Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Great Big Room

It is time to finally begin some real renovations on the house.  Matt and I sat down and listed every change for every room.  We've had some vague, dreamy notions over the past couple years, but now we're nailing things down (literally and figuratively).  After we had our detailed list, we tried to prioritize the order we'll do things. The chicken coop comes first. 1. because we need to weather-proof that siding, and 2. because we've had the paint since Memorial Day.  Rainy days and chickens have slowed that progress, but I'm hoping to show the finished results SOON.

The second project on our list is the dining room/great room.  Prepare for an onslaught of pictures.

If the reclaimed wood front doors had me at hello, it was the great big dining room that sealed the deal.  Forget the half finished crown moulding, the total lack of electric lights in the kitchen, and four (4!) colors of paint on the outside of the house.  I loved the house's warm brick floors and the soaring wood ceilings.  As Anne Shirley would say, it gave me much "scope for the imagination."

What I failed to imagine was how difficult it would be to change light bulbs.

Here is what the dining room looked like the day after we closed.  Thank you to my FIL for providing me with the picture.

I don't know if the pictures can convey the sheer size of this room.  The previous owners actually sectioned it off and used it as both the dining room and living room and then used the living room as their master bedroom.

Every time I suggest this to Matt, he gives me a look and says "Uh, no."  Can't you see it, though?  Gargantuan Master Bedroom with bay window, door to patio and an attached sitting room and bathroom (aka existing master and bathroom)?  I can.

Here's what the dining room looked like after we moved in our furniture.

There have been some minor changes along the way: Marcia helped me paint the walls, and we bought a light fixture (but never hung it). It has a long ways to go.

I'm mostly happy with the new wall color.  The grey blue works well with the wood and brick, but sometimes it looks purple or periwinkle.  I plan to paint over it with something more green and less red.

The built-ins are made from cheap particle board.  I've since painted them white and hung embossed wall paper in the back.  It's my very own wall of white, and I look forward to showing it off here soon.

I left our rugs at the townhouse while it was listed.  After we moved everything back in, I put a big red and beige rug under the dining room table.  This helps divide up the massive room and add some definition to a dining area.

Here's looking at the other side.

Most importantly, the whole room needs more light.  Don't let those glowing squares fool you.  At night, it's like eating in a cave.

The wood makes things look warm and rustic, but there are actually four different shades going on in one room.  Neither of us have ever worked with wood stain before, but we're going to give it a go.  Any tips would be appreciated!  From what I understand the key is: go slow and wear gloves.

We're working on getting quotes on new siding and windows.  The plan is to add windows to that outside wall and let some views and natural light into the dining room.

I put together this mood board to help us keep our visual goals on track.  The source list and explanations are below.  The main objectives are to finish the mismatched wood, bring more textures and colors for visual interest, and add more light.

1. The blue-grey tone of the wall paint is close to what we were going for, but I want something with less red.  I think Sherwin Williams rain SW 6219 would be a good one to try.

We're going to attempt to have the existing stains matched, but I want to get our natural woods down to just two shades.

2. This Pottery Barn lantern hung in front of our door will create more light and also help give the impression of a foyer.

3.  We already own this Bolten Lantern also from Pottery Barn.  It is big enough to fill the space created by 15 foot (!!) ceilings as well as add definition to the dining area.

4.  I have a cedar bench that I use for storage.  Adding pillows to the top adds visual interest in both the colors and the textures.  I love the feathers on the lumbar pillow from World Market.  It suggests chickens and turkeys to me without being too country.  The orange velvet pillow is from Pottery Barn.

5. A traditional wool rug really pops on those brick floors.  We have one from our old house that we are using.  This one from a local store, Capel Rugs, is just a placeholder on the inspiration board.  But the more I look at it, the more places I think I could put it.

6. These Sango dishes in eggplant are what we got for our wedding and have been using ever since.

7. My friend Emily painted this print available on West Elm.  It is 30" x 40".  I like the idea of using a picture of sky expanse to fill in our tall walls.

8. The existing balusters needed to be replaced like yesterday.  They are cheap 2 x 2 pine boards installed with wood putty (warning: do not lean against them).  We love the simplicity of these metal balusters with just a single knuckle.  Watch us learn how to install them!

9 I'm utterly charmed by these textured mercury vases from West Elm.  I stumbled across them when looking up Emily's painting, and now I'm going to be checking in on them regularly in hopes they go on sale.

