Put Out Day

O put out day! Callooh! Callay!

I don’t know about you guys, but while I’ve been getting my apocalypse on this spring, I’ve just about *coughs* more than doubled the size of our garden from last year. Not that I’ll be able to keep it alive, since I stink at this stuff, but I’m gonna give it a go. And here we are, finally, on June first! Into the garden they go!

I know that’s a pretty late put out day for most of the world, but things run a bit chilly up here in Alaska. And although I could probably slip things out a few days early without much risk (more and more each year, it seems, hmmm), June first is traditionally the earliest date by which you will reliably be past the danger of frost.

So although I’ve been putting in my plants like a madwoman over these last couple days, I’ve actually been prepping for this day for the past ten weeks. Put out day is certainly not the beginning of the gardening process (nor is it the end).

Garden work starts for me with the planning stage. I figure out how much garden space I have and how much of it I want to use. I try to gauge how much time I’ll have to devote to the garden, and I have some serious soul searching about how much chard we will actually eat. Then I pull out my garden journal, go over where various plants have lived over the previous summers, and decide approximately where I want them to go this year.

Once I have a plan, I start to gather my seeds. Inevitably, I pick up seeds for plants that weren’t on my list. I’m not sorry. I take all the seeds I plan to use this year and write down when they need to be started- whether that’s eight weeks out or four or direct seed. I make myself a little chart where I date each week back from June 1st, so that I know when to start each one. At this point, I also start gathering my starter pots and clear off the plant rack with the grow lights that kind of turns into a giant open-faced junk drawer over the winter.

Then I start planting. Pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, and sweet onions need to be started eight to ten weeks early. I fill pots with soil and worm compost and plant those seeds first. I water them and check on them regularly. A few weeks later, I start the next batch of seeds, and then more after. I stagger them so that I don’t start the lettuces or snap peas too soon, lest they run out of leg room while the ground is still frozen.

Eventually, I run out of room on the plant rack. The tomatoes get too tall. I started too many beets. There isn’t anywhere left for the nasturtiums. The zucchinis need bigger pots. That’s when I shove the couches out of the way and everything gets moved to the sunniest corner of the house, where I set up the card table and take over the top of my husband’s Magic: The Gathering cabinet. If there isn’t enough room there, a few things can stay under on the rack, but the lights are turned off. The mint and green onions are left to fend for themselves in the shade.

By now, the sun is up more than it’s not. The sap season is over. The bees are venturing outside their hive more and more. The snow is nearly gone. I shovel the last of it off the garden and put down cardboard to catch the falling catkins and starve the dormant weeds of sunlight before they can get a foothold they will never again relinquish. I rearrange the garden plan, putting the squashes and tomatoes with their orange and yellow blossoms directly across the strawberry patch from the beehive. They should all get along nicely.

I gather the last of the seeds, the things that will go directly in the garden- the carrots, the radishes, the potatoes, as well as extra lettuce and other leafy greens for second harvests. I get horse manure and aged chicken droppings and fresh ash from the birch and spruce trees we cut down and roasted marshmallows and sausages over. I find I don’t have enough compost from the last year, so I have to buy some, which feels wrong. I amend the soil with all this rot and poop and refuse, and it makes my soil dark and rich. I water it and put the cardboard back on top.

The days are warm now, in the fifties and sometimes higher, and the snow is all gone. I start putting the plants out during the day, when the sun is high and hot, and then bring them back in at night when the temperature drops to the thirties, and then to the forties. I water them in the mornings, or at least as soon as I remember. The tomatoes are already blossoming, so I put them up by the beehive.

Things are almost ready.

Working together, my family tills and weeds each row, pulling out the spreading rose roots, shaking the dirt from the pulled grass. We cut down high bush cranberry and birch saplings and willow shoots. We clear a new row. We put in a raised bed for the kids. We plant the apple trees. Everything is coming together.

The seedlings are overflowing their pots, their roots starting to peek out the drainage holes in the bottoms of their cups. I worry I started some of them too soon. (Sorry, lettuce, I tried.) They stay outside from the time I get up to the time I go to bed. I chase the chickens away when they get too curious; they go eat grass and dandelion shoots instead.

I put in the direct seeds and pull out the janky old sprinkler, cursing it when it gets stuck watering the edge of my driveway every two minutes. I worry over the apple trees. I fuss over whether I put down too much dung. I Google how much ash I should have added. I transfer the hardier plants into the ground- the peas and the overgrown lettuce.

