Perspective

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One of my oldest and best friends is visiting my family this week with her daughter. It has only been a few days since their arrival, but it has been terrific to see her. Although her trip was a bit rough, traveling alone with a sick child, I think she is enjoying her visit as much as I am. We don’t see each other much, in fact, the last time was probably over 3 years ago, but as is often the case with your oldest and best friends, you just carry on where you last left off and as if little time has passed at all. Wonderful!!

We’ve shared stories about our children, our daily lives, our beliefs, our mad and totally out-of-control obsession for blueberries, and reminisced about our childhood spent as neighbors. All of these stories have got me thinking about perspective. In a world where social media allows you to “edit” what you share about your life, it can often seem like everyone else has the “perfect” life. My life, though filled with lots of wonderful people, is far from perfect. I am far from perfect. My friendships are far from perfect. The past few days have made it even clearer to me how important it is to have actual in-person contact with your friends and the importance of sharing stories with them. It gives me a sense of perspective. For example, her children are a few years older than mine, so she’s been through a lot of what I’m going through now. Though I know that phases pass and my kids are growing up so quickly, it gives me some comfort to know that my relationship with my children will continue to develop and the things that might be frustrating to me (and them) now will no longer be an issue in just a few short years. I’m certain there will be other frustrations, but we will cross that road when we get to it!

Living in a city with friends that have only known me in my life here is really great, but it is also very nice to share stories from my younger years with someone who was also present during them. It’s really fun to see where her perspective on shared childhood events overlaps with mine and where it differs. I’ve learned how important our friendship was to both of us, but also how most of our memories of playing together (which was probably almost daily) took place outside on my parents’ farm and how this life outdoors influenced both of our beliefs and values as adults. We have looked back as adults at the games we used to play, the time we spent together, our relationships with each other and with our families mostly in delight but sometimes in horror – the mix of a childhood filled with magic, curiosity and imagination, yet also the unfiltered and brutal honesty that children call their own. My choices in life have brought me to where I am now, but I sometimes wonder if I (and my husband) succeed at passing along the magic of the trees and fields of our childhood to our children – these lovely children who are city-dwellers and will most definitely have a different experience and perspective than we did. I try to focus not on the experiences that they don’t have in the city, but on those that they do and have faith that this urban environment will provide them with just as much magic as our rural homes did for us.

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One of the stories my friend and I have shared was about some rock piles and tree formations in one of my father’s fields. This particular field is located directly behind my parents’ house. When I was a kid, my father always had about 20 head of cattle, usually located in one of 3 fields. These fields and the woods behind them were some of our favorite stomping grounds. Literally. We both remember stomping down squares of my dad’s lovely long grass (right before haying season even) in order to create “rooms” for the “houses” we imagined we were building to shelter us from the imagined tornadoes which might come and transport us to Oz. Great fun! Why we didn’t take shelter on the rock pile is a mystery to me now, though I do suspect it has something to do with my fear of snakes and my conviction that they all lived there in that pile. Still, we did play on the pile which was studded with birch trees, swinging around and rearranging rocks to our hearts content. A stone’s throw behind the rock pile was a longer island of trees – as long as a football field, full of trees and bushes and raised so we had to climb up onto it. I can remember taking refuge there on this “island” that we were stranded on, pretending to forage for our survival in the thick greenery and building small dwellings from fallen branches and sticks. My friend remembers the big island exactly as I do, but in the summer before last, my perspective on that island was changed forever.

