Milestones in life and in grief

“He’s so cute. How old is he?”

“18 months. About. I think.”

I hesitate, but suddenly I don’t know. It seems like he’s been 18 months forever. I make a joke.

“With my oldest, I knew to the day. After seven, I know he’s one. And when he’ll be two. But I have to work out the months.”

And we laugh and the conversation goes on. But somewhere in the recesses of my mind, it bothers me. He HAS been 18 months forever. Why does this month in particular seem so long?

In the morning, I take my seat on a bucket beside the cow to milk. Lately, I’ve been apathetic about the whole milking thing. I like the cows. I love the fresh milk. I love the fact that my daughter’s GI doctor used the word “pristine” to describe her recent lab results and is beginning to question whether the original diagnosis of ulcerative colitis is even accurate. And since there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence linking whole raw milk with the alleviation of gastrointestinal issues, you would think I would be more excited than ever about milking.

But I’m not. And it’s kind of weird. This is what we have worked for for so long. Through all the struggles getting started and all the frustration last year. I now have a trained milk cow. She knows what to do. I know what to do. Her calf knows what to do. And while I have never achieved that happy state of looking forward to these moments of relative peace and quiet while I’m alone in the barn, there is no stress involved in collecting our day’s milk.

So I rest my head against the side of the cow to reach her teats on the other side and it occurs to me that little Asa has been 18 months for an awfully long time. And for the first time since first having that thought, I start to do the math.

. . . in December he was 12 months . . . August is the 8th month . . . he should be 20 months . . .

And then it hits me. September 3, he’ll be 21 months. Tiggy was 21 months when he died.

These waves of grief seem to strike out of nowhere. Time doesn’t really weaken them. It just spaces them out more. Makes them more unpredictable. Makes them harder to talk about.

But next week, my little boy will be 21 months old. He’s a little bundle of energy, curiosity and joy. He brings so much joy . . . and fear. It sometimes makes it hard not to parent from that dark place that only sees 1,001 ways a child can die rather than the thrill of exploration and accomplishment. And I’m so thankful he’s a cuddler because right now, that’s all I really want to do, anyway.

Posted in family, Grief | 8 Comments

Queen Anne’s Lace Jelly

Anyone who has been around me here or on facebook for long knows that I love making floral jellies. There is something almost magical about harvesting the essence of the season and packaging up in a jar for later.

One of the first one’s I wanted to try was Queen Anne’s Lace jelly, but that was when I was just starting to read about foraging. And I read about this woman in Iowa who thought she was collecting Queen Anne’s Lace and made herself up a big batch of hemlock jelly.

And that made me nervous. Because what if all along, I’ve been collecting water hemlock to stick in jars of dyed water to show how water moves through a plant? And collecting water hemlock for spontaneous wildflower displays in my window? I mean, I grew up in the suburbs, harvesting food from the grocery aisle. What did I really know about foraging, and edible plants and deadly look alikes?

Except the more I read, the more I was convinced that hemlock didn’t look all that much like Queen Anne’s Lace. It doesn’t grow in the same places. And it stinks. And is irritating to the skin (though the green leaves of Queen Anne’s Lace can be, too!). But Queen Anne’s Lace just smells like carrot. It makes your hands smell like carrot. And it usually has a dark blossom right in the center. It’s sort of purplish. Did you know that? I didn’t know that. I had never looked closely enough at it until I was trying to make sure it wasn’t going to kill me.

I write all this to make sure that anyone who comes across this recipe is careful. Make sure you know what you’re harvesting. And don’t accidentally kill yourself and your whole family with a little forray into floral jellies.

So, Queen Anne’s Lace Jelly.

By the way, I’m kind of a sucker for natural. I don’t add artificial dyes to any of my jellies. Even lilac jelly which would be beautiful if it were a subtle shade of lavender. Feel free to add food coloring if that makes you happy!

Queen Anne’s Lace Jelly

(This recipe is for a double batch and will make about 8 half pint jars.)

