Thursday, December 26, 2013

Tears and homesickness on Christmas

This Christmas, I spent a lot of time crying. I don't usually do this, but this year, it hit me hard that every single member of my blood family lives thousands of miles away, and has done so for 21 years. I myself made the choice to leave my German home to find grander adventures in America, and boy, I did. I have built a beautiful life and have packed several life times into one, it seems. When people have asked me over the years if I miss my family, I have always shrugged and said, “I guess. But I have a lot of friends and a 'family of choice' here in America, and that's even better than blood family.” I have whole heartedly believed this – until now.

I miss my sisters and their children, and my mother, who spent several days in the hospital last week without me even knowing it. My mother gave birth to four daughters in six years (bless her heart), and so we are all very close in age. Between my three sisters, they have six children, and some of them, I don't know at all. That breaks my heart, because I know I would be an amazing auntie to them. These nieces and nephews would love their crazy aunt from America.

I miss my father, whom I was estranged from for many years. The one and only time he visited me we spent hours talking and connecting, and thus mended our strained relationship.
The other day, I talked to my mother on the phone, and she mentioned that she slipped on ice and broke her wrist. I felt so sad that I couldn't be there for her, visiting her in the hospital or helping her recover afterwards.

Then I called my sister Pepe, who is one year younger than me and used to be my twin. We hadn't talked in a year. I completely broke down sobbing when I told her that I miss them. She told me that she always feels really connected to me, no matter if we talk or see each other, and that she religiously reads my blog. I didn't know that, although I did start this blog so my family in Germany could partake in our lives here. That made me cry even harder.
When I called my youngest sister Belli, she had to sniffel back tears as well.  We both know how great it would be to commiserate at the end of the day, after all our kids are finally in bed, to drink a nice glass of wine and cry about how hard it is to raise three children, but also how wondrous and joyful.

A ticket to Germany for two adults and our three children costs $7,500. Seven thousand five hundred dollars.  That's 5500 Euros.  I could buy a car with that, which I actually need to do, since mine is beaten up and has lots of miles on it. I would buy a ticket to Germany tomorrow if I had a spare several thousand dollars lying around.
So there, I said it. I miss you, my German family. For the past weeks, I have dreamed about you and my home town every single night. I love you all. Put that in your google translator thingy.

We hiked in the Alps all the time.  Here is us four girls with my mother.
This is us four girls with our father.  The yellow sign is for the name of a town called "Laughter".
Apart from me crying on and off throughout the Christmas holidays, we had a lovely time.  We managed to pull off Christmas without tears (apart from mine), and it actually felt quiet and holy.
I don't know about you, but I feel like Christmas has a lot of weirdness attached to it. And I'm not even talking about the crazy commercialization of this holiday. I'm talking about all the expectations of having to make Christmas special for everyone, when, in fact, it can be quite challenging to live up to the “ideal” of Christmas, or to host a group of people called family under one roof for more than one night.

Christmas is magical for most kids, and that's how it should be.  But for us adults, it's often stressful to get our houses ready for visitors, or travel to visit family, or buy the perfect presents, bake christmas cookies, find and decorate the perfect tree, deal with our childhood memories around Christmas if this wasn't a happy time...

Oh boy, now I've done it.  I managed to turn this blog post into a depressing monologue.  (Excuse me, I have to find a handkerchief to sob into).

Okay.  I'm back (sniff).  The moral of this story?  What I really mean to say...
I don't know.

I do know that love is a strange thing.  It grabs us at inconvenient times.  I mean, this homesickness could have waited til summer, when I could have cried into the fragrant soil while digging in my vegetable garden, feeling virtuous, instead of in this dark time when I want to hide behind the refrigerator and eat chocolate.
Love is incomprehensible.  It remembers, even if we don't.  And I like knowing that my blood family cares and misses me, too, even though I didn't think they do.

Wanna start collecting money for a plane ticket?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Merry (snowy!!!) Christmas - may your chocolate hold out

Snow came to the Upper Valley, just in time for Christmas. The white stuff makes everything extremely beautiful, but also more difficult. We live almost a mile off an un-maintained gravel forest service road. When we get snowed in, we either are stuck in our white paradise, or our little neighborhood has to pay someone with heavy equipment to plough the road. Sometimes, the snow is too heavy even for bulldozers. When I know there is snow in the forecast, I make sure I stock up on chocolate. Our freezers are full of home grown meat and vegetables, and the pantry is stocked with home canned food.
Roads are up here can be treacherous after snow. The other day, I drove down valley for Christmas shopping. The trip usually takes me one and quarter hours (one way), but since I had to drive 30 miles an hour on the icy roads, it took me two and a half just to get down there. My shoulders spasmed after I was done at the end of the day from gripping the steering wheel so hard.

