Wednesday, December 6, 2017

5 Things I Learned From NaNoWriMo

I think I was in junior high the first time I began writing a novel. I don't think I even created a full chapter. I had a scene, and two characters, and wasn't sure where to go from there. In college, I typed several chapters of another novel idea that also ended up going nowhere. Both starts could have been viable drafts, but I had neither the knowledge nor inclination to stay with those ideas long enough to develop them into something more complete. Since that time, I have worked hard to convince myself I am not a writer, although I find myself daydreaming scenes, writing picture book drafts, and crafting poetry. This year, as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) rolled around, I decided to take the plunge. I created an account, signed up on the NaNoWriMo website, and on November 1, I began. Here is what I learned on my way to 50,000+ words:

1)  Planning matters. As much as I want to be a discovery writer (or "pantser") who sits down and goes wherever the writing muse leads me, I can't write without some sort of plan. I had never made an outline for a novel before, so creating a plan was daunting. However, the value of NaNoWriMo is community, and several fellow writers posted links to helpful online sources that aided me in developing a rough map to where I wanted to go. I suspect that most writers who successfully complete NaNoWriMo have an outline.

My "book cover" for NaNoWriMo
2)  Research! This is the most amazing thing I discovered on the NaNoWriMo website. A participant can post questions and other participants write answers. I am a confirmed procrastinator, and I can tell you from experience that it is possible to spend hours scrolling through the research questions in this section of the website instead of actually writing. It is very entertaining! I even found a couple questions I could answer. And, thank you to the people who took time to answer my questions about riding on a Greyhound bus. My novel is better for your input.

3)  Word Sprints are great. This might be the most valuable tool I picked up from NaNoWriMo. In a word sprint,you set a timer and see how many words you can write in your pre-determined time limit. The benefit for me was that I figured I could write something for ten or fifteen minutes and then quit. However, when the time was up, I was often mid-scene and was able to continue writing. If I wanted to quit after the word sprint, at least I had written something that day. I used word sprints more than once when I felt stuck.

4)  I can write even when I don't feel like it and even when my mind is blank. I confess, I did a novel-in-a-month plan once before, so when I entered NaNoWriMo, I was confident I could finish. However, the writing I did before had been percolating in my brain for years. It was material I knew well and it had an emotional connection for me. This time, I set out with an idea that I toyed with over the summer. It was not nearly as developed. I did not know my characters particularly well, and sometimes I really dreaded going over to my computer and typing. It was WORK to get the words down in November. But I did it anyway, and I am pretty proud of that. Accountability and those little "badges" I earned on the website were enough to keep me going on the tough days. My reward is that I have a rough draft and some notes on how to improve it.

5)  I am happier when I write. This was a bit of a surprise. Even though my 50,000 words are a mess, even though I have a tremendous amount of daunting revisions awaiting me, and even though this "novel" may never see the light of day, it made me happy to get an idea out of my head and committed to words on a page. And I am looking forward to the revision process. Because I am not as emotionally invested in this particular project yet, it feels more like a puzzle to be solved, and I look forward to spending more time with this story I have created to see if I really can make it work.

I plan to do NaNoWriMo again. It was a great experience for me, and a lot of fun. Although I didn't participate in a local "write-in," I appreciated having online support from my home region. The beauty of NaNoWriMo participation is you can be as involved or as anonymous as you would like. And at the end of the month, there is a good chance you will have more words written than if you hadn't signed up. Happy writing!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Grateful Every Day

I meant to do it this year. I really did. I was going to be one of the people who remembered to post something they were thankful for every day online. But November rolled around, and I couldn't do it. It isn't that I'm not grateful. I am. I couldn't bring myself to tell the world in a way that felt right to me. So now it is November 15, and I am enjoying feeling grateful in my own way, and I'm okay with that. Mind you, one of my friends is posting things that she is grateful for,and guess what? I love it. I love reading what she has to say, and looking at her images. Do I feel like she is bragging? Not at all. In fact, she is grateful for many things we tend to take for granted.

Tree at Arches National Park 

Take health. It is easy to take health for granted. I've had some health challenges over the years. Most of us get a turn at that in life. Nothing makes me more grateful for being well than being sick. But often it takes an illness, or injury, or time on the sidelines in life to make me realize I really want to be in the game.

Nelson-Atkins Museum

And that is something I have learned to appreciate more--being in the game. When I take a moment to enjoy the moment, I find it is easy to be grateful for things. For example, it is late afternoon in November, and the slant of light that illuminated the pine tree outside my picture window for a few minutes was beautiful. The little junco hopping under my bird feeder looks so dapper with his deep black hood, he makes me smile.  We had a bumper crop of acorn squash in the garden this year, and while squash roasts in my oven, I have time to sit here, and write for a few minutes while my oven does the work, and for that, I am also grateful.

