Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Totally Random Gratitude

A quote posted to Facebook awhile back sticks with me...

"If you woke up tomorrow with only those things for which you expressed gratitude today, what would you have?"

Really makes you think, doesn't it?

My friend and mentor Heather O'Sullivan Canney is a big proponent of keeping a gratitude journal, and I've acquired the habit from her.  The process can be life-changing, if you give it a chance.  While I don't always write everything down, the simple process of expressing gratitude for the blessings in your life eventually becomes automatic as breathing.  Better yet, when your heart and mind are full of gratitude it leaves little room for negativity.  Those two qualities can't seem to share the same space.

Gratitude is fairly easy to muster when it comes to family, home, and finances (at least I hope so!).  But what about the little things which make life so much more pleasant, interesting, or comfortable?  Or those which challenge us, making us grow in wisdom, strength, intellect?  It's become a pet habit of mine, to think of new, random, and sometimes silly things for which to be grateful.

And so, in the spirit of Thanksgiving which is but two weeks away, I offer my first installment of Totally Random Gratitude...

Barn cats:  Without them, we would be overrun with vermin.  My youngest spends more time with them than any toy I've ever purchased.  They are always happy to see me, and as long as they have a dish full of food and a warm place to curl up, they are totally content.  Barn cats provide a valuable (and totally organic) service and ask little in return.  It doesn't get any better than that.

Onions:  Rare is the meal I cook without first slicing or dicing an onion.  I can't imagine a soup, casserole, stir-fry, omelet, spaghetti sauce or taco without one.  Or three.

Microfleece:  A miracle of modern technology and absolute godsend to those of us living in frigid climates.  

Water softeners: Without one in this house, there would be no such thing as "whites" and my laundry would consist of darks, mediums and "oranges".  A lady who grew up in this house told me once that her mother would melt snow in order to acquire soft water with which to wash their whites. 

Mentors: The list of people from whom I seek advice, knowledge and inspiration is a long one indeed.  Some are friends I've known for years (or decades), some are professionals in their chosen field... and of course my beloved parents top that list.  Also included, however, are lots of people whom I've never met in person but am still so grateful for the value they provide. One thing I've learned over the years is if I'm not particularly gifted or educated in a particular area, there always is someone who can help.  "Do it yourself" is not always applicable or wise. My hair stylist comes to mind here... 

...and the list goes on.  I will add to it in these days leading up to Thanksgiving.  In the meantime, for what or whom are you totally, randomly grateful?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


This post is brought to you today by my shiny, new, programmable coffee maker.  Mr. Coffee, I think I love you!

On a more serious note...

"Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world" ~Bishop Desmond Tutu

This week's Parade magazine reported a statistic that literally made my jaw drop.

40 percent of the food produced in this country is wasted.

Honestly, I don't even know what to say about that. FORTY percent?  Are we so indulged, fussy, and spoiled as a nation that we allow nearly half of the food we produce to go to waste?  If we have so much food, how can there possibly be people going hungry... and what is the definition of "hungry"?  Do people have any idea the work (or for the environment-conscious, the resources) which go into producing that food?

The statistic alone, disgusts me.  What further adds to my dismay is the constant barrage of "eat only organic", and the overabundance of recipes published which require ingredients as inexpensive and easy to acquire in my neck of the woods as Hungarian yak.  How about we instead teach folks to utilize what is readily available?  Like, say, the ten pound bag of chicken leg quarters for $5.00 which, with the addition of a few inexpensive vegetables and seasonings, can be made into over a week's worth of delicious, healthy and hearty meals?

I will be the first to admit that my family throws out our share of food.  Food poisoning is akin to Dante's Third Circle of hell in my book, and so I'm careful about food safety and abide by the adage "When in doubt, throw it out".  But I've also changed how I plan our family meals.  It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking we need a cooked-from-scratch fresh meal for every supper of the week.  That thinking, however, resulted in way too much wasted food.  My family is a busy one, with my husband often working late and both he and my daughters attending tae kwon do and other classes a couple times a week.

Enter leftovers.  A beef or pork roast, a chicken or a big pot of homemade soup goes a long way, even with a family of four.  Vegetables languishing in the crisper are easy to add to just about any meal to stretch or embellish it. The trick is to actually eat the food you make for more than one meal, and plan for those leftovers rather than relegating them to purgatory in the back of the fridge.

Here's an added benefit, for those who doubt.  Earlier this spring, my health was at an all-time low and my weight, an all-time high.  Now, I've done about every "diet plan" out there, from the frozen meals shipped to your home to low-carb to vegetarian/lowfat (ugh) to following make-at-home pre-planned meals.  I was sick of it, sick of the constant focus on food, sick of being told that the ridiculously-priced foods in the organic section of the grocery were the only ones safe or healthy to eat.  All the "can'ts" and "don'ts" and "big money is trying to poison us all" were really beginning to tick me off.

And so, I quit.  

I quit obsessing about food, decided to accept myself right then and there just as I was.  I listened to my body and ate what I wanted when I wanted.  My attention shifted to focus on my family, my hobbies, my horses.  Ironically enough, I began to eat less and move more, instinctively.  The meals my family got were generally homemade with simple ingredients... meat, vegetables, milk, eggs, butter, fruit and (gasp!) bread.  When there were leftovers, we ate them.

