Learning to See

Growing up, my family lived quite a distance from the small Christian school I attended. For years, on the trip to and from school, I spent the time gazing out the window of our Volkswagen Rabbit. I was prone to carsickness, and there was nothing I could do on car rides but look at the passing scenery.

Certainly there were times during those years when I slept or daydreamed, but I have distinct memories of what I noticed as we drove.

In early fall, the goldenrod stood out among the fields of late summer grasses; the hickories and sugar maples put on a show at different times. The forests looked different at the bottom of the mountain than they did at the top — some mornings were foggy only at certain elevations or maybe all the way to school. And each day the daylight hours shifted just a little.

In the winter, there was a noticeable difference in the way the landscape felt — dreary and grey on so many days, fields of corn stalks broken off close to the ground. Sometimes, I saw deer, pheasant, or maybe a wild turkey, the evening light almost blue as we drove home.

Later, cold rain gave way to pellets of freezing rain or maybe even snow. Sometimes the snow was piled high on either side of the road, higher and higher each day. Bits of frost formed patterns like stars that would cling to the windows until the car was warm enough for it to melt.

With warmer temperatures, I would look eagerly for signs of spring — for crocuses, forsythia, or clumps of daffodils; for the first bits of green to be visible on the tips of the tree branches. The daylight hours would shift again, and we would be more likely to drive to and from school in full daylight, less likely to witness the sunrise or sunset.

When I think about those long hours in the car, I think of Mary Oliver, who wrote, “Paying attention is our proper and endless work.” As a teenager, I’m not sure I could have articulated what this meant, but even so I was learning. As an adult, I know this to be true.

*****

It’s summertime. The sun is shining, and the air is sticky and hot. I pull over and park alongside the gravel road that meanders next to the creek, our destination. My kids tumble out of the van, and run down the gravel slope toward the water yelling, “Run for the hills!”

I lift the hatch and wrangle a beach chair, a Mexican blanket, and bag full of supplies, and make my way to the edge of water they’ve just jumped into.

As they scream and yell and splash, I shake out the blanket on top of the pebbles by the water’s edge, and set up my camp chair in the sun, making sure that when I sit down my feet will be able to dangle in the water below.

I take a breath and sit down, exhaling as I do. For a few hours I have nothing to do. I close my eyes, the sun warming my face and shoulders. I hear birds and begin to identify them by their call — chickadees, wrens, blue jays.

Blinking, I lean over, noticing the reflections of trees on the surface of the water. As I look closer, my eyes adjust like a camera finding focus — to the stones, leaves, and dirt on the creek bed below. Suddenly, there is movement.

“Kids!” I yell, keeping my head down so I don’t lose track of what’s below me. “Come look at this!”

I warn them to walk slowly once they get to where I am. They gather beside me and I use my finger as a guide, pointing out what I want them to see. Below the surface are several crayfish the size of my pinky fingernail. We squeal in wonder at their size and the fact that we might have missed them.

Minnows dart back and forth near the tiny creatures. We see more crayfish, in various sizes, and what looks like a salamander, one we haven’t identified before, curled around a pebble almost exactly the same shade of dark brown.

“I can’t believe how tiny they are,” says my oldest, turning to me with her eyes full of excitement.

“I can’t believe I almost didn’t see them,” I reply, grasping her arm. “I’m so glad I kept looking.”

*****

Just yesterday, as I drove to pick up my son from soccer practice, I looked up to see a small flock of geese flying low over the road and below a dusty pink sky. I rolled down my window so I could hear them honking overhead as they flew toward the pond where they stay for the night.

The fields near the high school have finally been cleared of corn, and I can see the moon climbing over the horizon. The sunset’s pinks and reds are reflected in streaks of clouds high in the sky. I sigh as I pull into the parking lot, grateful for the lessons that looking out the window have taught me.

So often I say to the kids, “Look at that sky!” or “Did you see the moon?” How else will they learn to pay attention? How else will they learn to look up from whatever they might be doing to marvel at what’s around them? There are times my heart catches in my throat at the beauty of the ordinary world.

This is our proper and endless work.

 

Words and image by Beth Lehman,

Pizza Dough by Heart

I haven’t made pizza dough in over a year. I used to make it all the time, at least once a week like clockwork. I’d pull out the old Betty Crocker Cookbook because, even though I made the dough week after week, I never memorized the recipe. But I liked pulling out that old book. My father-in-law sent it to my husband, along with a half-dozen others, when Adam applied to be a firefighter. He hadn’t been hired yet, but my father-in-law must have had a hunch that he would. Every firefighter needs to know how to cook, he said. I suppose he’s right.

