How Does Your Garden Grow?

What’s in bloom this month: March Edition

What does our garden look like this March? Blooms here and there with the promise of beauty and the lessons in patience.

Greenheart Orange

Greenheart Orange Calendula blooming in March in the perennial garden

In the garden, Greenheart Orange Calendula grow happily since January. Its Irish orange disk-shaped bloom has a short life per bloom, spindly stems, but the determination to be part of the garden despite my lack of love for it. I pick from the plants sprung in late winter from the seeds of its predecessors. It readily self-seeds. The subtly rust-colored and cream-colored calendula surrounded by those brazen orange blooms are so much more my favorites to put on show.

Madame Butterfly Snapdragon

Madame Butterfly Snapdragon blooming at the edge of the garden in March

One snapdragon, left from last season grows in the corner of another flower bed. I kick myself for not starting those seeds in the fall, but I can be merciful to myself remembering my reasons: life and toddlers. These are not window box snapdragons. Rather they burst into bloom with three by six inches tall clusters of burgundy purple flower heads. When I cut as early as recommended, the higher, later little blooms lose their color. They impress me more as neglected plants in the garden.

Halloween Halo

Halloween Halo Iris, first to bloom in the garden

A stray iris rose from its sheaves itself first. Halloween Halo appeared again and again as the startling early showy bloom of a spring that was supposed to be winter. Its white petals fringed with orange and an orange tongue at its center, offering pollen to bees and ornamentation to the eye, complement the warm tones of my living room and mantle.

Between the rain, fog then frost, my irises have black spot on many leaves. It remains to be seen what a year it will be. At least Halloween Halo gave us that gift of early spring. Hope comes with the return of longer days as the leaves multiple and grow. In the front of our house, a deep purple iris blooms repeatedly. It dislikes domesticity life and fades quickly in a vase.

We started seeds.

And half seedlings died in that late frost. My husband’s garden fared better as we prioritized space for his vegetables under the lamps in our potting shed/barn.

Leucojum Gravetye Giant

Leucojum Gravetye Giant, one of my favorite garden bulbs

Leucojum, sometimes called snow-drops, pushed through the piles Mulberry leaf-based mulch. They still impress me as one of the loveliest bulb flowers I have ever seen. To my delight, they multiply each year. On delicate arching stems, a foot-long in length, white bells, like a fairy’s skirt dotted with green at the hem, emerge looking as gracefully in the garden as in the vase. Their stems drip toxic sap like daffodils making them less companionable in an arrangement without special preparations.

Narcissus Barrett Browning

Narcissus Barrett Browning

Narcissus Barrett Browning bloomed with white outer petals and a feisty red-orange center. It came after the traditional yellow daffodil that reminds me of spring days watching the animated Alice in Wonderland. For a wedding-size bouquet, I added daffodils to a red amaryllis, greenheart orange calendula, the weedy fiddle neck, mint and boxwood.

Ranunculus comes next in orange or cream.

Orange ranunculus

These were pitiful or non-existent last year. As I weeded in the fall, I discovered three thick clumps. Those, I divided into to no less than thirty plants. Even with my bud vases full in the house, I have plant envy fomented from Instagram as I see the remarkable ranunculus professionals farm florists send out into the world.

But no roses

Professional growers are also beginning to display some rose blooms, but mine are still in early growth. Two second-year plants and five new bare-root roses are doing wonderfully well. When we visit, I peer across the lawn at my mother’s roses bushes to see if her roses might be ahead of mine. They are not. We must wait with anticipation for those first blooms.  

Patience, my child

It feels like that time may never come. But it will. The yarrow grows fluffier. More sprouts spring up. Acropolis Narcissus has nearly bloomed. The growing season is long, but with such short winters, we may suffer from more impatience because we never learned the skills to cope with the dormant season. I think of investing in a greenhouse, but where will we put it?

We tilled the soil around the sidewalk outside our house. I want to look out and see the flowers as I drum my fingers waiting for the next arithmetic answer from my 4th grader. Leave the housework, the schoolwork, and the fieldwork behind.

Leave the flowers to me.

