A Basic Human Effort

A comment from a friend made me think about something that really makes me happy and contented at a very basic level.

It’s a magical thing when it happens: usually about every other weekend or so. It all starts with a big bowl. Warm water, salt, yeast, a little sweetener, flour and effort results in something that makes the house smell wonderful. It also makes people coming home smile. They know they’re in for something yummy.

Don’t tell me about bread machines. Those are for amateurs. Oh, sure, bread machine bread is tasty, but it’s different! Like frozen pizza can’t really be called pizza, can it? It should have its own food group. Homemade bread is likewise in a class by itself.

There is something deeply satisfying about using my own two hands to turn basic ingredients into something else entirely. It’s about nutrition, sure. But it’s also about simple human ingenuity. Who was the first amazing individual to think of this? Kneading bread dough develops the gluten and changes the character of the end product. This is truly an amazing process. Adding milk or eggs or butter or potatoes....or cheese or herbs or.... the varieties are endless, limited only by my imagination and budget.

When my Dad was very sick with cancer and past the point of worry about nutrition, one thing he could eat was good rye bread and a little red wine. Dad was allergic to corn, and most rye bread uses either cornmeal to dust the pan or even corn syrup to sweeten the dough and feed the yeast.

So I started making Dad’s rye bread. The best recipe I found used water on the kneading board instead of flour. What a mess! Every loaf was like throwing a clay pot. But it made a good, chewy rye bread with tender flavor.

If I stop and think about it, that was a tremendous gift for me. My Dad was dying and I could actually DO something. It wasn’t much, but I felt as if I made his last days just a little more pleasant and bearable. Could I have asked for more? I never tried harder to make excellent bread. I didn’t have stand by helplessly and wish I could think of something he might enjoy eating. That’s huge.

The years of necessity have passed. I can afford to buy fancy bakery breads. Why would I do that? Isn’t it the most human thing of all, to take something and make into something else by the effort of your own two hands, and the knowledge you have acquired?

Quiet Little Gifts

It just so happens that I believe in gifts. I think every one of us gets our share, and it’s up to us to discover them. I lose patience with people who bemoan their lack of talent...especially after a certain age. They are just looking in the wrong places and failing to notice what is right in front of them.

Oh, sure I would love to be able to paint or sing or something artistic like that. That is not where my gifts lie. But I have some gifts that are unique to me. Truthfully, I am hoping to discover some new talents as I age, but if this right here is all I am, I’m content. I’ll continue to learn and grow, even if I don’t discover some untapped pool of genius in myself.

I don’t have any grand, attention-gathering kinds of gifts, but that is a gift from God to me. I don’t like being the center of attention and if I looked and sang like Faith Hill, where would I be? Yeah, I know: wealthy and married to Tim McGraw. But I married a hot hardbody of my own and I have a healthy family, comfortable house, a nice car and a full belly. I’m rich enough.

My talents are the quiet, comfortable kind. I make a mean chicken and dumplings. Overall, outside of a few spectacular failures, I’m a pretty good cook. One of my notable failures involved a tamale-pie creation for which I only had blue cornmeal. I didn’t drain the filling properly and ended up with what looked like a casserole dish of purple dog puke. Happily, that sort of thing is the exception, rather than the rule.

Usually, I am a rock of cheeful, even temper...even in seas of turbulent emotions. You think that isn’t a gift? Think again! Even when all heck is breaking loose, you can usually count on me to be cool headed. If you were trying to antagonize me, then you would not admire this particular talent.

I have a dear friend who possesses a gift I especially admire. She is an absolute ray of sunshine. Just being near her makes you feel warm and accepted and valued. What a wonderful talent to have! A colleague of mine has a completely different talent. She has a laugh that makes you want to laugh, too, even when you don’t know what’s funny. It makes her beautiful in a way that the mirror never sees.

