Isn’t It Romantic



We live well away from the madding crowd – such as it exists in rural Vermont (no, it’s not redundant). While we try to be as energy and resource independent as possible, the plot where our slice of life plays out is definitely a homestead – not a farm.
During summer months, we grow a fair amount of food, but my garden is as much about pleasure as it is necessity. We’ve had chickens for eggs, but also for company in the garden. When the fox raided our coop, we were sad but not scared – we knew there were fresh brown eggs for sale in the cooler at the end of our neighor’s driveway. We’ve made our own maple syrup, but most of the time we buy it from friends who are trying to build a working family farm.

Most days we’re so wrapped up in middle-class mundaneity that the solar panels and hot water on the roof and the amish wood cookstove that heat and power our life seem completely mainstream.

And then it snows. And snows. And snows. And we load a few more logs next to the woodstove and think how lovely it all looks. And, as much as I once romanticized the idea of being completely self-sufficient ,I’m glad we’ve picked the battle that lets us wait out the storms we’ve seen this winter without worry.

It is work – I hang every scrap of laundry and we monitor every watt we use – but it’s also a luxury, and we’re grateful for it each time the snow begins to fly.

 

White Noise

 

Snow angel

Tuesday, we were looking forward to another  snowy night and day.  Like most northern regions, it takes a lot more than 6-12″ to get Vermonters flustered, but, to be perfectly honest, it’s not the snow that rattles my nerves, it’s the snow day.

I work from home.  Most of the time it’s a good racket – especially when Thing1 and Thing2 get the unexpected day off.  It’s not all sunshine and lollipops, however, especially when Thing1 and Thing2 get the unexpected day off.   They’re good kids, but, try as I might, I have not found the trick to getting them to sit quietly with their hand folded over their laps while mommy deals with customers online (if you’ve found it online somewhere, send me the link).   But, as I found out over Christmas break (almost two weeks of expected days off), silence isn’t always golden.

Seven-year-old Thing2 – already plastered to the ceiling in anticipation of Santa’s visit – had spent the morning migrating from lego projects to torturing his brother.  At one point, he managed to combine activities, causing a crescendo of ‘MOM!’ from thirteen-year-old Thing1’s room.  Thing1 had ‘accidentally’ knocked Thing2’s lego sculpture out of his hand.  The ruins of his engineering masterpiece were strewn about the floor.  One of the witnesses to the ‘accident’ was red faced, the other was in tears. I was chatting online with several customers at once and decided there wasn’t time to call in CSI to determine if the destruction was accidental or premeditated, and I ordered Thing2 to the living room for a cool-down on the iPad.  

Lips pursed, arms folded over his chest, Thing2 marched to a corner of the couch after retrieving a blanket from his bunk. He stood on the couch, arranging the blanket just so and, when he had created his cave, grabbed the iPad from the table and retreated under the patchwork tent.

Thing2 has loved the iPad since it emerged from its sleek white box.  Like most kids, he knows more about it than a seasoned software engineer, and I’m ashamed to admit that it plays babysitter too often on days like this.  

The next day, each Thing retreated automatically to his own corner.  One was in his room working on a computer project with a friend in Maine.  Two was under his tent with headphones borrowed from daddy.  For most of the morning, the only sound came from my keyboard.

That night, I finished work on time and, with a small break in the depression that had been amplifying for months, I thought an after dinner post was in order.  But as the Big Guy took up residence on the couch for his winter’s nap and I began loading the wood stove to cook dinner, I noticed that it was still very quiet.  The dishes clanking were the only noise. 

Thing2 was still under the blanket and headphones, his legos and sketchbooks gathering dust.  There was no new dance routine to watch and animate.  There was no impromptu party waiting in his room.  And suddenly I was scrambling for something to write.  

Like a nagging housewife driving her husband to the arms of a lover, my quest for quiet had silenced my inspiration with electronic lithium. 

Cousins arrived the next day, and neither child was interested in anything electronic as we celebrated Christmas.  

The Monday after the family left, the silence was deafening, but the iPad was nowhere to be found.  Thing2 emerged late in the morning, dragging his tent.  He looked for his digital drug, but, not finding it, deposited his blanket on the couch and padded over to the Christmas tree where his latest Lego project was still sitting, the remaining 500 pieces sorted into empty ice cream buckets.

