Crokinole and Turkey

At this time of year, as holiday traditions are being hauled out and dusted off, I feel the distance from my Canadian family with an extra pang. I miss the joyful sense of celebration, the gathering of a big, noisy group, everyone talking over each other, fielding a dozen hugs in ten minutes. Our little family is building its own traditions, and they’re good ones. But still, at this time of year, I miss my childhood home and my family in Canada.

For me, “family” includes a hundred or so people distributed across three small communes within a five-mile radius in Northwestern Ontario, but especially the residents, current and former, of the West Farm. (Generally I try to keep location and name details out of my posts to protect the privacy of my loved ones on the farm. In this case, it officially goes by a different name, so you won’t find it on a map should your curiosity prompt you to look.)

Even in our secluded community which refrained from worldly celebrations, Thanksgiving was a big deal when I was growing up. It had the benefit of being neither Halloween (the Devil’s own celebration, as I mentioned in a previous post) or Christmas (a worldly holiday of pagan roots marked with prideful indulgence). It was one of the “Big Three”: Thanksgiving, convention, and graduation. Convention was a yearly long-weekend event. The important leaders of our network of communes and churches, known hierarchically as the “Traveling Ministry” (the lesser traveling preachers and teachers)  and “Father Ministry” (the ruling class who handed down decisions both religious and practical), would arrive in March. Visitors would come from all directions to attend all-day revival-style services, causing our group to double or triple in size for several days. High school graduation was nearly as exciting: families of the graduating seniors of our little school would travel to congratulate them, the formally dressed seniors would present speeches, everyone would enjoy a big celebratory meal, and the seniors would open stacks of gifts. It was as close to prom as we ever got — pretty dresses, suits and ties, and lots of excitement, balloons, and confetti, though without dancing or limousines or clandestine make out sessions.

But Thanksgiving was the big one, the special one. It was just us — no out-of-town visitors, no preaching, no speeches. Just good food, family, and after-dinner games. Sometimes we’d invite a few families from outside the commune, or some single police officers or a nurse on assignment at the nearby nursing station, without family nearby. But just as often, it would be only familiar faces.

The women would bustle around the kitchen all day, cooking up a storm. Six or so pies would materialize by dinner time: two or three apple pies, at least one each of pumpkin and pecan, maybe a blueberry pie for good measure. Someone would usually whip up a batch of butter tarts. (For the non-Canadians reading this, butter tarts are a bit like the good part of pecan pie with all those nasty big pecans taken out. This one from Canadian Living looks like a good recipe, though I haven’t tried it.) We’d start fresh rolls in the morning so they’d come out of the oven, crusty and fragrant, before the pies had to go in.  One of the cooks would invariably make a sweet potato casserole topped with brown sugar or marshmallows or both; someone else would comment that it looked awfully sweet, whereupon the maker would suggest that perhaps another of the many side dishes might be a better choice for the complainer. And this was certainly a good point, because there would be more than enough side dishes. Stuffing — made with bread cubes, of course, not cornmeal. Huge steaming pots of mashed potatoes, which had been peeled and diced by the younger cooks to keep them out of trouble and spare the adults the tedium of peeling dozens of potatoes. Green beans with bacon. Occasionally roasted sweet potatoes, a concession to the objections of a few to the sweetness of the marshmallow-topped casserole. There would always be cranberry jelly… the real, clear jelly, from a can, of course. Sometimes someone would make cranberry sauce from scratch, but that never replaced the jelly.

Cooking took all morning and afternoon, but for us younger girls, there might be time to enjoy the day off school. We’d race out of the kitchen, grateful for the reprieve from peeling endless piles of potatoes, and pull on heavy snow pants and coats, thick mittens, warm hats. Sleds jostled behind us from the sheds of houses as kids made a beeline for the big hill. We’d swoop down on sleds or on slick snow-pants-covered bottoms, some daredevils trying to ride the sled down standing up, others swearing that going belly-down made the ride faster. The sleds rushed down with solo riders or crammed with as many bodies as could fit, with arguments erupting at the bottom over whose job it was to pull the sled back up. Noses would turn pink, eyelashes frosted over, fingers and toes froze as the afternoon darkened to a blue twilight. Finally, we’d trudge inside, trooping into the kitchen to see if anyone had made hot chocolate. If there was enough stovetop space and anyone had had some spare time, there might be a big pot of made-from-scratch hot cocoa waiting on the range. Maybe one of the ladies had made banana or zucchini bread to snack on, or maybe we grabbed a leftover muffin from breakfast, while one of the moms poured mugs of hot cocoa for all of us. There might even be marshmallows bobbing in the mugs.

Dark came early in a Northwestern Ontario October, so it wouldn’t be dinner time yet, but people would be wandering into the main building early anyway, setting up board games on empty tables and pulling out musical instruments.  A Crokinole game would occupy the place of honor at one of the round tables — it didn’t take long for eight people to claim places around the board while others gathered to watch, and a game as competitive as any at our peaceful commune would commence to the tune of guitar strings tuning up next to the piano. (Crokinole, by the way, is another Canadian tradition. It’s usually played with two or four people, but the board can accommodate up to eight.) A few more cerebral types would gravitate to the Scrabble board, while  a game of UNO broke out in a corner.

