from one hermit to another

I was baking and it was completely mercenary. We had a showing in one hour and I wanted the house to smell amazing.

(Pause: In spite of the amount of cooking I do, I want to reaffirm that this will never evolve into a foodie blog, as I’ve mentioned before. Not because I don’t like cooking, or because I’m bad at cooking, or because I don’t like writing about cooking. It’s just that the everyday level of chaos here is more satirical than informational, and…well, you’ll see. Okay, resume.)

from one hermit to another

Last week we had three house showings in a span of twenty-four hours. Craziness. It’s what my nightmares were made of back when I used to think of putting the house on the market: How do we get the house clean enough (and empty enough) to make it look sterile and appealing to strangers? How do we get all the kids and cats to cooperate? How do we make it look like a normal family lives here, instead of one that outnumbers the Brady Bunch and also comes with a small cat farm?

We’ve learned a few tricks. We hide beds trundle-wise. We clear as much surface area as possible. And we take the cats with us – which upgrades the “how many clowns can you fit into a circus car” joke to the rank of how-many-Guerras-can-you-fit-in-a-Stagecoach. Turns out, all thirteen of us do: each cat gets a carrier, each person gets a seatbelt. Two of the cats go on kids’ laps while the other two cry and hiss at each other in the back.

It’s awesome. Exactly what I imagined when Vince promised me years ago that he would lead me on adventures. Sort of.

So that day last week, I was baking hermit bars. Have you had these? They’re a spongy, spicy, not-too-sweet, completely euphoric blend of cloves, molasses, cinnamon, and nutmeg. See, I told you. No mercy.

They’d been in the oven for a whole two minutes before anyone smelled smoke. Detritus in the bottom of the oven from a few meals back had started to smolder, and instead of wooing buyers with the smell of spicy sweetbread, we frantically threw all the windows and doors open to air out the house.

It, too, was awesome. Just like I’d planned, except the exact opposite.

We put the hermits on hold in the fridge, and got ourselves, the cats, and the smell of smoke out of the house just in time. We loaded the Stagecoach and went down the road to the park to wait it out.

Strange vehicles pulled into our driveway, and strange people walked into our house.

It’s a weird feeling, wanting them there, wanting them to fall in love with what you’ve prepared for them, and yet at the same time feeling a little violated. I didn’t feel it so much during the first two showings when we were out running errands, but this time I felt the whole gamut of excitement and unsettledness because I kept spying peeking checking from the shelter of the twisty slide. Which, now that I think of it, isn’t really isn’t that unfamiliar of a feeling as an introvert.

(Quick aside: I have a book signing in Anchorage soon, and I anticipate some of these same feelings. Barnes and Noble is sorely lacking in twisty slides to hide behind, though, so I’ll be brave and do my best to appear well-adjusted and sociable. I would love, love, love to see you there, and I promise not to hide under the table even once. )

After forty minutes the strange cars left. Once home, I threw the hermits back in the oven, determined to eat enough of them to ruin my dinner.

They take all of ten minutes to throw together and 17 minutes to bake. I’ll give you the recipe and they’re worth making as soon as possible even if you’re not trying to coax people into buying your house. This isn’t official, fancy, or fussy; there’s no sifting, separating eggs, etc., though you could do any of those if you really enjoy that sort of thing. This is how I make them, quick and dirty, and it’s as foodie as I’ll get. Promise.

In a medium bowl, mix 1 ½ cups brown sugar, 2/3 cup olive oil, ¼ cup molasses, 2 eggs, 2 ½ cups flour, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and The Magical Ingredients: 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Grab hold of the counter and refrain from swooning. Some recipes call for raisins, walnuts, or currants, but I love my family and leave those out.

Now is a good time to preheat your oven to 350. Fahrenheit. You knew that, though.

Once you’ve mashed everything together with a rubber spatula, the results will be more like bread dough than brownie batter, and you’ll need to plop it into a greased 9×13 baking pan and use that spatula to spread it out in a thinnish layer.

