I spent this week cleaning up after remodeling our bunkhouse. It’s a small one bedroom with a kitchen, bathroom, and a living room big enough for a sofa and chair. As I went about wiping down walls and scrubbing out the shower, I fantasized about moving in; how nice it would be to have a small house to clean. My animals would still have plenty of space to romp around outside. I would finally have a reason to get rid of the mountain of stuff I’ve collected over the years.
Across the orchard sits the house Ron and I live in. It’s a lovely log home set against the desert landscape where dust collects in every nook and cranny making cleaning a nightmare. The logs need Murphy’s Oil Soap and my nemeses, the stone fireplace, requires air blasting. My lower back screams for relief as I vacuum and sweep floors. My hands ache while wringing out rags. There are times I feel at war with this place. Papers, glasses, phone cords, napkins, coffee cups, etc. clutter counter tops and tables as though invisible hands are at work to disarm me. All this takes valuable time. Time I would rather spend reading or writing or visiting family and friends or hiking or bird-watching or napping.
The house feels heavy with all the stuff we have collected over the past year, and I’ve started filling trash bags headed for either the dump or Goodwill. But that’s only part of the problem. There is also the matter of our crazy schedule. Ron and I continually promise each other we are going to slow down, but to date, we haven’t done a thing to make that happen.
I don’t know how it has come to this: two trucks, three sets of dishes, plastic bins stuffed with extra pillows, blankets, table clothes, and a closet full of clothes I will never wear. My attire at the ranch consists of short skirts and t-shirts in the summer and yoga pants and sweatshirts in the winter. Sure I make an effort when I leave the house, but nowadays that happens so infrequently, I could get away with half the clothes I own.
There was a time in my life when I owned very little. I lived without electricity and an intermittent water supply among farmers in Honduras. Without a vehicle, I either hitch-hiked or took a bus and everything I owned fit into a hiker’s backpack. I didn’t worry about paying bills, making appointments, or juggling a hectic schedule. I got up with the chickens and went to bed when the sun went down. I had few worries and really didn’t appreciate my circumstances until years later, like now, when I reflect on the joys of a modest life.
Yesterday I got online and ordered a shower curtain, knobs for the kitchen cabinets, and curtains for the bunkhouse. I’m fully aware it adds more things to my already crowded life, but I want this new space to reflect what it is I aspire to—a small, comfortable home unencumbered by a never ending to-do list and the weighty feeling of being surrounded by an abundance of junk I don’t need or will never use.
I’m planning to invite Ron for date night over to the bunkhouse—the small simple space I yearn for. Maybe we’ll both be inspired to do things differently.
Ron missed the call from a Border Patrol agent while we were in town last week. We didn’t think much of it at the time, but when we came home the next day to find tire tracks leading up to our gate, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. We live at the end of a mile-long dead end dirt road. People generally don’t just drop by unless they are lost. I thought back to the call from the Border Patrol agent and wondered if there had been illegals crossing our property while we were gone. With much to do, I shook off the notion as I hauled in groceries, cleaned out the cat litter box, and fed the animals. At some point I realized Ron hadn’t helped carry in bags from the truck. I put the groceries away and threw in a load of laundry all the while wondering where he was. Soon my imagination got the best of me, and I worried he’d run into someone out in the shop or the airplane hangar. After I peeled potatoes for dinner, I grabbed the pistol I keep in our bedroom and went looking for him.
This was an odd predicament to find myself in. I have no doubt I would shoot someone who tried to hurt my husband, animals, or me. I’ve had my life threatened and know what I am capable of. But it’s a part of life down here I would rather not have to deal with-this underlying fear that I might look up from my garden or walk around the corner of an outbuilding to find someone standing there prepared to do me harm. After walking the property, which seemed an eternity, Ron appeared carrying a long stick. He’d been out looking for rattlesnakes that may have come in close while we were gone. He looked down at the pistol at my side. “You’ve been gone forty-five minutes,” I said. “I got worried.”
