given myself luxurious, definitely out-of-my-ordinary treats that I could enjoy for days to come. I even pushed past the face flushing when I saw the total cost because it was MY BIRTHDAY! And I was satisfied, in the best grown up, I-did-it-myself kind of way.

The great thing about being responsible for yourself is that you aren't at the mercy of others when you want to be happy.
Anything else is gravy, icing, sprinkles on the top. Like the unexpected Facebook and email wishes, and a humorous Paris-themed e-card from my sister. Those and my mad little tour of culinary pleasures took care of my festivity needs well enough.

But there was more. When I finally dragged home at 11-something, my husband had a gift bag waiting for me. He bought me an inspiring book, a CD of French music, and a monogrammed note pad. Very sweet. But the best part was the card. I had wondered what I could hear his parents finding so delightfully amusing over the phone earlier in the evening. This was it.

It's a jaunty little fold out creation with parts that move (bobbing piggies!) and swing (the sign), impressive because of its engineering and ridiculously cute. Plus it symbolizes our farm dreams. It's a card, and it's not just a card. It's like the best, most unnecessary toy. Pure fun. I'll be leaving it out to admire for a while, I'm sure.

I still remember a birthday six years ago when my then-fiance asked me what I wanted to do in honor of the day. All I could think to say was that I wanted to be somewhere up high where I could see the stars. So we and my son coated up, drove to the farm, took the four wheeler to the top of a hill, and admired the stars in the cold and darkness, while eating chocolates that I had brought and shooing off nosy cows. That day had seemed underwhelming, too, but turned out to be quite memorable because I didn't wait for someone else to figure out what I wanted and provide it.

And then there was the very first birthday that I consciously gave to myself instead of hoping someone else would make it good. I headed out to shop in the city but was blocked by snow. After I dejectedly returned home, a friend called and invited me to lunch (lobster bisque and salad with my first Thai peanut dressing), after which I laid on my tiny love seat with my feet up listening to an uplifting book on tape and watching the snow fall. It was nothing like I'd planned, nothing much at all in fact, but I remember it still.

The point here is that three birthdays out of the last seven have begun disappointingly only to end memorably when I didn't get caught up in trying to make the day super special. My goal is to someday convince that inner girl to quit wondering if anyone really cares if she was born, so the days can be naturally good. And while I've ceased hoping others will make my birthday wonderful, I need to take some pressure off myself, too.

It also occurs to me that my compulsion (which had been puzzling me) to write about my birthday neurosis dovetails revealingly with an article and quiz that my husband shared with me recently. Through them I learned that my locus of control is still too externalized, a fancy psych phrase which means that I haven't taken full hold of the reins of my life. I still wait too much for life to move rather being the mover.

By the way, I was making significant progress in the birthday area, but this year that long list of challenges made it harder--a little back sliding, as my Granny would have said. Here's hoping that I have many more birthdays to practice being worry free about getting and many more years to try dancing on the wire without looking down. I'll probably need them. But being a little less neurotic would be a fine birthday gift any year now.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When Life Hands You Black Bananas

All I can say about last weekend is "Thank God for pot luck on Sunday!"

Back in my other life of barely managed busyness, I wouldn't have said that. I really enjoy a good church pot luck dinner and want to contribute, but with an already exhausting life, it was difficult to be up to the adventure of picking and preparing dishes back then. Now, with weekends being way too leisurely for my mental health, I was glad to be in the kitchen.

As I pondered what to make, my eyes fell on these.

What to do when life hands you black bananas? No, don't throw them out as my mother-in-law was about to do! This is the time to think of baking. When bananas are so overripe that you can, as The Village Baker's Wife cookbook says, almost pour them out of their skins, they are in the perfect condition to lend their over abundance of flavor to something yummy. Since I was in the market for a dessert, I immediately thought of banana cake with cream cheese frosting, which is a delicious combination if you haven't sampled it. (Of course, there's also banana cake with caramel frosting and banana cake with chocolate frosting, but I distract myself.)

If you haven't already guessed, that aforementioned cookbook containing the excellent recipe that began my love affair with banana cake is packed away in a tottering pile of storage boxes. So instead of pulling out my trusty old friend, I pulled a basic banana cake recipe off the internet and adapted a tiny thing or two. (Why ever would the baking soda need to go in the banana puree anyway?) Then, this being not my kitchen, I could find no layer cake pans, so I decided to make a Susie homemaker sheet cake in my mother-in-law's pan with the handy dandy lid. All the better for toting anyway. Or so I thought.