Perennial garden at the beginning of spring

Three Years on the Farm

We are a small-scale farm, very amateur operation, and learning as we go. Our primary lesson is patience. After that first lesson, we learn about flowers, animals, and the soil that sustains them both. This is where we stand, at the beginning of our third year, here on the farm.

When we moved here

wild geranium and sting nettle filled the yards to the brim. Chain-link fencing, irrigation pipe, and black widows occupied the barns. The walls of the workshop brimmed over with mold. Pesticides laid the field low. Yet, the house waited for us. This house, so well-known to the community, seemed ready for us and we were ready for it.

The roof needed replacing. The windows were falling shut. The driveway flooded, waters flowing up into the workshop, higher and higher.

Little by little, we mowed and tilled.

We planted a fruit grove towards the back of the field, imagining the day when all the produce we needed would be right here, and a day much later, when our lives are quieter and we have more than we need, able to bless others with that abundance, as others bless us now. Blossoms punctuate the fruit grove. I sent the children to make scientific observations on the differences between fruit trees and I wonder if we perhaps pruned the trees too hard this last winter.

I see the blackberries and raspberries coming back to life and remember we need to string additional wire to support them.

The chicken coop and our little flock of chickens came next, hauled over with my father’s tractor. The chicken yard expanded as these three years marched on, as did the flock. We replaced the feeder and nesting boxes with products from DuncansFarmStore on Etsy. What a difference it made. That plus the patience of waiting for chicks to age, we now collect an average of 10 eggs a day for the six eaters in the house.

eggs from the farm

In December, a friend offered me two lambs to test our budding interest in raising sheep. Sheep milk can be used for consumption, yogurt and cheese production, all products my children consume in bulk. Each morning I rose at 6:30 a.m. to mix their formula. My three eldest children went out in the wee hours to feed their lambs. The lambs grew, challenging our construction skills until they were ready for the wide-open world. My husband set up their pasture, or lamb yard, as we call it. Now their baaing drives him crazy whenever he is outdoors. They knew where their food comes from.

Inside the yard

the wild geranium and nettle made way for a perennial flower garden, a cut flower garden, a dahlia garden and a fairy garden. I am determined to let the fairy garden’s flowers bloom at their own pace and never cut them. This one shall be for the delight of our eyes. All the rest for my fingers to pick and arrange and share with the town through the little flower stand I began last year.

New rose bushes arrived this year, complementing the collection we inherited from past tenants. After the removal of two problematic trees, I must reassess the water need of the plants facing the road.

The interior of the home became ours quickly with coats of paints, art and antiques, a quick change in one bathroom from a bulky vanity to wall mount cast iron sink from Miss Potts Attic. The second bathroom had its remodel when we replaced our kitchen countertops. A new counter and new tiles make the room, preserving the old we can keep and replacing with new when called for.

It comes step by step.

We made mistakes in these past three years, but understand them as lessons rather than errors.

Better than all of it is the sight of my barefoot children, my son’s vitamin D levels, my two-year-old swinging herself as she sings, my daughter’s iris garden on the brink of blooming, my child’s treasure map, and the holes the bunch of them are digging to China. It is a golden childhood, and we are so grateful to give it to them.

We are but tenants ourselves.

panting of our little farm house

If we steward our resources well, this house will live on past us, to receive the patter of little feet and nurture little souls.

Step by step, little by little, and with lots of patience.

Build Your Community

From Merriam-Webster:

“Community is a unified body of individuals: such as the people with common interests living in a particular area, a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society, a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests.”

As a youth, I did the now-unthinkable thing of riding my bike up and down our country road, knocking on neighbors’ doors and spending time with them. So when my father needed something for his farm or neighbors’ needed something for their farm and he talked about farmers helping farmers, I understood what he meant. They were not strangers to me.

As a young adult, I served a year of missionary work with NET Ministries and traveled the country with a team of five men and five other women. We lived together, ate together, and worked together. There was support and effort made to maintain a positive relationships. Some relationships become deep and lasting. Others passed and that season of relationship has ended.

