Sunday, September 20, 2009

Grow Baby, Grow

The air outside today was a bit cooler than it has been in recent weeks, a sign that the season is changing- and one of the only signs as the leaves here do little more than shrivel into brittle, brown remnants of their former selves and fall unhappily to the ground. It's a sign that the growing season is coming to an end. I think of my dad's garden at home in Indiana and all the beautiful, fresh vegetables and colorful flowers he always plants to accompany them. Soon, he'll be tilling it all under again.

My thoughts today, however did not flush with the impending doom of summer. I am in growth mode. And who wouldn't be with a little brood of flourishing children, a packet of cherished herb seeds, and a soul in need of the Gardener's touch.

Grow Baby (Spinach), Grow
So, when I set out to find myself a little herb kit this summer to take back with me to China, I found that I had to pick from sets- none of which contained exactly the combination I wanted. After some agonizing moments, I settled on my top priority- basil. It seemed a little odd to me that she (basil is feminine, right?) was paired with none other than catnip. Catnip? Seriously? I didn't realize that this was allowed to be consumed by humans. I guess I just naively assumed it was only put in those nasty little cat toys, not grown as a savory herb for the adorning of dishes eaten by homo sapiens. I guess I was wrong.

So, reluctantly I attended to my little soil pellets, watering and watching anxiously for several days until the seedlings started to poke their heads through the topsoil. Now, a couple months into the project, wouldn't you believe which one is flourishing like a bed of overgrown weeds... that's right, the catnip. Anybody have any recipes you want to send me?

I also started a small container of spinach. The growing season may be a bit late so we'll have to see if it finished okay indoors. My dream is to someday have a little container garden on the narrow patio outside our apartment. I read last year in the biography of Nelson Mandela how in his final place of imprisonment he had dozens of 5 gallon buckets in which he grew a whole slew of fresh vegetables. I'm not imprisoned for standing against apartheid, but I do aspire to be a gardener even though I have zero soil/land to my name. So in that regard, Nelson Mandela is my hero.

Grow Baby (Girl), Grow
When she arrived I have to admit that I did not think she was that attractive. She was a bit beat up, huge (10.3 lbs, or 4.75 kilos), bloated, and the word that best seemed to describe her to me was "beast." I apologize if this offends any of you mothers who deems it crime not to fall instantly in love with the sight of your child, but I knew I would come around in time and she just honestly scared me at first.

We're good now though- in fact, although we had some rough months of travel and sleep-deprivation this summer- I just can't get enough of cuddlin' and kissin' her now. She makes the funniest, expressive little faces- scrunching her nose and puckering her lips at me in mock frustration, then smiling with a twinkle in her eye- I swear she has a good sense of humor already- something I highly value in other people. I love that she already likes to kick a ball around with her feet and wants to tackle and wrestle with her brothers. She's rockin' the girly thing with her pierced ears and pretty blue eyes, but I think she's going to be fun and sporty and full of spirit.

Grow Baby (Faith), Grow
I am nearing the end of a personal decade this year. That's right, I am 29. If I think about it too much or for too long, I can start to get really discouraged about where I'm at in comparison to where I should be at as far as spiritual maturity. I'm pretty sure this is the WRONG way to be thinking about it... didn't C.S. Lewis say something about the truly humble person is not the one who thinks little of himself, it's the one who doesn't think of himself at all. So, I'm clearly not that person yet because I'm thinking about what a loser I am!

But, even though this "I'm not what I should be" kind of thinking does seem to plague most of us once in awhile, I am equally encouraged by seasons of change that I sometimes sense God is bringing about in my thinking and faith. Last year Josh and I were so thankful to be a part of a small group that really challenged and changed some of our thinking through a great study of Galatians and a good friend who led the way by sharing his own journey and growth in faith.

Recently, I've picked up a book I've had forever and have even read parts of before- but only in the last month has it clicked in a really impactful way. Sometimes a good book needs to be met at the right time, that moment in life when you are somehow ready to receive it differently than if you just took in the information for the sake of writing a paper, or to grow in knowledge. For me, this is just such a time and the book is The Believer's School of Prayer by Andrew Murray, a classic on prayer- and highly recommended if you are also at just such a place in your life.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

homemade headache

I read something recently about sewing. Now, I am not a sewer, and there is a reason for that. I can't finish anything, and don't have the fortitude or desire or whatever is needed (like interest) to take the time and read the directions and see the project to its bitter end. But this piece I read was giving some advice for those would-be sewers and some ways to get through the inevitable frustrations that it can bring. Like, stopping before that "hit the wall" mark. Or, carving out a space of time instead of starting 10 minutes before your baby wakes up from her nap.

Well, I don't have a sewing machine and I'm not planning on starting anything thread-related anytime soon, but I did take some of these tips to heart as I headed into a weekend of way too much homemade cooking.

That may sound like I'm being pretentious. "I'm so tired and weary of creating an oasis of Martha Stewart-like ambiance and deliciously healthy homemade meals for my family." But I assure you I am being very sincere. I wish I could say that every homemade attempt of mine is a shocking and stellar success. But, in fact, they are not.

So, at the risk of boring you with the details of my weekend, let me share with you some little tips I learned along the way on my Way-T00-Much-Homemade-Food Weekend.