Animal chores are easier in many ways now that I don't have to milk goats twice a day or hike out to the pasture to feed the pigs. But the snow and cold weather make things harder: buckets of warm water have to be hauled out to the goat shed and duck tractor, because the water in the standpipe is frozen.
The ducks don't get slowed down by the snow. They keep happily waddling around the yard, companionably visiting with the neighbor ducks across the fence, burying their bills in the snow to search for treats.
The chickens, though? They are grumpy, because they don't like to get their feet wet in the cold stuff. When I collected eggs this morning, one of the chickens refused to move off the nesting box. I had to wiggle my hand underneath her feathered butt to gather the warm eggs, while the hen gave me dirty looks as if to say, “C'mon, lady, can I have some privacy here?”

You know how sane people like to be warm in this weather, inside of houses and in front of wood stoves and such? Well, not my husband and sons. They decided to have a boys-only adventure with the canoe on the Skagit River, just as the snow storm moved in. The day they left, Eva and I went for a walk in the rare sunshine, and I worried about my guys being cold out there. Eva and I couldn't wait to get back inside after an hour to warm our freezing hands and noses. That night, it started snowing. I fretted about my adventurers, freezing in their tent. At least snow insulates, I thought. When I picked them up at the boat launch the next morning, I found out they hadn't even used their tent! No, no, tents are for wimps. They had built a lean-to shelter out of twigs, branches and evergreen boughs. Their fire, started with a bow drill friction technique, kept them from freezing. They loved every minute of it. I just rolled my eyes and listened to their stories.
But, really?  I am proud of them.  I am so happy that Steve gives our boys this opportunity of learning how to be resourceful and how to live in tune with nature, even if conditions aren't ideal.  We both recognize that many boys in our society don't get their innate needs met.  I think that deep down in their bones, men and boys yearn for these types of adventures and struggles to prove themselves, to somehow get initiated into manhood by ancient rituals, that these types of experiences lay dormant in their cellular memories.  
I am happy that Steve is giving these opportunities to my young sons, because frankly, I'm not as burly as they are.  I take them on backpacking trips into the wilderness, or kick-ass bike rides up mountain passes, but I do like my comfort, like warmth at night, food in my belly, and preferably 85% chocolate at my beck and call.

One more thing:  Last week, a woman came to our homestead to interview us for the North Cascades Institute.  She wrote a beautiful article about life in the Upper Skagit, and we were highlighted as a family.  It's a great story with sweet pictures, and you can read it HERE.

Merry Christmas, and may your holidays filled with lots of love, light and laughter!

Sunset at the Skagit River before it snowed
Sunrise at our house the other day

Thursday, December 19, 2013

How to render lard - a picture tutorial

Remember our three piggies?  They turned into over 700 pounds HANGING weight meat, which is now waiting in our and the neighbors' freezers to be transformed into delicious meals.  I baked bread yesterday, fried up some bacon, and served it with home made pickles, sauerkraut and my own cheddar goat cheese.  A little glass of good red wine, and we were in heaven.

We also ended up with seven pounds of pig blubber (that's from ONE pig).  I decided to try my hand at rendering lard, which sounds complicated but is pretty easy if you have a crock pot.

Lard is amazing.  Compared to olive oil, lard is a close second in the monounsaturated fat department.  The main fat in lard (oleic acid) is a fatty acid associated with decreased risk of depression and heart disease, as well as anti-cancer benefits.  Lard is packed with Vitamin D, which people are extremely deficient in here in the cloudy Pacific Northwest.  Lard decreases LDLs, thus lowering "bad" cholesterol.  Its smoke point is high, making it perfect for frying and baking super flaky pie crusts. Bring it on!

Here is how you render lard:

First, take the pig fat out of the freezer and cut it in small pieces.  You can also grind it if you have a meat grinder.  If we had cut the pieces smaller, we would have ended up with a little more lard, and with a little drier cracklings.

Yes, I was a little bit grossed out handling this piggie blubber.

We cut up six pounds of fat and froze the rest.  That's all our crock pot could hold.  Six pounds took eight hours to render and yielded almost three quarts of lard.

Then we added 1/2 cup of water in the bottom of the crock pot, which helps prevent the fat from burning in the first stage of heating.  It will all evaporate eventually.

I turned my crock pot on high for the first hour, with the top on, watching the whole operation very closely, stirring frequently.  You don't want the lard to burn, otherwise it will look brown and taste bad.

Just keep an eye on it, stir it every now and then, and turn your crockpot on low if it gets too hot.  It really depends on the type of crock pot you have.  Of course, you could also do this on the stove top, but I would be worried about it burning that way.
The fat pieces will slowly start to melt and look a little bit gross unappetizing.

