It’s Tree Tapping Season! A Quick Guide to Homemade Pure Maple Syrup

On Valentine’s Day 8 years ago, Brian and I had a date at our local nature center to learn all about maple tree tapping from an expert. That may not be everyone’s idea of a fantastic Valentine’s Day, but for us it was magic. Our mutual dream of homesteading helped bring us together–Brian had penned me a love letter with the phrase, “land,home, farm, family, life: you and me doing all of this”– and so it was important time for us as a couple. Every year since, right around Valentine’s Day, we tap our trees, and each time it reinvogrates us as a couple, as a team, and as a family. There’s a mindfulness in the rhythym of the seasons and in the activity of working alonside them, of the reminder each year of where we started, how far we’ve come, and where we still want to go.

Syrup season heralds spring. It’s the first early spring food, a sweet reward for making it through another cold and gray winter, arriving with those first bursts of 50 degree, sunny days, just when the forest feels like it’s coming back to life. Sap flows when it’s freezing at night, forcing the tree to take in more water and nutrients from the ground and then around 45-50 degrees during the day. It needs to be just warm enough to unfreeze those nutrients on the inside of the tree, but not so warm that the tree starts to bud, generally speaking at least 42 degrees. Here in Indiana, as a result, the season lenth varies greatly each year–sometimes giving us a heady month, and others, just a few short days.

Each Valentine’s Day marks the time when I start checking the long-range forecast in earnest and tracking planting outlooks across the Midwest. Some years we’ve tapped as early as Valentine’s Day, others not until March. There are some years we’ve been tempted into tapping in January, but the yield wasn’t high and the season so sporadic we tend to wait.

I love making making maple syrup. The whole process reminds me of when Jesus turned water into wine–it’s miraculous! The sap flows out of the tree, clear at first and then turning yellow to gold to brown as the season comes to end (this is why maple syrup is graded). It doesn’t taste like much, honestly, but sap fresh from the tree is high in nutrients and electrolytes, so you can ingest it like an energy drink.

All it requires is a spile (you can purchase tree tapping spiles sets), a drill, and a hammer. You drill a hole whatever the diameter of the spile is, for us it’s about a half-inch, and then use the hammer to fit the spile into the hole. It’s not complicated, but is important to get a good seal or else your sap will be dropping from the hole and around your spile, not through it. Once your spiles are secured, you hang a food safe bucket off the hook and wait for those first few drops to appear. Sometimes your spiles might have some wood shavings blocking it, so if sap doesn’t appear (and it’s the right temperature for it to be flowing), you might need to unblock the spile to see some sap.

Brian drilling a hole in a sugar maple in the forest
Liam hammering a spile into place
Brian supervising Liam with the spile
Brian supervising Chloe with the spile

In our yard we have two silver maples, which will produce maple syrup, just not as concentrated as the syrup from a sugar maple. In the forest, we are so fortunate that someone a long time ago planted a sugar bush, or a grouping of sugar maples either naturally occuring or deliberately planted, as is the case with this one, and so we could tap as many as 14 trees each spring if we desired. We haven’t ever tapped that many. The average yield per tree in a good season is 30 gallons of sap. We tend to stick to no more than 5 because I struggle to keep up with the boiling on the stovetop, but if we had a sugar shack (an outdoor area for boiling), I think it’d be easier and quicker.

To get syrup, you first strain the collected sap–I use a fine mesh strainer–to filter out any bugs (yes bugs love sap!) and other solid particles. The buckets are outside and sap is nutrient dense for all living things, so you will likely be sharing sap collecting space with a wide variety of creatures. Once strained, boil the clear liquid sap down and down and down some more, being patient and watchful. Towards the end, most of it will have disappeared and you’ll think you’ve done it wrong until you notice your remaining liquid is thickening and browning and tastes sweet and delicious.

A larger surface area will boil down the liquid faster, so I tend to use a restaurant hotel pan over two burners to get the sap reduced to a caramel color, and then pour the nearly finished sap into a regular stock pot to finish off in batches. It can go from “not quite done,” to “oops I made maple sugar!” or even “oops I’ve burnt my maple sugar beyond recognition!” pretty quickly towards the end. So perhaps hours of labor can be wasted in the span of just a few minutes if you’re not careful. Investing in a good thermometer with an alarm is helpful. The sap needs to reach 220 degrees to magically transform into syrup, and once there, it can be strained again through some cheesecloth to remove any fine particles and placed in clean mason jars. There’s no need to pressure or water bath can them. I just fill them, secure the lids, and turn them upside down to cool. The lids will seal and the sugar content is so high (and the liquid already so hot) that the seals are secure and firm and the syrup safe.

