* yes, there should be FIVE sets of boots but Allen ignored my advice to get adequate rain gear...

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cliffs of Moher

You forget what a violent process creating new earth can be.  I'm most familiar with the rolling, ancient hills of the Appalachian chain; quiet witnesses to the passing of eons and epochs.  They are a comforting witness that even the wildest of the Earth will eventually take to a rocking chair and tell you stories of what once was while you play at their feet.

Triskele represent many things-
one is the earth, sea, and sky
We would visit my grandparents in southeastern Missouri, crossing over the Mississippi and then going a little further, to Sikeston, just a touch on the other side of the New Madrid Fault line.  Always, my mother would tell us of the big quake of 1812 when the Mississippi River ran backwards.  As we would drive over the levies, looking over the endless green rows of soybean, corn, and cotton, she would tell us about how the soil was so very fertile, both from the regular overflows of the rivers as well as the fact that once upon a very long time ago, right where we were driving, was the bottom of a deep, deep sea.  This was heady stuff for an 8 year old, especially one who had been in a car for somewhere around 14 hours.  I could close my eyes (if I wasn't too car sick) and imagine the prehistoric beasts gliding past, their great teeth, almost close enough to touch.  I would wonder if they knew that their days were numbered and that one day, I would look at their bones in the Smithsonian on rainy Sunday afternoons.  The New Madrid was deceptively small, as well.  It's just a little hump, hardly more than the damns we drove on top of and perfect for sledding down on snow Sikeston never saw.

I've seen the Rockies and live volcanoes in Hawaii.  The Rockies were stark reminders of just what can happen when two continent meet but they are so huge as to be nearly unfathomable.  I can appreciate their beauty but only on a abstract level.  The live volcanoes are awesome displays of the raw power of creation, both in it's subtle ways as magma slips and bubbles quietly into the cooling ocean as well as when it aggressively claims it's new territory in impressive displays of pyrotechnics.

But, none of these could have prepared me for the Cliffs of Moher.  Looking them down had the visceral impact of your first peek at the Rockies while being of a size that you could easily comprehend their scale and scope.  For a few moments (perhaps longer, if you weren't there with young, very inquisitive children), I felt that I could understand, in a way I never had prior, my place within the land and the sea.  The sea caressed the land while also taking away.  The land gave but also stood steadfast amongst the constant requests.  Both could be harnessed but never fully tamed- something so easily forgotten in a time of climate controlled buildings, flying machines, and food that comes neatly packaged.  To stand at the edge of those cliffs was to stand in the on the edge of that which is civilization.  Once, long ago, people must have crossed the Island to see what was on the other side and found what must have seemed like the edge of the world.  I thought I was at the edge of the world even knowing I had lived beyond it.  The rocky shore danced between the two, betwixt and between, the ephemeral child of two warring but eternally mated elements.  Over the tympanic melee, danced the civilizing strains of pipe and string, giving hint as to how human had made peace with both water and land, nurtured and nurturing both; the very core of what it was to be the people who became known as The Irish.

And, somehow, as I was standing at the edge of the world, I was also standing on the edge of time in a way I imagine gods and astronomers regularly experience.  The tide is the constant metronome of the eternally changing sea while the stolid rocks, constantly shifting and sighing, carried off by the water and borrowed by wind, become the unexpected inconstant, the evidence proving that time must always be accompanied by change no matter how infinitesimal.  Both elements become penultimate, coerced by gravity which is intransigently insistent that there can be only one above all others and they shall bow to his might.  The steady constant of change within the intractable interplay of that which wants nothing more than to stay the same is surely the kernal which is life: the essence of time.  You stand at the top of a cliff and you are standing at a vortex of that which is, which was, and what must be.

If you go nowhere else in Ireland, go to the Cliffs of Moher.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My Kitchen

My kitchen makes me happy and I think it's pretty.  I'm not sure a kitchen can help but be real.  Most of all, being back in my kitchen makes me content.  And so I am linking to...

round button chicken

One of the most common questions I get is what I missed the most when I was in Ireland.  I really missed my kitchen.  I thought I would share some of the bits and pieces that I most enjoy.

It's a country kitchen.  I didn't really set out with a great deal of enthusiasm for the style but over time, I've found that it works well both for the kitchen I was given (the house was built before I was born) and my personal style.  I've veered towards materials made of glass and metal and wood.  I try to choose items that are sustainable and re-usable.  I like things that are easy to clean and keep clean and that look reasonably nice, even when you don't get around to actually putting them away for a few days.  I needed storage materials that are mouse and ant proof.  I needed things that are durable and easy to find and not too fiddly.  I need to easily find what I'm looking for and take my favors when they are offered.

Over time, I've grown to learn that this is pretty much the way country housewives from quite a while ago apparently approached things and so, I have a country kitchen...

