On (not) scrolling

A few weeks ago, I started to periodically feel a sharp pain in my right elbow. It was particularly painful — to the point that I could not help but inhale a sharp breath — when I was doing push ups. (Ok, not real push-ups, which I cannot do, yet, but any exercise that was push-up-adjacent.) I had been writing a lot, with pen and paper, a least a few times a day, and I thought that perhaps because my elbow wasn’t always supported properly that this is what was causing the inflammation.

More recently, however, I’ve decided that it is some sort of side effect of the way in which I hold my phone, elbow bent so that my phone is near my face, thumb working the scroll. Phone thumb scrolling repetitive stress elbow irritation? Is there such a thing? I don’t know. But I’ve latched on to it as yet another reason why I need to put my phone down. If the psychological toll that mindless scrolling takes isn’t enough to deter me, perhaps the physical discomfort (pain even) will be.

Why do I always reach for my phone in all sorts of different moments of down (and up) time? Particularly during this time of increased time at home, have my devices been an absolutely necessary way in which I can carve out a little mental (if not exactly physical) space for myself? Is this just the way I’m keeping engaged in the world beyond our home?

Truth be told: I can come up with 3,000 unique justifications for why my phone — and the social media checking and re-checking — is something that I need. But even 3,000 justifications do not add up to a reason.

I studied one year abroad in England. I remember at that time being impressed by how accessible live theater was there. I lived in London, which, of course, had loads of shows, many of which were reasonably priced especially when they offered student tickets. But even when visiting smaller towns, it usually seemed that live theater was accessible and a part of everyday life in the way that movie theaters are in the US. I can’t say that I took advantage of it as much as I wish I had, but I would occasionally take in a show as I might have gone to the movies in the States, usually on a whim and on my own.

This reminds me of how I use my phone these days. No, not that enjoying live theater is like mindlessly reaching for my phone and scrolling through social media. Rather, it is like the large boxes of Cadbury Chocolate Roses that were sometimes sold at the concession stands and which audience members were allowed to, unlike here in the US, TAKE INTO THE THEATER. In other words, I could sit in a darkened theater watching an actual live show with a massive box of individual chocolates in my lap, which I was free to consume as I wished. I do not recall whether I could ever finish an entire box, but I seem to remember coming awfully close. And when I saw awfully, I actually do mean awfully. It was so easy to just unwrap and pop them in my mouth one after the other, not noticing the uncomfortable sticky sweet coating in my mouth and growing ache in my belly until it was too late.

And that’s what it’s felt like with my phone and the way in which I engage with social media too much of the time. I pop image after image, video after video, tweet after tweet into my brain, ignoring the back and forth feelings of interest and disdain, connection and judgment until it’s all just one giant melty blob of non-feeling.

Ugh. When I think about all of the mental energy I’ve expended on social media… I suspect I could have single-mindedly powered our home — Nintendo Switch, air conditioner, and all — for a year.

I have started to try to make a conscious effort to be more thoughtful about how and why I’m consuming social media. Results have been mixed. What I have noticed is that when I am sitting without much to do and I make the effort to pick up a pen and notebook instead of my phone, a semi-amazing thing happens. As I write or sketch or otherwise engage in a creative process for myself and away from social media, I suddenly feel somewhat freer. I feel free from the judgment of others but more significantly, I am free from the burden of judging others, which, I have come to realize, has been the overriding way in which I experience social media.

This is not to say that I judge others harshly on social media but each decision to engage or not engage, to continue scrolling or not, is based, in part, on a judgment that I’m making about the person who has created the content. And in some cases, the person creating the content is myself. I don’t need that kind of judgment in my life and certainly not that kind of self-judgment.

On Habits

This morning, during the time I was waiting for the butter to melt on the cast iron pan before I poured the Dutch Baby batter, I had a vague, brief thought: what can or should I be doing right now? Mind you, butter does not take very long to melt, especially in a 425 degree Fahrenheit oven. And I was already doing something: making breakfast for my family. Well, actually two things because I was also listening to the news on the radio.

The Dutch Baby in question. Not such a bad one!