Indian Paintbrush

So I guess something I am really grateful for is that we get a chance to play this game of life. We all have our own strengths, and our own challenges. Some of us appear to be winning, or going in for a score, and others of us are struggling to even get in the game, or to remember which way to kick the ball. But none of that matters. What matters is that we get to play. That's what I am grateful for every day. That I get to be in the game.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Applesauce On Labor Day

"Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."  --US Department of Labor
 While many people are enjoying their last gasp of summer today (boating, camping, etc.), I find myself once again laboring on Labor Day. The farmer's markets feature stands laden with the late summer harvest: apples, peaches, pears, melons, corn, and more. Last year I was canning peaches on Labor Day, and this year, I am bottling homemade applesauce. 

Several years ago, wanting to make sugar-free applesauce for my infant son, I started using Gala apples. This apple is sweet enough that no sugar is needed, and it makes a light, beautiful applesauce.

The first step in making applesauce is washing and quartering all the apples. 

Gala apples for applesauce

Thanks to a great invention called the Victorio strainer, there is no need to peel the apples. My mom has owned her Victorio strainer for years, and my sisters and I agree that we are never making applesauce without one.

Victorio strainer

The Victorio strainer was originally marketed to process tomatoes into pasta sauce. The brand originated in 1937, and you can purchase Victorio products today. Eventually some smart person discovered the strainer was wonderful for making applesauce, and I am grateful they did. As a kid, I was fascinated by this mechanism that took apples placed in the top bowl, ran them through a strainer while we took turns moving the crank handle, and sent smooth applesauce out the front. Peels, stems, cores, seeds, and other apple garbage circled through the strainer and out the end. 

Apples in the Victorio strainer

Applesauce coming out of the strainer.

Peelings collecting out the side of the strainer.

I remember summer days when my mother, grandmother, and aunts gathered in our tiny kitchen and bottled cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, and applesauce. One year my mom and dad made apricot fruit leather and dried apricots, and our backyard held tables with screens covering the fruit while it dried in the sun. 

Today I joined my mother and two sisters in that same kitchen (now expanded) and we made applesauce together. Canning is not always something I want to tackle alone, and I appreciate being able to work with a team. I could walk in to a store and buy applesauce, but there is something rewarding about putting in the work to preserve it myself. And I can control the quality of the product. More importantly, it is a great excuse to spend time with my family. That, too me, is priceless.

This year, my Gala apples were purchased from Pyne Farms at the Murray Farmer's Market. We taste-tested a few apples before selecting these. Yum!  

Here is the result of my work this Labor Day. 

Applesauce 2017

Applesauce with Gala Apples (my mother's recipe)
Wash and quarter apples. Let stand in cold water and lemon juice (the lemon juice keeps the apples from browning. Just a squirt or two will be enough). Fill a 6 qt. kettle with apples, heaped up. Add about 2 cups of water. (The more water, the thinner the applesauce). Cook by bringing the water to a boil, then turning the heat down and simmering the apples until tender. Stir occasionally, and be careful not to let the apples scorch. When apples are tender, pass through a Victorio strainer. Stir applesauce and see if it is the desired thickness. If necessary, pour cooking liquid through the strainer to thin the applesauce. Fill clean pint jars with hot applesauce to 3/4" from the top. Add lids and process in a water bath canner for 25 minutes.

1 box of Gala apples yields 13 - 16 pints of applesauce.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Soaked Shoes in the Cemetery

                The sodden grass quickly soaked through the denim fabric of my shoes.  No umbrella could save my feet in this rain.  Good thing this cemetery isn’t too big, I thought.  This is sort of like looking for a needle in a haystack, but the graves have to be here, somewhere.  I looked at my shoes and my soaking feet.  No way were they going to dry on the hour and a half drive I had to make to get home.  What was I doing here in a cemetery in Hyde Park, Utah (nearly 100 miles from home) on a rainy Saturday afternoon, anyway? 

