Friday, June 24, 2011

Garden Update: Dwarf Fothergilla in Spring

It's true.  Summer is officially here.  But the weather still feels an awful lot like spring, so I think it's a perfect time to share more pictures from my spring garden.

Today I'm showing off another of my beloved plants, the Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii).  I affectionately refer to this plant as Father Gilla and he is one of my earliest purchases for the garden.  I planted him in the fall of 2007 and had to dig him up just a few months later to make way for a new sewer line.  He's been in a container ever since and finally seems to be coming into his own.  And he is absolutely stunning in the spring.

When spring begins, the leaves and flower buds emerge side by side...
fothergilla gardenii bud

fothergilla gardenii bud


...the flowers slowly begin to open...
fothergilla gardenii bloom

fothergilla gardenii bloom


...and the branches form a beautiful lacy framework.




As the days of spring wear on, the leaves grow larger and the blooms fully open in specatular form.
fothergilla gardenii bloom

fothergilla gardenii bloom

fothergilla gardenii bloom



By season's end, the flowers are spent and the leaves start taking center stage.

fothergilla gardenii leaves

fothergilla gardenii leaves



Here is my Father Gilla in early spring when the leaves and flowers are just emerging...



...and here he is in late spring when the flowers are spent and the leaves have filled out:


Father Gilla has been an extremely low-maintenance addition to my garden.  His only real request is for a good amount of sun.  Without enough sun exposure, he doesn't seem to flower and the fall color is definitely lackluster.  But with decent sunlight, he happily blooms and grows and puts on one of the most stunning displays of fall color I've ever seen.  He tolerates the oops-I-forgot-to-water-and-it's-80-degrees-outside remarkably well and seems perfectly content in his container.  I don't expect him to get a lot bigger; he's already about 3 feet wide and 2-1/2 feet tall.  He'll likely get just a little taller and continue to fill out with new growth from the base.

I am very pleased with how Father Gilla is doing and I still consider him to be one of my all-time favorite plants.  If these bloom pictures haven't yet convinced you of his virtue, I'm certain you're going to positively swoon for him when I show off his outstanding colors in the fall.

Oh.  You don't want to wait that long?  Well, okay.  Here's a sneak peek from last fall's display.


fothergilla gardenii foliage in fall


Are you swooning yet?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Becoming Whole


The first day of summer dawns clear and warm.  I spend the afternoon in the middle of a garden, soaking up the sun and searching for words that don't want to be found.

It's been seven days since I penned #974, realized I only had 26 more to count before I'd reach a thousand.  And I haven't counted a single gift since.

Not because there aren't gifts to count.  There are.  And not because I don't notice all the grace.  I do.

It's because I don't want to reach a thousand.

It's been 6 months and 13 days since I started keeping track of His Grace, taking note of all the moments in a life.  And I was sure then that it'd take me years to reach a thousand.

Maybe I was afraid of failing.  Maybe I gave myself long months to reach a number that seemed too big and I never thought I'd get there.  But maybe I just knew this:  Change takes time.  Lots and lots of time.  And I'm stubborn and slow and I've got years of growing left to do before I can live and love and light up the world the way He wants me to.

Because I didn't set out on this journey so I could reach a thousand.  I didn't pick up a pen and start the counting to be like everyone else.   I didn't even do it because it was the right thing to do.

I chose this path because I wanted to be changed.  Because I wanted to let go of all the fear and heartache and weariness of a life and just be grateful.  Because I wanted to find God in all the moments, prove to my doubting soul once and for all that He loves me and that His love is deep and strong and true.

And even with all the learning I had yet to do, I already knew back then that it might take years for all that to find me, sink deep, change the way I lived.

But it's only six months later when I find myself here, 26 gifts from penning a thousand pieces of His Love.  And there's a part of me that wants to go back and start again because I'm certain I've done it all wrong and I don't see how I could've learned everything I needed in these short months.  The fear weighs heavy and I wonder if I'll reach a thousand and still find myself exactly where I started.  And wouldn't that be worse than if I never got to a thousand at all?

