Sunday, December 28, 2014

Mom's blackberry jam cake

I inherited my mom's recipe box when she died a couple of years ago. I haven't had the heart to do much with it since then. It's been sitting on the shelf collecting dust. Thoughts of a Christmas favorite compelled me to take it down to see if, by chance, there was a recipe for it. I was lucky. There in the midst of three recipes for lime jello pineapple salad was the folded and stained recipe for blackberry jam cake.

The recipe is in my sister's handwriting, I think. My mom's is less artistic, though pretty similar. I suspect my sister asked my mom for the recipe which was not recorded anywhere and wrote it down for her, making an extra copy to leave in mom's recipe box. There are recipes for other things in my handwriting that were written down when I asked how to make something that was just in her memory or was on an old recipe card so worn out from use that it was barely readable. The stains fascinate me. I suspect they are drops of batter and oil from hands that greased the pan before she poured in the batter. Whatever this was copied from, no doubt, looked equally used.

Blackberry Jam Cake is a family tradition passed down from my mom's family. It's a southern dessert, representative of my mom's upbringing just south of Nashville, Tennessee. The cake has a little sugar, but not much. Most of the sweetness comes from the jam, which no doubt would have been homemade using wild blackberries picked in the summer.

My mom loved picking blackberries as a child. She wore her brother's overalls and long sleeve shirts, a pragmatic concession to the strict rule that girls should only wear dresses. They took buckets with them and picked all day. The purplish stains around their mouths betrayed their claims that all berries went in the bucket. As mom admitted, the warm berries were too hard to resist and they often ate enough to make them sick to their stomachs while they picked.

Her mom made the blackberry jam cake for Christmas. It, along with a wheel of cheddar cheese that they enjoyed with their morning biscuits, was a special treat, a cake too expensive to make more than once a year, but a Christmas staple. My mom brought the tradition to our house. Even after we grew up and left the house, my mom would make each of us a jam cake for Christmas. I've been known to freeze pieces of mine before it got stale to have for later in the year.

The cake is quite moist, and resembles a spice cake in flavor. The nuts and raisins add great flavor. As you can see from the recipe above, she did not specify what nuts to use. As I recall, she just used what she had on hand. Often at Christmas time, we had black walnuts, English walnuts, and pecans around the house, either to eat as a snack or to use in baking. I remember loving the distinct flavor of the black walnuts in the cake.

My brother texted me on Friday night saying, "I wish I could share a piece of my jam cake with you." I'm not sure how he knew I was craving it at the moment. I had already pulled the recipe out earlier that day. His wife took up the tradition several years ago. I called her yesterday for some pointers. I'm glad I did. As is often the case with my mom's recipes, there were things missing, nothing especially important, but little tips that help make it a better cake baking experience.

Here's the recipe (with helpful additions from my sister-in-law):

5 eggs
1 C sugar
2 C jam (blackberry, seedless)
1 C nuts (I used black walnuts)
1 Tbs baking soda
1 C butter
3 C flour
1 C buttermilk
1 C raisins
1 Tbs cinnamon
1 Tbs allspice

Preheat oven to 250; grease and flour a large bundt pan. Toss raisins and nuts in flour to prevent them from floating to the top in the batter.

Separate the eggs. Beat the whites until stiff and set aside.
Sift flour, baking soda and spices together and set aside.
Cream butter and sugar. Add the jam and blend. Add egg yolks one at a time and blend after each addition. Add flour/spice mixture and buttermilk alternately and blend after each addition. Add nuts and raisins. Fold in egg whites.

Pour in greased/floured bundt pan. Bake in 250 oven until done. Use toothpick to test doneness. Bake time is approximately 3 hours. Remove from bundt pan and let cool on wire rack.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve Confession of Faith

That Jesus was born in a stable makes more sense to me now that I’ve been a farmer for a few years. The barn is often holy ground. It’s a place of birth, of feeding, of sleeping, of waiting for the storm to pass, a place of death.

Our barn was that kind of sacred space a few nights ago. I went out to feed the guardian dogs like I always do, just after dark, in the hour when it seems darkest to me…all light of the sun gone, stars twinkling but not yet noticeable in my intense concentration to see what’s in front of me. I balanced the scoop of dog food in one hand while I held my smartphone in the other, the flashlight app shining in front of me, searching for one food bowl and then the other.

