Friday, November 26, 2010

100% From Scratch Pumpkin Pie

I cooked all day yesterday, just for the three of us. I made nearly everything - except for the butter, the drinks, the bread for the stuffing, and the fried onions for the green beans - from scratch. Even the mushroom sauce for the green bean casserole was from scratch. It was warm and sunny. We cooked with the windows open, peeled potatoes in our shorts.
It was a non-stop kitchen extravaganza, but we did find time for playing games - Candyland and Memory - while the chicken roasted. I couldn't see roasting a turkey for two adults and a toddler, so we had chicken with herbs. 

As we sat down to dinner, the song we danced to at our wedding - I've Got You Under My Skin - came on. It seemed like a sign - a sign of all that we have to be thankful for, a sign of commitment and what it really means to be in a committed relationship, a reminder that everything about us - even our beautiful girl - starts from one tiny, simple, sacred space together. 

It was a beautiful day, and the only thing that would have made it more beautiful would have been if our table could have somehow magically been surrounded by all our friends and family, all the people we love so much, living or not. That would have made the meal absolutely perfect. 

Most of what I made came out well, but not everything. The mashed potatoes weren't quite right, and the bread cubes I cut up for the stuffing were too large. The best part, without a doubt, was the 100 percent from scratch pumpkin pie. I've never before made a pumpkin pie that started out as an actual pumpkin, and now that I have, I'm not sure I'll ever make another one that starts out as a can. This pie was so absolutely perfect - great texture, delicious pumpkin-y taste - that the minimal (and I mean minimal) extra effort needed to roast the pumpkin instead of opening the can was completely worthwhile. The best part - even better than the fact that I still have about half of this pie left - is the fact that I have another pie pumpkin from Flying Cloud Farm in my collection of winter squashes, patiently waiting for its destiny in my pie plate. 

 100% From Scratch Pumpkin Pie 

For the crust: 

I use this recipe from Martha Stewart for my pie crusts. For this particular pie, you can halve the recipe. 

For the filling: 

1 whole, honest-to-goodness pie pumpkin 
2 large eggs 
3/4 cup brown sugar 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 
1 cup half and half 

Preheat the oven to 425. Line a rimmed baking sheet with tin foil or parchment and oil very lightly with vegetable oil. Without scooping out the seeds, roast the pumpkin, cut side down, until tender and browned - about one hour. Allow to cool completely. Discard seeds and scoop flesh (even browned spots) into a medium bowl. Puree using an immersion blender. When smooth, press through a fine mesh sieve into a large bowl, discarding any solids left in the sieve.

To the pumpkin add the eggs, sugar, salt, vanilla, and spices. Whisk until combined, then whisk in the half and half. 

Reduce oven temperature to 375. Place the pie crust in a 9-inch pie dish. Line the pie crust with tin foil, and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake until firm, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool for about 15 minutes.

Reduce oven temperature to 350. Pour prepared filling into baked crust. Bake until set, about 1 hour. Allow to cool on a wire rack for one hour before slicing. Serve with homemade whipped cream, and kiss those cans goodbye.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


A few weeks ago someone told me, wisely, that I should write down all the cute and funny things that Dora says and does. If I were actually finding time to do this, I'd have plenty of material. Like the time recently when she said to me while using the potty "girls stand up, and boys sit down". I asked how she knows that and she said, "because it's true". We went camping recently and she enthusiastically introduced herself to all sorts of people, kids and adults alike. She walked up to a woman dining at an outdoor restaurant and reached for her sweet potato fries, "hey, can I have one of these?"  A jogger ran by us at a waterfront park and she said, "I hope that man doesn't fall in the water!" Today she asked Brian why his chest is so hairy, and tonight, when I suggested she share a cookie with her friend, she said, "yeah, I can do that, because I'm really very nice". 

There seems to be no shortage of funny, charming, or observant things running through her mind at any moment. She's pretending all the time, imitating us, saying things we say. But she's coming up with her own things, too, showing us the little individual she's becoming. I feel now as I did when she was a tiny baby on her first day, wrapped up like a burrito in my arms. I looked at her, amazed at how different and interesting she was, and overwhelmed by how much I instantly liked her. 

