combo
Well, hello there. It feels like it’s been a long time. Starting a blog post after a long absence always feels awkward. What to share? What to leave out? Is an explanation even necessary?

Survival Mode has been the name of my game in the past few months, and it doesn’t leave room for  anything other than what keeps you treading water. I’ve tried to keep breathing though. Inhaling and exhaling, I can do that. I guess you can say it’s been an even mix of life with two small kids, sleep deprivation, cultural adjustment, dealing with sickness, the disappointment of laundry that won’t wash and fold itself. Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.

I’ve been reaching for whatever I can find in the fridge for our meals, waking when the boys get up and stumbling around in my pajamas until 9am. No routine, no meal plan, no celebrations – these are the things that are my downfall every single time. Some people flow with the changes of a day, I don’t. I flow from one to two to three on my schedule, and if there is no plan, I look like a lost, confused person wandering around with no map and likely, I’ve dropped my phone in the toilet, so not able to call for help.

meat

But the fog lifts, as surely as winter gives way to spring and spring gives way to summer (or more spring if you live in Sweden), the fog lifts. It must. It cannot last forever. I’ve moved past survival mode now, and while I’m far from thriving, this place in between is an improvement even though my laundry still refuses to wash and put itself away.

Yesterday it felt like we had our first real summer day as a family. The sun was out, it was hot, the sunscreen came out (our June weather was much like Melbourne, Australia, where it is winter), we played football, climbed on balance beams, I planned ahead and made Sunday dinner. We sat down together as a family, held hands and thanked God for our food.

And it was very, very good.

plate

Oxtail Stew

Adapted from Jamie Oliver

This isn’t a summer meal, but when I saw oxtail – or what I thought was oxtail, I suppose one can never know when you’re working with a language you don’t understand – I had an instant craving for oxtail soup. I ended up making this recipe instead. We ate it with roasted sweet potato mashed with some feta cheese, a green salad and blanched sugar snap peas. The lightness of the sides offset the heavy, wintery taste of the stew. 

This cut of meat isn’t for everyone – it’s not classy, quite fatty and grizzly, but when cooked for so long, something beautiful comes out. 

1 kg oxtail, chopped into 4cm chunks (I bought mine like this, but you may have to ask a butcher to do it for you)
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil
1 medium leek
4 stalks of celery
4 medium carrots
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
4 dried bay leaves
4 cloves
2 heaped tablespoons plain flour
275 ml beer
stock of your liking (I used porcini stock I still have from a trip to Italy last year, and it was diving, but I think beef or vegetable stock would be great as well)

1. Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF. 

2. Take a large roasting tray and put the oxtail inside, cover with salt and pepper and drizzle over with olive oil, make sure each piece is well coated, and put in the oven for 20 minutes. 

3. Chop the leeks, celery and carrots into chunky pieces (it cooks for so long that larger pieces are better – it won’t disintegrate so quickly). Put the veggies with olive oil into a large ovenproof casserole pan over a medium heat, toss the rosemary and bay leaves in there as well and cook for 20 minutes or so until the veggies have a nice colour and smell sweet. 

4. When the oxtail’s time is up, take it out of the oven and reduce the temperature to 170ºC/325ºF.

5. Stir in the cloves and flour to the veggies on the stove, then add the beer. Let it reduce for a bit, add the oxtail and any roasting juices, cover with stock and stir well. Keep it on the stove, make sure the heat is high and let it boil then put it in the oven for around 5 hours or so. I stirred every hour and kept track of the liquid content. I put the lid on around hour 4. 

6. When it’s done and cooled, take the oxtail out and remove the meat from the bones and return into the stew.

My grandmother passed away on Tuesday. She would have been 96 in December. This is an essay I wrote about her when I was living with her and some other family in Sri Lanka in 2009. Growing up all over the world didn’t make for a lot of regular time with our grandmothers, so the few memories I have are extra precious to me today.
Irene Regina Samadanam Anketell was born on 11 December 1918. She is my grandmother, and I am seeing her now for the first time in eight years. I can’t even remember what she looked like then, probably some variation of old.  She is 90-and-a-half now, with a keen mind and a disintegrating though still-functioning body.

