Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

On Sunday the children carved their pumpkins. Phaedra's as the biggest, but it had mold inside. Sylvie scooped it out for her, then Phaedra decided Sylvie could just have it. Ezra's definitely reflected his age; it was more creative and had big enough openings to shed a fair bit of light. Phaedra's also had pretty big openings. Sylvie's had six faces that let out hardly any light at all; she was delighted!
 Tonight, they each put together their costumes with only minimal input. I'm not really the helpful sort in this department, and no one liked my idea of going as a laundry hamper.
So, Ezra went as an IRS agent; Jason got him some faux tax forms to hand out that taxed people candy. He made the briefcase out of a canning jar box and gorilla tape.

Phaedra went as a librarian. The glasses are some of Jason's. She felt that with the glasses way down on her nose she looked like her Grammy. That's "Little Women" under her arm.

Sylvie went as a witch. She likes anything that requires odious amounts of face paint. She wanted very much to look scary.

Jason took them trick or treating; they like for him to take them. Sylvie explained to Librarian Rose this morning that if I take them, they only get to go to two houses. Jason said there were not very many people out, and that not that many houses had a light on. I wonder if the weather scared people.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Peace Points

My beloved third child needs the world to respond to her; she needs to know if you like what she's doing, whether she does it better than anyone else. She will ask for, insist on, and demand attention from most anyone she feels comfortable with. If she really loves and trusts you, when all else fails, she will pinch, yell, jump, poke, do ANYTHING to get you to notice her. For the record, we are not a cold, distracted family; she just entered the world needing more attention than the other four of us can steadily give.

Her yearning for attention has resulted in some pretty negative interactions with her siblings, particularly Ezra. I have watched and tried to stay out of the way, believing pretty firmly that they will come to a workable solution for both of them. Seven-and-a-half years in, I've decided that there are too many negative patterns between the two of them, and I can see similar patterns extending into more of her interactions with all of us. It seems high time to do something.

Two weeks ago, I introduced the idea of "peace points"; these are tied to behaviors that either create or undermine peace. Being overly sensitive does not calm our environment, breathing into your sister's ear is disruptive to everyone, unobtrusively helping with another's chore makes life better for the entire family.

Each child starts the week with ten points. At the end of the week, if all three children have eight or more, they may each spend $1 on candy. If any child has 10 points, that person may have $2. (Candy is a hot commodity in our house; it's one of the upsides to deprivation in childhood.) Points may be regained, as well as lost. The trick here is that each child is dependent on the others to reap the reward, and they all actually like it when all of them have the same treat. They will each advocate for the others as the week comes to a close to make sure everyone has as many points as possible.

And finally, I see Sylvie trying to measure her responses to annoyances, like someone quietly enjoying a book or wanting her to put her shoes away. I see her trying to frame her wants and needs in a friendlier way. I see Ezra trying to be tolerant instead of provoked. I see Phaedra tempering some of her passive pettiness. The whole system is kind of a bother, because I am the banker of points, but two weeks in, it seems worth the effort.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another Chicken Harvest

We bagged the chickens today, sending most to others' freezers, and tucking twenty into our own. The birds came in at a good weight, averaging 6.5 pounds. The first year, they averaged 6 and last year they were only 4.5.

The first year, we did not kill them until 13 weeks. They did not seem to gain much that last week, so we decided to kill them earlier the following year. Part of the deal is that once they get a certain size, they really eat a lot, so you have to compare what they might gain to the cost of feed.

Last year, we tried a different food that was not specifically formulated for maximizing growth. We also killed them at about 11 weeks. That was one depressing harvest, as we killed chicken after chicken that were so obviously smaller than the year before.

This year, we fed them "grower" food, and we supplemented with all of our waste milk. The past two years, we really didn't have much milk to spare for chickens. Since most of our milk is going into butter this year, and we're not sharing with a calf, that left gallons of skimmed milk for the chickens.

About a month ago, I helped a friend kill his chickens. His were a different variety, one that is more manipulated to grow big and fast, and I knew they would be bigger than ours. Still, I looked at them one week, and we both thought they looked a little small; the next week when we killed them, they averaged 8 pounds. I had a bit of chicken envy, and I upped the amount of milk our birds were getting.

