The Death Smell of Compost in the Joy of a Warm Winter Day

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 6.55.46 AMSeed catalog season. They started coming last month. I really should be planning the garden. I can virtually smell it around me…

Wait, that’s compost. It’s been a couple weeks and a few feet of snow since I took out the compost. That little carbon filter in the top of the pail’s done its duty. Can’t smell it at all. I pick up the pail and collect the mountain of fruit peels on the cutting board in the kitchen. I trudge through the mud.

It’s beautiful outside–a break in the winter that tempts me to get out there and plant something I know will subsequently die. A January thaw–a break in Winter’s show. He got off the couch to get some snacks and a beer, letting Spring fill in for a bit. Still, I can’t plant now. The Farmer’s Almanac would be horrified. It predicts much more snow in February. Not long odds in Vegas. It’s New England.

I dump the compost in the bin. It smells like nothing I’ve ever experienced, having done most of its composting in the house. The death smell chases me half-way across the yard, laughing the moment I take off the lid. I can’t leave it like that. It smells worse than the time I left the chicken in my trunk for a week during summer. That one forgotten bag…

I stop breathing, reopen the bin, and stir the rotting compost into the fireplace ash. I toss a few oak leaves on top. Better. I sniff. The worms will rejoice just as soon as they thaw all the way.

I step into the garden. Mud. Enough to swallow me. I realize I haven’t been outside–really outside–in months. I stop. I listen to the birds who welcome me back. I think about walking around the garden. The mud plots to enshrine me. I sink. I take a step. I sink further. We come to an agreement. The mud releases its hostage. I’ll take my tour some other time.

The seeds will be calling soon. I’ll scatter them everywhere. Many will die as a result of my overzealousness and impatience. The laws of nature don’t bend for one good-weather day. Seeds in the garden–like in life–must be planted at the right time, then nurtured consistently to grow.

I take out the recycling and go to the farm. Eggs are in the red cooler out front on weekends.  Put in some money, take out some eggs. The cooler’s blown over. Scrambled eggs. I manage four dozen good ones. I toss in an extra buck–I was short last week. I still have eggs in the fridge. I stack these on top–always overbuy, over plant, overestimate when nature is involved. Plan well when you can and appreciate nature’s bounty always. It’s better to have just a little too much when it comes to growing, cooking, and eating. Dieters and zen masters have it all wrong.

I take off my muddy boots,  put the compost pail back onto the mantle, and sit back down to work. 

Spring will be here soon enough.


No Card for You: First Annual Holiday Blog Wrapup

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 8.08.50 AMI didn’t send you a card.

Not because I don’t like you. I never finish my cards. Ever. Somewhere in the recesses of a closet lies a box of unsent wedding thank yous from a dozen years ago–I was so appreciative I wrote novels. I paused to include black & whites hand-picked specifically for each note and found small mementos requiring a slightly bigger envelope, which I hand-calligraphied…

Defeated by vision and distraction, the cards lie in wait.

This happens every Christmas. Some years I plan cards for New Years. A couple of times I aimed for summer solstice. This year, I skipped cards entirely and sent a pile of small boxes and gifts.

I got a few cards from people who are much better than me. Cheryl, Cat, Herb and Su, and my Mom always send a real card. Elly, my dear friend and accountant includes a calendar so I remember to I pay my taxes on time.

The bulk of the cards on the mantle are from Declan’s classmates. I pretend they’re mine. It’s tough to hang holiday emails.

I love cards with pictures of families, but I wonder why parents always cut themselves out. We get old, too. I have five grey hairs containing the wisdom of 2013.  I want to show them off. I look like an adult now. I don’t get carded often. I’ve aged gracefully. I clean up well if I have to. That’s what you’d see if I sent you a card.

I wish I saw people in person more. I’ve promised not to say that anymore, because the truth is, life gets away from me no matter where people live. I rarely see my friend an hour down the road, and I’ve been texting my friend two doors down. That’s only slightly more forgivable than texting someone in the next room.

