Monday, December 28, 2009

sweet dreams

I can't believe how busy I've been. I've nearly driven myself mad making all my own Christmas gifts this year. I've simultaneously enjoyed it and found it to be totally overwhelming. I finally gave in on a few gifts and supplemented them with books, a worthy alternative. We had a really lovely Christmas at home - several quiet days without work or other schedules, just time spent together. I enjoyed it so much. But I still have Christmas packages to mail out. I hope to send them tomorrow, which means finishing up with wrapping and packaging tonight.

I have missed writing and missed this blog so much. I had so much momentum in early fall and as the holidays approached it became harder and harder to find the time to be here. I'm hoping that, in 2010, I can approach this project with even greater focus and tenacity. Brian got me a digital photography handbook for Christmas, as well as getting me a gift certificate for one hour of instruction with some professional photographers he knows. I really need help understanding the technical aspects of digital photography, so it's a wonderful gift.

My goal for the coming year is to find time every day to nurture and express my creativity, even if it's just 30 minutes of taking notes on possible blogs or a few minutes of knitting before bed. I have several ideas that I want to pursue, and I want to put a lot of energy into promoting and marketing this blog, trying to increase it's readership, trying to focus once again on its purpose and place in this world.

All of this, of course, requires time, which is unfortunately very hard to come by these days. My toddler is more and more reluctant about bedtime. As I write, I can hear her bouncing around on her bed instead of sleeping. I feel completely desperate when she starts acting up at bedtime. I have come to rely on my two hours of quiet evening alone time to be so important, not only for this project but for my own sanity. As with every other part of parenting, there is a part of me that wonders what I am doing wrong. Why is my usually agreeable toddler so difficult at bedtime? It could be much worse, I know - but I can't handle worse. I can barely handle this.

I'm fortunate to have a husband who supports what I'm doing here, who wants it to be a successful and meaningful project for me. He understands when he comes home and I'm not done posting for the night. He doesn't complain when I ask him to hold off on eating while I photograph his plate of food. I'm thankful for that, and hopeful. I'm hopeful that once my holiday gift-making extravaganza subsides I'll feel a little more free in the evenings. I'm hopeful that when the holidays are over, when Dora's schedule is once again consistent and predictable, her bedtime will once again become more consistent and predictable. I'm hopeful that, even though I have never been a big fan of celebrating New Year's Eve, the coming year will bring things worth celebrating - creative, new things of which we are only now dreaming.

Sweet dreams, everyone.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

lost and found

Yesterday I found a pair of missing earrings in my desk at work. They were hidden beneath a pile of CDs - copies of Environmental Impact Statements and traffic count maps. I unearthed them as I packed for an overnight trip out of town for meetings. The earrings are a pair of turquoise and silver dangling earrings that belonged to my mother. Originally clip-on earrings, she had the little triangular bunches of leaves turned into dangling gems for me to wear in my pierced ears. I have always loved these earrings, and had been feeling terrible about losing them. Finding them again was like discovering some small piece of myself hidden inside my desk, buried under all the work that I need to do, obscured by some tangible and symbolic representation of who I am in the professional world.

Yesterday afternoon I drove 4 hours east to our state capital, navigating in the dark and fog through heavy traffic to my downtown, high-rise, fancy hotel that offers an incredibly low government rate. I was pretty pleased with myself for finding my way, all alone in a city I barely know. Like so many other business-people I walked into the hotel in my high heel boots with my rolling black suitcase, flashing my government badge to get my low rate, and requesting just a single key - traveling alone, my life and family at home, my work defining even my physical location.

I met a friend for dinner, both of us out for once without children, enjoying a glass of wine and good conversation without someone tugging on our sleeves. We walked back towards my hotel in the mist, surrounded on all sides by tall buildings whose rooftops were obscured by the gloomy night. I thought about the earrings - the essence of myself discovered hidden in my desk - and wondered who I really am. Am I really the person I appeared to be today, in my skirt and suit jacket, high heels pounding the urban pavement? Am I really the woman who sat at the board room table, in the black leather chairs sized for men? Am I really this person who sat at the table with the big boys and their maps, listening to and actually understanding (most of) their chatter about impacts and y-lines and culverts? I listened and I voted and I even asked some pointed, rhetorical questions.