A couple of weeks after that, a friend killed her chickens, which were a breed similar to ours, and hers all came in around 5.5 pounds. Now, maybe that sounds plenty big, but there is another meal on a six pound chicken; that half pound of meat really does make difference. Also, when you're putting 6 pound chickens in the freezer, none of the grain costs seem to matter; whereas when we sold 4.5 pound chickens at a price per pound that had counted on them being 6 pounds, it was painful. My friend's experience made me worry about whether ours would be big enough on execution day.

We picked up the chicken rig the evening before, and we felt pretty good about getting everything going, as we had used this setup the past two years. Well, harvest morning, we could not get this scalder to light. Jason worked and worked with it; he took the propane tank and had it topped off just in case that was the problem. Our friend showed up to help, and he worked on it. We got a huge pot of water heating on a propane burner, and still Jason and our friend tried to figure out the problem with the scalder. They actually had a good idea of the problem, but we were already two hours into our harvest and not a single chicken had been killed.

That's when Sylvie let all sixty chickens out of the fence.

Finally, chickens were rounded up, water was at temperature, and we were off. The rest of the day was uneventful. We realized that the scalder was nowhere near as important as the plucker and killing cones. We spent roughly 4 hours doing in 60 chickens; our friend, as well as Ezra and Phaedra learned how to eviscerate, Sylvie learned how to clean gizzards. It was quite a team operation.

Unfortunately, there were no free hands for a camera, so I'll try to describe the one thing I wished I had a picture of. At about 3:00, I looked at Jason, and he had chicken blood all down his neck, splattered across his face, and all over his clothes as he grimly set about killing the next chicken.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Popular Shorthand

My siblings and I share a repertoire of cartoon references that serve as conversational shortcuts. Ours is extensive due to the inordinate hours we spent in front of the television, but it even helped with my peer group in college. You know, we COULD sit at Quackenbush's discussing whether Tom or Jerry was the 'bad" guy; we were of course far too cerebral for that conversation.

I am realizing that this is something I am denying my children. They will be a little odd the same way I am when someone talks about football or more recent tv. I mention this because I feel a ridiculous pride in not having a television, but I also see that there is a social cost. I think of this girl in college who was just a bit off, and at the time, people attributed it to her not having a television when she was growing up.

The good news is that they do have peers in the same situation, and maybe, depending on where they choose to live, they'll have some sort of television-clueless cohort.

We also have started bringing a few things into their lives. Ezra, in particular, sees recent movies, and as the girls get older, they will, too. Jason keeps us in touch with newer music, although still not top 40 stuff. (How I remember listening to Casey Casem on a weekend mornings so I would know what band to like now!) As we get farther along this path, we'll have to continue to pick and choose. I know I'm supposed to say that all this popular stuff should not matter; it's their characters I should care most about. But I remember how much more I enjoyed life when I began to understand what it was my peers were interested in and wanted to talk about. Belonging, or being able to choose to belong, is an awesome tool. We are herd animals; even if we do not want to move with the herd, we should at least teach our children how to recognize a few landmarks.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Domestic Goddess

I was recently with another woman who has a completely different skill set from me, and I found myself comparing the two of us, and wondering whether I measured up. I like doing comparisons like this, because it helps me remember where I want to be, find a new way to go, or congratulate myself on what I'm doing. It also occasionally makes me feel like a failure.

The funny thing about this particular comparison is that it brought up thoughts I have regarding some of best friends as well. I started thinking that maybe I could only feel truly that I had become a domestic goddess when I regularly did almost everything each of these woman do. The list got pretty hilarious the longer I thought about it, and I encouraged my friends to chime in when they had something to add to the list.

So, here's my list; add your own items in the comment section if you feel I've overlooked something.