But it's too late to turn back now, to start over or just give up.  So I look deep, try to find what's holding me here.  And I see it there, in those ugly soul wounds from decades past.

I don't want to reach a thousand because I don't want to reach the end of His Love.

And this is how I know that I'm not finished yet.  I've counted His Gifts 974 times and I've felt His Love more than in all my years before.  I've learned and I've grown and I've changed.  But way deep down in the broken places He's still healing, I'm still afraid His Love is going to run out.  And I'll just be that girl again, the one who can't be fixed, can't be healed, can't be loved.

I don't know how long it'll take before I figure out there's no end to this Love I'm in.  Maybe years, maybe a lifetime.  But here's the thing I've learned after 974 pieces of Grace:  I just keep counting and He just keeps showing up and one by one we put the pieces of a life back together.  And this is the way a broken woman learns to trust, learns to love, learns to live.

This is the way a broken woman becomes whole.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Sea Star Blanket

When I set out to create a blanket for my godson, I wanted to try something new.  I'd been working on The Hope Blanket for months and I was more than ready to work with a different type of yarn, a different stitch pattern, and maybe even a different shape.

I hit the pattern books at a local craft store and came across something that interested me.  After a little research on the ever-wonderful website Ravelry.com, I discovered it was a pattern known as the round ripple--essentially a blanket created in rounds rather than in straight rows.  It can be used to create a circular or star-shaped blanket, and there are a myriad of variations available.  For this project, I chose the 8-pointed star version and used a free pattern on Ravelry.com.


I also wanted to step away from my favorite go-to yarn (Lion Brand Homespun) and try something completely different.  I ended up selecting Caron Simply Soft.  As a standard worsted-weight yarn, it allowed the stitches to be more clearly defined than with the bulky yarn I've often used in the past.  Plus, Caron Simply Soft provides one of the broadest color palettes available on the market--and that makes a color-loving girl like me very, very happy.  I chose two shades of blue (Light Country Blue and Ocean), two shades of green (Sage and Dark Sage), and a variegated yarn (Spring Brooke) to tie all four colors together.


I didn't want to create the typical light-weight "baby blanket"--partly because that's not my style and partly because this blanket was intended for a 4-year-old.  In the past, I've always used the bulky Lion Brand Homespun yarn to give my blankets a nice feel and weight.  This time, I incorporated the new-to-me technique of double stranding instead.  Double stranding is exactly what it sounds like--holding two strands of yarn together while you stitch.  It can be used with both knitting and crocheting, and it results in a thicker material while still allowing for great stitch definition.  It does require a larger hook/needle size in order for the thicker material to drape gracefully, but other than that, it's merely a matter of getting used to holding two strands at once.  I found it quite easy to do and really loved the results.


I also learned a new way of "turning" at the end of each row.  It's called "no-chain turning," and there's a video on YouTube to show you how to do it.  The technique is tricky to learn--especially if you are double stranding--but after a bit of practice, it's become pretty natural for me.  And I'm thrilled with how beautiful the seam turned out because of this trick.

(The seam is in the center of this photograph)

(And here's a close-up of the oh-so-beautiful seam)

I found the round ripple pattern to be a lot of fun to work with--and very simple to learn.  The first half of the blanket comes together quickly, as the circumference around the blanket starts small and the rows can be finished in a short amount of time.  Near the end, however, when the blanket is over 4 feet across, each row takes about an hour to complete and the progress feels much slower.  I will definitely be playing with this pattern for a long time to come, as there are so many ways to change the look with color selection and placement.


With its blue-green color palette and 8 points, I've decided to name this blanket the Sea Star.  And that's quite apropos considering my godson loves the undersea creatures, especially the octopus and its 8 legs.

By the way, did you know an octopus has three hearts?  I learned that in a trivia game last weekend and now I feel the need to bestow that strange information on everyone I talk to.

I did put a lot of heart into this project, but I'm pretty sure I still only have one.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pieces of a Life


After a day of work, the drive over the mountains is long, hard, nearly unbearable.