Let the home improvements begin!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to be Tender

One of the best books I've read on food is An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler.  I have to thank Alison for mentioning it in the comments a while back.  She thought I would enjoy it, and she was correct.

(Please keep recommending these books to me!  Addy told me about Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, and I've already read it twice)

Tamar Adler has a strong core belief about food and a simply beautiful way of talking about it.  She writes about buying food she loves and cooking it rather than buying ingredients to make complicated recipes.  She says she tries to never start any meal from nothing, but rather to let every meal fall into the next like dominoes.

Her chapter on boiling water will make you want to fill every pot in your kitchen and carry it over to the stove.  I fell asleep reading the chapter entitled "How To Stride Ahead" and dreamed peacefully about roast vegetables.  Seriously.  I still remember it vividly.

She says to waste nothing.  Use the stems and greens from your vegetables to make a green pesto, throw anything else in water and make broth.  Even the heat of a cooling oven can be used to warm plates for dinner.

After butchering chickens this weekend, I turned to her chapter "How To Be Tender" for insight. I have no qualms eating meat or even meat I raised myself.  But there is a sobriety to cooking something that we've raised.  When I've witnessed the life go out of the chicken, it becomes even more crucial not to waste it.

Cleaning out the chickens, I carefully set aside the livers.  I had never eaten chicken livers before, but I have always liked foie gras pate.  After salting and refrigerating the chickens, I got to work cooking the livers.  They cooked up golden and aromatic.  Then, following the directions in An Everlasting Meal I mixed them with butter and cooked shallots and just the smallest splash of Scottish whiskey.

Here's how Tamar Adler introduces her instructions for chicken liver pate.

"As for forays into the murky, hidden, tender world beneath what we consider meat, start small.  The hearts and livers of chickens and kidneys and hearts of lambs are simple to cook and delicious.

"The livers can be salted, lightly seared in butter, then sliced and eaten on buttered toast as tentatively and inquisitively as you want." (pg 172)

I certainly understand approaching livers tentatively.  As one person told me, "I don't think I can eat organs."  But these livers, cooked up tender and velvety and whipped up with an obscene amount of butter eaten on toast with bread and butter pickles might just change your mind.

You can (and should) get the original recipe from An Everlasting Meal.  But here is how I made mine.

1/4 lb chicken livers
salt & pepper
4 tablespoons of butter
splash of whiskey (or white wine - whatever spirits you keep on hand for cooking)
1/2 shallot finely chopped
pinch of garlic powder
1 tablespoon of water
pinch of ground clove

Clean the livers of any membrane and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a frying pan.  Fry the livers until brown, turning once.  Remove from pan.  Add shallots to pan along with the whiskey and water.  Cook until the shallots are tender.   Combine cooked livers, shallots (be sure to scrape the pan to get all the cooking flavors) and remaining butter to a food processor.  Blend until smooth.

Refrigerate before eating for best consistency.  Eat on toast rounds or crackers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Coffee Cups, Blankets and Books

Happy first day of fall!

Here in SC the season is marked by bright blue skies and significantly less humidity.  It's still in the upper 70's to low 80's, but it's a marked improvement from the high 90's that define our summer.  We've are squeezing as many outdoor projects as possible into these mild weekends and evenings.  Most significantly painting the chicken coop.

It gets a little tricky with helpers like these:

Pictures of the coop to follow as soon as it's completed.

In general, I'm not organized enough to decorate seasonally. I keep one box of decorating stuff.  But I did shift some things around the house to usher in the season.

Since I don't have a mantle in this house (I miss it!), I decorated my tea cart instead.

You're looking at three of my favorite things: coffee mugs, books, and blankets.

The copper colored coffee cups are from Starbucks.  I had been picking them up and admiring them ever since they appeared on the shelves of 'Bucks last spring.  Then Sunday Matt and I took a break from painting to take advantage of the buy-one-get-one-free promotional Starbucks was running.  There were my mugs on clearance marked down 60%!  I couldn't help snatching up two.

Not only are they that striking metallic color, they are dishwasher and microwave safe.  I love the little detail of the wave in the side.

I picked out some blue and brown cookbooks to stack next to the mugs.  The robin eggs blue and brown pair well with the copper tone.  Then I stacked some leaf colored blankets on the bottom.