I moved to Minnesota to return to the opportunity to live in that kind of community of women through St. Paul’s Outreach, living together, eating together, praying together, with a shared faith. For a year, I lived in that household. The following year, I found a roommate, and we rented a house, sharing faith but also aesthetics, a Christmas tree, stories about the boyfriends we would go on to marry, and our vision of what life could or should be like as we moved forward to those new stages of marriage.

To the east coast and back, my husband and I traveled after marrying. We returned to California. My parent’s friend owned the first home we rented on the west coast.

We moved again, with the support of my parents. And again. And again. Each time, with gratitude we soaked up the wonder of amazing neighbors when we faced times of crisis.

After ten years, for the first time, it feels like we have found not just friends or neighbors, but community, two, in fact.

One came through the nature of this town. I interviewed a business owner, who told me she had just been on the phone with my husband to set up music lessons, whose husband did electrical work for us when we moved. The next week, I attended a play, directed by the man who, along with his wife and twenty other people, helped us move in because we called a local church to ask for help. Each time I come to town to share the stories of the people who live here, I meet people who read this column, or have known my parents for decades, or I’ve known through a Facebook moms’ group for years, or people I knew as kids running around the hall at a church dinner.

The other community comes from our parish. A group of homeschooling families, seeking a way to connect our children, looking for educational and social opportunities. We see each other weekly, visit after mass, and throughout the summer interact at co-op opportunities.

It comes with age. Moving past the desire to be best friends. Understanding friendships evolve and change. Understanding that no relationship can feed every need. If they serve a few facets, then it’s a boon.

If you’re suffering from a lack of community, consider this.

It takes visibility to form community.

People need to see your face. Put yourself out there. Find groups with common interests, whether volunteering at the Carnegie Art Center, Historical Society, or Lions Club. Or find subgroups or committees at work. Or find the local playdates or co-ops or library storytime.

It takes stability to form a community.

Make your attendance consistent and give it an important spot in your calendar.

It takes intentionality to form a community.

We live in a transitory world, show you’re invested where you’re at. Talk to people. Take an interest. Ask questions.

It is possible, even as people leave and the world keeps rushing around us. It takes time. It takes patience. And a little bit of trust that the people are out there until finally, we build a community.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Lemons: An Answer to Life’s Troubles

I inherited my Kitchen-aid mixer when my husband and I married and my mother upgraded to a larger size to accommodate her enormous baking habit. With it, she gave several attachments, including a juicer.

It may have been five years ago. That sounds about right. About five years ago, dear friends who knew me as a child invited us to pick fruit in their front yard. Now, every year, either we ask or they remind us, the fruit is there. Come and get it.

The aged trees are laden with lemons, grapefruit, and oranges.

I used to accompany my husband until our little babes outnumbered us. This year, he took two of our daughters.

What could a family do with three gallons of lemon juice?

“When life gives you lemons,” they say.

We make lemonade.

The lemonade serves special occasions. It serves for playdates, parties, for summer art classes. It serves.

The orange juice comes out when illness strikes and we need to be more proactive than our usual nutrition. We need a boost, and all the better if it can be tasty. It also comes out for Mother Day mimosas.

The grapefruit, one year, was condensed down to a simple syrup and added to Italian sodas as part of our Italian booth at a church festival. Last year, we experimented with grapefruitade.

I moved the mixer across the kitchen

and set it on an old bath towel.

The juicing attachment goes on. I place a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup underneath. We bring in two five-gallon buckets to collect the rinds. Empty half-gallon jars build a formation around the mixer.

We have to be more careful this year because citrus will etch the of the marble work surface that replaced the broken tile. We lay out two cookie sheets, two cutting boards and two knives. A quick assessment determined the decision to gate off the kitchen from the two-year-old.

And we get to work.

One capable and well-trained child cuts the citrus, filling the tray. We switch the empty for the full tray and I begin juicing. She fills the next tray. Once filled, the bucket needs to be emptied. She carts it across the field to the grove of baby fruit trees. It takes her a while to come back. By the time she does, I am ready for her to cut more.

We work in rhythm with each other. The man of the house reenters the kitchen with labeled gallon-size freezer bags. He blends the admittedly pulpy juice and fills the bags, carrying a batch of four or five to the outside freezer.

Little girl juicing lemons at a Kitchen-aid mixer to make lemonade.

