Mother’s Day

I used to feel like I was the only woman who was suffering, on Mother’s Day. For a decade, I sat in a series of pews in churches across the country, surrounded by strangers. I remember them all. I dreaded the moment when they asked the women who were mothers to rise for a blessing and a single stemmed rose. What to do, as a single and apparently childless woman? Should I sit or should I stand? As a birth mother, both choices felt like a wound.

I am married with four more children now. I am older and wiser, I hope. One thing that I have learned is that of course I am not the only one who has suffered. So many of the women in the pews whose judgement I feared in my own grief and awkwardness and confusion and shame are suffering too. On Mother’s Day, women are mourning. Women are bearing the grief of infertility, broken relationships, abortion, stillborn children, grown sons and daughters lost in the opioid epidemic, or in the war that rages on the other side of the world and never seems to end.

We are offered flowers, cards, candy. We are given images of motherhood so idealized they bear no relation to our own lives. In fact, they offer insult to injury, taunting us with images of plastic perfection.

This is not the way this day began.

Mother’s Day was founded by Anna Jarvis, the ninth daughter of Ann Jarvis. Anna wanted to honor her mother, who gave birth to eleven children. Only four of them survived to adulthood. Seven of her babies died as infants, lost to measles, diptheria, and typhoid disease.

Ann Jarvis was a woman of deep faith and dynamic action. She was a force to be reckoned with. When she was pregnant with her sixth child, she founded the Mothers’ Day Work Club to bring women together to improve public health and reduce disease and infant mortality. The clubs raised money to support buy medicine, to hire helpers to work in households where mothers were suffering from tuburculosis and other health problems. They visited women in their homes to educate mothers about how to improve sanitation and health. 

When the Civil War broke out, Ann Jarvis insisted that the Mothers Day Clubs remain neutral. The members of her Clubs fed, clothed, and cared for sick soldiers, Confederate and Union alike. When the War ended, she brought together soldiers from both sides and their families for a “Mothers Friendship Day”. She spoke to those gathered about unity, and reconciliation. They prayed together, they ate together, they sang together, and they cried together.

What an inspiration, and a challenge.

We cannot erase the crass commercialization of Mothers Day- but can we strive to become more like the woman who inspired it? My hope is that instead of suffering alone, we can reach out to each other to support each other in our grief, to strengthen each other, and to improve the health of our families, our communities, and to change the world.

Flightless Birds

By Kate

We are in the midst of a February thaw. The backyard is a sea of mud and ice. This morning, four geese flew fast and low, soaring above the sugar maple. I wondered if they knew which direction they were going. I imagine it’s a confusing week for a goose. A few days ago the world was subzero, frozen solid in an arctic chill, and now a false spring has awoken birdsong and melted the ice into the aforementioned, ever present mud and muck.

Beneath a slate grey sky, my children process through the mud with a blue umbrella and climb upon our chicken coop which stands six feet high, chickenless, strewn about with lumber and fencing. It will be finished this spring, my husband says.

I grew up in the country and I live and raise my children in the city. I never imagined I would do this. When I was growing up and visited towns I pondered how it must feel to grow up hemmed in on every side by concrete and structures and people everywhere. I never really felt I could breathe until we hit city limits on the way out of town. At home, on the roof of our barn, I felt like I could fly.

My mother grew up on a farm in Iowa where the green soybean fields of the former prairie roll out to an infinite horizon. She climbed high into the rafters of the barn and the cottonwood tree. She married my father and they settled on a small farm on a ridge in Wisconsin and she wanted to raise children who were free, and she did, nine of them.

I live on a high ridge in the heart of a city. From our front porch you catch a glimpse of skyscrapers through the trees. Helicopters soar to the hospital on the hill above our home. I am trying to raise children in the city who feel rooted in the land and also free. I do not know how to do this. I do think that having chickens helps.

In Pittsburgh, if you have a bit of a backyard, you can have five chickens or two mini goats. You can have a beehive.  I am so grateful for that fact. The idea that you can live in the city but have your kids doing farm chores warms my heart. We used to have chickens, five of them, and hearing them clucking and scratching in the backyard and hauling hay in the back of the van felt like home. We had a small, stylish, well built coop. Unfortunately, the size of the coop made me feel sorry for the birds, who were trapped in such a small space, not free range at all, definitely caged in and totally miserable. This is where things went wrong.