In other words: I have been so conditioned to feel that I must be busy at all times, that I feel that I should be doing a second, third, or fourth task whilst cooking breakfast for my children. I am, therefore, a soft target for the algorithms. Or perhaps is the other way around: the endless scrolling that I so easily slip into has made me feel that I must, at every moment, be engaged on multiple fronts, more fronts, even, than I actually have.

Where has this feeling of the need for constant scrolling come from? There is certainly an undertone for me of FOMO (fear of missing out). More specifically, I have a fear that if I just scroll through twitter enough, perhaps I will come across a problem that I am in a position to solve. Even if I done have the solution to any of the myriad problems that arise on social media like Twitter, I also have the fear that I could, at some future date be called upon to HAVE AN OPINION ABOUT or at least some knowledge of an event or exchange that occurred on social media. I will be asked to bear witness but I will have missed it all.

Instragram, with its beautiful visual images and flashy advertising, presents a whole other set of issues for me. On my account, I have mostly been following knitters, yarn dyers, a few writers and artists, and stationary companies. Want to take a wild stab at guessing what I’ve been, as a result, spending my money on as of late?

A Dutch Baby breakfast with some lovely fruit, an apricot sauce, and toasted almonds. Delish. (And so easy in spite of having to wait for butter to melt.)

For a while, I was searching around for and clicking on all sorts of images and accounts related to planners (both digital and analogue) and notebooks and pens. See, over the past half year or so, I’ve had great success using my Fitbit to monitor (and increase) my level of fitness. The tracker on my wrist motivated me to hit certain goals everyday and week and even provided some workout videos and other instruction, without allowing me to get to the point of being obsessive about it. I could hit my goals and be done with it. I haven’t felt any need to over do it.

And so, of course, I wanted to try to repeat this success in other areas of my life. Surely there was some tool out there that would help me to write on a daily basis, to meal plan, and budget and organize my household and chores but still remain creative and inspired. I know, it’s a big ask. I downloaded a few digital trackers and took a look at them. I’d been ordering various lovely, bound, ribboned, and elastic-banded notebooks in the hopes that I could come up with a system that would be both elegant and visually stunning. Instagram and its algorithm was more than happy to support me in my search for some sort of organizational system.

Repeat this on everything that I’ve shown an interest (art, books, drawing, knitting, learning French and guitar, homeschool etc…) in over about the past year and you might be able to begin to see how I might have been spending a lot of time scrolling through these images, in search of some perfect items that would help everything fall into place.

Alas, this never happened.

In fact: did you ever use those Mead black and white marbled composition notebooks back in school? That’s what I’m currently using for all my organizing and planning and even my writing and note-taking. They’re not even college ruled. I’m scratching out my notes to myself on elementary level WIDE RULED. And they each probably work out to a couple of dollars each. As for the fancier notebooks? They’re simply too precious to me. What I need is a spot to jot down a few unruly notes to myself to be wrangled into something more meaningfully later on. I needed a spot for a quick, end of day brain dump so that I could sleep. And all the beautiful notebooks and planners and digital bells and whistles were simply too much for this. So I’m going with a classic.

Which brings me to these two habits that I’ve been focusing on and which I hope to write more on here in the coming weeks. The first is a habit I’d like to break: thoughtless scrolling and meaningless social media pseudo-engagement. And the second is a habit that I’d like to cultivate: writing in general and writing here on my blog specifically.

I hope you’ll check back here in the coming weeks as I share more about my experiences with breaking one habit and cultivating another.

On Drawing

Some time last fall (of 2020) I took a short on-line course from Brad Tebow to learn to use Procreate and then this spring, my kids and I rounded up some drawing books and a few other materials and, for a few weeks or so, made it part of our daily routine to sit at the table together and do some drawing. I’ve been periodically returning to drawing in both formats: digital and analogue.

A few weeks ago, one morning, I was feeling particularly stressed. Perhaps it was right after I’d given up drinking coffee and I was feeling the withdrawal (or perhaps it was before I’d given it up and I was feeling jittery). I don’t recall the specific sequence of events. But eventually it came time for the girls and I to sit down a draw. And so we did. My stress or anxiety or whatever it was faded very quickly as I put pencil to paper. It seems to have faded so well that even know I cannot recall was the source of my stress was.

I learned a bit about negative space by drawing one of our dining room chairs. These particular chairs were my grandmothers.