4 cups Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms, green stems removed (I just snip with scissors. Don’t worry about separating each individual little blossom.)
4 cups boiling water
8 tablespoons lemon juice
2 packages liquid pectin
8 cups sugar

Rinse blossoms and place in a large glass or stainless steal container. Cover with boiling water, cover with a lid and let sit for 24 hours. This makes the infusion for the jelly. It doesn’t smell as nice as some of the other infusions but don’t worry about it.

Strain the blossoms, squeezing out the excess water, and discard. Add the sugar and lemon juice to the infusion and bring to a boil, stirring continually.

Once it reaches a rolling boil, add the pectin and stir for one minute, skimming off the foam as it forms.

Process like you would any other jelly. Here’s a great tutorial from Owlhaven.

And enjoy a teaspoonful of the summer sunshine on a piece of toast. Maybe it’s because it’s the first jelly I’ve made this year, but the flavor rivals any I’ve made before. It was that good.

I’m sure hemlock jelly wouldn’t have been nearly as tasty.

Other floral jellies I’ve made:

(If you actually read these, you’ll notice that the recipes are pretty much the same. You just substitute whatever EDIBLE blossom for what is in the recipe. I used to use powdered pectin but have switched to liquid because it is more forgiving of doubling the recipe. And all these recipes are doubled.)

Do you harvest any wild flowers or greens for the table? What recipes do you like best?

Posted in In the Kitchen, recipes | 4 Comments

Round about the farm

So this is a bit of a hobby farm. In that we have a lot of animals and plants most people would consider crops, even if they don’t produce anything. These are a few of the main characters. You can tell because we took enough pictures of them that a few of them actually turned out!

This here is Candy in her characteristic Candy pose. She has looked at me like this since she was a calf and, according to the breeder, her mama did it, too. Can’t help but wonder if her little calf at her side will do the same! We milk her every morning and then turn her out with her beautiful baby for the day.

This is Scout. At 15 and a half hands, he’s a big boy. Mouse’s pride and joy. And the horse I wish I wanted to ride? I was looking for something in the neighborhood of 14 hands and older. Maybe a retired trail horse. I thought that sounded like a good first “real” horse for my daughter, but this boy had been through quite a bit of training and was almost the perfect horse, even if he was only 8 when we got him and quite a bit taller than I had in mind.

My saskatoons. I have no idea why I was so excited to get these from the Nemaha Resource District. We planted a whole hedge of berries I had never tried before. Good thing they were delicious!

And more first fruits from our dreams. Blackberries! We’ve harvested a couple handfuls so far this year and hoping for maybe one more. For a family of eight, that doesn’t last long. Tradition here is to share the the first fruits a plant produces. You know how much fun it was to divide up our first two cherries? The single peach was the best though. I’ve never eaten something so delicious.

One of my honeybees. Drinking from the aquaponics tank. One of the many benefits of aquaponics: no more dead bees floating in livestock waterers!

And finally, evidence that we take compassion even on garden pests. Maybe it has something to do with how beautiful the butterflies are. Or that we homeschool. But rather than disposing of these devourers of dill, we took cuttings, brought them inside and named them Bob and Crystal. Unfortunately, they escaped rather than building a chrysallis like a good caterpillar under observation.

Well, out of close to 200 pictures, that’s all that seemed worth sharing. And why I don’t share pictures all that often. It’s just too much work!

Posted in Gardening, Rural life | 2 Comments

Ten Things I Would Like to Learn How to Do

So, now that I’ve written on my blog for five whole days in a row, I suddenly have actual readers. To introduce myself, I thought I’d share a few things I would like to learn how to do. Plus, it almost fits with the challenge’s prompt for today.

1.  How to sew. Pretty much anything. It doesn’t seem like it would be that hard, but sewing machines and I just don’t seem to get along. I can’t make it go in a straight line which pretty much makes any project impossible.

2.  How to garden. I’m finally to the point that the garden produces enough to pay for itself, but its biggest product remains weeds. To look at it now, you wouldn’t know there was anything else. I’m over the whole mulching thing. Next year, it’s straight rows with enough space for the tiller to go through. Please no one else send me any links to that Back to Eden guy. Apparently, I’m not him. Mulching my garden results in nothing but grass that I can’t weed because the hoe doesn’t go through the straw, and I only have so much patience for crawling around on my hands and knees through 3000 square feet of garden. The rows in between where the tiller goes are nice and clear, though.