For the rest of the morning, he delivered a muted monologue of the building of his new starship.  Occasionally, frustrated tears punctuated the chatter and interrupted my work.  I broke up a few fights, but, when dinner time rolled around my inspirer-in-chief joined me in the kitchen to show me his latest dance moves.  And, oddly enough, the noise made the work day better.  

I didn’t write that night, but Tuesday morning, that probable snow day got me just rattled enough to get out of bed early and start tapping.   

Impractically Perfect

IMG 3937Winter isn’t officially here yet, but the wood stove is going every night just about. I love our wood stove. It’s an Amish made wood cook stove that heats not only our whole house but all of our hot water during the winter. I love it for its practicality, but I also love the romance of it.

Something about managing the hotspots on the large cast-iron cooktop and knowing where in the oven cookies will bake and not burn makes me feel like a real homesteader. 

Our house is homestead in a lot of ways. Everything about it’s design was practical, initially. We designed it to be off grid, so that the multiple winter power outages would no longer affect us. We built it to be earth sheltered so that we would not be subject to the whims of the utility companies. We designed it to be a home where we could live if as we age,.

The wood stove was also a practical decision, initially. It was a source of cheap heat. It would do all the things that the woodstove has historically done throughout our nation’s history. It heats our water and our space and cooks our food.

But the pleasure I derive from standing in front of our red-hot practicality as the smell of fresh apple crisp in the oven and black bean stew on the cooktop tickle my nose hairs is anything but practical. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

The Woodpile

Woodpile

We don’t have a furnace, but we do have an amish-made wood cookstove that burns about five cords of wood every winter.  Over the last few years, thirteen-year-old Jack has increasingly enjoyed the triple-warming feature of our chosen heat source.  

As Jack’s body has grown, so has his part in the stacking, hauling, and burning.  Some years he even takes on the lion’s share of the stacking in hopes of earning some cash.  Even the small income, however, has not taught him to appreciate the woodpile.

Monday we each had a day off.  I decided to lend him a hand.  After lunch, we each donned work gloves and earbud and started ferrying logs to the woodshed.  

It was quiet work.  Each of us was listening to music, but, as Jack has grown taller, he has also become more introspective. Spontaneous utterances are rare.   He meets most of my queries these days with monosyllabic answers.

As the first cord formed in the shed, however, Jack volunteered the remark on the increase in speed when there were two stacking.  I concurred, adding that it was almost pleasant when you got moving.  Jack retreated to silence again.  I asked what music he was listening to, extracting an answer after repeating the questions several ways.

I entertain no illusions about my hipness as a mother (only my fitness as one), and I was glad just to know a little about Jack’s evolving music tastes.  In the next hour we would chat about his English grade, the computer he’s been working toward over the last year, and his favorite video game.  In the end, the wood stacking warmed each of us, but in completely different ways.  For Jack, it was still just a chore.  For me, it was one more thing in my life that reminding me to feel thankful.

Small World

Kitchen table

I don’t have a career.  I have a job.  It’s not a bad job at all, but it’s not the kind of work that changes people’s lives (for good or for ill) or – like a doctor’s or lawyer’s or reporter’s – is filled with action or big issues.  It is the kind of work that lets me work from home and put food on the round pedestal table in our open-floorplan kitchen.

It’s 5:00 AM and an hour and a half from now, there will be scrambling and a mad rush out the door to meet the school bus at the end of our dirt road.  Then there will be a brief calm before the workday begins.  Except for the days I go to the country store, I won’t see another human being until the Big Guy rolls in with our two boys after the school bus brings them home.   It’s literally a very small life.

But somewhere among the eat-your-peanut-butter-sandwich and passing-the-potatoes, at some point during the how-was-your-day’s and even on nights when the Big Guy or I might be licking a wound from a careless comment or Thirteen-year-old Thing1 is barely speaking to us because of a lost privilege, we each know our small life is pretty good.  

There aren’t any late model cars in the driveway.  I can’t remember the last time we sat down to dinner with 4 matching plates.  There’s always dust spontaneously generating around furniture, and the next big bill is always just waiting around the corner.  

But there’s also always safety.  There’s always food on the table.  There’s always a fire in the wood stove warming us when we need it and when we don’t, we’re still at the kitchen table making our own magic.