But firefighter’s wives don’t have to know how to cook. Or, at least, this one didn’t. Adam made all our food – his great aunt’s macaroni and cheese recipe, burgers he cooked on our tiny fourteen-inch grill. He learned to make chili and cook a full chicken with a beer can stuffed inside it. He made our first Thanksgiving meal in our tiny apartment – a full turkey for just the two of us. I made the cranberry sauce. It was easy, and I liked it.

Whenever I’d stand in the kitchen to assemble something to eat, I’d flash back to my bridal shower when my mother had laughed at all the kitchen gadgets I opened. “You’re going to cook?!” she gasped, incredulous. I was embarrassed. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to cook; no one ever taught me.

The first pizza dough I made was a recipe from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I read it while I was pregnant with my daughter, almost nine years ago. I was curious about food then, about having a garden and eating conscientiously. The slow food movement was big, and I became infatuated with the idea of eating close to home.

And I was pregnant with my first child, which was changing my perspective on everything. A year earlier, I had been content eating pepperoni and sliced cheese on Ritz crackers for dinner, and washing it down with a few cold beers. Maybe my mom was right; I wasn’t the cooking type. But it was all coming into question – what kind of mother would I be? The kind that made dinner every night? The kind that grew her own veggies and baked her own bread?

I took care to follow Kingsolver’s Friday Night Pizza recipe, kneading the dough carefully, feeling its sticky springiness. I let it rise, then rolled out the crust on a baking sheet, covered it with toppings, and baked it. That night, Adam and I sat at the table and ate my first pizza. We talked about food and family, what was next for us and where we wanted to go. I told him I liked making the pizza from scratch, and he joked that he liked the night off from cooking. Maybe I can cook, I thought. All I knew was I wanted to do it again.

I made that homemade pizza every week, but somewhere along the way, I gave up on Kingsolver’s recipe in favor of our gold standard: the Betty Crocker Cookbook. I swapped out whole wheat flour for white, which stretched and squished as I kneaded it and rose to a fluffy gold when baked. That dough recipe stuck, and I used it with whatever topping combo suited my fancy: broccoli, tomato, and feta; zucchini with lemon zest; or (my favorite) salad pizza.

On pizza night, I would pull down the cookbook, flip to the most-worn page, and follow the directions: add flour, yeast, sugar, and salt; mix, then add a cup of hot water and some olive oil; mix again, and gradually add more flour as you feel the dough thicken and form a solid mass. It was a quick process, then the dough sat for a half hour to rise.

I knew the recipe well enough, but never memorized the exact measurements. Maybe it’s because I liked the ritual of taking out the book, one that people have relied on for years, one filled with tried-and-true recipes, no matter how basic or passé they might be. Maybe it’s because, even after my pregnancy-induced foray into cooking, cooking stressed me out and I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

Eventually, I gave up on making pizza dough all together. I started buying store-bought pizza and made it on nights Adam was at work. The kids didn’t complain. A slice of pizza and a few raw vegetables made them happy, and I was spared the work of making something from scratch.

But the other day, I got the itch. At the grocery store, I grabbed some pizza sauce and shredded mozzarella and decided Wednesday would be homemade pizza night.

On Wednesday, I grabbed the Betty Crocker Cookbook from its spot on the highest shelf in the cupboard. The book is tattered, old now. Some of the pages fall out, and the cover is worn around the edges. I held it for a minute before laying it on the counter. I had done this so many times before – held this book in my hands, opened up to the well-worn page with the recipe for pizza dough – but it had been a long time.

I pulled out each ingredient, trying to remember without having to refer to the recipe, and grabbed the large stainless-steel bowl that banged on the counter when I set it down. My daughter, Lily, came in and asked how she could help.

“Do you want to knead the dough?” I asked her.

She ran to grab a stool. “Yeah, I love that part,” she said, pulling the sleeves of her sweatshirt up.

I glanced over and watched her squeezing and rolling the dough, flour on her cheeks and the front of her sweatshirt. “You doing okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, “but my hands are getting tired.” She placed the ball of dough in the bowl and itched her face with the back of her hand.

“It’s hard work,” I told her. I pulled out the plastic wrap and tore a piece big enough to cover the dough. “You did a good job. Thanks.”

She stood at the sink, washing the sticky dough off her hands, and I kissed the top of her head before setting the timer for thirty minutes.