The pounds began to fall off... thirty, so far, in the past few months.  My grocery bill is lower, and I can't remember the last time I had the "munchies".  Its been months since I baked a pan of brownies or batch of cookies.  Not that I won't; just haven't had the desire.  And... I'm happy.

It all came from the decision to quit obsessing about "diets", to stop obsessing about food and instead be grateful for what we have... and enjoy it. I savor the experience of preparing a good meal, and relish foods such as a BLT made from my home-grown tomatoes and the bacon my dad cured. I don't hesitate to use mayo or butter or bacon when they'll add to the flavor and the experience.

One of my favorite sayings is, "Charity begins at home"; I would add that it begins not just at home, but right with each and every one of us and with the seemingly minute decisions each day.  Who knew that being charitable and loving toward myself, in the form of letting go of the "should's" and "have-to's", would result in such monumental personal growth and improvement of health, and far less wasted food (and time and resources)?

I didn't.  All I did was make a decision to listen to my body and simplify my life, but sure can't complain about the results. Imagine what could happen if more people decided to quit being led around by all the talking heads, and instead made the decision to eat and live in a way that actually works for them.  My guess is that we just may also quit wasting half the food we work so hard to produce, pay so much to acquire and spend more yet to dispose of.

Just try (as the FlyLady Marla Cilley would say) to finally love yourself... just as you are, just for a little while.  Try being charitable to yourself, and see what happens.  I bet you'll be amazed by the results.

P.S.  My total cholesterol is 168. ;)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Summer's End

Today is the first day of school for my daughters.

Eighth grade for the eldest, first grade for her younger sister. I snapped this photo while walking them up the driveway to meet the bus this morning, after my teenager quipped (with a wink), "Oooh, so THAT'S what a sunrise looks like!"

I took a sabbatical from writing this summer, to spend more time focusing on my girls while they enjoyed their vacation, and am so glad I did.  This summer went by in a flash, and I wanted to make memories. God willing, I'll be able to write for many years to come... but my girls are only six and thirteen one summer of their lives. We made the most of it.

We slept in when we felt like it, rode horses, grew a big garden, planted waves of flowers and 80 little trees and shrubs.  We welcomed three beautiful foals into the world, and played with them often.  We hosted a 4th of July party, read piles of books, took in a county fair and journeyed to the Science Museum in St. Paul to take in the Egyptian Pharaohs exhibit. 

Both girls helped with barn chores, and if I payed allowance per wheelbarrow load of manure picked or scoop of grain doled out, the oldest would probably have enough to buy herself the car she's already talking about.  The youngest, she kept busy with new kittens (after joyfully informing my sister, "I'll take all you got!"), wiggling out her front teeth, learning to ride a bike without training wheels, practicing her reading and brushing her ever-patient pony.  The rag doll we made together one day last spring, Thumbelina, went everywhere with her: to the barn, to the beach, to Grandma and Grandpa's house, to tae kwon do lessons... and she rode along as we fished from the boat, tucked into my daughters life-jacket.

This day brings such mixed feelings for me; joy at the prospect of more time to myself to write, organize, and work on projects... and yet sorrow at the passage of time.  Both girls were excited to get back to school, to see their friends, to get back into the routine.  I've watched them both grow so much over the summer, their confidence and self esteem blossom... what a gift.  It is the very reason why I don't schedule many planned activities over the school break; I feel they need the rest after a busy school year, and plenty of time to explore their own interests and develop their own personalities.  It seems to work, as by the time mid-August hits they are rejuvenated and eager to resume a busier schedule.  And, quite honestly, I am ready for them to do so.  Their company is a joy, and yet it seems there is an instinct on my part to keep them home and nurture them some, then send them out into the world to test their wings. I send them out a little at a time, then welcome them home so as to feed them, build them up and teach them a bit more before sending them back out again.  No parenting expert am I... but so far it seems to be working.

And I can't wait for them to get home, to tell me about their day.

Meanwhile, I need to go buy a new coffee maker.  Mine died this morning and its truly a miracle I wrote this post without coffee. :)

It's good to be back.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Last Day of Kindergarten

Tomorrow is the last day of Kindergarten for my youngest daughter... and I've been teary-eyed about the fact all day.  Not because I'll suddenly have less quiet time for a few months, or have to remember just how to make lunch again, but because after tomorrow my baby won't be a Kindergartener anymore.  In fact, she won't be a baby at all.  She will be a first-grader.

She has grown and learned so much these past nine months, under the tutelage of the most wonderful of teachers.  She can read and write and add and subtract and tie her own shoes.  Last week, she came home with the "Dairy Queen Superstar Award", given to only the most dedicated students, due in part to the fact (at least, according to her) that she has not once this whole year received even one warning for bad behavior. She can't wait to cash in the coupon for a free "treat meal" at DQ.  