  1. Homeschool.
  2. Growing at least 50% of the food a family eats.
  3. A tidy, presentable house at all times.
  4. A bathroom your mother wouldn't mind using.
  5. Each child always  having a homemade item to don.
  6. Fresh, matching pajamas at bedtime for the children.
  7. A well brushed dog.
  8. A garden that's a delight to walk through.
  9. Chickens are a must.
  10. The chicken coop must be pristine- especially the nest boxes.
  11. The chickens must USE the nest boxes if you're really a domestic goddess.
  12. A pantry full of home canned and lactofermented goodness.
  13. Fresh baked something every day.
  14. Every meal must be a peaceful occasion. 
  15. No sandwiches- unless all sandwich items were lovingly prepared by you.
  16. Domestic goddesses do not have to own or shear sheep, but from roving to sweater, they must know the way.
  17. Each family member must have a sweater from your labors.
  18. Your yard must be beautiful.
  19. The children's rooms must be inviting.
  20. Daily mopping.
  21. Homemade yogurt.
  22. A happy spouse.
  23. An empty laundry room due to all the laundry being ever clean and put away.
  24. A calm answer to every child who ever makes any request.
  25. Always ready.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I remember being about eight when we were once driving home from church, my mother seething. This happened pretty often, and we three children sat silently, wondering which of us had misbehaved so badly during the service that she felt she had to drag us out of church. She took a deep breath and began to talk to us about what women do.

Her voice shook as she explained exactly why she worked. She told us how she was not happy staying home; she elaborated on how difficult it had been when my brother and I, only one year apart, were babies and my father spent so much time working. She mentioned other families in the church in which the mothers did stay home, and how for some of them, it worked well, and for others, the women simply suffered and looked gray. She talked all the way home, trying to make us understand how no one answer works for every woman, and how women need each other. She wanted us to understand that the women who stayed home were not the enemies of the women who worked, but they were all the same people trying to find the best solutions for their families.

I also remember my mother often saying how she would crawl into a warm bath with a razor blade if she ever found out she was pregnant again- not a coat hanger mind you, but a razor blade.

There's a Breeders song that goes, "Saw it on a wall, motherhood means mental freeze. Freezeheads!", and I wonder about the neighbor ladies I knew as I got older.  Her best friend was a mess and not our neighbor, but she was like my mother. They could talk for hours about entertainment esoterica or the Hapsburgs or czarist Russia. My mother only saw her a couple of times a year, but she's the only woman, besides my aunt, I remember my mother spending quality time with. Those neighbor ladies watched soap operas and and seemed rundown by their lives. Maybe my mother was fleeing that as much as her three demanding children.

I remember sitting beside my mother in the car one morning when she had taken a day off from work; she was a little sick, but really, she had planned a day just puttering around the house. Between her commute and her handicap, she was too tired at the end of most days to tackle housework, and weekends were not long enough for any real project. Mostly, our house was pretty filthy, but occasionally, she would take a day and deal with some area or another. This particular day, I turned up sick as well. We had just dropped my siblings off at school, and she was headed back home. She said, "I know you're not all that sick, but I figured you needed the day with me."

And there it is; I just needed my mother.

I stay at home because I wanted her so badly. Staying at home has increased my questioning of what I was taught about feminism. I think my mother's speech in the car that morning defines what I believe. I like to think more women know this now--we cannot have it all, and we've given up trying. We know we have to pick.

Her generation also shook the foundations of authority, giving me the breathing room to figure some things out for myself. While she believed fully in experts, she somehow instilled a mile-wide streak of doubt in her children.

That doubt led our family to homebirth and nursing and cloth diapers, things many in her generation had really moved away from. It led to home schooling and homesteading. My life is probably pretty far removed from what my mother might have imagined for me; she might have chastised me for wasting opportunities her generation fought for. Still, I know she believed what she told us in that car that long ago Sunday. I know someone had deeply hurt her for what she had decided was best for our whole family, and I know she would understand that my decision might not look the same but is based on that exact foundation.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Playing Dolls

Ezra had no interest in dolls until Phaedra was big enough to play with them. For those of you who are tutting at all our culture does to deny boys this beautiful expression of caring for ourselves and learning to nurture, trust that Ezra had plenty of opportunities and gentle encouragement to play dolls. Sure, there were occasional forays; I have a sweet picture of him when he was almost three nursing a baby doll in a sling fashioned from a play silk. I think this had more to do with imitation than with playing at nurturing, because it never seemed to develop into the same sort of play that his backyard engineering feats did.