I felt sorry for my caged birds, and so I set them free. Sadly, I neglected to actually fence the backyard. I optimistically figured the hedge would contain them, which it did, briefly, but soon they had figured out how to squeeze through it and out into the alley, out onto the city streets. “A chicken is wandering Fisk Street!” I read on a neighborhood email, while deeply immersed in writing projects inside my home. My heart dropped, and I raced out to search for my chicken. This happened more times than I would like to admit.

The cold sweat, heart pounding, public humiliation of searching for escaped livestock was actually a familiar one, for the farm I grew up on was somewhat short of fencing, and what fencing there was tended to be rather creative in nature. The children were free, and more often than not the pigs were too. A full grown pig is 7 feet long and weighs 700 lbs and can run surprisingly quickly. Pig chasing was the closest I got to athletics during my bookish childhood.

When my chickens weren’t wandering the city streets, they were roosting on the back porch. They stared balefully through the window at me. Their soft clucks took on a sinister tone. One day, a chicken strolled into kitchen. Right about then, my husband decided it was time to take a break from raising chickens. Send them to your friend on the farm, he said. I’ll build you a real coop, with a fence.

That was three years ago. We hope to finish the fence and get chickens this spring. The new coop has risen slowly, but it is sturdy and solid, strong enough for my children to climb upon the roof and gaze down the ridge, over the valley, across the river. Strong enough to feel like they could fly.

French Madeleines

By Mary

As everyone in America is well aware, we’ve been experiencing some extreme, record breaking cold weather in Wisconsin. It’s difficult, it’s gloomy, and yes it has been very cold. For the last week, we’ve been perpetually hunkered down and focused on staying warm, keeping the wood fire going, keeping the baby happy, and the animals well fed, warm, and safe in the barn as we head into lambing season.

What a surprise it was to me on Monday morning when I heard a loud pounding on my door. Now, I’m the last home on a dead end road, so unannounced visitors are few. I opened the door to find a poor postal service employee with a package in his hand. He asked me how I was. I replied “Much better than you!” He agreed, as he informed me he’d already been stuck in the ditch once that morning. I signed for the package as hurriedly as I could so he could scurry back to his warm vehicle. Coming back into the house, I wondered who could possibly be sending me a box.

The box was from my dear friend Havilah who grew up homeschooling with me here in Wisconsin and is now the co-owner of the wildly successful Blue Fox tour company in Paris, France. This box made my day, or quite truthfully, my week. In the depths of this 20 below cold snap, I was given warmth and cheer. If any of you recall the famous Christmas barrel (and turkey!) that came in May to the Wilder family during The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you can imagine how I felt. This package was just as delightful to receive.

Upon opening the box I discovered it was full of French chocolates and a recipe to make madeleines, as well as a madeleine baking tray. This week there has been so much chocolate consumption in my home, and I’ve been churning out madeleines for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

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Many thanks to Havilah for her delightful and timely gift. As this season of cold continues, I encourage all of you to lighten your spirits. May we all find joy in the simplicity of friendship and food.

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French Madeleines

You will need:

1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter

2 tsp vanilla extract

1 ½ tsp lemon zest, finely grated

1 cup all purpose flour

1 ½ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

3 large eggs, at room temperature

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup confectioners sugar, sifted

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To begin:

  1. Cut the butter into tablespoons and place in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, reduce heat to low and continue cooking, until the solids sink to the bottom of the pan and turn golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and pour the browned butter into a small cup.
  2. Stir the vanilla and lemon zest into the butter, then set aside to cool
  3. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside till needed.
  4. In a different bowl, beat the eggs at medium speed while gradually adding the sugar. Once all of the sugar has been added, increase the speed to medium high and continue whipping the mixture until it’s very thick and pale in color, about 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the mixture off and, using a spatula, fold in the flour mixture in 3 additions, stirring just until combined. Fold in the butter mixture.
  5. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, up to 2 days.
  6. 30 minutes before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Generously brush the molds of your madeleine pan with butter, then lightly dust with flour.
  7. Spoon level scoops of the batter into the center of each mold. You don’t need to spread the batter.
  8. Bake for 12 minutes, or until their little “bellies” have risen and they’re golden brown.
  9. Cool madeleines in the pan placed on the cooling rack for a minute or two, then gently remove them from molds.
  10. Dust with confectioners sugar and serve with coffee or tea.