Finally, it’s today! The rest of the plants go in, and more second harvests are started as well. The sun burns hot overhead, and then dark thunderclouds roll in and everything gets cool and windy. I worry for the leafy, swaying tomato plants and retreat inside, scratching at my collection of mosquito bites. I watch, craning my neck at the window, as the rain begins to fall.

It is a perfect put out day.

There will be more work tomorrow, and more the day after, for all the long, bright weeks of summer, until I bring in the last of the potatoes and pumpkins and beets and carrots. I’m a terrible gardener, but I love it. Maybe some day that love and continued effort will transform into skill and calories, like some alchemic magic.

Writing is like this too. At first, that story seems so beautifully impossible, like a perfect dream that I don’t know how to bring about. But it isn’t brought into the world all at once. It happens with a single seed pressed into three teaspoons of soil, repeated over and over again. It happens when what starts out looking like a brown lump of bird poop ends up being the fuel for some other stroke of brilliance. It happens days, and then weeks, and then months at a time. It happens failure after failure after failure, and then a breakthrough. It happens with tearing down and ripping up, and throwing in the compost heap and rotting away and trying again. It happens with one glorious bloom, and then another, and another.

Worthwhile things take time. Worthwhile things take work. Worthwhile things take soul. When writing gets tough—when you’ve lost your chard in all the weeds and the chickens scratched up the bed and ate all your radish seeds and your black currant fails to blossom and what the heck happened to the rhubarb bushes—keep at it. Everything is still so crazy right now, but keep at it. Prioritize the things that feed you, whatever they may be.

Until next week, happy writing!

So Sophisticated

For the record, this is absolutely 100% something that happens in my home.

(Ginger-beet-lemonade is one of the best beverages on the planet and I will never stop making it. Fight me.)

Like last month, sorry again for the quality of this image. I reeeeally should do something about my scanner. Now accepting donations to purchase a new one. 😀

Things I Have Missed About School This Quarter

The kids are very proud of their school mascot collage. Go, Pearl Creek Puffins!

So, if any of you follow me on Twitter, you probably already have some sense of how this post is going to go. And I’ll warn you right up front, today’s post has nothing to do with writing and it is longer than I usually try to make these things. But I just need to talk a little about this last quarter of the school year as it ends. (So click away now if you’re not that bored, haha.)

Here we are at last in the final week of school! We’re turning in the laptops the school let us borrow, the last of the library books, the violin. We’re picking up the last few items our children left in their classrooms. The assignments are dwindling fast to just a few fun activities for the students to share with each other on their final zoom calls. Things are winding down. And I could not possibly be more relieved.

Distance Learning was not an experience I enjoyed. It was a nightmare cocktail of someone else making all the plans that I then had to figure out and deliver, four different kids with four different teachers all on a hundred different web programs, kids who had no grade consequences to doing any of the schoolwork in the first place, and all of it to be done with *shudders* technology. In-person schooling is worlds better. Straight homeschooling is worlds better. Heck, I’m ready to give boarding school a go at this point. This was like someone took all possible education styles and mashed them together, with everything good about them strained out and thrown out onto the altar of COVID-19.

I, my children, my schoolteacher husband- all of us despise Distance Learning.

The kids’ teachers were amazing through all of this. They helped me through the endless litany of technofails, reminded me a hundred thousand times what the room number for the zoom call was, and gently talked me down from my maybe-not-so-funny self-harm “jokes”. It has been rough, but the teachers—who themselves had no time or warning to prepare for this disaster—are just bending over backward to get us all through this alive.

I miss them terribly. I know all my kids’ teachers. Heck, I know all the teachers, even the ones who ever taught my kids. I’ve been working and volunteering in that school since my firstborn was a newborn. Even when I am at my mental worst and cannot bear to go anywhere to do anything, I can still go down to the school. It’s just an extension of my home, and the people there an extension of my family.

There’s a lot to miss about public school as we’ve known it. Here are just a few of the things I’ve ached for this quarter in quarantine:

The Teachers There is something invaluable about having educators on hand to explain what the heck this assignment is asking us to do, or why the assignment won’t submit, or whatever else I’m doing wrong. Teachers, like parents, wear many hats. They’re fantastic about balancing the learning, fun, social engagement, and physical movement that factors into every second of every day at school. They know what each of the kids needs and how to assess whether or not they’re getting it. If I had been the one making the assignments or doing the assessments, I could have done this myself as part of my kids’ education. But with Distance Learning, I was not. I was just as lost and confused as the kids half the time, and the poor teacher was left fielding my inane questions every two minutes about how to log in to class dojo again instead of fielding questions from the kids about how the sun burns and why does division work like it does.