This is the counter to the right of my sink.  I like my dishes to not smell like anything when they are clean- not flowers, not lemon, not vague "fragrance."  I also don't like to pay for people to drive water around to me.  So, I want an unscented powdered dish detergent.  This is surprisingly difficult to find.  I've found 7th Generation Free and Clear to be the best option.  I needed to have it out of easy reach of small people and the box wasn't all the attractive.  So, I got a cracker jar and put it in there with a pretty scoop from the farmer's market.

I keep all my tea bags in the Dr Who cookie jar.  It seemed appropriate and I've heard that country housewives of the 1920s were big fans.

I had a mug tree and it was always getting unbalanced and tipping over.  The rack was actually intended to hold houseplants but I like it better for mugs.

Big Ben is from our visit to London and the tea pot is from a friend in Ireland.

I use canning jars for all sorts of things and keep the rings and lids in the berry boxes.  Those boxes are always so pretty and fairly sturdy, it only seems right to put them to use.

I accumulated rather a lot of vases.  It seemed like such a waste to only use them for flowers so, a while ago, I put them to work holding dishrags and utensils.  Cracker jars also hold my flour and sugar.  The little jar is cornmeal for sprinkling on the baking stone.  The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook is my go to cookbook.  It covers all the day to day cooking questions you might have in clear terms using supplies you probably already have and using techniques it will teach you if you don't already know them.  When Allen's international students ask me how to learn American cooking, I suggest they try looking through it.

Canning jars are a real workhorse in my kitchen.  I store most dry goods in them.  Cardboard boxes are no match for Virginia humidity and I have no patience with slippy, slidey, slithery plastic bags.  I also do a fair amount of shopping in the bulk bins and can bring my jars to the store to fill directly.  And, if you ever have a problem with any sort of critter, glass will keep them out far better than plastic or cardboard.  Canning jars will stack, have interchangeable lids, come in all sorts of sizes, and can be run through the dishwasher when empty.  A distracted mother can tell at a glance that a 5 pound bag of cornmeal was a lot more cornmeal than she realized but that popcorn is in short supply.  I also use canning jars a great deal in the freezer for everything from beans I've cooked ahead to applesauce and soup.  You just have to be careful to allow for expansion.

We use widemouth pint jars for adult cups and the 1/2 pints for children's cups.  They are extremely durable, withstanding all manner of toddler mishaps.  The 4 ounce jars are perfect for baby food, some baking needs such as baking powder, and make ideal paint cups holding plenty of water while also being very tip resistant.  The 4 ounce size is also useful for storing things like chopped onion or lime wedges that you always seem to have too many of to use all at once but don't want to throw away.  The handiest thing about the pint jars is how they have the ounces marked on the side- this makes cocktail time a breeze.  :-)

We mostly use cloth napkins.  I made cloth wipes mostly for diapering but made a few extra (color coded) for use in the kitchen.  Wipe making is one of those projects that it's just as easy to make 20 as 10 and doesn't require that much more in materials.  These are perfect for the heavy duty napkin needs of the young child.  I made one side flannel and the other either terry or chenille.  They are very absorbant, quite soft, and a managable size for the very small set to wipe up their own messes.  The only caveat is that since they are so thick and absorbant, it takes them a while to dry so you need to be mindful of possible mildewing if you get behind on the laundry.

We've started using the recipe and method offered by Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day.  It's a joint effort between Allen and me.  I'm pretty sure the fact that Allen is a morning person is proof positive that Jesus loves me.  I mix up a double batch of bread about once a week, form it to rise and rest in the refrigerator the night before and then Allen bakes it up in the morning.  If you want to know how to make it that nice shape, it's easy.  I line a basket with a tea towel or cloth napkin and sprinkle it with flour.  After I shape the loaf, I pop it in the basket.  The basket adds a little structure to the final rise and rest. Allen gently plops it out of the basket onto the baking stone in the morning.

I realize that there are several schools of thought on child-proofing.  My body has a very enthusiastic response to progesterone so I desperately needed to leave young children alone in the kitchen at a moments notice without having to worry about if they were dumping all the flour on their heads.  Most of our lower cabinets have child latches but we had some spinning corner cabinets that wouldn't work for.  I had my husband put in some eye hooks and used those really long twist ties that secure children's toys in packaging because a toy that will be hurled down 2 flights of stairs should obviously be well cushioned in transit to your home...

In other parts of our home, I just tied a ribbon through bookshelf door handles and we also installed hook and eye latches high up on sliding closet doors in the bathrooms.  This won't keep a really determined preschooler out but will discourage them and will also buy you some time to notice what's going on before all the toilet rolls have been unrolled or the family pictures have been scattered around the room.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Muscle Memory

I had been prepared for the mechanics of re-entry to be a slog.  I have been pleasantly surprised to find it exactly the opposite.  The trick is to rely on my muscle memory.

You know how you'll re-arrange your bathroom cabinet and reach for your toothbrush in the old spot for ages?  I'm using that to my advantage.  When I've gone to unpack dishes and books and All The Clothing (seriously, how could such small people need so many socks?), if I try to remember which drawer they go in, I'm sunk.  But, if I just let my body move, everything lands right about where it should be.  The "where" being instantly clear once it's actually there but terribly fuzzy until that moment.