I think it is perhaps just the act of doing something, anything, that is the reason why drawing, specifically, helps me. And it’s not an art or activity that I’ve really engaged in much in the past so I don’t carry a lot of drawing baggage. Unlike, for example, writing (which I studied in graduate school and which was, as with many students I assume, one of the main means of evaluation throughout my entire education) around which I hear a cacophony of relentless, not to mention judgmental, voices. (To wit: even here, I just been considering whether “cacophony of voices” is a cliche, and therefore to be avoided. Needless to say, that was a voice I opted to silence.) It’s not like writing, which I’ve done for judgment (ahem) er — assessment or any sort of performance art. I just get to do it. I am neither a success or a failure. Well, except for in my kids’ eyes, but they are so unflaggingly exuberant in their support of whatever I draw as to be almost beyond belief.

A random assortment of items from the fridge. (At some point, Eric came and sat in the chair behind the bottles ergo the sort of ghostly beard and glasses.) When I look at this drawing now, I feel very proud of myself for having done it and I feel that I’m really coming along in my drawing confidence.

A bottom line truth is this: I love to make things. Always have and hopefully always will. And drawing something, anything, even just a line or a circle or a dot, is a satisfying way to scratch that particular maker itch.

But, too, drawing provides a different way of looking at, well, everything. Yes, mostly it is still worldly and concrete and real (for me at this point anyway), but it is a different way of breaking down space and building up layers. It’s very exciting. And this way of looking at things and thinking about things allows me to exercise — no — to experience different and new parts of my brain, parts that have hitherto been there but underexplored and underutilized. I’m quite enjoying peering into my brain in this way.

(I’ve been following 30 Minute Drawing for Beginners by Jordan DeWilde, which I have found very useful.)

On (not) drinking coffee

Over the course of the pandemic, my daily coffee intake slowly ramped up. I was already using a stove top espresso maker without really having considered that two cups of espresso is not really the same as two cups of coffee. And I somehow completely overlooked the cup of green tea I was having most afternoons — in spite of the fact that it was matcha, meaning whole leaf and therefore quite a bit more caffeine than the steeped stuff.

And then one Saturday morning, I woke up, became absorbed in some other task, and forgot to make coffee. By the time I thought of it again, I decided I didn’t really need it. And eventually it was too late in the day for me to caffeine. It was then, of course, that the headache crept in. I’ve read the pain of this type of headache as being like “a vise grip”. The was not accurate for the pain I was experiencing. This image is one of my head placed in the grip and an external pressure exerted. But the ache I was experiencing was very clearly coming from inside my head. And the cause was clearly that I had denied my body the substance it had come to expect everyday, at the same time, in great quantities, over the last year or so.

What had made me increase my intake so much? Was I looking for some sort of “normalcy” in the face of major shifts that the pandemic brought? Was it that I felt I deserved maybe even craved a little “treat” in this pool of seeming deprivation? Was it simply that as it grew cold, I wanted something warm and warming and a little cozy-feeling in the discontented winter of 20-21?

The book I’m currently reading is Girl Gone Missing by Marcie R. Rendon, which probably would go well with coffee, but I’m not having any right now. The book is just as good without it, which is to say: fantastic.

Probably all of this and more. I suspect I was also at the time (and perhaps always am) particularly susceptible to of comfort scrolling (through IG and Twitter) and there I created this image of my head of coffee as being some sort of flag of normalcy and “everything is fine”.

This is not my first time going off coffee and it’s probably not my last time drinking it. Although, hopefully the few days of head and muscle aches that I experienced will give me pause before I head down that road of copious consumption. And I’ve definitely had periods of time in my life when I haven’t been drinking coffee on the regular. (See: I did spend some time in a refugee camp where there wasn’t electricity much less coffee makers and where making a cup of coffee would have involved making a fire to boil the water.)

So how has it gone, no longer consuming coffee for nearly two months? It’s honestly been good. I no longer really miss it, most of the time. I bought some lovely green tea that was grown in Shan State and from time to time, I’ll have a cup, just like I used to when I lived in Karenni Refugee Camp #3, which was located not far from Shan State. Luckily, I don’t need to make a fire to boil the water. I might have a cup a week or so, just when I want to feel cozy and comforted.