 Last month she spent her first overnight visit away from us, staying a whole week in Ohio with my dad and stepmother. I enjoyed the time apart at first, the time to focus uninterrupted, the easy mornings, the spontaneous dinners out, seeing a movie together. But I missed her so much, too, our house feeling instantly cold and empty without her. A sock lay strewn across her bed, waiting. I woke up in the middle of the night terrified, panicked at the thought of the miles that lay between us. My home did not feel right without her in it, and I wanted her back as soon as possible. 

We met in West Virginia to exchange child and dog. We had lunch at a crowded, buffet-style restaurant. I took Dora into the dingy bathroom, and instantly thought of my mother, of all the dirty West Virginia bathrooms we braved in our years together, driving to vacation in the Outer Banks. I missed her so much at that moment, longing for her to be there, to see me now, to know me as a mother, to know Dora. 

Back at the table, the season's first snow falling outside, Dora looked at me and said, "where's your mom?" We've talked about my mom a lot before, but she's never asked me so directly about her. "Well, that's an interesting question," I said. "Remember how Mackeson got sick, and then he died and went to heaven? Well, that's what happened to my mommy. She's in heaven now." Dora pondered this a moment and said, "that's her home?" "It is now," I replied. 

I drove us home through the last signs of fall and the first snowflakes of winter. We passed flaming red poison sumac pointing to the sky, bright orange maples, the ground around them blanketed in gold. Above us was a bright, amazing sky - gray, foreboding clouds, layered with thin white filament and backlit with a powerful glistening sun. I wondered how it was possible a 3-year-old could not only charm me with her witty and often funny observations of the world, but also somehow be so insightful and knowing as to ask questions that shoot right into my heart like an arrow. 

I was asked recently about how I've felt my mom in my life since she died. Some people report dreams, or feeling a presence. For me it has been much more fleeting, much more like glimpsing the tail of a comet. Her smile appearing on Dora's face for an instant, or my hand looking just like hers in the evening, turning pages as I read to Dora, my mom's silver and turquoise ring glistening on my finger.  On the first anniversary of her death, Brian and I drove over to Lake Lure, me anxious for something to do other than sit around the house thinking about what I had been doing one year before. It was a surprisingly warm day. We walked Murphy along the lake, empty vacation homes all around. The cherry trees along the water's edge were covered in tiny, pink blossoms just beginning to open, and it was only January 7th. 

When my mom died, I hoped that I would someday have a daughter, that I would someday have that mother-daughter love in my life again. Now that I've been blessed with my amazing little girl, I want nothing more than for her to know all she can about my mother, to know who she was and what she meant to me. When she asks me her witty questions, or when she eats and writes and draws with her left hand, or when that mischievous smile crosses her face for just an instant,  I wonder if she already does. 

Friday, October 15, 2010


I've been doing a lot of reflection over the past few weeks, noticing little things that have happened, a few choice words said by others, little glimpses of answers and understanding I've been searching for. Last week, I went home for lunch, for a quick break in the middle of a stressful and long day, to do some dinner prep, and to eat quite possibly the most delicious sandwich ever made.  I had on-hand all the ingredients to make a really killer pimiento cheese sandwich - City Bakery Seven Grain bread, a local tomato, leftover hormone free bacon, and Earthfare's chipotle pimiento cheese. A perfect culinary goodbye to summer. Yum.

That day I heard Joan Osborne's "What if God Was One of Us" on the radio. In it she asks, "what would you say if you had just one question?" I pondered this for a second and knew my answer right away. "what am I supposed to be doing with my life?" I wouldn't ask who shot JFK, or what happened to Atlantis, or if there really is a Bermuda Triangle, or even what Heaven is like. I'd ask for guidance, for direction, for an answer to the one question I find myself pondering the most: who am I, and what am I doing here?

Later that day I saw a bumpersticker - "Love my job, love my boss. I'm self-employed". I found myself wondering if God speaks to us through bumper stickers. It just seemed to be placed there for me to see it, to get stuck in my brain to return to when I start questioning myself again. I jotted it down on a piece of paper.