No sooner had I started to mix up the cake, than I was slammed by Loser-itis. With my father-in-law sitting at the bar asking questions and making...ahem ...helpful suggestions, I realized that it's been a while since I made a cake. I suddenly lost confidence in my grasp on proper creaming (the all important step in scratch cakes), felt compelled to check my technique on the internet, chickened out, dumped out the butter and sugar that suddenly looked so wrong to me, and started over--using the last of the butter, which meant that I would have to go back into town for more before I could make the icing. An auspicious beginning, don't you think?

But it gets better. I started adding the dry ingredients before the eggs but corrected myself in time to avoid a disaster of tough proportions, then finally got the thing mixed and in the pan and into the oven, after which I thought it would all be downhill from there.

But no, not downhill at all. When the baking time was complete, I realized that I had not noticed quite how dark the nonstick surface of the pan was and therefore had not dropped the oven temperature by 25 degrees to avoid over browning. And the cake stuck a little anyway! So much for nonstick pans.

We now pause for an educational note for any baking newbies (which, contrary to the image produced by my star crossed stories on this blog, I am not): Equipment really does matter. I have been totally spoiled by the straight-sided, shiny-surfaced cake pans that I picked up through my previous bakery job. If I'd had a pan like this, my cake wouldn't have turned out about an inch tall and way too dark. Yes, professional grade pans are a little more expensive, but they're an investment in lots better results and worth every penny. I look forward to being reunited with mine someday.

Anyway, now I had an unimpressive cake that shamed my status as a culinary wannabe but that also tasted quite good. This ugly duckling needed a makeover. So I trimmed off the overdone edges, cut the cake in half, and stacked the halves with icing in between and on top only (There would literally have been one crumby mess if I had tried to frost the sides.) A sprinkle of toasted walnuts on top and Banarella was ready for the ball. It looked almost like I meant to do that.

My husband said about this misadventure that the mark of a professional isn't that she doesn't make mistakes, but that she can salvage them. I don't know about that bit of comfort, but it sure reminded me of the fruit destined for the trash that was now a tasty dessert and the underwhelming sheet cake that got doctored into a torte of sorts. Salvage operations can turn out pretty well sometimes. So I guess the moral of this story is: When life hands you black bananas, don't despair. Make cake! (In a good pan.)

Banana Cake with Cream Cheese Icing
adapted from Moms Who Think

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup milk
1/2-1 teaspoon vanilla
3 very ripe bananas, pureed

Cream Cheese Frosting
1/2 cup butter, softened
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 lb powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour one 9" x 13" pan or two 9" round pans.
2) Cream butter and sugar until fluffy and lightened in color. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each.
3) Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
4) To the butter mixture, add the flour mixture and milk alternately, beginning and ending with the flour.
5) Stir in the vanilla and pureed bananas.
6) Pour batter into pan(s) and bake 35-40 minutes for 9" x 13" pan or 25-30 minutes for 9" round pan.
7) Let 9" x 13" cake cool in pan. Turn out 9" round layers onto rack to cool completely.

Frosting directions
1) Mix butter and cream cheese until smooth.
2) Add powdered sugar and vanilla and blend well.
3) Spread on top of 9" x 13" cake or on top and sides of 9" round layers.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentine's Day Score

I have to do it. I can't help myself. I had another topic in mind, but it will wait for another day. I simply must record my husband's great success this Valentine's Day. He gave me what I consider to be the perfect kind of gift. It wasn't expensive or materially precious or showy grand, but instead very thoughtful and sweet and put together by his own hand, not just bought out right.

But first, a few words about Valentine's Day itself. Neither of us likes consumeristic spendathon holidays when you buy stuff simply because.
We don't want to just get the usual chocolates or flowers (Mostly, although it has been done), or just go out to eat along with everyone else on the planet. (I tried dinner out one year a long time ago. I have never yet done that again.) But we also can't go without doing something. An official day to celebrate love is too good an opportunity to pass up. We both view this holiday as a challenge to find a small sweet gesture to communicate love in a fresh, inventive, and personal way.

Here I have to note that my husband has it harder than some men. My birthday is the 17th, just three days after Valentine's Day. He has two holidays for which to ante up within a week. He gets extra points for degree of difficulty.

