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Without a doubt, Jazzy is the most demanding and vocal-about-it animal – cat or dog – that I have ever had the pleasure of sharing my life with.

But then … she has a ridiculous amount of patience (especially for a cat) and humors her silly Mom and lets me do this … and waits while I get the camera. Animals never cease to surprise and amaze me. It’s why we love them.

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Let me preface this post by noting two things. 1) I am not a gardener, and feel especially lucky when the annuals I plant on my porches do well. 2) I was really not aware that there could be such a drastic difference in the actual quality of plants purchased from one location or another. Witness the Beast:

In early spring, my neighbor came home with an amazing haul of beautiful plants for their property, some of which I’d never seen or heard of before. I found she’d gotten them at Rice’s Market in not-too-far-away PA. This is a flea market which also has a huge assortment of plants from a local nursery.

Just look at that coleus above! Not only have I never seen coleus that looked like that, but it has been growing like wildfire in what is, obviously, its perfect spot. A Beast, indeed!

The burgundy leaves of the variant in back feel like velveteen and somewhat resemble a red maple. As summer wears on, they are starting to turn bright green at the edges. The tiny leaves of the other variant below are simply charming – again, nothing like any coleus I’ve ever seen.

As for the Beauty … the selection of annuals available at this nursery was astounding. I brought home these dark, velvet-y, purple petunias with a white star, and snapdragons, so petite and pretty, they are called “Angel Face Snapdragons.”

Stunning, no?

The individual flowers of this snapdragon look like tiny orchids. Ultimately, they – growing so tall – may not have been the best choice for the same pot as the petunias, but they’re making me happy! I find myself already thinking about what might be at this market for next spring.

As for the quality of plants … time being short as it is, I bought the above to get into pots right away with the thought of making a more local stop for other flowers a couple weeks later. The impatiens are struggling in one area (usually perfect for impatiens) and not even blooming in another. I’ve already made my decision – no more Home Depot, Lowe’s, or “plant lady.” Next year? out to PA for this nursery’s amazing selection of flowers, so fabulous they manage to make even me look like a gardener!

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Lists were once my steadfast friends. They stood by me through thick and thin, kept me organized and on track, and confident that everything was going smoothly. And then they took a turn, and could, I found, be my worst critics, leading me to wonder if I was failing.

I’ve always had two different list pads. The one you see on the left takes myriad forms and appearances. What I list there is still enormously useful – food shopping and cleaning tasks go there, as well as my daily to-do list for work. As my work has me often jumping back and forth between different projects and/or different clients, a list makes sure I cover everything and get done what needs to be done in a timely manner. Those lists are still my friends.

It’s the one on the right that had become suspect. I absolutely love this list pad – given to me by a friend who has always believed in me, it simply says “FOLLOW YOUR PATH.” It’s where I have always listed my personal creative goals – my writing and illustrating of children’s books; growing my shop and business on Etsy which features my French Bulldog art; updating and writing my current website and blogs; expanding a social media presence, etc., etc. Needless to say, all of these involve a multitude of tasks and effort. So I started making lists on this pad of all the things I need to do.

It was the first time a list ever turned on me, taunted me, left me feeling like I might be failing. Whenever I looked at that list, it made me wonder how would I ever possibly get where I wanted to go? And then I decided to not write any of it down. After all, who knows better than I what needs to be done?

I decided to go for a kinder and gentler use of that lovely pad. Now I consider the time I have, and the task(s) I most need and want to get done and can accomplish in that time, and chunk it down into do-able steps. The fact is, neither I – nor you – can do everything at once, and for this we need to forgive ourselves while still doing what we CAN do. We can assess our goals; make sure we have our priorities straight; and then make a plan to get there.

And so my list became my friend again.

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You know how you go to a restaurant for a while, then kind of tire of it, even if it is really nice? Revisiting said restaurant – The Clean Plate in Clinton (NJ) – is what happened recently when a  lovely new client, who happens to be a vegan, and I planned to get together. I am admittedly a wannabe (but still aspiring) vegan, but almost completely vegetarian. The Clean Plate is so named because it serves really clean, often organic, and – whenever possible – locally sourced food, with plenty of choices for both vegetarians and vegans. The menu includes locally raised beef and chicken, as well. Anyone who wants to eat healthy can find something delicious here.