                For as long as I can remember, my family has gathered and gone to visit cemeteries, usually in conjunction with Memorial Day weekend.  The Murray City Cemetery was a favorite when I was young, as monuments stretched over my head.  I was fascinated by these tall tributes to a life lived and lost.  We ran freely among the headstones, but my father taught us not to climb on the inviting grave markers.
                Memorial Estates became a mainstay in my family after the death of my brother in 1976.  For a time, we visited the cemetery weekly, on Sundays.  Week after week we arrived at the cemetery to find a flower on my brother’s grave.  We never knew who placed it there.  But every week we knew that someone remembered him, and it was a great gift of comfort to us.
                The list of graves to visit at Memorial Estates grew to include four former classmates (two died in the 5th grade, one passed away in high school, and another died at the age of 22, shortly after her marriage).  Family also began filling the plots near my brother’s resting place:  my grandparents, my aunt, my infant cousin.  The South Jordan Cemetery became a regular on the visit list as well. There we decorated graves for my father-in-law, his mother, and other relatives, I began wandering this cemetery looking for my husband’s ancestors who had settled this place and raised their families before ending up here, beneath the lawn.  My children and I meandered through the headstones, reading names, looking for ones familiar from genealogy charts and family stories. "If it is a Holt, Beckstead, or Newbold," I told my kids, "they are related to you!"
                I began visiting graves on vacations and other trips:  the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C.; the Old Pioneer Burial Ground in Nauvoo, Ill.; JFK’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery; Charles Lindbergh's grave on Maui; Sacagawea on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming (ok, so many historians believe this is not really Sacagawea's burial place, but it is still a beautiful cemetery); and the grave of Georges Seurat and other famous people in Pere LaChaise in Paris, France.  I have walked through small cemeteries off the side of the road, or in small towns.  I have read inscriptions and epitaphs.  I love cemeteries. They are beautiful and peaceful, and it is fascinating to me how we choose to honor our dead.

Seurat Family Tomb in Paris

                Once I stood, plat number and map in hand, and tried to find an ancestor in the Salt Lake City Cemetery, but William Lewis escaped me.  No matter how hard I looked, I could not find his grave.  The day was long, and we were all getting tired, so we left.  Fast forward a couple of years, and I was back looking for William Lewis.  And there was a tall monument to him, and other family members.  Pretty hard to miss!  I have no idea why I couldn’t find it the first time, but I was happy to see it.  It felt like quite a victory to finally locate his grave.
                I love the chase.  I love finding the marker, the place where my family member lies in repose.  I love putting together pieces of information.  I soak in the sorrow and solemnity when an infant lies alone in a plot, no family nearby, or when a family has lost child after child to early death.  Cemeteries are a wealth of information. They are also an art exhibit, filled with poems and prose, sculpture and carvings.
                I had to go to Logan to visit the Utah State University campus that Saturday. Prior to my visit, I remembered my mom telling me about relatives buried in the Logan area.  A quick search of the Findagrave website (a blessing to family history researchers everywhere!), informed me that Luther C. Burnham was buried in Hyde Park. It wasn't far from the USU campus and there might be time to visit once I was through in Logan....
                So maybe now you can understand how I ended up in Hyde Park with soaking shoes in the rain.  I held the umbrella and the camera and looked at one marker, and then the next.  Not this one.  Not that one.  I kept looking.  “Here it is!  He’s here!” I exclaimed. My great-great grandfather.  I snapped a few pictures, looked at this beautiful place, and took a moment in the rain before returning to the car to shed my wet shoes and dry my feet.

Luther C. Burnham headstone

                It is more than the love of the chase that made me drive from Logan to Hyde Park in the rain that day before returning home to Salt Lake.  It is the love of family.  It is the connectedness I feel extending through generations, linking my ancestors and my children.  In cemeteries, I see not only monuments to individuals, but stories of family.  And finding my great-great grandfather's  headstone in Hyde Park was worth the soaking wet shoes.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Flying Solo on Labor Day

Saturday I went to a local farmer’s market to buy produce, specifically Early Elberta peaches.  They are always on around Labor Day, and they are the best peaches for canning.  Firm, tart, and freestone, they are my favorites to bottle. Three boxes of peaches, two boxes of pears, two boxes of Gala apples, a bag of corn, and a melon later, my wallet was a lot thinner and my project list was growing. 

Today I am celebrating Labor Day by working.  Seems appropriate, doesn’t it?  While the pears will take a few more days to ripen, and the apples will hold for a little while, those peaches need attention.

Pears and peaches for canning.
In the fall, at harvest time, I like re-stocking my home with canned goods and bottled produce.  We fill pantry shelves with staples we use for cooking year round, and augment our storage with bottled salsa, green beans, pickles, peaches, pears, and more.  Canning season stretches from mid-spring (strawberry jam) to October (corn and salsa) for me.  Already this year I have put aside strawberry jam, zucchini relish, apricot jam, and green beans.  And today it is peaches.  Lots of peaches.

I have a love/hate relationship with canning.  It’s a lot of work.  Certainly it is easier to walk into a grocery store and buy a can of peaches.  But have you eaten commercially canned peaches?  Ick.  They are processed while still a little unripe, and therefore are overly firm and not as flavorful.  Home canned peaches, on the other hand, can be bottled at the peak of the season and when just ripe.  I can be my own quality control. 

