I wandered around the deflated garden yesterday, while Rose’s homeschool co-op buddies scripted their freeplay in real time. Okay, so say you’re a doctor and I broke my leg and you say: you’ll need a cast, and I say: I’ll take the purple kind, and then you say: we’re out of purple… (all of this interspersed with a tremendous amount of joyous screaming. Oy).
Meanwhile, Col’s homeschool co-op cronies, ten miles away, were conducting a coming-of-age ceremony for Seneca’s goat, Heidi, who just came into her womanhood, ovulatorily speaking. Heidi’s goat-puberty coincided serendipitously with the co-op’s current topic, Gender Studies, which includes sexual development as well as LBGT studies, sacred masculine/feminine, gender stereotypes in media…you know, typical 4th grade curriculum. Col’s co-op spent their freeplay writing a song to recite to Heidi the goat, who loved it so much she ate it. Perfect.
Rose’s co-op cohorts found 45 words to describe an antler for their studies on mindful seeing.
Col is currently immersed in practicing his BB gun skills. We’ve been bringing the gun on hikes, promising shooting time after just a little more walking; this works in exactly the same way a bag of bakery treats works for Rose (Speaking of gender studies. Oy #2). Raising a boy is a continuing education for me. I’m hugely invested in maintaining closeness with Col as he grows, though the intersection of our interests is a stark place with lots of open seats. He loves throwing the football, airplanes, drawing, target shooting, making fires, playing soccer, engineering and building, and legos. And I like, well, making sauerkraut and then maybe writing a little about it.
Rose’s world, to be honest, is also one I often peer into like a bewildered foreigner. Rose spends a lot of time brushing, braiding and coloring (with markers) various barbie, pony and doll hair. One blink later the hair is hacked—flaxen strands confettied across our floor—like barbie finally decided to kick the patriarchy’s beauty stereotypes to the curb. My role is clear here: hand Rose the broom.
When Col was a very small baby, the term preemie following his very person the way writer will always attach itself to Stephen King, I had just a few wishes for him. They were not that he and I share hobbies. No, they were on the order of: please let his brain work OK. Sometimes they were more specific, like: Please allow him to master sucking, swallowing and breathing simultaneously.
This is Mae, our new rat. As Rose said about Martha’s surprising death, “I just want to get a new white rat, name her Martha, and not have to feel sad.” I totally get this. However, we had a proper burial (in the compost pile), shed tears and offered gratitude. And then two days later went to the pet store and got Mae. She is lovely.
I won’t lie and say that watching Rose paw wild berries into her mouth on a plant walk I led this summer didn’t inflate me with happiness. She knows her wild plants! She learned that from me! It’s also true that I feel just the smallest bit of envy for the hours of fellowship Dan and Col share in BB gun shooting competitions (This just in: Col is in the lead. What?). I ask the kids, dangling snazzy seed packets in front of them: Who wants to help me plant the fall cold frames? And when they apologetically opt to jump on the neighbor’s trampoline, I feel the merest bit of disappointment. And yet, my truest wish for my children is that they wake up curious every day. That they find wholesome things to which they can joyfully devote their time. That they feel free to search and find their own meaning in life. The particulars are none of my business.
I think of my friend who gave birth to a boy, who at 4-years old made it very clear that inside where no one could see, he felt like a girl. He needed his family’s help to become a girl on the outside, too. His parents cried and researched and discussed, and then they did the next right and hard thing: they bought their daughter dresses and hair clips, switched pronouns, and observed her new, chosen name. Our children’s dreams may not be our own, but this family’s courage, acceptance and love will always light a spark of inspiration in my heart.
Col came into our room at a dark and early hour this morning. I lifted the covers on my right (saving room for Rose’s eventual arrival on my left) and he nestled down like the professional snuggler he is. We held each other and I breathed in his boy-scent and we talked about airplane design. He told me about ailerons and elevators, lift and drag. He was excited and I was excited for him, and I felt certain that all was absolutely right.