The next day two agents stopped by to inform us there had been activity at the ranch while we were gone. The men joined us for coffee and banana bread, then asked if they could take a look around. The illegals they had caught the day before had dropped bundles of dope somewhere nearby. Ron and a friend went to harvest honey while the agents combed the property on their ATVs. I went out to water trees, and by the time I came in, the agents had left and I was home alone. A twinge of vulnerability set in while I did chores, but I consciously dismissed it so that I could get on with my day. There was too much to do. I couldn’t just lock myself inside the house and pull the curtains.
Despite illegals on the border or criminals in our cities, most of us are resilient and are able to carry on with our lives. Trouble seems to happen when we give in to our fears. That’s when we begin to lock our doors, avoid eye contact with our neighbors, and withdraw from the people who care about us. I heard today that the FBI is setting up a billboard campaign in hopes people will come forward about the shooter’s motives in the Las Vegas mass killing spree. I’ve been asking myself if knowing Stephen Paddock’s motives is really all that important. The damage is done, isn’t it time to move on? To heal? But at the core of our humanity we need the question answered. If he was just a regular guy who opened fire, then what prevents any of us from doing the same? Until he is culled from the proverbial herd, we won’t rest. In the meantime, it’s important to our well-being to leave the curtains open to let in the sunshine.
Pecans are falling from the trees. It’s an indication that our growing season is over. A storm moved in yesterday bringing dark clouds, cooler temperatures, and scattered showers. It looks like it may stay awhile. I’m originally from Wisconsin and miss the four seasons. This change in weather is a gift.
I have finished canning, and our shelves are stocked. There are still a few cantaloupe, peppers, carrots, and onions in the garden. This morning I picked the last of the pomegranates. The vibrant colors of peaches, apples, apricots, and watermelon have disappeared from our breakfast table. I feel the shift inside me. A longing to pull inward and to focus my attention on the house has set in. Farmers don’t have time for spring house cleaning. We get the job done in autumn. The list of winter projects is long, and I worry we won’t get them all done before it’s time to trim trees and till the garden next spring.
The seasonal change has affected my palate. A Cesar salad sounds bland and cold. My body desires bubbly stew, hearty soup, spicy pot roast, and warm bread. Tonight I’m making chicken pot pie and butternut squash. I’m craving a pan of brownies, but it’s a slippery slope, so I’ll refrain.
Wildlife feel the shift, too. Hummingbirds are draining the feeders at an alarming rate as they prepare for their southern migration. The pecans I scavenged off the ground this morning have been gnawed on by rabbits. The same rabbits that sit under our apple trees waiting for the overripe and bruised fruit to fall. Rattlesnakes are coming in close to the house looking for a warm winter home. A swarm of bees gathered on a piece of lawn furniture yesterday. Ron caught them in a bee box. They seem content to settle in. The Great Horned Owls have expanded their hunting grounds and only come home every few days. I miss their antics. The migrating birds have moved on. The doves and finches will stay for the winter, but without other birds to compete with, it is quiet around here. Too quiet.
Without the frenzied orchard and garden schedule, there is time for introspection. We have lived here just over a year. Gone are the days of trying to keep up two homes while working full-time jobs. For a year Ron and I have taken the dogs on a walk down the runway each morning. We have eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. We have figured out a rhythm that allows us time together and time apart. We have thrown parties, spent time with family, and have made new friends. Most importantly, we have lived our lives on a schedule that leaves time to enjoy the things that matter to us. Every day I remind Ron we live a good life, and every day he agrees.
I read cookbooks like I do novels—reading first the front and back covers followed by the copyright date. I flip through the pages to see if there is anything interesting like prologues and letters in novels, advertising and how-to pages in cookbooks. Like a novel, if a cookbook holds my attention, I will fight exhaustion and ignore my to-do list to finish it.