A few people, some who know me well and others who I am only just getting to know, have told me lately that I'm doing ok - reassured me that I'm doing a good job with my daughter, boosted my confidence about my job, complimented or even promoted my photography, or just encouraged me that the challenges I'm facing now won't necessarily last forever. It's not just these words that give me comfort, but the fact that busy people who are under no obligation to do so have found a way to lift me up, let their warm light shine on me, give a part of themselves to me in a way that really means something, really betters me in some way. A woman I hardly know the other day asked me about my work, and after explaining my day job to her I added that I do some creative things on the side - writing, photography, crafts. "You're an artist", she said, "I can tell." 

 I drove home through a light fall drizzle pondering this. When I think of artists, I think of real, trained, openly talented people - my mother, her beloved teacher Don Roberts, our spectacularly cool and also very loving neighbors Steve and Katherine Aimone. I think of superstar artists, and people whose work graces the walls of galleries, hotshot photographers whose websites make me swoon. Me - I'm just dabbling in things I love, stumbling my way through technological advancements, trying to understand my sewing machine, and relying on my innate understanding of the rule of thirds. 

In the past, I have comforted myself a bit about losing my mother when I was just 28 by recognizing that, while our relationship was cut short, it was also very strong, very close, very lovely. Like everyone else we fought and had our differences, but other than a few minor details there is little I would change about my relationship with my mother if given the opportunity, other than of course making it longer. I'm realizing now that this is the way life is - everyone gets some things right, and other things that aren't so right. Some people get a long time to work on their relationships with their parents, but are never as close as they might want to be. Some people know exactly what they want to do in their working life, know their calling as if God's plan for them was delivered to their doorstep wrapped tidily in a bow. Some people don't get to live in a town they love, but they know they're doing what they're supposed to. It seems that God just doesn't let us have all the answers at once - none of us do, even those that seem to. 

A pastor once told me that God speaks to us when we get quiet and really listen to ourselves, to our hearts, to our gut instincts about what we should do. I try to remember this - to give myself time to get quiet and hear that voice. I feel now that God also finds ways to speak to us through others - through those who know us well and those we have only just met who find a way to say just what you need to hear, just when you need to hear it, even though they have no idea that's what you need just then. If I have learned anything from my recent challenges it is perhaps that staying alert for and open to those voices of encouragement is as powerful, if not moreso, as listening to my own voice, my own questions.

This morning, Dora cimbed into my bed in the darkness to snuggle with me. She pulled me close and said, "mommy, you're my best friend". God knows what we need to hear. Sometimes we don't even need to ask. We just need to listen. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010


I've been neglecting my blog, partly because I've been busy with some other new projects, like working on my photography, and partly just because my life has been really complicated lately. I have a lot of things to write about, and then again some things I haven't wanted or been able to put into words in a way that I can share here. I've had such a lack of clarity lately that it's been difficult to know where to begin.

Yesterday when I went to pick Dora up from school, I was really looking forward to seeing her. It's been a long week, full of evening meetings and other activities making our time together limited. I was excited to start our weekend together. When I arrived, though, the teacher told me she had just bitten one of her friends, for "being in her way".  I spoke to Dora disapprovingly, reminding her of the consequence the last time she bit one of her friends - no TV all evening.  

We had to make a quick stop at the grocery store for milk and orange juice. I toyed with getting some ice cream and in the split second I stood still to look at the choices, Dora decided to take off. She's run from me in the store before, but this time she completely disappeared. The store was packed with people starting their weekends. I turned round and round in the produce section, paced back and forth at the ends of the aisles, and she was nowhere to be seen. I thought, is it time to start screaming her name? Then I saw the flash of her plaid shorts by the milk and cheese, following a girl of about 7 who was trying to help her. I grabbed her arm hard, admonishing her never to do that again. She started crying loudly, saying she didn't want a time out. It felt like that scene in a movie when the film slows down a little, every head slowly turning to look at us while I dragged Dora to the checkout line. One man glared at me as if to say, "if you had held onto her properly you could've avoided this". 

I sat in my car feeling like the world's worst parent, embarrassed by my anger and frustrated with my inability to coax good behavior out of my daughter at times when I need it most - in public, or when she could be in danger. I started to cry, thinking of my friends and their lives that seem less complicated, feeling pangs of jealousy of those who seem to (or do) have what I want. I thought, "how can I want two children when I can barely handle one?" 