The Students I miss the students. I can’t work in the library with the library shut down, so I haven’t seen the students in months. I miss helping them find the perfect book to blow their weekend with and researching Thomas Jefferson for a class project and helping them cut paper for the display for their hand-sewn dolls from Two Old Women. I miss teaching them how to bake pastries after school and how to do lay outs for graphic novels. I miss being surrounded by hundreds of little kids who have known and trusted me since they were kindergarteners. Likewise, my kids miss their classmates. They miss working together in groups, and learning how to play together, and negotiating lunch box swaps when stupid mom put mayonnaise in the tuna sandwich again. (Just kidding—I only had to make that mistake once, haha. Yikes.)

The Resources I do not have buckets of clear plastic place value blocks at my disposal. I don’t have a twenty-egg incubator so my kids can watch chicks develop and hatch. Heck, the only reason I have enough computers is because the school lend us over half the arsenal. Yeah, each teacher has to educate thirty kids at a time, but they also have thirty times the resources to do so. There are so many perfect little do-dads that I wish I had right now, that are in a storage closet in a locked and empty building across the street. And that isn’t even considering the human resources of having a counselor, and a visiting artist, and a speech therapist, and a nurse, and all the other specialists that bring their amazing skills to the school.

The Learning Styles Everything is on the computer now. Yeah, some of the assignments are like, go outside and count birds or something, but the kids are still getting their assignments off the computer, turning in their assignments on the computer, and getting their teachers’ feedback on a computer. I am ~ d y i n g ~ over the amount of screen time these kids are suddenly having to absorb. And my kids definitely learn better if they’re up and moving and doing. Stuff that they read on a screen just doesn’t stick. But that’s the only way the teachers have to communicate with them. Plus—you know me—I’m also dying because I have to help them slog through all this technotorture.

I could go on. Oh, I could go on. But I’ll spare you. So as we celebrate (?) the conclusion of the school year, please forgive my ranting. Normally, the school year ends in a rush—suddenly the snow is gone and it’s a mad scramble to Field Day and we’re done! Not so much this year. Rather than the sudden finish, this year has ended more like a prolonged battle with illness that quietly ends on a drizzly Tuesday at two in the morning and you wake up in the gray dawn and realize it’s gone and you missed it.

Even if we erase all the other pains COVID-19 has brought us—the loss of jobs, the crippling of the economy, the staggering loss of human life, and so much more—my kids are suffering their smallish pains. I do what I can to shield them from the scary stuff, but they miss their teachers, their friends, their grandparents. They miss being able to leave their neighborhood. They miss the world they knew. I miss it with them. My children are endlessly flexible, but the stretching still hurts.

Later this week, after the laptops and the books and the violin are all returned and the school is cleaned out, I’m going to decorate our car are garishly as I possibly can. I’m going to load all the boys up inside and drive them down to the bottom of the hill, then turn around and drive them right back up it, ever so slowly. We’ll roll the windows down and honk the horn and wave goodbye to all the teachers lined up on the side of the road. We’ll wave because we can’t hug them. We’ll shout because we can’t talk. And then we’ll drive home again and I’ll scoop them up and tell them how proud of them I am. And I’ll hope that they’ll be happy with the end of the longest quarter of their short lives.

Hope is a necessity these days, as much as food and water, and I’ll move mountains before I let my kids run out of it.

The Apiary School of Writing

In the ongoing mission to turn my property into a small farm, I have somehow taken up beekeeping. (“I don’t know how this keeps happening,” she says, standing with a pitchfork and hugging a chicken.) To be fair, I didn’t jump into this completely blind. I did tons of research and I’ve spent the last couple summers harassing my neighbor-up-the-road who keeps bees. I bought books. I took a class. And yet it still feels a little surreal. How did this happen?

It felt extra surreal when I found myself standing on the garden terrace behind my house, ankle deep in the snow that won’t let go, hugging a humming plastic cage of about fifteen thousand honeybees against my side. (If you want to watch a ten minute video of that—including the moment I realize there’s a bee in my pants because I’m an idiot—follow this link!)

It’s gotten a little more real as I’ve done a couple hive checks since then. I’ve already made an embarrassment of mistakes, but overall, it’s beginning to feel less strange to open up a knee-high box behind my house teeming with tens of thousands of buzzing arthropods and not immediately call someone to get rid of it. I’m even beginning to grow fond of the creepy crawly little things. (We’ll see if that feeling holds after my first sting. I know it’s coming. I know it’s coming.)