My beloved husband has more talents than I could hope to name. One of his chief talents is the power in his hands. He can make, fix, create, comfort, express....and please, through the gift of his hands. He is artistic. And he is the most intelligent person I have ever known. I don’t say that lightly. I know some pretty smart people, but none rival my own husband.

Our sons inherited some of their parent’s gifts, and added some of their own. They are each brilliant in their own, very different, way. It is an unending pleasure to see them develop as fine, honorable young men, discovering their own unique talents.

Yawning boy

When I look back on my children as babies, I can still see in my mind's eye the way my youngest looked when he yawned. I would hold him in my arms and he would yawn this wide, sideways yawn that was just adorable. His eyelids crinkled up differently than his older brother's had at that age. And still do.

Now, I admit it sounds strange to notice the way his eyelids crinkle. I had never thought of this as being an inheritable trait. When I close my eyes, the lids fold in smooth horizontal lines. My oldest son has the same eyelids. My husband, on the other hand, his eyelids pucker and wrinkle in a tangle when he closes his eyes. Which our younger son inherited from him.

The youngest is a tall teenager now. He resembles not at all the baby he once was. For one thing, he towers over me. At the rate he is going he will exceed my height by a foot in no time. But every once in a while, if I happen to be looking at him at the right moment, he yawns. He yawns crookedly sideways, and his eyelids pucker as he squeezes his eyes closed. And for just a flicker of time, I can see the baby I once held in my arms.

Morning coffee

My husband makes coffee for me every morning. We aren't talking about a particularly demonstrative or romantic man. Even so, when I get out of the shower, there's a cup of sweetened coffee waiting for me.

I am not, by nature, a morning person. I am by necessity. Some people say that taking a shower wakes them up. Not me. I require something stronger than just soap and water to pry my sleepy eyes open.

Is a cup of coffee such a big deal? It is to me. It's more than coffee in a lot of ways. It shows me that my husband loves me, because he sweetens it even though he is opposed to sugar in coffee. I think it is a very thoughtful gesture for him to have it waiting for me.

I am ashamed to admit how long it took me to truly appreciate that. Learning how to see the intentions behind the actions has taken me some years. He has learned, too. It used to be that he would not sweeten the coffee. I always wondered what the point was in bringing it to me, knowing I would just have to go back and add sugar anyway.

That was his attempt to control my terrible, reckless behavior. In time, he learned to quit trying to control something so inconsequential. In other words, he sweetens my coffee, so he has grown. I take sugar in my coffee, so I haven't.

Time and years have taught me that a marriage is made of minutes in the same way a mile is made up of inches. The little incremental things we do every day are as important, in the long run, as the big defining moments of marriage. Yes, it was hugely important for him to be there when our children were born. It is equally important that he spends a couple of seconds in the morning, to stir a spoonful of sugar into a cup of coffee. It all counts.

Crazy

Patsy Cline has been singing to me in my car. The clarity of her voice as she anguishes through “Crazy” is just lovely. If I were going to imagine the voice of an angel, I might think of Alison Krauss (OK, I definitely would think of her.) If it were to be a boy angel (do angels have genders?), I’d think of Vince Gill, or maybe Jim Reeves. But if I were to imagine the voice of Venus, it’d have to be Patsy. That woman knew how to sing passion.

I wonder what I’m doing in MY life to show passion. I don’t have a voice like Patsy’s. I can’t paint or sculpt or act. The things I am passionate about are small—meaningful to me, but not great earth-shaking kinds of things. I think I need to put more effort into letting my passion for even those small things show.

What am I passionate about? My family, certainly. My marriage is one of my top-two priorities. We hit rough patches like anyone else, but I promised to love him and honor him until I die. I'm hoping I live a while yet, so I want to be sure that the years ahead are happy and content for both of us.


It’s a driving force in my life to bring to adulthood healthy, well-rounded, respectful, balanced citizens. I think those four things are key to happy success in life. I am passionate about keeping a comfortably clean home that is a joy to return to, for both my family and for me.