It always seems easier to visit tomorrow and send a text or email today. I check Elly’s calendar to find “tomorrow,” so I can block out visits with real people. I keep hunting, because “tomorrow” isn’t anywhere on the pages.

Phone calls are no better. These days, I schedule them. I caught up with one childhood friend this week but have a call pending that’s been hanging out there for two years. If that seems excessive, just know it’s been a busy two years.

An assistant won’t help. It didn’t make me any more organized in my first life, but it was cool to hang out and get reminded of all the work I didn’t do.

“Did you finish your cards?”


I like cards with holiday newsletters, especially the ones people sign in human form–I authenticate signatures. My mom sends one. Since I already know what happened, I read it to see if I got more mentions than my brother and sister. That’s how I know I’ve had a good year.

Since I didn’t send cards, here’s a post including links from Christmases past. Pull up some egg nog. Enjoy the blessings of this and all the other holidays I haven’t properly acknowledged. Be well, be blessed. Savor the gifts of the universe, be they small or great. Thank you for sharing this year with me and being among my greatest gifts.

“Best Christmas Posts from The Last Two Years When I Didn’t Send Your Card.”

Here’s where I complain that customs ruined Sarah’s Christmas surprise, and next I fail to send gifts for Declan’s classmates at school. Speaking of zero surprises, I bought a couch this year, which can’t be wrapped and put under the tree. On Christmas morning we’ll see the dog didn’t eat it. We’ll yell, “Surprise! Merry Christmas!”

In this post, I forget what I ordered from Amazon, so it feels a little like Christmas, even though it’s fall. Here, I try to organize the list but fail. Here’s where I promise to finish your cards in order of religion, not alphabet. Epic fail again.

The boy is still reciting Scrooge by the version now and asking why there is no sequel. He does this all year. Our snow has been melted by freakish weather. I’m reminded by Sarah, the Australian, that Christmas isn’t owned by New England, and some people decorate with sea shells and wait for Beach Santa.

These 2012 and 2013 posts reflect upon the day before Christmas vacation–a tough one for teachers. I’ve kept my vow never to use glitter again.  Reading through posts, I see my mind’s in a better place this year, though I’m thrilled Declan wants to give me–“world peace and an end to human suffering.” It’s much appreciated. I sit by the fake tree looking at the ornaments that remind me of my childhood trees. Putting up the tree this year was a joy–a three-piece fake tree with lights included. Not one argument. Declan is trying to be good for Santa, although not so successfully at times. Last year, a chance run in with an elf helped carry the momentum. This year Santa sent an email.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and a Joyous 2014.

I hope you enjoyed your “card.”

Where Do You Buy World Peace?

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 9.35.31 PMIt’s Christmas shopping season. We’ve got boxes, bangles, and bags everywhere, even though I’ve done my best to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

I’m not close to done preparing and baking this year. Christmas is sneaking up on me.

Maybe it’s the minimal snow and fifty-degree days, or maybe I’m getting old, and everyone knows that old people say days, months, and years pass quickly. That’s why they go to restaurants at 4PM. Not because they’re afraid someone might eat the last liver and onions, but because they’re afraid they might knock off before the meal’s ended.

Declan and Brittany were enjoying some sibling time. She offered to take him shopping.

“What do you want to get for Mommy and Daddy for Christmas?” That means “What do you want me to pay for on your behalf?” It’s a generous prospect.

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 9.27.35 PM“Underwear for Daddy.” What Dad doesn’t need to drown in ties and underwear?

“What about for Mommy?”

This is where all my Momness really came back to bite me. When I’m angry he asks me what I want. “I want you to be good.”

“What else do you want, Mommy?”

“I want world peace and an end to human suffering.” That’s what I always say when I need a rhetorical answer in a clutch.

“So,” Brittany asked, “What do you want to get for Mommy?”