Six pounds of fat in the crock pot.
Not very pretty, right?
After a while, when there is enough liquid fat in the pot, strain it off.  I used a colander with cheese cloth over it, so any small pieces of meat would be caught in the cheese cloth.  I just spooned the liquid stuff in the colander with a ladle, then transferred the liquid into mason jars.  At first, the lard looks like amber, but when it cools, it turns white.

Towards the end, things will be cooked down pretty good.  When all or most of the fat is gone, you can take the pieces of leftovers, called cracklings, and put them in a 375 degree oven for half an hour, stirring it half way through.  This is delicious stuff that you can snack on, put on salads or green beens, or use it to teach your dog tricks.

You now have beautiful, hopefully snow white lard to cook and bake with!
Some people make laundry soap with it.  But I really don't want to waste my precious lard on laundry soap!

In the background, you see the lard at different stages of cooling.  Cracklings tempt in the fore ground.

If you like this tutorial, you should subscribe to my blog and newsletter for more inspiration and learning. If you do this, you will also get my free e-book “Three Essential Tutorials for Homesteaders and Urbanites”!

Friday, December 13, 2013

What I love

I want to tell you about my dear, dear friend Andrea, who is a gorgeous woman, a poet, an archaeologist, and the mother of Vija, my little daughter Eva's best friend (We call the two girls 'Viva', because their names are so similar).  You've met Vija before in my photos - the little blond elf who walks hand in hand through the woods with Eva.
Andrea and I have been through a lot together: illnesses, pregnancies, breakthroughs, and the hormonal, sleep-deprived, blissful and terrifying state of caring for newborns.  We live within five miles of each other, which is a miracle: to have a best friend in this vast wilderness of ours seems, indeed, like a lucky strike of fate.
Andrea is generous, gentle and kind, yet one of the biggest badasses I've met: she competes in triathlons, and even after crashing her bicycle in one, she still insisted on running 3 miles to finish the race.  Afterwards, she went to the ER to get stitches.

Why do you need to know about Andrea?  Because she just published her second book of poetry, called "Thunder Blossom - Wildnerness Can Heal", and I want you all to go check it out, and better yet, buy a copy (or two) for yourself or someone else for Christmas.

Wait, wait!  You don't like poetry, you say?  If you like nature, you will like her poetry.
Her first book of poetry is called "River Bed", also available for sale here.

For all you locals:  Andrea will do a reading at the Conway Muse, December 21, from 6pm to 7pm.  Here is more info:

"Free Music and Poetry Event. I will unveil and read from my new book, Thunder Blossom, and a few favorites from River Bed while Peter Ali accentuates the reading with Native American flute. From the heart of the wilderness to the wilderness of the heart, we will take you on an unforgettable journey. Copies of both books of poetry, showcasing beautiful cover art by Don Smith, and recordings of Peter Ali will be offered for sale at the reading. You can make reservations for dinner at the Conway Muse. We would love to see you there!"

If you are in Oregon, she will read from her books in downtown Corvallis on February 15 at 2pm at the Grass Roots Bookstore.

Please consider supporting her!  Here are a few of her poems to wet your appetite:

Glacier Country

Sunrise glows over mountain's back
like a shallow dream.
There is no name for this color.
Not yellow.  Not gold.
Awakening.  A raw energy pulsing forward
with sleepy feet -
that is daybreak.

(from "Riverbed")


In the spring,
I find a flat rock with a good disposition.
I speak to it with my fingers.
I lie down on it.

The sun warms my winter skin
and I listen to the river
sing of creation.

(from "Riverbed)

Dreaming With You

I slept in a car at Trimble Hot Springs—
I didn’t have money for a room.

We had spent the day sitting close together—
breathing each other, and the world, and the poems I read.

You were so sharp, for a woman whose memory had flown.
Alzheimer’s is a tricky business—it sneaks
in to the shadow places
of your mind.

That night I dreamt that you came into my body—
reveled in the young feeling of my flesh and bone.
“God, this is wonderful,” you said. You laughed.
I thought, this is strange,
but I gladly gave you what I had.

I woke to a knock on the door.
A cop with a flashlight, trying to see through
fog of my breath on the windows.

I wondered how I had slept so soundly
that I didn’t hear the car approach.
You leapt from me like a panther.

I told a drowsy story
about a friend I was waiting for - a lie.
I had nowhere else to go that night.

He finally left me, but so did you.
Something remained, though,
we grew into each other—
Like a rock and a tree.

(From "Thunderblossom - Wilderness Can Heal")

Fall walked in

A leaf in my kitchen,
brown and tattered,
paper thin.

I wanted most
for summer to linger,
but she broke off our kiss.
She dismissed me
and walked the globe.

And fall walked in
rich in all attributes
Her path strewn
with leaves of all colors.  

(From "Thunderblossom - Wilderness Can Heal")

Life Givers

Here I give my daily breath.
I send it high, high up
into the laughter of the trees.
Yes, I know who you are, life givers.