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Music in Ordinary Time

By Kate

We are headed into the depths of winter. I will not say the heart, because the glowing heart of winter, the warmth and the beauty and the wonder of it, all are wrapped up in the Christmas season which has recently come to an end, stranding us in Ordinary Time.

This past week has brought us long soaking dreary rains topped with a dusting of slippery snow and a bone chilling arctic blast of cold. This season stretches on, veiled with the dust of dried road salt, a thin harsh grime that covers streets and cars with a corrosive film that eats away at metal and hope. There is ice upon mud. There is mud upon my kitchen floor.

This is the perfect time of year for a house concert.

A house concert brings beauty, conviviality, and magic back into the cold and lonesome stretch of late winter. Hosting a house concert is a fantastic reason to hang the Christmas lights back up, mop the floors clean, bring in some fresh flowers, and pull all the furniture against the walls to open up your home, eat good cheese and drink fine wine and listen to beautiful music in fancy clothing, OR in farm boots and a cut off t shirt if you’d like.

One of the best things about house concerts is that you can make your own rules. For example, babes in arms and/or lap dogs welcome.

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We hosted a house concert a week ago to celebrate a visit from my youngest sister, Clare and to work on the avant-garde Wild West material we will soon be recording and performing at several upcoming house concerts, on a tour to the Blue Ridge mountains.

With Clare’s help, we swept and scrubbed the house, pulled apart the couch, closed the pocket doors, and set up the living room for a house concert. We cut boughs of evergreen from the bushes in the garden and put them on the mantle and the kitchen windowsill. We pulled out the antique candlesticks and hung up twinkling Christmas lights.

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We invited over a dozen friends, asked them to bring a bottle of wine. I baked several loaves of crusty bread, set out cheese and olives and dip.

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In a fortuitous twist, Clare arrived bearing inherited treasures from a past and fantastically stylish generation- fringed sweaters and earrings which we decided were the perfect wardrobe for a house concert on a wintry night.

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A house concert in late winter is a wonderful experience. As a musician, host, and guest of many of these occasions, I can’t recommend them enough. Although the details may change (lemonade and cookies or a potluck instead of wine and cheese, afternoon or evening setting, formal or informal attire) the heart of the experience is a joyful celebration.

So much of life takes place in Ordinary Time. Why not make it more musical? A house concert is a wonderful way to create beauty, to cultivate wonder, to nourish the soul with art, and to gather together joyfully in the dreary depths of winter.

 

 

Why We are Homeschooling

I am gazing up at a falcon perched in the boughs of a maple tree as I write this, and light is pouring in. My daughter is playing our old upright piano. This sounds idyllic, and it is, especially to me, because in the past all of the writing I did at the computer took place in a dark corner of my home, where a blank brick wall loomed above my dusty desk piled high with discarded papers of dubious importance. We have been contemplating important things, lately, and moving things around to let the light in.

We began homeschooling this week. Our oldest child has been attending a local parish school for three and a half years now, and our second started kindergarten this year. This has worked for us in many ways, carving out space in the day where I could teach a few hours a week, rehearse and write and spend time with the littlest ones and hang laundry on the line and attempt to sort it once I took it down. To be honest, my favorite part of sending the kids to school was the mile long walk up a steep hill pulling a wagon, with a baby strapped to me, and back home through the vibrant streets of an Italian neighborhood. That is, my favorite part of school was engaging in the outside world of nature and society with my children, learning along the way.

My husband is a teacher. Educating children is a topic we’ve spent a great deal of time thinking and talking about. Over the years we have been drawn more and more to the idea of home schooling, but we planned to wait till the children were older, till the house was cleaner, till I was more organized and could actually be counted upon to sort the laundry gathered from the line. I couldn’t imagine creating a life orderly enough to educate my children. Granted, many of my conceptions of home schooling are drawn from my own life, when my mother (also a teacher) decided to begin homeschooling four school aged children simultaneously and somewhat abruptly, with a baby and a toddler running about beneath our pounding feet. I was 13, and spent that year secluded in the attic, above the chaos, nose buried in a book. I read most of Shakespeare but that was about as far as my formal education got that year, but I still can’t do long division.