Today she brought home the most beautiful gifts... a memory book of the whole year, assembled by her teacher Mrs. Marshall.  It has photos and projects and drawings my daughter created from the very first day of school and all through the year, bound together in a book with her photo on the front.  I have most of the projects stored in a box, as I could not bring myself to throw out much but the most basic of worksheets when they came home in her tattered backpack at the end of each day.  But for this teacher to make sure each student made two of everything, so that she could gift such a lovely book to the parents (who, even in the best of times, can be frazzled and disorganized) is such an act of forethought and kindness it brought tears to my eyes.  She also sent a DVD of photos taken throughout the year, of the first day and of field trips, of "Donuts for Dads" and "Grandparents Day" and "Moments with Mom".  These are the sorts of things that, when displayed twelve years from this very weekend as people gather in my home to celebrate her graduation from high school, will be priceless mementos we might not otherwise have had.  

I am so grateful to Mrs. Marshall for giving my daughter such a perfect introduction to lifelong learning, and documenting the entire year as she did.  What a wonderful gift, and one that will positively impact my daughter for the rest of her life.  No parent could ask for more.  How lucky we are to have enjoyed such a wonderful Kindergarten year!

Right now, however, I don't want her to be a first-grader... not to mention a high-school graduate.  I want her to be my baby for a little while longer, to curl up in my lap and let me read to her, to need me when she scrapes her knee or fights a cold.  I want to hear her ramble on from the backseat, relating her kindergarten soap operas and what she learned about spiders that day.  I want to preserve that baby-toothed smile that stops me in my tracks; to stop time, make it stand still, capture and caress it.  I want her to keep surprising me with big words she shouldn't know and pragmatism far beyond her years and humor all her own.  

She's my last baby, a miracle and a treasure.  I've savored every moment of her existence... and just wish that existence wouldn't fly by quite so fast.  But I am forever grateful that when it came time to let go a little and allow  someone else to nurture, teach and guide my precious child, it was Mrs. Marshall who took her by the hand and ushered her so lovingly into her school years.  What a blessing. 

Thank you, Mrs. Marshall, from our whole family.  It's been a wonderful year and one we will remember always.

Monday, April 11, 2011


My littlest girl has been fighting a cold for weeks now. Try as we might to encourage her to rest, however... when you are six years old, there is just too much to do.

One cannot expect to sit on her laurels and still keep on top of one's social calendar.  There is a Kindergarten musical to rehearse, Grandparent's Day in her classroom is approaching, and, joy-of-joys, the school principal recently issued the proclamation that snow pants are no longer required playground attire.  Meaning, of course, that it will make the chasing of boys so much less cumbersome.  Only the most fleet of foot win at that game (and of course, Mom doesn't know what she's talking about when she says that catching one, may not actually be considered a win...).

Today, when she didn't leap out of bed to embrace the dawn, I took it as a sign that she needed a bit more rest and decided to wait and see how she felt later in the morning before sending her to school.  "Later in the morning" turned out to be less than an hour later, just after the school bus made its departure (of course).  She appeared in the kitchen, mad as a wet hen that I would keep her from school when she had so many commitments and so much accomplish.  So, we saddled up (figuratively speaking) and headed for town.

I couldn't have asked for a better way to start the day... or week.  After a dark and rainy Sunday, this day dawned with a cloudless sky, the air fresh and filled with birdsong.  Hints of the first green grass emerging in the roadside ditches.  The sight of hilltops beginning to dry in the fields, meaning it won't be long until the farmers are out turning the soil and planting this year's crop.  Country music on the radio, and the voice of my plucky little six-year-old socialite in the back seat telling me...

"Turn it up, Mom... it's JOHNNY CASH!"

Together, she and I concluded that listening to Johnny Cash cranked up on the radio while cruising down the road on a sunny spring morning was totally worth a tardy slip.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mission Accomplished. Maybe.

One evening last week, my husband came to me with the request that I use my treasure-hunting skills to find a dresser for the bedroom at our cabin.

Nothing too big, as the room is pretty small.  Nothing expensive, because... well, its a cabin.

I was on that assignment like white on rice.  Seriously, the man actually asked me to go shopping... and for furniture!   It was as if the heavens opened up and the angels burst into song.

A few days later, I stopped by one of my favorite thrift store haunts and found this neat little antique pine chest of drawers.  It sat amongst the grungy sofas and laminate bookshelves so typical of such an establishment, just waiting to be rediscovered.  My guess is the chest is pretty old; its made of solid wood, and the drawers lock with a skeleton key.  It is not fancy or elaborate, but I took one look and fell in love with its spare simplicity.

There is one problem, however... it fits in my kitchen just perfectly, and sits there now, longing to be filled with vintage linens.

I may have to go shopping again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Frugal Food & Gratitude

In the past, frugality was something I considered somewhat of a burden... though, at times, a necessity.  I never really thought of it as a chosen lifestyle to be undertaken for any reason other than to keep the wolf from the door.  Recently, however, my attitude has been shifting; partly in response to the heartbreaking tragedies taking place around the world (most recently Japan), and partly in response to what I see at my local grocery store.

So often (and much to my dismay) when I reach the checkout line with my staples and produce, there will be a family ahead of me with a cart (or two) piled with convenience food.  Frozen pizzas, snack chips in crinkly bags, cases of single-serving bottles of fruit punch, boxes of sugared cereal adorned with neon colors found nowhere in nature. Hot dogs.  Snack cakes. Processed cheese "food".  And it seems, more often than not, the nutritional black hole before me is paid for with an EBT card or WIC coupon.  It makes my heart sick.

