To sit a little

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Image: the ever-hospitable Rivendell

I wanted to share this little poem, which I wrote a few years back, and which I still like to re-read sometimes, as a reminder to self that it’s alright to just slow down when I feel the need, close my eyes, and cast all my cares upon G-d. I always come away refreshed after such a silent spell, and ready to go on with whatever is challenging me at the time.

It is fine to sit a little,
Not for long, just for a bit.
Close your eyes and think a little,
When confusion overwhelms.
It’s alright to rest a little,
To refresh the soul with prayer –
Pray with words or tears or both,
Just as you are able.
It’s alright – slow down a little,
Not too long, just for a moment.
It’s alright to cry a little,
Rushing to the perfect safety
Of a child that’s near its mother.
You can lie down for a moment,
Close your eyes and think of kindness,
Think of tenderness and friendship
And of love that lasts forever.
Then get up and walk a little,
Look at beauty, think of gladness,
Smile and know that when you need it,
You can always have a refuge.

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Gnocchi with butter, garlic and sage

Gnocchi used to be one of those things I’d never think to make from scratch – because I guessed the process involves some complex, extremely delicate kitchen magic. But then the prices of store-bought gnocchi rose and we stopped buying them. Then, one day, I was reading The Shoemaker’s Wife, and got the most irresistible craving when I came across the description of making gnocchi with butter, garlic and sage. It all sounded so easy – mashed potatoes, flour, an egg, roll out the dough, cook the dumplings. What could possibly go wrong? Dinnertime was about to roll soon, and I just figured out I’d quickly make a batch of gnocchi and surprise my husband.

Well, let me just tell you dinner was very late that night, and I ended up having to scoop up bits of dough with a spoon and dump them into boiling water (which made me understand, for the first time, the origin of the word ‘dumpling’). My husband tactfully said it was delicious as he consumed his plate of amorphous blobs, but I was pretty sure gnocchi was not supposed to assume the consistency of playdough on a hot day.

What could I do but harass Italian friends for their family recipes, scour the web, and keep trying? I came across this tutorial yesterday and gave it another go, and made some definite progress – though I didn’t attain the elegant shapes of the tutorial, at least I was able to roll out the dough and cut it with a pastry knife. I made two changes from the tutorial: used a potato masher, rather than a potato ricer (I’ve never even heard of such a contraption before), and popped the little bits of dough into the freezer on a large tray before cooking them, to better retain the shape. I ended up keeping one batch in the freezer for a quick dinner next week.

The dressing I like to make for gnocchi is simple and delicious: melt equal parts of butter and olive oil in a skillet, add 3-4 mashed garlic cloves, a pinch of salt, and a handful of sage leaves. I am blessed with an abundance of fresh sage from the garden, but you can use dry sage leaves, or omit it altogether if you are not a fan.

Preparing for changes

I’ve started packing in earnest, and filled three big boxes before I called it a day. There’s something both desperate and addictive about packing; when I begin, it seems at first it will never end, but at the same time it’s hard to stop filling up those boxes. An early start, careful packing, and careful labeling are all necessary for effective, pain-free transition from house to house.

Either way, it’s not a project that can be completed in a day, and in the weeks that are left to us here, we will enjoy our remaining time in this place that has been home so long.

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My basil plants are really beginning to look up. I’m practically salivating just looking at them, thinking of all the delicious fresh pesto I’m hopefully going to make.

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The kittens have found a place to relax on this old chair in the yard I’ve been planning to throw away. I find it hilarious how the little black female is making herself comfortable at the expense of her brother.

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It was an unseasonably cool, windy day here, and when I took Hadassah out for an airing, I put on her this little sweater I made when I was expecting Shira to be born. This brings back such memories… me, on long evenings in our first little home, anticipating the birth of our first child, and diligently working on this little outfit for her. The red buttons came from my mom’s button box. I’ve gotten into the habit of saving buttons too, and now have a button box on my own.

With the next babies, I didn’t have that much time anymore, and had to settle for quicker and less elaborate projects, such as hats and blankets. I haven’t had time to crochet much lately, and miss it. I hope to find a simple and satisfying project to pick up soon, so I can work on it in odd spare moments that crop up throughout the day.

Poverty or simplicity?

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These two matters are often a subject of confusion: simple living and poor living. Where do we draw the line?