At lunch after several meetings today, the person across the table from me said I don't look old enough to have a two-and-a-half-year-old child. Not sure if that was a genuine comment, or a just-being-nice comment, but it made me think even more about my identity - about who I am and who I've become, and how to figure that out. I keep hoping that someday I will find work that feels just right for me - that fits me and is meaningful to me and doesn't make me wonder if I'm pretending to be someone else. I keep hoping that someday I'll be a person who says "I can't believe I get paid for this" and actually mean it. I realized, driving the four hours back west this afternoon, that the job - no job - is ever going to feel that way. It's not going to come from outside of me - it's going to come from within, from some place of truth, some essence of myself that I'm still trying to discover - like the earrings hidden in my desk.

I am trying desperately to believe that I'll be able to find that part of myself at some point. It is so easy for that search to get clouded - by our jobs, our responsibilities, by what other people say and do to us. In the past few weeks I've let the comments of others cloud my thinking so much that I haven't been able to write the way I want to. I want this blog to be a place of truth and honesty. I want to only post things here that feel really right, really ready to be shared with the world, really good enough to be worth someone else's time to read. I don't want to hurt anyone with what I write. But, I don't want to hurt myself by not writing it, either.

I know that whether I'm pounding the pavement like all the other young urban professionals or wearing my PJs and watching the dogs watch Dora eat dinner, there is a truth inside of me that's not only worth finding, it's worth sharing and believing in, even when I get confused about my identity and my place in the world. One of the hardest things about life is not knowing the future. I was just wondering today what - if anything - I would have done differently if I'd known that I'd lose my mother at age 28. Would it have been easier to just know? I'm not sure - and I guess that's not the point. I don't know where I'm going right now - like all that fog and dark and mist I drove through last night.
I have to believe I'm not the only one feeling this way - not the only one who wonders who they are, how they got there, and where they are going. I just have to trust my nose - trust my ability to navigate and get there - and trust that I won't make too many wrong turns, or at least not so many that they can't be retraced and repaired.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

pizza night

I'm all about simplicity right now when it comes to eating. Just the other day my husband was expounding upon the importance of a healthy diet for children. I completely agree with him, of course, and our philosophy has been that Dora eats as many organic, healthy, fresh, local, and unprocessed foods as possible. All of that being said, I have so much to do in the evenings right now that I really do need simple, quick things to make. I started writing this blog almost a week ago - and I'm just now getting around to posting it. That's how busy I am every day - I'm sure you can relate.

So, last week when we were shopping at Earthfare, a lovely little ball of freshly made pizza dough at the pizza counter seemed to have a beam of light shining on it. Usually, when I make homemade pizza, I make my own dough - it's quiet easy and fast to do so, and also very inexpensive. But with so many other responsibilities right now, I took the illuminated ball of dough as a sign.

The next night I set out to turn that little ball of dough into something fresh and delicious for our dinner. Usually when I'm cooking, Dora is entertaining herself in some other way. My husband works in the evenings so its always up to me to manage Dora while making dinner, and the result is that usually, she watches TV while I make dinner. There was a time in my life when I swore that no child of mine would watch TV, but I quickly learned that parenting is all about letting go of your preconceived ideas about what is right and just doing your best. To me, eating healthy, freshly made food is more important that avoiding TV. I see less harm in Elton John wearing his most flamboyant outfit, singing Crocodile Rock with a group of Muppets than I see in opening up a can of ChefBoyardee.

Instead of watching Muppets while I made the pizza, however, Dora insisted on helping me. She's "helped" me in the kitchen before, and the result has usually been a big mess. But, for the first time, Dora actually did help me - and we both really enjoyed it. It's like a new door has opened for us. I'm so excited about all the things I want to teach her in the kitchen, all the little memories I hope to make for her that will someday mean so much to her, like my own memories of baking with my mother.

Homemade Pizza

1 ball freshly made pizza dough, room temperature (or make your own - The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen has an easy and fast recipe)
1 cup tomato sauce
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon thyme
olive oil
mozzarella cheese, freshly shredded
Parmesan cheese
assorted pizza toppings (whatever you have lurking in your fridge)
1 (or more) helpful toddler(s)

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Roll out the dough on a floured surface until about 1/4 in thick and about the size of your pan. Transfer to a cookie sheet and brush with olive oil. Top with sauce and mozzarella cheese. Add your toppings and finish with some Parmesan cheese. Bake for 10 - 15 minutes, until top is golden and cheese is bubbling. Enjoy with your little apprentice, and leave the mess in your kitchen for after bedtime.

Monday, December 7, 2009

a weekend of firsts

It was the first weekend of December, and we had several firsts here as well. We had our first snow. We had our first weekend in what feels like a long time in which Brian didn't have to work at all on Saturday. And, unfortunately, we had our first stomach bug of the year. But, in spite of that, we still managed to fit in several other happy first moments.