That summer our family flew “home” to visit my parents. It was a nice treat because my husband’s parents flew from Ireland to join us on the Tug Hill Plateau for part of our stay. Though they don’t see each other often, living on opposite sides of the pond, our parents get along very well. Both of our fathers are farmers and so they spent most of their time together outside in and around the barnyard “hanging out with the cows” (my words, definitely not theirs). Our mothers spent time inside enjoying crafty pursuits, reading and commiserating on the life of a farmer’s wife. One morning, as is common on a farm, some situation of great urgency arose – this time it wasn’t animals in the road who had escaped the fence yet again, no, this time it was a first-time heifer that had calved in the night and the calf was missing. My motherly instincts kicked in and despite being clad in my pajamas, I grabbed my mother’s pink rubber boots which were two sizes too small and stuffed my bare feet into them, running out the door to look for the poor new calf, hoping I would find it alive and kicking and that it hadn’t fallen prey to the local band of coyotes. I volunteered to look through the woods and fields which I considered to be my old stomping grounds and once I climbed over the gate behind my brother’s house, I set off sweeping back and forth through the field, searching in the deep grass for the lost calf. Now, I haven’t lived around cattle in over 20 years and in those 20 years, my father has expanded his herd considerably. I knew that at the opposite end of the field, there were nearly 60 head of cattle roaming around that weren’t familiar with me, that are skittish and spook easily and, most importantly, that included a full-grown Red Angus bull. I realized as I entered the woods that I might have been out of my depth and so I started glancing over my shoulder with great regularity, praying I wouldn’t see a stampede of spooked cattle racing in my direction.

As I picked my way through the woods, I noticed that the trees had matured in the years I’d been gone and that the plethora of undergrowth that used to flourish there, including wild blueberries, had taken their leave, forced out by either lack of sunlight or by hooves that were no longer restricted to the fields as they had been in my youth. The forest seemed to be a smaller than I remembered and I covered the ground quickly in my nervous state. As I proceeded to curve around to the other side of the woods, I came out at the back of the field and the line of my father’s land. I hadn’t found the calf yet, but it dawned on me that, as I continued towards the back corner of the field, the herd of cattle was probably between me and my exit route. I started getting more and more nervous and I discovered that I also needed to avail of the facilities at my earliest convenience. As I paused between the trees at the edge of the field, I strategized about where I would run if a herd came running my way. My mind immediately went to the large tree island. I thought if I climbed up the slope, the running cattle would be deterred and I’d be safe. It was also on my way to the exit. Even better. As I made my way unrushed towards the island, there was still no sign of the herd, but I noticed that the “island” looked much smaller than I remembered, didn’t look very green or lush and that it definitely no longer boasted a slope to deter that imagined stampede. Surprised and a bit disappointed, I continued on towards the rock pile a little bit closer to the house and to my preferred exit. As I climbed onto the rocks to get a better vantage point to survey the situation, I looked up towards the gate next to the barn and the house. I saw my mother-in-law waving frantically that I could return to the house – they must have found the calf. Relief!

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As I picked my way down the rocks to make my way across the field, I looked up and noticed the herd heading leisurely towards that very same gate from the far front corner of the field. I guessed I could probably make it if I walked briskly and started off. I was about a third of the way to the gate and I stopped to re-access whether I could still make it before the herd arrived. My mother-in-law saw me hesitate and look at the herd and she hollered out that they’d found the calf and I could come back. Her shrill shout spooked the herd, which accelerated quickly in the direction I was going. Just as quickly, I turned around and ran back towards the stone pile. I took a brief break to catch my breath and decided that the far back corner was the safest option as it was farthest away from the frenzied herd. I took a deep breath and started walking away from the herd towards the fence line in the back corner, glancing over my shoulder every now and then. About a quarter of the way to the fence line, I realized that the herd, having seen me, had turned – likely out of curiosity, but I wasn’t going to stop and find out. I wasn’t sure if I could still do it, but nevertheless I decided to make a run for it. As a kid, the two-strand electrified fence was easy to squeeze between, but with a larger herd, my dad had updated it to a five-strand fence and a stronger fencer which is not so easy to navigate without getting a major shock. Still, the full jolt of adrenaline had kicked in and I decided to try. My legs and heart were pumping and my feet, cramped into those boots, took me as fast as they could to the small grove of trees at the edge of the fence. Without looking back, I approached the fence running, I swooped down, grabbed a stick from the ground and in what felt like one very fluid movement, I fell to the ground, using the stick push up the fence, and rolled through the poison ivy and brush out to the gravel on the shoulder of the road. Thankfully no vehicles were passing or my panicked actions might have caused an accident. I just laid there for a few minutes in the gravel trying to catch my breath. It took me another few minutes to get back onto my shaking legs. My pajamas now stuck to me as I slowly walked on wobbly knees and pinched feet along the roadside back to my parents’ house where I would finally get to use the facilities and wash off the ivy before a rash started. As I plodded along, I was suddenly struck by the fact that the refuge of my youth was one no longer. A bit saddened by its loss, after a few choked breathes, I took heart in memories of adventures on the high seas, being shipwrecked on that island of trees and learning the importance of imagination, lifelong friendship and perspective.