Generally speaking, I think the difference is that living simply is living well, even when it is done within the scope of the same budget which draws another family into the pit of poverty.

In many ways, it is also a matter of attitude. It is possible to have an income which could provide for normal life – good food, reasonable housing, proper healthcare, etc – and yet be dissatisfied and feel poor, if one thinks oneself entitled to all sorts of fancy things which cannot be afforded on that small income. Or worse, if the modest financial resources are squandered on luxuries which “must” be had, not much is left for the true necessities.

Simple living, on the other hand, is voluntarily and cheerfully going without things you know you don’t really need – either foregoing them completely or taking it as a challenge to make the best of all you can have right now.

For example, if right now your budget prescribes that you go without new clothes, you can either feel “poor” (or buy that which you cannot afford) or you can take it up as a challenge to go through your closets and look for things you have forgotten about, and how they can be combined with what you do have – or look through second-hand shops to look for items in excellent condition, or learn to sew, etc.

Simple living is taking small steps towards sustainability – cooking and making what you can from scratch, growing some of your own food and/or swapping with families who are doing so. Not because you can’t afford to buy it, but because you enjoy the blessings of abundant health, resourcefulness, and an easier burden on your budget.

Simple living is making the best of all the pleasures of life which cost nothing or next to nothing. If you can’t afford costly travel abroad and staying in hotels, you might feel poor and deprived – or you can dig into vigorous, extensive exploration of the area near your home, and it is almost certain you will make fascinating discoveries of wonderful spots you haven’t visited yet.

Simple living is shedding the time-consuming pursuits which stand between us and what is truly important to us.

Poverty is deprivation, while simple living is fullness of beauty in everything that is available to us. No one wants to be poor, but many can and do find true delight in simple living.

Living with irregular electricity supply

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The electricity supply to our area has been fixed not long ago, and as of now we have had some blessed weeks without a single power outage. It still feels like a real luxury now, but I know that very soon, we’ll get used to it – so while the memories are still fresh, here is how we managed to live with unstable and irregular electricity for the past couple of years.

1. Gas heater. We bought a used gas heater, in very good condition, quite cheaply, and used that when the electricity couldn’t be counted on. Many people around here use wood burning stoves, but we aren’t that fond of chopping wood.

2. Candles and oil burners – even when the electricity was on, I’d always light a candle, just in case, in the bathroom before stepping into the shower. I started doing it after the time when I started a shower and then got stuck in the dark when all went black. You don’t want that to happen when you’re bathing the baby, either.

3. Good insulation – it really pays off to insulate your house, both for when it’s cold in the winter and when it’s extremely hot in the summer. Also, good insulation for your fridge helps the food last longer, saves electricity, and prevents spoilage when the electricity is off for a few hours.

4. Invest in UPS units – for your more expensive appliances. We have them for the computer, the washing machine and the fridge. This way, we ensure our appliances don’t get damaged by sudden fluctuations in the power flow.

5. Have plenty of clothes for little ones – Israel was born in January, and you know how many outfits a small baby can get through! First these are diaper blowouts, then it’s mashed bananas all over the place, not to mention all the dust from crawling around the house. Toddlers have a tendency to get good and dirty, too. So you don’t want to get stuck with no clean clothes because you can’t operate your washer for a few days. Of course, you can wash some things by hand in a real emergency, but it’s very time-consuming and you probably won’t want to do that with a new baby. Thankfully, our newest little one is going to be born when it’s nice and warm.

Here are some more suggestions from an old but good thread on this topic:

“Our hot water heater is gas and uses batteries to fire up, so works with no power. Our stovetop is also gas and can be lit with matches and we have a wood burner with an oven compartment. We have a stovetop kettle to use instead of the electric one when necessary and have a number of candles dotted around, mainly ornamental but useful too. And finally, we have some of our appliances plugged into power surge arresters to protect them if there is a spike.”

“I would think it is worth spending your first winter with emergency back up before investing in expensive things like generators and solar panels. You might find that you only lose electricity for a few hours/a day at a time, which is easier to cope with even if it happens regularly. Emergency food/water rations, gas heating & emergency lighting (probably battery/solar powered camping lanterns rather than candles with young kids) will see you through, and it is probably worth having a good stock of disposable nappies (especially if you usually use cloth) for when you can’t do laundry. It is all about deciding what you need to survive for a day or two.”