My mom made the orange quilt for Matt and me.  She's sewn one for every one of her children's weddings because she's amazing like that.  Usually I keep it on the end of our bed, but I love how it looks displayed on the tea cart too.  I added a white knit blanket from Pottery Barn.

Since I had robbed the end of our bed for blankets, I moved our faux fur blanket from the guest room to our bedroom.  We have a serious weakness for Pottery Barn blankets.

Just a few more fall things around here:

A bowl full of apples on the dining room table

Fake apples in the beehive drink dispenser

A turkey perched on the window sill

He had a raw spot on his back, so I brought him in to spray with Blue Kote.  While left unattended, he did what turkeys do, and flew to a perch.  He counts as seasonally appropriate decor.  Too bad he had to go back outside as soon as his back was sprayed.  And don't worry, I disinfected all the kitchen surfaces.

I hope you all are enjoying the clearer skies and the hints of change in the air.

How about you?  Does your house change with the seasons?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

One Dish Overnight Oats

I'm probably the last person on the internet to get excited about overnight oats, but I'm making up for it now.

In my determination to make a combination of oats, yogurt and milk that I liked, I have gagged down jar after jar of various ratios.

You're welcome.

Most of you probably already have your perfect version of overnight oats. But here is mine.

You will need:
1/2 cup of rolled oats
1/4 cup of plain Greek yogurt
3/4 cup of unsweetened almond milk (or milk of choice)
2 tablespoon of chia seeds
squeeze of honey (optional)
fruit (not optional)

Grab a mason jar.  Because this is 2014 and mason jars are the must-have accessory when it comes to cute and trendy food.  Seriously, can you even eat chia seeds with a straight face if it's not out of a mason jar?

Pull out a 1/4 cup measuring cup.

Using your 1/4 cup measuring cup measure out your ingredients: 2 scoops of oatmeal, 1 scoop of yogurt, 3 scoops of almond milk, 1/2 scoop of chia seeds.


See what I did there?  One dirty measuring cup to throw in the dishwasher.  Math is awesome.

Put a lid on the mason jar and give it all a good shake.  Put in the fridge for at least 6 (and up to 24) hours.  Top with fruit and eat.

The result: a creamy, filling breakfast that takes only 2 minutes to assemble and dirties only 1 dish (not including the mason jar and the spoon).

It does takes 6 hours of forethought, which has resulted in some mornings of hazily thinking "I'm hungry...what's that two minute breakfast I like? Overni...oh rats."

I've never made more than a single serving at a time, so I can't personally speak to the results of making a bigger batch.  But if you eat breakfast on the go like we do; or your want something easy to eat while your kids nibble on peanut butter toast or Pop-tarts, this is a good one.

If you check out this link, you'll see that the internet is full of creative ways to dress it up - maple syrup, bananas, cocoa powder - but for now, I like it just like this.

Are any of you eating overnight oats?  How do you prepare yours?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Every Dog Will Have His Day

subtitled: Why I didn't call you back, Dad.

I used to say I wasn't an animal person.  It was a family trait.  When my brother Sam (the one with the decorating advice) was in a elementary music class, an effervescent teacher asked him to name his favorite animal.

"I don't like animals," he said blankly.

I didn't like animals too much either.  I had an imaginary horse (because I was once a tween girl) that I would exercise around the yard, and I had a barn cat I called Boots; but in general none of us were animal people.

When I fell for an animal enthusiast named Matthew, I pretended to like animals.

Then this happened:

"Are they all yours?"

Be careful what you say when you're in the purely hormonal stage of love.  You might find yourself bottle feeding a lamb at 2 am or putting Neosporin on duck feet with a cotton swab.

Last night after work, I got a phone call from my Dad.  I was having a nice chat with him and my mom, but I had to run into Trader Joe's, so I asked if I could call him back.  We were in desperate need of groceries.  It was to the point where Matt would say, "Do we have..." and I'd just say "No" without looking up because we had nothing.  We had some mustard, pickles and three gallons of apple cider.  That is about it.

Loaded up at Trader Joe's, I texted Matt that I was heading home to make potato soup.

I was driving along, thinking about stuffing figs with goat cheese and getting ready to call my dad back, when I saw a little beagle walking down the side of the road.