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The challenge of reconnecting to my story

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When I started this blog, I really believed that I would hit the ground running. I planned to post once or twice a week and cover a range of topics that I inspire me. I would find my inner joy and share it here, hopefully continuing to find inspiration in the act of blogging and maybe even providing some joy and inspiration to others. I quickly realized that whipping out a blog post was definitely not as easy as I had imagined (and hoped) it might be. Having said that, I discovered that I actually do enjoy the process of writing. I wasn’t sure if I would before I started. I sat down one afternoon and compiled a list of topics that could serve as food for thought and I even had the good fortune to inherit a laptop which would allow me to sneak into my studio where I might close my door and focus on writing with fewer interruptions from my youngsters. It seemed like a recipe for success…but after a few posts, I suddenly found that I was doubting myself. I thought my tone might be too academic, my interests might not be shared by others, humorous anecdotes about my family might somehow offend them, my photos might not provide enough visual interest, my efforts might just prove that I cannot really write and that blogging had proved to be a mistake. And so to stop the dark thoughts of doubt and fear, I stopped carving out time to sit down and write…and time passed and that was okay…until it wasn’t.

My memories of childhood are a jumble of playing outdoors with the neighboring kids, 4-H club meetings, playing games with family, and listening. I was always drawn by the conversations of adults around me, often boring to a young kid, but occasionally my patience was rewarded with getting to hear stories that they shared when the kids were elsewhere. Stories of family members, those living and gone, stories of adventures had in their youth, stories of winter storms that threatened prolonged isolation and by extension starvation, stories retold true or otherwise about the demise of those who lived in rougher times and etched out a harder life than the one I knew. I remember finding this all so very fascinating and exciting! A glimpse into another world, like a living book.

Now that I live in the city with my children, I find that I’m not nearly as connected to this tradition of telling stories as I once was. In December, I found myself sitting in a warm and crowded room in front of a fire with a glass of whiskey together my husband’s family. I sipped and listened to his father and uncles recall stories of men they knew in their (younger and) wilder years. After a pause in the storytelling, my father-in-law mentioned that I might share similar tales from my side of the pond. Surely I knew some, but at that moment, I panicked with something not unlike stage fright. How odd. I’d always loved to both listen and tell stories, but now that the opportunity presented itself, I froze. I couldn’t think of any stories to tell. I suddenly felt disconnected – from myself and my traditions. They, of course, took it all in stride and continued weaving their tales until the early hours, none the wiser to my disappointment that I couldn’t weave my own. That moment stuck with me. It made me realize that the art of telling a story is something that is important to me. It made me remember why I started to blog in the first place – to tell my story.

I am quite sure that before I had children, the speed at which my life passed was steadily increasing, but there is something about their presence that makes the days feel long and the months and years feel short. I do know that if I don’t stop and reflect on my life, it flows by like a stream, long days blurring a bit in the flow. Does this happen to you, too? Once an avid reader, at the end of the day, I now seem to lack the ability to concentrate on reading, but as a student of language and literature, I miss the words, the vernacular and the stories. I have been feeling the steady and increasing draw of words – to capture the story of a moment and, in its telling, to pause and to savor the moment, resisting the unrelenting flow of life just a little. I feel a renewed commitment to sharing my story here in the hope that it will resonate with others and connect us because isn’t it this connection that matters most after all?