I wish I were more casual about tomatoes, more like, “Oh, tomatoes? Yeah, sometimes they all ripen, sometimes not, no biggie.” And then I’d skip off to do something fun and frivolous, something lost on people who stake their well being on several hundred red fruits ripening. Instead I’m pacing the garden, seeing each crimson orb as a future indispensable player on the field of roasted tomato sauce. I’d ripen them with the hot blaze of my attention if I could.
Last month our friend Maja and her three kids led us through the spruce trees on a mushroom-picking foray, followed by a fungal feast at their house (Chanterelles and spinach simmered in cream sauce. Just saying). Rose said to me afterwards, in whispery reverent tones, “Maja is so nice. She’s so willing.”
Being willing is one of the highest compliments Rose can bestow upon you. It means you say yes a lot, don’t have a lot of stuffy rules for the sake of cleanliness and order, and you live a full, celebratory life now, instead of say, roping off the tomatoes for some future dream of roasted tomato sauce.
Last weekend, I promised Rose that we could swim from the bridge behind the high school to Paradise Island (the length of a very long city block), having no idea how skin-tinglingly cold the water would be, being, well, formerly snow. I waded in tentatively, middle aged mother-style, legs going numb in sections, hoping Rose would see the craziness in the idea. But no, Rose was screeching and splashing in her bikini like some future version of her spring-break-in-Mexico self. “You’re doing great, Mama, keep coming!” she shouted. And I became willing. I became so willing that I dove in. I screeched and splashed with her. I floated on my back, dodged rocks, and slid through the aquatic plants which Rose greeted like a kingdom of leafy green babies.
Rose has a lot of wants. They start at approximately 6:30 am and don’t let up until I’m kissing her goodnight and she reminds me to come back and check on her in fifteen minutes. Fifteen, she calls from her top bunk as I’m walking out to my own version of freedom. Fifteen, I confirm. What I’m saying is there is a lot of opportunity to become willing.
I’m trying to seize willingness when I can. Sometimes being willing means saying yes to a tickle session with Rose when I’d rather impersonate a very sedentary person on the couch. Or saying yes to taking Col to the Animas Air Park to troll around the tiny private planes even though this pit of mother-fear burbles up at the thought of my son behind the controls of any plane.
The times I can overcome my own boring inertia become its own reward. Rose’s gappy-toothed howls from a tickle session reverberate in my body, inevitably loosening some of the stress lodged in my bones.
We recently had the opportunity to foster a Mama cat and her nine kittens. It sounded vaguely fun and sweet, though before Dan left on his last hunting trip he kissed me and whispered, “I don’t want to come home to find ten cats in our house.” Would a more willing mom have said yes? We’re currently fostering four kittens which is exactly like having babies and toddlers in the house again: excessive yowling and pooping interspersed with heart-melting cuteness. Clearly, willingness has its limits.
Frost is in the forecast, which means all our blankets and tarps are pressed into service nightly because I’m programmed to fill the pantry with tomato sauce and salsa. I’ve published this recipe for roasted tomato sauce various places, but have tweaked it somewhat. I don’t add sugar anymore, and I usually use coconut oil rather than olive oil because current word on the street is olive oil shouldn’t be heated to high temperatures.
Best Ever Roasted Tomato Sauce
(makes approx 1 quart; I recommend making double or quadruple batches)
Prep time: 20 minutes; Cooking time: 1 hour; Clean up time: you don’t want to know.
4-5 pounds tomatoes
½ onion, sliced
2-4 whole cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
4 tbsp fresh herbs or 1 tbsp dried herbs
¼ cup coconut oil, lard or high-quality olive oil.
