Saturday, September 29, 2012

Living Imaginatively: Lessons from Little Ones

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
--Emily Dickinson, Poems

"If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in."--Rachel Carson, in The Sense of Wonder.

"Oh, Mama, doesn't that last line just give you a thrill?!" my 7-year-old exclaimed. "Uh . . . oh, yes,  sweetie." Waking from my ruminations, I realized I hadn't heard a word of it. "Now what was that line again?" I asked lamely. As is often the case on our daily after-school walk to the mailbox, my two girls had spent nearly the whole 10-minute trek talking incessantly while I somehow managed to "Mmm hmm," "Wow," and "Really?" in fairly appropriate places without paying any real attention.

Segi's enthusiastic question suddenly made me realize that, though the three of us were walking side-by-side down the same lane, and occasionally even interacting, we were having radically different experiences. There I was, making mental checklists of to-dos, fretting about not-dones, and otherwise obsessing over the trivial details of our everyday lives, while they were formulating and enacting heroic adventures: testing strategies; negotiating complicated relationships; traveling through time and across continents; and waging battles of good vs. evil.

Is it possible that this stark phenomenological contrast could hold a lesson for us chronically ruminating (and these days, texting and web-surfing) parents? Perhaps we should be asking ourselves how often it is that we are together with our children without really being present with them. We might find that it is more often than is good for them--or for us.

Logic will get you from A to Z; 
imagination will get you everywhere.
--Albert Einstein

How would the quality of my own life be affected if I added even a fraction of the imagination and creativity my daughters employ to the ways I think and act? It would certainly be more exciting--and perhaps a little less stressful. After all, I suspect it is hard to get terribly out of sorts about forgetting to pick up bananas at the store if you're busy working out how LaDansa will save the child locked in the burning apartment building.

. . . Who, you may ask, is LaDansa? She is just one of the many characters Segi and Simi have created in their daily "playings" (their own term for the dramas they script and act out). Perhaps meeting her and a few of the other prominent characters will help me clarify what I'm trying to get at here. So here goes:  . . .
  • Gilbert: A bumbling fire chief who blusters about, issuing unreasonable orders and meting out ridiculous penalties to those who don't meet his expectations. Unfortunately, he is also completely inept and--to top it all off-- has a habit of singing off-key every time he takes a shower. (Many of the stories are set at the fire station, and many of the characters are part-time firefighters.) 
  • Chrysanthemum: Gilbert's co-chief and sister, she is everything he is not: competent, fair, and effective. She scolds him on occasion and runs to hide under her desk whenever he starts to sing. 
  • LaDansa: One of the firefighters, LaDansa was born in a barrio in Mexico to her loving but impoverished parents, Wheat and Martha. She is the "Super Woman" of the drama, often performing ├╝ber-human feats while generally maintaining heroic integrity. Her one major weakness is that she despises Elizabeth, who is from Spain, because Spain colonized Mexico.
  • Buttercup: She is LaDansa's little sister and--strangely enough--is from rural East Tennessee. (The family's move from Mexico is a long and complicated story; I'll spare you the details.) She loves to lie down in fields of buttercups and read library books.
  • Cherry: Perhaps the most sinister of all the characters, she thinks she is better than all the other firefighters because she is (she claims) from Scotland. In her affected British accent, she constantly denigrates her colleagues, and sometimes does others outright harm. The only person who escapes her wrath is Charles, on whom she has an incurable crush.
  • Charles:  Born a prince of the esteemed royal family of Peaceland, Tennessee, he enjoyed a privileged childhood. But some years ago, Charles' parents were murdered by an unknown assailant. After the attack, Charles ran off into the woods and took up residence in a hollow log. He prefers communing with animals over socializing with other humans. He does not have a crush on Cherry. Instead, he is in love with her daughter, Aniponi, who is much closer to his own age. In fact, they recently married. His most famous faux pas resulted in the prominent scar he bears on his chest. At first it appeared to everyone to be evidence of his heroic escape from his parents' murderers, but it turns out that he incurred it while in dance class. He had been laughing at Buttercup for slipping and falling, and was bragging, "Of course, I never fall!" At that very moment, he fell right out the window and crashed onto the rocks below--just like, Buttercup noted, "a flat balloon."
  • Aniponi: Cherry's daughter. She's 20 years old, pretty, smart, and very nice. Needless to say, her mother does not approve of her relationship with Charles and, in fact, did not show up for their wedding.
  • Elizabeth: Born Spanish through no fault of her own, is a detective. She is a good detective but recently had a setback when she got attacked and bitten by Chocolate, the firehouse beagle. She is good friends with Caddie.
  • Caddie: One of the newest characters, Caddie is very bright and good-hearted. She is a tomboy from Iceland. She thinks that being a tomboy means being a cross between a boy and a girl, but this doesn't bother her: she embraces her mixed identity.
  • Francia: Not surprisingly, she is from France. She is the chief detective. She likes whiskey a bit too much, but despite her indulgences, is good at her job. She is LaDansa's best friend.
  • Copy and Copy: Two of the youngest firefighters, they are twins, and copy everything each other (and often everyone else) does.
Some of these characters have been around for more than two years now, and other ones have emerged only recently (characters are constantly being created, refined, and on occasion, chucked). The girls also have three different make-believe lands they've conjured up: Sunshine Land (populated by itsy-bitsy people who live much our ancestors did in the 19th century), Flower Land and Peace Land (where Flower Language and Peace Language are spoken, respectively). Then there is Ragamuffin, the sock fairy who lives on Segi's left shoulder and sneaks family members' socks while we sleep. (She only borrows them, Segi insists; she never steals.) And the fairies and unicorns we sometimes glimpse during our hikes through the woods. And, of course, The Jolly Roger Pirates Gang. Composed of characters based largely on livestock we've had here at the farm but have had to get rid of for one reason or another (the 3 Nigerian Dwarf goats, the rooster Captain Haddock, and Ellie Mae, the wayward donkey), this group travels the world carrying out all kinds of naughty tricks on unsuspecting farmers.