Boiling sap in a hotel pan set across two burners
Finished (still very hot!) syrup

In the meantime, your whole house will be filled with an intoxicating scent of tree and earth and sugar and secrets as the sap vaporizes. I wish Yankee Candle made a “boiling sap” scent because it’s hard to describe until you’ve smelled it. To me, it is the scent of re-awakening.

All done tapping our trees!

Dear White Church: A Love Letter to the Forest Behind our Homestead

We bought our home 11 years ago because it was pretty much all we could afford. We were young and had few resources but big dreams. We had lived in my parents’ home for 3 years. Chloe, our daughter, slept in her own room. Liam, our baby son, slept in a co-sleeper he’d long outgrown beside Brian and I, where we slept on an air mattress that deflated each night from too much use.

It was the Great Recession, and we couldn’t believe our luck in finding this home, but closing on it was a long and arduous process. We all were impatient after 3 years, and so Chloe would often ask if we could go visit “Chloe’s House,” in her tiny, sweet 2 1/2 year old voice. It was April and on one particularly warm and sunny day we broke the rules–we snuck into the backyard and sat on the deck, sharing lunch in the sunshine and letting the kids get their bearings.

Other than a cursory glance at our viewing to make sure we’d have room for a garden, we hadn’t actually examined the backyard. We couldn’t afford to be picky, honestly, so whatever was there was what we were going to work with for our homesteading dreams. Yet, there we sat, positively enveloped by trees and birdsong. It was private and quiet. Somehow we’d been blessed with this beautiful plot of land without even trying. Brian and I looked at each other with big grins. The kids danced and twirled to the rhythym of the birds and the rustling of the trees. It remains one of my most treasured memories. We all began planning what this backyard would look like, where the garden would go and whether we’d be able to buy the kids’ a swingset. I could picture them here, running and playing, pulling carrots from the earth, and experiencing the childhood I’d always wanted to give them.

Brian hand-digging our first garden in this home
We asked for donations at their birthday party and were able to buy this second-hand for the exact amount we raised

We moved in on my birthday in May and we all but tossed our boxes and furniture into the house so we could hurry-up and explore the forest. A month had only increased our curiosity. How far back did it go? We set out, exiting the gate at the back of our yard and locating a passable break in the trees. We wound our way first perpendicular and then parallel to our house, curving back and back and back some more until we found a wooden bridge over a creek on a well-worn trail. A trail!! There’s a hiking trail behind our house?!

The kids loved hiking. They would stop a lot, of course, to notice rocks and leaves and nuts and things. They would beg me to put them in my pocket–treasures for later–and so even a short hike could be stretched in time. We circled the trail around and saw a stone bench and then down a little, crossing the creek again on a stepping stone path, then up the other side. The trees parted and just to our right we spied a pond and gasped. A pond!! There’s a pond behind our house?!

The trail forked, with one side hugging the pond and another moving up to an evergreen thicket that smelled like Christmas, the pine needles soft and welcoming beneath our feet. Chloe began throwing rocks into the pond, giggling with delight when they splashed. Liam began finding all the pinecones he could, exuberantly dancing “Maniac-style” when his little fingers clasped the rough shell.

Chloe tossing rocks
Liam’s delight at his pinecone

Working our way up and up a little more, the evergreens parted just enough for an outdoor chapel, reminding me so much of my happy summers at Camp Lutherwald I felt immediately welcomed and peaceful. An outdoor chapel! A place to sit and contemplate and be still. We propped the digital camera on one of the wooden benches and took a quick family photo, commemorating this moment forever.

An impromptu family photo to capture this moment

We noticed the little ranch home on the other side of the pond and questioned whether anyone lived there. Are we trespassing? There weren’t signs posted and the trail is well-worn, as if many feet had made it so. Still, we decided to circle back the way we came rather than to loop closer to the house. As we headed back to our home, in need of so much TLC and repairs, I could not believe what we had just discovered–a hiking trail, a forest, a sanctuary. The next morning, a deer walked right up to our fence line as if in welcome, then retreated back into the forest.

We shared one car in those days because we couldn’t afford another one. I was staying-at-home with the children while they were in preschool, and so without a way to drive anywhere, the forest became a near-daily routine. Little legs would run and jump and splash and climb and explore, and then we would get back home, I’d plop them both in the bath, and they’d spread out their treasures on the bathmat to eye their bounty and whisper secrets to one another.