After many bags of citrus, bucketfuls of rinds and two days later, the job is done. A thorough clean-up reveals a little etching on the marble. That makes my husband and me even since he etched the opposite since of the counter. This one was my doing. It is good to have equality in marriage.

There are so many things we are powerless to stop in this world.

There is so much heartache, so much bad news, so many things that never should have been.

So when it’s time to harvest the fruit, and it must be harvested before it is too late; and when it is time to juice all that citrus, and it must be juiced before it rots on my countertops, we allow ourselves to be beholden to something that is good, natural, rewarding, and, well, sweet.

We allow ourselves to join in a bigger world, a world of neighbors sharing with neighbors, which we pay forward in our homeschooling co-op and hospitality. We teach our children about family projects that take multiple hands.

The reward is the juice that comes from it.

You have to work to get there, but it’s better than anything packaged and sold in a store.

Jars of grapefruit juice.

We freeze the juice in those gallon bags and take it out throughout the year to make strawberry lemonade, lavender lemonade, Palomas, and smoothies. Bigger than that, we make memories and receive the generosity of others.

“The man and woman who let us pick their trees, they must be really wonderful,” the hardworking child gushes.

In a world that is hurting or disconnected, it is good to return to the land, to the ideas of farming in which neighbors work together to bless each other.

And it is very, very sweet.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Why we celebrate the Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year began February 1 and concludes 15 days later. My grandmother was born and raised in Shanghai. She attended a British boarding school. Raising a biracial family in the United States in the 1950s brought its challenges and the goal of the time was assimilation. We were not culturally Chinese, except on those days when we went to Chinese restaurants. Then we knew to eat family style; and when we poured our green tea, we took it plainly, no cream or sugar added. And once a year, there was talk of Chinese New Year, and a question of whether or not to travel to Oakland, San Francisco, or San Jose to celebrate it.

We did one year, but not again. Still, there was talk of it.

Bringing the new year in

Chinese New Year decorations

Three or four years ago, we began to observe the Lunar New Year in our home as a way to celebrate my grandmother and offer her the gift of something old and familiar, though naturally in a distinctly Chinese-American way. I learned more of the traditions from storybooks and educational books than from the source, but the heart of it is one we can all understand.

At the heart of the Lunar New Year is a reunion.

Family comes together. Lucky money is given to youngsters enclosed in bright red envelopes, decorated with gold lettering. The feast is spread with symbolic foods. Wishes of a happy and fortunate new year are shared. I wear the jade necklace my mother gave me and the gold earrings my grandmother gave me in the days when I invited myself to stay the night at her house in Modesto, rather than drive home between work shifts. We ate and watched old movies. She told me about the old days in China, the days of employment and dances, the days of office work and flirtations, the days of the war, the days of leaving home and the strangely new and foreign days with an unfamiliar Greek-German family in the United States.

Chinese New Year joins a list of celebrations in our house, one more festivity for my children to anticipate, prepare for, and delight in. There may be children of mine who hold little connection to that Chinese heritage. There may be children of mine who have few, if any, memories of the woman for whom we began these celebrations. But they will know we celebrate. They may ask why we celebrate.

And when they do, their older brothers and sisters will tell them the story:

“Mommy’s grandmother was from China. She came here when the Communists took over. She married an American and all the Americans had to get out. The rest of her family had to stay behind.”

The week and a half before Lunar New Year, there were so many interruptions, so many commitments, so many important meetings and visits, and so many responsibilities.

“I thought you might cancel”

my mother said when we gathered that night.

My children sat around the table as their great-grandmother coached them on how to use chopsticks. After she wrote out the Chinese words for “Happy New Year” phonetically (“gung hai phat choy”), I asked her to teach us to count in Cantonese. She counted briskly three times and then moved on.

We ate recipes new and old, homemade, from the frozen aisle, and taken-out from Hughson Asian Kitchen. The imperfections did not matter.

Chinese Almond Cookies

At the heart of it was the thing mattered.

A new year full of hope.

An old year capped with gratitude.

In the center of it all

family.

Family

Gung hay fat choy 

wishing you great happiness and prosperity

Happy New Year!

