Soul Garden

Last Thursday I went to see my Spiritual Director. After a few moments of silence, which I requested but during which I discovered my brain was very very noisy, he asked me, as he always does, “What do you want to talk about today?”

So, as frequently happens when I think I want to blog, I suddenly thought of so many things to “talk about today” that I couldn’t say anything. So I looked out the window instead, and noticed it was raining. I thought about how good it was that it was raining because, in spite of record-breaking snows last winter, it’s been a pretty dry summer and the garden needs the rain. Then I thought about the garden.

Then I said, “So, we have this garden. Paul’s been working on it for months–really hard–and it is going crazy. I mean, it is super-fruitful. There were a couple things that didn’t come out so well–the corn and the pole beans–but everything grew–and there is a ton of it all. The heirloom tomatoes are huge, and the zucchinis are still growing, we had a bunch of cucumbers, and there are a million spaghetti squashes coming in. But,” I went on, “it’s a mess. Everything has been growing so well and so madly that all the plants are all tangled up together. You can’t tell where one plant ends or another begins. Sometimes it looks like the tomatoes are bearing peppers, and the morning glories are growing tomatoes, and  … You can’t even walk around in there without hacking down some vines to get through and pick stuff.

My Spiritual Director sat there waiting for me to come to the point, but he probably already knew what it was, because he’s pretty good at being a spiritual director.

“I guess,” I said, “I feel like the garden is a picture of my life right now. This has been a really rough year, but the whole time Jesus has felt very present, and like He’s doing a lot of work on me–and I think stuff is happening. Like, maybe there’s some ultimately useless stuff going on, like the beans and the corn, but also lots and lots of produce. I’m just not totally sure how to get in there and figure out what’s all in there, because it’s so productive and so crazy, everything’s all tangled up.”

The more we talked about it, the more apt we felt this analogy was–and the more I still do. But since I can’t take pictures of my soul, you can look at the garden (and the produce) of a few weeks ago, instead.


Pathological Cling

You’ve met Oscar before. He’s that cute little guy sitting there with me in my current Gravatar.

That's a Jenn Story

Here–just in case I change it again at some point and you read this long after I’ve written it.

He’s a sweet, gentle, quiet boy, and I guess he didn’t have the greatest of beginnings, because when I got him as a rescue six years ago, he had some pretty severe anxiety issues. He hasn’t ever really lost them, but being loved by people and socialised by Shemp helped a lot to make him internally relaxed and a little more “opened up.” Quirky for sure, but he’s my dog, so that’s probably a foregone conclusion, and basically he’s a good dog.

On the other hand, although there are people he likes, and other dogs he’s been friends with, in another sense he’s only ever deeply bonded with me and Shemp. We were pretty worried about how he was going to adjust (or not) to Shemp’s passing, but although he was clearly quite depressed for a while afterwards, with a few minor episodes he really behaved very well. Thing is, he doesn’t do well with changes in routine to begin with, and his canine support who enabled him to navigate them is no longer around.

Normally, Oscar doesn't snuggle, but you can see how much he loves Shemp by how relaxed he is here.

Normally, Oscar doesn’t snuggle, but you can see how much he loves Shemp by how relaxed he is here.

When I stopped bringing him to work at my former church, Shemp was still around and he adjusted just fine. And by the time Shemp was gone, I had transitioned to my internship and he was used to me leaving at roughly the same time every morning and coming home at the same time every evening. Then we all (including Oscar) went on vacation, and then I worked as a short-term nanny to the small son of one of my Starbucks friends, on a similar schedule.

But last weekend, I went away for four days, for my first Spiritual Direction training retreat. Although he was clearly happy to see me when I returned, Oscar seemed his normal self, but the problem is, this week has been a continuation of “different.” My Paul’s workload has ballooned, and I am suddenly fully unemployed, waiting for my next internship to begin, and trying to find part-time work for income at the same time. (Or working on getting ready to launch my Nonprofit–which is legitimately in process.) This means that I’m home at weird hours, and because Paul is working late a lot, our usual evening routine (frequently involving a ride on the boat) hasn’t been happening either.

