• remembering Guatemala

    Lately, my mind has been wandering back to Guatemala. We were only there for nine months, and it’s been fifteen months since we returned. The intensity of the experience is fast becoming a distant memory, squished and compacted into the mind’s recesses.

    I have no illusions about our time there. Just the other day when I was out for a walk, the memory of walking home from town flooded back—my backpack weighted with pasta and boxes of milk, dirt in my sandals, the hot sun beating down, my permanently bloated stomach, the slinking dogs and trash-filled gutters—and I was profoundly relieved that at that moment I was walking for the pure pleasure of it and not because we had no car. There were so many things I didn’t enjoy about Guatemala—the cavernous, cold house, the crowded microbuses, the painstaking hurdle to acquire the basic necessities, the loneliness.

    And yet.

    And yet I miss that time.

    For nine months, we made a go of it on our own. We traveled and explored and fought and cried and lived, all in a foreign place many miles away from family and friends. It was hard and intense and lonely and incredibly special. In my mind, the memories glow.


    The other evening I was helping my younger son clean up his room. My husband walked by and, in Spanish, I told him we should probably just chuck all the junk since the kids never played with it anyway. My younger son didn’t bat an eye.

    I hammed it up, ranting about how I wanted to get rid of their stuff once and for all.


    My husband and I looked at each other. “It’s gone,” I said. “He doesn’t understand it any more.”

    If he’s lost the language, then have the memories evaporated, too?


    Part of me aches to travel.

    What about Kenya? I ask my husband. We could run the guesthouse in Nairobi.

    I scroll through the job openings on the MCC website. I toy with the idea of traveling around the country doing relief aid with MDS. We’d make a kicker team, I tell my husband. You could do all the building stuff and I could feed people.

    But then I think—really think—about actually leaving and I crash back to reality.


    Recently I had an affair with an idea: I could go to Iraq to teach English for five weeks.

    It’s not completely preposterous. I have a degree in Teaching English as a Second Language. If I was accepted to the program, my way would be paid. The children are old enough that they could stay with other people or at home alone while my husband works. I have friends in Iraq. I like to teach.

    But when I thought on it harder, I realized that even if it was logistically doable, I couldn’t handle it emotionally. I would miss my children too much. It would detract from the joy of the adventure.

    And then I dreamed I had to send my children to another country so my husband and I could travel and it was horrible.

    That clinched the deal. My affair was over.


    Ten years from now, I think I’ll look back at our nine months in Guatemala as perhaps the richest, most unique period in the entirety of our parenting gig. And yet when I think of doing something like that again, my insides shrivel. We have so much here—comfort, routine, dear ones, security. Why would I want to step away from it all?

    But if our months in Guatemala were so special, why wouldn’t I?

    In any endeavor, the level of difficulty is in direct proportion to the level of satisfaction. Also, anything that takes time and energy feels daunting, especially if it’s not a person’s norm. So how to apply this to my desire for stability and my desire for adventure?

    We have made other decisions that have done more to shape our family life than simply moving to Guatemala for nine months. Two biggies are 1) living in the country on one income, and 2) homeschooling, neither of which are a walk in the park. When I’m an toothless old lady, I’ll remember these rip-roaring times and my entire body will light up like an LED bulb.

    Here’s a thought. Maybe living at home around the people we love (though—important clarification—don’t always enjoy), day in and day out, is actually a great adventure in its own right. Maybe mastering and appreciating the mundane actually yields the greatest rewards. I believe there is truth to this. And beauty. So much beauty. 

    And yet there is beauty in the adventure. There is beauty in being stretched impossibly, terrifyingly thin. There is beauty in the cramped buses, the smokey street food, the torrential downpours, the cheek-kisses, the strange plants and weird insects. There is beauty in the discombobulation, the independence and isolation, the new friendships and new places. And there is astounding beauty in watching your children struggle with, comprehend, navigate, and (finally!) begin to master the foreign with a grace and ease that adults can only dream of.

    I miss that beauty. The beauty of being stretched, the beauty of the different.