In the past year, I slowly began to realize that home schooling has changed a great deal since I was a student. We have been travelling as musicians, and one of the greatest gifts of doing this has been spending time with other families who generously offer to host us in their home and often host house concerts as well. Every single one of these families has been a home schooling family. Every single one of these families have been an inspiration to me. At the last place we stayed, our host asked us “Why in the world DON’T you home school?”

The question stayed with me. I began to look around. There are amazing curriculum options, structures, and communities created to support parents as teachers. A new hybrid home school project began here in Pittsburgh this year, complete with a classical curriculum, simple uniforms, and two days a week in school with talented teachers and an incredibly spirited gym class. We visited, and my children fell in love with the place.

In the meantime, a kind and gracious friend of mine, a homeschooling mother who could give Marie Kondo a run for her money, offered to come by and help re-order my home. I gladly accepted. She arrived, and sweetly, softly suggested that we move the antique upright piano- which weighs 800 lbs.

It wasn’t easy, to say the least, but it was exciting. My sister was here, so we had two farm girls and one diminutive graceful woman with an unbelievable amount of vision and determination. At one point there was an brief and necessary prayer session. In the end the piano shifted, the bookshelves came together, and the light poured in.

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In the past few years we have been striving to live the life that we are called to live, in this present moment, to form the future. We are making music. We are striving for harmony. We are building a library from the discarded books of a school system and culture that is being dismantled. We cannot change the fate of the whole world though our daily life, but we can change the lives of our children, who will go out into that great world. We can let the light pour into our home and let it illuminate their lives, and that is why we are homeschooling.

 

 

The Golden Chain

I am holding a thin golden chain.

We are musicians but lately we have been working on creating jewelry inspired by the lines of the harp I play. Today, the project is a necklace. The chain I am holding is a delicate cable chain, gold filled. Heat and pressure fused a bond between the gold and the metal beneath.

We are using a golden ring to hang a harp of vintage brass from the 1930s, adorned with delicate vines. The ring is a jump ring and cannot be pried apart, or it will never be able to be put back together. Instead, it must be gently twisted, spiraling out and returning.

One year ago, one of my closest friends handed me a pair of earrings. Harps, pressed gold, paper thin, still shining. Many years ago, I left them behind in a blue cabin in North Carolina. I’d bought a set of harp earrings and a matching necklace when the daughter I placed for adoption was very small. I was spending a lot of time playing the harp to soothe my soul, and poring over a catalogue full of sheet music I found that set of necklace and earrings and ordered them. I sent a thin gold necklace and my love in the mail across the country to California and I kept the earrings so that we each had a part of the whole. I believe I thought that thin golden chain would hold us together somehow. I was wrong about that. It wasn’t the necklace, which she lost, or the earrings, which I accidentally abandoned when I left the blue cabin behind for the mountains, which bound us together.

What bound us together was love but what linked us together was the grace of the beautiful woman who is the mother of my daughter. Eighteen years ago on this day, I was holding within me an unborn child and the knowledge that another woman would become her mother. Eighteen years ago on this day I reached out with trembling fingers to pick up a phone and talk to that woman. Unbeknownst to me, it was her birthday.

I knew that the woman who would become the mother of my child was beautiful, blonde, talented, and intelligent. What I did not know then was her complete courage, her steadiness, her humor, her humility, and her holiness. I did not know how much she would teach me about how to become a woman, and a mother.

Adoption transforms us all. The bonds that connect us are complex. We are fused in pressure. We are bound by grace. I am holding a golden chain and upon it I will hang a harp and I am sending with my love to California, to the woman who is the mother of my child.

 

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My Mother’s Bread

By Kate

My mother taught me how to make bread.