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Spring Traditions

The temperatures make their great climb up and down between 35° and 65° in these early days of California spring. One, two, three, four daffodils bloom in the garden with two more on the way. I clip and cut and take the first of spring’s beauty indoors, displacing the winter decor, forgetting the calendar, the fireplace, and whatever thoughts remained of observing winter traditions any longer. With the tall bearded iris Halloween Halo making her debuting the garden, who can focus any longer on the meditative silence of winter?

Early spring bloom: Halloween Halo Iris by Schreiner's Iris Garden

Out come the seed trays.

I dust off my flower stand, open a graph paper notebook of and cover my office desk with seed packets, sliding the typewriter aside to make more space. Lunch break lasts a little longer as I order garden replacements seed starting supplies. My husband and I walk the field estimating where to put the overflowing abundance, now that the backyard is nearly full of perennials and dahlias.

With a proper plan, nearly 75 new varieties will find a home, hopefully with multiples of each. Of particular interest are those inclined to resist the plagues of our soil and the general atmosphere and thrive under the sun, wrapped in its heat, thriving in sandy soil and meager water.

More visions of spring come into view as the skies clear, revealing the pure blue we see only this time of year before the fires start. The earth still retains evidence of the last rainfall or wet, foggy morning. 

Lunar New Year begins February 1.

We celebrate with my grandmother who arrived here from China on Christmas Eve when the Communists took over in 1949. This year we’re exploring recipes from TheWoksofLife.com, a website we found while watching “Family Dinner” on the Magnolia Network. 

Valentine’s Day falls, as ever, on February 14.

Valentine's Day Card

This holiday, once a romantic fete for us, has made itself over as a day for children to show their love and affection to others with cute cards, conversation hearts and lollipops. Often I make the cards on Canva.com download, print and cut them myself, rather than buy something store-bought or spend hours crafting individually.

A deep dive into Lent must be preceded by festively partaking in Marti Gras, also called Fat Tuesday.

It needn’t be raucous, but a time to lay in the merriment with a King Cake, beads, masks, and New Orleans Jazz. We recommend the album “Save my Soul” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy for that one. Happily, Spotify makes exploring new music easier than ever.

And then Lent begins.

Custom wood sacrifice beads by St. Therese Art Shop on Etsy

For something new, I purchased “sacrifice beads” from StTheresesArtShop on Etsy. It’s an old practice St. Therese of Lisieux describes in which children can use a string of beads to count their good deeds or sacrifices. In the past, we’ve also set out a jar they can fill with beans whenever they make some sacrifice or good deed. The beans transform to jelly beans on Easter morning as a sign of how our small, but good deeds are transformed into something lovely by God.

Lent gives way to Easter in all its jubilant celebration.

Easter baskets, egg hunts, hymns, lilies and a grand feast follow accordingly.

All these give special focus to the season in its time.

Our memories grow stronger as we return year after year to these traditions. The children remember the years before and anticipate the years to come.

In the unexpected warmth of a January sun, I anticipate, I plan, I prepare. The winter books give way to Chinese legends and books about the New Year; the mantle gives way to vases and lively spring colors; and instead of looking back, I look ahead

to spring.

A desk, a walk and an idea

I bought a desk

When I decided to be a writer, to go all-in with the profession whenever it fits within the larger profession of all that stuff I do at home, I decided to buy a desk. We found a beautiful writing desk, probably from the 1940s on Craigslist and I sent my husband to fetch it. My first write-off.

It sat in our bedroom, beautifully situated against dazzling red curtains striped with gold, where I could gaze into the yard at the flowering plum tree and growing cypress trees.

We moved from that house and the desk came with us.

It still sits near the curtains but faces a wall and I seldom sit at it. Above it hang watercolor paintings reprinted in a storybook of Christmas tales from around the world. These being from China, remind me of my grandmother of Chinese heritage. There is a pink depression-era vase from my grandmother as well, with an artificial stargazer lily that helped me stage our wedding cake decorations 13 years ago. Also, a lavender-scented candle, the journal I don’t use, a stack of books I may or may not be reading, but feel the need to keep close for the time being.

miscellaneous items that inspire me

There are palms from Palm Sunday (which happens in spring), two vintage thimbles, and a squirrel ornament. The store called it a Buri squirrel. We call it a “John Buri squirrel” after a favorite college professor. There are scraps of mail and a borrowed book from the historical society. Two doilies from a friend who knew I’d like that sort of thing, and a statue of the Virgin Mary I hauled around Europe for the man I’d eventually marry sit on the corner. Oh, and one antique key. I do so love antique keys.