I also often think I’d like to take photos of my wonderful food when I eat out, but somehow it never happens. Happily, Danielle did take a photo to show her daughter, who always likes to see what Mommy eats when she is dining away from home.

We sat outside on this late, still-cool morning at a table in the shade and right next to the river. It was wonderful, as were our dishes.  What you see here, from the top, is my excellent decaf and their Fava-Rite Bowl, a mix of fresh fava beans, asparagus, spinach, new potatoes, and roasted red pepper in a cashew-chive sauce with an over-easy egg and sprouts on top. Yum! Danielle’s dish was a red quinoa wrap with mixed baby greens, their featured hummus, avocado, toasted almonds, and dried figs, with apple cider vinaigrette, served with a side of sweet potato fries. She had Kombucha to drink.

It was all fabulous and we both cleaned our plates!

Accompanying us occasionally was a very friendly pair of not-quite-ducks, eager for a bit of our complimentary popcorn. I say that because these were two Mallards clearly crossed with another bird – a goose, I suspect, based on the markings. The larger of the two, likely the male considering the dark head, had the most amazingly kind face. Neither was pushy, so no need to herd them away, but the smaller female was very quick. The larger male just looked in your eyes and hoped. They did get a little popcorn, but I suspect too much wouldn’t be good for them. But for all we know, they may work this crowd regularly and have adapted. Who knows? They were both very sweet.

Should you be in the area and want some healthy and delicious food, perhaps accompanied by a duck or two, check out The Clean Plate and their menu!

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Did you used to devour Highlights magazine at the doctor’s office when you were a kid? Still do? Me, too. One of my favorite things was always finding hidden objects and finding the differences between two pictures. Today, I offer the opportunity to enjoy the second challenge … find what’s different. Here’s the first photo taken earlier today:

And here is the second photo, taken a few years ago:

Okay, take away all the baking stuff. And the poinsettia. And the Poland Spring bottle. What’s different?

I’ll tell you. In the top photo, the toaster is wrapped in a plastic bag, whereas below, it’s au naturel. In the top photo there is a glass jar with a very snug lid holding cat food, and below there is a lovely tin canister with cats on it. Why the change? Ants. Yes, it is ant season — those little black ones which, one at a time, are pretty cute, but when having a party in Jazzy’s dry food bowl? Not so cute. For now, her dry food is upstairs, but when I see them on the toaster? All bets are off.

I am a clean person, especially in the kitchen, but now? I am obsessively clean. I do not like having to keep my toaster in a plastic bag. But I also do not like killing creatures of any size. And even though I sadly say `Sorry’ each time I snuff out one of their little lives, and even though I spray vinegar in certain areas and in certain patterns to make them stay away, have edged the kitchen with white light, they still find a way in. I am now resorting to additional – and more lethal – methods.

Still, it bothers me to kill them. I save every little being I can and take it outside – under a plastic deli container and on a piece of cardboard – out they go. I live in an 1890’s house, and although it was newly plumbed, wired, sheet rocked, etc. it was not given a new floor downstairs. The worn floor boards are an open invitation – literally – for insects to come in. Whenever I might move, I’m sure the new people will be mystified by so many oddly placed pieces of duct tape. There’s a reason for that, people, trust me. Leave them there.

My biggest save was a wolf spider that appeared in my downstairs bathroom – she was huge. I asked her to please not move (yes, I do talk to them), while I got a bigger deli container. She stayed right there while I put it over her and carefully slid the cardboard underneath. I went outside and headed for the river. She was not happy and jumping inside. I don’t know if my telling her it would be OK in a minute helped or not, but I was doing my best. Over the grass, over the old tracks, down an incline and there was a huge pile of leaves and twigs. I figured that would give her a head start. I tilted the cardboard towards the leaves and gently lifted the container. As I’d hoped, she ran forward, and in a millisecond, had camouflaged herself perfectly. I took a deep breath, came home, and went searching for that opening with my roll of duct tape. (Please note, for those of you who are squeamish, that I have spared you a photo of a wolf spider. (For those interested, check here.)