Tip #1 Once uncorked, wine cannot be stored at room temperature.
Okay, maybe most of you are laughing at me right now, but I'm not a big wine drinker, okay? In our house, a nice brew usually wins the day. Anyway, I do buy wine for cooking but I'm embarrassed to admit that I have normally left it out on the counter after opening it. My friends Carolyn and Steph were here for dinner the other night and informed me of their similar infraction- but they at least found out what the appropriate time frame was for an opened bottle. So, I've been cooking with bad wine. I discovered this AFTER I had made a whole big batch of from-scratch spaghetti sauce as well as a whole batch of marinara sauce for pizza.

Tip #2 Too much bread can be too much of a good thing
When I make spaghetti I like to make Focaccia bread to go with it. I've also been searching for a good pizza crust recipe, since I've yet to be satisfied with all the bland ones I've tried. Since I was already spending the time on the Focaccia, I thought I'd double the recipe and make the other half into pizza crusts. Spaghetti and bread on Sat. night, spaghetti leftovers for lunch on Sunday, and by the time Sunday night rolled around and I was pulling big hunky, crunchy pizzas out of the oven, our eyes were bulging with the sight of yet more carbohydrates to digest. Here's another tip: pre-cooked pizza crusts are way too dried out and crispy if they are cooked a second time. I told you this was not a glamour show of homemade food.

Tip #3 If you are stuffed with Carbs by Sunday night, don't make waffles on Monday morning.
That's right, as a "gift" to Josh I bought him a rare find... a waffle maker here in China. My plan was to get up bright and early with Riley and Ari to whip up some fantastic waffles. That may have been a great idea if we were not all bloated from a weekend of starch. And let me tell you something about homemade waffles- they don't tread lightly. Lots of oil, eggs, sugar, ugh- I'm sick just thinking about it again. And to go with this heart-healthy breakfast we had to make, you guessed it- homemade syrup!- another missing delicacy in our city (well, you can get it for a price$$). I know store-bought syrup has a lot of sugar and other chemicals, but for some reason the homemade kind seems ten times sweeter. Way too much of a good thing. Next time, stick with a fruit bowl and yogurt.

This sad tale does have a happy ending. I went to the market later that Monday and bought lots of fresh, yummy greens and colorful vegetables and we had big bowls of salad for dinner that night. This was topped off with Josh's favorite dessert- cheesecake. You may be wondering how we were able to stomach it... and I'm not sure how either but it's amazing how quickly your body can recover:)

With all the missteps and frustrations that filled my Homemade Weekend, I was thrilled to finally have a winner with this cheesecake. The crust was my favorite part- a mixture of three kinds of nuts (almonds, pecans, and walnuts) and my own special twist- pretzels. It turned out so creamy and smooth. Mmmm... with a mug of strong, hot java to round out the moment.

Here is to hoping your homemade attempts, whatever they may be- are much more successful, enlightened, and healthy than mine!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Tale of Two Languages

One of the things you often notice here in China is the funny and often very inaccurate translations from Chinese into English. I know the reason for this is the diametrical difference in the way our two languages "think." Mandarin truly is a language of pictures and this becomes more and more impressed upon me the more I learn of it.

My language tutor, Eileen (her "English" name) was talking with me this week and asking me how I was doing. I was explaining to her that the beginning of the year is always hard. She said, "I know. You have three kids- you must be very tired." (This by the way is probably by far the most common phrase I hear coming from a Chinese person when they talk to me!) I replied that the kid thing isn't really that big of a deal (ha!) but more it is because I've just ended a summer full of rest and time with my husband, and now the busyness of school has begun again and there is too little time for us- which inevitably creates issues! A wave of recognition and understanding swept over her whole demeanor and she started explaining how she experiences the same dynamic when life is busy with she and her husband as well. "Gou tong" is what we need, she said.

The meaning of "Gou tong" is a beautiful picture of two rivers flowing and as they meet together they interconnect, or latch on to one another. Like if you take your arms and have them clasp each other in a lock. It's hard to fully describe because the character for "gou" and for "tong" both have their own separate descriptive meaning. But the best translation maybe is just simply "conversation." After seeing her describe these different words though, I felt like "conversation" did not do the beauty of the Mandarin meaning justice.

Now it was my turn. My ayi has been watching me for the past few weeks as I have attempted to plant some of the herb and vegetable seeds I brought back from the States this summer. It probably seems like a hilarious charade of events to her as I attempt to buy the correct soil and pots, place them in the correct place, instruct her what not to water, etc. It's a delicate if not difficult task to grow something here since I can't read any directions or descriptions of product, and there is no Lowe's or friendly neighborhood greenhouse to help me out. I've managed to keep a few alive but there have been several casualties. She must wonder if I'm cut out for this.

So in an attempt to let my ayi know that I know I may not be able to cut it as a horticulturist, the other day I attempted to explain to her some of our favorite idioms. Specifically, the old phrase, "Green Thumb." I thought it would be cute to let her in on our little nickname for a Gardening Goddess (and the fact that Josh had told me I might not be one)... but instead it came out more like...

"At America, if person good at grow (here used hand motion for grow) flower, we say they have a thumb (here I ask how to say thumb), the thumb is green. They have a green thumb. You understand? My husband say maybe I not have one."

She laughed politely. You might be doing the same. I somehow doubt she had the same awestruck feelings of wonder at the beauty of our language that I had experienced for hers the day before.