Throw it in the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes. Once they’re cool enough to eat without burning yourself, devour at least half the pan while your kids aren’t looking and ruin your dinner like I did. No shame.

That night our Realtor texted me. She said the family loved the house but they thought it was too small for them. And I confess I responded with some thoughts that were rather, uh…expletivey…as I thought of our baker’s dozen of humans and animals, and longed for a little more space, too.

We’re keeping the house sterile (mostly) and I am exhausted. The adrenaline rush has worn off. While part of me is loving the minimalist white space around here, the other part of me wants to fling laundry all over the floor and leave dirty dishes in the sink to ferment.

But not tonight. We have another showing tomorrow, so I’m back to mercenary baking. It’ll probably be hermits again, because how can you not love a treat that shares its name with extreme introverts? But this time I’ll remember to clean the oven first.

an introvert thinks too much, maybe

It is morning and the kids are still quiet in their rooms. Coffee is next to me, steaming. Finn is asleep in my bed, old Gusser is asleep near his feet, and just in case you think the scene is too picturesque, Knightley is asleep in the base of the avocado plant. True story.

I washed my face but my hair is a mess. Ever since I cut it, I wake up looking like Dr. Suess was my overnight stylist.

This is found time. Usually we hit the floor running – chores flying, kids everywhere, breakfast chaos, Vince getting ready for work. But today he had an early shift and left hours ago, the kids are sleeping in, Finn slept eight whole hours, and I am up for the day before the late winter sunrise, which never happens. Even in, um, winter.

an introvert thinks too much, maybe

I answered a few emails. Ignored one that’s been sitting there for a few days. Stalled by checking Facebook and Instagram, considered clipping my nails or cleaning the bathroom to justify avoiding it some more, and resorted to coming here to write about my woes instead.

We call this “processing,” which is a handy word that means working through our issues until we’re ready to do something about them. If you insist on procrastinating, it’s the healthiest, most productive way to do it.

The email I’m dragging my feet over is from a super nice lady who coordinates book signings at the largest bookstore in Alaska. She says I’m qualified, my book meets all the requirements. And I think, Really? Shoot, there goes that excuse.

I need to do it. Shouldn’t be a big deal, right? You sit at a table in public and talk to strangers about something you were passionate enough about to spend years working on. Easy. I’m good with sitting at a table, and I can talk your ears off about the need for more support of adoptive families. It’s the in public and talk to strangers part that makes me wonder if I own enough residual extrovert in my back pocket to pull it off.

We’re still reading The Wind in the Willows, and in chapter three, there’s this:

The Mole had long wanted to make the acquaintance of the Badger…But whenever the Mole mentioned his wish to the Water Rat he always found himself put off. “It’s all right,” the Rat would say. “Badger’ll turn up some day or other – he’s always turning up – and then I’ll introduce you. The best of fellows! But you must not only take him as you find him, but when you find him.”

Badger lives in the Wild Wood. And he loves his friends deeply, but he is the introvertiest of introverts.

I like him. He might have stewed over required book signings and called it processing, too.

“Couldn’t you ask him here – dinner or something?” said the Mole.

“He wouldn’t come,” replied the Rat simply. “Badger hates Society, and invitations, and dinner, and all that sort of thing.”

“Well, then, supposing we go and call on him?” suggested the Mole.

“Oh, I’m sure he wouldn’t like that at all,” said the Rat, quite alarmed.

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

He’s not as standoffish as he sounds. Introverts can be so misunderstood, even to each other.

To many he seemed prickly, intractable, and often he was, but as his friend Jonathan Sewall would write, Adams had “a heart formed for friendship, and susceptible to the finest feelings.” He needed friends, prized old friendships.

– David McCullough, John Adams

I’m guilty of joking about not liking people (here, here, and here, for starters). But the truth is, as long as I get plenty of time alone I like other people just fine. The tricky thing is that with seven kids I need more alone time than ever, but it takes a small miracle just to go to the bathroom by myself.