Behind the scenes: machines

I am happy to be back here again. The household routine has been a bit askew the last while which, despite my best intentions, has kept me from sitting down or even thinking too much about sitting down to write a post. The last month and a half have brought plenty of good things – a birthday (including a surprise party and an evening of food and music which I may eventually write about), a visit from family, a school vacation, a much-needed break for this weary mama, an evening or two (or three) filled with friends, food and wine, a new beginning in a pop-up shop, a child starting pre-school and a (dare I say it) spring breeze whispering of change and possibilities. Putting these things into words, it now dawns on me that there are plenty of good and perfectly valid reasons why I have been away from this space and oft absent from my studio. Though I have missed both spaces, I must confess that I am most grateful for all the events that have been keeping me from them!

Enough about all that! I thought it might be fun to give you a little glimpse behind the scenes. Given that I always find it quite interesting to see how the lovely crafty people on the blogosphere make their creations, I thought I might share a little bit about my sewing machines. I use two different ones, which I daresay are both (vintage) manual machines and have both been given to me. I love both and use them frequently, though I do sometimes catch myself drooling over the fancy digital machines I sometimes see in tutorials.

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The first machine is a Singer 7033, which was very generously given to me by my neighbor’s sweet mother a few years ago. She bought it pre-loved herself and was looking to provide it a new home – lucky me! I can only imagine all the lovely things which have been made with it by its previous owners before it landed in my studio. I have since added a few presser feet to my collection and am extremely happy with this machine, which handles denim like a trooper and, armed with a walking foot, quilts up a storm. Both of these things have supplemented my older machine wonderfully (though admittedly, I use it for all kinds of other sewing, too, much to my delight).

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The other machine I use is a very well-traveled and well-loved Kenmore Convertible Model 1785. This machine has immense sentimental value to me. It was the machine that I learned to sew with. According to the inside cover of the manual, my mother bought it back in Oct or Nov 1981, though I think that can’t be right given the story they tell of the shopping trip. She and my father drove to Sears (about a half an hour drive) on their motorcycle (yes, you read that right) and picked out this sturdy machine as my mother’s first new machine. They bought it and drove with it, my mother holding onto it to balance it on the back rack of the motorcycle, those 30-odd minutes to our house. I feel a special kinship to it because I, too, spent many a weekend afternoon in the summer on the back of that motorcycle while we went out just to drive around.

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Some tape and washi tape which serve as seam guides for some of my projects.

When my grandmother passed, my mother inherited her machine, passing this one to me. At the time, I was already living in Amsterdam, but I was determined to bring the machine back with me. The €12 mini machine I had bought at the Blokker had served me well enough, but I was ready for more serious sewing adventures! The transportation of the machine itself was a challenge as the domestic leg of my flight is flown in a tiny little propeller airplane. A machine this size wouldn’t fit in the overhead (nor did I feel comfortable putting such a large and heavy object up there in all honesty), but it also wouldn’t fit under the seat. It’s not large, so I was allowed to carry it on, but in the end, I needed help from the flight attendant to stow it. I explained to her quickly what it was and that I had inherited it from my mother upon my grandmother’s passing. Either I wasn’t clear (which was possible as I was emotional at the passing of Grandma) or she didn’t hear me properly, but she seemed to think that the machine had belonged to Grandma and jokingly referred to it as such. I appreciated (and needed to hear) her humor and so played along, and in the end, we ended up putting “Grandma” behind the back seat of the plane, tucked away neatly and safely.

A little ring that has been taped on the case since I brought it home. No idea what it's for, but seems like it belongs there now, so I haven't removed it.

A little ring that has been taped on the case since I brought it home. No idea what it’s for, but seems like it belongs there now, so I haven’t removed it.

On occasion, I think back to that trip and how I worried and fretted about how it would work out, bringing a machine overseas, uncertain if customs duties would need to be paid or how I would find an adapter and transformer in order to be able to use it at all, all the while pondering where I’d ever find the space to store it in my tiny Amsterdam flat, and then I smile, thinking of “Grandma” and how I am now – many quilts, skirts, aprons, curtains, shirts and years later – quite certain that she had meant for it to work out all along!

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The little dot of nail polish on the fly wheel is to cover the spot where the metal is flaking off. It took me a while to figure out why I had small cuts on my finger, but once I did, I put a thick dab of nail polish on it to seal the stop and protect my hand!