All of a sudden yesterday it was as if Oscar had mental break, and he has been incapable of letting me out of his sight. He follows me to the bathroom and lies down outside it against the door. He follows me up the stairs, where he isn’t allowed. He leans against my legs when I’m doing my hair or make-up in the morning. (Today I pointed the running hairdryer at him to see what he would do and he just sat there. He hates loud noises.) He gloms onto my hip when I’m sitting on the couch. It’s weird, and annoying, and a little concerning, because although it’s clear a metaphorical (metaphysical?) switch flipped inside him, I’m not sure how to flip it back.

Usually there's not even this much separation

This week, usually there’s not even this much separation between us.

Paul made the valid point that Shemp went away and never came back, and I just went away for a significant stretch, and so Oscar’s probably fearful that all his pack are deserting him. Honestly, I was just crying about Shemp again the other day myself, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Oscar’s still sustaining some significant grief himself. Our dramatic change in household routine has, I suspect, cemented that idea of potential loss of or abandonment by me in his little nervous doggie skull. So I’m giving him lots of hugs while still maintaining the house rules with him, but so far he does not seem convinced that all is well, and I’m not sure how to help him besides, frankly, to pray for him. Do you have any ideas?

Love, Oscar

Help, please. Love, Oscar

Shemp the Beloved Stooge

They say death comes in threes, and my Paul and I have each lost an elderly family member in recent days, but neither of us would have predicted the third death would be our beloved dog, Shemp. His death managed to be somehow both sudden and prolonged, unexpected and agonizing, and I hope neither of us ever have to live through a week like last week again. We–and Oscar and Rosie–are trying to find a new normal. It’s only been a few days but still, normal is not coming easily. Sleep has been scarce, tears have been plentiful. Rather than dwell on that, however, I’d like to share the post my Paul wrote about the amazing dog who helped welcome Oscar and me into the Cottage when my Paul and I first met, and who barreled into our hearts forever. IMG_3554

Yesterday we said goodbye to our best friend and favorite stooge. Shemp was an exceptional dog, and a friend to all.

On the hiking trail Shemp was SuperDog from planet Krypton, with a red cape and an S on his chest, blasting through trees and brush, jumping stone walls, diving down hills, then wallowing in every mud puddle to cool down. He’d run back every so often to see what was taking us so long, or he’d stop at the forks in the trail and wait for us to catch up. Once he saw our direction he’d bolt off again, with a look over his shoulder that said “HA! I KNEW YOU WERE GOING THIS WAY!!”

Shemp was Eddie Haskell with a healthy dose of Beetlejuice, and no one got away without him sticking his nose in an inappropriate place. He was a rescue, and I traveled to get him. It was a long ride, and when we got home I rushed to the bathroom. I must not have shut the door, because as I was standing at the toilet answering nature’s call, I heard the sound of water pouring in stereo. I turned to see Shemp squatting behind me, because “this must be the place to go, right?” When he’d visit his cousins Zonka the Rottweiler and Frankie the bulldog/spaniel mix, they’d play until they were tired. He’d then gather every one of their bones and chew toys into a pile in the middle of the yard, and lie on them for a nap. Once on the trail I saw him up ahead rolling in something. Rolling was never good. I rushed up there to see him on his back, doing the Limbo inside the rib cage of a dead deer. I yelled at him to get out of there, and he came over with his head down and a sheepish look to tell me that I was looking lovely today, Mrs. Cleaver.

To Shemp everyone new, human, canine, or feline, was an old and dear friend that he just hadn’t met yet. He was the Mayor at the Independence Day parade, shaking hands and kissing babies. His attitude was “You have to love me, I’m ME!” Rosie the cat would let him lick the side of her head, and he was adored by his CockaPoo brother, Oscar. At the dog park he was Joe Cool, and he would gently greet all of the little dogs, then wade into the wrestling game with the big dogs and kick butt.