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 9.32.31 PMAnd the answer came. Without hesitation. “World peace and an end to human suffering…but I don’t know where to get that.”

You know, buddy, I don’t think anyone really knows where to get that. Just look around the world today. Not much peace and a whole lot of human suffering.

But we can do our part. Try. Be a little bit better, kinder, simpler, and more loving each day. If everyone does their part–helps one person, thinks one nice thought, I’ll get my gift after all. But if not, it’s okay. I appreciate the fact you tried.


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deerI’m running late… It happens. A lot. I get up to do some work in the morning. Then I leave late for…work. I’ll drive faster. 

I want to back out of the driveway. A fawn stares me down. I stop. I wait. I’ll make up the time on the back roads. 

“Go ahead, eat them.” She’s eating my plants. “It’s okay, I don’t like hostas anyway.” I say I’ll plant more for her. She nods. She eats. She moves. I drive.

A fisher cat lumbers across the road, not graceful like the deer. He looks up–fierce. He stares me down. We connect. He decides I’m not worth attacking, being in my car and all. He muscles his way into the woods. A chipmunk chases a squirrel. Both escape the fisher cat’s notice. I avoid them–tricky with squirrels, who laugh at the tires of a car, going back and forth, playing a game that’s pointless until it’s too late. Squirrel pinball.

I’m running later. I said I’d make up the time on the back roads, but the leaves are changing. The fire, the color, the explosion. Sunrise stops me cold. It makes the reds look redder and the orange glow, the water of the reservoir doubling the impact.

I drive over the bridge. A fox sprints for the grill of my car, not deterred by the size of my car. I am worth attacking. He plays chicken. I slow. I stop. That crazy $#^%^’s going to hit me. At the last possible second, he leaps onto the reservoir rock wall.
It’s the last flurry of activity in a quaint New England town, where the ghosts peek out of the buildings, and the gravestones lean over slightly, telling the secrets of three hundred years of forefathers who have seen the leaves blaze before.  The animals do their last-minute prep before winter sets in. Soon we will all be waiting for the first signs of spring.

A Little Like Christmas

There was a box from Amazon at the door. I forgot what I ordered. I opened it up. Coffee. Another one came two days later. A carrier for my lunch tin and copies of my friend’s book. Cool.  I don’t buy a lot of stuff, but when I do, I forget it’s on the way–the immediate decision being over and done with, item filed into memory. It seems a little like Christmas when the package arrives.

That’s exciting.

“But you bought and paid for those items. What’s Christmaslike about that?” you might ask.

The American culture is so built on immediate gratification that when there’s a break in the chain of events one of two things happens. First–we forget about stuff and decide we don’t need it. That’s the usual path to simplicity. But if I buy something, I usually need it. I’m not an extravagant person. The passing of time is just enough to make me feel like I got myself a gift.

That got me to thinking.

“Can I get myself a gift without spending cash?”

The answer is always yes, in focusing on the simple things, and in doing good.

Every time we invest time in doing simple things and doing good, really make it part of the fabric of our existence, we’re shopping for our future. This year, I’ve spent time doing many things–enjoying a new home with my family, trying my hand at being a homesteading poser, meeting rock stars in education and technology, writing, learning, working toward balance, being healthier, avoiding insanity, and…yes, shortening my emails. All good things.

I’ve noticed something. The wait time speeds by. Three months pass. Six months pass. A year passes, and suddenly I look up and there’s a package at my door. Instead of it being a new lunch tin for school or a package of coffee, it’s a gift from me to me. Better writing. More knowledge. Friends who have become central to my life.

Society spends a lot of time on resolutions, habits, self-improvement. We read books, go to the gym, eat lettuce… sometimes we spin our wheels and expect results.

“Hey, I’m your scale…stop stepping on me and go eat a carrot.” We fixate on the impossible forgetting that one good thing done today is really the critical investment in our long-term goals. Doing one small thing usually isn’t painful. Today, eat a carrot, six months down the road while making a carrot salad, you notice. You say, “Wow, I eat healthier.”