3.  How to make soap. I got as far as ordering everything I needed to start. A general lack of time combined with the fear of dumping an entire pot of lye on myself has kept it all neatly in the box it all came in, however.

4.  Ride the horse. We’ve had him for a year. I’ve been on him twice. Actually, maybe I really just wish I wanted to ride the horse. He scares me. Not because he’s naughty or anything. It’s the way he just stands there, waiting for me to tell him what to do. It’s not like being on a trail horse that goes where it goes and stops when it gets home. The only hard part is getting them to move in the first place. Scout isn’t like that. He stands there, alert and ready to go and I feel all this power and energy under the saddle and I’m pretty sure that I’ll kill us both.

5.  Drive the tractor. It’s sort of silly that I have to wait for my husband to get home to till and plow. Even my daughter knows how to drive the tractor, she just isn’t allowed to till or plow, yet.

6.  How to play an instrument. Maybe that’s why I’m so excited that my daughter was able to learn guitar, that my son is learning saxophone and that my two younger daughters are learning to read music with their recorders. I played trumpet for awhile in school, but I never really liked it. And I don’t even remember how to read music.

7.  How to use my E600 without getting glue all over my fingers. This is like the most popular glue in jewelry making so it has to be me, but I always get more on me than in the little end caps for my bracelets.

8.  How to knit. I have a box full of knitting needles. I have several books of directions with simple patterns. I even tried to make a baby blanket, once. It was not the peaceful, grandmotherly experience I would have liked it to be. It looked less like a contented old woman rocking in her rocking chair while knitting booties for every one she knew and more like a neurotic crazy woman doing battle against harmless cotton yarn with flimsy aluminum spikes. I finished it and it looked OK . . . except for the fact that the end shape was more trapezoidal than rectangular.

9.  How to quilt. Unfortunately, being able to sew is kind of a prerequisite.

10.  How to take pictures. I have a decent enough camera that takes decent enough pictures. I’m not going for anything fancy with SLR lenses or anything. Just clear shots of the few things I try to take pictures of. “They” tell me that blogs are more inviting with nice images. Y’all are pretty much stuck with my word pictures because I write far better than I photopraph.

So, what would you like to learn? Please share! And visit Blogher’s round up of posts for more about their theme, “Know.”

Posted in education | 13 Comments

On giving advice to the grieving

I’ve been given a lot of advice over the past few years. Most of it amounts to how I should be feeling, how I should be parenting and how I should be looking to Jesus since the death of my son.

Most of it is annoying. I am left with a vague desire to say something. Because, really, there ae just some things you shouldn’t say.

Like, I’m sorry you lost your dog. Really, I am. But it’s a dog.

I’m sure your great Aunt was a wonderful woman and I’d like to try her pie, too. In fact, we could sit down to a piece and you could tell me all about her . . . just don’t tell me you know just how I feel because you loved her and now she’s gone.

Don’t tell me it’s time to stop grieving. That started ONE WEEK after the funeral. Apparently, Christianity is a single emotion religion because if I really had faith, I’d know he was in a better place and I would rejoice. But then, the Bible says it is better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting and that sorrow is better than laughter. (Ecc 7:1-4).

“Keep your eyes on Jesus” is a great idea. But it is usally said in a manner that implies I’m not. As if, “Keeping my eyes on Jesus” would eliminate the pain. I’m not sure most people realized that, particularly in those early months, everything else had been stripped away. Jesus was all that was left. He was the only light in a very dark and terrifying world. That didn’t make me happy. It just made each day possible.

Interestingly, people who have lost a child don’t give a lot of advice. At least not directly about how to deal with the grief itself.  They don’t tell me that I’m doing it wrong, or that I should be “over it” or that if I “give it to God” somehow all this pain will be lifted from me.

Instead, they say things like, “The pain never goes away. It just doesn’t. It gets easier. It gets less overwhelming. But it never goes away.”

And they tell me about the time they stood screaming at some random object that had nothing to do with anything but for some reason, that was the point that brought all the anger to the surface and they just screamed.