Shemp was Belushi in the Animal House scene where Bluto tries to cheer up Flounder after they wreck the Lincoln.
He didn’t just lean against you, he burrowed into you. His nicknames were “Hammer”, “Meat”, and Uncle John’s favorite, “Stinky Pete.” He was 80 lbs of muscle, a four legged bad breathed barrel chested beer keg who dreamed he was a lap dog. He single-mindedly pursued his ultimate goal of a never ending belly rub.

“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” said Will Rogers, and Samuel Clemens reckoned that “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” Dogs are some of God’s finest creations, full of fun and mischief and unconditional love. It seems impossible to me that our dogs aren’t waiting for us in the next life. When the day comes and I open my eyes in that world, I expect to see Shemp, his tail furiously doing its trademarked helicopter wag, probably to the point where his ass is lifting off the ground. Until then I will sorely and grievously miss him, and I will love him forever.

Not Dr Watson

You know when you come upon something, or it comes upon you, and you’ve never seen it before, but you immediately think it must be that thing you read about in a book?

You don’t? Well, let me give an example. When I was fourteen, my family and I went to Europe together for the first time. During the last week of our trip, we went to London. To my fourteen-year-old, baptised-in-Narnia-and-Masterpiece-Theatre imagination, real 1980’s London was a little bit of a shock and disappointment, although at least it prepared me to relocate there quite happily a decade later. On that first visit, I kept looking for things I had read about in old books, and fortunately on pretty much the first day, I saw a large crow-like bird, except it wasn’t a crow, because it was black and white. I had an Elsa Beskow book with illustrations featuring a bird that looked like that, and Grandma (who translated Elsa Beskow books for me before they were available in English translations at all) had always translated it as crow. But for some reason when I saw one on the London pavement outside our holiday garden flat, I thought, magpie. “Is that a magpie?” I asked my parents. I’m not sure they knew, but it was okay, because I did. It was definitely a magpie.

And so it was.

And so it was.

This morning, I am sitting with my coffee and my notebook and my computer by the upstairs window, looking out over the pond. About half an hour ago now (because it took me forever to find just the right magpie picture) I happened to glance out and see another bird, much larger than a magpie, flapping slowly across the pond. We get lots of unusual birds around here, and I didn’t recognise it as any of the usual unusual customers.It wasn’t the Bald Eagle (who we seem to have missed this season) because it was the wrong colour and shape, and the flapping was wrong. It was built, and moved, much more like a water bird, but it wasn’t any water bird I have seen here before. It wasn’t the Blue Heron, because it was still the wrong colour and didn’t have those long legs and neck. It wasn’t the Kingfisher because it was much too large and slow, and not at all colourful. It wasn’t a Pelican, which we’ve never had here but I’ve seen before. It was all white, but it wasn’t the Swan, because–well, I already mentioned the short neck thing. The bird I’ve seen that it looked most like was a seagull, and we do get the occasional lost seagull around here, but it seemed to be larger and slower than one of those, too, and the first thing my brain said when I saw it was Albatross. 

I have never seen an albatross before, so I looked up “images of albatross in flight.” None of the images were as pure white as that bird I saw this morning, but the profile was pretty similar.

Like a seagull, but not a seagull. Know what I mean?

Like a seagull, but not a seagull. Know what I mean?

Then I watched a video of an albatross in flight and … I guess the bird I saw wasn’t an albatross. I know albatrosses (like magpies) have kind of negative connotations, but The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is seriously one of my favourite works of literature, so I really kind of wanted it to be one. Plus I like being right, especially when it is solely on the basis of intuition.