Additional vegetables, as available
Adding roasted, pureed onions and chopped steamed broccoli to the sauce to freeze in jars.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut the tomatoes in half and place cut side down on cookie sheet in a single layer. Toss onions, garlic, salt, and herbs on top of tomatoes and drizzle with oil. Or, if you have enough for multiple batches, roast tomatoes and onions in separate cookie sheets. Roast for one hour or until the tomatoes shrivel and collapse and their juices start pooling in the bottom of the baking dish. Process the mixture with a blender or food processor until smooth. If you want to remove the skins and seeds (which is unnecessary, though it makes for a prettier, smoother sauce), run the sauce through a food mill.
Addendum: Because my garden is full of veggies right now, I am making this sauce into a tomato veggie sauce. I usually roast 2 trays of tomatoes, 1 tray of onions, and then steam broccoli or kale to add in after everything else is cooked.
Kids at work: stripping kale off stems.
To Preserve: This recipe has too much oil to can in a water-bath. Must be pressure canned or frozen. I do both.
1. Wake up and discern via weak light spotlighting through windows that it’s appropriate waking time, rather than dark, lonely cursed hours of the sometimes-insomniac.
2. Reach for
3. Hear rat sounds outside the bedroom: chewing, scratching, scuttling. Wonder if Martha needs a friend. Wonder if Martha would eat her friend.
4. Pledge to meditate this morning. Just, later. Offer rewards: meditate for ten minutes, then check e-mail with…coffee!
5. Light full strength. Kids arrive, soft parts having shrunk in the night in relation to elbows and knees.
6. Rose demands, “Tell me the WHOLE day from the beginning. Are we doing anything fun?” Col rolls around, issuing strange noises approximating…bombs dropping?…intestines fermenting? Try to love every minute, remembering that soon kids will be device-coveting, parental bed-phobic teenagers.
7. Coffee. (cue triumphant music)
8. Hear Dan ask kids: “You want to clean up or live in squalor?” Radio silence. Next he wonders, “What is the life span of a fruit fly?”
9. Start chopping golden luminous planet of an onion* Scatter C-shaped slices on cookie sheet. Drip coconut oil over shiny white puzzle pieces. Shove in oven. Turn to 350F for 20 minutes. Broil for 10 minutes or until brownly crisped, stirring once. Pledge to meditate tomorrow.
Onion from Food For All Farms in Mancos. I’m up to 7/week. Attachment level = HIGH.
This is the start or end of any number of meals, so sweet and deeply delicious you may find yourself eating the caramelized squiggles by the handful, placing the empty cookie sheet in oven, uncleaned, for tomorrow’s onion.
Are you getting the notion that I snack all day long? Confirmed.
Roasted onions masquerading as bacon.
I had a meeting this morning with someone from the Small Business Administration. She was so knowledgable and helpful, except I couldn’t understand half of what she was talking about. Videos of me teaching fermentation classes? Pinterest and Instagram are the new Facebook? (I’m sticking with Facebook until it’s so retro it’s cool again). Google analytics to help me discern which posts get the most traffic? An e-mail program to track how many people actually open my e-mails about upcoming classes? I didn’t have the heart to tell her I write about fertilizing my garden with urine and serving roadkill deer to the family, and roasting onions as a morning practice. Plus, as Anne Lamott says, I’m not really well enough to track my popularity.
Which is to say, I am excited about dreaming up new classes for the community (fermentation class is FULL; Creative writing for middle schoolers in November has several spots still open. Talk to me soon). And I’m equally excited about, well, roasted onions, even if it’s not trending right now, nor capturing the zeitgeist of September 2014. I’m not sure where my career is going, but I’m trusting that the practice of falling in love with this world will lead to all the writing, classes, and fill-in-the-blank I could ever hope to initiate.
(And just maybe I’ll see if Mia can take a short video of me teaching fermentation next Tuesday…if she has one of those iphone-thingys).
With love and endless gratitude,
* thank you yoga/writing retreat students for onion descriptors!