Now, two weeks ago, my neighbor Kris called to tell me that someone was going door to door looking for their lost beagle.  I had seen a beagle the day before she called.  I immediately felt guilty for not having worked harder to coax that beagle into my car.  The owners were looking for him, and he was probably gone forever.

That thought is the only explanation for what happened next.

I pulled over next to the beagle.  He spun around, and began to head in the opposite direction.  I pulled a three-point turn and pulled in front of him again. He changed directions again.  I changed directions again.

This time I got lucky.  He ran into a bush and hunched down.  I jumped out of the car, and surveyed my groceries.  I passed over the figs and goat cheese and pulled out some Genoa salami.  Crouching down in front of the beagle, I waved the salami in the air and tried to ignore the cars flying past my car which was now parked facing the wrong direction.

Recalling my brief stint at Petsmart dog training with Henry, I cooed "Come here, boy.  Come get some salami."

I tore off a piece and ate it in front of him.

It must have worked, because he wiggled out and ate the remaining salami.  As he licked his lips, I scooped him up and put him in my car.

I was now a hero.  Forgotten was the negligence of not picking up the beagle last time.  I would return him to his anxious family.

I called Kris to tell her the good news.

"I usually write down the name and number, but I didn't this time," she said.  "I don't remember who it was."

Well, that put a little hitch in my giddy-up, but if the owners were going door to door down the street, then surely someone else would know who he belonged to.  Kris thought that the people two houses down from us had a beagle and agreed to meet me there.  As I was pulling in, Matt called.

"I just got home.  Where are you?"

"Well, I found this beagle, and I'm taking him to the yellow house next door to return him.  Do you want to meet me here?"

"Uh, ok?" he said.

I went up to the front door and knocked.  A woman about my age came to the door, but didn't open the screen.  She did have a beagle.  Literally.  She had her beagle, and it hadn't ever gone missing. I was telling her my story, when  Matt pulled in behind me.

"Who's that?"  She asked wide-eyed.

"Oh that's just my husband." I waved my hand dismissively.  "Do you know anyone else with beagles?"

Kris's silver SUV pulled in behind Matt.  She stuck her head out and yelled, "Is it hers?"

"Who is that?" Beagle neighbor asked, her eyes even wider.

"That's Kris.  She lives between us."  She should have known that, I think.

She assured me she didn't know any other beagle owners and disappeared back into her house.

Kris said she was going home to eat dinner, and then she'd help me canvas.

I walked over to Matt's car where he was giving me his signature "how do you get me into these situations" look.

"Meet me at home," he said.  "And you and I will canvas now."

It wasn't until I moved the beagle into Matt's car, that I noticed the dog was missing a leg. I was starting to get the uneasy feeling that this wasn't the same beagle that was originally missing two weeks ago.

There are only three houses on about forty acres between us and the road where I found the beagle.  It was about time we met them all anyway.

At the first house I met J.  She is widowed and lives with her widowed sister.  Her sister gardens and J manages the hummingbird feeders.   She didn't know who the beagle belonged to.

At the second house, E answered the door and said "Come in," before I had a chance to say anything.  Inside her cool living room, she gestured to the couch and said "Sit down."  She had a Bible in her hand.  I decided I had either accidentally wandered into a Bible study or she thought I was a Jehovah's Witness.  She didn't seem at all surprised when I told her why I was there.

She thought she did know who the beagle belonged to.  I'm sure there was nothing wrong with her directions, but I'm terrible with following directions, and the descriptors of "past the cows" and "not the one off the road but the one near the road" where really throwing me.

Setting down her Bible, she said "I'd better just go with you."

She walked out with me to the car.

"Do you need to tell your husband where you're going?" I asked.

"Oh he won't miss me," she laughed.

I tried to laugh too while imagining explaining this to a policeman.

Matt's face was a mask of politeness as this frail woman got into the front seat.

There was no one home at the house E took us too.  One the way back, we swung by the third house on the street.

I knocked on the door and heard "There's someone in the yard...mumble mumble mumble."  I hoped that the mumbling wasn't "Quick get the gun."  After a while, I thought maybe it had been "Hurry and hide."  But based on the appearance of the man who came to the door it was "Pull on some clothes."  He didn't know who the beagle belonged to either.

Matt and I took E home and looked at each other.

"I don't think this is the same beagle," I admitted.  "Maybe we should take him back."

Matt agreed with me, and he headed down the road.  "Just let me know when we get to where you found him."