So, I decided to undertake an experiment to see what it would take to feed my family of four well, but with frugality.  Not because I have to, or in judgment of others, but as a challenge to myself to live what I believe... that I should be a good steward of all that I've been given... less wasteful, more mindful, and to live with more gratitude.

We are so blessed to have a freezer full of meat (beef we raised ourselves, venison harvested by my husband and daughter, pork purchased on the hoof from an Amish family, along with a few fish from area lakes), but for the purposes of my experiment thought it best to start from scratch.  So, I went to the store and bought a ten-pound bag of chicken leg quarters for $5.49.  As I always have carrots, onions, and celery on hand, didn't need to purchase those items but the cost of those ingredients would be less than $10 (and that's in Minnesota in the winter).

Yesterday I pulled out my big soup pot, put all ten pounds of chicken in it and covered the chicken with water.  Setting it on the stove, I turned up the heat and simmered it until the chicken was cooked thoroughly, then removed all the quarters from the pot and placed on wire racks to cool, leaving the pot still simmering.  Once the chicken was cool enough to handle, I removed the skin, separated the meat from the bones and threw the bones back in the pot along with a two sliced carrots, two stalks of celery, a couple quartered onions, some peppercorns and two bay leaves.  While the whole works simmered, I diced up all the meat, divided it into two-cup portions and froze the portions in zip-top freezer bags.

After simmering the stock for a couple hours (the house smelled heavenly) it was time to strain and package it.  Putting a cheesecloth in a colander, I strained all the broth into a large bowl, then divided it into four-cup portions for the freezer, reserving two quarts for supper.

I was thrilled to discover my little bit of effort yielded over TWENTY cups of wholesome chicken stock, and eight cups of diced chicken.... enough for at least four big pots of soup (each of which generally feeds my family 2 main course meals and sometimes more, depending on what I add to the soup).

For last night's supper, I put the reserved stock in a clean soup kettle, added more vegetables (two carrots, two stalks of celery and a diced onion) and 2 cups of the reserved chicken and simmered it until the vegetables were tender.  Meanwhile, I mixed up some flour, salt, baking soda, egg, water and milk into a dough, and dropped bits of it into the soup for spaetzle (dumplings).  When my family burst through the door at suppertime, they asked (as always) what was cookin'... and were overjoyed with the answer.  They sat down to eat and gobbled up that humble chicken soup like it was the best food ever created and my culinary talent rivaled that of Rachel Ray.

But here's my point... for less than twenty dollars, one can create a healthy, wholesome, tasty basis from which to create over a week's worth of evening meals.  Depending on what is on sale or in season, the variations are endless.  The past couple weeks (with stock I made previously) I've made basic chicken soup with spaetzle, chicken tortilla soup, a creamy wild rice soup with chicken, broccoli cheese.... knoephla soup... spanish rice... and plenty more I can't even remember, but all were fantastically tasty and nutritious and drew rave reviews from my family.  They have not once lamented,  "Awww, soup AGAIN?"  But they have said, "Yay, AWESOME! I love your soup!"

Cooking this way does take a bit more time (though not much), and a bit more planning (though I'm not really known for that either).  But this way I can take a container of stock and some of the pre-cooked chicken from the freezer, cut some veggies and add whatever other ingredients suit me and have an awesome, homemade meal ready for my family in less than an hour (and usually only 30 minutes). The aroma welcomes them through the door with open arms after a long winter's day, the meal nourishes them and the time gathered around the table sustains and lifts us all up.

And so, I've decided to be a bit more frugal in my ways on a permanent basis, more mindful of how I manage my household. Not out of necessity anymore, but by choice... out of a desire to be more responsible with and grateful for all we've been given.

As for the money saved, I will take a lot of satisfaction in using it for good.  To bless others, to improve our farm and make investments which further the vision we have for it, to save for our daughters' educations.  But also to enjoy life and live in the moment a bit more.  There is little joy to be found in buying (or consuming) "fast food"...pre-packaged, chemical-laden fare of so-called "convenience".

On the other hand, a whole lot of joy and satisfaction (and savings) can be found in the simple things such  as mindfully preparing, sharing, and dining on "slow-food".  Now that I've made a game of it, seeing what awesome fare I can conjure up is a challenge I embrace.

Today's project: beef stock made from the roasting pan of soup bones and spare ribs currently thawing in my fridge.  Can't wait to get to it... or to hear my daughter exclaim, "Mom, this is AWESOME! YOU ROCK!" :)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Winter Reflection

This is the time of year when, despite all I love about winter and its slower pace, it seems to be lasting forever.  I tell myself, "C'mon, Amy... it's just another season on the calendar, no longer than any other. Enjoy it while it lasts because when spring hits you'll be busier than Lindsay Lohan's lawyer...."

It's hard to wait patiently for spring, though, and the flowers and sunshine and new foals it will bring.  The cold grey days eventually wear on my creativity and enthusiasm.  So, this morning I went through some photos from the past few months, reflected with gratitude on the joys and accomplishments and laughter.  Here are a few....

My big brother met his first grandchild at Christmastime this year... 
yes, that makes me a great-aunt and I don't mind that title one bit!  
Little Trevor John is beautiful and such a good baby, a real blessing to our family.

My husband's family spent Christmas Eve at our house; what a busy, happy time that was!

