And we’re off!

Let the summer begin!

It really did begin this week here in SE Alaska. Ketchikan has been mostly sunny, even warm, the past several days. I’m happy to report that my heat is off and my sandals are on! Of course it won’t last…this is a rainforest, you know…but we got enough of a break this week that doors to businesses stood open letting in cool air. My front bannister and stoop were painted, my hedge trimmed, gutters cleaned…it was outdoor work weather for a change! And for the first time in months, I didn’t want a blanket on my bed.

Tomorrow we leave for what I’m affectionately calling our “summer ramble.” This is partly an exploratory trip, partly a relocation for the RV, and we’ll get in some family time too. But mostly it is recovery time, and planning time. Working in bursts as we have been doing tends to be somewhat draining. The work is good, and of course we need income, so thank God we are able to work. But you do feel a bit like you’ve run a marathon when your work life becomes condensed. Working 40 hours a week for one organization, and doing projects in between for another one leaves me feeling pooped. It was good, all good. Energizing, busy, productive…but now I’m done, for another glorious stretch.

This time will fly by, I know. But I’m going to try to savor it, slow it down, not plan it all away. We already have some dates marked on the calendar. I want to protect the rest of the time and see what develops…see where we roam, see what we come up with. That’s really the best part of down time…the serendipity of deciding what to do, a day at a time, or an hour at a time.

We plan to resurrect our camping skills. And we need to strategize a bit. We’re making life up as we go, and we need to map out the coming months. Working episodically gives a lot of freedom. But it also limits income, and you have to balance both needs…need for down time and flexibility, and the need for income.

So we’ll talk, and plan, and recover. And then magically, the days and weeks will evaporate and we’ll be back, working again. That’s good too. But before I get ahead of myself, I have to take a few minutes to enjoy the thought…we’re off tomorrow…let the summer begin!

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Happy 4th of July!

Happy Birthday, America! Land of the free, because of the brave, and land that I love…amazing, feisty, diverse, mythical, broad and wide, beautiful, breath-taking…a country like no other. Of course, all countries can make that claim. Each is like no other. Each is unique, and each has positives and negatives. America is no different. But it is an amazing land, physically, and still a wonderful experiment in freedom and the exercise of self-governance.

I’m a bit of a history buff, albeit very selective in my interests. One of the periods that I especially love is the era of colonial America. That is a fascinating time in history, not only because of the events that occurred that most Americans are familiar with…the Revolutionary War, the political struggle for freedom, the establishment of a new nation…but also because as you learn about the everyday lives of people, you realize…they were really very much like us, in many ways. Except in all the ways they were so different. There’s a line in the movie “National Treasure,” when Nicolas Cage is quoting from the Declaration of Independence, and he concludes by saying that “people don’t talk that way any more.” Read the writings of the founding fathers, or other authors of that time, and you have to agree. People don’t talk that way any more. Those were serious men and women, and they lived through serious and perilous times. They used language in a way that most modern Americans could not even follow, and somehow, with all the odds in the world against them, claimed their independence and birthed a new age. Quite a feat.

One of my favorite movies is the musical 1776. Some of the music is a little hokey, but beyond the comic moments is a moving story of vision, division, loyalty, achievement and heroism. And watching it, I’m reminded that something we take for granted was really a miracle, on every level.

Happy parades, fireworks, hotdogs, apple pie! I’ll be enjoying a small town parade today, and seeing fireworks. And maybe sometime in the next few hours, on this middle-of-the-week holiday, I’ll pull out my dvd and remember how it all started. I’ll remember that the Declaration is more than just a historical document, that the Founding Fathers were real people with real disagreements and lives in the balance. And I’ll appreciate something that I rarely stop to think of: that I am free, and my freedom was inherited from people who lived centuries ago. But their gift is still giving, and Americans today are still the fortunate recipients of their gift.

Rob’s philosophy

From a discussion last weekend…my philosopher at large, aka my husband, Rob…

The goal of life is hope.

The pathway to the goal is love.

The gate that obstructs the path is pride.

The key to the gate is forgiveness.

My father’s 80th birthday

Today my dad would have turned 80. He died four years ago on February 1, just a few days shy of his birthday.

It is hard to believe it has been four years since that day. My mom has adjusted, as much as possible. She is busy, active, energetic, continuing to pursue their life dream of mission efforts. But she doesn’t forget, of course.