    I miss hearing my children roll their ‘r’s.

    That’s all.

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (12.23.13), cheese ball, a mistake-based education, hot buttered rolls, bacon-jalapeno cheese ball, giant sausage and leek quiche, Christmas 2010, spaghetti carbonara, for my walls, windows at dusk-time, marmalade-glazed ham, and a little elaboration.        

  • 2014 book list

    So back when, I made a commitment to read at least one book a month. And I’m doing it! Sometimes by the skin of my teeth, and sometimes with glorious aplomb. Here’s what I’ve read so far (since May, to be exact). (And considering that I only read one book—Lucky Man by Michael J. Fox—in the six months prior to my commitment, this list is pretty impressive, thankyouverymuch.)

    *The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. An old favorite, although I think I love Poisonwood Bible more. And her book of essays is fab.

    *Free to Learn by Peter Gray. The most perspective-changing book I’ve read all year. Maybe ever. If I had to choose one book for everyone to read, this would be it.

    *Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. I got bored halfway through. There’s a brain-scarring rape scene that I wish I hadn’t read. Interesting storyline but long and teetering on tedious.

    *The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. Fun (if you call “crying your eyes out” fun, and I do) and fast. I have no interest in seeing the movie. (Feel free to convince me otherwise.)

    *Natural Born Learners by Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko and Dr. Carlo Ricci. Some good ideas. Glad I read it. Nothing amazing.

    *The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Brilliant and engaging. The perfect Pleasure Read.

    *Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton. Some new perspectives, but over all her stuff is getting repetitious.

    *Home Grown by Ben Hewitt. Slow, thoughtful, meandering. Lots of nature talk (not my thing), but a rewarding look at an alternative worldview. (Though I think I prefer his sharp Outside article and his shootin’-the-breeze blog.)

    *Still Alice by Lisa Genova. For the first time, I feel like I have a handle on the monster that is Alzheimer’s. The book is sobering, educational, and easy to read. It reminded me of Flowers for Algernon.

    *Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls. Not as good as The Glass Castle, but still good.

    *The Death Class: A True Story About Life by Erika Hayasaki. In which a reporter follows a college professor who teaches her students (her class has a three year wait list!) about death. Fascinating concepts. Challenged me to think more directly about death.

    *The Astor Orphan by Alexandra Aldrich. Boring as heck.

    *Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom. A renowned psychotherapist delves into his doubts, questions, and personal idiosyncrasies (he spares nothing) as he relates to his patients. The details got boggy, but I slogged through. And I’m glad I did! It’s those very details that gave me a better handle on what good therapy is all about (or at least what it’s all about according to Yalom).

    *Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast. A graphic novel about caring for aging parents. Raw, harsh, ugly, and ultimately, profoundly beautiful. (I had no idea that a graphic novel could be beautiful.) My son read it and said, “I hope you guys die fast.” My mom is reading it now and she says it’s “sublime.” I’m recommending it to everyone I see. Everyone. READ IT.


    And for the 2014 Grand Finale: here’s my current stack of reads:

    It’s a little ambitious but I blame NPR. They did this nifty book of the year thing and so of course I had to immediately hop on the library’s website and put a bunch on hold.


    So… what does your book list look like?

    This same time, years previous: flat and marshmallows.

  • the quotidian (12.22.14)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace

    Stuffing the little monkey with a banana.

    The farrier came.

    The feeding wheel.

    Farm football.

    The job that never ends.

    He asked for a bucket because he wasn’t feeling well.

    Merry, merry.

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (12.23.13), toasty oatmeal muffins, self care, Christmas pretty, middle-of-the-night solstice party, turkey in a wash basket, and lemon cheesecake tassies.    

  • on my to-do list

    I have been stressing over all the Christmas baking on my to-do list. Even with just the basics, it’s a daunting list. My days are already full with kids’ studies and routine household maintenance—I can barely summon the energy to add the time suck that is baking projects.