Christmas Day, we went over the river and through the woods to my parents house, 
and welcomed our soldier home. 
Best Christmas present ever.  
My older daughter reminds me of him every day, they are alike in so many ways... and he's her hero. :)

My Dad makes the most mouth-watering prime rib on the planet, and so we stuffed ourselves silly.  

After awakening from our holiday food coma, it was time to get back to work... 
and it's really hard work supporting  kids and pets.  Like, literally.

Well, okay, SOME of us worked... my oldest daughter worked very hard and in February, 
accomplished her long-time goal of earning her Junior Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. Yay!

She then celebrated by attending her first formal dance... 
and ignoring her mother's tearful plea to quit growing up so fast...

My baby is growing up fast too... she's reading now(!)... 
but at least she's not yet too cool to snuggle with Mom. 
I've learned to enjoy those chocolate-rimmed smiles, and not wash those crumbs off so quick.

Because it won't be long, and she'll be looking like this... not a crumb in sight.

Looking at these photos this morning, it reinforced one of my core beliefs. 

Enjoy. Every. Single. Day.  

Even, and maybe especially, the cold grey ones.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


One week ago today... this was my view.  I was fortunate enough to escape with my husband (and approximately 130 of his colleagues) to the beautiful island of Jamaica for a few days of sun, sand and relaxation.

While it meant four days of travel (and a couple weeks preparation beforehand) in exchange for five days of paradise, it was worth it.  For all the benefits of vacation, certainly; but especially for the renewed perspective I always seem to bring home.

Preparing for the trip was a stark reminder of all I'm responsible for here on the farm.  My children, pets, horses and home all needed someone capable to care for them in my absence. I was incredibly grateful to have parents willing to take my girls (and dog) into their home for a week and spoil them all rotten.  To have a sister-in-law, an experienced farm-girl in her own right, willing to house (and horse) sit.  To have the best-est girlfriend in the whole world willing to be on call and come to the rescue in case of any equine mishap... and to have all of them tell me, "Go, have FUN. We'll be just fine."

I did have fun, once I relaxed and the travel-weariness subsided. (Upon arriving in our room, we dropped our bags, collapsed on the bed, slept an hour, went to dinner, returned to the room and slept twelve more. Heaven.)  My mind was almost always back home, however... wondering what my girls were doing or if they were homesick.  If the horses were healthy and behaving.  If my sister-in-law was enjoying herself at my house or having to shovel too much snow.  When I would see something beautiful or of interest, I would make a mental note to tell them all about it, upon my return.  And quite often, my husband and I found ourselves talking about our daughters, about how they would enjoy the beach or the plane ride or the sight of the beautiful Caribbean Sea.

Everything about the trip was relaxing, beautiful, luxurious (well, except maybe the security and check-in lines... they always make me feel nervous and claustrophobic, like a steer in a sorting pen).  But after a few days, I was ready to return home to my girls and my horses and my dogs and my life.

Even though going home meant a 100-degree drop in outdoor temperature and a return to laundry, chores, cooking and cleaning, this is where my heart is.  Yes, it is rather divine to be waited upon by someone who addresses you as "mah-lady"; have fruity, frozen alcoholic concoctions delivered to my lounge chair on the beach; dine elegantly in the evening and afterward sleep like a baby in a giant four-poster bed which cradles you like a newborn...  I am so blessed to have the chance to experience it.  Better yet, however, was the joy in my daughters' smiles when I walked through my parents' front door.  The nickers of the horses when I walked into the barn.  The familiarity of my own bed and the comfort of the routine of the life I've created here on my farm.

This is where I am free, where I belong... and knowing that truth in my soul brings more satisfaction than I could ever find elsewhere.

Now if only I could train my children to address me as "mah-lady"....

Its good to be home.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What I Love About Winter - A List

1. Friday night is family night... especially in winter.
After a busy week filled with work, school, tae kwon do classes, church youth group activities and which sometimes includes overnight business trips for Dad, Friday night is our night to come back together as a family and just... be.  We make a pizza, watch movies, make popcorn, watch more movies, laugh and snuggle by the fire and sometimes the card players play cards.  I am not a card player, but just listening to the banter while the rest of my family is embroiled in a heated game of Crazy 8's brings me great joy.

2. Snow days.
Working from home means when Mother Nature shuts down the school, I have no need to scramble in an effort to find child-care or venture out in horrible conditions.  So, we sleep in.  Drink hot cocoa.  Watch the snow fall.  Make a pot of soup.  And enjoy every minute of it.

3. Homemade soup.
And speaking of making a pot of soup...  well, I love making homemade soup or stew.  Venison or beef stew, koephla soup, chicken soup, chili, broccoli cheese, chicken tortilla, minestrone.  There is nothing quite so therapeutic as chopping the vegetables and simmering stock, nor so comforting as a bowl of hot, homemade goodness after spending time outdoors in frigid temperatures.  Yes, I do make soup the rest of the year... but in winter it restores my soul.

4. Learning
Winter is the season when I have a bit more time to take classes, read, and try new things.   If there is a project I need to tackle, winter is when I have the long evenings to read, research, contemplate, and create.  This year one of my new projects is creative journaling, using paint and decoupage and embellishments of all sorts.  My dining room is now a studio and my astonished family intrigued by the sudden burst of creativity.