Would I could do that for the ants. I tell them, `if you want to live, stay outside.’ Maybe some listen. But for the rest? Sorry. Really, I am.

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Ahhhh …. two of my favorite subjects. Something delicious to eat and something delicious to read. First, the cookies. As mentioned in an earlier post, my friend Laurie had her book launch at our little local Indie bookstore, The Book Garden. What I had not mentioned, was that Laurie and I had a cookie baking marathon the weekend before, whipping up sugar cookies for both this launch and her launch in NYC a few days earlier.

The sugar cookie recipe is a very basic and really good one – simple ingredients with predictably delicious results. As Hedy was an inventor, we made what are now Laurie’s signature gear cookies, but as Hedy was also a star, we made star-shaped cookies. To catch the glamour that was Hedy, I’d suggested using edible glitter, so Laurie and I made a trip out to a specialty baking shop where they must have had 100 possible color choices. We picked the gold and a light aqua. You can see the results – they came out really pretty. I’ve never worked with edible glitter in baking before, so this was quite fun.

Because I generally have a pretty full schedule, I tend not to bake much these days. When I do, I bake only from scratch, and I’ve gotten this idea in my head that it will take forever. I believe that’s called a distortion. After having those yummy from-scratch sugar cookies, I really wanted more homemade, so I searched my many saved recipes and found one for chocolate chip cookies with about 10 variations. Perfect!

I went shopping and bought the ingredients to make an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie with dark chocolate and dried cranberries. Yum, right? I got all my ingredients together and prepped my baking sheets. (Whatever did we do before parchment paper?) I was in such a good mood, and much to my surprise, it didn’t take that long at all! Another idea I can banish from my head!

And did they taste good? Absolutely fabulous (if I say so myself.) In fact I had to freeze half to insure that I would not eat them too fast! Stay tuned for Part II of Cookies and Books, the book reviews – Atonement and The Woman in the Window.

 

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People often ask me if I put up a Christmas tree. I used to put up a beautiful live tree each year, but haven’t in a while. Time being one of the reasons, but over the years, pets became another reason. Have pets influenced your decisions about a tree?

A friend and neighbor, in the face of my treeless status, offered me a small one she had and no longer used. Of course, I have a bazillion ways to trim it collected over the years, but I also had easy access to a few things. There it is, on my oak bench where I can enjoy it when I journal, read, or soon … write rather late Christmas cards.

A very dear friend of mine has a saying which I have now incorporated into my vernacular – “Something is better than nothing.” And indeed, I find it true. It’s small, but it’s something. I find myself fairly mesmerized by this little stranger which reminds me of many Christmases gone by. I like just sitting near it. Funny how deeply ingrained our memories can be.

The good thing is that Jazzy, unlike previous pets, has not decided to pull it over or de-trim it. The first of my beloved pets to have me reconsider the wisdom of having a tree was Mewsette. As is true with many felines, she did her best work at night, and every morning I would come down to find at least the bottom tier of ornaments missing, some broken. OK, let’s just put unbreakable ones on the lower branches. It minimized breakage but didn’t affect one iota my having an ornament scavenger hunt each morning. The final result? Nothing detachable at the bottom of the tree. Not very pretty.

Then we had Chloe, one of my pair of sweet pittie girls. Chloe was determined to see if she could possibly squeeze in the corner behind it. I would come into the room with her shmushed behind the tree, tail wagging off ornaments. Nothing I could do would discourage her efforts. Yet another strike against the concept of having a tree, especially on the occasion when she knocked it over.

Shut the animals out of the room, you say? Who wants to be in the living room, tree all aglow, without your fuzzy ones to keep you company? Or chase them in and out? Eventually, I just gave up. There have always been little spots of Christmas all over the house which, on the whole, none of them ever paid any mind. But this little tree? Perhaps it is my toe into the waters of real trees.

Or maybe this is just perfect for me.

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These impatiens did exceedingly well in this spot at the far end of my back porch.