Meanwhile, kids busily put out stacks of plates and baskets of silverware on the big island counter in the kitchen, filled water pitchers, and carried drinking glasses to the tables. Iced tea, which had been sequestered away in a back refrigerator lest teenage boys down it all before dinner, was brought out into the open and distributed to tables in pitchers, because even in the winter no celebration was complete without iced tea. An aunt bore the giant turkey triumphantly from the oven while the mouthwatering aroma swept the rooms. Rolls were tumbled into baskets while girls scooped potatoes out of the big pot into glass bowls, and two women attacked the turkey, carving it into neat slices. Finally, the food was all arranged on the counter, buffet style, and we flocked to our places at the table for a blessing before we dug in.

When we were stuffed with as much food as we could manage, a guitar would softly strum, the piano would echo the notes, and we’d sing songs together: our after-dinner daily tradition. Songs about giving thanks, about love, many of them written by people sitting there in the room.

Cleanup wasn’t too much of a chore; at the tables, dishes were stacked at top speed and quickly scraped and carried into the kitchen. Dads wiped tables and grabbed brooms to sweep the floor of the big dining room, while the kids manned the dish tubs and dried clean dishes. Moms and aunts swiftly wrapped food for the refrigerators. Then, cleanup complete, it was back to the board games and cozy visiting.

My dad would bring out a few new jokes, his sober joke-telling face carefully prepared in advance, always hopeful that the punch line would take the listener by surprise. His brothers would gently jeer — “I heard that one three months ago!” — while they competed with their own stories, others chiming in. Occasionally, a few people would present a skit: nothing serious, just a sketch designed to draw laughter, usually involving costumes we’d thrown together from our collection of old or silly clothes, wigs, and odd accessories. A piano player might wander over to the instrument and run her fingers over the keys, and teenagers would migrate to the piano corner like iron filings to a magnet. Somebody would add a guitar, then another, maybe a mandolin or banjo or hand-made fiddle or classical violin, and we’d sing one song after another while others visited or tried to best each other at the Crokinole board.

Thanksgiving was a day for family time. It wasn’t anything exciting, I suppose. No family feuds, no drunken quarrels. No Black Friday — in Canada, Thanksgiving is on a Monday in October, too far from Christmas to be dragged into the holiday shopping chaos. Besides, we didn’t celebrate Christmas (although we did love finding good deals). It was pretty simple: good food, music we made ourselves, family. And this time of year, I find myself thinking more than usually of my family.

So, to my American friends and family, let me wish you a wholehearted Happy Thanksgiving; and to my Canadian family, thank you for giving me these warm memories of simple traditions. I love you. Happy Thursday.

This year's pumpkin pie.
This year’s pumpkin pie.

Who Can Find a Virtuous Laundress?

It haunts me with unrelenting persistence, this pursuit of laundry perfection.

My laundry list: Niko’s mud-stained, grass-stained, who-knows-what-else-stained jeans and shirts emerge from the washing machine victorious, pristine. Sofia’s grubby-kneed pants and sticky sleeves are as new when the laundry is done. Unspeakably soiled diapers? Pure as the Snow Queen’s gleaming white hair. And then come Aaron’s work shirts. They’re nearly perfect when they go into the washing machine, really. He’s a tidy, order-loving person who never spills food or smudges ink. But the collars, of course, after being worn all day in the heat of a California drought (he travels often for work), are – forgive me, Aaron – not quite as flawless as they could be. And, since moving to Oregon, when they come out of the wash, they remain not quite flawless.

Back in Anchorage, I would spritz the collars with laundry stain remover, toss them into the washer on the delicate cycle, and pull them out again, spotless. It was one of my few areas of housekeeping pride. Dishes may have been unwashed, floor may have had a bit of dust, laundry remained unfolded for days, but by golly, those shirts were clean. Every time. I would hold one up, note the gleaming white collar, and feel a warm glow of pride. Did it again! That is one clean shirt!

In Oregon, the laundry routine has been the same, and the washing machine is an updated version of the same model. But the shirts no longer have the incandescent whiteness of a beautifully laundered shirt. And my pride has suffered as a result. Oh, how it’s suffered.

When this began, I turned, naturally, to Google, and discovered that hard water can lessen the effectiveness of laundry detergent. Borax, I read, can soften the water and get clothes cleaner. Naturally I rushed to Target and bought a monster box of the stuff. I started shaking some into each load. It helped, but not enough. Aaron’s shirt collars were still notable for their imperfection. But I was out of energy. I was pregnant with Sofia, growing more uncomfortable every day, and miserable in the unfamiliar summer heat reaching past the 90s and into three-digit temperatures. Grudgingly, I settled for almost good enough. But it still disturbed me.

I know, of course, why this bothers me so much. This one area of housekeeping success has been my token of the Virtuous Woman.

I remember joining the other teenaged girls in a chorus as we recited Proverbs 31, demonstrating our willingness to embrace virtue as well as our skill at memorization: “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil…Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land…She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.” We were relaxing in our Sunday School teacher’s living room on a Sunday morning, preparing to read from our slim navy hardcover book — Beautiful Girlhood, it was called — about staying modest, wearing hose at all times, being sure our knees (better yet, ankles) were covered, and — above all — being sure that, should our vanity lead us to wear makeup, we be sure to remove it each night, lest unsightly leftover makeup mark us as undesirable.