A year later, it’s, “I’ve balanced my life and job by putting aside work for an hour or two a day and doing fun things with my family.”

It’s like paging through snapshots in a photo album–easy to see the journey and the results. A pleasant surprise–the realization that the path to happiness is no more than one smile issued today.

It seems amazing, “I didn’t know I could do all this.” The cliché turns out to be the truth. A journey of a thousand miles really does began with a single step…before you know it, you’ve traveled to the top of the mountain.

It’s a little like Christmas. Without all the greed.

Frugal Is a Lie

Yes, it is an awful lot of work to can tomatoes.

Yes, it is an awful lot of work to can tomatoes.

I’m canning. Canning everything in sight, actually. Somehow, in the process of doing all this work, I live under the illusion that I’m saving money. It’s a lie.

It’s a lie I refuse to confront as I swim up to my chin in tomatoes, wash, and get ready to switch modes to apples. Somehow, returning to the arts of my grandparents seems the right thing to do–modern-day victory gardens, quasi-homesteading, shopping at the farm, foraging, DIY sewing projects, making cheese from scratch…living a simpler life.

But is it cheaper? Am I really the baroness of frugal that I pretend to be?

“Did you ever calculate how much you got from your garden and how much it cost?” asked my husband earlier in the season.

“No,” I said. I left it at that. The real answer is “No, because I’d have to confront the truth, which is ridiculously stupid.” I read “The $64 Tomato” just like every other wanna be urban homesteader. Then, I was ready to move to the country.

Frugal was easier in some respects when we lived in the city. There were coupons. The stores were four feet away in any direction. I got a ton of stuff free–I don’t think I paid for toothpaste for four years, and I just used the last bar of soap from my double-coupon-match-the-sales-free-soap-victory-extravaganza a very long time ago.

What? You want me to calculate the value of my time and add it into the equation, then tell you how much I saved?

Back then, it wasn’t much, because it was the height of the Recession. The world was crashing. I had time, but cash was at a premium. Matching the coupons, running around to the sales, keeping track of all the cluttery nonsense… it was effort, but it paid off in the end. It was a part-time job, to be sure. I got paid in free toothpaste and ten-cent shampoo. Money would’ve been more convenient.

I ended up with bags of free stuff. I brought the extras to the shelters. I enjoyed getting resources where they need to be. But I’m done with that clutter. Living out in the sticks, I’m not near a bunch of drug stores that let me run around matching sales. Cows don’t take coupons. I do it differently now. Use less, waste less, get better stuff.

My coupon life has come to an end. I think I’m I still frugal. I’ve worn that like a badge of honor. I hope I don’t have to give it up…to admit I’m more bohemian boutiquey than frugal after all. Maybe even a frugal poser. This is getting worse by the minute.

Let’s think. First, I buy the mason jars. I give stuff away. Then, I buy more jars. To make my jams and apple butter this year, I used fair-trade organic vegan sugar, local B-Grade maple, and local honey. Not frugal. The opposite of frugal. What I lack in frugal, I make up for in taste, I rationalize. But can I still qualify for frugal status? It means a lot to me. I’ll run the math.

Today, I’m canning tomatoes. I got 60 pounds for $25. If I pay myself $10/hour for this arduous kitchen task, that’s $80–a pittance for someone of my talent. I could be making at least $12.50 at the fast-food joint in town, and I wouldn’t even have to can the tomatoes–I’d just open last year’s vaccuum-sealed packs.

Back to the math. Running the stove for about 4 hours–a pound of propane is a bit over $6. That’s $24. The mason jars are around $7/case. The total cost of today’s project–approximately eight hours of my life (small pots mean two batches)–for a grand total of $136. I made 12 pints of sauce. That’s roughly $11.33/pint if I don’t factor in the actual cost of my time or the opportunity cost of my having done something else.