How does it work that life goes on, the current carries us on? There is no choice, that’s how it works.

I think of him often, at odd moments here and there. Little things bring him to mind, and four years down the road, the sadness is mostly gone, and sweetness is in its place. The memories are good, and I smile when I’m reminded of some funny thing he said or did. Sometimes the tears still come, often when I least expect it, surprising me that emotion can bubble up, nearer the surface than I knew.

I’ve been thinking a lot about creating passion in my life. I should say, expanding passion. There are some things I am passionate about, primarily my family. I think about my dad, and how he displayed that quality in his life.

He wasn’t a flashy person, not the cool one in the crowd. But he was a man of faith, an old fashioned faith that wasn’t about fame or fortune. He was a minister, a preacher, a missionary. He had goals for sharing his faith, and he pursued them. He spent most of his life focused on sharing his faith with others, and lived many years in foreign countries to accomplish that goal. He and my mom were partners in life and in faith, and their mission was their passion.

The last couple of years of his life he was not able to travel, except to doctors’ appointments and to hospitals. His world grew smaller, at a time when mine was expanding. It was about that time that Rob and I moved to Alaska, and we traveled a lot. I always called when we traveled, checking in. I would hear his voice, “Where are you now?” A little wistful, it seemed to me. I’m sure he was thinking of past years when he was well and able to be about his life’s work. It pricked my heart to know that he would likely not make those journeys again.

This week I’m traveling again, in Anchorage for a training, and I heard a little voice in my head as I was packing. “Where are you now?” I’m right here, Daddy, thinking of you, and wishing I could sing happy birthday to you in person. But you’re where you belong, too. I know that because I also have a faith. It is a bit different from my dad’s. My faith has not prompted me to live abroad, or to choose a missionary life. But it is there, nonetheless.

Milestone birthdays are always special, celebrated with a little extra excitement. If my dad was here, we would do a big family gathering, make a special event of the day. But without him, of course that isn’t happening. Still, I like to think that he’s having his party. I like to think that he’s off on a journey, traveling like he loved to do. And because I haven’t been on that journey myself, I ask him, “Where are you now?”

Happy Birthday to my dad. Happy birthday, Daddy.

Food for inspiration: Lemon Cream Cheese Cupcakes

As everyone knows, you think better with food. Especially with something that is a luscious blend of comfort and decadence. Lemon cream cheese cupcakes fit that description perfectly. This is my new favorite sweet treat, not to be confused with something low calorie. If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it now: you will never find a low calorie dessert on my table, unless the dessert is just fruit. My dessert philosophy is really quite simple: if I’m dieting, I don’t need dessert. If I’m eating dessert, I must not be dieting. So now you know.

The ingredients are standard pantry and fridge items, so this is a great treat to bake on a whim. That’s usually when I whip out my cupcake pan…when I just want a little something without having to run to the market.

I would eat them all, but, alas, that could be ugly, by anyone’s standards! I typically share part of the batch. Check it out for yourself, you may want to have a sweet feast. And best, this is easy, so easy!

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Lemon Cream Cheese Cupcakes
(I think the original recipe is from Kraft. Honor to whom honor is due.)

Ingredients:

1 pkg. (2-layer size) white cake mix
1 pkg. (3.4 oz.)JELL-O Lemon Flavor Instant Pudding
1 cup water
4 egg whites
2 Tbsp. oil
1 pkg. (8 oz.) PHILADELPHIA Cream Cheese, softened
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 pkg. (16 oz.) powdered sugar

Method:

HEAT oven to 350ºF.

BEAT first 5 ingredients in large bowl with mixer on low speed until moistened. (Batter will be thick.) Beat on medium speed 2 min. Spoon into 24 paper-lined muffin cups.
BAKE 21 to 24 min. or until toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean. Cool in pans 10 min.; remove to wire racks. Cool completely.
BEAT cream cheese, butter and juice with mixer until well blended. Gradually add sugar, beating on low speed after each addition until well blended. Spread onto cupcakes.

OR: if you don’t want to make a cream cheese icing, pick up a can of cream cheese frosting at the market. I’ve made my own, which is yummy, following the recipe, and I’ve also used the prepared cream cheese frosting. Believe me, either choice will be perfect!