    Then a couple nights ago, my husband took the kids to the church supper and I stayed home. (He skips church to burn things down, so I figured it was okay to skip church to bake things up.) With everyone gone and the extra time saved by not having to do supper prep and clean-up, the stage was set for a cookie baking evening. I poured myself a glass of wine, fixed a plate of cheese and crackers, and proceeded to roll, cut, bake, and ice my way into a sweet stupor. I listened first to John Cleese on Fresh Air, then the rest of a TED Radio Hour on courage (favorite quotes: “Freedom doesn’t exist if you don’t use it,” and “I can collaborate with my opponents to become better at what I do”), and then plunged into Serial. It was just the fix I needed.

    The next day, however, in a misguided attempt to maintain momentum, I tried to replicate the evening of yore. I pulled up the next episode of Serial and started pounding out the recipes: fudge, peppermint bark, candied orange rinds, crack, etc. But every time I dared to actually start listening, a kid would appear. The audacity! One sweet girl actually wanted to talk to me and help cook—bless her heart—but I. just. couldn’t. I needed to be alone whydidnooneunderstandthat! To make matters worse, the fudge got too dry, the white chocolate chips didn’t melt properly (NEVER USE GHIRARDELLI WHITE CHIPS FOR MELTING BECAUSE THEY WON’T), and I felt ill from all the tasting. I was getting borderline ragey.

    So I went for a walk. That helped. And then I ate a bushel of spinach for supper.

    But two days later and I still feel bad for all my badness. It’s one thing to want the kids to leave me alone when they’re little and messy, but it’s quite another to want them out of my hair when they are actually able to help. Plus, they want to be with me. How cool is that? How dare I turn them away?

    In all fairness to myself, I got my period the next day. That afternoon I wasn’t exactly at my hormonal best. But even so, I can do better. I can mind my manners and smile and be kind dammit.

    Thank goodness there’s such a thing as Making Restitution.

    PS. Photos brought to you by the Irrelevancy Board and the Department of Just Because.

    This same time, years previous: how to have a dunging-out date, the quotidian (12.19.11), peppernuts, chocolate-dipped candied orange rinds, and walnut balls.

  • supper reading

    The other day I was listening to the people on Science Friday discuss the best books of 2014 when a listener—let’s call him Bob—called in with a book recommendation. Bob said he worked a blue collar job and spent a lot of the time on the road with two other guys. To make the drives less tedious, Bob began reading to the other guys from this particular book. One of the other workers, a nineteen-year-old kid, was decidedly a non-academic. He hated to read, or maybe he couldn’t. But as Bob read, he noticed that the kid was reading over his shoulder. When he finished reading the section, the kid asked to see the book and ended up reading it for two hours straight. He finally handed it back, saying, “I’m going to buy that book for myself!”

    Halfway through this guy’s gripping testimony, I grabbed a pen and stood hunched over a scrap of paper, waiting for the announcers to repeat the book title. But they never did! So I jumped on their site and shot my question out into the void. In short order I had the title: What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. I clicked over to Amazon and there was the book, but whoa! It had come out in September 2014 and there were already over 800 reviews! Was I late to the party or what!!

    The book arrived yesterday. Too much was going on (no fires or bloody sheep this time, I promise), so I shelved it. This morning, paging through, I got positively giddy. The book is hilarious, outrageous, and smart, and I have the perfect plan for it: I’ll read it out loud to the family at supper time.

    It’s ideal for mealtime discussion since each section is three to eight pages long. The younger kids will love the cartoon drawings and bizarre questions and the older kids and adults will enjoy walking through the scientific and mathematical solutions. Even if comprehension is elusive (and it will be), the line of reasoning is sure to engage. I mean, you heard what Bob said, right?

    Here are some sample questions:

    *What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?

    *If you suddenly began rising steadily at 1 foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first? Or something else?

    *How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York? Have that many Lego bricks been manufactured?

    *If all the lightening strikes happening in the world on any given day all happened in the same place at once, what would happen to that place?

    *How fast would a human have to run in order to be cut in half at the bellybutton by a cheese-cutting wire?