This year, while searching for inspiration for Holiday #1, My Beloved found a lovely idea that he decided to put together himself rather than just buying off the web. He filled a three-picture frame with the numbers of our wedding date, created by obtaining images online, manipulating them into the appropriate shape and size (He's a photo shop fan), and printing them out. Someday it's going to look great hung with the black, white, and gray-tone portrait of me in my wedding finery that he did for my birthday last year and his matching wedding self-portrait when he gets it done (when we have a house again). It's a keeper for sure.

He's a keeper, too, but not because of his facility with gifts. He could send the biggest bouquet of flowers or buy the most expensive handmade chocolates at the expected holiday and dishonor me the rest of the year with inattention and lack of consideration. So while I appreciate a good gift, if I had to pick, I would take every day love and respect instead. Those are the marital meals which sustain the relationship. The holiday gifts are desserts.

In case you're wondering, I gave him a Waffle House coffee mug. That doesn't sound like much, but that choice too reflects thought. Months ago he told me that he would like to have one at home. I remembered that wish, and found out online that the shops will sell them.
The mug only cost a few dollars. What impressed my husband was that I even remembered what he said and then went to the trouble to track it down.

Our gifts to each other this year were the product of a little purchasing, a little assembly or research time, and, most importantly, a hefty dose of thought. And it really is the thought that, as they say, counts. The simple fact that he thinks of me in his every day is the biggest reason that I know--every day--that he loves me. Isn't that all any of us really wants?

I'll know what the picture frame cost on Friday when I check the bank website. The thought is priceless.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Let There Be Light

This morning I went out on the front porch and looked toward the south.

Then I looked toward the north.

And what did I see?

A strange substance bathing the atmosphere. SUNSHINE! And blue sky! Wow! Let us rejoice and be glad!

Well, that was a lot of exclamation points, but it's been a while since we've seen the sun. Like most everyone else, we're getting winter this year in full measure. This beautiful day of sunny reprieve was balm to my spirits, making it so much more delightful to be puttering about the house doing laundry and writing and baking bread. I try to simply accept the weather and all other things beyond my control for what they are, but sunshine is definitely good for the soul.

When I was out on the porch taking the pictures and basking for a moment, I reminded myself that not too far away are days when the summer sun will be beating down and driving us to retreat from it. Today the sun's light is warm and expansive, and I am grateful. In summer the sun's heat is sometimes oppressive, but I love it then, too. It's always changing, and always what it should be.

It was a jewel of a day, perhaps the only one for another week if I saw the forecast graphic correctly. I'll just file it away in my memory until the next one. It will come.

***A farmification note. Those little black spots in the view to the north are cows. I'm still getting used to hearing the occasional mooing when I go outside. You know you're in the country when your nearest neighbors are animals.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Helpful Visit

Last night, we were invited to a friend's house. We had a nice dinner and pleasant conversation, but those weren't the real reasons we were asked or that we accepted. We really came for the barn tour, the wood stove experience, and the drainage information. I guess you could call it a mentoring evening.

You see, our friends Dee and Tom have a farm--that possession which is the object of our desire. Being a very supportive and generous person, Dee suggested that we come over some evening and tour their barn, to stimulate ideas for our own someday. Snuggling up with tea by the wood stove got thrown in because the person drawing our house plans seemed skeptical that a wood stove could heat an entire two-story house. (Cozy heat, verified.) The drainage tutelage was a welcome bonus. Besides, Dee knows how it is to be stricken with farm hopefulness. She searched for five years to find the right farm for them, so she's happy to help someone else in the throes. They're both inspiring examples from whom we can learn much--like maybe fearlessness.

Dee and Tom, with a little help from friends on a couple of big steps (like erecting the main posts), built their barn all by themselves. Tom dug the holes for the footers by hand using a post hole digger, then mixed and poured the cement himself. They raised the verticals and attached the horizontals. They built stairs to the loft instead of a ladder to make moving things up and down easier. They figured out a cheap way to create horse proof bars in the stalls. They wired it. They even painted it all pretty. It took them four months, but (and here's something that in the past I never would have expected to say) it's a lovely barn. I'm only sorry that there are no pictures because I'm a Loser blogger who hasn't yet learned to carry her camera everywhere. But back to Dee.