Phaedra chose to sleep with a doll around the time she turned two, and this doll still resides in her bed, with a threadbare face and mittened hands. But sleeping with a dolls and playing dolls are not really the same. I had hoped she would play dolls, and Ezra would join her, and they could both try their hands at nurturing. There was some doll play, but it never seemed to grab either of them. They spent more time telling stories and swinging and building with blocks. Phaedra definitely likes dolls, but she does less pretending with them, and more maintenance, like making clothes and smoothing hair.

Now, Sylvie really plays dolls. She dresses them and carries them places and worries sporadically about their feelings. She always hopes someone will be fooled that she's carrying a real baby.  She cajoles Ezra and Phaedra to play with her, and she always wants them to play dolls. Sylvie is the one that keeps a storyline going, so that everyone will just stick to dolls.

The problem is that Ezra is the most likely to say yes, and his babies are always so poorly behaved. To me, it looks like doll rebellion. His dolls always wake the others from their naps; they refuse to be potty trained or dressed nicely. They pinch the other babies to make them cry. Sylvie announced that Ezra is banished from doll play until his dolls can act right. (I love this stuff!)

So, the other day, Ezra is quietly and pointedly crying behind me as I'm washing dishes, and I ask the question he's silently begging me to ask, "What's the matter?"

His tears fall faster as he explains that Sylvie is excluding him. I look out the window and see the girls playing peacefully; I reflect on all I know about my plastic grandchildren; I ask Ezra if he knows why he's being excluded.

There's a powwow and then,

This lasted a solid hour. I always wonder when this moment will be the last like this I'll see.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Flexible Schedule

I homeschool the children in a way that means I rarely get a week day off during the school year, so I'm pretty tied up with them until after lunch Monday through Friday. Then, five afternoons a week, we have enrichment activities. This works for us, except for one thing.

I still have a million things to do outdoors. I actually plan the work load to be heavier between now and March, so that I can have more time to begin gardening. Fall sneaked up on us this year; Jason has been so busy with one thing and another, that he has not taken up the slack the way I have come to count on. Some things were outright errors, like I planted green beans so late that they were only barely coming on when we started school.

Fortunately, I have learned a bit of flexibility through the years, and the newest contortion is that Monday is not a "real" school day until probably snowfall.

The children handled it pretty well yesterday. Ezra is quite independent in his studies, relying on me primarily to follow up on readings or edit writing. Phaedra likes to have me in the neighborhood when she does math, but she managed with only a little nudging from Ezra. Sylvie did only a few things, as she still relies heavily on me to provide structure to her school day; still, she can have a few four-day-weeks in second grade.

I delighted in pulling up the eight-foot tall pole beans that hung dead and slimy from frost. I raked leaves and raked leaves and raked leaves. Do you have any idea how many leaves it takes to fill a 50' by 3' path? I only filled one of them, but I did hit some trouble spots around the ends of rows with cardboard and leaves. I layered hay onto three green bean beds, as well as the cucumber and chard beds. It doesn't sound like much, I know, but it took 6 hours. And I haven't even started on the new garden.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Teaching Manners

Jason and I enjoy new ideas. We like experiments; we're not too afraid of failing. The notion that making mistakes quickly is a good way to a workable solution appeals to us. The upside is we almost always have something to talk about; the downside is we make lots of mistakes. Parenting has offered many avenues for making humbling mistakes.

Before we had children, before I started teaching, I read many books on child development. The theories I happened onto that made a lot of sense to me were more of the "adults must stay out of the way of the natural goodness of children" or "children will do all the things they need to do naturally if we give them the space". Two months into teaching, I was already doubting these theories. Given complete freedom, most of the children in the school where I taught preferred playing and socializing to academic pursuits. Non-violent communication did not beget non-violence among the students who liked to express themselves physically. For the ones who liked talking more than math, the "peace corner" was a perfect place to spend the morning. There seemed no natural leanings toward watching out for less able, younger, or confused peers.

The thing with theories is they sound so good on paper, and you can always find someone who has the experience to back up one theory or another. So, if you're already biased, you're pretty likely to believe the supporting arguments. There is nothing like personal encounters to blow theories out of the water.

Ezra did not sleep when he needed to; it seems his little baby and child self benefited from an adult facilitating sleep- even when he was three and four and twelve. The girls definitely followed a similar pattern. Letting a small Ezra or Phaedra or Sylvie experience the cold due to their inadequate clothing choices proved to be another asinine theory. Each of them might have blue lips and chittering teeth as they claimed they were not cold and, "No, I don't want a jacket, shoes, shirt...."