As they grew, they no longer needed me to take them into the forest. They found neighborhood friends of varying ages to run wild and free with in it. They made forts. And fought pretend battles. And filmed movies. They began referring to it as The Forest of Fond Memories. Yet, after a few years, the trail became less maintained and almost impassable. The outdoor chapel overgrown and then dismantled. The little ranch home demolished. The pond drained. The kids cried and cried.

We knew the church owned the property based on conversations with our neighbors and some digging at our local property asessor’s office. A few of our neighbors attended the church, even. Nobody seemed to indicate who might be in charge of the property and what plans they might have for it.

So, Brian and I quietly intervened. We began maintaining the trails. We began clearing invasive honeysuckle so native woodland plants could flourish. And every year we tended this patch of magical forest, we grew to love it more and more. Hawks would both majestically and menacingly appear to harass our chickens. Coyotes made an occasional stop. One winter, during every snow, a red fox would appear and sneak into our garden for whatever we’d left to compost into the soil.

Chloe and Liam helping clear invasive honeysuckle

The more we tended the forest, the more animals appeared. Forest food, too, began growing in great volume: morels, chanterelles, ramps, wild garlic, and black raspberries. The kids could once again run the trail and even ride a bike on it. It became our routine to have a family walk a few times a week. The cats would even join us some of the time.

The kids began naming sections of the trail and drawing maps to make it a “real park” — so that other people would use the trail. There’s mushroom alley, where dappled light on the bank leading down the wetlands grows bright chanterelles and other non edible fungi, overlook bridge, the levee that sits above the wetlands below, pine tree row, chipmunk lane, where all the nut trees shelter a healthy population of squirrels and chipmunks, and solitude corner, where the path curves and low-lying trees make for a feeling of seclusion before you wind your own to the wooden bridge over the creek.

Brian and I began going on morning walks with our coffee, so early the owls were still hooting and the mist was still settled in the wetlands where the pond once stood–so quiet we could come upon a deer without startling it away. We would venture off the trail sometimes, finding new nooks and crannies of this small patch of wonder.

And it was on these walks we began to dream. Does the church intend to use this land? They don’t seem to maintain it consistently. What if it’s more land than they can keep up with? Would they ever sell it to us? We probably can’t afford it. What about a piece of it? We’d keep the trail. We love the trail. We’d put the cabin in the clearing near where the ranch home once stood–where there’s sugar maples and evergreens–and we could walk this trail and tend this forest forever.

It feels foolish. Property values in our area are so high those dreams really do feel like distant dreams. But this morning, even though it was sleeting outside, I clutched my mug of coffee, walked to the sliding glass door to peer outside, and counted the birds, as is my habit: cardinals, blue jays, a wide variety of sparrows, and the juncos that I read migrate here every winter from somewhere else because I don’t see them in the summer. I’m sure there’s more. I hear more. There’s dozens of them flitting around the trees, swooping to pick at the remainders of the perennial garden I deliberately left in place for wildlife, and they’re calling in spring even while it’s snowing. I opened the sliding glass door, heedless of the cold, stepped outside onto the patio and took a deep breath. This is why we love it here. This is why we’ve been here so long, in our tiny house with one bathroom and no space. What if. . . . . What if we didn’t have to give it up?

Dear White Church: we are not members–we are members of a different local church–but we love your forest, your sledding hill, and your outdoor church services in the summer. We maintain the trail and delight when other people use it. We want to preserve it, to build a modest cabin and grow more food. We want to keep it magical. We want to keep tending it the way we have the past decade. We don’t have as much money as other people might. We aren’t real estate investors and don’t own any stock. We’re just a small family with big dreams and big ideas who aren’t afraid of hard work. Would you sell some of this to us for a price we can pay? Love, the Hulls.

Finding the Home in Homestead

Oh hi there. *sheepish wave*. So, yes, it’s been 9 months since I last updated the blog. In my defense, I got the kids through their homeschool year in the middle of a global pandemic, dealt with the uncertainty of (yet another) year as contingent faculty (“will I have a job or won’t I?”) while also maintaining my role as (very underpaid) breadwinner since Brian’s new job imploded suddenly in March of 2021. It was. . . not a good time for me. It was so overwhelming I didn’t realize how stressed I was until September 2021, when (1) the kids returned to public school, (2) I started another academic year as a fully employed faculty member (though this is the last year they can hire me in a visiting line), and (3) Brian found purpose and meaning at a new job. Without the added pressure, I lost 10 pounds of stress weight with little effort and began to feel like I could once again make plans for more than a day or two at a time.