The truth is, we do want another child, but for some reason, it hasn't happened for us yet. While second babies seem to appear every day amongst my circle of friends, we remain three. I'm sure there are many reasons, but sitting in my car in the afternoon sun, Dora whining for her blanket, I thought perhaps God hasn't given me a second baby because I'm not yet doing a good enough job with the first one.

My logical mind knows this is not the case, that there is not some cosmic scorekeeper above, deciding who's had enough tragedy or hardship, evenly distributing the natural disasters by population and demographics, checking off the boxes next to discomfort and disappointment in each person's life. I know you don't "get" a second baby by being "good enough" to your first one. But the voice of one's logical mind is not always the loudest. 

This afternoon, Brian had a gig and Dora and I had a girl's afternoon. We went to the trail around Beaver Lake in Asheville, me snapping pictures and Dora riding her little Skuut bike. We had to stop and pet every dog. I pointed out every turtle. Dora said hi to every person we passed, and she chatted with others. A group of teenage girls were lounging in the grass, and she said to me, "I want to go talk to those ladies." We talked to an older couple walking a dog, and another couple who wanted to know all about Dora's bike. Dora ran up to another woman walking by herself. We spoke for a few minutes and as we were about to part ways, Dora grabbed the woman's leg to hug her. The woman said, "where does she get all that love?" 

We were near the end of our walk then, so I carried a tired Dora, her bike, her helmet, and my camera back to the car. I thought about what the woman said, thought about curious, open, outgoing Dora, who walks up to old African American ladies at the drugstore and grabs their hands, who says hi to every passing person, even the grumpy ones, who asks to pet every dog. I may not be doing everything right with Dora, my life may be so hectic right now that I can't give her the attention she deserves. But one thing is for sure - she knows she is loved, and she knows that showing that love to other people is part of her job in this world. That loving spirit that shines from within Dora, and the knowledge that I played at least some part in creating it, is more important than nearly anything else I can think of. Perhaps what I need to do is realize that, for now at least, knowing that is clarity enough.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

wind in the trees

Last week Dora and I went camping with friends Mandy, David, and Isaac at the beautiful and wild Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina. It still amazes me that I now live just a short and easy half days' drive from the ocean, one of my favorite places on earth. More amazing still is to go from our rainforest-like mountainous habitat to this tropical, coastal, exotic place in a mere 5 hours. In the morning I was packing our car and running last minute errands and in the late afternoon we were climbing around on the trunks of lumbering, dead Live Oak Trees, waves splashing against decaying stumps and fallen Palm fronds, like characters in Robinson Crusoe, or Lost, or Lord of the Flies. 

Dora had an absolute blast exploring this natural playground with her favorite little boy, Isaac, and canine friend Joey. I just tried to take some deep breaths and let the peacefulness instilled by the ocean sink deeply into me. I hope to carry back to Asheville with me some shred of that solitude, so difficult to hold onto amongst the stress and deadlines and constant interruptions of normal life. I took advantage of the spotty cell phone service and (essentially) refrained from keeping up with emails and checking the dreaded FB account. 

The first night, I slept restlessly. There is something so vulnerable about sleeping with nothing but a thin mesh zippered screen between you and the rest of the world. I haven't done that much camping, although I do enjoy it, but I always feel that slight sense of edginess, wonder how quickly I'd wake up if someone else started to slowly unzip my tent. Dora was restless at first, too, but the ocean breeze and promise of a day full of exploring and beach time lulled her to sleep. I lay awake looking up at the moon through the trees, worrying about having left home, worrying about our future, worrying about worrying.

The next morning dawned incredibly windy. We were in campsite 2, right behind the dunes, the ocean only steps away at high tide. Our site, vulnerable as it was to the elements, was surrounded by tall pine trees. I looked up in the gusting wind wondering how they continued to stand against such a force. Down on the ground, clothes fell off the line, chairs toppled over, our tents wobbled and rain flies snapped. Up above, though, the trees barely moved, swaying gently, a united force expertly designed to withstand natures' coastal chaos. I pointed the trees out to my friend, noting that they seemed to be helping each other. The gusts of wind seemed to be instantly dissipated by the trees' foliage, each absorbing a bit of the impact so that no one tree was required to bear the brunt alone. 