In fact, though, I probably wasn’t even right about this thing being a water bird. And to be honest, I wasn’t close enough to see a beak. Perhaps it was just a Snowy Owl, out too late partying on the weekend, and returning home to sleep. Snowy owls are pretty cool, too, I guess …

Although, I'm still not convinced that's what it was, either.

Although, I’m still not convinced that’s what it was, either.

The Cucumber Patch

Family Friday

It’s kind of too bad Friday doesn’t begin with a D. Or that Domestic doesn’t begin with an F. Because it seems that most of my Friday posts have to do with domesticity more than family, per se–plus I can talk about courgettes or zucchini, for example, without telling tales or offending anyone. But Domestic Friday doesn’t alliterate, and ever since I discovered what alliteration was, as an approximately four-year-old, I have had a need for things to alliterate. Particularly titles. (It might also be genetic–pastors are known to alliterate their main sermon points, and I have a lot of pastors in my family.)

Anyway. Today I mostly just wanted to update you on the state of the garden. Every year we have some crops that are dismal failures (usually because other animals enjoy them at less mature stages than we do, and so we don’t get to them before they have been gnawed into nonexistence–but sometimes because that crop and our soil just can’t seem to get along), and some crops that provide a delightful but fairly unmanageable overabundance. It’s kind of like a surprise party every summer, because, while there are one or two things we persist in trying every year which never really take off (onions, mostly), usually the failures and successes are different every year. This means we never know ahead of time what we’re going to end up buying at the supermarket after all (onions, mostly), and what we’re going to have to find creative ways to preserve and/or offload share. For example, last year, you may recall, we had a table-full of bell peppers (also known as capsicums). And carrots (pretty much universally known in English as carrots). This year we have one carrot, and the peppers have all but died . . . although our first attempt at cayennes appears successful.

After that first garlic disappointment, I went online (because why would you take the advice of a garlic farmer in front of you when you can get it off the internet?) and learned that it might be better to harvest in July rather than in June, so when all the travels and visits in July were over, I pulled the rest of the garlic out of the ground, and what do you know? We got some!

Garlic on pallet. We also have a pretty enormous pallet harvest this year, but that, as you may recall, is because of the turtles.

Garlic on pallet. We also have a pretty enormous pallet harvest this year, but that, as you may recall, is because of the turtles.

Actually, I think I picked it on the day we had our big 12-hour family cookout, which didn’t exactly lend itself to garlic braiding, so I did that about two weeks later.

Probably not THE most beautiful garlic braid you (or I) ever saw, but considering I had no idea what I was doing, it's not so bad.

Probably not THE most beautiful garlic braid you (or I) ever saw, but considering I had no idea what I was doing, it’s not so bad.

I thought it was going to take us forever to go through that much garlic, because we don’t usually, but I wasn’t counting on the cucumbers.

I also wasn’t counting, since I am new to preserving and this was the first year that cucumbers were our bumper crop, on the fact that pickles often require garlic. I was very proud that my first batch of dill pickles were made with cucumbers, garlic, and dill from our very own garden. Then I made a batch of bread and butter pickles. Then I made another half batch of dill. (That time we had to buy dill seed from the store, because although our homegrown dill did very well, there wasn’t a lot of it.) In total I made 32 jars of pickles.

We have also eaten many cucumber salads, fried cucumbers, tossed salad with cucumbers . . . I’m getting ready to experiment with cucumber parmesan, and I was kind of wishing for the opportunity to dump some Hollandaise sauce on the cucumbers so I could say we had a Benedict Cucumberbatch.

Gratuitous brooding Cumberbatch photo. You’re welcome.


But we have no Hollandaise sauce and I wasn’t really going to make any just for the purpose.

After all that, we still have (and I know this, because I counted them this morning) 30 cucumbers without a determined destiny. And two zucchinis. Which, by the way, are also known as courgettes.

All Wrapped Up

Memory Monday

Last week I messed up my iPhoto (I mean, I guess it was me) and had to rebuild it, which returned a whole bunch of extra photos I had once supposedly deleted, so you would think I would have a whole lot of memories to write about this Monday, but for some reason nothing was really grabbing me. Until I tried to open the package of brie that my Paul had kindly purchased.