Fairy Tales are more than true;
not because they tell us that dragons exist, 
but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
--G.K. Chesterton

When my girls and other young children immerse themselves in make-believe worlds and act out imaginary dramas, they are not just goofing off. They are also mastering importance social and intellectual skills. In the abstract to her article, "The Role of Pretend Play in Children's Cognitive Development," Doris Bergen of Miami University writes,
there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that high-quality pretend play is an important facilitator of perspective taking and later abstract thought, that it may facilitate higher-level cognition, and that there are clear links between pretend play and social and linguistic competence.
Unfortunately, kids these days are engaging less and less in such pursuits. Lengthening school days, then homework afterwards; a wide array of extracurricular activities; and endless opportunities to "plug in" to computers, televisions, cell phones, and other hand-held devices--all this leaves very little time for wandering around dreaming up fanciful adventures.

Our family has come to think that one of the best things about homeschooling is the unstructured time it gives us: time for thinking, time for dreaming, time for working, time for playing, and time for just being together doing nothing much at all. It's in some of those times (like on our walks to the mailbox) when the very best moments of our days often happen. That is, when I'm not too busy "doing" inside my head to actually notice.

Here, then, is yet another opportunity to learn a significant lesson from my children--and, it turns out, from Dr. Seuss, Gloria Steinem, Carl Sagan, and Albert Einstein.

Think left and think right and think low and think high.  
Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!
--Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. 
Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.”
--Gloria Steinem

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, 
but without it we go nowhere."
--Carl Sagan

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
--Albert Einstein

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Capturing the Garden's Fiery Fairies

The beauty of deep red cayenne peppers dangling from the stems of bright green plants would be reason enough to grow these hot little gems of the late summer garden. But that's just the first of the many gifts they offer. When wisely used, they can quickly turn a humdrum meal into an adventurous culinary escapade. When carefully preserved, they provide an easy way to add extra warmth to dishes on chilly winter evenings.

Cayenne peppers (CP) not only add great flavor and "kick" to our food; they can also contribute substantially to our health and well-being.  Here is a list of some of the numerous health benefits associated with cayenne peppers (adapted from the article "17 Health Benefits of Cayenne Pepper"):