Actually, beekeeping reminds me of writing a lot of the time. It’s a thing I’m enjoying that is also a lot of stressful work. I have to work to carve out the time for it in the midst of a hundred other demands. I obsess about it more the longer I go without it. But there are also lessons that I’ve been able to pull about the writing life in just these few weeks of beekeeping.

Don’t Drown the Bees In the early spring, before any of the plants up here in central Alaska have started making nectar or pollen for the bees to eat, I have to feed my bees. I do this with a big slab of calories and protein called a pollen patty and with a pitcherful of sugar water every couple days. On my first visit to the hive after installing them, I went out to fill my in-hive feeder, only to find it full of bees. ‘That’s okay,’ I thought. ‘They’ll float. That’s what the stick in there is for.’ I then proceeded to pour an entire pitcher of sugar water all over the poor bees inside just trying to get a drink, as well as accidentally dumping a bunch of syrup all over half of the frames as well. The bees were not happy. Sometimes in writing, we get a great idea. And it’s really a great idea! But in our eagerness to realize the great idea, maybe we pour it on a little too fast, or too thick, or in the wrong place, or whatever the problem is. Maybe instead of working the great idea in, it comes as a big fat Info Dump right at the start of a chapter. Or maybe we try to work it in, but we put too much of it in too fast, telling instead of showing. Whatever our issue is, we drown our reader in information all at once. Don’t drown the bees. Give them a trickle at a time so they have a chance to climb up with the rising waters.

Let Nature Take Its Course When the hive was first starting out, it was everything I could do to not slip on the bee gloves and hustle up there for a peek. I wanted to know how they were doing! What if they needed meeeeee? Yeah, they didn’t. Beekeepers are there to avert disasters in the hive. But beekeepers can be their own kind of disaster if they show up too frequently. Hive checks stress the bees out and disrupt their work, and some of the bees may try to sting you to defend their home, which, in the case of a honey bee, spells death for those individuals. Hive checks are also a prime time to accidentally crush bees with all the moving around, lose precious warmth especially in those first few chilly weeks of the hive’s existence, and maybe even lose your queen if she falls out of the hive during a frame examination. Sometimes—ofttimes—the best thing for a hive is to simply leave it alone. A hive check once every ten days is, under all but the most extreme circumstances, perfectly sufficient to keep the hive healthy and thriving. Overdoing it does more harm than good. Likewise, there is something very comforting to writing with a rigid outline of every single scene. You’ve got a plan! What could go wrong! But stories, at least mine, have this shifty way of diverting course the harder I try to force it in a certain direction. Characters start acting like plot puppets. Even the scenery bends to my will as freak storms and random monster encounters pop in at just the right moment to stiffly push the story along the worn wheel ruts. But all I end up with is a rigid A-to-B recitation of events, when I should have been letting the story unfold more naturally. Outlines are great, but if the outline overtakes the story itself, whatever form that story must take, then you’ve lost the wonder that is a story unfurling.

Don’t Lose the Queen The queen is the future of the hive. She makes the babies. She helps the hive members to feel content and purposeful. She’s also hundreds of dollars to replace. I was super excited when the workers had finally managed to chew her free from the cage she came in and release her into the hive, only to realize I now had to search once a week across several frames for one particular insect amid thousands. And that was going to take a lot of care and diligence. Similarly, the plot is the future of the story. Without a plot, the reader is wandering, lost, through pages and pages of perhaps interesting, but ultimately futile yammering. You might not fully know what your plot is in the first draft (see the warning above about rigidly following outlines), but you should have it figured out by the last. Every scene, every sentence in your story should advance the plot. Don’t lose track of it or you may find yourself needing to replace it or, worse, ending up with a dead story entirely.

I still have a lot to learn about beekeeping, and about writing as well. In writing, I seem to persist in the same mistakes over and over again, but I’m getting better over time, even when that progress is so slow that it’s hard for me to notice. That’s why it’s important to keep working at it! Things are still super crazy in my household (and the rest of the world), but taking the time to write every day helps me to keep working on my craft and progressing my projects. And it makes me less of a crazy person too, haha. All good things.

Until next week, happy writing!