We didn’t take most of it too seriously — while we lived in a Christian commune, our style was as modern as budget and the knee-and-cleavage-covering dress code allowed. After the requisite reading from the book each Sunday, the rest of our 45-minute pre-church session was mostly spent giggling and chattering, mostly about the old-fashioned suggestions in our book. But the virtue part — that stuck, for me, anyway. We heard it in so many ways as we grew up. None of us doubted that we’d someday have a husband. Each of us firmly believed we’d be an excellent wife. Hadn’t we been cooking for scores of people at each meal since we were old enough to reach the counter with a stepstool? Didn’t we take frequent sewing classes? Spend untold hours each summer gardening, harvesting, canning? Yes, we would be the epitome of Virtuous Women.

Of the girls in that group, only one remains on the commune. Our beliefs have evolved — even the beliefs of the one who’s still there, though her beliefs probably look a little more commune-traditional than mine. We no longer feel anxious if our knees are revealed; we know our virtue isn’t dependent on marriage. And yet, for me at least, the need to prove my womanliness remains.

If this were an inspirational novel or memoir, I’d have had an epiphany accompanying my realization of the source of my obsession with those shirt collars. I’d have realized that an obsession rooted in an over-religious upbringing might not be what I need for a guiding life principal. But I just can’t let those shirt collars go. How can my husband be praised in the gates, if his shirt collars are grimy?

Now that Sofia is nearly a year old and has fewer tummy troubles, thus being less needy and giving me a bit more time for frivolous obsessions, the urge to assert my status as a Woman of Virtue is rising again. Over the last month or so, I’ve tried a couple of solutions. One week, I tried making a mixture of borax, Spray & Wash, and a bit of  water to combine them, and I spread the paste over the collars. It actually left the shirts less white than before. Not the desired outcome.

The next week, I sprayed the collars with stain remover first, then spread the same paste over the damp cloth. Victory! Well, almost. I could still see the shadows of stains, but it was so much better than it had been that I decided cleanliness had been satisfactorily attained. All I needed to do was to write a post and hit “publish”, and I would officially be a Virtuous Woman again. I wasn’t entirely pleased, but it was… well, it was close enough, right?

Then, Aaron’s aunt and uncle came by for an overnight visit. Over dinner, I happened to mention my search for the perfect stain remover. “You need Nicole’s recipe,” our aunt said. “It’s like magic. It will get absolutely anything out. She used it to get three-year-old paint stains out of a jacket.” And, because she could see how excited I was over this magical concoction, she texted her daughter Nicole, who promptly texted back with the recipe.

I can’t even tell you how ridiculously thrilled I am about this new stain remover. In my next post, I’ll give the recipe and tell how effective it is. (Spoiler: It’s VERY effective.)

It’s Not National Geographic Material, But…

I was fifteen when my dad gave me my first camera. I was speechless with delight — I remember the sensation of actually gasping for breath in surprise and joy. Gifts were rare in our family: we eschewed Christmas, birthdays, and worldly possessions, so a spontaneous gift like this was even more meaningful than it might have been for an ordinary kid.

My father has always had a gift for both photography and drawing, sometimes combining them by making sketches and even embroidery patterns based on the photos he takes. He has his camera with him nearly everywhere he goes. My dad and his camera were fixtures in my childhood and especially in my teens, when his interest in “real” photography took off. On long road trips with my mom, they periodically stop so my dad can photograph scenery or flowers while my mom stretches her legs. When he visited us in Alaska, he would go on early-morning drives to capture shots of things he’d seen as we drove around the Anchorage area: the tidal flats, a field of blue-flags (also known as wild irises), a train running between the inlet and the mountains. He’ll sit quietly while family visits, unobtrusively shooting photo after photo of interactions and games. He’s never published his photos, unlike my uncle (his brother), who also loves nature and photography, and shares his photos on a website he calls Wild Sky Photo. He just loves taking the pictures. I think that camera was a way for us to connect, to share a passion.

It was the night before a high school trip that my dad gave me the camera. Our entire high school — all ten of us — were traveling from our group of three small religious communes in Northwest Ontario to a collection of communes in British Columbia. We’d been preparing for months with individual, original, inspirational speeches, and practicing two or three new songs. We would provide the church services as we visited the northern groups. That was something of a tradition in our network of communes — being prepared to share inspirational messages, but especially sharing music. Singing was integral to our way of life, and somebody was always writing or discovering a new song. It was just considered a courtesy to share it with other groups whenever you traveled.

But the real highlight, to us, was the road trip. Ten kids in two vans. Music of our own choosing — and someone was sure to bring along some carefully selected secular music, and if we were absolutely angelic, perhaps we could convince our chaperones to allow us to play it as we rode along. Then there was the hotel stop along the way — giant sleepovers aren’t any less fun when you’re being raised as a highly conservative, long-skirted, Bible-studying commune dweller. The frosting on the road-trip cake was the visits with people we only saw rarely. My cousins and I were excited to see another set of cousins on one of the British Columbia communes, but there were other friends and acquaintances as well, plus who knew how many new friends.