No one else in my household drinks coffee so I don’t miss the social aspect of it and it doesn’t exactly feel like I’m denying myself anything as I’m not really surrounded by it. For the time being, I’ve been able to use the time I was spending grinding beans and brewing of the stove for other things: proper breakfasts and exercise. My mom mentioned recently that coffee is supposed to have some components (antioxidants perhaps?) that are good for health, but I feel pretty good about replacing that time on things like exercise that are supposed to be just as good if not better for your health.

After that initial withdrawal period, my energy through the day feels more even than it did when I drank coffee or, at least, I think I have more productive ways of getting through those periods when my energy lags (like, napping if I need it or going for a walk). A thing that I really enjoy now is not feeling tied to having to have something in order to feel good. I enjoy not wanting to grab a take out cup from places or even just putting one on the stove.

The other day my daughter made some cookies and my husband was enjoying one when he turned to me and said, “These cookies seem like the type of thing that would be good with a cup of coffee.” (Yes, my husband doesn’t even drink coffee). “Hmmmm…,” I said to him. I didn’t really know how to answer. Coffee hadn’t crossed my mind for a while. Which was probably — no definitely — a good thing.

Home is Where Health Is

Here’s the thing: everything I need is right here.

And here’s a sliver of what I see when I look back at pre-pandemic days and then today, as if I could fold time so that those two periods (pre-pandemic and this morning) could line up next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip.

In the days before, I spent a lot of time (most of my time even) looking out (both literally and figuratively) beyond the fence around my home. Even on those days when the kids and I didn’t leave the house, the immensity of all of the things out there that we could and should be doing crowded in on us, me. In other words: I felt this world inside this fence wasn’t enough.

This morning, I ran inside that fence. And somehow I found that it was enough. I didn’t turn on an audiobook or music in my headphones. I forgot about the woman from the couch to 10K program so that I startled when her voice came on reminding me that I was “almost there” or to slow down to a walk. The morning was slightly overcast so I was able to run on the otherwise blazing hot concrete, giving the grassy spots a break from the pounding of my soles. Can you imagine a time and place when these minute details are what occupy me? Would my previous self have thought, “Your concerns of the morning are the sun and the grass? BORR-RRING!” My present self is pleased with and grateful for the mundane.

My current home. It’s lovely but much too small for three kids, two dogs and two parents, one of whom is working from home for now and the indefinite future. If anyone has an spare second floor, we’d happily take it off your hands. (I drew this on Procreate.)

Yesterday, I wrote a little about my house in Karenni Refugee Camp #3 in Mae Hong Son, Thailand. It, too, eventually had a fence around it, a fence I asked some of my students to build because my house was on multiple well-trod paths and children kept coming around and peering into the small gaps and holes in the woven bamboo walls. Part of me felt a bit reluctant to ask for a fence, which would potentially isolate me from the rest of the community in a way that might suggest that I thought I was better than them. And it would mean that people would have to walk around rather than but through by my house in order to get to the high school. Privacy was available at a premium which I was, it turns out, willing to pay.

Perhaps these previous experiences are, in part, why staying home in the pandemic has not felt like a struggle. I suspect that this fall and winter, I might feel a bit like we are missing out, with our children not vaccinated (under 12 are not eligible yet) but museums and movie theaters open. Then again, perhaps I will feel grateful to have an excuse to not have to venture out; perhaps I will know then too that what we have here inside this fence is, indeed, enough.

Utopia in a Yard

I’ve been exercising more, in my own yard, as I mentioned last time. I know. Even running a bit. It’s not a huge area, but it’s definitely bigger than the area that some of those runners on YouTube who have posted videos of themselves running an entire marathon on the path traversing their postage stamp garden from their backdoor to their back gate have had to work with. Or the balcony of their apartment runners.

Someone commented on one of those videos about how much mental strength it must take to do that sort of thing. Personally, I wonder at the mental strength it takes to run (or walk or to stand waiting for a bus for that matter) along the six and eight lane highways around here as I’ve seen some runners do or to just cross them to get to a less car-ific area. Talk about fortitude.

So I’m grateful to have enough space outdoors for this running in circles. The bathroom is nearby, as are my kids should they need me. I don’t have to carry any water or even my phone. I don’t have to plan out a route or tell anyone where I’m going. I just plug in my earbuds and go.