Frugal is not frugal. It’s a lie. But it is quirky, and I’m a pretty darned good cook. I’ll cut costs somewhere else.

Please return my mason jars.

On to the apples…


“Don’t You Have To Be Organized to Talk about Organizing?”

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 6.36.00 AMIt’s time to declutter. Decluttering is an art. It’s not the same as cleaning or arranging. It’s getting rid of the piles of crap that stifle your life. Sometimes it’s hard to get rid of the crap. We’re busy and we need to let go of things so we can have room for freedom and new experiences.

Truth is, I’m a disaster. Years back, I discovered a website that gives people fifteen minute tasks to organize their lives ( It’s sort of fun and addictive, because it gives numbers of things to toss, small areas to clean, and little goals. I’m self-competitive, which means if there’s a goal out there, I usually want to beat it by one or two, so the little games became a bit of a healthy addiction. The site talks about “CHAOS–Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome.” and is mostly dedicated to “Sidetracked Home Executives.” I’m not a home executive…I work, and I’m not really sidetracked. I’m off the tracks. I blew up the tracks. Sometimes the pile in the corner just doesn’t seem as critical as lesson planning, writing, or, well, eating, so I let it get out of hand. You have to be careful with clutter… if you don’t get rid of every last piece, it multiplies. It’s like mice or cockroaches…if you see one, you have a million. Clutter breeds.

And so, it’s time to declutter again. The little piles have taken over their respective areas.  I think it’s fair to say that after six months to a year, I’m not going to finish that book on my nightstand or that half-done project on my dresser. I’ve lost interest and moved on, but the piles have not.

I’m certain beyond a reasonable doubt that I will not need the freshly pressed 90’s track suit that matches the sneakers I only wear when I’m mocking students. When I don a dress people ask me if I have a wedding or a job interview–they don’t need to take up real estate in my closet. I really use a few things on a regular basis.  If I had to pick seven or eight things to keep in the case of home confinement, I could do it.

What I can’t do–sort through a pile that is threatening to take over the corner of a room.

So, I created a Learnist board to embarrass myself and show off my show off my clutter corners to the world. In a day or so, there’ll be a victorious “after” photo to show off, too, showing those corners shiny and new. If I get distracted, this could take a week, but with an audience holding its breath waiting to see the surface of the corner bookshelf, there is a much greater chance of victory.  I’ll do it for the paparazzi.

But there will always be critics.

“Don’t you have to be successfully organized to give organizational advice,” emailed my friend.

“No.” I replied. Who’s really organized besides Martha Stewart and God anyway? The rest of us are inferior by design. No one wants to feel like a lesser human being. That is precisely why you need a disaster like me telling you how to organize. If you fail, you can say, “At least I’m not like her.” You might even look at my chin-up on the bar of organization and be inspired. “If she can organize, I know I can be successful.”

We’re all on this journey together. I set up a low bar and a low-risk environment for the world.

Organizing is no different from anything else at which I suck. I’m a terrible athlete. In order to improve, I had to study and practice.  I shot a million shots, I came hours early, and worked on the fundamentals. Most of all I tried to avoid falling on my face in public. I was so bad in high school basketball I had a fan club. “We just come watch you because you’re funnier than The Cosby Show.” In my day, that was about as funny as it got. LouisCK wasn’t even around yet. He was home watching The Cosby Show.

Organizing is no different. It’s a struggle to practice and learn. Our ineptitude frustrates those good organizers who live with us. It falls under the “Don’t you have any common sense?”

So, to answer my critic, who I’ll call “Jen,” I do not have to be organized to teach about organization. It’s actually better that I’m not. It makes everyone feel they can do it, too. If I can help the nation to simplify by embarrassing myself on a Learnist board then redeeming myself later, so be it. If not, I’ll add some photos of the mountains of papers escaping the corner and swallowing up my town. Lets hope it doesn’t get to that.