Let me first say that I am not a gardener. Happily, I have a good eye for color and how things could look, but I don’t have that deep and intuitive understanding of when and how things grow and bloom, what they need, where in a garden they need to be and next to whom like serious gardeners do. Nor do I have the time to learn, though I would otherwise truly enjoy it. I am in awe of serious gardeners, but I’m one of those people who just “does her best”, and lets it go at that. I’m happy that they bloom and make my porches lovely places to sit and enjoy.

This is a truly hot spot for a coleus – just the right amount and angle of sunshine. They thrive here each year.

In the present location where I live, I don’t have gardens to garden in. The land around the house is somewhat minimal and taken care of by someone else. I have porches.

This is a very flattering angle for these marigolds. They did very poorly this year, whether it was the plants, or me over/under watering them, I don’t know. But they did look pretty in the royal blue pots I got for them.

Each year I buy a simple selection of annuals and put them where I’m pretty sure they will do well. I change it up each year and occasionally buy some new pots or try a new plant to see how it works out.

This is the first year I planted a big bunch of impatiens by my side door. They really liked being there a lot.
And crowded out another shade-loving plant I gave a try.

I did try another type of shade plant this year, but they weren’t very pretty on their own and didn’t ‘t play nicely with other plants I tried them with. I’ll have to consider next spring if I should try something different with them or just something different.

Another flattering angle! It’s the first time I tried coleus in this spot at the back corner of my front porch and they did very well. I tucked in some marigolds for a pop of color, which worked out nicely when they bloomed.

I took these photos because it’s the end of summer, the beginning of fall, and soon they’ll be gone. I’ve been thinking of getting some mums for around the porches which means dumping all that has flowered all summer long. This is always a hard and sad task for me – tossing out a living thing pains me. And as if they heard me, the coleus began to vigorously flower, shooting lavender spikes of flowers to the sky. How can I dismiss what is bursting into bloom?

Sure, they can stay a while longer. Sigh. Maybe I’ll have a little overlap.

A photo does not do justice to the incredibly delicate strands and bowl shape of these spider webs.

The last few mornings, I observed these ephemeral spider webs which appear overnight. They are like bowls of the finest gauze. I looked very closely and spied a tiny little spider – not more than 1/4 inch long. I can’t imagine the amount of energy it must take to spin out that much silk. The sun burns the webs away or they fade on their own over the course of the day, but each morning, a new bowl or two appears. As my plants give their last hurrah of summer, it seems some spiders have the same idea, weaving in earnest before the impending chills of fall.

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This morning when I went out to the mailbox to retrieve my mail, I spied something at my front door. It was sitting quite nicely in front of my little children’s bench which holds a flower box filled with overflowing pink and white Impatiens. What could that be? I thought. I didn’t order anything. And because I was feeling a tad under the weather, I immediately wondered if it was a misdelivery, something from a company I didn’t order, etc. Whatever it was, it did get my curiosity going.

I brought it inside and looked at the label. Sure enough, it was addressed to me, and from a company I’d never heard of. More and more curious. I opened it up to find no note or identifying information, but when I brought out the one item inside, it brought tears to my eyes.

Someone had sent me one of the most meaningful and thoughtful gifts I could receive at this moment in time. Something that affirms my strength as a woman and as a writer, from someone who obviously knows the challenges I’ve faced over the last 5 or so years.

We all have our challenges; there is no doubt about that. I was joyfully on my journey of writing and illustrating children’s books, and had been for a while. It was a long-awaited return after I had studied under the renowned children’s book author and illustrator Uri Shulevitz at the New School in NY so many years ago. And then things happened. It doesn’t really matter what they were, but they had the effect of disrupting many aspects of my life, among them my children’s book journey. This was my dream. And although it had to sit on the sidelines for a while, it never sat alone. I did everything I could, however tiny, to keep it alive even though it could hardly take my full attention.

As time passed and I worked to regain my balance in all aspects of my life, I have – little by little – returned to my writing for children, to my dream of being published. I don’t have the luxury of writing full time, as most writers do not, but more and more, it is in my thoughts and in my daily plans. I know I’m back on track – maybe not sprinting yet, but I am out there and picking up speed.