Botanical Birch Sketch

Hello! Here’s an unfinished botanical sketch for Betula Neoalaskana, the paper birch, which I am currently working on the cookbook for. I don’t think I’ll quite finish the entire cookbook (or this sketch, for that matter) this month, but I’ll be awfully close. And, fun stuff, I currently have three birch trees tapped and am boiling sap down every day. All good research for the cookbook! There are only three days left in the month. Wish me luck!

Staying Sane

GF Nutty Birch Shortbread. We had to angle the photo so you can’t see how messy my kitchen is.

Hi friends! I hope everyone is hanging in there. We’re still doing okay up here in Fairbanks, but things are still a little wacky. As I maybe mentioned earlier, Alaska is pretty vulnerable to breakdowns in shipping and supply, so we’re an easy breed to spook when it comes to food supplies. It’s still a bit too cold for gardening (June 1st is our usual put out day) so pretty much all our food is still coming up from the Lower 48.

Food’s been on my mind a lot lately. This month, I’m doing Camp NaNo again, and once more working on the birch syrup cookbook. (It’s nearly there! Ahhh!) My recipe building process is usually something along the lines of:

  1. Get hungry.
  2. Think, “Man, you know what sounds good?”
  3. Jot down ensuing brilliant idea.
  4. Gather ingredients.
  5. Find out what degree of wrong I was.

Lots of things have turned out really well. Others are blah. There have been a few where my ever-diplomatic eldest has gagged a little after taste testing for me and then asked gently, “Do you think you’ll put this in your cookbook?” But overall, the system works.

Except when I can’t get ingredients.

It’s gotten better recently, but for a few weeks there, going grocery shopping was spiking my anxiety because of how very little was there. I knew it was because of people panic buying and had nothing to do with supply lines (fresh perishables were still stocked, but all dry and canned goods were cleared out, etc), but it was still a little nerve wracking. I would buy what I could, make note of the things to look for again next week (and the next, and the next), and go home. I’d sit in the car practicing my breathing, and then peel my sweaty mask off my face, take off my gloves, and set them both in the sun. Then I’d put on my smile and go inside to wash my everything and then hug my kiddos who have no idea what’s going on outside of our house.

By the way, can I just say that I love that this is my biggest problem? Not being able to get my hands on a box of dried pasta? That through this nightmare pandemic with tens of thousands dead in my nation, and over a hundred thousand throughout the world, and my big problem is a lack of canned tomatoes?

So to keep myself sane and to keep the kids unafraid, we keep things normalish. Mommy cooks and types on her computer and works on her recipes. She makes the things she can with fresh ingredients, like glazed pears and buddha bowls, and she makes Daddy extra fancy lunches while he works in the back room trying to teach the five percent of his students who still want to learn. Mommy lets the kids do the stirring and the meatball shaping and the bread kneading because when they’re cooking, they can work on their fractions and their science and learn an important life skill. And everything is fine.

I feel like I’m watching my life from the outside. Or that I’m boiling away on the inside, simmering in a morass of worry and survivor’s guilt. I can switch back and forth at the drop of a hat.

But then I take some breaths again. I lie on the floor with one hand on my belly and one on my heart, and my children come lie down with me, and we breath in, and out, and in, and out, and think of the things for which we are grateful. It is such a long list. I am so grateful sometimes that I cry, and I feel bad because I have so much.

I think I am depressed again.

I know I am.

So I cook, even the meals I know I won’t eat. And I clean the house and I quarantine the mail and I wash my hands until my knuckles get cracked and raw. I hate soap. Life has gotten so strange.

Am I really staying sane? Sometimes I don’t think so.

So I lay I on the floor. And I breath. And I think about the things I am grateful for.

I am grateful my husband still has work, even if I do not.

I am grateful my children are with me and we are all healthy.

I am grateful that none of my friends or family have fallen ill.

I am grateful for the coming spring and the blue skies and the waking birch trees and the beauty of this place I call home.

And if I am grateful enough, if I close my eyes and breathe and concentrate hard enough, for just a little bit—just a few moments—I can be sane again.

Call of the Midsummer Night’s Dream

My middle child was telling my husband and I about this awesome book he’s been reading with this dog who gets kidnapped and then there’s this mean guy and then there’s this nice guy and then he gets to pull sleds and his name is Puck, because apparently my kid can’t tell Ps and Bs apart.

And once my brain saw this, I couldn’t unsee it.

And I am sorry for how very late this is. It’s just been one major technology malfunction after another on this. The physical art has actually been done since Saturday! But at least it gets to look like a cool old tinted photograph. That was not my original intent, but when your scanner refuses to talk to your computer and your camera is all terrible and janky, you have to improvise. What fun!