Three miles later I told him to pull over.

"Elizabeth," he said.  "You found a dog three miles from home and assumed that he was the same one that was lost?  You do realize that you might have even taken him off the property he belongs on."

That had occurred to me by now, yes.

I pulled the beagle out and put him back exactly where I'd found him.  We drove off.

Matt summed it up: "Here I am, pulling in the driveway, imagining that you are inside making potato soup.  You aren't home.  I call you and  you tell me 'I'm at a strangers house with a three-legged beagle.'"  He sighed.  "Life with you is never boring."

It's what he gets for trying to make me an animal person.

(And, Dad, I'm sorry I never called you back.  Things took a little longer than I thought).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sports Aficionados We Are Not

As I was checking out in Lowe's last weekend, my chatty self started up a conversation with the cashier about the weather.  She mentioned that it was supposed to be 70 on Sunday, and said "And you know all these southerners are going to be like 'it's cold!'  But they don't know what cold feels like."

(In the southeast's defense, after a week of 95 degrees, 70 feels downright brisk).

She mentioned she was from Wisconsin.

"Oh where at?" I asked.  "I was born in Milwaukee."

"Are you a Green Bay Packers fan?" she asked.

"Of course," I replied easily as I ran my credit card through the little machine.

As far as sports go, I do like the Packers.  More accurately I actually know who the Packer are. My dad and brothers are dyed-in-the-wool fans who have donned foam cheese hats and sat freezing on those steel seats at Lambeau field.

"I'm in a Green Bay Packers club," she said.  "We meet for every game at a local sports bar.  You should come.  You don't have to be a member to watch the game with us."

"Oooooh," I started to realize I may have gotten in over my head.  "Thank you so much!"

I told Matt about it in the car.

"No," he said.  "Do you even know who plays for the Packers?'

"Yes.  Quarterbacks."

He laughed.  "Not quarterbacks.  One quarterback."

"Are you serious?  Is there really only quarterback?"


"I'm not sure," he said.

Go, Pack! Go!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Do Your Thinking In a Rocking Chair

A friend at work recently helped her parents downsize from a house to a condo.  It was probably to their advantage that four of her coworkers had bought new houses in the past two years.  She brought in price lists with pictures, and the four of us fought over furniture with the well-bred aggressiveness that befits a professional environment.  Being an especially thoughtful friend, she knew I had been eyeing her parents' rocking chairs on the online house listing, and she set them aside for me.

I recruited my father-in-law to drive them over in his truck, and $40 later, I was the proud owner of two brightly-colored, ladder back rocking chairs.

"Aren't they great?"  I asked my FIL as he carried them inside.

"Hmm," he said.

Charis told me, "That generation can't figure out why our generation wants to buy all their old stuff."

The lime green and white motif had looked great in a sun room, but clashed with our taupe siding.  I had a gallon of Behr exterior glossy paint/primer in antique white that we had picked up at the Home Depot Memorial Day Sale for the trim on our chicken coop.  The associate accidentally mixed a gallon instead of a quart, so we'd gotten the gallon for 50% off.

It only took me one month and the help of my sister Margaret, but I finally got those rocking chairs cleaned, sanded, and painted with two coats of paint.

In retrospect, spray paint would have been a faster option.  I became quite familiar with the slats on the seats.  But I couldn't beat using paint I already had, and I'm thrilled with the color.  Also, I've read that it's a good idea to let painted furniture cure for at least 1 week before use.  My neighbor sunk into one when he was over the next day.  So there's that.  This is basically the opposite of a furniture painting tutorial.

The reward for completing the painting was picking out seat cushions.  My brother Sam went with me to Home Depot.  He's twenty-year-old and just started a PhD program in mathematics.  As we were browsing the outdoor furniture area, I found out that he has some strong opinions on decorating.

On beds: Every bed should have only five pillows - two in the same fabric as the sheets, two in the same fabric as the duvet, and one accent pillow.

On outdoor cushions: Solid colors are best.  If you must have a pattern, go for monochromatic.

He said if he was going to get a little crazy, he'd get these:


I ended up leaving with something more colorful.  Sam said that they are a too bold for his tastes, but they were OK for me.  Makes sense seeing as how I have nine pillows on my bed.