My mom recently shared two family cookbooks with me. Cato Heights 4-H Club Cookbook had belonged to her mother, my Grandma Elizabeth. The Book of Recipes, published in 1923, had been my great-great aunt Verna’s. Both were falling apart at the seams and had yellowed with time. The cookbooks were like unexpected gifts my relatives left for me. Carefully handling pages splattered with decades-old cake batter and pickle juice, I remembered both women fondly. Their DNA were on the pages. My grandma wore several jeweled rings at a time and pink nail polish. I pictured her licking her right index finger as she turned pages. Verna’s eyebrows remained dark even though her hair had turned white. Her hands shook when she served tea with banana bread. Both my grandma and Verna were writers. Verna, so eager to jot down a recipe for “My Own Made up Oatmeal Rocks,” wrote over the text on the first page. My grandma’s beautiful cursive handwriting covered recipe cards that were slipped in between pages. The cookbooks held childhood memories in the form of a divinity recipe my grandma used at Christmas and a corn relish recipe Verna followed in the summertime.
I have a shelf of cookbooks that I have collected over the years. Many of them I found at antique and second-hand shops. I don’t buy them for the recipes, rather their providence. Some contain quotes about food and family from famous authors. In others, hand-written cryptic notes are in the margins. Margaret served this at her husband’s wake. My favorites contain pages dedicated to advice. For example, to remove candle wax, rub the area with ice, scrape off the excess then place stain over white blotter and press with a warm iron. A Party List for 100 People caught my eye and includes 25 lbs. of wieners and four gallons of ice cream. Both pieces of advice are found in the Saint Philip’s Parish Mix and Stir cookbook circa 1965. I have my mom’s copy. She has my grandma’s. It is the only cookbook I actually use. Like my Aunt Verna’s cookbook, the Quick Breads, Cookies, Pies, and Cakes sections are stained with chocolate, egg, and vanilla. I committed my pie crust recipe to memory after a peach slice slid across the page blurring the measurements for oil, flour, salt, and water.
In Verna’s cookbook, I found a Western Union telegram from Albany, New York dated October 25, 1940 addressed to Verna’s sister, Gladys Butler.
MRS. L J BUTLER
ACCEPTED JOB AT 300 STOP GET MR CALKINS ADDRESS FROM MARGARET MASON WIRE IT TO VERNA ARRIVING LANSING SATURDAY HOME ABOUT TUESDAY
L J BUTLER
At the time, Europe was in the throes of WWII. That same month, the National Geographic timeline reports : More than 400,000 Polish Jews are herded into a part of Warsaw known as the Warsaw Ghetto. This continues in Poland the Nazi campaign against the Jews—the Holocaust, in which six million Jews will be killed, along with hundreds of thousands of other minorities. Italy invades Greece. German troops later come to the aid of Italian troops.
A far cry from cookbooks, we track history through war, economic despair, and political upheaval. Baking, cooking, quilting, canning, gardening, sewing, slip into the shadows when there is a crisis, but they are the things that mark our daily lives in good times and bad. Anniversaries, birthdays, christenings, weddings, holidays, etc. connect us to the people we love and help us overcome uncertainty.
Our country is struggling right now. Like many of the people I know, I find myself angry or in tears over things I cannot control, but I take solace knowing I am able to gather the folks I care about around my table for good food and laughter.
The first page of the Mix and Stir cookbook contains a Recipe for a Happy Life. It may not solve our problems, but it can help us get through the day:
Make your own sunshine.
Take equal parts of kindness, unselfishness, and thoughtfulness.
Mix with love and scatter with helpful words.
Add a smile or two.
Throw in a spice of cheerfulness.
Stir with a hearty laugh.
Share with everyone.