And I photographed it all. I used up all the film my dad had given me by the end of the second day, and had to buy more at gas stations and convenience stores along the way. I snapped photos of the scenery. Of pillow fights. Of friends hugging. Teens sleeping, puppy-piled in the vans. Volley-ball games, girls still in their long, awkward skirts. Campfire sing-alongs. I overcame my habitual shyness to walk right up to people I barely knew so as to frame them better for shots. My viewfinder became my key, allowing me to break through crippling terror of crowds and strangers.

I still have most of those photos. They aren’t good ones. I knew nothing at all about photography, and my camera was a basic point-and-shoot model. No zoom, no focus. Most of the pictures are blurred. Sometimes you can’t really tell who’s in the photos or what’s happening. But there were some gems. Going through them a few years ago, I was surprised to find a picture of my sister-in-law’s husband in Renaissance costume, playing the piano and singing in an informal rehearsal for a show. This was about four years before I met my husband, and I hadn’t even known the young man’s name — I just had been struck by the picture I saw and wanted to keep the memory.

These days I use a beautiful silver Canon, a digital camera that has a zoom lens and a second, long lens that can be interchanged. I still don’t know much about photography. But I’ve learned a few things along the way, and now I find joy in photographing my children and garden. Lately I’ve been learning to use the long lens. It’s proven to be a steep learning curve for me. It reminds me of the slow, stumbling trial-and-error experience with that first little camera. Most of my photos of the birds at our feeder are a little blurred, often badly lit or poorly framed. I still save some of them as a learning reference, just like we save our preschoolers’ early writing attempts.

Now, when I look through photos on my computer or phone as I’m preparing to edit and choose some to share with family on Facebook, I find myself thinking of my dad and his role as a recorder of my childhood. It’s a good role, I think, and one that I’m happy and proud to be carrying on in my own little family. I’m not a photographer; this isn’t a photography blog. But still, I find an unexpected peace in freezing those moments of my children playing, a perfect bloom, a bird on a branch, even a plate of good food. I delete more photos than I keep. I miss more shots than I take. I don’t know how to do some of the techniques I see from trained and experienced photographers. But those photos I do take and keep are treasures to me.

And here, just because today I’m thinking about photographs and family and treasures, are a few photos of my favorite treasures: my kids.

Exhibit A: Sofia’s 11-month photo shoot. We’ve done this every month since she was born. My eventual goal is to collect one from each month of her first year into a collage frame for her room. We did this for Niko, too. He’s four. No collage frame yet. Maybe some day…

Exhibit B: My adventurous boy, later the same day as Sofia’s photo shoot. He wanted to sit on top of the well, just like he had a month before when Garrett Beatty of Nuro Photography came to photograph our family. I agreed — but only if he let me take his picture. Later, he decided to gather some wood to take inside. The power went out the next day in an ice storm, so I ended up being thankful for his impulse.

Exhibit C: These are the first shots I’ve ever taken with a long lens. Please remember that I don’t work for National Geographic. And I’m just learning. But still, I’m pretty darn proud of these fuzzy photos.

Backsliding Into Worldly Depravity

Yup, that’s me. Backslider. Depraved. Worldly. Actually, the “backslider” label may be inaccurate. You can’t backslide into new territory. No, this is much worse. Tumbling headlong into sin is more like it.

When I was a kid, living on one of a trio of Christian communes in Northwest Ontario, we did not do Halloween. We regarded those who did with a sort of fascinated horror. Christmas and Easter were Paganism-tainted, worldly holidays which we also did not celebrate – along with birthdays – but those at least were fairly innocent and had a religious slant. Halloween had no such excuse. It was, to our sheltered eyes, the embodiment of Satan-worshiping evil. I mean, those kids actually dressed as ghosts, goblins, and witches. They were practically inviting demons to possess their souls.

It started slowly: “gradualism,” the preachers of my youth would say (probably are saying right now, if any of them see this). Living in Anchorage, Aaron and I would buy candy just in case trick-or-treaters came by. We didn’t want to disappoint any kids, after all. Then, when I started teaching, I saw how much my students loved Halloween. I didn’t want to disappoint them, either, and since other teachers were allowing costumes on that day, I did too — and bought a green-feathered witch hat which I donned each year so as not to appear unpleasantly strait-laced. Then, Niko arrived, and we were given the cutest little Winnie-the-Pooh costume for him. Who could resist that? The following year we actually purchased a dinosaur costume; last year, a robot. And this year, we entirely succumbed.

Three nights ago, we dressed both of our innocent children in Disney-inspired costumes and joined friends (one of the nicest families I know, who are — incidentally — faithfully church-attending people) to trick-or-treat in their neighborhood. It was…well, fun. No goblins assaulted us. No witches hexed us. Not a single soul became demon-possessed. In fact, everyone we met, at homes and on the street, were remarkably polite and kind.