5. Rest.
Dark winter afternoons often beg for a nap.  And sometimes, I indulge them.  Having endured years of chronic sleep deprivation when my daughters were younger (and even mono when the youngest was a baby), I've now rediscovered the bliss that is sleep.  While I feel guilty taking a nap on a beautiful summer's day (and usually have little desire for one), in winter its a different story altogether.  And... a rested mom is a happy mom. :)

6. Dreaming... and planning.
Winter is when I do the most dreaming in regard to where I want to go in regard to my farm, family and business.  Its when I plan the next year's farm improvements, the vegetable and flower gardens, and which mares will be bred to which stallions in the spring.   I ponder whether to raise more bottle calves, or if we should build raised beds for the vegetables.  I dream about the foals growing in their momma's bellies and prepare for their births.  This is also the time of year when I catch up on the organizing, paperwork and correspondence which falls by the wayside during the busy summer months when we are haying, fixing fences, mowing, gardening, barn-cleaning and, sometimes, fishing.

7. Cozy things.
Warm shearling boots.  The wool scarf my mother brought back from Ireland for me.  Micro-fleece neck warmers.  Duo-fold long-johns.  The jeans quilt my husband had a friend make for me out of our "farming jeans" for Christmas when I was pregnant with our oldest daughter.  Yes, I am thrilled when the weather warms and I can pack those items away for the next season... but the winter makes me eternally grateful for their presence in my life.

8. School.
My family is profoundly, abundantly blessed by the fact our children attend an amazing public school with a wonderfully kind, attentive and creative staff.  The academics are top-notch, the school concerts and activities always enjoyable, and I take great pleasure in watching my girls learn and grow by leaps and bounds in that nurturing environment.

9. Reading.
Yes, I mentioned it earlier, but winter reading is in a category all its own.  In summer, I trend toward novels which can be read in fits and starts on the front porch while resting between chores.  Wintertime brings with it deeper, more thoughtful reading, the sort which commands more time and attention.  It broadens my horizons, yet clarifies my perspective.

10. Springtime.
Yes, I realize this is a post listing all I love about winter... but hear me out.

On the coldest, most brutal of days, when soup and warm boots and a good book don't work, I rest in the knowledge that spring will, indeed, arrive.  I never know exactly when; it could show up anytime between March and (Heaven forbid) June.  But that's precisely my point.  It is something we can look forward to and depend upon.  I know that when the weather breaks and the snow disappears, I will hit the ground running and slow down very little until freeze-up.  Knowing the hard work and long hours of springtime are just around the corner, I take pleasure in mindfully creating a pot of soup, in devouring a new book or taking the time to learn a new skill, in sinking into my sofa under a warm quilt and taking a nap.  Its about enjoying the moment and the life I've purposefully created.

I cannot live for summertime alone, at least not here in Minnesota, lest  I spend many depressed months lamenting bad weather and boredom (believe me when I tell you I've gone that route and it wasn't pretty) .  Life is what you make it, every day, every single season of the year.

And right now, I'm making soup.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Afternoon Delight

Relating with small children, other than those I've actually birthed, is not one of my natural talents.

While I've done plenty of outside-the-box, adventurous and even (dare I say) courageous things in my life, a room full of Kindergarteners strikes fear into my soul. The very thought of a troop of Brownie Scouts and their mothers gathered for a meeting gives me heart palpitations.

Needless to say, I've never been among the first to volunteer for "classroom mom" duty.

Having said that, I love my daughters (and being their mom), love to read to them and love books. (My husband will verify the last statement with a copy of the credit card bill, the Amazon and Barnes & Noble purchases highlighted in pink).  So, when the opportunity arose to help out in my youngest daughter's Kindergarten classroom for a few hours on a Friday afternoon by reading stories for their "Winter Literature Day", I felt it would be a good opportunity to do my part, spend a bit of special time with my daughter, and face my personal demons (or one of them, anyway).

Yes, I was nervous.  Seriously, all I had to do was read a couple books to some little kids and help with a craft project, but it felt like I was heading for a court appearance or something.  Thank goodness for the "reading" part; it was my crutch, shield and security blanket.  I did not know ahead of time that I would also be helping with crafts, which is good considering crafts are only slightly less terrifying to me than other peoples' small children.

Another mom went first... it didn't help my confidence any to learn she was a trained teacher and had even substituted in that very classroom before.  She donned the microphone (since when do they use pyrotechnics... er, I mean electronics... to that degree in Kindergarten?) and read her book, turning the pages and showing them to the class like an elementary school version of Vanna White.

When it was my turn, I shunned the microphone; anyone who knows me, knows I don't need one in a room housing fewer than 50 people.  Stepping to the front of the room,  I picked up Jan Brett's Daisy Comes Home, and related the tale of a little hen in China.

So, two counts were in my favor... reading, and the fact I was reading about a chicken.

I know chickens.

Boldly, I made the leap of faith that chickens in China behave very much like American chickens.

I'm not sure if the children are used to ad-libbers reading to them while also making comments about geography, chicken flock dynamics, or fishermen who claim "finders keepers"; they were, however, either extraordinarily well trained or really enjoyed the story.  They sat quietly and attentively while I read to them and responded with great enthusiasm to my questions and comments.  I had great fun with it, and totally enjoyed the experience.