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Aloooooone, say it with me in three syllables: the space and time to untangle thoughts, to think, and often overthink. When it’s quiet enough to notice the furnace humming or the cat snoring, and thoughts can be sorted among themselves without the extra layers of questions, conversations, and importunate requests to share chocolate.

The hush and simplicity force the demands of the day to stop flying around long enough for me to see what I’m really dealing with, like so much debris settling after someone has stopped a wild current of air. Stillness allows my static to finally clear into an image.

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Balanced with this, I also need a strong dose of my people to give and receive from. These are the kindred ones we spill our thoughts, feelings, and ideas to with confidence, knowing they will sift them gently. They bring balance to my overthinking, salt my perspective with their own wisdom, and keep me out of trouble (read: make me practice social skills).

There was little he enjoyed more than an evening of spontaneous “chatter,” of stories by candlelight in congenial surroundings, of political and philosophic discourse, “intimate, unreserved conversations,” as he put it.

– David McCullough, John Adams

But beyond that shelter, out in the Wild Wood of animals, predators, and other extroverts (kidding, kidding…sheesh) after a while I get overwhelmed. My brain feels like an autopilot in beta mode.  I need to get back home with my own walls, books, papers, and cats, making food for my people, lounging in the living room with the woodstove blazing and another round of coffee brewing.

In the embracing light and warmth, warm and dry at last, with weary legs propped up in front of them, and a suggestive clink of plates being arranged on the table behind, it seemed to the storm-driven animals, now in safe anchorage, that the cold and trackless Wild Wood just left outside was miles and miles away, and all that they had suffered in it a half-forgotten dream.

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

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It’s not that I don’t want to talk to people about my book. I do. The message of Upside Down is crucial today, and marriages and families are at stake.

But I’m so passionate about it that even when I talk to my closest friends about it, afterward I wonder if I talked too loud or interrupted too much when I got all excited. Maybe I repeated myself too much. Maybe I forgot to say the one central message clearly enough. Maybe they didn’t realize I was being sarcastic when I said that one thing, or they didn’t realize I was joking when I made that liquor reference.

Because I think too much.

Or, I think that I think too much.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’ll overthink it some more and get back to you.

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anchorage: staying connected to the One with ballast

There’s an unfinished newsletter sitting in this word document above the words I’m typing, due in two days.

There’s another post just below them. And besides these, there’s another unopened document full of unused notes and unfinished scraps of thought, and two books that shift so often from the back burner to the front burner and back again that the contents of both are muddled and I’m not sure which is which.

This is my life. I’m not sure if it’s the seven kids – it’s easy to blame distraction on them – or just me. Probably, it’s just me.

When we go for a drive I don’t just bring one ball of yarn, or one knitting project. Oh, no. Because we might get stuck in traffic, or the next world war might start, or an undiscovered underwater volcano might erupt and take out the only bridge between Anchorage and the MatSu Valley, and a girl needs some yarn on hand for delays. Friends, I take a work in progress, two sets of needles, a notebook, travel scissors, and enough yarn in eight colors to make hats for every toddler in southcentral Alaska.

anchorage: staying connected to the One with ballast

These are called live stitches. They’re what happen when one of those toddlers finds a mitten-in-progress and pulls the needles out.

And live stitches, as knitters know, are really just dying stitches if they’re not secured to something. Off the needle, they are without anchor and vulnerable to the slightest tug rendering them nonexistent.

That’s us, too. I grew up in a city called Anchorage and was well into my teens before I got past the familiarity of its name and realized it wasn’t just my hometown, it was a real word that meant something.

Mooring. Refuge, dock, port, harbor.

It’s not a place to stay, of course. I don’t mean the city (though that was the case for us), but the safe place. We are meant for the wide ocean, but sometimes we take on too much water.

Why could he not bring order to his life? Why could he not clear his table of its clutter of books and papers and concentrate on just one book, one subject? Why did imagination so often intervene…?