I'm 100 miles from home when I wonder if I'll make it all the way.  Wonder if I should turn back.  Wonder if the chance to spend 40 hours with people who share the same blood will be enough to make the journey worth it.

I don't have the answers.

But I press on and hope I'll find what I need when I get there.

And I do get there.  Frayed and worn through, I crawl into bed that night still wondering if I've made the right decision.

But it's the end of the next day when I stop wondering.

It isn't just the sun and all the warmth.  It isn't just the sounds of wind in the poplar trees and children playing with abandon.  It isn't just the hours spent playing games, joking with cousins, and eating corn on the cob straight from the fire.

Mostly it's this:  I've found something I wasn't looking for.

I've found pieces of my history.

I've found pieces of me.

And I would've gladly traveled many more days just to find them.

When it comes time to leave, I gather those pieces in my hands and head for home.  I don't know what I'll do with all this, these broken shards of our history, our family, me.  I only know they're too important to leave behind.

I'm 100 miles from home when I feel the weight of all the breaking and the tears start falling and I can't make them stop.

For our past.  For our present.  And maybe even for our future.

It's the story of my great-grandfather's death that I grieve most of all.  The great-grandfather I remember only with a feeling and a photograph.  Illness stole his breath, stole his strength.  And when the fear of being a burden loomed too large for him to bear, he said goodbye and held a gun to his chest.  Even in the dying, he thought of the ones who'd have to shoulder the burden of laying him to rest, spared them the nightmare they'd already lived through once.

And it's not hard to see his blood in my veins and his story in mine.  That life-stealing fear of being a burden is mine, too.  Maybe I wasn't born with it, but then again, maybe I was.  And I've carried it long years and I carry it still.  With the illness that ebbs and flows, stripping me of strength, I hear it in my head on any given day.  I don't want to be a burden.  And I wonder now if my great-grandfather's ending is the only one that this kind of fear can lead to.

All of us, we're just these broken pieces from the past, and we carry them with us and try to build a life.  And suddenly I want to know if we can leave behind the things that hurt too much, the things that can't be fixed, the things that spill the blood and burn the beauty and leave us wounded and wondering.  I want to know if we can leave all this behind and still be who we are, who we're meant to be.

The tears keep slipping and I keep driving, waiting for Hope to find me in the middle of nowhere.

And He does.

I remember another piece I've found, the one that matters most, and I recount it to myself.  It's the story of my grandfather almost dying when he was 9 years old.  He steps onto a roadway without looking and the car bears down and this voice in his head says clear as day, Don't move or the wheels will get you.  And he stands still, waits for it to come.  And it comes and he falls and he breaks hard.  But he lives.

And it's 20 years later before my grandfather even hears the name of Jesus.  But he's found redemption and my father, too, and now me.  And we can all look back and see that it was God's voice in the head of a boy who didn't know Him, God's hand changing the course of our history.

And this is how I know we can't leave behind the things we don't want to remember.  Because God's taking every piece and turning us all into these life-sized mosaics of Glory.  And it looks broken and jagged from where we stand, but He sees us the way we're meant to be.  He takes the ashes and turns them into beauty.  He takes all the brokenness of a life, a family, a whole world--and He turns it into beauty.

So I hold out the pieces in my hand, the blood red and the death black, and I let His Light shimmer on the surface until all I can see is Him.

And I promise Him I'll live out all the days He gives and I'll do everything I can to lay down this fear of being a burden.  Because maybe I'm exactly the woman I'm meant to be and maybe the weight of who I am isn't too much for the world to bear.

Maybe I'm just heavy enough to leave His mark on a life.