One last tip, shared by my daughter: these are delicious as soon as they’ve cooled enough to frost, but they take on an extra special goodness if you chill them before serving. I don’t know what it is; the cupcakes seem to be a bit denser in texture, if you like that. I do, so I typically build in enough time to chill, after frosting, and before sampling.

Enjoy!

This is a problem money can solve

Tonight we came home from work, and I discovered an unpleasant surprise: the load of laundry I had left going this morning had been washed with a tube of lipstick, and several things were ruined…or at best will only be salvaged with a lot of effort on my part. I think there are a few things that will be total losses. Since we’re in an apartment (for this work stint) that is somewhat sparsely supplied, there were no stain treatments with the laundry supplies. I drove back to the small grocery to see what options were available. I bought four different products, hoping that something would help.

After an hour of rubbing, scrubbing, soaking and working, I had made some progress. Enough to let the things soak while we ate dinner. While we were eating, we talked about our day, Rob in the back of the clinic seeing patients, me in the front, dealing with forms, schedules…the admin side. As I’ve said, I don’t do blood.

The other staff members are great; some of them have worked here a long time. They know everyone, and everyone’s story. I hear bits and pieces, put a few names and faces together. The last time we were here, I got a little taste of clinic life, the up close and personal view you get of patients when you sit at the front desk. But when I was here before, I was primarily training staff. I had limited exposure to the patients coming and going. Not so this trip. I’m working at the front desk, filling in until the new hire starts. It was a convenient opportunity. Rob was already scheduled to work, and it was nice that I could come along, and be paid to be here.

The view is different from the front. For the past five years, I’ve worked in healthcare administrative offices, hospital settings that put me in the healthcare arena every day. But in my role, I’ve primarily been involved with the business of healthcare. I’ve had almost no patient connection. The past few months, working with document management, and now sitting in the front office seat, I am seeing the patient population for the first time.

Of course I’ve known they were out there, real people with real illnesses. I’ve witnessed the healthcare system in a limited way for myself and my family. But we’ve been fortunate, and healthy, by and large.

Now I’m seeing, from a perspective I haven’t had before. Patients come in for everything from colds to cancer, broken bones to pregnancy. They come in all ages, shapes, sizes. This is a primary care clinic. Some patients’ stories are poignant reminders that life is fragile. Some are working the system…what can they get for pain? What diagnosis will get them a trip to a specialist in Seattle, conveniently paid by Medicaid? It is unbelievable, the parade that passes on a daily basis.

There are happy patients, women in for prenatal visits, or young parents with little ones for routine checks. There are older folks who come to be monitored for some condition, but who are generally well.

And there are the others…the ones with serious issues that usually can’t be fixed, or cured, or healed. They have too many complications, too many barriers, and many people are their own worst enemies. I often see references to behaviors that are creating the reasons patients come to be seen. But regardless of cause, self-inflicted or just an act of nature, it is a sad thing to look at people who are broken.

This afternoon I saw a man who is obese, can only walk with a walker, who looked hopeless, almost lifeless. He has a heart condition, but I don’t know what brought him in today. Regardless, he’s in bad shape. Then I saw his wife, who had come to pick him up. She is a cancer patient who had part of her jaw removed. It is unsettling to look at her. I found myself looking away, uncomfortable to see someone who has been literally defaced by her disease.

I sat tonight, eating dinner, frustrated at my own innatention to detail that allowed me to wash a tube of lipstick with the laundry. If I had only checked my pockets! And of course, several things I had recently bought were in that load.

But as we ate and talked, perspective grew. My thoughts cleared, and I realized, in the words of a friend, “this is a problem money can solve.” Worst case, I spend a little money to replace what I can’t salvage. The truth is, I’m as irritated at myself for causing the mishap as I am over the ruined clothes. I get impatient when I do foolish things.

Well, there are enough bumps in life to keep me appreciative of days that run smoothly. But no ruined laundry, fender bender, burned dinner…name your pet peeve…can compete with the sadness of serious illness, life-threatning disease, chronic pain. And so far, I’m blessed to be free of any of those conditions. So with that perspective, a little ruined laundry doesn’t seem too bad. Hey, it’s all replaceable or fixable, and non-essential. I mean no disrespect toward the value of money…I know money, or the lack of it, creates hardship too. But that’s another post. And still, in the big picture, things are just things.