And my yard? Well, it’s nice. There are shady spots I can stick to more or less when the sun is doing its thing. The concrete driveway is large when I feel like not having to negotiate with uneven ground. Sometimes one of my dogs will even run along with me for a bit. Ok, he’s actually running more AT me, thinking that I’m playing and usually slinks off pretty soon after realizing that what I’m doing is not playing and quite boring, for a puppy anyway.

On my last circuit around the garden, I was reminded of another person who I knew, ages ago who would do a similar thing next a house I used to live in. I once taught English in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. My house was a little bamboo and wood one next to the high school where I was teaching. (“Artistic” rendering below as I don’t have that many pictures of it. This was about 20 years ago before decent phone cameras which is a timeline that makes me feel suddenly quite old but in a good way.)

My house in Karenni Refugee Camp #3 in Mae Hong Son, Thailand. There was a latrine-style toilet off to the side and, later on, there would be a small dirt-floor kitchen to the left.

My current house is not made with bamboo, but a previous owner planted some which now grows between my yard and my neighbor’s providing some of the shade I mentioned above. It’s not native to this area but it is in Thailand. And with a strength to weight ratio higher than steel with greater flexibility, it’s a great building material.

In any case, a man that I knew there (who worked in what was called the Foreign Office and therefore helped foreigners such as myself) would, on occasion, go for a run around the high school, a loop which led him, repeatedly, past my house. Although he was a refugee, he didn’t actually live in the camp so it wasn’t every day that he did this but from time to time he would come and stay in the camp for work or to visit with friends and so he’d run along the dirt and rock paths.

He (Doh Say was his name) told me once that he liked to run right there because he there was a good hill there. The high school was along one edge of the camp and so it was quieter than the rest of the camp too, especially when school wasn’t in session. Previously the idea of “going for a run” had always struck me as a sort of western, even specifically American, thing to do, involving pricey gear and leisure time. It’s obviously a foolish misconception on my part, founded, I now think, on being raised in a western culture where my body (and health and care of and even understanding of) has felt like something a bit out of my control. I wasn’t a runner (or much of an exerciser) in part because I always feared that I would hurt or injure myself, that I required coaching from experts in order to do things properly. There were no coaches or experts out here on the edge of the jungle so I was surprised that people were exercising. And as someone raised in a urban place, this edge-of-the-jungle terrain was so foreign to me that an injury wasn’t out of the question.

Some of my students had set up a gym next to the high school too. I never used it but there were some bamboo and wood benches at different inclines and, if I recall correctly, different sized wooden logs and various re-cycled containers filled with water or rocks to add some weight to their training. They used what they had available to them.

My students, all the refugees in the camp, were indigenous people fleeing from the destruction of their lives at the hands of the Burmese Army. At first blush, they idea that they would set up ways to exercise upon arriving to the relative safety of the camps seemed incongruous to me. But of course it made sense, it makes sense that everyone wants to use and strengthen and protect their bodies. What else do we have?

Doh Say once told me that he ran because he felt he was getting fat. He placed his hand on his abdomen and laughed a slightly embarrassed laugh. It struck me as vain. At some point, however, I saw a scar along the skin of his belly. He’d been shot. I don’t know anything about the circumstances of his injury, but he said that he tried to keep his waist size in check because if he put on too much weight, his skin stretched painfully along the scar tissue. It was hardly vanity driving him.

And so it is that I’ve been thinking about Doh Say on occasion as I run or exercise in my yard. I think about how him, up and down the hill next to my bamboo and wood house in a refugee camp on the Thai side of the Burma border. He ran, keeping the pain at bay.

On exercise

I live, for these intents and purposes, in the suburbs. Unwalkable, hostile suburbs. As such, getting exercise is something that must be done with some intentionality, and perhaps even more so in the past year. We even went so far as to buy an elliptical (for me) and some sort of biking contraption I don’t fully understand (for my husband).

When I have lived in more urban (read: less hostile) areas, exercise (mostly in the form of walking) was a matter of course, no real intentionality other than trying to go from point A to point B, potentially whilst carrying heavy loads. I have, in my past, gone through phases where I’ve been a jogger never going much further beyond completing the occasional 5K. And of course, I have yoga. I will always have yoga.