A friend asked if I ever get bored living on the ranch. I outright laughed at the question. The day after she called, we were woken by two illegal immigrants who showed up looking for food. After they left, I picked apples and canned apple butter until well after the sun went down. Ron came in yesterday with a crate of pears. Before setting them down, he looked at me apologetically and said, “You probably don’t want to see these right now.” Last night a rattlesnake met at us at the backdoor, and this morning we spent nearly an hour scouring the desert for an abandoned Great Pyrenees. This afternoon I am making peach jam if I can find the Sure Jell among my canning supplies. Tonight I would like to get some school work done. Classes started a week ago.
I can say with certainty that no, I have never been bored out here. But I have been exhausted and I find myself feeling that way more and more. It’s a combination of the demands I put on myself and the feeling that I just can’t seem to get ahead of the work. This isn’t something unique to country living. I look at my friends and family who live in the city, and I don’t know how they do it. Working forty plus hours a week at jobs that many find unsatisfying. Carting kids around town for games, practices, and lessons. Eating on the fly and sleeping five or six hours a night all the while living a stone’s throw from neighbors they are expected to acknowledge and act kind towards even on their worst days.
The CDC states that demanding schedules and sleep deprivation are killing us. Hypertension, diabetes, depression, obesity, and even some cancers are linked to our frantic lifestyles, and there are no signs of us slowing down any time soon. Author Mary Mann explores boredom in her new book “Yawn, Adventures in Boredom,” and admits that in our culture it isn’t cool to be bored or boring. That’s okay with me. I’ve never been accused of being cool. I wouldn’t mind a little boredom if it means I get to take a nap.
I thought of my friend this week while in town babysitting our two-year-old granddaughter. I had stepped out onto the front porch in my underwear and a t-shirt at my stepdaughter’s and son-in-law’s house. Minutes passed before I realized I wasn’t at the ranch rather in town surrounded by people. I crept back inside the house praying no one had spotted me. Our granddaughter met me at the door wearing only a diaper, and I thought how lucky she is. I couldn’t wait to go back to the ranch. I may be as busy as everyone else, but at least I get to sit on my front porch in my underwear.
This week I managed to lose the clicker for the stereo and one of four stainless steel cat dishes. At some point each day, the need to recover these items nips at me until I give in, tossing my to-do list aside. Crazy thoughts go through my head as I fling couch cushions and check drawers and the refrigerator. (Yes, the refrigerator.) Who stole the clicker? Did I throw away the kitty dish? Did Ron take the clicker? Why would he do that? Oh my God, I’m losing my mind! Before full-blown panic sets in, something in need of my attention distracts me, and I’m off to grade papers, defrost the freezer, or water trees.
I didn’t lose a thing as a kid. It was an adult malady that I never quite understood. I’d roll my eyes when my mom asked if I’d seen her keys or her purse. A bunch of us moaned when my tenth grade English teacher searched her desk for her glasses, which happened often. A friend nearly died of embarrassment when her mom thought she lost her car in the Kohl’s parking lot only to learn it had been stolen while she shopped the post-Christmas 50% Off Sale. No, this losing thing didn’t start until I had a house and responsibilities of my own. And it’s gotten worse over time. Sometimes I don’t even know I’ve lost something until it shows up. I found a can of soup in my truck that by my estimation had been lodged under the front seat for three months. Last week I found a sweater I forgot I had bought.
Some things are meant to stay lost: a cause, our virginity, our marbles. But most things, like the clicker and the cat dish, are meant to be found. I like to know where my things are. It gives order to my life and provides a sense of stability. I may be wearing mismatched socks, but if I know the book I’m reading is on my nightstand, I’m okay.
It seems the losing things conundrum is tied to multitasking and our obsession with time. I shove the car keys in my pocket as I grab a bag of groceries and a thirty pound box of cat litter from the bed of the truck then rush inside to make dinner because it’s six-fifteen and at seven I have a phone conference with a student. The next day I go for my keys. and they’re not in my purse or on the counter. My first thought? Who stole my keys?
Like prayers or a glass of wine, the lost clicker and cat dish are like talismans sent from a sacred place to remind me to slow down.