My first memories of canning are vague.  A canning kitchen is not the safest place for a young child.  Boiling kettles and sharp knives can quickly lead to scalds and cuts.  I remember my mother and her sisters gathering in mom’s kitchen and canning.  As a child, I didn’t participate, but I remember long days, dozens of quarts of fruit, and my mother and aunts talking and working together.  My grandfather had an apricot tree.  My mother said he called apricots the “Queen of Fruit,” and that they were a personal favorite of his.  One summer,  I remember  my parents getting creative when inundated with bushels of apricots from Grandad’s tree.  Dad built screens to cover rows of apricots spread out on tables drying in the sun.  The screens let the sun in to dry the fruit, but kept the bugs out. My parents made apricot leather and apricot nectar.  We ate a lot of apricots that year. 

Another year, my folks invested in a pressure canner, and we children were enlisted to help prepare green beans for canning.  Their pressure canner now resides at my house.  My family and I grow green beans in the garden each summer, and my children work to pick, snip and wash the beans for canning.  Having more helping hands makes the work go faster.

Green beans from the garden.

Usually I head to my mom’s house on canning days when fruit is in season, but this year, I am processing peaches on my own.  I have canned enough that the solo journey today does not seem too daunting.  It has been a year since I last did peaches, and I scroll through the information stored in my memory banks to lay out the necessary supplies.  Preparation is important to the process. My counter holds clean quart jars and bands to go over the lids.  I have a bowl for scalded peaches and an old pie tin to hold skins and pits.  My knife rests on the island, waiting to be pressed into service.  On the stove are three pots:  one heating canning lids, one holding boiled syrup, and one with boiling water to scald the fruit.  Everything is at the ready; it’s time to begin.

Lids, syrup, and peaches on the stove.

I sort peaches and load the best ones into a mesh laundry bag (these laundry bags are perfect for scalding fruit, and they wash clean easily).  I dip the peaches into the boiling water for 30 seconds, then transfer them to the bowl.  When the peaches are ripe, the skins slip off easily after scalding.  I slice the peach in half, slip the skin, pluck out the pit, and place the halves in the bottles.  Once the bottle is filled, I pour in the syrup, check for air bubbles, wipe the rims, put on a lid, and screw it in place with a band.  Occasionally I stop to mix more syrup, and scald more peaches.  

Peeling peaches and filling jars.

I think about sitting in my mom’s kitchen with my grandmother and sisters and canning peaches.  My sister and I would grimace as the sticky peach juice drizzled from our hands down our forearms.  My grandma could out-pace us filling jars well into her nineties.  My mom would mix syrup on the stove and scald the peaches, bringing them to us at the table.  Canning was a social venture, and if a peach half didn’t fit in a bottle, I would pop it in my mouth and snack as I worked.  But today is quiet.  I put a CD in the player, and before long, Adele has me feeling nostalgic.  7 quarts later I move on to Christina Perri to add a little angst to the day.  Later I decide to perk things up with some Maroon 5.  Who knows?  I may be hitting the Guns N Roses before the day is through.

Once I have filled 21 quarts, I move on to a batch of jam.  Jam is all about precision and timing.  I measure the sugar and open the pectin.  My jars and lids are ready.  Once those crushed peaches are on the stove, things move quickly.  Bring to a boil, and while stirring constantly, add pectin and sugar.  Continue stirring while the mixture returns to a boil.  Set the timer with one hand while stirring, stirring, stirring.  Boil one minute, remove from the heat, skim off the foam and bottle.  My little half-pints are filled and ready to process. (And if you have never had the privilege of smearing that warm peach jam foam on a piece of toast, you are missing out!)

Two of my 21 bottles today.

Then it is on to processing in a water bath, 7 jars at a time. Once everything is out of the canners, I line the hot jars up on clean towels on the counter and listen for the satisfying “pop” each lid makes as it seals.  Things didn’t go perfectly smooth this year.  Some of the peaches were more blemished than usual, and my bottles leaked syrup out the top when I removed them from the canner. Worst case scenario is that some of the jars won’t seal.  Best case is the syrup will be a little low and I’ll have to wash off the sticky jars before putting them in the pantry.

My back aches from standing and canning for hours, but 21 quarts of fresh peaches and 7 half-pints of jam are worth it.  It is a satisfying effort.  This winter it will be so easy to serve peaches and cottage cheese with lunch or dinner, or have peach jam and whip cream on homemade waffles.  Flying solo this Labor Day was a success, but I confess I am glad my 2 boxes of apples are at my mom’s house, and that I will be making applesauce with my mom and sisters. I am also sure my husband will continue to lead out on salsa bottling day, and just let me be the helper.  I can check peaches off my list, so now only pears, applesauce, salsa, and corn remain.

 I think there are good reasons why people used to gather to raise a barn, bring in the harvest, or preserve the food.  Not only were the skills and traditions passed from generation to generation, but relationships were renewed and strengthened as people worked side by side. Canning with my family reminds me I am blessed with amazing people in my life, and for that, I am grateful. to tackle that mountain of squash!