Still, it was something of a surprise to me when nine or so months into the pandemic, I realized I hadn’t really been exercised, barely moved it seemed, constrained, as it were, by a feeling that the virus was, well, everywhere and that breathing too deeply or moving through public space at all meant certain infection. I’m being hyperbolic. Well, sort of. Because something about the pandemic has made me feel a bit hemmed in, not just physically to my home, but also it’s dropped the idea of movement, of exercise down a long list of things that must get done, things to do. Ironic, of course, given the impact of exercise on overall physical (and mental) health.

I’ve cranked it up again more recently. Initially I was walking a lot through my neighborhood. Walking outside can feel like a particularly dangerous activity for women and others viewed as vulnerable and adding the car traffic dangers in my area, walking felt like a bridge too far for me. I resorted to the elliptical, which was effective to a degree, but I’ve always known that I’d need to mix it up more and get some higher impact exercise in my legs.

With the longer, sunnier days of summer, I decided to try out running again outdoors in the morning before it became debilitatingly hot. This worked for about a week. And it was a lovely week, but on the last day, I went out for about a 5K run down to a nearby wooded path. The path ended up being rather crowded with pedestrians and cyclists and the run to get there and back felt, well, dangerous with cars far exceeding the speed limits on a road I had to step into for the too narrow (for social distancing or due to a parked car) sidewalk.

When I used to run outside of my own yard, these were some of the flowers I saw: Black-eyed Susans, asters, Queen Anne’s lace.

I came back from that run simultaneously triumphant for having run as far as I had and with jittery and jangled nerves due to nearly being hit by a car.

I knew that exercising was good for lowering cortisol but with the car traffic and dangers, I was also feeling cortisol spikes, undoing all of the “good” work of the running. Going for a run next to speeding cars was undoing the point of exercise in the first place, making the whole thing a draw, a waste of time.

So, this week, I’ve started to run in my own yard. I know. I have moments when I’m feeling a bit like a caged animal doing this so I must also do unanimalistic things like listen to a good audiobook whilst running in my yard. I’ve seen a couple of videos of people running entire marathons in their yards or even along their balconies in the past year during various lockdowns. Back and forth. Back and forth. And whilst I’m not restricting myself to my yard because of a deadly virus but rather because of deadly car traffic, I’m buoyed by the idea that I’m not the only one doing this. And that I will be doing maybe a 10K in a few months time. Hardly a marathon or even a half.

After Black Raspberry Picking

(With apologies to Robert Frost.)

It’s been a few weeks now since we drove out to an orchard to pick black raspberries on a Saturday morning and I’ve kept meaning to blog about it but now it’s a hot Tuesday afternoon and I’m exhausted and I can’t for the life of me remember what I had ever intended to write about black raspberry picking.

Was it the way in which my middle child kept yelping and running to be exclaiming, “Mom! Blood!” only to laugh maniacally over the drips of juice dripping from her fingers. “It looks SO realistic!” she shouted at her older sister.

Was it how the littlest one at only three, picked more than his share from the low bushes in the pale morning sun before beginning to wail as the sun became stronger?

Was it how I doubled down on our initial four pints and bought a half flat only to then spend the last twenty minutes wondering if perhaps I had been overly ambitious and squandered my children’s good will and enthusiasm?

Was it about the chunks of sweet sour plums in the muffins we’d packed into a carrier?

Was it how my older daughter seemed so relieved to finally, FINALLY be out doing something, anything after this past year of hunkering and how she likely ate more than she stored, like the grasshopper of the parable? One can hardly blame her. I do not think the grasshopper had spent the past year plus cooped up in a pandemic.

Our final haul probably amounted to close to ten pints. (Five quarts?) What did we do with such a bounty? So much.

Black raspberry galette

I made galette, pictured above in all its rough, rustic glory. The recipe I was following had suggesting trimming and even considering a design before filling and shaping. But I have hot hands and crusts become tough in them. Besides, trimming would be throwing out bits and pieces and why would I throw away perfectly good dough? So my end products are much less photographable than they are edible. But oh boy are they edible.

Black raspberry muffins, some with white chocolate chips (browned up here).

I made muffins: half with white chocolate chips and half without out of respect for some taste preferences in my household.