Dee is one of my heroes--a creative, energetic, well rounded soul who bakes breakfast treats for church every Sunday but who also operates power tools comfortably. She hangs wallpaper, paints, keeps the church clean, and sells a few eggs when her girls are really laying. In her spare time she's president of the local Woman's Club. When we were visiting she showed us what was probably a floor model ashtray sans its actual ash holding portion that she picked up on the curb somewhere. She plans to paint it in the local university colors, put glass on the top to make it a small table, and donate it to the Woman's Club's charity ball silent auction. (Yes, she doesn't just think of these projects. She actually does them.) She also has made a scrapbook for every year that she and her husband have been married. This is not a cutesy newlywed thing. They've been married long enough to have their first grandchild. Oh, and her house is fully decorated, not that she doesn't have future projects still. (That last one always gets me. Someday, I swear...) In short, she's amazing. When I grow up I want to be like Dee.

Now about that wood stove.
I've lived with one before, but in a one story house, so I was very relieved, after the architect's doubtfulness, to feel for myself that her pretty little Vermont Castings model did indeed heat their entire two story house, even without optimal design for single-source heat. The wood stove is on one end of the lower floor, so the upstairs is a little cooler but comfortable with a sweatshirt. (Hey, it's winter.) We plan to place our wood stove, along with the stairs, in the center of an open plan first floor, so our results should be even better. But if it's cooler upstairs, all the better for sleeping under a down comforter. At least, I know it works.

As for our drainage bonus, we didn't see it coming, but it was welcome. Tom is a wetlands specialist with a natural resources agency. Just ask him about the possibility of rehabbing your old pond, and away he goes. The man seriously knows how to manage and move water. His brain will be handy pickings when we get to farming and need a clean pond, but that night he had a lot to say about keeping a basement dry in this part of the country, which is even more immediately relevant. Now we can have an intelligent conversation with builders about that issue. He even gave us the name of an excavator with whom he's worked who's an alleged drainage whiz. This information was an unsolicited blessing. I've had the misery of a wet basement before. I don't want to go through that again, especially when it will (hopefully) be our root cellar.

Sometimes I feel daunted by all that goes into making our farm dream come true. Not just building the house, but getting a barn up somehow and raising animals well and learning to garden (I'm death to all but the hardiest plants). Thankfully, there are swell people like Dee and Tom who happily encourage us and prove that impressive things can be accomplished with a little daring and a lot of hard work. They help us believe that we can do it, too. Someday I hope to sit beside my own wood stove and uplift others as they share their dreams, whatever they may be, while remembering those who helped us, in a chain of support as natural as the world outside our cozy home.

My UnAmerican Activities Report

If there is ever again a House UnAmerican Activities Commission, I will probably be called before it. Not because I'm a Communist. We're over that now. No, they will probably be interested in some other odd choices that make me feel like an outsider, even while they feel very right for me. I'll just get them out in the open now, so that if I'm hustled into the back of a markedly unmarked car, you'll know why.

Firstly, the Super Bowl was last weekend. And I didn't even know it til two days beforehand. It sneaks up on me every year because I have zero interest in sports. I follow no game, no team, and no players with the exception of my son who, in defiance of direct genetic influence, loves sports supremely. As I've always told him, I'm his fan, not a sports fan. He's cool with that, but other people have given me that uncomprehending look. How could I not know about one of the biggest games and television events of the year? Won't I watch it at least for the commercials?

That last question leads to my next oddity: I don't watch TV. I haven't had cable since I divorced it in 2001, and even now that we live with my parents-in-law and their big old flat screen, I don't really pay much attention to it. I've never thought it worth spending money for, frankly. Plus I have bad associations from life with my father and my former husband, both of whom had the thing on constantly. I've got some greater philosophical objections as well--backed up by science, I might add--but I'll spare you the sermon. Mostly I'd rather live life than watch other people live theirs.

Another weird habit I've taken up recently is driving below the speed limit on the interstate. One day when I was feeling particularly laid back, I tried it. Then I read in a magazine that driving slower uses less fuel. That got my attention. (Gas was over $3.00 a gallon then.) I get two complete trips to the city for culinary class, instead of one and a half, when I set the cruise control at 65 mph instead of 70. Plus I rarely have to change lanes. Everyone else is rushing on by me, while I'm cruising along feeling relaxed and smug. And the difference in travel time? About three minutes. I am so hooked.