I wish I could say I won’t need to be reminded of this again. But that isn’t true. I’ll be frustrated at some other slice of life in a few days, or a week or a month from now. And I’ll have to remind myself what’s important. Who’s important. And that if money can solve the problem, it isn’t really a problem after all.

Clarabell, the Christmas Cow

For a heartwarming story that has the perfect elements of Christmas…a child, animals, Santa…check out this link to Clarabell, The Christmas Cow.

For many years, my father-in-law read this story at Christmas family gatherings. We are not always with extended family at this stage in our lives. Some years the most we can do is attempt to get together with our kids. So now Rob reads this story for our little group.

If you’ve never heard of Clarabell, take a few minutes and get to know her. She’s quite a character, and more importantly, she has character. This is a story that teaches the meaning of selfless giving, and the reward of doing the right thing.

Happy reading, and Merry Christmas!

Grace and space?

Someone asked me, recently, about the title of my blog. I gave an explanation of “Grace and Space” in my first blog post. But that’s long buried in my archives at this point. So to answer the question of what that phrase really means, here’s the story:

A few years ago, when my son was 21 and we were having difficulties transitioning through some young adult issues, I had an epiphany one day: he needed grace from me, and space to be allowed to work out his issues. And that phrase has continued to have a useful place in my life, as I often feel that I either need these gifts for myself (from others), or I need to extend these gifts. Like most catchy phrases, it’s easy to say, more difficult to do in the grip of the moment, whatever the issue, and whoever the others involved.

The point of this blog is recognizing that there are many grace notes in life…some come from and through others, some just seem to be gifts that come when needed, and bring a smile, comfort, hope…or perhaps understanding. As most people instinctively recognize good things, recording these experiences may seem unnecessary. But I believe that when I consciously mark joys in my life, I increase their power. If the experience is one of personal luxury, I can repeat it when possible. If grace comes from someone or something as a random kindness or event, I can appreciate it more fully by acknowledging and being grateful for the gift I’ve received.

These bring a smile to my face: my family, a good book, a moving quote, a phone call or email from a friend, comfort food, shopping in a favorite store, sunshine…grace is all around us, in many forms. We have only to open our eyes to see, and our spirits to receive.

I’m taking Gingerbread to Seattle

We got home from Prince of Wales (POW) this morning. The little plane…not a float plane, this plane has wheels, and it seats about a dozen people…left the island at 7:00, and by 8:00 we were crossing over on the airport ferry to Ketchikan. After three weeks away it is good to be in our own space again. But no rest for the weary! This is Saturday, and we leave on Monday evening to meet our kids in Seattle, so today has been about catch up.

First we made the rounds for errands. Picked up the mail, bought a few things at Wal-Mart, stopped by the bank, dropped off a couple of things to ship at the mall. We were sidetracked a few times, but eventually made it back home. Good to get comfy, put on Christmas music, turn on our twinkly lights…no tree for us this year as the next two nights will be our only time at home before Christmas. So I miss having the scent of a fresh tree, and feel I’ve let the Boy Scouts down by not giving them my business this year. But it was not to be. (And I have to admit, the bright spot is that I don’t have to put away all the ornaments in a couple of weeks.)

After sorting the mail, I’m adding to my to-do list. I have a few Christmas cards to finish, some work on a project I should complete before we leave on Monday. But the most important thing to do this weekend…more than laundry, online work, or the other chores on my list…the most important thing I have to do is make gingerbread cookies.

We get to see Alex next week, and Stephanie and Matt, and little Riley. I’m excited to spend a few precious days with them, and it is a bonus that these days come at Christmas. We don’t get that every year. This one will be a little different. Last year they were with us in Ketchikan, and it was easy enough to do all the traditional things, have the favorite foods. But not this year.

This year, Stephanie and Alex and Riley are arriving in Seattle only a day ahead of us. Matt is out of the country on business and won’t be home till next Tuesday. Alex flew out to Arizona earlier this week to drive with Stephanie and Riley from Prescott to Seattle so Stephanie didn’t have to face a multi-day drive with an 18-month-old by herself. The nice thing is that he’ll be able to stay over a few days, so we get to see him. He goes back to Atlanta on the 23rd.