My grandmother was the baby of the family, the youngest daughter of nine siblings, born to David and Eunice Anketell of Jaffna, at the tippy tippy top of the Tamil class totempole. Ammamma (what I call her, it is Tamil for grandma) used to tell me when I was younger about the horse-drawn carriages that drove them around the town. Their ancestral home in Uduville, which is still standing after 30 years of war, was made by laborers from India.

Adored by everyone and a real knockout, my grandmother sounds like the belle of the ball character out of a southern American novel. Just today she was telling me (while we looked at the photo below) about how she used to wear her saree Colombo style, to emphasise her small waist and sumptuous figure, and that she heard a guy at her university say she had “luscious curves.” Ammamma went to to university for two years, studying English, Latin, mathematics and logic at the University of Colombo, probably sometime in the 1930s. People I have met around the world during the past years often remark about her charm, wit and vivaciousness. Apparently she had a personality that endeared her to all.

ammamma2

Dolly, Ruby and Irene Anketell, I’m guessing Ammamma was 21 or 22 at the time

But 90 years, being widowed at 56, five children and 11 grandchildren in four countries, and life in general takes its toll.

Today when Ammamma walks, it is a slow shuffle forward, she rocks back and forth like an unsteady reed, each step requiring leverage from the rocking motion of her fragile hips. She is a wisp of a woman now. Her body’s brittle bones look like they could snap at any minute, penetrating her sagging, translucent skin and rupturing the bulging green veins. The curves are gone, robbed by time and a mastectomy.

We were sitting on the couch yesterday and talking; the sofa looked like it would eat her small frame in its folds as she rested her neck against it, face turned upward to look at me.

What was your favourite decade of your life, Ammamma?

What?

Decade…you know, your favourite 10 years, or just years of your life?

She paused.

When grandpa saw me, and, you know…when that all happened. He thought I was so beautiful.

She was referring to how she and my grandfather met, and their famed love story. Louis Richard Jayaratnam Watson was a young doctor who needed a place to stay for a few days, and through a family connection, stayed in the house of Ammamma’s oldest sister, Daisy, and her husband. My grandmother was also there at the time, he took one look at her and fell madly in love. She was around 18 or 19 at the time. He begged her not to return and finish university (for fear that she would get snatched up by someone else) and asked her to wait for him.

She did. She quit university and waited for seven years without seeing him, without hearing from him. They were married in 1942.

He wrote me a song before he left the first time…he didn’t write the song. It was a song at the time.

Somewhere the sun is shining, she warbled faintly, So honey don’t you cry, we’ll find the silver lining, the clouds will soon roll by, each little tear and sorrow only brings you closer to me.

Her voice was without the sound of loss, her eyes shone softly, and for a few moments, she was young, beautiful and adored once more.

crumbling

When Little Boy started asserted his adorable independence in the form of chubby fingers reaching for forbidden plug points, I prided myself on being a yes-based parent. I was going to let him adventure off, explore, test the boundaries, and yes of course the important boundaries would be enforced, of course I would say, No. But most importantly he would know the sound of, Yes. He would know that in our home, Yes is a way of life: Yes, you can explore. Yes, you can be who you are. Yes, you are free. 

But a baby became a toddler and the toddler became a bigger boy who has opinions, insight and a frightening quantity of smarts, and the next thing I know I’m standing next to a car carrying Baby in the car seat while Little Boy’s feet inch closer and closer to the road, with a cheeky look to Mommy thrown over the shoulder.

No, STOP, I scream, and lately those two words leave my mouth more than I would like. Please don’t misunderstand me – all of us need to hear the word “No” and be able to respond (and that goes for adults, not just children), and it is of vital importance to us that our children know they are expected to obey when we give them instructions. But this isn’t the cornerstone of our home, it’s not the thing I am most focused on, it is not most important to me.

Saying no is easy. I give him the boundary, enforce it and move on. As he gets older (and sometimes even now), we have to do some heart exploration. What’s going on here? What’s at the root of the defiance? 

But saying yes to my boys? Infinitely harder.