Favourite. It's the rind. Don't ask me.

Favourite. It’s the rind. Don’t ask me.

It was a wedge of brie and it came from the supermarket so not only did it have a rind, but it was wrapped in cling-film. This particular cling-film was very difficult to open. It withstood attempts to unwrap, to tear and almost a pair of kitchen scissors–though the latter prevailed eventually.

“Who wrapped this?” I exclaimed. “My dad?”

This question is legitimate, because my dad is a cling-film wrapping ninja. (I’m pretty sure the term ninja doesn’t actually apply in this case, but I like the way it sounds.) When TheBro and I were kids, our small Christian school didn’t have a cafeteria, and therefore school lunches were a weird sort of special occasion thing which maybe happened once a quarter and which we ate in our classrooms.

Of the many mundane "traumas" a child can experience in school, this one was not among mine.

Of the many mundane “traumas” a child can experience in school, this one was not among mine.

This meant that all the rest of the time, all of us kids brought our own lunches to school.

We lived in the days before insulated lunch bags. We went through a lot of these.

We lived in the days before insulated lunch bags. We went through a lot of these.

My parents were kind enough to make our lunches for the duration of our pre-college school-lives, but my dad had this System for employing the cling-film which made it really difficult to eat lunch. I would take my sandwich out of my bag and turn it over and over and over, searching for that elusive fourth corner that I knew was somewhere, but which it usually took me half of lunchtime to find. There was always a side of the sandwich where the film converged, thickly and wrinkly, and then a side that was clear as a window. It took me years to figure out that even though it looked like the lose end would be mixed up where the majority of the cling-film was, in reality it was nearly perfectly camouflaged against the clear, smooth side, and once I found it, I could unwrap the sandwich with ease. It was a thing of beauty, really, once I could just get beyond the frustration of not being able to eat my lunch.

So when I approached that brie this evening, I thought I could find the sneaky hidden loose end, no problem. I never did, though. Thus the scissors. So I guess it couldn’t have been my dad who wrapped it after all.



I wrote yesterday’s post over a week ago because I knew I was going to be spending all last week at WorkCampNE with the Youth Group. I returned home after midnight last night and this afternoon, when I finally made it into the back yard, I discovered that now the garden actually looks like this:

Did I mention jungle?

Did I mention jungle?

It’s a Jungle Out There

Family Friday – Back Yard, Part 2 – Plants

It turns out that turtles aren’t the only ones who like hugelkulturs.

These baby cucumbers are much bigger now . . .

These baby cucumbers are much bigger now . . . even though the snapping turtle dug them up after she couldn’t access her original spot, and before this one got fenced off, too.

I don’t really have much else to say about that, but the Blue Hubbard Squashes definitely do:

I guess it was feeling a little squashed . . .

I guess it was feeling a little squashed . . .

Or there’s always this Rainy Independence Day angle:

What's that? You don't see the big deal?

What’s that? You don’t see the big deal?

This, I feel, makes my point a little more clearly . . . regardless of the raindrops.

This, I feel, makes my point a little more clearly . . . regardless of the raindrops.

A Backyard Called Bountiful

Family Friday – Backyard, Part 1: Pe(s)ts

Since we’re all about series posts around here these days, here’s another set.

It’s a rainy Independence Day here in this corner of the USA, and we had a small cookout with my parents last night, so here at the Cottage, there isn’t much to distinguish today from a Saturday. This morning before the rain started, I spent a little time, as I do every Saturday, trying to create order out of the chaos inside the house, and Paul spent some time as he does pretty much every day, trying to create order from the chaos outside.