So much, in fact, that I wasn't even all that scared when it came to making crafts with them (though I did offer up a prayer of thanks that my craft station used adhesive-backed peel-and-stick foam shapes as the only ingredient).  The children were divided into four groups and each group sat at a different table, heard a story, and then did a craft related to the story.

The lovely book at "my" table was The Mitten Tree by Candace Christiansen, about a little old lady who misses her grown-up children and begins to knit mittens for the children she sees gathering every day at the bus stop near her home.  I would read the story, we would decorate foam cut-outs of mittens with the peel-and-stick foam shapes, the children would rotate to the next table and I would do it all over again with the next group.  I have to say it was great fun to spend a little time with each child in my daughter's class, putting faces to the names she mentions every day and getting a taste of each unique personality.

The best, best, very best part of the whole experience, however?

The smile on my little girl's face when I showed up... and the whole time I was there.  

It didn't matter to her how well I read the book, my page-turning skills or whether I am all thumbs with glue and Popsicle sticks.  All that mattered to her was that  her Mommy was there.  She was radiant, and overjoyed, and proud to have her mom visit her classroom.  Just for her.

I wish I had a picture of her smile that day, though really don't need one as I doubt I'll ever forget it.

And besides... I'll see it again, very soon, the next time I volunteer to read to her class.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Winter Horse Care, The Frostfire Way

People often ask about my winter horse-care routine. Since we spent some time last week digging out from back-to-back blizzards, filling stock tanks and moving the horses out of the barn and back into their outdoor digs, the subject was on my mind and I thought I'd share some of my ideas in regard to it.

Horses were first domesticated on the Eurasian Steppes in what is present day Kazakhstan.  The place is not known for its tropical climate... quite the contrary, the winters there are frigid and somewhat similar to those here in Minnesota.  While the ancestors of the horses I raise trace back to the deserts of the Middle East, and when we think "desert" what comes to mind is "heat"... the nights there get very, very cold, and its a brutal climate in its own right.

Horses evolved, and were selectively bred, not only for their ability to look pretty and tote humans from points A to B... but to survive, and even thrive, in less-than-ideal conditions.  It is my opinion that keeping them swathed in blankets and in a heated barn is usually unnecessary (if not detrimental for some).  Obviously if one has a sick or elderly horse which requires that level of care, or even has high hopes of showing a slick show-pony at an early spring event, the barn and blankets are wonderful help in that regard.  But for a breeding or pleasure horse, I've found that a much more simple routine yields healthy horses with sound minds who thrive in all but the nastiest of weather during our Minnesota winters.

Care, and not fine stables, makes a good horse.                        - Danish Proverb 

During the winter months I keep my horses in small groups of three to five animals, and put those groups together giving consideration to age, nutritional requirements and temperament.  They are provided with good-quality hay, fresh water and salt, free-choice; the young stock are fed small amounts of concentrate as necessary to promote adequate growth and condition.   Each horse has a stall in the barn, but unless the weather is particularly nasty or we are awaiting a visit from our friendly farrier, they normally live, and are happiest, outdoors.  They do have shelter from the wind, which is important.  Horses' coats get quite thick in winter and are good insulation, provided they can get out of the wind and are not soaked through with rain.

Having been at this more years now than I care to admit, I've experimented with just about every winter horse-care routine out there.  Stabling with daily turn-out, stabling and blanketing with turnout, blanketing with full-time turnout... you get the idea.  (I've also used every bedding system out there... deep litter, straw, sunflower hulls, pelleted bedding... but that's a post for another day.)  My experience (and I'm just sharing my experience and opinion, not judging anyone else's system or making any recommendations!) has been that my horses are healthier, happier, and make it to springtime in much better shape when allowed to live in a herd situation, with hay available at all times (the digestion of roughage is what keeps horses warm) and free access to fresh water and salt... along with fresh air.

No matter how nice the barn, how immaculately its kept or what bedding system used, the air quality in a barn simply cannot match that of the outdoors.  I've experienced far fewer vet bills with horses living outdoors; they seem to avoid the respiratory ailments associated with stall-dwelling, as well as other injuries and mishaps such as stable vices and getting cast in their stalls.  There is also the added bonus of reduced bedding costs and far less time spent mucking stalls.

In Minnesota, water is the most difficult to provide in the winter, but it can (and must) be made available.  A few years ago I purchased a heavy-duty hose reel on wheels and it has been a God-send.  It allows me to keep the hoses in the garage, which stays above freezing on all but the most frigid of days.  When it does get cold enough that the hoses are in danger of freezing up in the garage, I roll the hose reel into the foyer to warm up before taking it out to fill the stock tanks.  Not a practice which would earn me "Homemaker of the Year", but it works... and, well, this is a farm and the well-being of the animals is the priority.  By next winter, I plan to have my tack/feed room insulated and heated in order to store the hoses out there and thus avoid dragging them to the house; what a joy that will be!  But this works, for now... and actually quite well.

Each little band of horses has a large water tank with an electric de-icer which keeps the water from freezing. I've found the drain-plug de-icers work the best, as the animals cannot flip the heating element out of the tank and the cord stays out of harm's way.  One day I will own automatic, heated waterers and my days of dragging hoses and filling tanks will be a thing of the past, but for now I just consider it part of my fitness routine!