Every yes opens up a world of possibilities, complications to my schedule, messes where it was once clean, joyful chaos interrupting my order. Saying yes means I have to adjust, open up my world to let them in, go with the flow, abandon plan for spontaneity.

When I say yes, I’m having to shut the door on my control and let go. 

scones pan

Yesterday I could feel the weight of weeks worth of saying no. Little Boy and I both felt heavy like the joy of our time together was gone.

So instead of setting up our time to suit my needs, I did something for him. Would you like to bake with Mommy? I asked, and of course the answer was yes. We found a recipe for scones that didn’t need lots of eggs (were were out) or milk and required only the most basic ingredients. I measured out the flour, sugar and baking powder, he poured it into the large bowl and stirred. I cut the butter in, he and I crumbled it into the flour. He was totally focused on his task, my son is a dedicated, detail-oriented worker, and when he is doing something, that task gets his undivided, exacting attention. This is why saying yes to him is crucial to our relationship – I see him again, get to know in a new way, we go deeper as our fingers press butter and flour together. 

But it’s still hard – I still find myself irritated at a whisk-fulls of flour thrown around the room, still find myself raising my voice, and yes, still hear the word, No, come flying out of my mouth when he loses some control of the bowl and spills flour. Before I can stuff it back in, the word is out – it was unnecessary. Messes are part of baking with a three-year-old. And this is the other reason why I need these times: To see myself again as a parent, to see how I bend, to see that it’s hard for me to let go of my order, my way, my control, and to realize that as much as it may be my desire to say yes to my children, I will have to fight myself to do it. 

Because it is worth it. Creating a space in our home and in my heart where my children are free to explore, learn, and make mistakes is a gift I want to give my children. And letting go of my own control is gift I want to give myself.

scones

scone table

Date, Pistachio & Pumpkin Seed Scones

from ABC’s delicious. Baking cookbook (I can’t find a link online)

These scones, it must be said, were a gift for me as much as it was for him. In the way that sweet, gluten-filled things are good for you. Are they good things? Let’s discuss some other time. I will only say that yesterday’s yes involved letting go of most of my food opinions for myself and for my son. White sugar? YES. White flour? YES. Butter? YES. This was originally a cranberry and pistachio recipe. I had no cranberries, but substituted dates and only a few pistachios, so I added pumpkin seeds. I also realized after I made it that I used 160 grams of butter instead of the required 120. Misreading that led to incredibly…buttery… and light scones. I may or may not have eaten them for lunch. 

2 cups (300g) white flour
1/3 cup (75g) white sugar
1 TBSP baking powder
120g chilled unsalted butter, chopped (or 160 grams if you’re feeling adventurous.. and buttery)
2/3 cup (165 ml) milk, plus extra to brush
1/2 cup (75g) dates (or cranberries, or presumably any dried fruit)
1/2 cup (75g) slivered nuts or seeds (pistachios recommended, but the pumpkin seeds worked beautifully

1. Preheat the oven to 220C. Line a baking tray with baking paper.

2. Mix the flour, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl. Cut the butter into it and crumble it in with your fingertips until it looks like breadcrumbs.

3. Add the milk, dates and nuts and mix to combine.

4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead five-10 times. Pat the dough flat and shape into a 3cm-thick circle.

5. Cut the dough into eight wedges and place the wedges on the baking paper in the try.

6. Lightly brush the scones with milk and bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden.

7. Cool slightly and serve with more butter.

bunting

I made a bunting last week, approximately five years, three months and two days since the trend began on Pinterest, or perhaps it’s been a thing for longer than that. I wouldn’t know – I’ve never been trendy. But I’ve been scrolling throgh Etsy, reading blogs, sitting on the sidelines and watching everyone else’s lives, and I’ve seen your buntings made out of fabric, lace, pom poms, plastic spoons, denim, beer bottles. Wait. Maybe not the bottles, but I’m certain I’ve seen a bunting made out of pretty much anything else.