And whoever sent me this mug knows that, and I thank you deeply for acknowledging it. I will find you and I will thank you.

For the rest of you women writers out there, especially those who face challenges and proceed in spite of them, tomorrow morning I am going to toast you all with my first cup of coffee in this mug. Cheers to you and your writing dreams.

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If your life is anything like mine, it’s hard to find time to do some of the special things we love. Among them for me, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is baking. Today I had changed my plans and decided to make some muffins. From scratch, of course. Chocolate chip muffins.

I searched through my collected recipes, but did not find one for chocolate chip muffins. Everything but. So I turned to my good friend Betty Crocker. No matter how many cookbooks I have or how often I’ll search out a recipe online, I will never be without a Betty Crocker or Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. Why? Because it always has so much basic cooking and baking information as well as a variety of recipes both easy and complicated to make. Forgot how long to poach an egg? How many tablespoons of butter are in 1/3 cup? How many cups of chopped nuts you’ll get from a 1 lb. bag? And although these things can always be found online, the internet can be a big time suck and have me looking at all kinds of things I don’t need to be looking at. Just give me the facts, Betty, and I’m good.

I looked up Betty’s basic muffins, and they seemed a little too basic to me. Soooo … I went online to a place where I’ve had great muffin success in the past – Mr. Breakfast. And right there on the home page was #1 of their Top 20 Favorite Recipes – chocolate chip muffins. OK, I’m in!  I read glowing reviews and then compared them to Betty’s version; Mr. B’s are sweeter and more fattening to be sure – butter instead of traditional oil, and a bit more sugar. I’m still in.

The bottom line here is that baking these muffins made me happy. It’s time well-spent – a small gift I can give to myself. It’s something we don’t do for ourselves nearly often enough, sometimes even when we do have the time. Between all the things that really must  be taken care of and all the ways we can lose our time to distractions (and here, I repeat, the internet), what about the things that fulfill us? Whether that be writing, art, music, gardening, baking, crafting, restoring furniture, reading a good book … what about spending a little extra quality time with loved ones/pets … whatever it is, why not give it to ourselves?

Speaking for myself, it doesn’t really take much to make me happy, a trait that I am enormously grateful for. My guess is there’s probably a whole lot of little things that make you happy, too. Be kind to yourself; allow yourself to be happy, and enjoy those little things.

p.s. The muffins? Maybe a bit more chocolate chips than I need. I had already cut down from 12 to 9 oz. Ghirardelli’s Dark Chocolate Mini Chips (what I had on hand), but 6 oz. would certainly be enough. Other than that? Mouthwateringly delicious and worth every second making them. Yum!

 

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… is today, February 13th. Not every year, for it falls on the same day as Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, whatever you want to call it. It’s the day before Lent. And while giving up something for Lent is not a tradition I partake in, I do like the idea of Mardi Gras.

 

And breakfast for dinner? Really, how far wrong can you go? `Nuff said!

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The sun attempts to break through an almost white sky. The weather report tells me that this is the best it will do today. Some high winds later on, and for Christmas, perhaps a dash of snow in the morning. This suits me fine – my days of longing for a white Christmas vanished as soon as I had to drive in it. As I looked out the window, I searched inside for my Christmas spirit. I found it to be a little lacking, having been pulled in many directions the last week. I knew one remedy, of course – images and words that bring a smile and/or inspire.

So here you see my gentle snowman, standing at my front door, ready to greet you. His candle lights at dusk, and he blows it out at dawn. But tonight it will burn steadily and all through the day on Christmas.

Inside, the beautiful oak washstand of over 100 years shines as always, with silk poinsettias, my very favorite ice balls holding tea lights, and just a peek at the photo of my Mom and Dad’s wedding portrait.

And though from a winter past, the snowy roofs and lightly dusted bare branches put me in a festive mood.

But what about words that inspire? I remembered some years ago, my Christmas present to loved ones was a print of the piece below, a longtime favorite of mine, to which I added original artwork of forest animals in each season in each of the print’s four corners. I felt my contribution was small in the shadow of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata. I share it here with you, with my warmest wishes for a Christmas filled with the sparkle of magic, hope, and peace.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

~ Max Ehrmann

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