“Ballast is what I want. I totter with every breeze.”

– David McCullough, John Adams

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I like that word, ballast. It means equilibrium, balance, counterweight, stability, support. It’s what you get in anchorage – the word, not the city. Well, maybe the city, but don’t count on it.

And He got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.

– Mark 6:51, ESV

Jesus didn’t chide his disciples for their boat being too small, or for going out into the storm. He didn’t say, “Wow, you’ve got a full plate,” and lecture them about taking on more than they could chew.

He didn’t preach to them about how irresponsible it was to be far out from shore, away from the safety of anchorage.

He was the anchorage. He brought the ballast with Him.

I need that, because we have bigger issues here than knitting addictions and unfinished chapters. I’m writing some more on this Jesus-in-the-storm ballast for that newsletter, and you can subscribe here to get it in your inbox. It’ll go out in a couple of days, barring volcanic eruptions, velociraptor sightings, or the zombie apocalypse…in which case I’ll be knitting, probably.

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the year of deeper and wider

I first encountered one of my favorite books in sixth grade. I was pulled out of class for a gifted program, walked down the hall to an unfamiliar, sterile classroom, and listened to a teacher whom I did not know read The Wind in the Willows to us.

I hated it. If this was being “gifted,” I wanted no part of it.

the year of deeper and wider

Several years ago it showed up in Mattie’s curriculum. I approached it with doubt and suspicion, unsure about subjecting my kid to the same misery I’d experienced twenty years earlier.

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home.

We dove in, and within the first pages I was in love. Surely it was the same book from before – but this time it was beautiful and alive and magical, so it must be that I wasn’t the same person reading it. I’d grown deeper and wider. I’ve read it all the way through three times now, not counting that first go-round that almost inoculated me from it entirely. I’m so glad it didn’t.

The kids ate lunch while I stood in the living room and read the first chapter to them. This is the first time Cham, Andrey, and Reagan have heard it and I want their memories of it to be warm and filling, sticking with them.

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously…

This is Mole, who has lived below in seclusion, discovering the world above for the first time. It’s also me, and probably you. I know what the spirit of divine discontent feels like. I, too, have flung work to the floor while yelling mostly printable expletives.

I came to this passage and stopped to look for a pencil. None were within reach, so I tore the cushion off the couch to check my stash and found five pens, a set of nail clippers, a broken animal cracker and, hallelujah, one mechanical pencil. I started marking sentences.

He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again.

The story is fitting for all seasons – summer and winter, and especially those spiritual ones when you long for a river that runs deeper and wider than what you’ve been splashing in, and when you find yourself free of old barriers and able to test new waters that were out of reach not too long ago.

Testing new waters is impossible when you’re drowning in the deep end. We’ve spent a ton of time flailing and splashing there, but I’m thrilled to say that for the first time in four and a half years, it’s not where we are anymore.

Or, more accurately, it’s not that we’re no longer in the deep end, but that we’re no longer drowning in it – we come up for air sometimes, and can finally venture out into other waters a little.

Four and a half years.

By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

A big part of it is that one of our kids who needed his world (and therefore, our world) to be as small as possible is starting to experience victory like never before. I mentioned here a few months ago that choices are unsparing things. Sometimes we need the spirit of divine discontent to propel change, and over recent weeks his choices have been markedly and consistently different, by the grace of God.

He is experiencing the joy of a river that is deeper and wider. It’s a marvelous miracle. Most days (not all, I won’t lie) are warm and filling, and we hope it sticks.

The Kingdom is always of increase; our deep and wide is an insatiable sea.

This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and fuller of interest as the ripening summer moved onward. He learnt to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind sent whispering so constantly among them.

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Physically it is winter around us, but we are approaching a spiritual summer like a fast-moving train. There is running water, a full-bodied river; we are learning and growing and anticipating fullness that overflows the banks and spills into thirsty places everywhere.