Here is my small part—
I exhale.
I give it all up in a quiet way.

You inhale,
waving blessings in the wind.

So grateful,
I take the deep, deep breath
you made for me.

This is our secret partnership
that sustains the world.

(From "Thunderblossom - Wilderness Can Heal")


Monday, December 9, 2013

Our vacation in Mexico. Without kids. I'm not kidding.

I have to tell you something. Promise you won't be jealous, but very happy for us burnt out, vitamin D deprived parents of three.
Last week, Steve and I vacationed in San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico. Steve's parents took care of the kids back home (Thank you again!). We stayed at a very, very fancy hotel, courtesy of Steve's brother, who let us use his time share at the “Grand Mayan”. It is magnificent, opulent, filled with very wealthy people. We would/could never stay at a place like this, and I kept profusely thanking the Mexicans who lugged our suitcases, cleaned our toilets, folded our towels into swans, or served us food. I felt like constantly apologizing to them.
Boy, was it nice, though... Several pools overlooking the ocean, palm trees, statues, waterfalls, luxurious rooms, flower petals strewn on the bed, sunshine, whales, tropical fish, warm ocean water...

The view from our room.

Here are some highlights:

At the most Southern tip of Baja California, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez, there is a famous arch, aptly called "The Arch".  One of my favorite beaches can be found there, reachable either by water taxi or a long walk along the coastline at low tide.  It's called Lover's beach.  Our whale watching tour guide said this is because at high tide, the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez meet and embrace each other.  I think it's called Lover's Beach because there are so many nooks and crannies to hide, so lovers can have some privacy.  But that's just me and my twisted mind.  Semantics don't matter.  What matters is that it is breathtakingly gorgeous. The final scene of "Planet of the Apes" was filmed there.

Walking to Lover's Beach.

The famous Arch.
Running and playing in the waves on the Pacific Coast side.

Not so good:
Steve ordered dinner one night, and upon being asked how spicy he wanted his food, he replied, “un poco spicy”. When he put the first bite into his mouth, his eyes started watering, and he began to moan. Being the tough Gringo he is, he didn't want to lose face with the Mexicans, so he forced the meal down.
The next day, we had to keep finding toilets, since he had bad diarrhea. On the way through the desert, another bout came on, and Steve had to pull our rental car onto a dirt road, squatting in the sand. Although I did feel terrible for him, I was very tempted to take a picture of him hiding behind a cactus. He kept getting stabbed by cactus as he was trying to support himself.
Later that day, the horrible noises coming out of the shower were magnified by the tile walls of the shower, as he threw up violently for a few minutes.
Lesson learned? I hope so. Never order food “a little spicy” when you eat in Mexico.

The little town of Todos Santos, where Steve kept having to find various bathrooms.

Humpback whales are starting to migrate this time of the year. We participated in a whale watching tour – twice. The first time, the ocean was very choppy, so we had to turn around after not spotting any whales, while our insides kept turning over when the boat slapped down hard on the water. The next day, we were allowed to come again for free. And did we see whales! It was magical to see them slowly surface, blow water vapor out of their blow holes, and arch their tails in the air. They are huge!

Not so good:
After running a couple of miles on the beach, we encountered two dogs, who immediately adopted us. Accompanied by our new canine friends, we walked back through an estuary filled with pelicans, egrets and water fowl. The dogs delighted in chasing the birds and swam out to the middle of the pond. The fat black labrador retriever non chalantly grabbed a duck and swam back to us. While I yelled hysterically for Steve to rescue the poor bird, the black lab proudly presented his prey to us, still in his mouth. Steve yelled at the dog to let the bird go, and although I am pretty certain the dog didn't understand English, he gently dropped the bird in front of Steve's feet. The duck sauntered off confused and swam away. The dog looked hurt because Steve had yelled at him.

Our favorite restaurant to each breakfast in.  Can you see why?
Good, and maybe not so good:
At a beach famous for its waves, Steve attempted to teach me bodysurfing. Instead, I swallowed a lot of salt water, got my nostrils and bikini bottom filled with sand, and received several cases of sand burn. In other words, I got tossed around the waves like plastic water bottle – and loved every minute of it!

The big fat elephant seal who likes to catch a ride on the boat.

Not so good:
Steve and I decided we did not want to pay $15 for a drink, so we went to the local grocery store and bought a bottle of rum and juice, so we could mix our own cheap(er) drinks. Steve carried our groceries through the fancy lobby in a plastic bag, cracking a joke about us being such hicks. Just then, a loud explosion made us jump in the air, followed by the smell of rum. Our bottle had fallen through the plastic bag onto the beautiful marble floor of the hotel. Ten Mexicans scurried to the scene, mopping and cleaning things up, as Steve and I stood by red eared, apologizing and wincing. Can you picture it?

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