It’s all just as haphazard as it sounds.

Books and a buri squirrel on my desk

Tonight these things are joined by my laptop where I sit to write the third night in the row. Now that events are on, so is the world, which means I have events to write about.

I return to my desk.

The kids returned to school, that is, a school routine in our living room where they are homeschooled.

I returned also to walks.

For various reasons I seem to move less in life this past year and finally felt awful enough to do something about it. Out to the field, I walk following the dirt roadways between the orchards that surround our home. My eyes scan the tree trunks for coyotes. The birds’ song fill my ears as I observe the changes of the seasons.

But most of all I think of the day I walked out with my son and daughter. That day, we did not merely walk. They took me into their little world, a world with names like the Blissful Field of Eternity, Barron Rock, Fun Hill, Shadow Ranch Fort and Dew Trop Tree. There, they showed me their forts and causeway, their hiding spots, their settlements. We walked through fallen trees, branches and weeds.

This place that so secret, so special, so entirely in their heads, they showed it all to me, and happily at that.

They let me in on the secret.

And by opening that secret to me, the trees, ridges, dirt and overgrowth of winter are transformed into something magical I could not make myself. Here at my desk, I surround myself with the remnant of others’ art because it inspires in my deep thoughts. These children with their imaginations are making the art, even if it is as passing as the seasons.

There is something about that invitation that I cannot move beyond as I look into my thoughts to retrieve a subject for this column. Perhaps that is part of the magic of it. For children gain no good other than the play itself. They do not create these worlds for money or prestige or likes. They do it because they must, as creative beings, bored in their old-fashioned upbringing, blessed with some space to run.

We need to remember that, too.

Whether for utility or pleasure, the walk is a good in itself.

And maybe, just maybe, the writing desk is, too.

Deskscape

Have Yourself a Festive Little Holiday.

Festivity doesn’t come to us. Festivity is Made.

I thought we would host my family on December 10.

I thought we would get out of hosting and escape to my parents’ for an easy Christmas dinner December 25.

I thought we would host my husband’s family on December 27.

I thought my husband would be working a lot around this holiday.

Instead, we got COVID-19.

“But you’re missing Christmas!” my friend said to me.

“Oh, I don’t know.” I responded, “We’re missing mass, but that happened in 2020 anyway. I’ve been in a hospital room all the way up until December 23. I’m home, all my children are with me, we have everything we need, even an organ or two or three and an organist. Our symptoms are mild. There are worse things we could face.

“The gifts are wrapped, the house decorated and quarantine is over next Wednesday, which, because we follow that Catholic tradition of the octave of Christmas and the 12 Days of Christmas, Wednesday is still just as much Christmas.

“My son had a slight fever on Saturday but it stayed below 100 and broke Sunday morning. Because of his condition, we would be in the hospital right now if it had gone up just one degree.

“And we just found out my freelancing husband will be given full pay by one of his primary contracts as a gesture of love and care towards our family.

“So, I’m grateful for what I’ve got.”

How will we approach this strange turn of events?

We asked for help. It was hard to ask, but we needed to do it. We are too rural and haven’t enough resources to do grocery or meal delivery. Friends and family filled in the gap. We have more food than we can handle and there is a feeling of comfort in that.

This morning my husband and I planned our Christmas Eve dinner, our Christmas morning breakfast, and our Christmas day dinner, all of which were subject to change now that he will be home for all of it. Every holiday of great importance has been a dance around his work schedule, and this year we are just home.

The children anticipated parties galore. They anticipated their play space, a vacant barn used mostly for storing tables, to be transformed into an event space filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, Christmas lights and trees. My eldest child grappled with the loss of the opportunity to sing in the choir on Christmas Day.