Oh, the frivolity.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Canning for a New Generation

This recommendation is a little late in coming, but it is sincere and heartfelt.  I had Liana Krissoff's Canning For a New Generation on my Amazon wishlist for almost a year before I finally broke down and bought it.   Matt was enthusiastic about our garden, and kept telling me "we should can stuff!"  I finally broke down and bought the book in an effort to appease him without actually canning.  But this year Matt's enthusiasm and our garden doubled in size, and I dubiously tried my hand at preserving.

Every recipe I've tried has exceeded my expectations.  If you preserve or are interested in preserving, this book is worth every cent.

So far I've made:
Strawberry lemon jam
Strawberry jam with Thai herbs
Chamomile scented strawberry syrup
Spiced strawberry butter
Plum cardamom jam
Honeyed bread and butter pickles
Hot pickled okra
Pickled peppers
Peach Preserves
Green Apple Applesauce

And they've all been so, so good.

In addition to the wonderful, surprising recipes, the book is a fun read. Krissof includes personal anecdotes and helpful information on preserving food.  Oh, and everything is either high sugar or high acid - so no pressure cooker needed.  Just be sure to be stocked up on sugar and vinegar before you crack the book open.

The most surprising for me was the strawberry chamomile syrup and the spiced strawberry butter (imagine apple butter, but strawberries instead).  Krissoff suggests spreading the strawberry butter between the layers of a cake.  I've done it twice and both times different people told me it was the best cake they'd ever had.

The strawberry syrup is delicious and pretty fun to have around.  You can make it with any flavor tea you like.  I put it in sparkling water, but recently I've taken to making strawberry ice cream sodas.  I don't have any pictures of this because I do it late at night (when pictures of food die), and because I drink them too fast.

She doesn't use fruit pectin, but instead uses the natural pectin found in green apples.  Again, I was dubious, but I quartered my green apples, threw them in with my peaches this weekend and watched it all gel together.  Not using pectin means none of your liquid is being absorbed and the flavors should stay more pure.  I don't know if this is exactly true, but I will say it was the peachiest flavored peach preserves I've had.  I'm looking for any excuse to eat it (biscuits, sourdough bread, toast).  Plus she gives instructions on how to preserve the apple puree and bake it up in a cake later.  You have to respect a woman with so many ways to use canned goods in cake.

The book is divided into seasons.  So even if your garden is dying like mine, there's still fall (applesauce!) and winter to go.

** This post contains affiliated links. However the products was purchased and is recommended by me **

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Happy Families

Tolstoy summed it up best at the beginning of Anna Karenina.  "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I was quite indignant with that when I first attempted Tolstoy in ninth grade (I went through a sincere Russophilia stage in high school).  My family was happy.  Idyllic even.  And we were not like the other happy families we knew.

Seventeen years and seven wedding anniversaries later, I'm finally able to wrap my head around the Anna Karenina principle: what makes a family happy is universally the same, but a family can be unhappy in an infinite number of ways.

In fairness to my angst-filled young self, happy families are complicated.  What makes Tolstoy's line resonate century after century, is that it is really all that can be written about happy families.

Marriage is impossibly intricate. My dad once said "there's a reason so many stories end with 'and they lived happily ever after.'"   I think there is something to that.  It's not that life ends after the wedding, it's just that life after the wedding is too complicated for fairy tales.

My marriage is complicated.  I have lived happily, and I pray that continues ever after.  Yet so many cliches come to mind: we've had our ups and downs, its not perfect, it's not without its challenges.  They are all inadequate at describing the tremendous difficulty, pain, joy, healing and growth of being joined with another human being as flawed as I am.

This weekend, a friend sent me a link from Pinterest of 30 text message suggestions for spouses.  She wrote: "I laughed through them so much I was almost crying.  Mainly because I was envisioning myself sending them to [my husband], or the other way around." Reading them, I too choked back laughter imagining myself texting Matt, "no one wears a suit like you do."  The authors of the affectionate, affirming texts are sincere.  I have no doubt that these texts work in their marriage like the building blocks they are meant to be.

But what builds up one marriage, can be useless or even detrimental in another.  And I've finally learned: there is nothing wrong with that.

Two months after we got married, I went away overnight to a woman's conference with our church.  Before I left, I bought heart shaped sticky notes, covered them with my impassioned, heartfelt sentiments, and left them throughout the house for Matthew to find.  When I got back, I asked him "Did you find my sticky notes?'