That night, though the gusty wind worried me, I slept better. I hoped that a limb wouldn't break lose and crush our tent, comforted myself with the remembrance of how the trees seemed to be helping each other. I thought about those trees like the people in my life, standing all around me in the wind and all of us helping each other. As I often do, I wished that my mom was here still, to stand amongst those trees by my side. I feel her absence every day, but most of all at times of stress and uncertainty, and I always miss her when I'm near the ocean, a place she so dearly loved. I tried to really think about what it means to have all those supports nearby - whether in body or in spirit - all steeled around me in solidarity, and I fell asleep. 

The next day, the wind had died down. We drove home through hot South Carolina, back to work and stress and all of the messes our lives include that are waiting for attention. Later in the week, Dora and I drove to the park for a quick bout of running through a field blowing bubbles, me somehow remembering to squeeze in a few moments of unplanned and silly fun in our week. The windows were down, music playing, both of us with whisps of hair flying around our faces. I remembered the trees, and my sadness that my mom is not among them, and realized there is a new little tree there now - growing tall beside me, both of us steeled against the wind together, helping each other every day in ways we may not even fully understand yet. I smiled thinking of my little tree, her glowing presence in my life easing the pain of the other absence just a bit. 

That night, we booked campsite 2 for October. I think of that wind, and how much stronger it might be in October, and I worry a bit about us in our little tent, steps away from the waves. The trees will be there, though, standing all around us, helping each other, making sure that we can rest easy - all three of us. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Last week, I had the priviledge of photographing a beautiful wedding ceremony in which our friends Trevor and Joanna pronounced their commitment to one another surrounded by family and friends in the afternoon sunlight on a beach in Surf City, NC. It was a sweet, warm weekend, filled with love and celebration and kind words. Both of them are wonderful people, grounded and kind and wise beyond their years, so it should have come as no surprise that their families and friends were in turn wonderful people. It was a beautiful thing to be a part of.

The weekend started with a welcome dinner on Saturday night, featuring a low-country boil made by family members and filled with music made by Orange Krush, for whom the bride is the lead singer, my husband the keyboardist, my friends the other musicians and their families. At Sunday's wedding ceremony, guests pitched in making flower arrangements, desserts, decorating the beach house where the reception was held. Even the groom's brother performed the ceremony, waves crashing behind his outstretched hands, wedding bands carried in a seashell filled with sand. It felt like every person there played a part in making the day happen. It was definitely a group project.

During the ceremony, as in many weddings, all of us present were asked to support the couple, to be there for them, to nurture their marriage for the years to come. This is, after all, the responsibility of any wedding guest - not just to enjoy the free wine and cake, but to agree to be a strand in a web of support around this new love. To me, this is a large part of why the public wedding ceremony is important, for the fledgling marriage's witnesses become also its greatest champions.

The weekend turned out to also be the culmination of one of the most challenging moments of my own marriage. In the space of a week, my understanding of all that I know and believe about my life was completely changed. I have always known that marriage is difficult, and now I know that more than I ever have.  As the words of Corinthians were read during Joanna and Trevor's ceremony, I clicked the shutter on my camera with tears running down my face.

The wedding guests received jade plants as a thank you gift from the couple, given for their symbol of friendship. On our long 7-hour drive home, though I placed it in a safe spot, the plant drooped and wilted. By the time we returned home, I wasn't sure it was going to survive. It's instructions said not to water it more than twice a month, and so I was unsure of what to do.

The thing about the promises made at a marriage celebration that I did not realize until now is that they aren't frozen in time. The people who promise to protect and nurture and support your marriage aren't just the ones who are there at your wedding, but the people with whom you form relationships throughout your life. While it is certainly true that we are still supported and loved by the people who were with us on June 19, 2004, whether in body or only in spirit, our marriage is also upheld by our new friends and family, by those people who have joined us on this journey since that day and in our 5 years in Asheville. When you form a new friendship, you join that circle that was present on the wedding day of your new friend, a silent participant in one of the most important rituals on Earth.