We had a tense moment when we encountered a snazzily dressed skeleton with a cane and top hat, his skull leering menacingly. The little boys, aged four and three, froze as Baron Samedi and his family approached. His wife poked his arm. “You’re scaring those kids! You have to take your mask off!” “Oh, no!” he said with genuine concern. “No, I don’t want to scare anyone!” And despite the effort he’d exerted to make a convincing Baron, the skeleton immediately pushed his mask up to the top of his head, transforming from a dark lord of death into a cheerful man in a colorful suit, smiling sheepishly at us.  He kept his mask off the rest of the time we were out.

No, we weren’t hauled off to the realms of death. We weren’t lured into a Satanic ritual. We just enjoyed the fresh air, collected treats, and walked to a nearby church for their Halloween/harvest festival. The boys went crazy in a bounce house while the babies stared at the crowds with wide eyes. And on the way home our family stopped for groceries, where cashiers and customers ooooh’d and ahhhh’d over the fairy princess and little pirate. Our kids were just as innocent, but better-exercised, at the end of the night as they’d been before donning their costumes.

Yes, this year I embraced worldly depravity with a will. And as I watched my son marching up to the doors of strangers with his lantern-lit pumpkin basket (courtesy of our generous friends) glowing bravely, I was so glad I did.

Throwback Sunday…Two Years

Just now, Aaron texted me to say, “Two years ago today, we were visiting Oregon for the first time to see if we liked it!” It doesn’t seem that long ago. But he’s right.

Two years ago today, Aaron and I took a long weekend to explore the Portland area. We were almost sure Oregon was at the end of our escape chute from Alaska, but we didn’t want to make a decision without having visited at least once. And that one visit did it for us. We were in love! Our visit happened to land on a weekend that was unusually sunny for this time of year, with temperatures in the 60s. Our Alaska-acclimated bodies felt like we were in the tropics. We stripped off jackets and cardigans and tried not to laugh at the locals in heavy sweaters, down vests, and coats. This was summer weather for us. Oh, it does get warmer during summer in the Anchorage area, but those days in the 70s and 80s are rare. When we visited, Anchorage was blanketed in fresh snow, and the green grass, still-blooming roses, and bright oaks and maples of Portland were like a Technicolor heaven for us.

Seven months later, we had packed our belongings, our son, and my pregnant belly and were driving across Alaska to catch a ferry from Juneau to Bellingham, Washington so we could make our way to our rental home just outside Portland. And now here we are, seven months into owning our own beautiful piece of Oregon paradise.

It’s so good to be home.


Making Chai Citrus Spritzer

I’ve recently begun to realize how important food is to me. Every bite of a familiar food is loaded with nostalgia, accompanied by a dazzling parade of memories. Every recipe comes with a cascading waterfall of linked stories connected to the people in my life. Food brings with it a sense of family, closeness, love, friendship. Even now, far from the commune where I grew up, I dislike eating alone; growing up on the farm, meals and snacks were generally group activities. Someone was always hungry. The rustle of a bag or the soft whooosh of the refrigerator door could draw a crowd even if you started out alone in the roomy kitchen.

[This seems like a good place to mention that if you really just want a recipe, not a long reminiscence, you can scroll way down to the end for instructions.]

So, for me, chai (my preferred method of infusing caffeine into my veins) is a drink fraught with memories. When I took my first life-changing sip, I was nineteen. I was in the dreamy yet awkward stages of undeclared (and, according to the strict rules of the communal college I attended, forbidden) love. Just outside Haines, Alaska, the farm we lived on was a college destination predominately for youngsters like me who’d grown up in a network of communes across the world – mostly in North America, mainly in the North. I had left Ontario the previous year to attend the Christian college for a degree in education.

Now, here we were, a gaggle of sheltered kids freed from the early-morning weekly duty of helping in the commune’s bakery in Haines, basking in the freedom of an unsupervised stroll to a coffeeshop. Mountain Market was dubious territory. It was frequented by the “granola” crowd, modern-day hippies wearing natural fibers, sporting natural body odor, and topped with naturally unwashed hair. We, on the other hand, typically wore modest business-casual attire. Girls in skirts ranging from prim to trendy, but all below the knee, tops carefully buttoned to three fingers below collarbones; boys with shirts neatly tucked; all scrupulously clean. Not a beard, tie-dyed garment, or matted lock of hair in sight.

I’d never had an espresso drink, didn’t care for coffee, had certainly never seen a headful of dreadlocks like the one on our friendly (yet terrifying) barista. “I don’t know what to order,” I whispered to my crush Aaron, who was at the college for just one year “for the experience.”

“You need to get a chai. You’ll love it.”

“A what?” At least espresso was identifiable as coffee. I had no idea what a chai was. It sounded as unfamiliar and scary as the tentacle-headed blond barista behind the counter.

“It’s a spiced tea with steamed milk. It’s really good.”

I wanted to impress Aaron with my willingness to try new things, with my bravery, so I tremulously ordered a chai. I don’t know if he was impressed with my daring, but my first sip drove out all thoughts of wowing the love of my life. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I was hooked.

And now the taste of chai is inextricably intertwined with the painfully agonizing delight of new love.