So, this morning, even though it’s not cold outside and even though I have a room designated as an office down the hall,  at 5am, I’m already settled at the kitchen table near the wood stove.  It’s not just the heat that draws me here.  For me, the kitchen table is where the action – valuable and small – happens.

it is NOT Cold

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At this time of year, the big challenge of living off-grid in an earth-sheltered (read: 3 feet of insulation on 3 sides) is to remind yourself 69 on the thermostat would be T-shirt weather if it were describing the temperature outdoors, but when the only thing reflecting light back at you as you let the cat in at 5AM for his morning nap is the frost coating the world outside your door, it’s hard to remember that it’s too early in the year to light a fire. 

Comfort

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What is it about the colder days that makes bread need butter to be nourishing? What is it about the roads littered with leaves that sparks the craving for something hot and chocolatey?

I’ve been so good all summer, and while I’m still kicking it up on the exercise wagon, the numbers on the scale refused to budge for the last week or two. It’s no great mystery. I’ve been indulging. Cottage cream ice cream over apple crumb pie to celebrate the Big Guy’s birthday, a few days of stress-induced gluttony, and the only thing keeping the numbers on the scale from climbing is the fact that my exercise plan is often my only downtime – a fact that keeps it alive and well.

It’s another part of the game. The exercise is easy. It feels good when you’re doing it. If feels good when you’ve done it. It’s kind of like sex without consequences. But keeping up the calorie count – is there ever a time when it feels good when you’re doing it?

There are recipes that can make you think the calorie counting feels good because it tastes good, but the fretting is only rewarded on the scale in the morning. When it’s still dark at 5:30 in the morning, it’s hard to see those numbers at all, and the aroma wafting from that calorie-laden bowl of peanut-butter oatmeal wraps around me like a hug – softly strangling my willpower.

Signs of Spring

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We’re still getting the nightly dusting of snow, but it melts quickly these days.  White predominates in our yard, but the crocuses have begun to emerge from the ground.  And even as the cold is slow to relinquish its hegemony, it can’t prevent the longer days and, the return of the roadside egg stand as our neighbors chickens begin to produce again.

 

Tis the Season

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We’re well into the first full week of spring and snow still covers our yard.  It’s almost time to plant peas, and my garden is a slushy mess.  The fact that Vermont’s gardening season commenced at least a week or three behind the calendars in every gardening book (even one or two written by Vermonters) once caused me consternation.   By March, I’m ready to get out of the house and start digging.  

A decade of digging later, however, I’ve learned to relax about this thing I absolutely can’t control.  My springtime serenity stems from two sources.  The first comes from observing the long-term effects of that saturating late winter snow pac.  Soggy in spring but still moist enough to prevent the need for watering well into summer, I’ve come to trust that Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.  The other source of my calm comes from discovering a spring signal far more reliable (and delicious) than a date circled on my calendar. 

The sap buckets start appearing in late January.  The large maple syrup operations set long blue tap lines that run from tree to tree and then into huge covered containers, but there are still plenty of do-it-yourselfer’s and small operators who use the old-fashioned taps and buckets that are symbolic of the season.  

We made maple syrup a few years in a row.  Our buckets were recycled milk jugs.  We collected sap for days and made exactly one gallon (you need 32 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup) on our old wood stove.  Our old house was drafty enough that we didn’t mind turning our kitchen into a sauna for a few days, and it was the best maple syrup we ever tasted.  

We buy our syrup now, and, even though it’s available at even the smallest producers through most of the year, picking up a gallon or two at the end of March has become as much a ritual as taking Thing2 to see Santa at the town Christmas party or planting my peas in soggy spring soil.

The steam started pouring from the sugar houses in late winter.  Even now, the nighttime temperatures are still mostly in the freezing range even as the days get warmer, and the sap still flows.  Last weekend, the first weekend in spring, the sugar houses opened their doors to tasters and tours, but it was just a date on the calendar.  For me, it won’t be until the sap slows that spring will really begin.  It’s when the sap buckets along our road come down.

 It doesn’t make the spring season any less welcome, but it does make it a little bittersweet.

 

Snow Days

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Christmas comes several time each year at our house.  We call those extra Christmas days snow days.  They’re the only other winter days that see both boys out of bed before dawn as they race to the internet to check school closing, waiting to see if the Snow Fairy has brought them candy or coal.