We are Catholic and nothing can replace being in person at mass on Christmas Day. But things being what they are, we have to make alternative plans.

So what did we do?

I happen to have a few church pews in that barn. I purchased them thinking they could work for event seating (they do not). The children call it their mission church.

Wednesday morning before Christmas, we strung unused white string mini-lights around the rafters of the barn. We hung finger-woven garland along those rafters. My parents provided an artificial Christmas tree. I brought in extra decor I thought too risky in a house with a two-year-old. We moved a $4 brass chandelier to the center of the barn above a long row of tables and draped it with battery-powered colored lights and a silvery olive leaf garland.

This isn’t Instagram Perfect

Christmas in the storage barn

The walls are grey with aged wood. You can see the marks of water that seeped through during the storm.

The dirt turned to mud where a metal roof panel blew off in the last rain.

The cement is uneven and slopes down to the sides.

In the corner, there stands stacks and stacks of styrofoam sheeting from medical shipments and old shop lights removed when we remodeled my husband’s music studio.

It’s cold without insulation, heat or glass in the windows. There is no other lighting.

Our puppy ran away.

We hear the lambs bleating in the barn next to us. The fevers and fatigue come and go.

But we are together. We are ridiculous enough to set up a 1200 sqft place for no one at all.

Except it isn’t for no one.

It’s for us.

Festivity is made. It doesn’t come to us. It doesn’t require luxury or met expectations. It requires a bit of adventurousness. It requires a bit of silliness. It requires a childlike-enough spirit to see the world with wonder and make the choice to delight in it.

I do not know what Christmas Day will feel like. I do know that on Christmas Eve when the sun goes down, we’re going to shiver ourselves over to “the mission” with candles lit and welcome the Christ child into our hearts.

Mistakes I’ve Made Hosting

and how I learned to overcome them.

I love to host.

Freely, I admit it. These days bringing the people together to our house is easier than the alternative between planning for five children, including one of those not-very-flexible toddlers) and a slew of animals on our growing farm. But even before that, I loved to host. Whether we lived in the country, in town, in the perfect house for gathering or a smaller subdivision house with a tiny backyard, to today’s farm with its quaint farmhouse layout, generous backyard and a barn which we plan to use for a gathering for the first time this year. 

Hosting can be hard and I have likely made all the mistakes that make it hard. Read on to learn my mistakes and the lessons learned. Maybe there will be something in there to help you, should you find yourself with one hand basting a roast beast and with the other calculating the guest list totals.

I obsessed over cleaning.

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

The ugly yelling kind of stress bubbled over as we struggled to clean up the kitchen, the floors, the toys, while still being in charge of tiny humans. 

A friend encouraged me when I shared the wish that I could clean my current house more or better. “I don’t think people really come to the country expecting it to be something other than country.” 

Now I try to keep perspective.

What is realistic cleaning?

What cleaning adds to my guests’ comfort (yes, clean the bathrooms, restock the toilet paper in a place clearly visible) and what cleaning is simply the cleaning I meant to get to in spring but feel I should do now? I do the essentials for the comfort of guests, and if we get to the rest – super, but I won’t sweat it if we don’t.

I was busy all night in the kitchen trying to get the timing just right.

Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash

It’s a pleasure for me to have people over. I am an extrovert. It’s true, I actually want to speak to my guests. If I planned to serve a hot meal with all the fixings, that probably meant piles of pots, pans, cooking tools, dirty floor, dirty countertops and on top of trying to get it all cooked, I wanted to tidy up as I went or after it cooked to make the house look nice because the kitchen is an irresistible spot for guests to gather.

If the event is a dinner, I make ahead whatever I can.

The day before Thanksgiving, we make mashed potatoes and store them in a casserole dish. I make cranberry sauce. My husband bakes bread. We assemble the green bean casserole. On the day of Thanksgiving, we pop the mashed potatoes and casserole into the oven to reheat or cook while the stuffing bakes and the turkey rests. The number of dishes I have to make Thanksgiving Day is cut in half.

But if the party is cocktail style, I put my money on the party platter.