930.  Safe travels on a hard journey

931.  Clouds disappearing as I crest the mountain range

932.  Singing loud because no one's listening

933.  Finding my way on unfamiliar roads

934.  Finally arriving in one piece

935.  Rolling down the windows and driving slow through the campground

936.  Smelling hot dogs on the grill when I find my family

937.  Drinking root beer at a picnic table

938.  Little girl who doesn't know me, calling out from the playground just to say hi

939.  Resting on a makeshift bed while listening to the sounds of camp

940.  Watching a sliver of sunset from my screened-in vantage point

941.  Sitting around the fire with a mug of chai in hand--always the mug of chai!

942.  Grandparent hugs

943.  Cousin hugs

944.  Bedtime after a long, hard day

945.  Sun rising at 5 am

946.  Waking up to the sounds of birds and barges on the river and people nearby

947.  Eggs and bacon on the grill

948.  Putting on sunscreen before 9 am

949.  Badminton with Mom

950.  Croquet with Dad

951.  Learning to throw and catch

952.  Shoulder sore from all the teaching

953.  Sun beating down, reminding us what it feels like to be hot

954.  Grandparents sitting in lawn chairs, taking it all in

955.  Kids having water fights

956.  Best. burger. ever.

957.  Corn on the cob cooked over the fire

958.  Unexpected conversations about the past

959.  Marshmallow roasting

960.  S'more eating--with white chocolate, of course

961.  Teasing from cousins and grandpas and uncles

962.  Feeling like the day's been long enough and full enough

963.  Sleeping sound because the day's been full

964.  Walking across camp at dawn, everyone else still sleeping

965.  Silver dollar pancakes for breakfast

966.  Packing up camp, everyone pitching in

967.  Heading home with new pieces of my history in hand

968.  Passing through a friend's new town and wishing her well as I drive by

969.  Weight of my history finally breaking through

970.  Tears for the past and the present

971.  Finally understanding the damage done by the fear of being a burden

972.  God stepping in to save a boy's life decades before he'd find redemption

973.  God changing our story, redeeming our family.

974.  God taking all the pieces of my past and turning them into beauty

Friday, June 10, 2011

Blanket for a Son

He turned 4 this past weekend.

The day before his birthday, we sat on the couch with a bowl of popcorn beside us and an activity sheet in our laps.  As we placed stickers and searched for hidden items, I felt it then just how much life had changed in the years since he was born.

It was just two years ago when I became his mother in the strangest of ways.  I stood in front of a crowded room and pledged to be an open book about God and faith and a life lived in pursuit.  And in a moment more powerful and more beautiful than anything I could have anticipated, I became a mother of sorts to this boy I didn't give birth to.

The enormity of it all left me grasping about, unsure if I'd ever be the kind of mother he needed.

And it's true.  I am not the mother who carried him within her own body and labored 40-some hours to give him life.  I am not the mother who holds his hand in the daylight and sleeps beside him in the dark.  I am not the mother who teaches him to count and read and live.  And I am not the mother he calls Mama.

He needs her most, this Mama of his.  He will always need her most.  But I wonder if someday he'll need me, too.  In ways none of us can predict or even prepare for.  Though I am weak and faltering and oh-so-human, I have been given a gift.  A glorious and humbling gift.

I have been given a son.

And in honor of his birthday, I have labored in my own way to create something beautiful for the boy who made me a mother.

Happy 4th Birthday to my sweet, funny, full-of-life godson Corin.  You are loved.


(Click here for more pictures and details of the creative process for this project)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Carried

I asked Him at the end of a long day, a long week, a long stretch of heaviness.

Are You really carrying me?

I'd heard it in poems and songs.  Even in His own promises.  I'd felt it first hand, too, in all the dark days, months, years of a life.

But on this day, I didn't feel it.  Hadn't felt it for weeks, maybe longer.  Only the heaviness of being weak and small.  Only the fear that I'd fallen and wouldn't be able to stand again.

And I asked Him.  Because I needed to know.

Are You really carrying me?  Because it doesn't feel like it right now.  It feels like I'm just lying here on the floor.  And I want to believe, but is it true?  Are You really carrying me?

There weren't any answers that night.  Only silence.  And fear.  And exhaustion.

And I wondered if it would always be like this.  If I'd be able to believe in His arms beneath me even when I didn't feel them.  If I'd be able to trust in the moving forward even when it felt like standing still.