I brought this dish to two parties last weekend, and it was such a hit that the friends who got to the table after it ran out at the first potluck were thrilled to see me bring it the following night. (In Durango, on the Venn Diagram of community, there is endless overlap. The categories are drawn less on political, religious or school affiliation and more like: Once went on a river trip together, or In a playgroup together since birth. Or, I can’t even remember how I met half these people, just, you know, living here. Oh, how I love this town).
If you grow zucchini and don’t spend all your free time sneaking quietly around, lifting enormous leaves, ready to catch a slender green fruit just as it begins to morph into something that could be marketed as “slugger,” you will find yourself with a few monsters on hand. In our unpredictable world, this is reassuringly inevitable.
Four year old Rose, the true delicacy.
Here’s a confession: I don’t really love zucchini. I mean, do you? There’s got to be a reason that 75% of zucchini recipes call for enormous amounts of sugar and butter—triple chocoalicious zucchini cheesecake!—the reason being something like distraction from the possibility that you’re actually eating a rubber sandal.
But the truth, which is so game-changing that it could go down in my personal cosmology as The Truth, is that if you marinate a vegetable in oil and salt, and grill, roast or broil it, it transforms into its sweetest, richest, caramelliest self, browning and crisping into something like the potato chip of the vegetal world: addictive and delicious. “What? (Crumbs spattering). That was for the potluck? Oops.”
For this recipe you actually want the overgrown zukes, especially before they get very seedy. They slice up into perfect rounds much like little melba toasts onto which you can pile delicious ingredients, bring it to a potluck and feel very fancy.
One very large zucchini, yellow squash works great too.
Feta cheese or goat cheese…maybe that soft mozzarella? If you’re dairy-free omit the cheese or substitute with…pesto?
A few large, ripe, flavorful tomatoes
Handful of basil leaves
For the marinade: oil is the most important (I like olive oil), followed by salt. Just enough to coat each slice. You can add anything else you like: balsamic vinegar, a spoonful of mustard, a dash of tamari, a sprinkle of nutritional yeast, minced garlic.
Marinating in, confession #2: bacon grease, a splash of rice vinegar and salt.
Broiled, both sides. This is the point at which restraint is called for, to keep from eating the whole tray.
Slice the zucchini in approximately 1/8 – 1/4 inch rounds, coat with marinade. Let sit for anywhere from 2 hours to 2 days (if 2 days, keep in fridge), stirring the slices to evenly coat the zucchini. Place zucchini rounds on cookie sheet, sides can be touching, and place on upper middle rack in oven and turn to broil. Set your timer for 5 minutes at which time check the browning. In my oven, on the middle shelf it takes about 10 minutes on each side, but check every 5 minutes to prevent charring. When the tops are brown, turn once. It usually takes less time on the flip side.
Once cool, layer with a slice of tomato, a basil leaf and a dollop of feta cheese. You could get creative here with any number of ingredients: a slice of gouda, chopped green chiles, a dollop of hot sauce, chopped mint, a fried egg, a pile of sauteed mushrooms, cucumber slices, roasted peppers, whatever.
Option #2: broiled yellow squash “bread.” Inside: a fried egg, green chiles and tomato slices. Holy yes.
Everyone shows up for reading these days.
There is a very cagey, nervous (foster) kitten loose and hiding in my 800 sf house. And a caged rat cracking sunflower seeds, but rejecting the corn and “mystery pellets,” which Rose notices because she too is very allied to food preferences. And a batch of chokecherry mead audibly fermenting in my meditation corner. Yes, corner. (See: 800 sf house). And a husband gone for the third of many bow-hunting trips this month, trying to kill an 800-pound animal with a self-made, self-powered piece of wood (which, after spending another 5-day stretch alone with the kids, sounds like a freaking party. Drop me off in the woods with excessive bacon, please). And one child playing a jarring but charming self-invented song on guitar called “African Bees;” the other child 20 inches away on same couch perusing a book on airplane design, requesting, sighingly, that the musician play “just a little quieter.” See again: 800 sf house.
Which is to say, not much is new.