Black raspberry turnovers.

I baked some turnovers with black raspberry filling and froze half of them. Turnovers are an excuse for pie for breakfast, basically.

Four half pints of jam, five pints of raw packed in light syrup.

Years ago, when we lived in Minnesota, I learned how to can at one of the many ubiquitous nature centers there and got a specific red raspberry jam making private lesson from my sister’s mother in law, who’s been at it long and seriously to have a “raspberry guy” at her local farmer’s market. Mine will never match hers, but I can certainly give it a try. So with the older two kids’ help, I “put up” the jam and whole berries pictured above. We will tuck these away until the fall and winter when we are craving a little taste of summer.

I find preserving food in this way to be an incredibly satisfying process. I suspect in part this is because I think that so much knowledge that I have is incredibly impractical. (I can say, for example, “thank you” in one or two incredibly obscure languages.) There’s just something about being able to store away food that we picked and, especially, to be able to enjoy it in the midst of winter when the flavors can harken back to warmer days.

Dutch baby with raw berries.

Dutch babies are always a quick, easy, popular breakfast, so I made one this past weekend, picked some red raspberries from our yard and paired them with the last of the black ones.

La piece de resistance: my husband and daughter made this lovely vanilla, black raspberry frozen custard for the Fourth of July. It’s truly incredible.

My husband is the ice cream maker in our family and so he turned some out with my oldest daughter. It was lovely and already has me wondering whether or not some of the raw packed berries we canned might be able to go into some of this mid-winter this year. I reckon we’ve earned it.

Is that it? Is this the black raspberry content I intended to write all along? Feels like I’ve hit all the high parts.

Make your bed, cook a meal

It started with a text from my sister a few weeks ago. Something along of the lines of, “[friend x] had a bad reaction to her second shot and is still feeling under the weather. Can you please drop off dinner for her and her family?”

What I thought and felt was, “uhhhhhhhhhhh, gahhhhhhhh.”

What I text was, “Yes!”

I love cooking. I love cooking for other people. But, well, it’s been a while since I’ve cooked for anyone outside of my immediate family. At least a year. I knew it was an easy audience, but the line between “excited to do something I enjoy and haven’t done for a while” and “nerves” felt pretty slim for a few days as I tried to figure out what and when to cook. Underlying it was low key dread. What if I messed it all up? Would I have enough time?

In the meantime, somehow my morning scripture reading was from the Acts of the Apostles. It began, “As Peter was passing through every region, he went down to the holy ones living in Lydda, There he found a man named Aeneas, who been confined to his bed for eight years, for he was paralyzed.”

I do not want to compare being in a pandemic to Aeneas, who was paralyzed, but I was feeling and had been feeling a little “confined”. And truth be told, I think I had started to become a little (maybe a lot) attached to the idea of being confined. Absent the pre-pandemic routines, the pandemic routines had become, well, comfortable. We had managed to make them work. And, well, honestly, the routines and comforts of home had kept us safe and healthy. Now I was being asked to take a step outside of that routine.

Over a few days, I decided which foods to prepare and settled on a spread of roasted chicken thighs in an herby marinade to be served with fresh hummus and homemade pita with tomatoes and cucumbers on the side. (Piling them all into pockety sandwiches optional.) My husband and Ms8yo would make brownies. It was a kid friendly meal that wasn’t too hard to double, pack up and drop off.

In Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 9, “Peter said to Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and make your bed.” In previous readings, this moment has often struck me. This man has been paralyzed for eight years, and Peter tells him he is healed and to make his bed? And I heard echos of my own voice as parent telling my kids to make their beds, which has always felt a bit nagging to me and tiresome all around. Now this man is healed and the first thing he’s supposed to do is make his bed?

In the meantime, I managed to pull off the “double” dinner with nary a hitch, sending an actual basket of food (I’d had the sense to pick up a few disposable food containers when I’d been grocery shopping earlier in the day) over to our friends. I’d even managed a trip (my first in well over a year) to the farmer’s market to find some seasonal items including some ramps which I was able to sneak into the yogurt sauce. It was the first sit down homemade meal our friends had had in a while and they sent lovely pictures and texts of gratitude. I felt warm and fuzzy all over seeing their smiling faces and clean plates.