    *If my printer could literally print out money, would it have that big an effect on the world?

    I can hardly wait for supper and for once my enthusiasm has nothing to do with food!!!

    PS. I’ve forbidden the children to read the book—just wait until supper!—but my older son has already stolen it once, the little stinker. He’s mad that he’ll only get to hear a bit at a time. He wants to read the whole thing in one fell swoop. (I don’t blame him.)

    This same time, years previous: fa-la-la-la-la, the quotidian (12.17.12), my baby, and scholarly stuff.

  • mini dramas

    the stage 

    Drametta Number One
    The other evening, I posted the following on Facebook:

    “Friday Night Entertainment: Dog bites sheep. Sheep runs. Kids chase sheep. Sheep runs. Kids and Dad chase sheep. Sheep runs. Night falls. Dad falls. Sheep runs. Kids and Dad and big brother (who had to jump out of the shower) chase sheep. Sheep runs. Sheep gets caught. Big brother gets back in the shower. Medicine is applied to sheep’s face. Suppertime. The end.”

    Annabelle, pre-bitten 

    *Both sheep had blood on them. The kids had blood on them.
    *My husband wrenched his back.
    *The dog bit the sheep because the sheep was getting too close to the dog’s food. This means our dog is not a sheep eater. This is comforting.
    *Annabelle appears to be fine. More skittish than normal, but fine.

    Drametta Number Two
    On Sunday, my husband stayed home from church to burn the brush piles. (The brush piles are a result of many hours spent cleaning up the fence line.) We were having guests for lunch, so he would be able to do the last minute meal prep, too.

    As we left church, I called my husband to rattle off a string of getting-ready orders. Our guests ended up arriving at the same time we did, and as we were getting out of our respective cars, my husband sprinted out of the house, yelled hello to the company, grabbed a rake, and took off down to the field. Apparently, the fire was getting out of line? As I led the guests inside, I cheerfully told the kids to change clothes and then to go see if their father needed help.

    And so there I was in the kitchen with our guests, chatting on about all manner of things while heating up the brown rice, setting the bowls of salsa and sour cream on the table, and trying to pretend that it was normal for me to prep Sunday lunch while the rest of the family fought fires.

    Through the window, I saw my older son sprinting back across the field toward the house. A couple minutes later he burst through the door and yelled, “I need both fire extinguishers and the keys to Dad’s truck!”

    “Okay, here you go,” I said, calmly handing him the items and then, turning to the guests, “I’m sorry everyone’s run off like this. I’m sure they’ll be up soon.” I began pat-pat-patting out the corn tortillas.

    In his rush, my son just missed crashing the truck into the chicken coop.


    My younger son was waddling across the field with a bucket of water.


    My younger son had stripped off his shirt and was—oh yes, but of course—beating out the flames.


    My older daughter was beating out the flames with her jacket.


    By now the guests were standing at the kitchen counter, watching the goings-on through the window with me. “It’s Murch TV,” I quipped.

    The man said, “Your husband has a good heart—just look at him work!” I thought he meant that my husband was a good guy, but after a bunch of “good heart” comments I caught on. He meant “good heart” literally, a physically strong heart able to withstand strenuous exercise…and while breathing smoke.

    The extinguishers did their job and the firefighters soon trooped through the door, smokey and soot-streaked, eyes bright with excitement. My husband came over to the sink to wash his hands and murmured under his breath to me, “I was this close to calling the fire department.”

    Note the spent extinguisher in the foreground.

    I lifted the last of the tortillas from the cumal and lunch was served.

    The end.

  • the quotidian (12.15.14)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace

    Sky painting.
    On the edge of his seat: watching this.

    Taking push-ups to a new level.

    Portrait of a mother.
    Christmas show: pas de deux.

    Beating out the flames with his shirt.

    The guy who started it.

    Pumped on Christmas.

    3D Santa.

    Lights in his eyes.

    This same time, years previous: bits of goodness, soft cinnamon sugar butter bars, crazier than usual, fig-and-anise pinwheels, ginger cream scones, and a smashed finger.