Except maybe grapes. The grape vines we planted four years ago are actually producing enough for us to wander outside for a daily grape snack.
I made a batch of chokecherry mead recently and when it was time to sterilize the “must” (must is simply the liquid: water, fruit, honey, which you sterilize to kill marauding wild yeasts and bacteria that can hijack your mead), I pondered the three sterilization options. Option #1: Sterilize via chemicals. Option #2: Sterilize via boiling (which kills all beneficial enzymes in the honey). Option #3. Trust in the Universe. (which involves doing nothing other than trusting that your chosen yeast will prevail).
I chose option #3. Not that I’m very good at Trusting in the Universe, which has a certain flimsy, slogany feel, and which probably requires a certain level of, well, patience and going with the flow, not my strong points. Also, the argumentative 5-year old in me has a lot of boringly practical questions, like hey, what about hard work and personal responsibility?
But, then I went to the Monday night dharma talk at the Durango Dharma Center, where Maureen spoke of all the ways we suffer because of desire, attachment, clinging, and our unwillingness to let go. In essence, our inability to trust in the natural way of things, in change, in the unknown, in our lack of control, in universal law, IN THE UNIVERSE.
Being a veteran clinger, I get nostalgic for moments that haven’t even happened. Right now I’m looking out the library window at the cottonwoods along the river, bits of yellow starting to flame. My mind goes instantly melancholic, fast-forwarding through every glorious color stroke of fall to the inevitable stark dormancy of winter. But guess what? It’s 75 degrees outside and spectacular. The garden is pumping out produce. It’s September. No matter what I cling to (a season, my children’s childhoods, my parents’ good health) the universe is primed to change, to subtly tick forward, to unfold in predictable and mysterious ways, none of which are within my control.
Our favorite hollyhocks this summer.
So, I’m Trusting in the Universe; trusting that we’ll get through Dan’s hunting absences as we always have (which may or may not include a slight uptick in beer); trusting that the bubbling 3 gallons of chokecherry must will become a delicious mead, complete sometime next spring; trusting that the foster kitty will reappear; trusting that summer will yield to fall, and fall to winter; and that a tuneless rendition of “African Bees” may be exactly what we need.
Rose, pitching the yeast into the must.
We’re returning from an afternoon at the river, and Col is struggling to carry out our deflated, unwieldy innertube, unfurling itself from his arms like an escaping octopus. Col exhales the sigh of the defeated; you can practically see his chest deflate.
“Hey honey, any ideas on how you can make that task easier for yourself?” I ask with false cheer.
Col grumbles, professes to be fine, and I swallow down the urge to fold up the raft as precise as Holiday Inn staff and return it to the shelf of his arms.
Later, we’re mounting our bikes and see a small pile of broken glass on a concrete wall. Col grabs the glass, arm cocked and aiming, about to launch it in the tall grass.
“Hey honey, do you think it’s safest to leave that broken glass where it can be seen or to throw it in the grass?”
Col winds his arm down and returns the glass to the concrete wall.
Who knew parenthood was like being a life coach to very small people? One thousand times a day it would be easier to take my mulitple decades of experience and simply announce the Right #&%$*! Thing to do, or for the sake of efficiency, motherfreaking do it for them. (Watching Rose wash dishes—unleashing a Niagra of water for each solitary plate—is like an advanced meditation. Just breathe, keep breathing. Breathe).
I have a (marvelously-talented) life coach, who puts a great deal of effort into gracefully helping me access my own wisdom while she likely grits her teeth waiting for me to simply get it. It’s just like parenting, how we casually ask those gentle, loaded questions, as if we’re not all that invested in the outcome. My life coach will say, without much emotion, “Rachel, do you want to examine if you have any other choices here?” This morning, while Col pushed himself around in Rose’s doll stroller, straining the fabric, enraging Rose, Dan said nonchalantly, “Hey Col, do you want to choose something that won’t annoy your sister so much?”