For the first time, we went to a cut-your-own tree farm for our Christmas tree. We bought it at Reeves Christmas Tree Farm from some wonderfully friendly folks there. Brian cut down his first tree, and Dora helped us pick it out. It's not her first Christmas tree, of course, but it's going to be the first Christmas where she's really more aware of what's going on, so it already feels different. The sweet lady at the tree farm gave Dora her first candy cane and, against my better judgment, I let Dora have it.

That afternoon, while everyone - baby, husband, dogs, cats - napped, I turned my dining room table into a mini-sewing studio and finished my first Christmas sewing project. It's not the first thing I've ever sewed, but it's definitely the most complicated. I only made a few major errors, most of which I repaired, and overall I think it looks pretty good for a beginner. I'll post a picture of the finished product after Christmas - I don't want to ruin any surprises.

On Sunday evening, when we were almost all better, Dora got to open the windows of her first Advent calendar. We were a few days late getting it started, but that's ok. It's a very cute Eric Carle pop-up calendar that Brian picked out for her. She loved looking under the little windows, looking at the little Christmas tree and presents underneath it. I have wonderful memories of Advent calendars from when I was a kid - sparkly, glittery windows with little surprises for every day. I'm so excited that we're starting that tradition with her.

We're starting earlier than usual getting ready for Christmas this year, and I don't even know why. Maybe it's our little inquisitive girl talking about Christmas lights all the time. Maybe it's my overly-ambitious list of handmade items I'm trying to finish. Or, maybe it's the fact that, among all these other firsts I've listed here, we're finally planning to have our first Christmas at home. No travel on Christmas Day, no truck-stop meals, no packing all the gifts in the car. While we will miss those we won't have the chance to see in Ohio, all of us - the dogs and cats included - will be so happy to wake up Christmas morning, enjoy the little Christmas tree that we cut down ourselves, and create our first little homemade, home-based Christmas.

Friday, December 4, 2009


I had a dream about my mother last night. I haven't dreamt about her in a long time, and last night was probably the longest, most coherent dream I've had since she died, and one of the first times that it hasn't been so much about her being sick. I dreamt that Brian and I saw her at the conference we went to in Savannah, GA. I walked in to the main ballroom for the beginning of the conference and there she was. I went right over and hugged her, told her how much I missed her. I don't remember all the details, but later we were out on the street and I was asking how things were for her now. She said, "Great. There's a guy who makes the most wonderful food for us." The dream went on the way dreams do - fuzzy and somewhat disconnected, me trying to get more time with my mom or trying to have a longer conversation and various things getting in the way. I woke up feeling like I wanted to remember that dream, like it had been different from all the others in some way.

I've been thinking a lot in the past few days about how we become like our parents. I see Dora becoming like Brian and I already - doing things I used to do, wearing my baby hat, reading books I used to read, now even playing with things that were mine. When I was home for Thanksgiving my dad gave me a little chalkboard desk that I remember playing with. In fact, it still has my name on it.

Dora loves it. And she loves Richard Scarry books, just like Brian and I used to. We read her "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go" and there are illustrations on nearly every page that I remember from my childhood.

Aside from doing things that we used to do as kids, Dora is really into imitating us now. She sits at Brian's keyboard, sticks a pencil behind her ear just like he does, puts music up in front of her, and plays the piano. She pretends to cook in the kitchen with me, she insists on walking "Furphy" while I walk Newman. She says, "I'll be right back, ok?" which is something I saw ALL the time. Her vocabulary is amazing. I gave her a dandelion on our dog walk the other day and she said, "Nice! It's so pretty!". I asked her what color the dandelion was and she said, "yellow". Every day she does something like that - says something new, or copies some action or expression that we do - and I am reminded both of how quickly she is growing up and how much she is learning every day. I definitely don't always feel like we're doing everything right - I am quite sure we're not, given Dora's absolute obsession with The Muppets (tonight while watching she said, "Piggy dancing and singing!"). Even so, I take her ability to imitate us and express herself, even draw what actually does look like a kitty - albeit one with about 25 legs - as a sign that we're doing ok. She's learning and growing and turning into a little girl, a little combination of Brian and I that charms me, sometimes frustrates me, and opens my eyes.