Admittedly, some things worked. I do not cajole the children to eat; I've never begged them. I have occasionally insisted on one bite. I think I have pretty good eaters with very few table tantrums on the books. Their table manners still need work.

And manners is what this post is supposed to be about.

Along with the idea that they would sleep when they needed to and ask for a coat if they got cold, was the idea that if we modeled good manners they would copy us. I cannot even count how many times I read on the Mothering boards some scathing comment about a mother who made her three-year-old say please, thank you, I'm sorry, excuse me. Why! If that mother only knew how she was scarring her child into hating manners and how much more gently she could do it by simply providing a good example. If everyone would do this there would be peace in the Middle East!

Here I sit with three children who have heard me say please and thank you, hello and good bye, excuse me, welcome!, and so on and not a one of them has developed the habit. I'm surrounded by just those sort of haters who MADE their dear little toddlers mouth these meaningless words and phrases until it became habit- and the fact is their children are much nicer to be around.

All these little habits are more easily impressed on little ones, and for them, they are most likely meaningless. But I'm one person who feels delighted when a visiting child says, "Thank you for having me over." I wish I had seen the foolishness of omitting this bit of direct teaching.

So now, I'm having to teach and explain that these little words are just to make people feel better and they are the oil in the social bearings. I'm having to whisper cues in the ears of children old enough to be embarrassed by promptings. We have to review social niceties before we go into a store or a lesson- things like "make eye contact, say thank you, always yield right of way to pregnant women and elderly people". Maybe these are not the same rules you would enforce; maybe my children will talk to their therapists about the year their mother got manners; maybe no one else actually cares afterall. And still, all I can think is that it's about time.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


for a child of 1918
by Elizabeth Bishop

My grandfather said to me
as we sat on the wagon seat,
"Be sure to remember to always
speak to everyone you meet."

We met a stranger on foot.
My grandfather's whip tap his hat. 
"Good day, sir. Good day. A fine day."
And I said it and bowed where I sat.

Then we overtook a boy we knew
with his big pet crow on his shoulder.
"Always offer everyone a ride;
don't forget that when you get older,"

my grandfather said. So Willy
climbed up with us, but the crow
gave a "Caw!" and flew off. I was worried.
How would he know where to go?

But he flew a little way at a time
from fence post to fence post, ahead;
and when Willy whistled, he answered.
"A fine bird, " my grandfather said,

"and he's well brought up. See, he answers
nicely when he's spoken to.
Man or beast, that's good manners.
Be sure that you both always do."

When the automobiles went by,
the dust hid the people's faces,
but we shouted "Good day! Good day!
Fine day!" at the top of our voices.

When we came to Hustler HIll,
he said that the mare was tired,
so we all got down and walked,
as our good manners required.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What Happened at Our House Today

Maybe I'll get used to this, but I have my doubts. Here in early October, we had some strange, but not unheard of, weather. That white stuff is not hail, but very fat balls of sleet. It felt decidedly winter-ish, or late fall-ish, with the wind blowing and much frozen white stuff falling.

Like Texas (in January or February), it all melted pretty quickly, like when there would be twenty minutes of blazing sun between the intervals of blowing sleet and snow. I was delighted, and awed, and mystified.

I looked at the children on this mid-October day and said for the millionth time, "I do not believe we're in Texas anymore."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Music for the Third Child- Part Two

Sylvie still had Pete as a mainstay for the first couple of years. She probably even had more of my soul through singing, because I had learned so many of the folk songs that were on endless repeat at our house.

But, when she was four and Ezra was nine-and-a-half, things began to slip. Partly, it happened because we were working in such a focused way, that my soul energy was less available to filter all the music Jason and I had as our first picks. Ezra was getting to a point where he was really interested in music beyond the folk stuff we had been hearing, and that seemed pretty reasonable.

Also, we all REALLY like the White Stripes, and, for those of you too foolish to know, their songs really are pretty kid friendly. The lyrics are pretty inscrutable, there are no curse words, and no dark clouds of hate and anger. The subject matter, rockin' music, amd clever lyrics mean that they are still 100% adult music. It was a happy thing...

and a gateway drug.