When I stopped at the second bowl, I noticed our old ewe lying on her side, half inside the barn, half out. She was barely moving. I knelt down to lift up her head and immediately saw that she was weak. I tried to stand her up, but she couldn’t unfold her legs for me to get her up. I called Lisa. I needed her help to move her into a warm area of the barn. I wanted her to have a chance to say goodbye. I’ve seen this before. I knew we were losing her. They say a down sheep is a dead sheep, and we most definitely had a down sheep.

The ewe is our oldest animal, a sheep that came from a flock from which Lisa first started her own flock. We call her Left Teat, her proper name long ago forgotten after she was christened with the new upon losing half of her udder to gangrenous mastitis. Left Teat is a battle axe of a ewe. She has a deep, raspy bleat that sounds like she’s smoked two packs a day her whole life. Her thin legs hold up her large, sagging body. Aside from the infection in her udder, she’s never been sick a day in her life, well, at least not that we know of. She sat vigil with her grandson and later with her daughter when they each died earlier this year. She’s slow now, but she has a powerful will to live.

Lisa came out and sat down next to her. She held the ewe’s head in her lap. I filled the dog food scoop with sweet grain, a treat that a sheep or goat with any life at all left in them can’t resist. I placed the bowl in front of her. She plunged her head into it and ate vigorously. A good sign, I thought. But, I’ve been tricked by that before. I know better than to believe that’s a guarantee we can nurse an animal back to health.

Lisa heard some gurgling in her lungs, so I ran into the house to get a syringe with an antibiotic that we know works well with respiratory illnesses. I drained the nearly empty bottle dry. We had just enough to give her one dose.

After her shot, Lisa and I moved her to a comfortable area in the middle of the barn, free of drafts and away from the hay feeder where the goats were jockeying for position to get dinner. Lisa quietly held her head. Tears were streaming down our faces. We decided to see if we could get her to stand. Her weak legs struggled under her weight, but she stood, and stayed that way until a young goat, inexplicably, rammed her and knocked her down. We helped her sit up and sat down next to her, waiting, crying, trying to make meaning of the tears.

We’ve had sheep and goats long enough now that the older animals are reaching the natural end of their lives. We lost several this year. There was Spot and Sunshine, Jewel and Belize, all fixtures in the Living Kitchen barnyard. Each died after what would be considered a normal lifespan, but still too soon for us. With each one’s death, we’ve wondered if we still have what it takes to farm with livestock. It takes a toll. We share a special connection with the animals, and they with us.

 After we got Left Teat comfortable, Sally, our oldest goat, walked over to where we were sitting. She lowered her head and nuzzled her nose into Left Teat’s neck. She stood like that for several minutes. We cried harder, moved by the gesture. Sally lifted her head from Left Teat and began to lick the tears from Lisa’s face. For the next several minutes she comforted first Left Teat and then Lisa.

We didn’t want to leave, but it was getting late. The dogs needed attention and we needed to make a gesture toward eating dinner. Before I turned in for the night, I went out to check on her one more time. I walked slowly toward the barn, dreading the sight, already feeling the frustration and anger of losing another animal well up from deep inside my gut. When I passed through the barn door, tears were already falling from my eyes.

The light reached the pile of hay where we’d left Left Teat and with one more step covered her, revealing two animals sitting up, side by side, chewing their cud. Goat and ewe were cuddled up, doing what they do. Not only was Left Teat still alive, she was better, holding up her head, faraway look in her eyes as her jaw slowly gyrated from side to side. I was shocked.

I slept more peacefully that night than I expected. When the alarm went off the next morning, I put on my boots and coat and grabbed the flashlight. I didn’t want to lie in bed one minute wondering if she was still alive. When I got to the barn, I found her on her side, several feet from the spot where we’d left her. Sally was still lying in the spot next to where Left Teat had been. She hadn’t moved an inch. Left Teat let out a deep-throated bleat when she saw me and started struggling to get up. She didn’t quite have the strength to do it, so I helped her. I moved her back over to the spot next to Sally. She sat up and started chewing her cud. She’d lived through the night, the loving care of an old goat to keep her company. A few hours later, she was up wandering around the barnyard. Lisa let her into the yard, where she grazed all day. Later that night we found her in the barn sitting between Sally and another goat, Dottie, head held high, chewing her cud.

I fear I project too much onto the animals, making meaning of their gestures that so anthropomorphizes them that I perpetuate a ridiculously romantic notion of what it means to care for animals on a farm. They are animals, not people. I don’t have any real idea what they understand and how they make sense of what happens, but something bigger than me, than the animals was at work that night in the barn. No scientific explanation would diminish it for me. It moved me in a way that no experience with the animals ever has.