And they tell me that in time, you learn who you can talk to and who you can’t. Most people mean well, but there comes a point when it is better to say you’re doing OK than to get into another discussion that will only upset you anyway.

And they talk about the “new normal.” It’s like a code word for waking up in this alternate universe where everything –EVERYTHING–has changed.

And they say call me. Email me. Write me. Even though they are complete strangers I know for only one, terrible reason. And when they say it, for some reason, I actually believe the invitation is genuine. And that they know exactly what that call, email, letter will look like and they ask for it anyway.

So do I prefer advice from strangers or from those closest to me? I don’t think it really matters. I think what matters is whether or not the person giving the advice has a personal and direct connection to the issue.

Because good advice comes out of the wisdom only experience can bring. Most people mean well. But very few people have any idea what it is like to lose a child. If someone close to you is wrestling with this grief, the best advice I can give is to just be there for them. Listen to them. Pray for them. It is a lonely road and they need all the support they can get.



Posted in faith, Grief | 18 Comments

To know a thing

For the first time since Tiggy died, I am actually looking forward to this school year. It was such a long time before I could even look forward to anything that I remember the moment. The time I said, “I’m looking forward to . . . ” and meant it. Even though it was followed by a wave of grief.

The first year, I think, my plans were based on just getting through the day. The next fifteen minutes, even. Then it was on healing. And finally, consistency. That sense of wonder and adventure and curiosity about the world had been lost.

But I have some of my energy back. Some of my vision. And I want some piece of that enthusiasm back in our day to day approach to learning, so I’ve been reflecting on why we homeschool to begin with. What is knowledge? How do children learn? How do you come to know a thing? Especially deeply?

And as is so often the case, I stumbled across the answer while looking for something else. It was even something I wrote about encouraging wonder in my children.

To know a thing, we must first observe it. Patiently, frequently, thoughtfully.

~ Me, Dana Hanley, because who doesn’t want to quote themselves?

It was a bit of a jolt to see that written there. My own words, showing how far we have drifted in these tumultuous seas of grief.

But it’s a new year, and I’m looking forward to getting some of that back.

How do you instill wonder in your own children or students?

(I am participating in BlogHer’s challenge to blog every day in August. It’s not too late to join! If you got here expecting me to talk about being an expert, I wrote about that Saturday. Because I’m a rebel like that. Or directionally challenged.)

Posted in education | 6 Comments

The Treasure of Experience

(I’m participating in BlogHer’s challenge to post every day in August. This is a repost from a series a did about Building a Reflective Homeschool. Because I fell asleep last night, but it seemed relevant to the topic and related to what I posted yesterday on not being an expert.)

It seems to me, we have packaged up and bubble wrapped the world. I remember hours spent outdoors, playing in a wooded area near our house, splashing in an old creek and playing with the tubifex worms which lived there. Since these can be a sign of extreme pollution, it probably wasn’t a creek we should have been playing in. There are real concerns with turning a child out until the street lights come on, but there is a cost to that measure of safety as well.

I tend to plan experiences for my children which meet my educational objectives and do not always appreciate the time they spend on their own. Last week, we learned about emus. We read about them, listened to a song about them and watched some video of them. We’ve watched the emu at the zoo pace along the fence, occasionally bellowing out her call that is more felt than heard. We know about emus.

fox kitWe don’t know as much about fox kits, however. We haven’t studied them, haven’t seen too many shows about them and there aren’t any at the zoo. But last summer, we watched three kits emerge from a den along the side of the road. They were small, a bit awkward and curious. Having lived all their lives along the side of the road, they were not the least bit concerned about the traffic. The blaring of the train horn did not phase them. Rolling down my window did.

It was only a moment. But my children were captivated. All of their senses were activated, including that one sense that cannot be activated according to plan: the sense of wonder. Every time we drove by, they would strain against their seat belts to try to catch another glimpse. We wondered where the parents were, and whether they ever ambled through our yard. We don’t know much about fox kits, but we know them. They grew up near us.

There is a subtle but important difference between knowing about a thing and knowing a thing. Knowing about it relies on facts and perhaps some objective analysis. It happens in the brain and is distant and removed from the self.