With a dash of Pandora and Slacker and a heavy dose of Ezra's interest in minutia, combined with his liking Cocteau Twins the best of all, you might see where this is leading. You know, about 45 seconds into any Cocteau Twins song, I fall asleep. Jason's similar opinion meant that he began suggesting other bands Ezra might enjoy.

And the ball rolled ever wider and farther until a couple of months back when Sylvie seemed to know all the words to "Kiss with a Fist" and most of the words to "Girl with One Eye".  It was completely charming to me that Ezra knew all the words to various propaganda songs at the age of seven, but these two did not make my maternal heart flutter warmly. I knew I had let things stray too far.

Now, I've made various edicts to the older family members about what we can play with Sylvie around. I explained that I do not listen to the Violent Femmes or Hole when any of them are around, and we need to extend this courtesy to her, but with still another couple of notches down on the content and subject matter ladder.

I still have trouble with this. I'm ready to listen to some of my own stuff more often, so I keep making playlists that I think will work. Today, L.A County came on while we were driving home; Sylvie says, "I love this song!" I guess I need to clean up that play list, too.

And the quote this morning that made this whole post come about was Ezra chastising Jason- "Daddy, don't you think it's wrong to listen to Jamie T. with your children around?"

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Music for the Third Child- Part One

 Oh no! The dreaded multi-part blog post! How pretentious can you get!

When Ezra was little, I discovered how much I really loathe most anything labeled kids music. None of the funky, artsy performers praised in Mothering did anything but wrinkle my nose. The Putamayo music was tolerable, but who can stand listening to the same "tolerable" music day in and day out; it would be like spending your life in an elevator. The Waldorf approved tunes had the advantage of wanting you to skip recorded stuff entirely and sing to and with your children from your soul. While that sounds at least vaguely hokey, I was completely willing to learn a bajillion songs, and I did.

Part of the problem was that Ezra was definitely learning from what he was hearing. I'd had to give up public radio when he toddled into the room where I was nursing Phaedra and chirped in his sweet two year voice, "I am Diane Rehm." He could also do funny parlor tricks, like tell you the names of various dictators whose names were oft spouted in the top of the news hour. I had thought music would give me a bit of companionship and would bring less ugliness into my little children's heads. I went on the search for more music.

One night when Jason and I were on one of our first dates after Phaedra was born, we happened into the cd section of a bookstore chain- it was Texas; there were no local book or music stores that I knew of. I thought I'd check the kids' music section. And there was the artist who changed my parenting life- Pete Seeger. This was music with funny lyrics, older melodies, no stupid children as back up singers, no electronic flim flam, and a singer just begging you to sing along- not alone.

After that cd, many more Pete Seeger albums found their way into our house. There's a picture of three-year-old Ezra with his ear pressed to the speaker as he tried to learn all the lyrics to "Union Maid". Pete Seeger was followed by a little Woody Guthrie and a little Burl Ives, but neither of these replaced Pete in our familial affections.

And so, Ezra and Phaedra had a pretty good selection of music that I felt pretty comfortable with for the first few years of their lives.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Phys Ed

I avoided for many years putting the children into structured dance or gymnastics or sports. I did it with the belief that their bodies needed time to become. Their muscles needed time to grow. Their focus for the first few years should be on learning their bodies and focusing their will.

I've decided that was all wrong.

Now, they all do some class. Ezra and Phaedra are certainly old enough, but Sylvie is in her second year of gymnastics and dance already. All the programs are very structured with good, patient instructors. What I've seen so far is increased confidence in ability and strength. I've seen a nice focus on developing skills that they lacked. I've also realized that they need more reasons to be physical at home- at least the older two. For Sylvie, she just needs some place to direct her physicality.