Mostly, my passion is to try to be the best, wisest and happiest person I can be. Every day, I think again about how to do that. I struggle with my flaws, try to forgive myself for them and correct them, and try to see the lessons behind the events in my life.

5-Minute Drive

It's only about 5 minutes from my home to my office. Driving home yesterday, happy it was Friday, I came up over the hill beyond which is my street. From that hill, the view is beautiful. The Mogollon Rim stretches out in panorama, with many hills before it.

That time of day, the sun angles promisingly downward. It's hot this time of year, and the lengthening shadows point the way to the cool of evening. I am so blessed to live in such a pretty place. The trees are tall here, ponderosa pines mostly, and the way they smell, even in summer, is heaven.

I wonder sometimes about the people who live on that hill and have that amazing view. Obviously, the homes were built there to take advantage of the view. Do they stop noticing the beauty after a time, and take it for granted? I hope not. I doubt very much that they do. One of the things about a view of the mountains is how ever-changing they are.

We had a great view when I was a child. Every window of our mountain-top home had something wonderful to look at. Even as a kid, I appreciated the view. I don't care for King Vitamin breakfast cereal anymore, but I have never outgrown the love of a beautiful view.

Living Deliberately

Henry David Thoreau said “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

It’s a notion that occupies me: what does it mean to live deliberately? I have some idea.

I think it’s about being fully present in any given moment, and I am working on being better at that. I’m pretty good about it in regards to food. :-) You won’t usually find me mindlessly stuffing my face, not noticing what I am eating. I love food. I don’t eat huge quantities, but I enjoy what I eat and pay attention to it.

I love to cook. NOT crazy about cleaning up, but sometimes even that can be a satisfying pleasure. But cooking...now that’s fun! It can be creative and expressive. I enjoy the smells, and the beauty of it. Beauty? Sure! The blush on a ripe nectarine, a bunch of glossy green basil, or those perfect little grape tomatoes? Food can be very pretty.

Even having a really good conversation can be a time to live deliberately. I have certain friends who let their passion for a topic show. They become animated and bright with excitement, and I love to talk with them. One of those friends also loves to eat the way I do, and we enjoy sharing a kitchen from time to time. I count her as one of the blessings in my life.

The way I see it, if I put my energy into paying attention to the moment, who I am with and what I am doing, I will be living deliberately. I know that I burn more calories, eat less but enjoy it more and feel better all the way around if I do. Old H.D. Thoreau could only approve.

Three trees

Across the parking lot stands three trees of different kinds. I can see them when I go to use the fax. I'm not good with the varieties of trees, so all I can say is they are deciduous trees, fully leafed out now that it's summer.

It's been a windy year so far and I detest wind. But I love the way these three trees move in the wind. One of them is darker green than the others and when the wind blows across it, it waves in smooth undulations like a green sheet drying on the line.

One tree has many long, skinny leaves lined up on thin branches and it makes the wind look like it's blowing very hard. That tree moves a lot at any little breeze.

The third tree has roundish leaves that are green on one side and nearly gray on the other. It dances in the wind in a way that makes it look like it is shimmering. The branches hardly move, but the leaves twist and shake on their stems.

It is lovely to see these three dancing outside the window. I mind the wind a little less because of them. Part of what makes them so pretty and interesting to me is that, alone, each is really just a tree. But standing together and being different from each other, makes each one beautiful for its difference. They make me think about people I know with some of those same qualities.

Happy Birthday Auntie!

Today is my favorite Auntie's birthday. (Don't tell my other Aunties I said that!) She's 81. Having that remarkable woman in my life has been like having my own personal cheering section. She never criticizes or draws her mouth into that grim, disapproving line the women in my family are so good at (me too). Well, she probably does, but not to me.

