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In February of 2005, when Bonny Glen was just a few weeks old, I wrote:
When I was setting up this blog, I created a category called “Things that Inspire Me” with Small Meadow Press in mind…
…and Lesley Austin’s peaceful presence and lovely way of looking at home life have been inspiring me daily since then. There are Small Meadow touches all over my house: the “Peace Be on This House” garland hanging between living room and kitchen; the little stash of stationery (now almost gone, alas) in my correspondence basket; the small, handmade notebooks tucked into every bag I own; the calm brown binders I use for organizing paperwork; the quotation prints here and there about the house, framed or hung up with a ribbon.
I was sad when Lesley closed Small Meadow, though I well understand the necessary changes that come with new seasons of life. But with the closing of that door, Lesley opened a new one—a vine-covered door like the one into The Laurels or the Secret Garden, with a sundrenched radiance inside. Since its beginning, I’ve been a member at Wisteria and Sunshine, Lesley’s subscription-based blog and forum for exploring “wild simplicity and deep domesticity,” and in these swift months it has become not only one of my favorite corners of the internet, but practically a way of life.
Each day at W&S, there is a new post from Lesley, sometimes two, discussing—in her exquisite prose, so lyrical it’s almost poetry—topics related to home and hearth, simplifying, decluttering, making one’s home-spaces lovely with simple, graceful touches. Some days she writes about a beloved author (it’s Lesley whom I have to thank for inspiring me to read The Scent of Water) or a book we’re enjoying together—right now it’s Wise Child. Some days she shares a thought-provoking quote, inviting discussion. What she has created at W&S is rather remarkable: a close-knit community of women working together to cultivate an atmosphere of peace, joy, and order in our homes. Each month Lesley chooses a focus: a particular corner of the house (she did wonders for my bathrooms and even my closets!) or a particular corner of the soul, you might say. During the wild rush of my spring—nose-deep in my novel, busybusybusy with the blur of six growing children—I found I was approaching my housework with genuine calm and more joy than I’ve ever taken in it. And the changes have stuck. I actually enjoy cleaning my bathroom.
The name, of course, comes from Enchanted April, one of my favorite movies of all time. For those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine, reads the ad that captures Lottie’s imagination and sets off that whole wonderful series of transformations. And just as the wisteria-and-sunshine garden of that Italian villa infuses its visitors with light and renewal and contentment that they carry back into the outside world, so too does the W&S forum. Can you tell I love it? I truly love it.
The monthly subscription fee is modest, and Lesley more than earns it with the hard work she puts into making the site nourishing, useful, welcoming, and beautiful; and I’ve also come to feel like the small commitment leads to
The last time I posted a question about vacuum cleaners, I was told (privately) it wasn’t an interesting topic—but that was five years ago, and I for one am still somewhat obsessed with the question, so it’s interesting to one person, at least. I’ve bought two vacuums in the past ten years, and both were massive disappointments. Like the Dyson people (whose products are out of my price range), I just like things to work properly!
Here’s what I want: a lightweight vacuum cleaner/electric sweeper for hardwood floors that also works on area rugs. Basically I want a broom that sucks up the crumbs and the dust. I’ve tried the Swiffer rechargeable SweeperVac, and if it had more suction power, it would be exactly what I’m looking for. Alas, its vacuuming capability is simply not up to the challenge posed by this particular family. It pushes the Cheerios around, doesn’t inhale them.
Our Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner is supposed to work on hardwood, but it leaves a lot of crumbs behind (and yes, I’ve tried changing the bag). Besides, it’s heavy and bulky and makes me terribly crabby.
I’ve heard mixed reviews of Orecks. Their light weight is certainly appealing. But then, the Swiffer is so light you can practically twirl it like a baton. Orecks are real vacuums, though. The question is, do they suck?
I had to go to an IEP meeting for Wonderboy yesterday. I was planning to take the whole gang, but as the hour drew near I changed my mind. I called my friend Mary, who has often encouraged me to lean on her in such instances, and asked if she were going to be home that afternoon and could she keep my girls. She agreed, warmly and eagerly, almost before I got the sentence out. I would have to drop them off in an hour, I clarified. Mary was unfazed by the last-minute-ness of the request. Absolutely, bring ’em right over.
Mary has seven children of her own, including an infant. Her oldest child is twelve. Her arms are always full, yet her door is always open. She and her husband Ernie gave Scott a room for over a month the summer before last, when he was new in town and the kids and I were still back in Virginia trying to sell the house. We were complete strangers, connected via our mutual friend Erica, and Mary and Ernie said any friend of Erica’s was a friend of theirs. That summer, Scott worked long hours at his new job, but he was around the house long enough to be mightily impressed with this warmhearted, friendly, happy family. He told me how the kids would greet him so politely, “Hello, Mr. Peterson!” every time he pulled into the driveway, and how warmly Mary and Ernie would press him to join the family for dinner.
Look at me using the word “warm” three times in two paragraphs. It can’t be helped: these are some of the warmest, sunniest people you will ever meet. I dropped my four girls off yesterday and took Wonderboy to the IEP meeting, and when I returned ninety minutes later, I found six of Erica’s seven children in the throng. Five minutes after I’d left for my meeting, Erica had called Mary with the same kind of last-minute request. Her baby needed to go to the doctor; could Mary watch the other kids? Sure she could!