I put the jade plant in my kitchen, on the counter by the window where it can receive light and fresh air. After a few days there, it has recovered, standing tall, it's round green edges soaking up the indirect light of our home. I did what I thought would help it most, and then I waited for nature and the plant to do its own healing. This is what our friends and family do, too - they help and support, they do their best, and they lift us up to the sunlight, hoping that nature and time and space will heal. What more can I possibly pray or hope for my own marriage than this - for the time and space and light to be recreated, to be healed, to be renewed, all the while surrounded by a circle of family and friends old and new, the waves crashing behind us.

Friday, August 6, 2010

all cats go to heaven

Today we said goodbye to our beloved cat Mackeson. 

He had been sick for about a month, losing weight and not eating. We were never quite sure what it was, but it felt like it was time to let him go. Last night, I knew the time was drawing near, so we had one last sweet snuggle together, him purring on my pillow and me petting him as we both fell asleep. In the middle of the night, I woke up to find him snuggled at the end of the bed with our other cat, Simone, spooning and purring like they always did. I buried him in the mid-morning sun in the front garden, a place of honor next to the hydrangea, the perfect spot for a new lavender bush, with silver leaves just like his fur. 

I found Mackeson 13 years ago when I lived in a rundown farmhouse on Vore Ridge Road in Athens County, Ohio. I had an eccentric roommate who named him, after the triple stout beer. At about the same time, a woman brought a little brown female tabby cat into the vet clinic where I was working. She had found her in a storm drain by the highway. I had been thinking about getting a cat of my own, and suddenly I had two, who promptly fell in love and were closer and more loving to each other than any two pets I've ever known. 

Mackeson came to us as a young, unneutered male - killing mice, disappearing for days at a time, yowling in the middle of the night, "teaching" the dog tricks (according to my roommate). On one particularly hard day, I had called home to ask my roommate a question and she told me, "some guy stopped by here looking for you today". I was intrigued. "He had gray hair, and green eyes, and whiskers..." 

I move around a lot in the years since - home, to another apartment in Athens, to Michigan, and eventually to North Carolina. Simone and Mack (and my dog, Murphy) followed me on all of those moves, the cats snuggling together in the window hammock in whatever place it was installed. Eventually, we added another cat to the mix, a black and white kitten named Baldwin. She took on both Simone and Mackeson as surrogate parents, nursing on them, being groomed by them. I would come home to find all three of them squeezed into the hammock, licking and purring and blissed out on each other. That was the only opportunity Simone and Mackeson had to try kitten-rearing, and I think they loved it a lot. 

Mackeson saw me through a long period of my own growth - through college, boyfriends, roommates, trying to pick a career. He settled into any new situation just fine, making his place in whatever life I was living at the time, sleeping on my pillow every night, me falling asleep holding onto one of his paws. 

Mackeson made a place for himself in my marriage, too, winning Brian over right away. When we moved to Asheville, we only had each other and our pets, and we spent countless hours at home playing with the cats - giving them catnip, playing fetch with toy mice. We would use "the Mackeson test" to decide where to eat dinner when we were feeling indecisive, writing down restaurant choices on pieces of paper and seeing which one Mackeson smelled first. We knew our cats so well, we could identify them by the smell of their fur, the sound of their meow, the rhythm of their purring. 

To love an animal is to make a connection that transcends all we understand about communication or love or the boundaries of humanity. It is a perfect love, even when we ourselves are far from perfect, one that brings a richness and depth to our lives in ways that nothing else does. Though having a child certainly curtailed the amount of time spent focusing solely on our pets, there is always a place for them - with their heads on our pillows and their love snuggled into our hearts. Losing a pet is as painful as losing a human family member, but I wouldn't trade the pain I feel now for the wonderful life I shared with Mackeson. I am so happy, so blessed that I got to experience that love with him, that I got to give him a safe and happy life he probably would not have had otherwise. 

My friend Mandy lent me a book today that included a quote from Will Rogers, who said "if there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went". It won't be heaven for me if it doesn't include my pets in some form or fashion. I believe Mackeson is there now, back in his prime, fat and beautiful, laying in the sunshine, enjoying the garden of St. Francis of Assisi, purring and loved and full of life, waiting for the day he gets to sleep on my pillow again. 

 We love you and miss you already Mackeson, and we always will.