Alan Lightman, author of The Accidental Universe and a professor at MIT with dual appointments in science and the humanities, says this,

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than our selves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Maybe faith is the ability to believe that an old goat can sense our distress and offer comfort where we can’t, to sit with an old ewe with a powerful will to live, keeping her warm, assuring her that she isn’t alone, until the medicine can work its wonders. Maybe it’s the ability to let go of any scientific notions about the separation of species and believe for a moment that sometimes we can care for and save that which is vastly different than us because we are connected in time and space, breathing the same air, walking the same ground, feeling the same sunshine on our faces and the same cold, biting wind cut to our bones. Maybe its believing that will to live, care, love, and empathy are as important as medicine in curing an ailing being, accepting that animal and human are equal in their inability to make an illness just disappear, but also equal in their ability to offer care for one who is suffering.

I think there’s no mistake this happened at Christmas time. Jesus' birth was really not so different from the healing of an old ewe. They both remind me that God came to us in the same way I experience life with these animals…connected with us in time and space, flesh and blood, able to feel what we feel and participate in those things that are much bigger than our selves. Much theological training has left me knowing very little with certainty these days, but on this Christmas Eve, this is my confession of faith.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Conversation with the Autumn Wind

The wind blows. It gusts with such urgency, heaving from deep inside the lungs of the earth to expel all that is left of summer. In its wake the air slowly grows cool and crisp. Leaves turn to gold and red and surrender their hold on the branches of the trees.

Something inside beckoned me away to a quiet place to reflect. I hiked to a small pond, a place of solace and respite. I sat on the soft ground, dead leaves crackling under my weight. I looked out past some trees at the edge of the pond to a log that was protruding through the surface of the water. A turtle had been resting there, soaking in the warmth of the sun. He was no longer there, but a quick glance around the pond revealed his whereabouts. He was swimming. The chiseled, angular shape of his head looked like the tip of a branch floating across the water.

The pond was full of clear, fresh water. It was darkened by the shade of the trees that surrounded it and the layer of dead leaves that had fallen to the bottom. My thoughts turned to the dark that had enveloped me for several days. It sneaked up on me from behind, reaching around to cover my eyes. It refused to speak. I hadn't been able to name it.

Sunlight filtered through the high branches of the trees, yet the water remained dark until gusts of wind rippled its surface. Small waves caught the light and spread it across the dark surface in glittery explosions like fireworks in a summer sky. As the wind died down, the pond darkened and settled again.

I asked the autumn wind to blow through me. I begged it to awaken the dark surface of my grief with ripples of sacred light, explosions of truth and meaning, of joy and hope in all that has come from what is no more. The wind spoke to me and said, "You are a turtle. You wear your fear on your back, retreating, hiding at the first sign that someone sees you, knows you."

I wanted to argue, but I surrendered instead, breathing deep, allowing the truth to reach inside me. "Yes," I said. "I am known in this place. It scares me, yet I long to know and be known more fully."

The air grew still for a moment. I sat with the tension of my awareness. The feeling's familiarity turned fear to dread. Tears began to flow. The wind spoke again. "Fear's call to retreat leads you into the dark waters of your grief. You swim in that darkness, looking up occasionally, checking to see if it is safe. I am the wind blowing through you. I am a fierce autumn wind. I have the power to break loose the hold of that which is dead inside of you, making room for the new to take hold."

"Why do I hold on to the old, dead things? Why does it feel safer than the new things I've worked hard for?"

"You cling because you do not yet trust the new things to be different enough to change you. You cling because you do not yet trust that you are different."

"Then what must I do?"

The autumn wind breathed deep and let her words ride on the gust of her warm breath. "Trust is a leap of faith. You are different. You can trust yourself. You can trust those around you, but you must have faith. Surrender and let me blow through you. I will turn your fear to trust."

I laid back on the soft ground, fists tight and teeth clinched. The warm breeze blew across me, relaxing the tight muscles in my face, my arms, my stomach. I took a deep breath, letting the autumn wind sweep through me. It blew with such strength that I feared losing everything, that it would sweep away even that which is new. I cried out, clinching my fists in anger, demanding that it take only the dead things. The gusts continued and I felt myself relax again. A deep peace and calm held me. I sat up and looked around me. The pond had a new layer of dead leaves skimming across the top like tiny sailboats at the mercy of the wind.