Daily, there’s unending amounts of information to disseminate, information that seems well, obvious. Sometimes I want to shout, “HANDS OFF THAT UNRIPE APPLE!” But instead, I opt for, “hey, you know if you pick unripe apples then we miss out on all that delicious ripe fruit.” I once told Col, “the window just can’t take the impact of a tennis ball. Can you throw somewhere else?” Cue falsely patient smile. And then I fell down in the grass to simply breathe because the restraint takes so much effort.
But it’s worth it, right? We all know kids who will take a parent’s advice, turn around and do the exact opposite. Because really, who wants unsolicited advice? (You can ask Dan how well it works in our marriage). Also, kids are already at the low end of the personal-power totem pole, looking for ways to exercise some authority over their lives. But the funny thing is that kids truly, mostly, want to do the right thing; they want to be helpful and to add positively to the family culture. As long as its their idea.
If kids get to make their own decisions, though with maybe a teensy bit of leading questions tossed into the mental arena for contemplation, or some general information about the way things work (see: unripe fruit), they’re more likely to make a decision that everyone can live with.
Rose, bagging up frozen peach slices. The kids have been 100% more helpful since Dan’s been away hunting. It’s weird. Rose took out our kitchen garbage without being asked this morning.
So, I’m starting a new program: life coaches can train for free with my family! Just shadow us through the day as I spin thousands of decisions into their own. Wink wink.
It’s getting to be that time of year when my focus becomes somewhat narrow, vascillating precisely between salsa and fermented pickles. It’s so familiar really, the way the season of food preservation marches in, elbowing out other events, like er, personal hygiene and floor-sweeping (the last time I swept I couldn’t discern between rat poop and chokecherry seeds, which goes to show how wild it’s gotten over here). And as my friend Mikel said recently—sweating through her own hatch of fuzzy-headed peaches, needy as newborns—this food preservation is a time-limited event. It’s what you do when the produce rolls in, ripe and plentiful. You transform the harvest with knives and stoves and jars and freezers. And in winter, you feast.
Those hard water spots! I’ve spent hours trying to polish them out. Just kidding, didn’t actually notice them until I took this picture.
Which is to say, I’m all in. We went on an epic mushroom foray recently with friends, three adults and seven kids fanned out through the spruce/fir, eyes to the ground, ready to rush over with baskets and knives at the first whoops (even if sometimes it was the 5-year old whooping over finding an ant hill or elk scapula). And it occurred to me that in the not so distant past, food procuring and preservation was our sole human work.
Proof that chokecherries can be used as lipstick!
Proof that children *can* get cuter as they age, toothily speaking.
Chokecherry-pear leather. Holy motherfreaking omg.
If you’re making chokecherry leather, to avoid adding sweetener, mix with a sweeter fruit like apples or pears. Because apples and pears aren’t generally ripe for another month, make your chokecherry puree and keep in freezer until other fruit are ready.
I’ve been making a fair amount of fruit leather, because:
1) The kids think it’s candy.
2) I picked the fruit and made the leather and it didn’t come from a wrapper and there’s no added sugar and the kids still think it’s candy.
Making fruit leather is easy, because you know, as someone who doesn’t peel fruit or deseed tomatoes, everything I make is fairly unfussy. One thing I must mention is that we live in an exceptionally dry and sunny environment. I’m not sure you could make this recipe in say, coastal Oregon without a dehydrator. But I think September and October are some of the sunnier months everywhere, so maybe?
*Bonus question: As longtime readers know, Dan likes to reinvent songs with his own lyrics. Heard him singing this recently while slicing peaches.”I’ve got a little peach and it won’t be bruised.” (hint: Led Zeppelin…but what song?)
Fruit, of any kind.