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“We had fun making the garlands”

In an ideal world, I would spend time every afternoon playing creatively with my kids after school. We would paint, draw, stamp, punch, make collages, have lessons in knitting, sewing and cooking and spend time exploring the woods in the nearby park. Unfortunately, even though an afternoon may start in this way, reality often manages to get in the way of this perfect playtime. Every now and then, however, an afternoon proceeds as hoped and intended and the kids and I manage to spend an enjoyable hour or two making something great as a family. We recently had one of those afternoons and it was glorious.

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Though we have plenty of art supplies in our home, I really like the idea of being resourceful, using what we have on hand. I find it difficult to convince the kids to use the backs of “used” paper for their drawings and art. I guess there is something about a truly blank canvas and I respect their wishes and don’t push the issue. However, when I read about the recently published book The Paper Playhouse by Katrina Rodabaugh, it sounded like it would provide a better approach (you can buy it here, here or here). I pre-ordered it as a Christmas gift for the kids and when it arrived last week, my daughter was so excited that she didn’t want to go to sleep without doing a project right away. While we eventually got her to drift off, head full of creative promise, we couldn’t wait long to get started. Although her first love was the lemonade stand, I convinced her that something more simple might be a better way to start. We picked the first project, the Pretty Paper Garlands.

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Amsterdam has a pretty good recycling program, but it’s always cool to recycle something in a more immediate way…especially one that is pretty! We fished out a few papers from our recycling bin, but mostly we used paper from a pile of magazines I had kept for a project just like this one (though I didn’t know it at the time). Armed with a punch from my studio as well as some kitchen twine and a glue stick, we went to work. The kids enjoyed selecting paper, using the punch (and relearning how to take turns), coloring on the papers with markers and applying glue liberally. The project was simple enough that both kids could participate to their abilities, we all enjoyed the time we spent together and we made a lovely little garland. The trifecta! When I told my daughter that I planned to write something about our afternoon on my blog, she wanted to contribute and did her best to find the letters on the keyboard to type: “We had fun making the garlands!” Great stuff we will definitely be repeating soon!

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Slow making for the holidays and mending

Certainly now more than at any other time of the year, with the bustle of the holidays upon us, we find ourselves in busy straits.  For me, this means some shopping for gifts, but as a maker, it more often means that I over commit myself to many projects I naively think that I will accomplish easily between now and Christmas. Needless to say, this results in late nights and rushed making, which is not my favorite kind. I end up craving some kind of balance (and dark chocolate…in large quantities, but that’s another story altogether). I find balance to a large extent by approaching the holiday projects like I do those in my mending pile.

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A few months ago, after coveting it from afar for too long, I broke down and finally got myself a subscription to Taproot Magazine. First I tried the American Book Center (trying to keep brick and mortar book shops in existence is a worthy cause after all), but unfortunately they didn’t sell it, so online I went and it was sorted. I started with the issue MEND, drawn to it by an article by Katrina Rodabaugh about mending, accompanied by beautiful images of mended jeans. I had started mending my own jeans a few years ago, fueled by necessity and inspired by images I’d seen on Pinterest, and I was hungry for more inspiration.

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My patched knees. I don’t even remember when these jeans became my favorite, but they definitely get special treatment every time another rip appears.

Shortly after, I was lucky enough to be part of an online class “Slow Fashion Style” given by Katrina. The magazine paired with the class were exactly the inspiration I needed, rekindling my slow fire and giving me plenty of creative inspiration and dreams of adopting Slow principles in more aspects of my life. There are all kinds of Slow movements going on out there and I can understand why. It speaks to me (and apparently many others) in a profound way. When I feel like the pace of my life is spiraling out of control, slowing down even a little bit creates more balance and balance is an awesome thing.

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In my mind, the idea of Slow encompasses reflection, observation and connection. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing something at a slow pace (although feel free to do so if you can and want to), but aiming to take the stress (and speed) out of the act of making or doing or going by being mindful, observant and connected. I try to see a glimpse of beauty in all moments, but particularly in those where the opposite seems to apply when I approach them at full speed. A concrete example: yes, we’re late for swimming lessons (again) and I’m biking like mad to the pool with crying kids in the seats on the front and back of my bike, but, hey, doesn’t the wind feel nice on my face and aren’t the leaves on the trees particularly vibrant today? That simple act of observing and being mindful of my surroundings allows my heart rate to slow down and brings me just a bit more balance, which is a good feeling…very good in fact.