And the turtle was on the log, legs and neck stretched out to soak in the autumn sun.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Learning to farm

I live with a comfortable attentiveness on the farm. The routine of morning and evening chores dissolves the endless deliberation over how to structure the day into a kinetic reflex. Feet hit the floor with purpose before the head is fully engaged. My body knows what to do. There is no question. But it’s not a mindless motion, at least not after the first cup of coffee. The animals see to that. I’ve been caught off guard too many times not to fully show up for chores.

I haven’t always been a farmer. My teachers are not office-dwelling writers of books. Instead I’ve learned from those who by their nature live instinctively in the world around them. That is the art of farming: the awareness of environment, of one’s impact on it, how elements in the surrounding world influence each other. It requires an intense commitment to being present, an awareness of the vast amount of information one’s senses convey in a split second.

One of my earliest teachers was a stray black dog who showed up at the farm a few years before, her body pocked with buckshot and patches of skin burned from the grass fire out of which she emerged, like a phoenix rising. Lisa patiently removed the shot and tended the burns and wounds and Sadie settled into our home.

Sadie moved like an Oklahoma wind rushing through the prairie, a streak of shiny black racing through fields of daisies and tall slender Johnson grass. Her chiseled muscular body was in constant motion. Undisciplined and adolescent, her presence raised anxiety and increased chaos wherever she went. I loved her. I loved the sheer esquiteness of her running, the delightfully shy smile she would offer when I greeted her each day. Her companionship during chores was not a constant guarding presence. She popped in and out as I went through each chore, assuring me that she was always near, even when I didn’t see her.

The day she became my teacher, I was feeding the animals as I always did. Pascal the llama, long-necked guardian of the sheep and goats, stood silently in the middle of the chorus of bleats and baaa’s, goats and sheep scolding me for my tardiness. I opened the gate and pushed a wheel barrow full of alfalfa through. The herd followed, stumbling over each other to reach for mouthfuls of the sweet grass. The gate swung open wider than I needed, opening a gap between it and the wheel barrow. Pascal, uninterested in alfalfa, took advantage and bolted through the opening. He headed for the street.

My throat tightened as my pounding heart expanded into it. I was alone on the farm that day. Of all the scenarios I thought I might encounter, an escaped llama was not one of them. There had been no drill ahead of time, no lessons on llama herding, not even a hint that the llama would do anything but dutifully guard the sheep and goats.

Thoughts of what to do struggled to reveal themselves in the dense fog of anxiety. An icy wind slapped me in the face. Getting the gate closed was the first priority to prevent the goats and sheep from following Pascal. I pushed the wheel barrow with the alfalfa up closer to the barn and dropped it in the swirl of greedy goats and sheep, then ran for the gate. Sadie came flying from the back of the pasture and met me there, passing through just as I swung the gate closed. She raced after Pascal. Her presence increased my anxiety. What would she do? How would Pascal respond to her?

I closed the gate and searched to see where Pascal had gone. He turned out of the gate and headed for the garden area. The fence on the front of the garden was open, a passageway for the truck to get to the back pasture. Pascal headed for the opening, but Sadie caught up to him. I stood frozen, fearful, feet heavy and mind blank. She raced past Pascal and headed for the opening. She stood in front of it waiting for him to come to her. As he drew closer she charged him, forcing him into the fenced part of the garden. Every time he inched back toward the opening, she ran for his feet, herding him back. Defeated, Pascal looked toward the garden and searched out the patches of green grass sprouting up around the edges of the furrowed ground.

I was amazed. How did Sadie know what to do? Her quick instinctive response gave me time to think. I closed two areas of the fence that were open, shutting Pascal into the garden. He was enclosed except for the area where the fence was down, near the front of the garden, close to the street. Sadie who had been guarding the opening, ran off to dig a hole in search of a gopher.

I stood in the middle of the garden watching Pascal graze, wondering what to do. I kept glancing over at the barn, knowing that sweet grain was surely the key to getting him where I needed him to go. He loved the sweet crunchy corn and oats, so much so that we had recently taken it out of his diet to help him slim down his bulging middle. I looked around and saw Sadie some distance from the opening. I had no choice but to trust she would spring into action if Pascal tried to escape.

I ran to the barn, grabbed the bucket and dropped a scoop full of sweet grain in the bottom, then ran back to the garden. Slowing down, I walked toward Pascal, his soft, brown, searching eyes looked up from the ground and caught mine. He was curious. He looked at me, then looked at the bucket. As I edged closer, he stood taller. A knowing gaze took over his face and he started moving purposefully toward the bucket. I let him stick his head in and get a mouthful, then pulled it away and started backing up toward the gate. He followed me, eyes fixed on the bucket, neck and head bobbing for it as he walked. With one hand on the bucket in front of me, I reached for the gate behind me, opened it, and backed through, leading Pascal back in to the barnyard.