I love walking into that house. Here I go, wanting to use the word ‘warm’ again. It’s a home that says: children are cherished here. And: friends are always welcome. Kids’ drawings embellish the walls; their books and toys enliven every room. The kitchen and family room occupy a big space as open and inviting as Mary and Ernie’s hearts. I look around that great room and I see the definition of hospitality. I’ve seen it immaculate for parties and I’ve seen it enthusiastically lived-in on a weekday afternoon. I’ve seen that every soul who enters is greeted with genuine delight, as if dropping by was the very nicest thing you could possibly have done.
I marveled, yesterday, at the nonchalance with which Mary had taken on ten extra kids for the afternoon. It was no problem, she assured me, the more the merrier—and I could see she meant it. Ernie was fixing a late lunch for the two of them, and almost before I’d slipped my bag off my shoulder, a plate full of chicken and peppers appeared before me. I was famished (IEP meetings always have that effect on me), and I inhaled that meal and felt myself to be one of the most blessed creatures alive. Eighteen other blessed creatures chattered and tumbled and raced and cooed around us: my five children, six of Erica’s, Mary’s seven. I watched how Ernie took time to talk to each child who crossed his path, asking them questions, listening intently to the answers. The more, the merrier. This home bears testimony to the truth of that phrase. How easily I can imagine the merry homecomings in years to come, the boisterous Thanksgivings and Christmases, the jubilant Easters; shy brides laughing at the goodnatured ribbing heaped upon young grooms; grandchildren by the dozen. Mary’s eyes smiling across the kitchen island; Ernie’s voice ringing out above the happy throng. This is the sort of home children will want to come home to, even when they’re grown; it’s the sort of home in which every guest is made to feel like one of the family. The more you’re there, the merrier you are.
Sarah wants to know what’s on your kitchen windowsill. On mine:
A red geranium in a white pot.
An aloe, slightly withered at the tips because I go through periods of plant neglect, in a green pot.
A little fat round cactus in a plastic pot with holes, so that the one time I watered it, dirt and water ran all over the sill).
A Pampered Chef baking stone scraper.
NOT the seven medicine cups from various bottles of cough and cold medicine that had accumulated there during early spring and which I finally collected and put away about a week ago.
A white cow creamer. This was a wedding gift, and it was one of the very few things we actually got from our registry. We laughed and laughed when we registered for that cow. It was ironic and retro before ironic and retro was trendy. Which may be the only time in our lives that we have been cutting-edge.
A kalanchoe, not in bloom at the moment, in a blue and white pot. Oh, and a smaller blue and white matching pot shaped like a watering can. I love blue and white china. Adore it. Sometimes there are tissue-paper flowers in that little pot, and sometimes other things. A fresh blossom from outside, when I remember.
An empty spot in the middle where the red cup of nasturtiums was. I loved those so much that I planted some in our yard. And they’re blooming now, just beginning to explode. Time to go a-picking.
We haven’t baked bread for a really long time (witness my neglected bread blog). Lately the reason is because it’s been too hot. Yesterday our heat wave broke and I had a breadish impulse, and I thought I’d better act on it because it’s bound to get hot again soon and who knows when I’ll feel like baking again. The girls mixed up a batch of dough (Wisteria’s recipe) and I read to them while they kneaded.
Later, after the rising and shaping and second rising, we put the bread in the oven and I had another impulse. Someone blogged recently about making butter—I can’t for the life of me remember who it was. Years ago, summers during college, I had a job as a tour guide at a prairie wildlife refuge where, in addition to 2,000 acres of open prairie full of pronghorn and owls and snakes and prairie dogs, there was a small sod village. Sometimes my job was to give tours to school groups, and in the sod house we always baked johnny cake on the iron stove and churned butter to go with it. We had a jar with a special hand-crank churn blade attached to the lid, and the kids would take turns cranking while I gave my talk and mixed up the johnny cake. When the butter was ready I’d turn it out into a wooden bowl and mash it with a wooden paddle, squeezing out the buttermilk. Even in hot Colorado July weather, the warm johnny cake and sweet, creamy butter was heart-stirringly delicious.
So you’d think with all that buttermaking experience under my belt, not to mention the whole Little House motif threaded through our lives, I’d have made butter with my kids a zillion times. Not so. I think I was spoiled by the fancy churning gadget; I always figured doing it the shake-it-in-a-jar way would take a really really long time and be one of those experiments with a spotty success rate.
But this blog entry I read (my apologies for forgetting where) described it as a simple and sure-fire process that took about 20 minutes. So when I put our bread in the oven to bake, I grabbed a clean spaghetti jar I’d save for rinsing paintbrushes and poured in some heavy cream. Filled it about half full. Called the girls. Commenced a-shaking.
We took turns and everyone was very giggly and excited. Of course we had to pull Little House in the Big Woods off the shelf and read the churning passage there:
At first the splashes of cream showed thick and smooth around the little hole. After a long time, they began to look grainy. Then Ma churned more slowly, and on the dash there began to appear tiny grains of yellow butter. When Ma took off the churn-cover, there was the butter in a golden lump, drowning in the buttermilk.