Thing2 got candy last night.  It was most likely due to a wind-related power outage than the snowfall we got last night that barely qualifies as a dusting by Vermont standards.  Thing1 got a lump of coal.

Normally I require hard core proof of illness for either imp to stay home.  More snow may be on the way, however that could cause an early closure.  Tonight’s homework is also already done. So, instead of giving Thing1 his morning marching orders, I toss his coal into the roaring wood stove and order him to stand down.  

I have the day off, and with both boys home, it’s more than an impromptu weekend.  It really is a holiday.

A Little Christmas

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Mother nature cornered the irony market this morning.  A few weeks before the official start of spring, she decided to send us a blanket a snow.  A March snow in Vermont is expected, but this winter has been marked primarily by grey days and an extended mud season.  That combination has been no help in lifting me out of a persistent funk.

So when I woke up this morning and saw bleak gray sky through the sliver opening in the curtains, I was ready for more of the same. Then I got up and peeked through the curtain and my breath stopped.

It was still snowing.  There wasn’t much of it, but it was already one of the best snows all year.  It was sugar powder perfect, and the wind hadn’t yet stripped the trees of their raiments.  The voice in my head that controls worry started whispering then.  

“The roads will be terrible.  It’ll be a snow day for sure,” she said.  That got me breathing again as I remembered I needed to check school closings.  I was already seeing a morning of work interspersed with refereeing, but when I checked, only the older child’s school was even delayed.  Knowing he had homework to occupy him while I worked, and knowing there would be no fights over remotes or electronica, I decided this really was the best snow of the year.

There was just enough to camouflage the mud.  There was too little to cancel school, and somewhere in the back of my brain, I was pretty sure I could hear another voice humming opening bars of ‘We Need a Little Christmas.’

Two Makes Chrysalis

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Lately, the company I work for has had the lucky misfortune of having too much business.  For the Tech Support staff, this has meant confining ourselves to our computers almost from dawn till dusk.  Our computers are all at our homes, but the long days, coupled with winter weather and roads have helped spin a thick cocoon around our earth-sheltered house.  I am not naturally extroverted, so retreating behind a protective shell of snow and work has been quite comfortable.  It was only when I responded to an invitation from another confined friend that I realized that my insular shell was missing something.  

I am ashamed to say, that in the months since knee surgery has confined my friend, I have only been to visit at the beginning to bring flowers picked by our youngest son.  When the phone rang last week, I answered with a mix of happiness and guilt.  By the time I hung up, guilt was mostly gone and I was looking forward to a date on Friday afternoon after work.

Friday morning was another grey winter work day, and I was really excited to go have talk and tea at the end of it.  A light snow had just begun to form a blanket over the roads and mountains when I headed down the road to my friend’s house.  For a brief moment, I had to quell my natural instinct to return to my cocoon.  A flare of guilt kept my car moving forward, however, and I would be glad it did.

My friend and I were once in a writing group together, and grew quite close at the time.  We may not see each other for months except passing on the road or at the country store, but there is rarely any uncomfortable silence when we get back together.  Friday was no exception.  

I let myself in through the mudroom door and, after hugs, we remarked on the changes in each other’s hair and physiques before retreating back to my friend’s cozy bedroom behind the kitchen for a huddle.  I took a quick look at my clock – 4ish it was – knowing I had to leave by 5 to get to the grocery store before dark and settled into a comfy chair.

The kettle on the wood stove hummed every now, serenading us as we talked of doctors and cats and neighbors’s recent departures and returns.  Through the window, I could see the now-heavier snow that only seemed to insulate us more as we talked of writing and iPads and husbands.  

I had not written a word all day – a late Thursday night and early start at work had put the kibosh on creative expression for 48 hours.  I knew the weekend schedule would not allow for much writing or drawing, but by the time I stood up from my chair and made a plan to visit again next week, I felt my soul had been fed.  And the feeding of it guaranteed that when the time permitted, the work I want to do will happen and happily.

It was mostly dark and well after 6pm when I stepped out into the wet snow.  There was a snowy trip to the grocery store ahead before I returned to my cave.  Dark, snowy drives usually fill me with trepidation.  This one, however, was a few minutes more of quiet, and I used it to relish the enlightenment I had found in the fellowship my friend and I had reformed.  

Now, back in my cocoon, it’s warm and safe, as always.  But I will not wait months again before I return to the chrysalis where ideas and friendship grow.