Auntie has what I think is the ideal Christian attitude. For her, it isn't about telling others where they fall short. She does the best she knows how with what she has. She works hard at helping other people, sometimes at the expense of her self. She stays cheerful, even under terrible adversity and is never bitter. At least, not out loud. She never uses her faith as a stick to beat someone else with. I love that about her.

In a lot of ways, I want to be just like her. I want to be cheerful and giving. I want to be consistently nice. I want to be strong like she is. The irony is, I don't want a life like hers at all. Growing up during the war years, coming to America and starting all over. Losing her husband too soon, and grinding health problems.

I realize that the adversity in her life is part of what made her the beloved inspiration she is. So how do I get to be that good, without having to suffer that much for it?

Nice to meet you!

My memories of my paternal Grandpa are vague. He was already ill by the time I was old enough to have a memory that would keep. I was a little afraid of him. He was stern and unsmiling and not very approachable. I recall that he could crack a walnut with his bicep. Crunch! That was very impressive to me.

On the other hand, I knew my paternal Grandmother well. She always lived very near us (next door for many years) and I was an adult when she passed away. She had Parkinson’s disease from an early age. She was frail and trembling. Her speech was greatly affected by the disease and only family members could understand her when she spoke. Grandma couldn’t swallow her food very well, and this caused her to drool some. She also hunched with osteoporosis.

The years were not kind to my Grandparents. Their marriage was a disappointment to them both. Their first child (and only daughter) died at birth. They raised six sons through the depression years and hardship made a deep mark upon their lives.

In my recent searches for information on the family tree, I came across photographs of Grandpa and Grandma. They were confirmation portraits, so they would have been 13 or so at the time. They were many years and many miles apart for the portraits but there was a touching similarity.

There stood my gruff, grumpy Grandfather, young and bright-eyed. His brown hair waved back away from his grinning face and he had a look of mischief about him. This was the first time I had ever seen a smile on his face.

Grandma stood tall and unsure in her white dress. Her eyes and hair were dark and soulful in a way that I never would have guessed. Fresh and hopeful, almost ready to step out into life, she stood for her portrait. I could almost see the young dreams that must have been in her head.

The years had not yet taken a toll on these fresh youngsters. The pain and disappointments of life were far away. Wars and depressions and grief were only scary stories.

I could look into their faces and see who they were when their worlds were full of bright promise. I saw children who weren’t very different from my own. I finally met my real Grandparents. And I liked them.

Blessings

Years ago an email crossed my desk about finding blessings. It was about being grateful to have a sinkful of dirty dishes, because that meant you'd enjoyed the blessing of plenty to eat. Be grateful for the mountain of laundry; it means you have plenty of clothing and loved ones to make them dirty. And so on.

The water heater isn't working, but I'm not upset. The water was still warm enough this morning that my shower wasn't a shock. The plumber came over right away. Plus he is someone I have known since high school so I didn't have to stay and keep an eye on him. You always hear about repairmen helping themselves to coffee, beer or panty drawers. My plumber friend would never. He would be welcome to coffee or beer, but my panty drawer is my own business.

I did, however, have to give him the secret password for the dogs. A stranger coming out of the garage might alarm them, so I told him how to pacify them. All you have to say is, "Get the ball!" and you're in the club. Don't tell anyone. I don't want the bad guys to know how to disarm the dogs.

Why blog?

I've always believed in changing myself by changing how I think. By nature, I am a cheerful and even-tempered person. Every once in a while, however, little things start to pile up on me and I feel out of sorts and grumpy. So I've set myself the task of improving my disposition, which has been pretty gray lately, by focusing on the joy. Today I start.

There's a million quotes out there about attaining happiness. Everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Gandhi had something to say about it. My own Grandmother was far wiser on the subject than anyone else I could name. She had a talent for--or maybe a will to--look for the joy in the everyday things and derive her happiness from that. She was an amazing and inspiring woman and I will surely visit her often in this blog.

Today I start. I'm going to focus on all the many joys in my life and turn away from the irritants and disappointments. Today I start.