I also don't drink pop anymore. Ever. That must be really unAmerican because surely you've noticed the size of the soft drink aisles everywhere. I never really tolerated it very well anyway, since I couldn't burp until I was 40 (I told you I was a weirdo). Then I was ordered to give up all caffeine for the duration of pregnancy and nursing. After about 18 months without the stuff, I couldn't handle the syrupy sweetness--not even my formerly beloved Mountain Dew. I tried, one hot day when I couldn't find bottled water at a crafts fair, to share one with my husband in order to avoid dehydration. I didn't make it past three sips. My days with liquid candy are over.

Then there's my debt phobia. I haven't had much in my life, but it's mostly been mine free and clear as soon as I could make it so. I do have student loans coming due soon (I'll pay them back ASAP, like we did my husband's) and one credit card--that I never use. I kept it for emergencies, but there hasn't been one for about three years now. We don't have a car payment and don't intend to have one ever again (although we will stomach a mortgage, the only good debt to have, to build our dream house.) When we bought our truck, we traded in my Miata (goodbye Mimi) and paid the balance in cash. It's amazing how agreeable they are to your counter offer when you also offer to write them a check today.

Oh, and I rarely buy anything in all the aisles that fill the middle of the grocery store either--the ones where all the food products live. I shop mostly from the perimeter where the actual foods tend to be offered. Maybe that's why I've been feeding 2 1/2 of us (my son is only with us half the time) on about $50.00-60.00 a week in groceries for years now. I've had some pretty amazed looks from friends about that feat, too. Buying real food and cooking it is cheaper and better for you, but apparently not that common judging from the expanding mid section of my local grocery stores.

Nor do I have any ambitions that involve a big house. We've been living in about 1000 square feet for the last six years, and we're hoping to keep our dream home to about 1500, which is practically tiny according to the plan books, in case you haven't looked lately. All we want is the space we'll actually use. Keep in mind that our 1000-square-foot cottage used to be an average house when it was built in the late 1930's. My space standards are apparently from another era--maybe because I've lived in old houses all but about two years of my life.

Oh, and I hate SUV's and minivans, and celebrity gossip, and upwardly mobile, have-it-all-right-now lifestyles in which you work yourself to death to buy stuff, and...

Well, I've said quite enough. The point here is that I don't feel like a typical American in many ways. I feel as if I'm just a little out of the mainstream. Maybe it's in my head, a leftover perception from my religious day camp refugee upbringing, when I really felt like an outcast. Or maybe I am a little odd. It's OK with me now if I am. One of the surprise gifts of getting older is that I care less and less what other people think of me, and much more what I and my God think of me. I'm happy over there in the slow lane--in my seven-year-old, paid-for car--sipping my water, and listening to NPR, when I'm not daydreaming about having chickens and someday walking our half-mile gravel road to the mailbox with a dog trailing at my heels.

If I'm grilled by the patriotic review council and accused of anything, it will probably be for failing to support that very American notion of the ever expanding economy. Apparently I just don't eat, drink, want, watch, work, or buy enough to fuel the infernal machine. I am way too small for this "bigger is better" country. And boy do I have some thoughts about that idea. But that's for later.

Although it's been fun ranting, I know that I'm not the only weirdo out there. The world of books and the internet have shown me that I'm not alone in wanting a life that's slower, smaller, simpler, saner, and more sustainable in all kinds of ways. It's a little unAmerican right now, but we'll keep at it. Who knows. Maybe someday soon America will fall back and join us.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Beans.They're What's for Dinner.

This was my lunch today. Well, dinner if you're my father-in-law.

You just can't get more country than that, can you? OK, you could if the broccoli were greens of some sort. But still. It's down home, hearty, and healthy--classic southern food.

And I was so glad to see a meatless meal with a vegetable. You just don't know.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Our Audacious Hope

It's funny how the origins of our biggest adventures or fondest dreams can become shrouded in memory. For years now, my husband and I have dreamed of moving to his home farm. We have talked about it endlessly, uprooted ourselves from an easier life, and steered toward the farm as if it's the North Star. Planting ourselves on that patch of land is The Big Goal of our life right now. But despite all this importance, I couldn't tell you how or when this process all began. It's such a part of us now, that it seems as if it's always been there.

And it's not just a nice house in the country we're after. We have in mind a whole new life, all of which is untried and will be years in the making. We're quite insecure about falling on our financial faces or having to awkwardly say "Oh, that didn't work out" when asked how the farm's coming. It's frankly scary to speak your dream out loud, for fear that it's foolish or no one will understand or we'll just be failures. But at some point one needs accountability and audacity. So, here goes.