To know a thing, on the other hand, invokes the senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch work together to introduce you to the subject. It is deeply personal.

I cannot create such experiences in my children. They are about as easy to plan as those “teachable moments.” But I can learn to recognize their importance and place appropriate value on them when they occur. While a good homeschool mom might have taken more advantage of our experience with the fox kits to study more about them, I also know that there was value in that moment that cannot be replaced by an encyclopedia of information about foxes.

And I look forward to seeing their impressions of Cinnabar when we get to reading that later in the year.

To Know a Thing
by Eleanore Kosydar

look closely:
what do you see?

green fronds unfolding,
the way they curl? do you hear
the green unfolding? see sun vibrate
in greenness, Van Gogh vibrations unfurl?

We know a thing best by loving it:

Tiny worlds framed in dew drops; sunlight
refracted by rain…tender new ferns
coiling sweetly; echoes of dawn
in shiny droplets of dew.

Look closer.
What do you see?

Posted in education | Leave a comment

I am not an expert

At anything.


I decided to do this blog every day in August thing out of the blue after not posting for SIX WHOLE MONTHS and the very first prompt has to be something I have zero connection wtih.

Because I am NOT an expert.

I tried to toy around with some things I’m good at. I like to write. I like to think I’m pretty good at it. But an expert? Hardly. I read books like Click Clack Moo or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The Chronicles of Narnia and I think, “Wow. I wish I wrote that.”

But I didn’t. And I never will. In fact, any attempt to write whimsical barnyard tales for children, sci-fi comedy or fantasy will forever be tainted by the book I can’t write. And those authors’ thoughts and phrases would bleed onto the page until I gave up.

Then I tried to take a bit of a cop out. How about me? I could be an expert in myself. Except, seriously? Whoever thought I’d be here, on some hobby farmstead in Nebraska milking cows, planning sheep breeding, fighting weeds in a massive garden and dreaming up more ways to anchor myself here, to this land. And making sure I can never again leave for more than 12 hours because the horses need fed and the poultry need watered and the cows need milked and someone needs to let the dog out.

I wanted to travel. And write. Have intellectually stimulating conversation about politics and art over coffee and wrestle with just the right words to describe the way the mist rolls over the sheep grazing on the dike on the coast of the North Sea. I wanted to travel and write and teach and explore and bind myself to ideas but not to places.

Back in kindergarten — KINDERGARTEN! — I wanted to marry a farmer and milk the cows and feed the chickens. But what does a KINDERGARTNER know about the kind of commitment and sacrifice that takes? What does a kindergartner know about anything?

Thing is, I’ve never aspired to be an expert in anything. I’m more of a generalist by nature. I know a little about a lot of things. And some things I even know well enough to know my knowledge barely scratches the surface.

Because knowledge is like that. It humbles you.

I mean, I can’t even be an expert at something simple like reading the directions. Or I would have noticed that this topic was actually for Monday because weekends are for free writing. But I’ve done gone ahead and written my very first post in six months and I’m not about to try for two. Especially not at, ahem, 3:30 in the morning.

So here it. My one kernel of wisdom: Knowledge is humbling.

Posted in education | 8 Comments

Sleepless nights

Minutes tick by. Hours drag on. This anxiety in my chest settles in and makes me restless. I’m exhausted, but I can’t sleep. It’s a familiar feeling normally reserved for stormy nights when the wind howls through the trees.

Nebraska has enough of them, you’d think I’d eventually get over it. That this sense of impending doom would lighten as night after windy night nothing happens.

But it’s not even windy.

The night is calm.

I am not.

So I pace. I move things around the house without really accomplishing anything. I watch a show on hulu. Read the same facebook statuses over again. Play some games and distract myself for a little while.

I think maybe it is because I have been looking at little Asa and thinking of Tiggy. I look at him and remember when we first moved here. He had just learned to walk. He loved getting suited up to sit in his car and watch me do chores. Most of his first words were related to the animals we owned.

I look at Asa and think of Tiggy driving his toy car up the arm of the sofa, pausing to look at me and saying, “Mom-mee” in that special way of his. I stroked his cheek while I nursed the baby and didn’t know that would be the last time I would hear him call me by name.