The basket of food Eric is about to take to our friend’s house.

And what happened to Aeneas? “He got up at once and all the inhabitants of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.” It would be nice to think that in this story, I was Peter, sending healing foods over to our friends to help them out of their difficult health situation.

But, of course, you know by now, dear reader, that I was Aeneas and my sister was Peter, telling me to “make my bed.” Peter didn’t heal Aeneas, Jesus already did that. What Peter was doing was telling Aeneas that he was healed and giving him a task to do to show him he was healed. “Make your bed.” Imagine how absurdly impossibly that must have sounded to Aeneas when Peter said it to him. But he got up. Scripture doesn’t tell us whether or not he actually made it bed. But we know that he got up, which was far and away a bigger task than making his bed.

Sometimes we are already healed. We already have all of these things we can do and are capable of. And what we need is someone coming along and saying, “here: do this thing.” And that thing might sound absurdly impossible to us, but before we know it, we are at the farmer’s market in front of piles of ramps, devising ways to incorporate them into a meal that is already turning into something more than you could have imagined a few short days ago.

Dear reader, “Get up. And make your bed.”

Book Review: Murder on the Red River

I’m trying to remember how this book, Murder on the Red River by Marcie R. Rendon even landed on my shelf. I’m thinking that it must have been a Minnesota Public Radio email — perhaps a book newsletter from Kerri Miller. However it was that I found the title, I’m confident I went to Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Books to order it.

Because to find an indie press book (and especially in this time of no bookstore and library browsing) feels like stumbling across a needle in a haystack or, as in this case, a gem in a haystack, when I wasn’t even necessarily looking for one.

Murder on the Red River is set in the Minnesota-North Dakota Fargo Moorhead border area along the titular river during the Vietnam War and centers around a wise-beyond 19 year old Cash Blackbear. Cash grew up on the White Earth Reservation before being shuffled between a series of foster homes. The consistent adult in her life has been Wheaton, the county sheriff, and so it is that Cash (who otherwise mostly drives trucks on local farms and shoots pool at the local bars) ends up at the scene of the murder of a man from Red Earth, another, more remote reservation. Cash is both earthly and not and uses her otherworldliness to gain insights into the crime and more importantly the victim and his loved ones.

My husband grew up south and east from where this book takes place. (The opening descriptions of the landscape in Murder on the Red River mirrored his geological narration of our drives out to his hometown.) As a coastal, city kid, driving out into this flat, flat black earth with its sky so open I could almost see the curve of the horizon, it was an unfamiliar, almost scary feeling of isolation. Of course, Cash is tethered to this place by birth and 19 years and by family and people (however few) in a way that I wasn’t. Rendon’s prose feels similarly and simultaneously open and sparse. As such, she drives both plot, meaning, and exposition into seemingly singular objects (Cash’s prized pair of boots, which she found on a farm, her newly installed phone), memories (sleeping on the bench in the police station) and rhythms of life (her morning coffee, the thwack, thwack of the pool table). A few pages in and I was already felt in my bones that Cash was a real person.

While a good book is a good book, I happened to read this particular one during a pandemic and, as such, was attuned to the ways in which Cash’s story felt like it mirrored my own in isolation. Absent many of the normal outside distractions, everyday items and moments and relationships have taken on new meanings and been the objects of further study and fascination in this pandemic. It’s been an opportunity to drill down into more substantial ways of being and seeing, like Rendon’s prose.

Books, of course, have always been a way to connect but it’s felt more profoundly necessary as of late. Murder on the Red River took me into a world that was familiar and relateable in some ways (Cash’s waist length hair is considered a few times through the story and mine has grown nearly as long in the pandemic) and yet from a completely new (to me) point of view. I was somewhat familiar with the landscape of this part of this country but it was primarily from the perspective of the Scandinavian farmers and college students. I had not considered what life near and around the Red River might be like for indigenous people like Cash. I ordered the next Cash Blackbear book even before I finished this one.

One line of poetry (her own, I think) runs through Cash’s mind at different moments in the book: “Sun-drenched wheat fields, healing rays of God’s love wash gently over me.” It calls to my mind Malachi (3:19-20) “for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

Like these lines, Murder on the Red River is a deeply satisfying work.