Watching and waiting, I’ve been doing that for a long time, and as much as I attribute this to my personality, the truth is I’ve been afraid, complacent and lazy. Afraid of what people will think, complacent because I can’t be bothered and lazy because what there is to do requires work.

house

We had a party last weekend, and after it was done, the boys and I lay out on a blanket under the sun, Husband read The Economist, we were quiet, we were giggly, the sun warm, the air cold and as I looked at the chairs strewn around the yard, plastic bags overflowing with trash and empty juice bottles, my heart swelled. This is the life I want: creating joy and celebration-filled spaces for people to connect.

For the past three years, all I could see was what I didn’t have. Community was my greatest need, and everywhere I looked, I couldn’t find it. It’s taken me this long to realize other people can’t create what I am looking for. It wasn’t something someone else was supposed to do for me. It was my work, my joy, the thing that would require fighting fear, complacency and laziness, and it would all be worth it.

Do I have the community I was looking for? No. Hardly. But I could be staring at an empty garden and empty table whining about what I don’t have or I can attempt to build something. I choose to build, and with every brick that goes down, with every piece of dirt unearthed by the shovel of hard work, life buds inside of me, and in the end this is what I know I was created for: New life. Every time. I know the story will be new life, redemption, purpose.

Calling and purpose are big words, and the topics for self-help weekends, life coaches, Oprah, popular Christian conferences, coffee talk, and a therapist’s couch. I’m not even scratching the surface with this blog post, but I wanted to say something to you today in the middle of Lent, this time when I’m thinking about giving.

What are you longing for? 

How could you be that longing for someone today? How could you create and give that longing for yourself, for someone, for a community today? What would it mean to go out and do it? 

For me it meant, drawing coloured triangles on Photoshop, printing them out and stapling it onto a piece of twine. Simplest bunting in the history of the world. Ok, I also had to take a risk, invite people, and do a tiny bit of cooking.

Friend, there are too many days we can wait sitting on the sidelines watching. I’m sure there are lots of good reasons to not try, but why not try anyway? I’m guessing there will be at least one person who will say Thanks because you gave your gift instead of hiding it inside.

What are you waiting for?

confessions graphic FINAL

The more I’m in my zone, the more I love parenting.

My zone is rarely clean, it doesn’t look like a pinterest craft, it’s not matching or clever. My zone is a hint of a plan mixed with some spontaneity against a backdrop of disorder with splashes of creativity and colour and a huge helping of deliciousness and the sounds of guitars, piano and voices. If there’s learning involved, I’m thrilled. If we’re outside, fantastic. If it’s fun, even better. If we’re laughing, consider it the best thing ever.

That’s my zone for now, and living in it brings joy to my soul, life to my days as a mom and if I’m reading the laughter in their eyes, wonder to my sons.

Yesterday it was a late afternoon spent running around in the wet, semi-dark yard. With milk in hand, of course.

shoes

Baby watched from the porch. He is generally content anywhere but ridiculously happy outside.

daniel

Little Boy and I kicked a ball and leaves around.

running

Today we spent the morning in a nearby shopping centre, only to come home to 13 C (55 F) and sun, and when in Sweden in October, we chase the sun. So I told Little Boy were were going to have an outdoor picnic, ran inside, took his IKEA table out (it’s a bit too wet to sit on the grass), grabbed a candle, his little pumpkin and last night’s soup and we picnicked outdoors.

lunch

And we feasted on my chicken meat ball, noodle and swiss chard soup. Not true. I feasted on it. Little Boy ate some of the noodles and a bit of the meat balls. We’ll try again next time, but the soup was seriously delicious.

soup

The table has oily hand print marks and dirt, the candle got blown out, and I still needed to deal with whining about food. Oh and breastfeed a baby while try to eat soup at the same time.

But the wind blew leaves down, and Little Boy gazed at them falling with wonder in his eyes. The sun warmed us up. We had fun. It was a great moment, and now a few hours later, a treasured memory.

This is my zone, and it feels good.

What’s your zone? What’s the space in which you are fully yourself? How can you invite your kids, family, friends and people around you into that space?

This post is Day 24 of 31 Days of blogging in October. I am writing this month about my first season of motherhood, sharing stories and lessons that stayed with me from that time.

(New to this series? Start here and follow the links to each day’s post.)