I see our parents in Brian and I, too. Both of us have followed in our father's footsteps in terms of career choice - Brian in music like his dad, and me in journalism and then local government like mine. Brian's got the Brause sense of humor, too, and when he's with his mom and her family members I can see how the Brause clan has had a big influence on who he is, his mannerisms. I see things in myself that come from my mom, too, and other things that I suspect were somehow passed genetically to me from my extended family. Am I so enamored with knitting in part because my aunt Joanne, my mom's sister, is a prolific and talented knitter? Am I branching out into sewing because of the impeccable precision and quilt-making talent of Great-Grandma Carrie, my namesake? Did my pie crust get passed to me from my aunt Frieda, my dad's sister?

What have I passed on to Dora in the same way? A penchant for nakedness? I'm wondering if that might be genetic, too.

My mother used to say that, after someone died, she would dream of them. The deceased person would come to her in her dreams and they would be young, healthy, at their prime. They would tell her, "I'm ok, I'm fine, I'm happy". Those dreams didn't make her stop grieving, but they eased her pain in some way. And those dreams were very consistent. To my knowledge, she always had them. I've been waiting for that dream, for that chance to see my mother in my dreams and hear her say she is ok. I've been hoping that, like the knitting and the sewing and the good pie crust, this is a trait that somehow got passed on to me. Last night's dream wasn't that dream, but maybe it was close. Maybe it was a preview, a glimmer of some future dream where my mom will come to me and say, "I'm ok, I'm fine, I'm happy" and I can say, "I am, too". Maybe she'll say, "I love you and I miss you", to which I can say, "me too, mom, me too".

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Whatever's Left" Hash for a Winter's Night

I've been a bit worried lately that I would never write about food again. In the past few weeks I had kind of lost interest in it a bit. I had more to say in the narrative realm, I guess, and a few other things converged to make it less appealing. My toddler started refusing her usual early, wonderful bedtime. The days got shorter and shorter, until it is now completely dark by the time we get home from daycare pickup, making food photography while cooking in the evenings next to impossible. Our CSA was winding down, and is now over, so that nearly every week the foods were root vegetables that are shelf-stable, slowing down a bit my feelings of urgency for using them up.

Then, a few things happened to reignite my interest in writing recipes. First, I listened to almost non-stop podcasts of cooking shows on our trip to Ohio, because we traveled separately and my husband wasn't in the car to ask us to please listen to something else. I caught several episodes of The Splendid Table and KCRW's Good Food, as well as a few episodes of This American Life (which always makes me wish I was interesting enough to be featured on the show - where do they find these people!?). Listening to all of that totally indulgent, almost bawdy talk about cooking was inspiring. Then, I spent nearly a week eating and cooking in other people's kitchens, enjoying the food and fellowship but dearly missing my tiny kitchen, with all of its limitations but all of its charm, as well as a few tools I can't live without.When I returned home to a refrigerator that looked, well, abandoned, I wanted to try to salvage at least some of whatever edible items were still left inside.

Last, but not least, my in-laws gave me an early Christmas present - a 35 mm f1.8 lens for my new D90. Oh my, this lens is amazing. I can turn off the main lights in my kitchen and take some amazing photos in very low light. Now that's delicious!

This recipe is inspired by an episode of "Stump the Cook" on The Splendid Table.

"Whatever's Left" Hash for a Winter's Night

1 cup vegetable broth
2 gloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
one small yellow onion, thinly sliced
5 or 6 fingerling potatoes, scrubbed and thinly sliced
1 or 2 carrots, scrubbed, cut in half, and thinly sliced
I bunch collards (or kale or swiss chard), rinsed, stemmed, and chopped
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
eggs (1 for each person)
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350. In a small saucepan, bring the broth to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until reduced slightly. Remove from heat and set aside. In a heavy skillet, saute the olive oil over medium high heat until shimmering. Add the onions and garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Saute until golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and carrots, and continue sauteing until just tender, about 7 - 10 minutes more. It's ok for the vegetables to get a little brown around the edges. Add the greens and saute until just wilted. Stir everything together well and put into a greased square baking pan. In a small bowl, combine the sour cream and cheese and season with salt and pepper. Pour the vegetable broth into the baking pan (use just enough to cover the bottom of the pan), then spread the cream cheese mixture over the top of the vegetables. Crack the eggs over top, cover with foil, and bake until the eggs are set (about 15 - 20 minutes, depending on how well-done you like your eggs).

I have only made this once, but I'm eating it right now and it's great. Next time I'll remove the foil for the last half of the cooking in hopes the top will brown a bit. You can also feel free to substitute any or all of the vegetables with whatever you have on hand - just group the hard and soft vegetables together so they cook evenly.

Happy winter meals!