We couldn’t resist unscrewing the lid every little while to check our progress. At first the cream got very thick, just as Laura described. Our shaking had whipped it, and when we shook the jar we couldn’t hear or feel it sloshing around anymore. Then, about ten minutes later, it began to thin out again, and we felt the sloshing. We peeked inside and it really did look grainy. Another five or six minutes, and it looked lumpy. Right after that it happened to be my turn to shake the jar, and all of a sudden I felt a thunk inside from something solid smacking the lid. We had our butter.
The girls erupted in squeals. We opened the lid and there it was, not golden like Laura had described, but the faintest of pale yellows. I scooped it into a bowl, and Rose and Beanie took tastes of the buttermilk. They liked it. I mashed the soft butter to get out the rest of the liquid. Ma washed hers in cold water, but I didn’t bother doing that. I mixed in a little salt, and the timer beeped on our bread, and we couldn’t bear to wait for the bread to cool. Thick slices, slathered in butter; a blissful hush in the kitchen. Mmmm.
You are not to be impressed with my industrious domesticity on this day because 1) if such a state occurs in this house, it is a passing fluke; and 2) it turns out making butter is incredibly easy. Come to think of it, it was easier than, say, loading all the kids into the minivan and running to the grocery store to buy butter would have been. You know how those grocery-store runs can reduce me to a frazzled wreck.
I have since poked around a little online and it seems baby-food jars make excellent mini-churns. Just remember to only fill the jar half full, leaving plenty of sloshing room. And I wouldn’t give each kid his own jar because your arms do get really tired and it’s good to be able to pass off to the next shaker down the line. It sounds like it only takes ten or eleven minutes to go from cream to butter in a small jar like that. Ours took about 24 minutes, which I only know because the bread timer was set for 25. From (I’m guessing) 6 ounces of cream, we got about half a cup of butter, maybe 2/3 cup.
Oh, a last note about the bread—we did NOT use my fancy mixer with the dough hook because the children object to the way it usurps their favorite thing about breadmaking: kneading. In retrospect I realize that’s one reason we cooled off on breadmaking after our wildly enthusiastic beginning. My co-bakers drifted away because the machine killed the fun. So yesterday, I just set a mixing bowl and the six simple ingredients on the table, and the kids went to town. Yeast, water, flour, honey, salt, melted butter. They can mix this dough all by themselves. I gave each of them her own cutting board (nothing fancy; two of them were plastic, and one of those was quite small, but Beanie asked for it because she wanted to make a small loaf for herself) and divided the dough into three lumps. It’s better if they don’t have to take turns for the fun part. We stuck it all back together for the first rising. The kitchen table works better for kneading than the counters, because they can get above the dough and push down. This is stuff I figured out as we went yesterday, but it’s the kind of fiddly logistical stuff that can make or break an experience for us, and I share it under the assumption I’m not the only mom for whom that’s true.
I promised to show a picture of the table runner I made. It’s not a great picture, but that’s okay because it’s not a great table runner. But I’m pretty pleased with it. The runner, I mean. The other side is the same green floral as the ends here. The checked fabric—which has green in it and isn’t as orange in real life as in this photo—was a long scrap from the curtains I made for the kids’ craft room.
I had fun with Flickr’s “add a note” feature if you want to click through for commentary on the photo. Well, actually, it’s another photo almost exactly like this one, revealing what happens when Scott walks into the room.
I’ve been in a very handcrafty mood lately, as my last couple weeks’ worth of posts probably make obvious. I tried my hand at the zipper pouch from Bend-the-Rules Sewing, inspired by Jenn’s lovely pink patchwork pouch. This was my first-ever attempt at putting in a zipper, and, well, it zips. Just don’t inspect the ends too closely…
And now that it’s finally feeling cool enough (in the mornings, at least—we’re melting by noon) to think of baking, I’ve been pining for my lost sourdough starter. We suffered a little fridge snafu a while back, and room temperature was way too hot for my starter, which had been living in the freezer through the hot months. It got moldy. Sob. Also, ick.
So I’ve been tempted to order a new one, but I thought first I’d try my hand at starting one from scratch. Some sites describe this as a ridiculously easy undertaking. Other sources say ominous things about poor success rates in arid climates, which we certainly have here in the decidely dry eastern half of San Diego County. But hey, a cup of flour and a cup of water is pretty low overhead for an experiment. So on Thursday morning I mixed up a batch and put it in a warm corner. By Friday it was already looking promisingly bubbly.
I fed it twice yesterday, and this morning it looks frothy and vigorous. (Blurry photo: snapped hastily in the midst of getting breakfast for my little people.)
Think I’ll give it one more day to get established and maybe try it in some biscuits tomorrow. Just about time to move it into the fridge, too.
And finally, a little backyard beautification project: the kids are decorating our side of the neighbor’s big ole wall with sidewalk chalk. It’ll last a long time here in did-I-mention-it’s-very-dry? San Diego County. I think we’ve only seen rain once in the last four months.