But I didn't have to wonder long.

A new day dawned and I picked up the gratitude journal.  The same one that had lain shut for 7 full days because I couldn't see the gifts, couldn't even find the strength to look for them.  And on this new day I didn't just find the strength to count the graces--I also found the joy.

And as I recorded blessings, beauty, God in all the moments, I heard Him answer the question my weary soul still asked.

This is Me carrying you.

In this year I've named Faith, I've learned one more thing I didn't expect.  The one thousand gifts, the endless stream of His goodness--these are the Arms that hold me always.  And this counting of His Grace, this chronicling of His Glory--this is me being carried.




869.  Sun high in the sky, blankets of beauty spread out on the deck

870.  Leaning over the ladder top to capture art on camera

871.  Blood-red coleus leaves, beauty at the grocery store entrance

872.  My own personal baking and dancing party in the kitchen

873.  Feeling better after all the dancing

874.  Strawberry-almond cheesecake bars baking in the oven

875.  Chai tea tasting with Dad

876.  Wrapping up gifts made with love

877.  Movie night with a cup of chai and a piece of cheesecake

878.  Smell of rain-soaked sidewalk warmed by afternoon sun

879.  Daily trek down the walkway in slippers to peek at the peony buds

880.  Sun after rain--always this!

881.  Dad who takes my car to the shop, spends his day waiting

882.  Birds squabbling on the neighbor's roof

883.  Lasagna in a skillet

884.  Dinner too good not to write about

885.  Money in the bank to pay for car repairs

886.  Car fixed, ready to take me where I need to go

887.  Plans made for tea with a friend

888.  Test results finally, finally, finally returning

889.  Blue sky after days of rain

890.  Planning birthday surprises

891.  Hard things making a little sense, anxiety abating

892.  Wandering through plants at the store, searching for the perfect gift

893.  Stopping to smell the roses...and the honeysuckle...and the lilac!

894.  Finding a daylily still holding secrets

895.  Driving around a friend's neighborhood ridiculously lost--and still laughing

896.  Welcome hugs and laughter when I find my way

897.  Needing to borrow a shirt because there's too much sun for a sweater

898.  Tea party for two

899.  Purple socks with crazily-colored cats--from Boston!

900.  Sharing a bit of life after too many weeks apart

901.  Sitting out in the sun with wedding albums spread out on my lap

902.  Wandering the yard in search of the perfect spot for the daylily

903.  Hands in the dirt, new plant in its new home

904.  Goodbye hugs, lots and lots of them

905.  Making plans to share life again soon

906.  Driving home with the windows down and the sunroof open

907.  Last cheesecake bar to end the day

908.  Cats playing with bottle caps, cord ties, anything else that isn't a toy

909.  Mountain in full view at 6 am

910.  Pale blue irises with yellow spots of happiness

911.  Sky without clouds

912.  Digging out summer clothes from the bottom of the drawer

913.  Mountain filling the rear-view mirror...

914.  ...and then turning the corner to find a western horizon of snow-capped mountains

915.  Holding a new baby in my arms for the first time

916.  Not being able to stop smiling as I gaze at his sweet, sleepy face

917.  Sharing the couch and a bowl of popcorn with an almost-four-year-old godson

918.  Pizza and root beer to end a perfect summer day

919.  Riding in a convertible beneath another cloudless sky

920.  Closing my eyes against the sun and wishing every day could be this beautiful

921.  Lunch with Mom at a sunny courtyard table

922.  Chai frappuccino to celebrate the heat

923.  Afternoon nap with Buddy Cat curled up against me

924.  Heat remaining long after the sun hides in the clouds

925.  Sun reappearing at evening's end

926.  God Who answers hard questions

927.  God Who carries me always

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Strawberry-Almond Cheesecake Bars

I'm not a big fan of cheesecake.

I know, I know.  There's clearly something wrong with my taste buds.  But that's not the only thing wrong with me, so let's just move on, shall we?