Fastforward a decade. On a frosty winter weekend morning, baby snugly tucked into his car seat carrier, I was meeting my best friend for coffee and gossip at a cafe in Anchorage, Alaska, exactly seven minutes from my home and two minutes from hers. I usually ordered a chai – why change a perfectly pleasing tradition? But I perused the menu anyway, because I’m a compulsive reader and menus contain words. And there it was. CHAI CITRUS SPRITZER. Made with spiced tea, citrus flavors, and ginger. I ordered. I sipped. I was transported. From then on, I was completely hooked. It was cool, it was spicy, it was fizzy, it was a perfect meld of complementary flavors.

At some point I stopped exclaiming over the amazing taste experience I was having and restrained myself from forcing Gracia to try the new drink, and we went on to our comfortable routine of comparing work stories, discussing politics and philosophy, noting tiny Niko’s milestones, and laughing uproariously together. But secretly, in the back of my mind, I was deconstructing the drink with each sip. A little orange…a little lime…a bit of ginger…I was sure I could recreate this.

And of course I did. And now I’m sharing it with you. Here, for your sipping pleasure, is the flavor of deep and lasting friendship; of Alaskan winter turning so very slowly to spring; of the burdens of new motherhood lightened by the irreverent hilarity of a childfree friend; all laced with that original chai flavor of new love on an Alaskan commune. I give you: Chai Citrus Spritzer.

1. Collect your ingredients: prepared chai, crystallized ginger, orange juice, lime juice, sparkling water, a tall glass. I drink chai routinely; I used to get my Oregon Chai at Costco in packs of three. You can get it at Fred Meyer, a Kroger store, too. Or you can brew your own from tea bags, as I do these days. (You can see my recipe here.) The crystallized ginger is usually available in the bulk section of a grocery store. It adds flavor, but if you can’t find it, don’t let that stop you from enjoying this drink. It’s not crucial. For the carbonated water, I like to use the store brand cans of lemon-lime flavored sparkling water from Fred Meyer. The mild citrus flavor helps merge all the flavors of the drink, and it just happens to be really really inexpensive. If it’s not available, just use any plain seltzer water.

2. Grate, crush, or use a knife to trim small pieces of crystallized ginger into the glass. How you prepare it depends on how big the chunks of ginger are. When I started making it, the crystallized ginger I found in the bulk section at Fred Meyer came in very small pebble-like pieces, and I just crushed them between my fingers as I dropped them into the glass. Now that I’ve moved and get it at a different store, it comes in big 1/2 inch cubes, and I have to cut pieces.

3. Add about two fingers of orange juice and a dash of lime juice.

4. Fill the glass just over half full with the prepared chai.

5. Top with carbonated water.

6. Close your eyes and slowly sip the cool, sparkling, ginger-and-citrus concoction. Breathe deeply. Relax. Ahhhh….DSC03305

Spring in October

I’m a northern girl by heritage but not, it turns out, by disposition. I was raised in the frigid winter climate of Northwestern Ontario and the deep snow of northern British Columbia, then migrated to the somewhat milder Anchorage, Alaska. Every year since I was old enough to take notice, I’ve hated the long, dark winters of the north more and more. After the excitement of the winter’s first flakes and drifts, snow is just one more way for my feet to get wet and cold. Watching the sun set at 3:30 in the afternoon as I wave goodbye to my students. shivering, is not my idea of enjoying the majesty of Alaska’s nature. Searching for a dry, snow-free spot to sit at the end-of-school picnic in May brings me no joy. No, beautiful as Alaska is, it’s not the place for me.


About seven years ago, my husband and I formulated a “five-year plan.” We would keep our new Anchorage condo until we had built up enough equity to make money selling it. That would be our ticket out of Alaska. We would move to a place where you didn’t have to use a flashlight to navigate to your car at four o’clock on a winter afternoon, where the highway wasn’t littered with traffic accidents every time fall turns to winter. Every. Single. Time. Lifelong Alaskans forget how to drive in snow, each and every winter. We dreamed of finding a place where people grew crops like melons and tomatoes right outside in their yards, no greenhouses and heaters needed. A place where summer was summer, and fall was a riot of color. A place where there was no snow to shovel. In other words: paradise.

A year and a half ago, we packed up our belongings and son, and, with the help of my best friend who helped me stay sane on the long drive to Juneau, Alaska so that we could take the ferry to the state of Washington, we left the place that had been home for Aaron for thirty-one years (only fourteen for me).

Now we’ve been in our “forever home,” a low brown house on two acres, built in 1979, for one summer, after renting for a year while house hunting. And it is paradise. Here it is, the end of October, and the slight chill of the last few rainy days feels like a rainy day at the height of Alaskan summer. Friends and family in my former homes of Ontario and Alaska are already shoveling driveways and bundling up for the walk from front door to car. Today I was out shopping in a cardigan over a thin summer shirt, and was perfectly comfortable.

But the comfort of a moderate climate is small compared to the sense of amazement I find as I garden here. A couple of weeks ago I saw shoots coming up near our pond, where last spring grape hyacinths had bloomed. I went to the omniscient Google and discovered that these amazing little bulbs sprout in the fall. Plants that come up in October? I had no idea plants did that!