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I find that this feeling easily translates to the act of mending, an act which forces me to focus, again being mindful and observant. I think about what I’m working on, where it came from and who made it, what it’s been through, the simple act of repairing a hole, lengthening or shortening a pair of pants, reattaching a button giving me space to think about and appreciate the person I’m mending for. I find connection. Approaching the gift making in the same way brings thoughts of beautiful meals cooked using an apron or oven mitts created by my hands or lovely sweaters, scarves and blankets knit from yarn nestled happily in a bag I’ve crafted for someone I love. In the end, I make what I can and try to accept my limitations. There are alternatives – supporting other makers, for example. Similarly, my mending pile waxes and wanes and I try not to stress about it. As long as my husband and I have a couple pairs of jeans to wear and my children have pants that cover their ankles and some shirts they haven’t popped the buttons off of, there is no stress…only paying attention to the love I put into the simple act with my thread and needle.

Giving thanks, Amsterdam style

After living abroad for nearly two decades, I still continue the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving with a handful of my American friends here in Amsterdam. Like many things, once you leave home, you find your own way of celebrating the holidays, building on the celebration you knew as a kid. Celebrating in a different country with a partner who didn’t grow up with the tradition of Thanksgiving has made it all the more interesting to find my “own way” of giving thanks this week.

Growing up, we always had a frozen turkey that my father’s work gave to their employees as a Thanksgiving “bonus”, I suppose. My mother usually prepared it, getting up early to get it in the oven so it would be done by the early afternoon when we would sit down at the table to eat. Our tradition included turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed corn, soft white rolls, lots and lots of black olives, cranberry sauce from a can (for the form more than anything, I guess, since I can’t remember seeing anyone eat it…ever), pickles, more black olives, pumpkin pie with whipped cream and apple pie à la mode, which according to my father was not complete until accompanied by several slices of extra sharp cheddar cheese. This was my tradition of Thanksgiving dinner even as I went to college, making the trip home from Maine for a long weekend full of family and food.

Once I moved to Amsterdam, a weekend trip home was no longer an option, so I had to adapt. A good friend of mine moved over from the States shortly after I did and we decided that for our first Thanksgiving here, we would cook a big traditional dinner for our partners and a group of their (male) friends. Needless to say, it was a new (and expensive) experience for us to find, buy and cook a fresh turkey and all the traditional trimmings in a city abroad. The friends each brought a bottle of wine, which they graciously drank as we cooked. We managed with much help from several cookbooks, producing a fine meal and we were thoroughly exhausted by the end of the day. It was fun (more so for the fellas who got to drink, eat and be merry) and we enjoyed it, really, and yet we didn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner following that formula again. My friend has since moved back to the States and, over the years, the faces around the table have changed, but the tradition has continued.

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This year, we’ve decided to skip the turkey since we won’t be the only vegetarians to share our table. We have settled instead on a lovely roasted sweet potato dish we recently enjoyed on a rare night out at the nearby Drover’s Dog. After a quick chat with the chef, followed by some discussion at our own table, we’ve managed to replicated it at home, tweaking it here and there to our taste, and we look forward to eating it again. Eighteen years have passed since that first experience cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, and I am fairly certain that my cooking skills and my ability to plan a successful dinner have improved. While it remains a daunting task to get a large number of warm dishes on the table at the same time, we have found a new formula. Many things can be prepared ahead of time…and will be. We share the responsibility for cooking by inviting our friends to bring a dish to pass and we have become more flexible in what we serve. We no longer go to many shops, looking for special (and overpriced) items to make the dishes I had growing up. We now try to eat mostly local and in season, buying much of our food from the local farmer’s market, and try to be more mindful of what the tradition is really about, both for us and for our children we hope: being thankful for life’s bounty, for family, for friends and for the opportunity to share stories and laughter around our dinner table.

Happy Thanksgiving!