We see a charming farmhouse on the crest of a gentle hill overlooking fields rolling to the horizon. This part of the Grand Scheme is dearest to my heart.
I want a house in which I can look around me and feel that it is all I could possibly want--not that it would take that much house to satisfy me. Think farmhouse, not McMansion or country manor. If truth be told, I would fantasize that Country Living magazine, over which I have sighed for years, would choose our home for a feature article. I'm dreaming lavishly here.

Next comes the farm, with the whole goal of it to be participating in a local food network. In addition to the mandatory garden, we'd like to raise cattle, pigs, and chickens which would furnish our own meats and provide farm product to sell. Hubby plans to attend grazing school in the spring in preparation for this animal husbandry. We're also doing lots of reading up on the latest new/old thought on sustainable farming. We'll have to build whatever barns or outbuildings we need, as there is only one three-sided shed on the property right now. We'll plant fruit and nut trees, and possibly keep bees for honey. We hope to mostly feed ourselves, but we don't have to do it all. If another local farmer is doing something well that we're iffy on launching, then we can support our community's farmers and still achieve our goal of eating locally.

After the farm is established, I hope to add a couple of Bed and Breakfast guest cottages overlooking the garden and The View. (As soon as it's not muddy, I'll post a picture of the vista we hope will greet us every morning for the rest of our natural lives.) Dinner at the Big House will also be offered, using our own meats and produce. Paying guests will support the farm and give me an outlet for my culinary skills and domestic drives. I also feel a sense of mission about having guests that has nothing to do with practicality or money. So many people feel the need for a quiet place in which they can truly relax, rest, and hear their own thoughts, or perhaps just hide from the world while their soul catches up with their body. I've stayed somewhere like that and left inspired. I want to offer that experience to others.

Another possibility down the road is adding a multi-purpose building that could be used for retreats, meetings, small weddings, cooking classes, or other events. It could also, in our wildest USDA un-approved fantasies, house our Farm Store full of grass fed meats ready for purchase in already-cut form, for those who aren't able to take the plunge into whole or half animal buying. I have read about this advance in food sourcing in other areas. It's only a matter of time before this wave of the future reaches us. We want to ride it.

If we make it all the way, My Beloved can be a farmer/artist, rising with the sun to care for his animals and spending the rest of the workday in his study happily drawing. I'll be the innkeeper/chef/farm manager--at the least. There's still a lot of room for developments not decreed by us and many forks in the road yet to be reached. We have no way to predict what fruit our efforts will bear, but forward we go toward the call.
We may be insecure about making it all come true, but the alternative is stagnation and regret. We'd rather go down swinging for the outfield.

Julia Cameron, an artist who has written many books on creativity and the artistic process, advises not to broadcast all your baby ideas as soon as they are hatched. She believes they need private nurturing before their debut into the world. Well, surely two or three years counts. We've nursed this little darling at home. We've let close friends and family hold her. Now it's time to share her with the world.

Besides, if I remember correctly, Julia gave that advice to protect fledgling ideas from premature criticism that might break their tender heads while they still have soft spots. There comes a time, after they've been properly prepared, to let our heart's precious offspring out into a world that isn't always cruel and torturous. It can sometimes be amazingly supportive as we take the first wobbly steps toward our dreams, if only we will take them.

And take them we have. We've sold the house, packed up, moved to the country, and now declared our intentions. It took many startings over to complete that last part. Sometimes statements closest to the heart are the hardest to make, like the first "I love you." But it's out now, and it feels good. Your move, Universe.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Showing Up

Today, I'm showing up. That's all. But some days that's enough--a victory in fact. Because sometimes showing up turns into filling up and then into success. You never know when what seems bad can turn good, so you better just keep showing up.

I read that somewhere years ago. (If you stick with me, you'll see that statement a lot. I'm a constant reader.) It was a piece of advice from mother to daughter, a statement that sums up persistence and faith and discipline, which are indeed very important ingredients in a thriving life. I take those words as my mantra today.

So I'm showing up to the blank space on my screen that needs to be filled, with one big thing on my mind--our Great Big Dream Life. My husband and I have talked about it, envisioned it, and waited for it for years now. The steps toward it sometimes seem glacially and painfully slow, but they are happening. Like selling our house to at least get near our destination. And now, planning the house we have to build in order to live on the land that awaits us.