That same weekend, I did some fall planting of bulbs that will provide brightIMG_0560 springtime color next year. Planting in the fall! Now, I know people in Anchorage must IMG_0605have done this too, because I have seen with my own eyes crocuses pushing up through snow in late April and early May. But I have never myself done fall gardening. It’s a mind-boggling and delightful concept for someone to whom October means the first snowfall of the year.

Things just grow on their own here, with no help from human hands. In the soil half  of my compost bin (that is, the half that is done decomposing and is now rich garden dirt, as opposed to the half that is freshly discarded leaves and kitchen scraps), I just discovered five young tomato plants and a large patch of parsley, joining a melon plant that has an almost-ripe melon that we’ll pick soon. In fact, this isn’t good, not from a gardening perspective. It’s a sign that the compost pile isn’t decomposing properly, killing seeds with internal heat as it ought to. But I can’t bring myself to uproot these miracle plants. Young parsley and tomatoes sprouting in October, as if no one told them they’re supposed to be curling up and dying under a layer of snow, rigid inside a foot of frozen earth. Incredible.


But, oddly, the plant that has solidified this sense of magical fall growth has been garlic. Researching this summer, I discovered that garlic is best planted either in fall, for a late-winter/early spring crop, or in late winter for an early summer crop. So said, again, the all-knowing Google. But I didn’t truly believe it. What northern gardener would put plants into the ground in October and expect to harvest in winter? I planted anyway, obedient to the wisdom of search engines, shaking my head at the crazy idea of a January harvest.


And then. And then. Last weekend I strolled past the garden bed where I’d planted the garlic. And – NO WAY! Seven fresh green sprouts against the dark brown earth. Sprouts in October, promising a winter crop, a frail green proof of paradise.


Oregon. My own paradise, found.

Birthday Angst

Niko has turned four. It was a bit of a letdown for him, I think. It seems he was expecting to be noticeably bigger, and to FEEL different. Instead, here he is, still himself. Maybe he’ll feel better after his little family celebration today, with balloons and hats and dinosaur decorations on cupcakes he helped make.

For me, his birthday is a source of anxiety. I don’t know how to celebrate birthdays. I certainly don’t feel up to organizing a multi-family celebration like the one we recently attended, which was lovely but would have left me a distressed mess of nerves if I’d been in charge of it.

I remember my own fourth birthday. I was allowed to wear my favorite dress: green gingham, topped with a white pinafore with an apple embroidered on the front. I walked with my parents and brother through the frosty winter early-morning darkness from our small house to the commune’s main gathering area (known as the Tabernacle – this was a religious commune) for breakfast. I was so full of excitement that I hopped up and down as I announced “I’m four!”

To my astonishment and distress, this was greeted with a unanimous refusal to believe my news. “No way!” “You are not!” “You’re still three! You’ll be three FOREVER.” I was on the brink of tears as I wondered if my mom had been misinformed. However, these were kind people who knew me very well and loved me as much as my own family did, and they quickly saw my worry and surrounded me with hugs and congratulations. I remember the smiling faces, being swung high in the air by a pair of strong friendly arms, the feeling of warmth fizzing inside at the rare display of excess attention.

And that was it. No birthday song – for years, I thought that was a fiction, something that authors invented for the benefit of their book characters. No hats, no balloons, no special meal. I had my first birthday cake two years ago, when I announced to Aaron that, despite being in my thirties, when many people are happy to stop counting the years, I wanted a birthday cake. He came through with a lovely pink grapefruit confection, topped with shimmering pink frosting and candles. I ate far too much of it and was satisfied that I had now had a birthday experience.

So I really don’t know what birthdays should be like. And I worry that I’m not coming through for Niko. For me, it wasn’t a big deal. None of my friends had birthday celebrations, either – or Christmas, Halloween, or any other “worldly” or “pagan” celebration. I didn’t feel left out or deprived. But Niko’s friends have moms who fling themselves into birthdays with joyous abandon. His friends have large gatherings with party favors, games, and excited kids shepherded by cheerful parents. I worry that, at some point, Niko will notice that his mom – with the social anxiety that comes from a constant sense of feeling like a cultural transplant, plus, thanks to ADHD, the difficulty focusing enough to plan an actual party – isn’t up to par.

I don’t mean this to be a depressing post. Niko is a happy little boy. We will conclude a fun, Niko-focused day (ToysRUs! Lunch at McDonald’s!) with a small family celebration. We’ll wear hats. He’ll have balloons. We made fondant dinosaurs for cupcakes. He will get to tear into a few gifts, some of which he chose himself. And we have a tentatively planned play date with his best friend, for later this week, at which he will have yet another dino cupcake. More importantly, he has a family who loves him.

Yes, my sweet boy will be fine. But still, the anxiety persists. Maybe it always will. All I can do is keep on trying. Trying to act like a normal person who wasn’t raised on a commune. Trying to pretend these new cultural activities make sense to me. And, most of all, trying to be a good mom to my kids. After all, isn’t that what we all want? And I’m pretty sure, from talking with other parents, that we all feel inadequate. Anxiety-ridden. Filled with self-doubt. We all second-guess ourselves.

Maybe I’m not so different, after all. Commune girl or no, when those feelings are distilled and examined microscopically, that’s what I’m left with. I just want the best for him. Just like you.