1. Anti-Irritant Properties
  • CP  has the ability to ease stomach upset, ulcers, sore throats, spasmodic and irritating coughs, and diarrhea.
2. Anti-Cold and -Flu Agent
  •  CP aids in breaking up and moving congested mucus, thereby accelerating healing.
3. Anti-Fungal Properties
  • CP may effectively prevent the formation of fungal pathogens.
4. Migraine Headache Prevention
  • CP seems to be able to shift the brain's attention and thereby lessen the perception of pain.
5. Anti-Allergen Properties
  • CP may help relieve a variety of allergies.
6. Digestive Aid
  • CP aids in digestion by increasing the flow of enzyme production and gastric juices, thereby aiding the body in metabolizing food. It can also relieve intestinal gas, abdominal cramps, heartburn, and constipation.
7. Anti-Inflammatory Properties
  • These properties make CP helpful in treating arthritis, diabetes, psoriasis and herpes-related nerve damage.
8. Blood Clot/Heart Attack/Stroke Prevention
  • CP helps prevent the formation of blood clots. It also keeps blood pressure levels normalized and rids the body of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. All of these contributions can help reduce the chances of a heart attack or stroke.
9. Joint Pain Reliever
10. Possible Anti-Cancer Agent
  • Several studies have suggested that CP has the potential to prevent certain kinds of cancer.
11. Weight Loss Aid
  • CP is both an appetite suppressor and a metabolic booster.
12. Toothache and Gum Disease Remedy
13. Topical Remedy
  • CP has been used to treat snake bites, rheumatism, inflammation, abrasions, and wounds.

During the past few weeks of harvesting, preserving, and nibbling on them, I have come to think of cayenne peppers as spunky little fairies, sent by the Fairy Queen to add an extra bit of festive vitality to the lives of human creatures. There really is nothing like a little dash of homemade cayenne-pepper sauce to rouse us out of the doldrums of everyday adult living. So why not head out to your local farmer's market, rustle up a few capsaicin-rich sprites, and concoct a zesty batch? Here's a simple recipe I came up with this summer:
Farmer Jennie's Hundred-Pepper Hot Sauce
100 red cayenne peppers
12 cloves of garlic
8 cups white vinegar
2 teaspoons sea salt

* This recipe can easily be halved, quartered, or doubled, depending on how many peppers you have.

Wash and process your canning jars. (You will need eight 8-ounce jars for a batch this size.) Leave them in the canner and let the water simmer while you prepare the sauce. Also immerse the lids and bands in a pot of warm water, and keep it warm on the stove. 

Wash, drain, and gently dry the peppers. Remove their stems. Place the peppers in a stainless steel pot, and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then turn down the heat and let the mixture simmer until the peppers and the garlic are soft, stirring occasionally. Let the mixture cool slightly, then "liquify" it in a blender or a food processor. Run it through a finely meshed metal strainer. Return it to the pot and bring it to a simmer again. Turn off the heat. 

Pour the sauce into the prepared jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headroom. Wipe the sides and rims of the jars. Put on the lids and tighten the bands (just finger-tight). Immerse the jars in the water canner's boiling water and process for 10 minutes. Remove the jars and place them on a towel laid out on the kitchen counter for 24 hours; then check the seal. (If any of the cans are not sealed, refrigerate them or reprocess.)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Intimations of Autumn

It was that certain something, that particular breath in the breeze that I didn’t quite notice at first. Or was it a scent? Or a flash of color in the tree branch by the kitchen window? Somehow the world has whispered in my ear during these first few days of September that autumn is on its way. And I can’t help but be glad.

Why is it that the first signs of autumn—the season that will hearken in the bitter winds of winter—feel so warm and cozy? When I was a little girl, my siblings and I knew fall was on its way when we walked out of evening services at our little church and smelled smoke wafting from my grandparents’ fireplace a block away. The weather might still be warm enough for us to break a sweat during the 3-minute trek to their doorstep, but no matter—we knew autumn was coming. It was a good feeling, a comforting feeling. However much we might have enjoyed the past few weeks of swimming in Cherokee Lake, playing softball, sucking on popsicles, fishing in Wolfe’s pond, or running through the sprinkler in our yard, we celebrated that precursory smoke and the calmer, quieter, cozier adventures it would usher in: hikes in the woods, evening hay rides, pumpkin carving, leaf collecting, cider sipping.

No, I’m not ready to start choosing Halloween costumes or baking pumpkin pies just yet, but my girls and I can’t wait to go apple picking; to hear the local marching bands begin their drills; to visit a nearby county fair; and to celebrate the autumnal equinox (September 22 this year).

So come on in, autumn, and pull up a chair. We’ll share stories from when you’ve visited before, and you’ll help us cook up some new ones that will bring comfort and warmth in years to come.