I look at Asa and wonder what it means that he is the only one of our children who never met him.

And I think the feeling will pass. That the next day’s activities will be a distraction and the anxiety will soften. But as soon as the children are in bed, I find myself anxious and pacing. Starting things I don’t finish. Moving things with no purpose. Drifting through the evening, tired but reluctant to go to bed.

Then suddenly I realize. Monday — now today — is his birthday.

He’d be six this year.

Posted in Grief | 16 Comments

Livestock will keep you humble

There’s nothing quite like livestock to keep you humble.

I say that because we have these two steer. Calves, really. I mean, they’re almost a year old, but even their mothers get mistaken for calves by the cattle people around here because they’re not Angus or Hereford or Simental. They’re Dexters. And they top out at about 41 inches and 700 pounds.

And they lead like puppy dogs. When they see their halters, they come running. It means a walk. Fresh pasture. A visit with mom. All good things happen after the halter is secured. This is why it seemed like a good idea to go ahead and let the girls show them at the fair. Sure, they’ll look a little puny against those muscle bound products of our neighbor’s, but they shouldn’t take two grown men bodysurfing through the fair like that steer last year.

So getting them weighed on Saturday should have been a breeze. Nevermind the fact I can’t back up a trailer to save my life. I mean, I have sweet little halter broke calves that look like newborns compared to these half-wild beasts being unloaded before and after us.

When I said, “Load up!” they hopped in the trailer. When I said, “Back out!” they backed out and let us lead them to their pen.

Easy peasy.

It absolutely did not matter that I could not back the trailer up to that shoot.

Until I told Mike, the kind man opening and closing the gate that we were just walking them out to the trailer.

Open went the gate and off went the calves. All my daughter and I had left was the rope burn as they kicked up their heels, bucked around the parking lot and made for the grass on the other side.

For a moment, I just stood there. For a moment, I thought it would be fine. They’d settle in to grazing and we’d just walk up to them and pick up their leads and haul them to the trailer. After all, they were scared. Grazing is comfort. We’re security. It would all be fine.

That’s why I didn’t run.

That and the fact that thanks to an old hip injury I really can’t run. But at that moment, I wouldn’t have even if I could have. I even told my daughter to approach from the south but to walk slowly.

And then the train whistle blew.

And the calves bolted.

And Mike sprinted. I never knew a man wearing work boots and Carharts could move so fast. But he was at a full run, waving his arms and doing everything he could to get those calves to turn.

I was almost at a run and the searing pain that normally accompanies such endeavors was noticeably absent. And then everything turned to slow motion. Mike, my daughter, the train, the calves.

And I saw it all. They were going to reach the tracks just ahead of the train. Just in time to get hit and there was nothing we could do about it. But everyone kept running. And I just saw them spattered all over the train and started wondering since we were right there if they would be able to process anything we scraped off the tracks when it was over.

Then they turned. The relief was met with that searing pain I hadn’t felt a moment ago and I couldn’t keep up the pace that really wasn’t getting me anywhere, anyway.

They ran straight up ninth street and the vet’s office there on the corner emptied out — the vet, the vet tech and I’m pretty sure the third person joining the chase was a customer. It was like the running of the bulls right there in Tecumseh, Nebraska.

Except everyone was in workboots and Carharts. And they were chasing 375 pound calves that don’t even have horns. Or testicles, for that matter.

They finally got them cornered and tied them to a fence while I went to get the trailer. A fence that in no way could hold them if they decided to take off again.

Ask me how I know.

Ask me why we had to replace our chicken run this summer.

And after a short lesson in managing steers, and a simple, “Load up!” we had them back in the trailer and tied for the ride.

And I told my daughter we’re changing the family motto from the old McIntire “per ardua” (through hardship) to “Yes, we’re that family.” And I’m putting it on a T-shirt.

Though apparently that isn’t necessary. Because when I stopped at Orscheln’s to pick up a new halter, the checker greeted me with, “So I heard about what happened with your little calves.”

Word travels fast.

And livestock keep you humble.

Posted in humor, Rural life | 5 Comments