We now know at least one thing about our future home: it's general form. I have always envisioned a version of the classic two-story homes that the first wave of real-house settlers built around here. My husband, on the other hand, prefers a cozier looking story-and-a-half with dormers. Driving home from work on Monday, we saw examples of a win-win form that would satisfy us both, sort of a tall story-and-a-half with dormers that are pointy (not a technical term, I'm sure, but accurate), unlike the more common doghouse style now playing in subdivisions everywhere (and turning me off every time).

Here's a small version.

And here's a big one.

Hopefully, we can end up somewhere in the middle in size.

It's amazing what you see when you're really looking. Both of these houses were right beside one of our oft traveled roads, waiting to be truly seen when the time was right. I won't be surprised if we see even more examples during future trips. Sort of like buying a white car and suddenly noticing how many white cars there are.

Anyway, of all the thousand decisions to be made when building a house, we may be able to check one off. That is, unless our desired spaces just won't reconcile themselves with the shape. We'll begin to see with draft two. So maybe we really don't know after all, but it's at least probable.

Whatever shape the house ends up taking (Assuming we can afford to build it anytime soon! Determining that is our next step.), we want it to honor the housing heritage around us. My fondest dream would be that visitors drive up and say "You built this house? It looks as if it's been here for a hundred years!" The style we've chosen would definitely help that goal along.

This house we're planning is the first necessary part of the Great Big Dream Life. That step alone will take at least a year if there aren't financial delays. And the rest? We could spend our remaining lifetime building and growing the rural world we envision. But that's OK. A body needs something to work on and toward anyway.

Tomorrow, when I show up again, I'll be bold and write out loud the whole grand scheme we hope to launch. It's amazing and risky and worth trying, but we're not the only dreamers out there. (Check out Jenna's story of trying to achieve her very own Cold Antler Farm). With a little luck and a whole lot of showing up, we might just make it.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Just a Good Old Day

This has been one of those occasional days that leaves me with a lovely, peaceful feeling, as if there's a lot right. Not that anything huge happened. Things just went well enough to create a glow, a belief with a Mona Lisa smile that life is good just the way it is. Here's my humble rosary of a good, good day when we and everything in our life seemed in place.
  • Work was untroubled and productive.
  • The weather was sunny and bright.
  • I actually liked my clothes today (my favorite funky clogs, jeans that fit, black turtleneck, houndstooth jacket, berry pink scarf).
  • We reviewed the first draft of our house plans over lunch.
  • I was asked if I would be interested in another bookkeeping gig in the next few months. Kind of a job...inquiry, if you will.
  • I was also approached about a catering gig in June.
  • On the way home, My Beloved and I checked out all the old farmhouses on our route and detoured for more, seeking to refine our ideas of how our dream home should look.
  • The parents-in-law liked the ideas we hatched for our house.
  • We were all in the kitchen together frying up burgers made from our own good beef and then laughing around the dinner table--mother-in-law included.
  • MiL's recovery from knee replacement surgery is accelerating enough that she is more her lively self in spirit.
  • Now we have two hours of leisure tucked away in the study. Beloved is drawing. I'm recording the bliss while music plays.
With the usual irony I note that this lovely list comes on the heels of a week of stress and worry in which we watched the Queen Bee of this house (the mother-in-law, not me) suffer and struggle. The strain on everyone caught up with us by the weekend in the form of frustrations and tension. Everything seemed so blocked up and prickly and dragging, in bodies and souls alike, that I laid awake until midnight last night with an unhappy belly and a squawking mind. And then, just like that, the air cleared and harmony was restored.

Life is full of these surprises and always seeks balance. There's no way to predict when the good stuff will arrive like an unordered package and no way to know when the bad things will wallop you blindside. Admonish yourself that after an ecstatic peak, there will be a valley. But also rest assured when frustrations and irritations are building up tectonic force in your psyche, that a day of joyful release is coming. Let faith sustain you through the bad times and savoring extend the good times as they chase each other through your life. There is always both blessing and burden.

Like right now. I have a good day glow and a growing headache, yin and yang here and now embodied. Tonight I gracefully accept the opposing forces and allow them the passage they will take anyway. I am able to cooperate with life's weather in this moment. It's easier on the good days.

My rosary list from this day will be fingered again at bedtime in our shared nightly gratitude ritual. But even when I'm not feeling cooperative, I make a list of things to be grateful for anyway, just as I do on the good days. Because they all really are in some way or other. I know it and honor it even when I can't feel it. Tonight I get both.