Cut and simmer fruit for approximately 1/2 – 2 hours, stirring frequently and evaporating off some of the water. Blend in food processor or blender. Spread about 1/8 – 1/4 inch thick on parchment paper (not wax paper, to which it’ll stick) which is placed on cookie sheet or oven rack or window screen in the sun. You can protect from flies with some hardware screen, or just, you know, look the other way. Bring inside at night to protect from hungry night-prowlers. After 3-5 days, or when completely dry, peel off parchment (which you can reuse), roll up and impress your children.
I am so sorry to report that not one rat baby survived. They faded out in painfully protracted waves. First one died, then five more while we were at the kids’ shared school* open house, then two more, and then the very, absolute last baby was found lifeless inside its pink, translucent skin.
When the first baby rat died, it seemed such a singular anomaly that Col asked if he could dissect its body at the kitchen table. “No!” I said at first, then remembered that we’re a hunting, butchering, home-schooling family who encourages children to take their education into their own hands. So Col opened up the little ones belly, and the tiniest coil of intestines spooled out.
Even after two babies were gone, I imagined the furry, plump futures of the remaining seven; imagined handing them off to Rose’s friends, being able to visit Martha’s offspring with all the nostalgia of a great-grandma. Even after seven were gone, I nurtured a small seed of hope. That emotion, hope, is a trickster. It feels almost productive (I’m busy hoping), though it carries the burden of expectation, of wanting things to be different, things that are out of our control. The day after all the babies were gone, I was contemplating rat orphanages, rodent assisted reproductive technology, or something to bring rat babies back into our house.
Rose, however, has led the family with wisdom and heart. She’s finding the wobbly balance between engagement and acceptance. She observed and reported regularly on Martha and her babies (“They’re nursing!” “She’s sleeping on top of them!”) and when only two were left, Rose said, bravely, “It’s probably OK because now Martha can focus on keeping only two alive.”
When the very last baby rat died, Rose carried it to the compost and announced, “It would have been better if either she had never had babies, or if they all survived.” Indeed. We all like the happy endings best. After that, Rose got on with things, like squealing over Martha every couple hours. “Marteees!” she calls out, flinging her cage open.
After my sadness passed, I felt tremendous empathy for Martha. Imagine! One day you’re a mom; five days later, you’re not. “Do you think she’s sad?” Rose asks. Mostly she just seems exceptionally tired. The conventional wisdom is that Martha was too young for motherhood, not yet full grown herself. Maybe she didn’t make enough milk. Maybe there was disease. Maybe it was that one day, the babies’ second day alive, that Martha spent partying in her tube as if she didn’t have a pile of nine wriggly, hungry, needy young stashed under newspaper bedding.
It’s funny how you can get attached to something you never actually wanted or expected, like nine bitty, unformed rat babies with stumpy little paws and unopened eyes. But, now we’re back where we started, just Martha. Rose picks her up, dances with her and says in her squeakiest voice, “Oh Martees, you were just too young to be a Mama.”
* Shared school: partnership between homeschoolers and public school, whereby my kids can attend public school for homeschoolers 2 days/week, AKA how I can homeschool and work, AKA how I can homeschool and not become the kind of mother who eats her young, AKA a lovely program with friends and music and art and Spanish and excellent teachers for which I am extremely grateful.
We arrive with our lowland shorts and t-shirts into a different world. This is our fifth trip here during mushroom season, and the land is like a historical record of how we’ve grown and changed. Contained in the tawny, decaying corn husk lily are a scrapbook of memories: napping bodies steaming in a sauna of a tent, coaching the kids through squatting and pooping in the woods, reminding the children not to insert sticks in the fire and then wave them, hot and burning, around each others’ faces. Okay, some of this we’re still working on.
Fading corn husk lily. Follow that man with the basket!
Boletus edulis perfectionus AKA porcini
In the morning we search for mushrooms. The pace, slow and meandering, suits the children, plus there’s just enough uncertainty in the hunt for meaty fungal treasure to make it irresistibly challenging. We weave through the trees, parallel to each other, trying to cover the most ground before the children inevitably end up velcroed back to my side. We feed each other wild strawberries, each red jewel a love offering.