Summer’s End Iced Tea

When I was growing up, I lived on a commune in Northwest Ontario (for those of you paying attention, this was both before and after the homestead/trapline but before being an Alaskan city girl). Anytime there was a gathering, there was iced tea. And, as I said, this was…a commune. There was always a gathering. By definition, we were, in fact, a gathering. I’m sure you can imagine we went through a lot of Lipton’s tea bags. We always made it the same way, starting with a great big metal pot half-filled with water on the back burner of the enormous stove. You had to carry the water to the pot from the faucet, both because it wouldn’t fit under the faucet and also because, once full, it was hard to carry. A big wad of tea bags floated on top after the water boiled, until someone judged it strong enough. Then, industrial-sized scoops of sugar stirred in with a wooden spoon. Haphazard squirts of lemon juice. Topped off with fresh cold water. Thoughtful tastes. More sugar. More lemon. Ooops…more water. Finally, perfection. That is, unless someone (who shall remain nameless – but it wasn’t me) accidentally scooped from the salt container instead of the sugar container, despite the black Magic marker label. Big oops.

I learned to make sun tea when I lived in Haines, Alaska (in, yes, another commune). I do recognize the irony of learning about sun tea in one of the greyest, dampest, chilliest (but also one of the most majestically beautiful) places in the world. When you live in Southeast Alaska, you take full advantage of every drop of sunlight you can get. And one thing that means is sun tea. Basically, you get a glass pitcher or jar – it needs to be clear – and put cool water and tea bags into it, and let it sit outside in the sun till it’s done. This has to be done in the summer, really, because you need the sun’s warmth to speed the process. You can make cold-brewed tea any time of the year, but if it’s cold out, you don’t bother with the sun or with putting it outside. You just set the pitcher in a semi-warm place and give it lots of time to steep.

Last week, we had weather in the 80s. I’ve never experienced this in October before. My Canadian/Alaskan soul thrilled with the warmth, and I realized that it was absolutely necessary to celebrate with iced tea. Now, I could have made basic iced tea with boiled water and Lipton tea bags, but where’s the fun in that? No, what I needed was something that tasted like a sunny day at the very end of summer. A little fruit. A little spice. This is my very favorite method of making iced tea:

Fill a clear glass pitcher with cool water. Clear, for the sun; glass, not plastic, to resist staining. Add 8 teabags for a half-gallon pitcher: one per cup. (If you’re making a whole gallon, you really only need 10-12 teabags, but for a regular pitcher I follow the one-per-cup rule.) Half your teabags can be plain black tea. Then, you need 2 bags of chai tea and 2 bags of peach or orange tea. Cover the pitcher to keep out bugs and dust. Put it in a sunny spot where rampaging puppies and preschoolers won’t knock it over. Let it sit until the water has turned a deep, rich red-gold color. On a really hot day, this can happen in under an hour.

I don’t sweeten my iced tea in the pitcher. I like to leave it plain, and let everyone choose their own level of sweetness. But if you’ve ever tried to stir granulated sugar into an ice-cold drink, you’ll know that this can be an exercise in refraining from flinging your glass to the floor as the grains swirl implacably round and round in the tea. So, while the tea steeps in the sun, I like to make a simple syrup. Really simple. Stir one cup of sugar into one cup of water. Heat it in the microwave until…well, until it’s hot. Let’s say 3 minutes. Give it a good stir and watch the last grains of sugar disappear. Pour the simple syrup into a bottle to keep in the fridge next to the tea. Depending on what I plan to drink it with, I like to add some citrus zest or fresh herbs to the bottle before pouring in the hot liquid. You get a lightly flavored sweetener that can be used in cocktails, too. (Ideas: fresh lavender, basil, mint, orange zest, a juniper twig…)

There you go. Perfect iced tea, sweetened however you like it, from a pretty bottle with a colorful coil of orange zest. Just what you need for an end-of-summer day. Below, some pictures of the procedure:

It’s amazing how something as simple as the whiff of a familiar smell from a yellow box with red lettering, or the glimmer of light through a dark amber liquid, can bring the memories rushing back. We always drank iced tea when we gathered… As I sat alone in my kitchen, looking at the sunshine through my glass, I remembered how far I’ve come and how much I’ve given up to be here. I don’t regret my choices. I have a good life. But when I lift a glass of iced tea, the memories rush back, and I so badly crave hugs from all the “aunts” and “uncles” and friends I left behind. I want to sit on the front porch of the big white house with whoever else happens by to snag a glass of tea before the crowds arrived, feeling the sun on my face as we gossip about who sat next to whom in church yesterday, who might possibly be expecting yet another baby, whether we might need to pick those peas again tomorrow…

Iced tea is the flavor of gathering, of family, of closeness. It tastes like voices raised in song, bodies swaying together like trees in a breeze as a family of over a hundred souls worship together. It tastes like the faintly scandalous square dances (“But the girls and boys will be touching!”), like bringing in the hay while dust hangs in the shafts of sunlight, like snapping beans in the kitchen while stories fill the air. It’s just a glass of tea. But for a minute – just a quick minute – I am so homesick I want to cry.

And I want to tell them all: I miss you. I love you. I promise I’ll come visit soon.

Save some iced tea for me, will you?