  • hot chocolate mix

    I have a problem. Whenever I come across a great recipe, video, product, concept, etc, I get all excited and want to write about my discovery but then I’m like, Nah, everyone knows about it already. Because if I know about it, then surely everyone else does, too.

    I’m not sure if this problem is unique to me or if everyone deals with it (oops, here we go again. I told you it’s a problem). Maybe it harkens back to my TV-less childhood in which I never knew what was going on (and didn’t really care). I just learned to (correctly) assume that everyone knew things before I did. I was cool with that.

    But now, as A Possessor of the Internet, I find myself discovering interesting things in real time. And as a blogger, I have the means to share. Except everyone is A Possessor of the Internet—because that’s how they access my blog, see?—and so there’s a very real probability that no one needs me to share anything because they already know everything.

    And so I discover Things Most Marvelous, rave to the people around me, take photos, and then do nothing. Because what’s the point? Also, I reason, if I wait an extra week or two to share my find, maybe everyone will have forgotten that particular Thing Most Marvelous and it will seem new and fresh. And then everyone will be like, Ooo, she is SO on top of things!


    All that to say, I made Deb’s hot chocolate and it is the best hot chocolate mix ever.

    There. Did you already know that? This is not a rhetorical question! I seriously want to know how many of you: 1) knew about Deb’s hot chocolate mix, and 2) made it and loved it. Tell me! Tell me! This is an experiment in sociocultural psychology! (Or something.)

    Anyway. About the hot chocolate. I am quite picky about my hot chocolate. I can’t stand it when instructions say to mix together sugar and cocoa and then add hot milk. This is wrong. The cocoa turns out gritty. Don’t do it. To skip the cocoa grit, proper hot chocolate must be made like so:

    *combine the cocoa and sugar in a saucepan
    *add a bit of water to make a slurry
    *BOIL (this is what dissolves the grit and makes everything creamy-lush)
    *add milk and heat through
    *before serving, add a pinch of salt and a drizzle of vanilla

    And don’t even get me going on powdered milk mixes—i.e. cocoa and sugar with Whiff of Barnyard—or, heaven forbid, the packaged junk.

    But Deb’s mix breaks all rules. She uses cocoa and sugar, yes, but she also adds cornstarch and chopped chocolate. I thought for sure it’d be gritty, but it wasn’t! Well—full confession—there is a slight, ever so slight, sandiness to it, but it’s due more to the ridiculous chocolatey thickness of the drink and less to the non-dissolved cocoa. At least that’s what I think.

    Perhaps it helps that the dry ingredients are pulverized in a food processor. Or maybe it’s the addition of cornstarch (which is brilliant because cornstarch). Or it’s the real, melted chocolate that smooths things over. Whatever the case, it works. It’s like drinking molten chocolate: intense, thick, rich, delicious. Willy Wonka would be proud.

    (It’s a little too good, maybe. Ever since I discovered this mix, I spend most of my days just waiting till I can have my bedtime cocoa.)

    Hot Chocolate Mix
    Adapted from Deb of Smitten Kitchen.

    ½ cup cocoa
    ½ cup sugar
    ½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
    1 tablespoon cornstarch
    1/8 teaspoon salt

    Put all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the chocolate chips are indistinguishable (though I let my processor run for a good minute or two and I still had a few itty-bitty chunks). Store the mixture in a pint jar.

    To make hot chocolate:
    1 cup milk
    3 tablespoons hot chocolate mix
    1/4 teaspoon vanilla
    marshmallows or whipped cream, optional (but not really)

    Heat the milk in a small saucepan. When the milk is steamy-hot, add the mix. Whisk well for a minute or two. (If the milk boils, remove the pan from the heat.) Add the vanilla. Pour the hot chocolate into a mug and top with marshmallows or whipped cream.

    Marshmallow trick: tear your marshmallows into fourths. This way, instead of sip-wrestling with two giant marshmallow blobs, you get an easy-to-manage, foamy, evenly-dispersed marshmallow cap. Such an improvement.