Mid-afternoon, I recline in a camp-chair, finishing the morning’s coffee, trying to do nothing more than allow my senses to fill with this place. Rose nails sticks into mud with a hammer; Col swings his hook-on-a-string through the meadow, liberating seeds from ripe grasses. We don’t bring much in the way of toys (see above: hammers and hooks on ropes). And it’s not that my kids are welcoming of the emptiness, or that they’re on hands and knees, studying subalpine insect life, dutifully recording data in homeschool journals. No, they wouldn’t mind an entertaining blast of Disney right about now. But, I know the quietness, the space, the pause in their modern, busy life is taking hold somewhere in their hearts.
Pyrola rotundifolia. After nineteen years of roaming these woods, getting to know the wild plants, I meet this one for the very first time. Greetings little wintergreen!
At a recent Shabbat service, Rabbi Eli explained that on Shabbat, in addition to not working, we stop doing, stop trying to figure out, fix, get ahead, create, follow through. Instead, we rest, celebrating the miracles that exist right here, right now. This liberated my heart in an instant: sometimes the appropriate thing to do is to enjoy, allow, appreciate; to simply receive the coyote’s howl, letting it sift into our human lives, allowing the beauty of the present moment to eclipse our worries for the future.
Chanterelles, which Rose, in her propensity to give nicknames, calls “shantis.”
On this trip I finish The Fault In Our Stars, blubbering in my tent while Col slumbers beside me. Without giving anything away, this novel, written from the perspective of a teenager with terminal cancer, is deeply moving. The character, Augustus Waters, says: “The real heroes aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.”
How difficult this is! We want to make our mark on the world, to prove our capabilities and talents, to see ourselves reflected in the universe. But what if it’s the universe that needs noticing? What if this beautifully imperfect world can leave its mark on us? What if, just for a short time—say, the 24 hour period of Shabbat—it is enough, not to be known, but to be an astute, appreciative observer, to try and know the world?
A shadow flashes through the meadow – a hawk chasing a golden eagle – showing up as if to prove something about miracles. But it’s all awe-inspiring: our basket of edible fungus and their unicellular spores surfing the sky, the mountain plants fading out of summer-green, these children being imprinted on by the wild world.
Go forth and appreciate this weekend. xo, Rachel
You guys, I’m a great-grandmother!
Martha had NINE babies on Monday night. What a shocker! The kids were skyping with their grandparents when Rose decided to show Baba and Nana her rat…her rat who um, had a strange, pink thing attached to her…and a few more wriggling on the ground. And then more, more and more, blooping out of her, wriggling and hairless. As Rose said, “Martha must have copulated back at the pet store!” My friend, Joy, noted that perhaps Martha wanted to get some good times in while the risk of becoming snake-food still loomed over her.
It all makes sense now: Martha’s exceptionally fat belly; her lethargy and tendency to hunker down in a corner of her cage even with her door flung open; her extreme mellowness, her soulful eyes of a mother.
Rose is taking a small maternity leave from regular life. Her day starts and ends at Martha’s cage and includes much hovering, observing and planning (“I’m not going to name the babies, except a few I keep for myself. The rest I’ll sell to Dewa, Annslee, Neko, Chloe and Aniya for $2 each. And if one dies, I’ll just bury it in the yard.”)
I have to admit, the whole thing has been entirely enchanting. The chorus of baby rats (whose eyes aren’t even open yet!) all nursing is a sound that sends a hush over the house. Col observed, on the babies’ first night, “It seems like all of a sudden 100% of Martha’s brain is focused on her babies.” Even Dan wondered if we needed to start feeding Martha some super foods for extreme nursing.
Martha alternates between devotedly hovering over her babies, ferrying strays back into the wiggling pile, and going on wild benders in her tube, ignoring her new babes for hours. But as Rose astutely told my mom, who wondered what needed to be done for these rat newborns, “Martha’s in charge.”
Holy moly! Rat babies!