Lily sat down at the table to do her homework before dinner, her brother sitting beside her, mashing a ball of Play-Doh with a plastic fork. They sat quietly, and I turned on some music – an old album from high school I hadn’t listened to in ages. The music started, and I washed a few stray dishes beside the sink, then tucked the worn, red cookbook back up on the top shelf.

I knew what to do next – sit with kids at the kitchen table while they worked, answering questions and laughing with them; watch the blue hour descend outside the bay window; wait for the timer to summon me; kiss my husband when he came home.

I knew the rest by heart.

 

Words and image by Lindsay Crandall.

Not Perfect, Just Right

hello there friend

I’m walking quickly, listening to an audiobook that’s the fourth in an embarrassingly cheesy young adult series, when my eye catches and stops briefly on a grill perched at the end of someone’s driveway. There’s a sign slapped on it with messy handwriting that reads: “not perfect.” I keep walking, but my mind is completely fixed on “not perfect,” like a heel caught faltering in grass at an outdoor wedding.

Not perfect. Not perfect.

It sings in me; it buzzes somewhere in me that’s been craving this message of comfortable acceptance. How unusual, but how wonderful, if it really does say “not perfect.” I turn around, walk back, and try to fix on the letters. I need to know if that’s what it actually says, but it turns out there’s something else next to the “not” and the bottom word is particularly illegible. I squint for a while, wait for the cars driving past to clear, and cross the street.

Once there, I see the sign actually reads: “not lighting properly.” I imagine that its owner with the sloppy script hopes that there’s a person out there who will be able to easily figure out the problem and, once fixed, get to enjoy the fruits (hot dogs?) of their roadside find. It’s not perfect, but maybe it’s just right for someone.

About a month ago, I was listening to a podcast that suggested imagining that you were moving and could start your life over in any way that you’d like. Imagine your ideal life, whatever that might look like, they said.

I snorted, most likely in my head (but maybe not), and began thinking of my fantasy apartment on the Seine in Paris and my dream cottage in the English countryside. I’d dress like a casual Kate Middleton and, heck, look like her, too. I’d wake up in the mornings and, alongside my husband, have a cup of tea and read. We’d take the time to think about our food, rather than texting each other in the evening, “Tacos, again?” and forgetting altogether about vegetables. My inner monologue slowed.

Maybe there was no need for the snarky tone to my thoughts. Parisian Kate Middleton aside, those last things were, in fact, very doable. The idea of making this perfect life attainable was one that I began to mull over seriously.

My weekday mornings used to look like this: Lie in bed until my husband was done shaving, get up, get dressed, go downstairs. I’d make my toast, distributing my peanut butter evenly across the top, and plunk down on our couch in front of the TV to watch the news. Then I’d brush my teeth, get into the car, and be on my way. It wasn’t something I had even thought about. I just did it.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. We tend to imagine that we will be a different person once we’ve reached a certain point in our lives. When I don’t work so many hours, I’ll exercise.When I have kids, I’ll make the time to slow down and be in the moment. When my kids are older, I’ll do things for me and pursue that passion that’s always been hovering in the back of my mind. Often, those milestones roll past, and those ideal selves don’t ever magically appear. We have to actually do something to make them real.

I decided to do just that something, starting with my mornings. I still generally have my piece of toast evenly spread with peanut butter. Some days I have tea, but mostly I don’t remember in time and instead have my usual water. Some days I read a book, but often I’ll flip through a magazine or even a catalogue, letting my brain slowly settle into the day. Some days my husband and I chat; others we’re quiet. It’s not much, but, honestly, these new, more purposeful mornings feel like freedom – the freedom to actively remember that I have a choice in how I live my days, and that I can make that choice now.

It’s getting darker these days, so we don’t have the beautiful light of our weekend mornings. The birds usually haven’t yet begun their songs and chatter, but there is still a sense of peace that fills me up, like a slow breath taken while watching leaves skate atop the rough sidewalk on a windy, late fall day.

My everyday mornings are by no means perfect, but, for me, they’re just right.

A week ago, I’m bundled up, out for a walk, and entangled in my thoughts, when I abruptly pause. I realize I’ve passed the driveway where the grill that wasn’t lighting properly once stood. The cold air is bitter and, despite my gloves, my fingers are already protesting. But I linger a moment. I soak in a little bit of happiness seeing that the grill is gone, that, I let myself believe, someone has chosen to make the small change to make it just right.

 

Words and image by Erin Smith.