    This same time, years previous: stuffing, constant vigilance!, sunrise, sunset, light painting, my elephant, the quotidian (12.12.11), cracked wheat (or cooked oatmeal) pancakes, Sunday vignettes: human anatomy, and iced gingerbread men.    

  • in my kitchen (sort of): 4:15 p.m.

    *the wall clock says it’s 4:13 but it also says “Who cares?” so whatever
    *pushed-back chairs and rooster end table to make room for the latest fad: gymnastics
    *two of my children + two of their friends = four children
    *dying fern hanging by the window
    *on the wall, the picture I drew of my husband—I gave it to him the weekend I tried to break up with him
    *below that picture, a pencil drawing my brother did of my brother and me when we were little
    *on the other side of the window, our wedding fraktur
    *leftover decorations (still!) from my birthday
    *mountains of laundry and a broken wash basket
    *on the table among the stacks of laundry, To Kill A Mockingbird, since my older son decided to re-read it (I think it just may be my favorite book of all time)
    *out of the frame and in the very front center: holes in the hardwood floor, and giant cracks, too, as in the boards have split—we’re like a pack of elephant kangaroos
    *in the basket on the table: the last of our bushel of Fuji apples
    *in the muffin tin: flopped gougeres that no one ate (the second batch turned out better but none of us were fans)
    *the black record-keeping notebook that I had been jotting notes in for the next Milkmaids meeting
    *on the yellow stool: my recipe/cooking notes/menu notebook (for supper that night: roasted carrots, roasted potatoes, and not much else)

    This same time, years previous: icedpimento cheese spread, and cashew brittle.

  • okonomiyaki!

    The day after Thanksgiving, I turned my kitchen over to my sis-in-law and she churned us out a delux Japanese feast.

    Her original plan was to make Bento boxes, but the box of supplies from Japan didn’t arrive in time, so she had to switch to Plan B, okonomiyaki. On the off chance you don’t know what that is (ha!), I’ll tell you. Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake.

    More or less, it goes like this:

    Make a crepe batter of eggs, flour, and water.
    Pour some batter on a skillet.
    Mound the batter-base with green onions, cabbage, and brilliant pink pickled ginger.
    Spread several thin slices of pork on top.
    Cook on low-medium heat for 15 minutes, flip and cook for another 15.
    To serve, place the “pancake” on a plate and crisscross the top with Japanese mayonnaise and okonomi sauce.
    Sprinkle with dried seaweed and fish flakes (that undulate gently, making them look alive).

    My husband took the last step very seriously. I think he ate four of these monsters.

    My sister-in-law made a variation that involved adding a layer of noodles and a layer of scrambled egg.

    See all the layers?

    And she made octopus balls. Similar ingredients, but with chopped octopus, and all mixed together and then cooked in a ball cooker.

    “Ball cooker” isn’t its real name, of course. But that’s what the thing did—it cooked balls.

    There was also a root that looked like yucca but wasn’t.

    Instead, it was slimy and slightly toxic—it would burn your fingers if handled too much. I think she added it to the crepe batter. Maybe?

    And dried, crumbled shrimp bits. Maybe they went in the batter, too? I can’t remember.

    The next day, the box from Japan arrived.

    We encouraged my sister-in-law to save the contents for the next time, but there were a good number of other items for fun sampling. So we had an appetizer feast! Squid stuffed with sticky rice. Dried squid dipped in Japanese mayo (she says that rice wine and dried squid is the Japanese equivalent of wine and cheese). Sticky rice cakes. And boiled eggs in the shape of a rabbit or panda (put a hot boiled egg into a mold and then chill in ice water for ten minutes). There were shrimp-flavored puff-chip things. And bowls of Japanese “ramen noodles”—noodles with cakes of fried tofu—simply add hot water and slurp.

    Next up: Bento boxes! (Or maybe shrimp in three seconds flat?)

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (12.9.13), smoking hot, a family outing, peanut butter cookies, Ree’s monkey bread, and butter cookies.