Its good to have helpers!
A caveat... if the weather truly is bad and the horses look uncomfortable, I do stable them and am happy to do so.  One of my favorite simple pleasures is tucking all the horses into the snug barn and feeding them while Ol' Man Winter kicks it up outside.  They enjoy the reprieve as well, though by the time the storm has passed they all are more than ready to get back outdoors and into the fresh air and sunshine.

Horses can't talk,  but they can speak if you listen. 

I believe the most important aspect of horse care, not just in winter but year-round, is observation.  One must know your horses, their personalities, idiosyncrasies and habits... that way, when one is a bit "off" you may intervene quickly to discern and remedy the problem.  Of course, this observation requires presence, and so just kicking the horses outdoors does not absolve one from the responsibility of checking on them regularly.

Second to observation would be innovation.  While the magazines and trade shows would have us believe that all horses must live in some sort of climate-controlled, horse-proofed and hazard-free Nirvana, that's not practical nor is it reality for most of us.  I would garner that even the most successful among horsemen started their careers in fairly simple and humble surroundings.... those giant indoor arenas and climate-controlled barns (and the employees required to clean and maintain them) came later, after they'd established themselves.

So, how does one provide good care without breaking the bank (or your back)?  You get creative. It does not take a big, expensive barn to keep a horse out of the bitter wind... a simple, homemade three-sided shed will suffice.  Barring that, a windbreak can be constructed from big straw or hay bales, or even discarded pallets.  Same goes for providing water; even if your horses are a mile from an open water source or a spigot, water can be hauled in (and, many years ago, I spent a winter doing just that.  Not the ideal situation, but it worked.).  I don't recommend any of these methods over having a barn with running water, and one should give thought to how adequate winter care will be provided before ever bringing a horse home.  On occasion, however, situations and circumstances change (loss of a job, a poorly-timed relocation, etc.), and a committed horse owner will do whatever it takes to provide the basics of necessary care.  If you own horses long enough, there will be times when innovation will make the all the difference in providing good care.

That, and a positive attitude.

When its fifteen below zero and the brass coupler snaps off the hose after you finally got the whole works thawed out and pulled into place... or the tractor won't start and you must resort to pitching (lots and lots of) hay over the fence by hand... or the tank heater mysteriously got unplugged and the brand-new water tank froze so solid it burst a seam... those are the days which test your attitude, your innovation... and your dedication. And, quite frankly, make you question your own good sense.  Its important to remember, however, that spring always comes.The good news is that as long as the basics are provided and regular, attentive care given, horses actually do quite well living outdoors in winter.  

Even in Minnesota.

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.  ~Albert Camus

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

I cannot believe it's now the year 2011... last night as my husband and I were watching the Gin Blossoms and Rick Springfield rock Times Square before the big ball dropped, we were asking each other, "Can you believe its 2011??? Can you believe we've been married twenty years???"

Back when we were dating... like, twenty-one or so years ago (in a time our daughters call the "olden days")... the year 2000 seemed far in the future, and now we are eleven years beyond even that.  In looking back, however, I would say while the time passed quickly and there were plenty of obstacles and heartaches and lots of hard work along the way, it was time well spent.  Given the fact that one cannot go back and change anything, its probably a good perspective to have.  Regrets are worthless, and dwelling on them a waste of precious time.

And so, I choose to live in this moment and to look ahead.

At this very moment in my home, we've just finished up a board game.  Now my older daughter is upstairs practicing tae kwon do with her dad, while the younger is feeding our dogs (after compassionately encouraging the elderly, arthritic one down the stairs).  Nothing particularly special or noteworthy about the moment, outside the fact that everyone is home.  Everyone is safe, and healthy, and content. There is no drama, no crises, no pressing deadlines or weighty concerns.  That, in and of itself, fills me with a deep sense of gratitude.  My heart overflows with it, and to be honest, my eyes overflow a little as well.  I don't think one could know that same depth of gratitude without first experiencing the obstacles and heartache and losses... and so I am grateful for those as well.  Wouldn't want to experience them again, but am far richer because of them.

Now, as we begin a new year, I look to the future with gratitude for the opportunities and blessings to come, as well as great excitement and expectation.  2010 blessed me abundantly with some wonderful new mentors and friends, among them Heather O'Sullivan Canney and Amy Lundberg.  They both have opened up great big new worlds for me, have set the bar really high, and I have a whole lot of work to do as a result... both inside (working on me) and out (growing my business).  The thing is, I can't wait!  They are both phenomenally gifted women and I am so grateful to have the chance to work with each of them.

The older I get, it seems the less I know, but the more I love to learn and grow.  Now that my daughters are both in school and my days a bit more my own, it feels like a great gift to have the opportunity to focus more on my self-care, personal growth and business while they are in school, while still being an attentive and present mother to them when they are at home.  2011 will be a wonderful year, and I look forward to sharing it with you here in my Frostfire Journal.

Thank you so much for making the time to read about my thoughts and adventures here in this little blog... I appreciate it, very much, and hope you have a truly healthy, happy, prosperous and joyful 2011.  Happy New Year!