We’ll be in a hotel. Matt and Stephanie are literally still in the process of their relocation to Seattle, and as they are hardly settled, this is not the year to be creating home cooked feasts. So, I’m taking the homey touches with me. And the iconic treat for Alex is gingerbread cookies. He loved these as a little guy, and to this day, if I had to name one thing I make that he enjoys most, it would be these cookies.

I know the point is that we’ll be together, and that this holiday will not be about food, at least not the homemade variety. Except for this one thing. And I’ll admit that I’m taking gingerbread as much for myself as for Alex. Not for my taste buds: for my heart. You see, he loves to eat these cookies. But I love to make them for him. This is one of the few ways I can reach out and touch that little boy that used to live at my house. At 24, there isn’t a lot he needs me to do for him. But this is a gift from my heart to his, and he understands that.

To date, we have been able to see Stephanie more often than we see Alex. Part of that was due to his life in the army. Now that’s ended, and he’ll have a bit more flexibility than when he was in the service. But he lives in Georgia, at least for now, where his wife is based at Ft. Benning. Now Stephanie and Matt will be a short flight away from Ketchikan, and I’m already planning frequent visits. Hard to resist Riley’s little face, or pass up an opportunity to connect with my favorite daughter and son-in-law. So I anticipate that we’ll continue to see Stephanie more often than Alex. Maybe he’ll eventually relocate. Or who knows? Maybe we will.

Regardless, for now, when I have a chance to make gingerbread, I’ll do it. I’ll be the one flying down Monday night with a tin of homemade cookies. And no, I’m not the white-haired grandma. I’m the mom, anxious to see the young man who makes me smile, challenges me to watch him play games, sends me funny texts, walks with me down memory lane when we share this treat together. I’m taking gingerbread to Seattle, baked from the heart.

GINGERBREAD
(Recipe from Colonial Williamsburg)

1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup melted butter
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 cup unsulphered molasses
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional
3/4 teaspoon lemon extract, optional
4 cups stone-ground or unbleached flour, unsifted

Combine the sugar, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda. Mix well. Add the melted butter, evaporated milk and molasses. Add the extracts, if using. Mix well. Add the flour 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly. The dough should be stiff enough to handle without sticking to fingers. Knead the dough for a smoother texture. Add up to ½ cup additional flour if necessary to prevent sticking.

When the dough is smooth, roll it out ¼ inch thick on a floured surface and cut it into cookies. Bake on floured or greased cookie sheets in a preheated 375° F oven for 10 to 12 minutes. The gingerbread cookies are done when they spring back when touched.

Easy doughnuts: thanks Mom!

Here’s a quick happy breakfast treat to serve if you want something warm and yummy with your coffee without a lot of prep. For the cutest little doughnut holes you can pop in your mouth, use canned biscuits. My mom used to make these when I was a kid. They were universally popular at sleepovers, and would make a fun holiday morning tradition, just in case you’re looking for a new thing to add to your list of “must-do” in the next week or two.

Grab a can or two of refrigerated biscuits from the dairy case. Be sure you choose the non-layer style. I chose large buttermilk biscuits when I made these recently.

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Remove the biscuits from the can and separate dough. Use a very small cutter, or even a bottle cap, to cut the dough into bite size pieces.

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Heat canola oil in a medium sized sauce pan (fill pan about half full with oil). I don’t have an exact temperature to suggest…you want the oil hot enough to fry the doughnuts quickly…about a medium to medium high heat level should work. The dough will brown quickly in the oil and puff out to a larger bite size. Since I don’t fry often, I usually check my heat level and cooking time with one or two test pieces. Of course, you have to taste your test bites to be sure you’re on target.

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Fry doughnuts in small batches. Turn them once in the oil to brown on all sides. I didn’t time my batches, but the process will be fast, cooking time should be no more than a minute or two for each batch. As the doughnuts turn a light brown, remove to a rack to cool slightly.

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When the doughnuts have cooled slightly, dip in powdered sugar, or a mix of cinnamon and sugar. Or you can coat the doughnuts with a powdered sugar glaze (mix powdered sugar, a little milk, and a teaspoon of vanilla).

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Nothing fancy here…just kid food / fun food from a simple shortcut. Enjoy the yumminess!