I wish I could read the whole book to you, but there’s a terrific version of it on Librivox here instead. You’ll hear more about it soon, though. We’re only on chapter three.

Wind in the Willows, and Bingley

the day of small things

Our oldest is now a big fifteen-year-old. He reaches things off the high shelves, opens tight jars for me, and chops wood. He even (gasp) shaves. He was our smallest baby — now he wears Vince’s shirts that have shrunk in the wash.

the day of small things - Copperlight Wood

On his big day, Vin took him and four of his siblings on a birthday outing and left me at home with the other two kids and the task of making clam chowder for lunch. Piece of cake.

The two boys who stayed home played close by while I chopped potatoes and onions. They spun gears in the dining room, wearing the varnish off the table. Maybe I should’ve stopped them. Maybe I should’ve told them to simmer down, just a little. But I didn’t – it was a beautiful moment, them playing together like normal kids, making noise and messes and laughing memories. We need more of this.

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The music was loud and the sun streamed in, and the house was completely still except for the shrieking activity around the table and the flames under the soup pot. Maybe that doesn’t describe stillness to you, but to me it was like our house was in a coma.

What to do, what to do…I was at a loss once the soup was simmering. It’s astonishing how inspired you can be with three shots of espresso and only two kids in the house.

I could read. I could turn on the computer and open that file of 60,000 words I’m working on. I could wash the kitchen windows. I could re-pot the rootbound plant on the counter. I could do almost anything short of flying to the moon — but no, I only had a few minutes before they all came back home, and I needed to keep an eye on the stove to keep what was simmering from scorching.

I scrubbed the grime and grungus off the sink dropper – such a little thing. The hot water ran and the steam rose, and stainless steel started to shine again. The sun hit it and sparkled, and I realized this was the first day of blue skies after a week of dreary, smeary grey in the weary early winter.

We had our first frost last night – this morning the lawns are all grey, with a pale, bright sunshine on them: wonderfully beautiful. And somehow exciting. The first beginning of winter always excites me; it makes me want adventures.

– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Children

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The big boy and crew came back hungry for chowder and full of news about the new Lego store. This kid got his first Lego set when he was three years old. That was only ten minutes ago, and now he builds them into robots. Little things into big things.

…but who dare despise the day of small things, if it has proved to be the dawn of mighty ones?

– Charles Kingsley, Westward Ho!

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I’ve been working on this blanket for years – you can tell, because the color scheme dates it back to the sixties (kidding, but not kidding…) – and it’s finally down to just two squares and trimming left. In this day of imported department store specials, it feels both trivial and sacred to spend time on it compared to everything else going on in and around us. There’s always more to be learned, taught, cooked, written, cleaned, hugged, and disciplined; the dishes and laundry are never done. There are pages to read, and pages to write. And there is always more stitching to do – but the difference with stitching is that you can see exactly what progress has been made.

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A finished book can go on a shelf, but there’s no way to measure what was really absorbed in the reading. The hamper will be full again tomorrow. And you can teach and lecture and assign consequences till the cows come home but those kids are still going to tie fake spiders to the tail of their little brother’s favorite stuffed animal, and try to get the cat to walk on his front legs wheelbarrow style, and color their own body parts with green marker. I’ve, um, heard it happens. In some families.

But with this blanket, I can see exactly what’s been achieved. This row, that round of colors – done. And that is incredibly satisfying in the midst of all the other intangibles.

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Our kids are big and little, busy and slow, high school and infant, and life right now is full of their needs and their changes and their noise. These days I often feel rootbound, spinning gears. I typed most of this one handed while holding this almost-four-month-old, who will be a big fifteen-year-old in about ten minutes. There are a million things I could do, but I don’t regret holding him. I don’t regret keeping an eye on these kids to keep what is simmering in them from scorching.

The dirty socks, the worn-down pencils, the minutes that fill long and short days – small things, baby steps, leading to mighty movements. It is the sacred monotony of these early days that write history.