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I don’t know how old I was when I began sifting flour and kneading dough, but I do know I was raised in a home where a battered metal bowl of bread dough was always rising near the wood stove, a kitchen where sifted flour motes hung in shafts of light. Coming off the school bus after the long ride from town, up Irish Hill and over the long ridges, looking out over the fields and fighting sleep I was secure in the knowledge that at the end of the journey I would race into the house and there would be bread fresh from the oven. We called them biscuits and we ate them with butter, with honey, with jam.  Over the years I’ve made this bread all over the country, often at Thanksgiving. In the South, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the cities of the East Coast, my friends and my in-laws have called them rolls. Regardless of what they are called, every single person who has tasted them has asked for the recipe. Today, I’m sharing the recipe with you.

You will need:

4 cups warm water

3 Tbsp (2 packets) active dry yeast

1/2 c sugar

1/2 cup oil (vegetable oil, olive oil, your choice)

1 Tablespoon salt

Flour, unbleached. A copious quantity.

To begin:

In a large bowl, pour in 4 cups of warm water. It should be very warm, but not hot. Test it on the back of your wrist. Make sure the bowl is in a warm, stable place. Measure in the yeast. 

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Next, sprinkle a little sugar on top of the yeast. I’ve never seen or heard this instruction from anyone but my mother, but it works like a charm. As she explained to me when I was a small child, clambering up on the counter while she worked, the sugar feeds the yeast. After you’ve sprinkled in the sugar, walk away- or stay right there, because it’s surprisingly interesting to watch. When I was little I loved to hang over the bowl and watch the yeast bloom and form colonies. If you have homeschooling children this is a fantastic time for a science experiment. After 10 or 15 minutes, the yeast should look like this:

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The yeast is ready. You can see it. You can smell it! Now, it’s time to add 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup oil, and 1 heaping tablespoon of salt.

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Now, it’s time to add flour. Alternate between adding flour and mixing with a large spoon, until the dough is just solid enough to pour out so you can begin kneading. It will look something like this:

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Pour out the dough onto a large, floured surface:

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It’s time to knead! What a wonderfully satisfying old word and concept kneading is. If you live in a large family, it’s likely that you’ll want to punch something at some point. Bread dough is a wonderful target. There is something very comforting about pushing into the dough with the bottom of your palm, hand over hand over hand, which is what you are doing here. You are also- and this is important- continuing to add flour as you knead. Sprinkle a little flour over the dough, knead, repeat. Keep sifting flour over the top of the bread as you go. You don’t want it to be sticky when you’re done, but you don’t want it to be tough either. Continue kneading slowly and surely for at least five minutes until the dough is uniform in texture and feels resilient to the touch:

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As you can see, the light is shifting. The morning has almost passed and the sun slants in and the shadows are deepening in my kitchen. Making bread demands time. You don’t have to pay attention to the bread all day, but you do have to begin early in the morning and give it ample time to rise and fall throughout the day. This is counter to our culture in so many ways and I would argue that a life that is lived in the rhythm of the rising and the baking of bread is a life of revolutionary freedom.

Dust your bread dough with flour and slide the dough back into the bowl.

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Cover with a clean bright cloth, and walk away. Let the dough rise, which will take a couple hours, depending on the season and the humidity and whether the oven is on and all sorts of other factors which you will discover which are particular to your own home and life. You want it to double in size, and when it does it will look like this:

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Again, pour the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and punch it down. You don’t have to knead it too thoroughly here, just punch out all of the air bubbles and give it a quick going over, continuing to dust very lightly with flour as you do so. Return the kneaded dough back to the bread bowl.

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Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, because it’s time to make your rolls. This recipe will fill a standard cookie sheet or roasting pan, which both work well for these biscuits. Grease the cookie sheet or roasting pan lightly.

Begin making rolls by squeezing a piece of dough and pinching it off. Each roll should be about the size of the fist of the child I was when my mother first let me try making a biscuit. Now, my hands are turning into hers.

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Fill the pan with rolls, cover with a clean cloth, and let rise for 20 minutes while your oven heats the kitchen. When they have risen, prick each roll very lightly with a fork.

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Pop those rolls into the oven and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. A couple minutes before you pull them out, open the oven and lightly rub a stick of butter over the top of the rolls. Finish baking, and remove from heat. For best results, transfer the rolls onto a cooling rack. Serve with love, while they are still warm.

This is my mother’s table, this the Madonna of my Grandmother. This is the recipe for my mother’s bread. This is the way that I tasted my mother’s love.

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