Hawaiian rolls, ham, pepper jelly, and a few pickled peppers. Three kinds of cheeses (one hard like aged cheddar, one soft like brie or goat, one mild like gouda), cured Italian meats (try the Costco pack), olives (Trader Joe’s medley and crackers. I assemble my platters before guests arrive. Set up a buffet. And I’m done. I can visit with the folks who came to visit with me.

I moved nonstop before the party, I moved nonstop during the party, I moved nonstop after the party.

No matter how successful or unsuccessful the party felt in the end, I was exhausted and didn’t really have fun.

So now, the thirty minutes before guests are expected, I stop what I’m doing, accept the status of the house as it is, I get a snack or small meal, and I sit down.

I rest. I relax. This way, when guests arrive, I am, both in my home and in my heart, ready to receive them.

The rest is all incidental. It doesn’t even matter if we wash all the dishes that night.

Be realistic, plan ahead to save yourself tasks later, and remember that guests come to see you and yours.

That’s the stuff that matters. The dust bunnies in the corners can wait for spring.

Photo by Waranya Mooldee on Unsplash

The heart of hospitality

Before walking out the backdoor I grabbed the pair of toddler size, navy and white spats. I circumvented the puppy, closed the gate, and escaped. All she asked was that I text when I was on my way.

She heard me open the gate at her house and make my way through their front yard gardens, one within another, something either from a leftover British sensibility of defined garden spaces or an in-town pet owner’s necessity.

Opening the door, my friend welcomed me, thus avoiding the spine-chilling parental response to a ringing doorbell in a house with a toddler or young children who set upon a houseguest like coyotes to a roaming flock of chickens. Setting the toddler shoes on top of the player piano adjacent to the entryway I observed the wooden figurine of a player piano and complimented the mini-me moment of design. After greeting the toddler, I hugged my friend.

She welcomed me into the house. On the kitchen peninsula there lay a tea set of “made in England” antique teacups, a teapot from her grandmother and a silver platter of cookies, the kinds one only sees at Christmas time: palmiers, miniature cakes, and chocolate dipped Belgium shortbread. The presence of cookies was coincidental to my visit but fortuitous.

My friend invited me to sit and choose a teacup and tea. I smiled, my insides skipping a little bit at the thoughtfulness and decadence of being treated to tea unexpectedly. We discussed flavors and I chose the Bengal blend. I lifted the tea pot. The water was piping hot.

She wanted me to text when I was on my way so the water could be hot and ready.

This is hospitality.

I made myself at home and recalled silently the way with another friend, who has since moved. There were always home-baked cookies, or at least dough in the ready, and a specialty milk. We did not fuss over the house, the children, but stayed in the moment of two friends together, one escaping briefly the responsibilities of home, the other escaping briefly the solitude of being the only adult in a house with children.

At an earlier date, this new friend and I discussed this idea of hospitality, a concept apart from entertaining. Entertaining seeks to impress, to dazzle, to serve an Instagram-worthy moment with a flourish. It serves the hostess more than the guests by showing her domestic prowess.

Hospitality on the other hand, in its humility, seeks to make space. To carve out a moment from the day, the house, the routine, to welcome the stranger and friend. It sets aside the cares that grow up around us and tells the other, “please, come inside.”

One week prior my aunt marveled at our home improvements, new puppy, growing children and, and after asking what I do for myself, made the oft-repeated comment, “not that you don’t have enough on your plate.”

Two days later I read a Facebook message from a local farmer offering us a bottle-fed baby lamb. We moved the old dog house into one of our barns, set up a heat lamp, and piled in some straw. My husband purchased a new bulb for the lamp, milk replacement formula for the babies and we joyfully accepted not one, but two baby lambs. It was our plan for over a year to move in this direction, we simply had not done it yet.

Hospitality sees these moments not just as one more thing to do, but the thing that matters right now. Making space, building a boundary around the moment, protecting it from the stress of the world and our lives.

We do not neglect the other very important things. The doctor appointments, the existing pets, the children who expect to eat after feeding their lambs, grading the math assignments all must still happen.

But rather than allowing all these things to the pile, one on top of another interiorly taking up space in our minds and hearts, we learn to mentally and emotionally step away, take a breath, and say,

“Hello! Come on in.”

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash