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Small Wonder

Something new is upon us,
and yet nothing is ever new.

We are alive in a fearsome time,
and we have been given new things to fear.

We’ve been delivered huge blows but also
huge opportunities to reinforce or reinvent our will,
depending on where we look for honor
and how we name our enemies.

The easiest thing is to think of returning the blows.
But there are other things we must think about as well,
other dangers we face.

A careless way of sauntering across the earth
and breaking open its treasures,
a terrible dependency on sucking out the world’s
best juices for ourselves—these may also be our enemies.

Barbara Kingsolver

I read Barbara Kingsolver’s poem late last night, just as March turned to April. It touched me then and I hope it touches you in some way now. This was the last entry for March in a little book I often turn at day’s end. Prayers for Hard Times by Becca Anderson.

Rabbit! Rabbit! – and blessings to you all.

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IMG_1565. . . or, who gets the thigh and other fowl parts.

 

I’ll get to the chicken parts in a moment – or when I figure out how to use this new layout WordPress changed to when I wasn’t looking. Having used the same format for over 10 years, I was quite comfortable with the way things were. My first few posts were small entries. It took me awhile to figure out how to add photos, change my banner, add favorite blogs and so forth. Eventually, I managed to figure it out, post most days, and found the process enjoyable while making many new friends along the way.

I liked things just as they were.

Lately, my posts have been sporadic. Life’s many distractions and challenges, social media and other activities have stolen much of my time – along with reading and maybe playing too much Tetris. 🙂 This week, I vowed to get back to posting more often and here I am – ready to fire up the keypad and finding a new format for posting just when I had a post to write. Oh, bother, as a certain bear would say.

“It’s th’ unblessed food that makes you fat.” – Puny Bradshaw Guthrie *

On to poultry politics.

My treasured friend, Sharon, who has enjoyed Jan Karon’s Midford books as much as I have, gifted me “Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader” for my birthday this past December. We finally met up for lunch a few weeks ago, where I squealed with delight when I received this book. I have been slowly perusing it ever since.

The book contains recipes from the Midford series with related excerpts from the books, kitchen tips, whimsical drawings and short essays from Jan Karon. It was in the pages of this gem that I came to a short piece entitled “Political Chicken” with the lead sentence observing that

         “. . . once it hits the table, friend chicken becomes highly political.”

Every part, it seems, has its target audience. From the drumsticks, which most often go to children, to the breast meat, which Ms. Karon finds tasteless, to the wings and the thighs. Even the back of the bird is considered, often eaten by the cook, so everyone eating gets a more appropriate piece, except for an elderly aunt who might prefer “the part that goes over the fence last“.

As children, my sister and I were always given a drumstick – and made to feel we had the most cherished part, and we could eat it in our hands. Recently, a younger man asked me to help him find chicken thighs while I was picking up chicken at the local grocery. Really. I’m at that point in life where my female mystique is relegated to chicken thighs, but, I digress and you already know that some of my more enlightened conversations are conducted at the grocers.

I’ve rambled and hopefully this will publish and you can tell me what piece of chicken is your favorite, or, if you have a chicken story.

 

 

 

 

 

*  Quote from the inside flap of  “Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader”  edited by Martha McIntosh

 

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There is a place for everything. Toothbrush in vanity cabinet, laundry down the chute, clothes in the closet, dishes in the cupboard – and books in piles everywhere!

“Esperanza Rising” sat patiently on a pile next to my side of the bed. “Christmas Jars” was in a basket of Christmas books, which I always intend to read during December but never get to until January. It is all for the better. I seem to enjoy them more in the quiet, post holiday calm. A few select books sit on a stool, waiting for future book discussions, while a staggering stack of histories precariously balance on a wobbly, wooden chair, estate and garage sale “finds” that  begged to be brought home on various excursions.

My reading habits tend to be a bit eclectic, wandering from poetry to cookbooks, short stories to expansive tomes, and there is always time for children and young adult books, which is where one of my most recent “reads” took me.

“Esperanza Rising” is a middle grade book by Pam Muñoz Ryan. The book was a gift my son-in-law thought I might enjoy. He knows me well. I did, even if  it took me a year to finally open it up and read it.

Esperanza in the daughter of a wealthy Mexican landowner in the 1930s. She lives being catered to by servants, adored by her father, coddled by her loving grandmother, and loved by her Mama. She is an only child whose privileged life quickly changes when her father is murdered. His stepbrothers, powerful men in the region, leverage their influence and power to take over the estate. When Esperanza’s mother refuses to marry one of the uncles, they awaken to find the house on fire in the middle of the night.

With the help of Esperanza’s grandmother’s sisters in a nearby convent, Esperanza and her mother, Ramona, flee the estate. They are hidden in a wagon by servants, whose lives are also threatened by the uncles. They embark upon the long, treacherous migration to California. Along the way, Esperanza learns to find the goodness in those less fortunate in life than she has been. She learns kindness and humility as well as acceptance of others.

When these migrants finally arrive, they are taken in by relatives of their previous servants – the very servants that save them on the journey to California. Life is hard for Esperanza, sleeping in crowded quarters, their shelter not much more than a horse stall. Her privileged life is replaced by hard work, taking care of the babies and younger children while the men and women work in the fields. Miguel, her friend from Mexico, is the son of the man who transports them to California. He teaches her how to do one of the jobs she is assigned to – sweeping with a broom! She learns how to change a diaper and how to clean it, how to cook beans and how to survive.

When a dust storm whips through the work camp, Esperanza’s mother takes ill with valley fever (dust fever) and is hospitalized for a very long time. Esperanza takes over work her mother did and works hard to earn money to bring her grandmother to California.

“Esperanza Rising” is a story, based on the author’s own grandmother’s migration in the ’30s, from Mexico to California. It is the story of the unrest in Mexico and the migrant experience during the Great Depression, as well as the story of crop production, following the seasons in southern California.

The back pages of my copy provided insight into the author’s own grandmother’s migration. It also gave some recipes of food mentioned in the book (don’t you love the inclusion of recipes in a novel?) Also provided were the steps in making a yarn doll. Yarn dolls and afghan making play an important role in this book. Esperanza’s grandmother, Abuelita, teaches her how to crochet, instructing her to go up and down valleys in her stitches, incorporating strands of her hair that have fallen into the blanket. When they leave under the cloak of darkness, Ambieta gives the unfinished blanket to Esperanza. Mama works on the blanket at times in the story, soothing Esperanza, teaching her, and then Esperanza picks up the blanket when Mama is in the hospital near death.

While on the train (part of the journey to California), Mama takes pieces of yarn and makes a yarn doll for an impoverished little girl they meet.

Here is one of my first attempts at making a yarn doll. Rather pitiful, I admit.  I’ll attempt a few more as I reflect on this exceptional children’s book and attack one of my biblio-piles.

(PS – I’ll do a  post soon on some of the other books I’ve been engaged in.)

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Mr. Crow looks rather dashing, perched atop our Christmas tree, as he governs the woodland creatures below. He wears a red bowtie that he found on his long-ago travels. It ribbons its way through branches where nature inspired ornaments congregate until Epiphany. A raccoon, near wind fallen birds’ nests, sits gnawing upon a branch.  The nests were discovered after heavy winds rumbled through our little acreage as time has gone by. A dove flutters nearby, keeping the peace in this little December kingdom, and a bluebird rests in his favorite spot.

Our nature-inspired Christmas tree faces the front gardens, the road and beyond. It is in the room where we sit to hopefully spot the roaming herd of deer or to watch wintering birds find seeds or squirrels who scamper about looking for walnuts still scattered from Fall. This is where we sometimes see horses trotting past before disappearing into the woods . It is where we read, reflect, chat and dream. This room was christened “the Christmas room” by our granddaughter, Kezzie, when she was very young. It has been forevermore called just that.

Our woodland tree “just happened” our first Christmas here on the Cutoff. A real tree stood twelve feet tall in the family room. It held many family ornaments, lent fragrance and nostalgia to our home. We also had room for a second, artificial tree, which  came about that first winter here as I took out my mother’s collection of birds. The birds fondly reminded me of Ma, who was the person who first brought the tradition of Christmas trees into the big Greek family she married into. I have some of the ornaments that adorned that tree of the 1940’s and I treasure them, but, I digress.

As Ma’s birds took to their places on the woodland tree,  so did other ornaments that reflected on nature. As time went on, other birds appeared, as did other animals. I have several penguins, sheep, deer and  along with a few woodland creatures that had belonged to Tom’s sister, Maura. One-by one, year-by-year, other creatures of nature were hung on our woodland tree – and then I found the crow!

I no longer remember where he appeared, but, I do remember feeling compelled to bring him home. He reminded me of storybook about a crow, a ribbon, and a Christmas surprise.

(cover of Merry Christmas, Merry Crow by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jon Goodell)

Mr. Crow also reminded me of the illustrations, craftwork and lifestyle of Tasha Tudor.

(From Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts)

I have adored Tasha Tudor’s work for so many years, own many of her books, books she illustrated, prints, etc. and have written about her on the pages of Life on the Cutoff. Her book, “Edgar Allan Crow”, immediately came to mind when Mr. Crow found me, as did photos of her ravens and crows in some of her Christmas illustrations and photos of her craftsmanship in a series of lifestyle books about her some years ago.

There are legends of crows, including the one who overhead animals proclaim the birth of baby Jesus. The crow, it is said, flew across the land spreading the news to other birds. There are other fanciful tales of birds adorning holiday trees, along with poetry, song and on and on. Perhaps you know few.

There are also my own memories of birds and Christmas, starting with the Christmas Yia Yia, my paternal grandmother, was given a parakeet on Christmas. Christos was quite the talker, learned all sorts of phrases, many in Greek, along with some bawdy songs. These are stories for other days and part of family lore. There was also Frannie, my lovebird, a birthday gift. She loved to be out of her cage and was really everyone’s bird. She joined us for supper, perched on Tom’s shoulder and watched the 10 o’clock news, and followed our daughters around the house. Frannie was out other cage on her first Christmas with us, chirping and fluttering and being a bird. Suddenly, she disappeared! We called to her, checked the other rooms, and kept an eye out for her as we opened presents, wondering where she was. As wonderings often reveal, I saw something move, ever-so-slightly, out of the corner of my eye. Aha! There she was, perched like an ornament, watching us all, on a branch of the Christmas tree!

So, it is, that a crow crowns our Christmas tree – and will forever more.

 

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Speaking of books . . .

. . .  there is one I forgot to mention in my recent bookish post.

 I recently received a nice little congratulatory message from WordPress acknowledging the 10th anniversary of Lifeonthecutoff.

How did 10 years go by so quickly?

From my first tentative, picture less  maiden voyage, to the arrival grandchildren, illness and losses, woodland walks, flower arranging, poetry, prose and my many, er, “falls from grace”, you have been a treasured and appreciated part of this journey. Whether you were there on my first post, or just started following me today, thank you, one and all, for wandering along this road called life with me.

The one book I forgot, and pictured above, was my Christmas gift last year from Katy, Tom,  Kezzie and Ezra. I was as touched as I was thrilled when I received it and enjoy going back in time in my first published book.

Life is grand!

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I closed the cover of Delia Owens’ enthralling novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing” with a few tears in my eyes and the sadness one sometimes feels at the end of a story well written – and an ending one did not expect. As I put this book down, I realized that it has been a long while since I last posted any book recommendations or reviews. Actually, it has been some time since I posted anything, for which I apologize. I hope to return to posting more often.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” came to me from my dear friend Elaine, who rushed up to me, book in hand, and said “you have to read this“. She was correct, I did. Once opened, it was a book I could not put down. How Kya survives abuse, abandonment, loneliness, poverty and being ostracized from the community while creating a family of sorts with wildlife and waterfowl is amazing. It lives up to all the hype and worth a read. Our book group will be discussing it at a future date – a discussion I look forward to.

These two books (below) were audio, from local libraries, “read” while I was out and about in my old car that had 6 slots for DVD’s – one of the few things I will miss from that now ancient vehicle. You know, the one with the latte body and mocha interior. (or was it mocha with latte interior?).

“The Library at the Edge of the World” was a delight to listen to about returning home, belonging, family conflict and, of course, books! “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” was equally delightful. It is historical fiction about Joy Davidman’s life, friendship and love of C.S. Lewis.

 

 

“A Fatal Twist of Lemon” by Patrice Greenwood is the first of several books in a murder mysteries series, the Wisteria Tearoom Mysteries. The books are set in and around a haunted house/tearoom located in Santa Fe. Mystery, murder, historic preservation, opera, seances, weddings, culture – you name it, the series is delightful. Short in length, they are best read on a winter afternoon with a cup of tea and a tasty morsel (a few recipes are included in the books).  This first book of the series, found in the library, was truly a book judged by its cover.

 

 

 

Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore is a small, charming, well established purveyor of histories and mysteries in Forest Park, just barely outside of the boundaries of the City of Chicago.  It is a bit out-of-the-way for me, but, worthy of a trip a few times a year to see what they have on the shelves over their unique plaid carpeting, and their knowledgeable and conversational owner. I think of Sherlock Holmes whenever I enter.

The bookshop has books concerning Chicago and the surrounding area and holds many events at the store, including book signings and author lectures. If I lived closer, I would be there all the time. I stopped in one chilly spring afternoon and was drawn to this short novel about a teenaged girl, Sarah, who is the second daughter of Jewish immigrants. Sarah’s family lives in a multi-cultural neighborhood surrounding Hull House during the late 19th century. Sarah wants to be an artist. Her father is a butcher, the shop close by, her mother holds a secret from the past, her brother is often ill, her older sister has romantic interests with a young Irish lad – and the Columbian Exhibition is about to open. Juvenile/young adult fiction, I enjoyed reading this. My father’s family settled in this area, his parents immigrants, his friends of many different cultures. When I was in 5th or 6th grade, our class had a field trip to Hull House, leading me to want to learn all about Jane Addams (who makes a few appearances in the book). A short read, “Her Mother’s Secret” by Barbara Garland Polikoff is a book you might enjoy.

One afternoon, some time ago, I had our local WGN/Chicago radio station turned on in the car. Do any of you listen to John Williams, or listen to local personality in your area on the radio?  John was reviewing and praising a book he couldn’t put down, “The Feather Thief:  Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century”” by Kirk Wallace Johnson. I was so intrigued by John’s enthusiasm that I purchased “The Feather Thief”, only to let it sit and collect dust. My garden club will be discussing it early in 2020, so, I opened the pages and was immediately immersed in the history of bird and feather collecting and categorizing in the 19th century, detailing the places scientists, ornithologists, and others traveled to collect exotic birds, skins and feathers for ladies’ hats –  and for salmon fishing lures in the Victorian era. They travelled in harsh, hazardous conditions, obliterating species for fashion, sport and greed.

But wait – there is more.

The book begins with a  20 year old flautist, Edwin Rist, a gifted, talented American, who, in 2009, hops on a train after performing at the the Royal Academy of Music in London. Under the cloak of darkness, Edwin travels to the Tring Museum at the British Museum of Natural History, climbs a wall, breaks a window and methodically steals hundreds of rare bird skins, coveted by salmon fly-tiers, of which Edwin is one, and hold many awards.  This is a fascinating, true story of ornithology, fashion, the fly-tying craze, environmental issues, autism, the internet, crime – and more.

What are you reading?

Centuries and Sleuths – https://www.centuriesandsleuths.com

 

 

 

 

 

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“When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender, of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.”
― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

A trip Up North usually, happily, involves a bowl, ingredients, stirring and baking and more than one cook in the kitchen.

Not hot buttered toast, nor contented cats, but, the quote is a favorite of mine, as are these two cherished charmers.


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I was first introduced to the writings of Doris Kearns Goodwin by the mother of a dear friend of mine. Aware of my interest in history, and a history lover herself, Mary shared a book with me that she thought I might enjoy. Then a mother of young children and working full-time, I stole moments here and there, during my lunch hour, in between chores, children’s activities, waiting for a freight train to pass and often late at night. Slowly, but surely, I consumed Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize winning “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II “.

Mary was right. I did, indeed, enjoy the book. As time went by, I read other books by Doris Kearns Goodwin and I make a point to catch her on television and radio interviews and to read printed articles about her. She never disappoints me.

So it was, a month or so ago, one fine day, that several emails and texts appeared. “Penny, did you see this (know about this, hear about this)?”

My friends know me well.

 I clicked on the site for Elmhurst College, found the lecture series, secured a ticket, and eagerly anticipated the Rudolf G. Schade Lecture in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel at Elmhurst College.

Doris Kearns Goodwin Team of Rivals: The Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln.

 

Several friends and I arrived early, knowing that parking would fill quickly. We stood in line with other eager and cold ticket holders, waiting for the doors to the chapel to open. We quickly learned the lecture was sold out. Finally, the doors opened, we found good seats, chatted with others we knew, and then the lecture began to an enthusiastic audience of college students, faculty, officials  – and armchair historians.

From the moment Doris Kearns Goodwin walked onto the stage, she held her audience in rapt attention as she related stories and her experiences during her five decades of serving Untied States presidents and researching others beginning with Abraham Lincoln. Her warmth and wit were as real as her depth of  knowledge as she wove facts and insight into a blanket of leadership qualities.

I look forward to reading her latest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times” in the days ahead.

Have you read any of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s books?

“I shall always be grateful for this curious love of history, allowing me to spend a lifetime looking back into the past, allowing me to learn from these large figures about the struggle for meaning for life.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin

 

 

 

 

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Then . . .

. . . there were chunks of ice, falling en masse, individually, randomly, sporadically. The racket would stop; a calm, silent, pregnant pause that would last a few minutes or an hour, then a fresh volley of frozen winter “fruit”.  Born from an ice storm, the chunks of ice would frazzle the steadiest of nerves as they hit the roof of the house, the skylights, the pavement, the arbor and more.

With frost quakes and frozen cannonballs, we have been experiencing a rather raucous winter,

a winter with tree “fruit” sparkling amid uplifting sunrises and spectacular sunsets.

Snow can be peaceful, pristine and startlingly beautiful. It is a great equalizer; a coverlet, in equal measure on all that it touches, with indifference to income level or social status – at least at first snowfall, before the snowplows work time-and-half or double-time to clear the roads.

Ice, in all its glittering glory, is a lethal weapon when falling from above. It is challenging to walk upon. Its weight bears down on wires, creating outages which can become emergencies for medical needs, heating, communication. We have been fortunate. Our power has remained on, though our cable connections (which include landline, television, and internet) went out the other day. Thankfully, service resumed in a few hours. We really cannot complain.

We are coping, grateful for a warm house, food, cars that start and roads that plowed and are salted.

We have, however, entered into that 5th season –  pothole season. Rough winters and heavy vehicular traffic conspire to create amazing crevices – potholes –  in the pavement. This year, for some reason I have yet to discover, the potholes are harder to see. They are smaller, deeper, closer together and reveal themselves upon impact! I am wondering if the frost quakes have something to do with this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So it goes, here on the cutoff. Stews and soups, hot tea and books are good for the winter-weary soul (not that I need a reason). More often than not, I can be found near the front window, a blanket on my lap, tea on the table and a book in hand.

On a recent late afternoon, I pulled out an old friend, “An American Year; Country Life and Landscapes Through the Seasons” by Hal Borland. It is a journal of sorts, filled with Borland’s seasonal essays and accompanied by illustrations from a host of “Distinguished Contemporary Artists”.  These are Hal Borland’s words from February, page 179.

The temperature still falls and the wind still roars, but there is smugness here and comfort and companionship. The night draws us all closer together. Surely it was not by chance alone that hearth and heart came so near to being the same word.

 

 

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Sitting in my favorite overstuffed rocker, a cup of tea precariously positioned on a pile of decorative storage boxes at my side with a current “read” in hand, I was quite content in the stillness of the approaching end of day. I like this spot for reading, and other spots as well, but, truth-be-told, I can read a book just about anywhere.

How about you?

Do you have a favorite spot where you like to read? A chair, perhaps, or on the couch, in the cafeteria, or your car? Really, Don’t laugh. Natural light pouring in from the sun roof on brilliant day naturally illuminates the words on a page, especially for those of us who find the need for “cheaters”.  It  isn’t a very practical place for a long read, but works quite nicely when stopped by a freight train, but, I digress. Do you like to be wrapped in a blanket by the fireplace or propped on a beach towel at the pool? Do you need complete silence or mood music?

This is the first page in my Reading Women engagement calendar. The painting, by Adolphe Borie, brings to mind my Greek grandmother who read to me while I sat on her lap. She would turn the pages and tell the tales, even though the book was often upside down and without illustrations. Yia Yia could neither read nor write, but, she gave me a love of books sitting on her lap in much the same way as Borie’s painting.

As my mind was wandering with bookish thoughts as sipped a new tea, I realized that it has been awhile since I have shared some books that you might enjoy and asked what you might be reading. Here are few books that captured my interest over the past several months.

“Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: We are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.”  

from “Sourdough” by Robin Sloan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would also like to recommend this wonderful tea. It was a gift from a dear friend who knows how much I enjoy tea along with literature.

Literary Tea.

 

 

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