We got a trampoline this summer for just those reasons. We realized that we do not know many adults who have trouble sitting still, but we know many who avoid moving. So why spend all this energy convincing the children to sit still? They'll probably do it fine by the time they're thirty- maybe not Sylvie :)

Right now, we're driving a bit to get everyone to these activities. Come snow fall, and we'll add a bit more for cross country skiing. In the spring, Ezra and Sylvie would each like to be on a soccer team. And I guess I can finally look around me and see which priorities have fallen to the side while we figured out what we're doing in this little town in Vermont. Now, it's time to pick up those things that are important- whether that's my belief that motion is fun and important or the children's strong urge to try themselves, each in his/her own way, and to be with peers to do it.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Composting toilet

This post has been sitting blank for more than a year; it' the post that made me wonder if I really thought blogging was a thing I wanted to do. I fretted about actually talking about this, because my feelings run strong and I worried about offending people. And then I came back to blogging and this blank draft is sitting in my post list and I think I have to talk about this.

I live in a place that seems (at least to someone from Texas) to have an unlimited amount of water. There's water everywhere. It falls regularly from the skies; the rivers seem to never be dry. Our sandy soil stays saturated for weeks in the spring and the occasional week throughout the summer and fall. So, why would I worry about water?

First, water is limited. Really. It is. There is only so much, and only so much of it is potable. Being from Texas, I know that water does not always fall from the sky when you need it.

Second, we have a spring that we get water from. This means we can actually have NO water if we forget to turn off a garden hose. Truthfully, the spring recovers pretty fast- about 2 hours in high summer- so we have never been without water long. But if you have never experienced the thrill/horror of turning on the tap and no water coming out, then you'll have to believe me that it is a sobering experience. It helps me not take water so much for granted.

Because I was always on city water in Texas, it never really registered. If the water did not come out of the tap, it mean the city had a problem to fix. Can you imagine a robocall telling everyone in Fort Worth there would be no water for two hours?

Third, there's the whole potability thing. Probably everyone who reads this post shits in their drinking water.Then, that water gets "cleaned" and cycled back into the system so you can either drink it or shit in it again. I hope you're a little grossed out at this point.

Coming to this realization, coupled with trying to conserve our spring, led me to try something that seemed completely crazy- much crazier than cloth diapers. I now compost our waste, "humanure" as it's called. While I have you cringing already, you might check to see what your city does with the human waste cleaned from your city's water. Around here, the guy who empties septic tanks sprays that "manure" on hay fields. I'm not sure exactly what regulations apply regarding when that field can be used to feed animals, but I am sure that my compost is sitting much longer and most definitely turning into dirt before it's used agriculturally.

And really, what ARE they supposed to do with all this shit we're dumping down our pipes?

So, as I try to keep at least on foot off the soapbox, I'll say we've been doing this for an entire year as a family. We made it through last winter by building a box with a toilet seat that a five gallon bucket sits in. The bargain I made to get everyone in this house on board is that I switch out the buckets and clean them. It's not such a big deal, except maybe in January. Things I've learned: I need three compost piles to get a family of five through winter; the compost pile compacts faster if I put a little sprinkling of compost on the finished bucket; everyone must be very clear on which bins are aging and which compost bins are active. I had two bins that should have been ready this fall, but the kids added kitchen scraps and cat litter in the spring, so those will wait awhile longer. Pine shavings break down better that cedar.

For now, we still have a flush toilet with a humanure receptacle beside it. Jason insists that people will not visit us otherwise. I'm not convinced, but sometimes, the more squeamish person should set the bar.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


I have taught all three children to knit. Partly, it's about sharing something I enjoy doing with my children.

It's also because I believe knitting is very good for your whole self. It's rhythmic, it engages the will, it crosses the midline, there's the whole reading a pattern thing, etc.

Recently, Sylvie has crossed from knitting being all effort to being at least a little pleasure. It's a line they have each crossed at different times. Phaedra was probably in third grade, Ezra quit resisting so hard in fifth, and Sylvie is just barely into second grade.

For the girls, it looks like something they will enjoy at least somewhat through life. It is not something Ezra will probably ever stick with, but having one skill can make you more confident on other areas.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Cottage Cheese

This story starts many long years ago when we made yogurt in Texas. We used raw milk, we used prepared (store bought) yogurt as a culture, we tiptoed around the house while it was making and we had yogurt. At least, we had one batch of yogurt; we could never get a good result from using our homemade yogurt as a start for the next batch.

Also, Jason kept wondering why something so common in cultures with much more limited technology was so darn difficult to make.

We tried again in Vermont, and here things got even shakier. We figured it had to do with being able to keep the temperature steady for the entire time the yogurt was making. We gave up; it was too much waste for too little return.