“I’d echo what has been said by others, and add that investing in one of those counter top double gas rings might be useful for a back up. They run off gas bottles, so at least you are able to cook something. A small gas heater (again with a gas bottle) will throw out a good amount of heat in one room, too – just make sure you keep that room ventilated!”
“We keep a good supply of candles in as well – there are intermittent power cuts here – all the power goes via overhead cables rather than underground, but there are times in bad weather that lines can come down and then we can be without power for up to 48 hours (in the worst cases). You really need to invest in a UPS unit for things like computers – they give you a chance to power down correctly. Fit a surge protector as well. If you get “brownouts” – ie weak supply rather than complete cuts – make sure you turn OFF anything with a motor (like the fridge) as they can be damaged.”

The table of Abraham

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In the Jewish Grace after meals, Birkat ha-Mazon, there are lines specifically intended for the guest to say: and this table shall be as the table of Abraham; all those who hunger shall eat from it, and all those who thirst shall drink from it, and it shall never lack bounty, always and forever. I find in these lines a very beautiful image of hospitality.

Our first dinner guest was sprung up on us quite unexpectedly. The memory stands out vivid in my mind; we were a newlywed couple, married perhaps for a month or so, and it was one of the first Shabbats we spent in our home. We were just returning from the evening service when a stranger came up to us and asked if he may have a dinner with us. We exchanged startled looks, but somehow (if not very eloquently) we must have given our consent, because half an hour later this man was seated by our table. It turned out that he is our neighbour, a middle-aged bachelor with no family living nearby. For as long as we continued to be neighbours, he was often our guest. He used to bake the most wonderful pita bread, and it was initially through trying to emulate him that our passion for bread-baking grew and flourished.

I am a scrupulous kind of person when it comes to receiving guests; I have good intentions of being hospitable and welcoming, and having my doors open to others, but when the rubber hits the road I often get these fretful nervous attacks, thinking that nothing is up to scratch – that the food I prepared isn’t fancy or plentiful enough, my home is not clean or orderly enough, my children not disciplined enough to allow space for adult company to talk.

But all this passes in my mind before the dinner or lunch takes place; once we are in the thick of action, I feel very glad for having done it, as there is nothing like the exchange, fellowship, enrichment of discussion, and generally just the knitting of hearts and communities together, that takes place ’round a dinner table. Leisure time is plentiful, the children play together, and there is that ease and laughter that accompany a good meal in good company.

I am beginning to relax. Around here, an impromptu invitation usually assumes that the guests are bringing some food with them, which turns every shared meal to a spontaneous pot-luck party. I’m telling myself not to fret about the additional side dish I did not have time to make, and think instead that washing dishes after everyone is already bountiful enough. :o)

It never ceases to impress me just how much our society lost by, when people stopped regularly congregating around the dinner table. Food, family, fellowship – the magical trio. Immediate family first of all, of course, but then the circle is expanded; others are included, made to feel welcome. Jokes are shared, discussions spring up, ideas are born. Once people dispersed for time-efficient gobbling up of substandard food from plastic TV-trays, a crucial element of togetherness was abandoned. As a clinical nutritionist I feel qualified to say that at least half of all our modern obesity and other nutrition-related maladies would be solved by the return of the family table. I truly believe there is no better way to make someone feel welcome and accepted, than invite that person to share a meal.

So my advice, to myself and to others, would be – take the plunge. Invite someone over; it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Perhaps you didn’t prepare dessert; perhaps your home has a lived-in look (a couple of kids will give that perpetual air to a house); but your hospitality will be warmly appreciated as you toss on an apron and continue smiling and chatting with your guests while you soap up the dishes in the sink.

Spring delights

I thought I’d post a couple of photos of the nice things we’ve been enjoying lately – plenty of sunshine, green grass for our birds to browse on, and flowers.

As you can see, our baby peafowl have grown quite a bit, but as peafowl generally don’t breed until two years of age (to the best of my knowledge), we don’t expect any egg-laying or breeding this season, though the male is becoming more colorful with each day.

The plant in the bottom right corner is actually a wild herb that sprang up in my garden quite unexpectedly. It smells wonderful, but I have no idea what it is. A guess, anyone?

In the upper right you can see a gorgeous desert view from a day trip we took. It lacks the lush greenery that can be seen in other parts of the country at this season, but I still find it majestically beautiful.