Every year, there are lots of projects, and lots of pests, and lots of plants that do really well, while lots of other plants don’t do so well. This year, though, it seems like there’s just more of all those things. More, and also . . . bigger? Our first year of marriage, we had some sort of blight on some of the vegetables, and leaf-cutter ants and chipmunks. Last year we had the ants and the chipmunks, but also these crows that got the biggest kick out of stabbing the tomatoes with their beaks, flinging them across the yard, and leaving them there. Oh, and the ducks. The neighbours have ducks. The ducks liked to come up from the pond into the yard, waddling and quacking and snapping the heads off the marigolds which we planted because they’re pretty but also to keep other pests out of the garden.

This year, along with all those other jokers, plus some medium-sized brown perching bird which may or may not be some sort of thrush and which may or may not be an asset, the rabbit that hung around all last year has actually been engaging in the garden raids (which for some reason it refrained from last year), such that we have no broccoli–even though we did, for a minute–and all the kale outside of containers has also completely disappeared. That rabbit likes his cruciferous vegetables, apparently.

He appears to like pallet fences less.

He appears to like pallet fences less.

None of the animals seem to feel overly threatened by either Shemp or Oscar, although they might by Shemp if he were given freer run of the yard. On the other hand, the dogs seem to think that these are more of their own pet-siblings, who just happen to live outdoors. Maybe they outdoor animals think that, too. We should probably start naming them.

The bear is also back, but we stopped putting seeds in the bird feeder at the beginning of last season (which, by the way, still felt like the middle of the season before), so I, at least, haven’t seen her. Instead, the latest and most dramatic garden invasion has come from Mama Turtle.

My Paul’s pet garden project this summer has been experiments with the hugelkulturan idea he’s been researching at Mother Earth News and Youtube.

The first one

Layers of composting goodness

Apparently Mama Turtle thinks this is a good experiment.

She, on the other hand, was not exactly a variable he was planning on.

She, on the other hand, was not exactly a variable he was planning on.

My Paul didn’t really think there was room for both healthy squashes and a nest of snapping turtle eggs, so after three days of finding her digging up the plants at the same time every morning, and his scooping her out with a pitchfork, he got serious.

He got more serious than this later, but this was Phase 1.

Phase 1 of “Serious.”

After that, I saw Mama Turtle down the street–at rather an impressive distance, really–in a neighbour’s yard, but she was sure to be disappointed. They don’t have a hugelkultur. In her absence, a smaller, prettier painted turtle showed up, but she missed the, er, slat of opportunity, I guess.

She needs to work on those P90X3 side-planks . . .

A few P90X3 side-planks and she’d be set . . .

Canoe Date

Family Friday

People who write books about marriage usually tell you, among other things, that you should have regular date nights with your spouse. I fully endorse this practice. I also endorse being creative about these date nights. Tonight, my Paul and I went out for dinner, and I love going out, but sometimes you’re paying for two people to get degrees (Alicia and me) and besides, nobody needs to go out for dinner all the time, and there are so many other fun things you can do together.

Like Canoe Date.

The year we got married, we had a big picnic/party a few months after our wedding, and there Uncle Ted and Aunt Elizabeth gave us a nice bottle of wine and some nice cheese and maybe some nice crackers, too–I don’t remember. They told us to save them for a special occasion. So a few weekends later, after having bought a canoe from Ocean State Job Lot (also a fun date location, incidentally) with some wedding money, we took the wine and the cheese and the crackers and paddled out to the Island in the middle of the pond. We were going to have our little picnic on the Island itself, but there were ants. Lots and lots of ants.

Fortunately, we also had some spiffy new collapsible lawn chairs which my Paul had had the forethought to throw in the canoe with the bottle of wine and the cheese and the crackers. There are some rings of rocks in the shallow water on the far side of the Island, so we put the chairs in the water and sat there, with our chairs and our feet in the water, eating our wine and cheese and crackers. It was, indeed, a Special Occasion.

Now we have Canoe Date every year, only once, on the seam of spring and summer. That way, it’s always a Special Occasion.