Then, one day last spring, we decided to just leave the milk in a pan on the counter, because we only wanted the cream off of it to make butter. Well, things got away from us, and we did not get around to skimming the cream until a day and a half later.

Voila! Yogurt was hiding under our cream. That's it; that's all we did. We took a couple of gallons of milk still cow warm and left it on the counter for about 36 hours. Now this was a believable way to make yogurt. (You might also call it clabber.)

Now, cottage cheese presents a similar problem to yogurt. The recipes for it are extremely complicated and rely on a control of temperature that's hard to believe a "cottager" might have been able to maintain. After our experience with yogurt, we felt certain there must be a similarly lost way to make it.

And here it is-

Take your clabbered milk and put it on the stove over a moderate heat. Stir gently and occasionally. As soon as the whey separates from the curds, drain your cheese and rinse it with cold water. You are trying to stop the cooking.

Salt your curds and mix them with some sweet or soured cream or just some milk. It is not the same as what comes out of the container from the grocery, but the ingredient list is much shorter and the product is quite satisfying.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What a Wonderful World

I see trees of green, red roses, too
I see 'em bloom for me and for you
And I think to myself- What a wonderful world

I see skies of blue, clouds of white
Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights
And I think to myself- What a wonderful world

The colors of a rainbow- so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do
They're really saying, I love you

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know
And I think to myself- What a wonderful world.

Yes, yes, I'm sure I'm not the first person to do this. However, this song keeps going around and around in my head as I notice the beauty in my life. Thanks and love to all of you who are part of it!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Permanent Chicken Coop

For two years, we moved our chickens around the field in this :

There came a point last summer when we just could not make time to move the chickens anymore. Also, anywhere we moved them, no matter if it was only for a day, they pretty quickly decimated the spot; our sandy soil cannot even stand up to a chicken.

We noted that they got much calmer and easier to deal with when we were not moving them around all the time. We also found that they ranged pretty far and wide doing their chicken business. And let's face, it was much easier on us to leave them be. The eggs were easier to gather, they were more likely to be in a safe place when it came time to roost, and they still did the work we most wanted them to do- dispersing cow pats.

This past summer, we began in the same way, knowing that we wanted to have a permanent arrangement for them. I wanted whatever it would be ready by the time the meat bird chicks arrived at the beginning of July so that we did not have to brood them in the house again. We worked frantically for two weekends and we now have a fixed coop.

It is in what has been the cow shed. I would say the thirty layers look quite comfortable in it. Just to the left there is the brooding space, which was plenty big for the sixty meat birds for the first month of their very short lives.

This coop is not all I hoped for, yet it functions better than any I've had to go into so far. The fact that it is more square means the chickens and I are not chasing each other as I tend to chores in the coop. They are less stressed by our presence because they can get out of our way. They are also all laying in the nest boxes- except for one who insists on depositing her eggs on a particular bale of hay in the barn.

Come winter, they can have this whole structure to move around in, which will be nicer for them than being confined to the coop only. The past two winters, they have stayed in the very big greenhouse. I figure they can adapt to the smaller digs.

They spend the night and morning locked in the coop to maximize the chances for the eggs all being in the nest boxes. Then they range all over the property the rest of the day.

The only problem has been with fencing garden spaces. I haven't quite figured that out, so they ate all our berries this year. Maybe next year I can outsmart the chickens.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Things Used to be Tidy

So long ago, it feels like a dream, I mopped my floors almost daily, and my house seemed so easy to keep clean. I have lost this as a priority somehow.

Today, I was canning the first batch of broth and rendering fat and simultaneously helping the children with school. While I was doing the breakfast dishes to make room for my tasks, I supported Phaedra through her division work. I got the jars in hot water and read to Sylvie. Ezra slipped in and out telling me about what he was reading or trying to convince me that he needed no more practice drawing triangles. Sylvie took a break from school to help me fill jars, and then I set her up to paint something from King of Ireland's Son. More reading, more checking, more talking...

Just as I was feeling like I had things on the kitchen side of the room under control, I glanced across to see what homeschool looks like at our house. I think the word is disheveled.
And I think that's probably good enough in the midst of these four slightly canted walls.