He said absently, "It took me almost ten minutes to clean all those up."

I wasn't crushed or surprised.  It's not like I had married a complete stranger.  But what I did (and sometimes still) find discouraging, was how little I relate to perfectly summed up blog advice.  Or Pins with heart balloon graphics giving me 50 date ideas.

Date ideas and affectionate text messages are important.  But I worry that they're often Band-Aides for a gunshot wound.  No one can hurt my husband like I can; and I do more often than I ever thought I would.  The only way to be restored is for me to see my own sins (usually a stinging cocktail of selfishness, anger, and pride) and to love him sacrificially.  This means giving up things I want to do to clean the house - rather than littering the house with sticky notes.  It means asking him what he wants to do and actually listening  - even if our "dates" wouldn't appear charming on the world wide web.

Real marriages struggle.  And happy marriages struggle and restore and struggle and heal.  In this way, all happy families are alike.

But healthy relationships that struggle and heal do not fit tidily in a pin.

By all means, use the internet for inspiration!  But if you, like me, fail to find yourself, your husband and your relationship reflected in "5 things to always say" or "10 things I stopped saying" or "100 ways to fold napkins for your husband's lunchbox" remember that we are to find our reflection in Christ's relationship with the church: a searing example of sacrifice, love and redemption.

* because no blog post on relationships is complete without some kind of chalk writing and a bird graphic *

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Good Morning

Good morning.

Matt is at work, so I have fallen into the my usual lonesome weekend habits: Dutch baby pancake, coffee, and musicals blasting from the speakers.  My parents are coming Tuesday, and I have big plans to clean the attic and the fridge later.  A couple times a year my parents descend from the north (usually for a long-distance race of some kind) and visit their older children in a sweeping motion across the east coast.  There is a lot of cleaning going on the week before that so that my parents will "think we're responsible" (as one sibling puts it).

Honestly, though, it's an illusion.  The last time my parents visited, there were baby chicks in the laundry room.

Baby chicks in the laundry room might sound cute.  Charming even.  But they are not.  For one thing, chicks are noisy.  They are loudest when they are unhappy, and our first time around, we didn't know a lot about keeping them happy.  Secondly, they smell.  Any enjoyment from their fluffy, golf ball-shaped bodies evaporates in the distinct stink of baby chick.  Thirdly, about 5% of them die in the first two days.

Agricultural life is gruesome.  By the time my parents came, the death toll had evened out, but chicks were still cheeping, eating and pooping right under the loft where my parents were sleeping.

"I bet you never imagined that this would happen one day," I said to my mom.

"Trust me."  She shrugged.  "This isn't even on my radar of strange."

This year there are no chicks.  I'm already ahead.

I've been debating whether it is necessary to address my long absence from writing here.  Those of you who keep up with me in this forum, probably already know me well enough to know that my focus has been diverted.

These past few months have been incredibly difficult for me.  Perhaps the hardest I have ever lived through.  In the wake of a devastating loss, I have painfully sorted through pieces of myself.  We've all been there - examining the fault lines we never noticed or ignored.  I have been shifting through guilt, remorse, shame, and grief piecing together the truth of who I am in the grace of God.  It was difficult for me to see my way to anything creative when I was so shaky in what was true.

I've heard an account of a Russian woman who said, "Of course there is a God.  I have a thumb!"  The perfection of her dexterity was proof of a perfect Creator.

My proof of God these past six month has been the perfection of His chastisement.  I have no words to describe how He has disciplined me and saved me all so completely.  There are days when the grief has literally brought me to my knees.  But on my knees I find mercy and forgiveness.  There has been grace in my life.  I know that it must have always been there - God's hand mercifully saving me from myself - but I see it more clearly these days.

Today, in the quite house, glory and grace shine through in the mundane - it is in the smell of butter browning in a cast-iron skillet, the feeling of Henry's silky ears brushing against my leg.  The iPod switches to the next song.  Almost exactly thirteen years ago, my dad caught my mom up in his arms and twirled her around the kitchen to this song.  My brothers and sisters and I watched them rapt, basking in the glow of their love for each other.  Now, those memories are carried over to me on the swell of the chorus.

This is a different kind of pain.  There is an ache in my chest that comes from the beauty and mystery of it all.  It too is enough to make sink to my knees.  So I thank God and ask for more mornings like this.

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