My dad, on the other hand, is nearly famous for his love of cheesecake.  So when I saw this recipe for cheesecake bars in an old issue of Cook's Country Magazine (July 2007), I thought I'd give it a try.

And guess what?

I liked them.  A lot.

The original recipe called for raspberry preserves, but I had strawberry on hand and used that instead.  They came out delicious, although I think I'd increase the amount of preserves to 1 cup next time I make it.  The almond extract did wonderful things with the cheesecake's flavor and I'm looking forward to many more almond-based recipes now that I have a bottle of extract on hand.

If you're planning to make these, be sure to allow enough time for baking, cooling to room temperature (about an hour out of the oven), and then chilling in the fridge for 4 hours before it's time to serve them.  It's well worth the wait, though, and they'll keep beautifully in the fridge for several days.

Still not convinced you should try these?  Maybe another picture will help.


Strawberry-Almond Cheesecake Bars

Crust Ingredients:
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces

Filling Ingredients:
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 cup strawberry preserves [I'll be increasing this to 1 cup next time]

Directions:
  1. For the crust:  Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare 9 x 13 inch baking pan (see note below).  Combine flour, sugars, almonds, and salt in food processor.  Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal.  Press mixture firmly into prepared pan.  Bake until light golden brown, about 15 minutes.  Cool completely.
  2. For the filling:  With electric mixer on medium speed, beat cream cheese and sugar in large bowl until smooth, about 2 minutes.  Beat in egg and extracts until incorporated, about 1 minute.
  3. Spread preserves over cooled crust, leaving 1/2-inch border around edge.  Dollop tablespoonfuls of cream cheese mixture over preserves and spread into even layer.
  4. Bake until slightly puffed, 30 to 35 minutes.  Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours.  Remove from pan (see note below) and cut into squares.

Note:  To prepare pan, spray it with cooking spray and then line with aluminum foil, allowing excess to overhang pan edges.  Spray foil with cooking spray.  Once bars have been baked and cooled, use foil overhang to lift bars from pan.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Skillet Lasagna Recipe

I made lasagna for dinner this week.  On the stove top.  And it only took me 45 minutes from start to finish.

And the taste?  Amazing.

I found this recipe in an old issue of Cook's Country Magazine and it's a keeper for sure.  It has a lot less cheese than your average lasagna, which allows the tomato and basil flavors to really shine.  And even though it's plenty filling, it doesn't feel like a heavy meal.  The prep is minimal, the technique is simple (and brilliant), and the taste is fantastic.  What more could you want?

In fact, you should make it as soon as possible.  I'm not kidding.  Go now and buy the ingredients.  You'll thank me later.

Skillet Lasagna
Serves 4 to 6 (you'd need some pretty hearty eaters to only get 4 servings out of this)

Use a 12-inch nonstick skillet with a tight-fitting lid

Ingredients:
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
Water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 bell pepper (red or green), chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt (plus more for seasoning to taste)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound ground meat (beef, turkey, sausage, etc.)
10 curly-edged lasagna noodles, broken into 2-inch lengths [See note below]
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
Pepper
1 cup ricotta cheese
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil


Directions:
  1. Pour tomatoes with their juices into 1-quart liquid measuring cup.  Add water until mixture measures 1 quart.
  2. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering.  Add onion, bell pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook until onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes.  Stir in garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Add ground meat and cook, breaking apart the meat, until no longer pink, about 4 minutes.
  3. Scatter pasta pieces over meat but do not stir.  Pour diced tomatoes with their juices and tomato sauce over pasta.  Cover and bring to simmer.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until pasta is tender, about 20 minutes.
  4. Remove skillet from heat and stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan.  Season with salt and pepper.  Dot with heaping tablespoons of ricotta, cover, and let stand off heat for 5 minutes.  Sprinkle with basil and remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan.
 Note:  Regular lasagna noodles provided a wonderfully chewy texture (and fun curly edges!) to this recipe, but no-boil lasagna noodles can be substituted if you prefer.


I really wasn't kidding.  Go make this for dinner!