I tightened the latch on the gate and backed away, watching Pascal devour his grain. Sadie raced up and sat beside me, her tail sweeping a fan-shaped pattern in the powdery brown dirt. I knelt down, put my arm across her neck and pulled her in close as we both looked out on the herd, safely corralled in the barnyard, quietly eating their breakfast.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

An Open Heart and the Will to Live (Revised)

The following is a piece I wrote a few years ago. I revised it for a project....there was a piece of the story that was really important for me to remember that was missing from the first version, so I've edited it to add that piece of the story.

An Open Heart and the Will to Live

We operate with a simple rule on the farm: If a sick animal shows us she wants to live, we will do everything we can to help her get well. The rule was at the forefront of my mind the day Lily was born. A lamb born to a ewe that was too young to be bred, Lily came into the world without all she needed to survive the first few hours of life on her own.

When she was born, she didn't take the usual first steps within minutes of birth. It is critical that a lamb stand up soon so that she can get the necessary nutrition from her mother. I waited for Lily to stand until it was obvious she was too weak. I carried her to a protected area in our barn and coaxed her mom there with some clean hay. The air was warm with the first hints of spring, but a cool breeze from the north made it clear it would be cold that night.
I prepared a bottle and brought it out to the barn where she lay. The smell of sweet, fresh hay permeated the air. I took a deep breath and reached for Lily, placing her limp, weak body on my lap. I put the nipple to her lips, holding her chin up to give her support while she ate. Her mom watched cautiously from the corner of the barn, a growing look of concern taking over her face. She took a few steps toward us and watched curiously. Then she approached my side and took position next to Lily's back side. She reached forward and licked Lily's back, just as she would do if Lily was nursing from her, an action that helps stimulate a young lamb to suck. Lily started sucking vigorously and within a few short minutes, emptied the bottle. I knew then that she had a strong will to live.
It's hard to describe that moment, to capture all that I was thinking and feeling in those few, short minutes of cooperating with the two of them to help that lamb have her best shot at life. I was new to farming, and was dealing with my first newborn without my partner Lisa's help. I wasn't at all sure I was up to the task, but Lily's mom called me to the task. In that moment, I was ordained, chosen by a ewe to be shepherd to her struggling newborn. It left me breathless, humbled.
I took Lily in the house as night fell and the temperatures dropped. I held her to my chest while I talked to Lisa on the phone. It had been a hard winter at the farm. We had lost some animals and my heart had been broken more than once. Lisa knew immediately what I needed as I described the situation. I had the basics down, all the necessary care to help keep her alive. But I was tentative and scared. Lisa affirmed all that I was doing, but quickly zeroed in on what was lacking. “You have to open your heart to her. She’s going to break it. You have no control over that. It may be tonight. It may be tomorrow. It may be ten years from now, but she will break it, so accept that and let her in.”

I nuzzled Lily against my chest, and let her rest in my arms. I prayed for my heart to open. Tears fell as she nibbled on my chin. I felt a deep connection to her. I struggled with fear that she would die. I knew the odds. If a lamb doesn’t get up on her own in the first few hours of life, she isn’t likely to live. I felt an impending sense of doom, a deep dread fueled by memories of losing animals in a blizzard on Christmas Eve. I wanted her to live but I was afraid to ask for it, afraid to believe that it would happen.

I let her sleep near me. Every few hours, she stirred and I fixed a bottle. For nearly 48 hours, I fed her and stood her up. I talked to her and sang to her. I watched her struggle to get up on her own. Time after time, she’d almost make it, only to collapse with a thud. Until, finally, almost two days after she was born, she got up. Her shaky legs barely able to pull her up, she stood and in seconds began to walk around the room. She walked circles around me while I danced and laughed. I felt the wall that I had so carefully erected around my heart come crashing down. Salvation came to both of us. With an open heart and the will to live, joy returned and lifted us to the sky.

by Rumi

There is no salvation for the soul
But to fall in Love.
It has to creep and crawl
Among the Lovers first.
Only Lovers can escape
From these two worlds.
This was written in creation.
Only from the Heart
Can you reach the sky.
The rose of Glory
Can only be raised in the Heart.