It's the same sort of approach I take to standardized tests (and I rock standardized tests).  If I don't think all that much about a vs c, I almost always pick the right one.  My downfall comes in the "check over your work" moment.  I learned through painful experience that I just should be sure I didn't skip a line and otherwise leave well enough alone.  Of course, this is all further evidence that you should never put all that much stock in test results- I got a 700 on the SAT Math section (before re-norming and whatnot).  That alone is reason for indictment of the college board.

Interestingly, my husband, is having a far rockier re-entry process than I but expected it to go far more smoothly.  I tend to be significantly more intuitive than he.

My biggest concern had been driving.  Drivers and their roads have their quirks.  In Ithaca, it was that whoever was going downhill always had the right of way when it came to things like stop sign placement- this was on account of needing to drive in snow and ice.  In Nashville, the drivers could NOT fathom how to merge and fell to pieces when it rained but became bizarrely aggressive on ice.  I learned to drive in Frederick, which was a reasonably sleepy town with the nice trick that if you drove 25 mph (the speed limit) you could catch all the greens on Main Street.  It also had a rather large preponderance of one way streets that were not always clearly marked.  Before too long you had to be able to navigate the beltway and the required agressive driving around DC and Baltimore.

I don't think I've driven anywhere that was quirkier than Blacksburg, though.  The crux of the matter is the number of different driving styles you see come together.  It's sort of the whole rural v city, town v gown, fiscal conservative v social liberal tension that threads through everything around here and is mainly addressed by the town planners via many, many stoplights and one round-a-bout (which really does work quite well despite the misgivings of pretty much everyone).

It took me a long time to figure out exactly what was going on but the crux of the issue is that you have a bunch of basically country/small town drivers running smack into (sometimes literally) rather inexperienced drivers who learned to drive in places like New Jersey and DC.  When I moved to Nashville from Frederick, I was constantly having riders ask me why I was cutting people off until I got the hang to of the very polite to non-functional merge pattern favored there.  Blacksburg traffic is that conflict on steroids.  The ain't-in-no-hurries v the agressive drivers isn't pretty.  Plus you get the added wildcard that at least 20% of the drivers are lost to some degree or another- it heads up to 40% in August and September as the resident population doubles with student move-in.  The wildest of these wildcards is the returning alumni.  They hit the roads with the carefree assurance that they know this town, nay, practically own it, really, ignoring the 15 years of infrastructure tweaks that have occurred, blithely gesticulating to their captive off-spring, recounting their glory days and making a left hand turn from a lane that has been straight only for the last 10 years.  Nothing is perhaps quite so unpredictible as the lost driver who doesn't know he is lost.  I am the rare inverse of the unwittingly lost driver, a driver who thinks she's probably lost until she suddenly realizes that she apparently knew just where she was going all along, just as long as she doesn't actually try to think about how to get to where she's going.

The mind is rather odd thing.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Return

We've been back in Blacksburg about a week and I've been surprised at some of what I forgot.

I had forgotten the love of plastic bags we have.  Every item in it's own simultaneously forever and ephemeral casing.

I had forgotten what proper attire was for Target and Walmart when you are picking up a few odds and ends before you headed out to the lake or fishing or the family barbeque for the long 4th of July weekend.

Noah had no memory of riding in a shopping cart and had to be coaxed to sit up so high.  He eventually declared it even better than riding on a swing.

I had forgotten the fireflies blinking out the morse code of the summer, their message instantly discernible to all who have ever been a child.  They call for you to enjoy that delicious moment when the air turns and the breeze picks up.  It's that very last moment of the day; that moment of indulgence when bedtime is pushed just a bit further back so children can spin and catch and giggle before the night turns over to the raucous fun of the slightly older crowd.

I have developed a fixation with being warm which translates to a firm determination to not use the air conditioner.  This is actually a fairly achievable goal in the mountains of western Virginia.  The altitude gifts us with the sort of nights I will forever associate with summer college visits to Boston.  The day is almost unmanageably warm but with a liberal application of iced tea, popsicles and ceiling fans, it can be done.  By about an hour past sunset, the night floods in with an understated sort of interest.  It's a slow seduction compared to the exuberant invitation of the summer day.  You can usually count on it to get down to 70 at the very least and, often, if you decide to stay out past curfew, you will find yourself wanting a sweater to slip on over your party dress.

There is a part of me that is already longing for October.  I will look out my window and see a mist every morning.  The deer will be crossing to the woods, shadows, just visible.  The air will be tinged with the bite of woodsmoke and the breeze will nip rather than caress.  But, for now, I will soak in the wonder that is summer in the mountains.

And, yes, there are still a couple of posts about Ireland waiting in the wings.  I have been asked if I will continue to write.  I am inclined to.  After all, isn't life always an adventure?  But, the posts will be about America, mostly my tiny corner of it.