And those plans are really what this post is about. We bought our current home almost 11 years ago on my 29th birthday. We couldn’t afford much, what with it being a recession and us having been happily surprised with two young children as Brian and I were both struggling to finish our undergraduate degrees. I had been told I was probably infertile, and then came Chloe, much to our delight. But, it meant not accepting the study abroad at Pont-Aven France for Brian. It meant me not following along. It meant leaving our downtown townhouse with little space and a high price tag to move in with my parents in a northern suburb. It meant me taking a break from school so Brian and I could play “trade the baby,” with me working evenings as a chef while Brian finished his degree during the day. By the time we saved enough to buy a home, Liam was crawling, and Chloe was a toddler. We celebrated Liam’s first birthday and Chloe’s third a few months after moving in. Dear reader, I will be 40 in May.

We weren’t supposed to be here this long. Our home was and remains a blessing. It was the least expensive home in a nice, quiet neighborhood with no HOA in the nicest small town in the Indy metro area. It sits on almost a half-acre and backs-up to a real forest, complete with a hiking loop and requisite animals. Our children grew-up outside, running free for acres with friends, inventing games, finding and making forts, sledding on the enormous hill, and riding bikes safely down the court and then cutting through the grass to the nice paved parking lot of the church that owns the forest.

We put in a garden before we even celebrated the kids’ birthdays that first year, and over the years, as we’ve documented here, we’ve expanded. We added space to the main garden, added chickens, added a perennial and herb garden, added more chickens, the perennial and herb garden got destroyed by the chickens, decided that was too many chickens (oh but I do love them), and added a raised bed garden and new perennial border. We’ve foraged for morel and chanterelle mushrooms and wild garlic and blackberries in the forest. We’ve harvested walnuts and maple syrup from our trees. And, most importantly to this post, we’ve taken our 1,300 square foot house from a vacant foreclosure with animal nests in every corner and in need of serious repairs to a lovely and safe family home.

And that is the crux of it. For a decade there hasn’t been a month where we haven’t been engaged in some home project, whether small or large. We’ve fixed the water heater, replaced the entire HVAC system, the water softener, added a humidifier, fixed the septic system, replaced the roof, replaced all the windows and the sliding door, added a back paver patio and the raised bed gardens, completely reconfigured the floor plan of the main living areas of the house by taking down a wall, putting in a support beam, and cutting a new hallway. We completely redid the kitchen from top to bottom, including plumbing, moved plumbing in the bathroom and redid that, and added a new laundry/mudroom at the back of the house. We’ve replaced electrical and lighting, added a fireplace, custom built-ins Brian made in the entryway, and landscaped the front. Every step of the way, this house has fought back. It’s from 1964, so it’s not really unexpected, but it means that every project has been three times as hard as it should be and taken four times as long. Our kids are 13 and 11 for a few more months. It’s time to be done fixing this house.

Kids helping put on the backsplash to the kitchen (FINALLY!) now versus helping paint 7 years ago
The kitchen down to the studs and Brian replumbing the bathroom
The kids have grown as the gardens have over the years

We had actually found a property 3 years ago. It sat on 3 acres in our town. Then Brian suddenly lost his reliable job, and I’m still sore about it because he was on a grief journey after tragically losing his father and I feel like his employer wasn’t very gracious about it. His grief meant he needed time to heal, to make different choices and plans. And thus me and my tiny contingent university faculty salary became our main source of income. There would be no moving for us.

8 months after losing his job, Brian felt inspired and called to start a makerspace. He began networking with local businesses and investigating loans. He found space where he could start small and use existing equipment, reducing his start-up costs. And then he became severely ill with what we now believe was undiagnosed early COVID. It was Christmas Day. He could barely sit upright. He was gray and could hardly breath. I took him to the ER and they diagnosed him with severe pneumonia. In a few short months after, as the news became clearer, it was only then we realized he had had direct contact with a businessman who had traveled to China just before he’d gotten sick. We remembered because he had been excited to hear about his trip and had told me all about it. He lost 15 pounds. We had a soft-opening celebration. And then the world shut down two weeks later. The makerspace held on for two more months, and then we shut it down, too.

Riding out a pandemic in this house has added to my stress. Not only did things continue to need to be fixed and finished, but I have no workspace. Even now, I’m working from home more than I did pre-pandemic and I sit at our dining room table in the middle of our hard-won open-concept main living area. Our kids’ mental health continues to be a priority, and so some days they are home, other days they have E-learning days, and, due to their balanced calendar (that I’m thankful for because it’s so good for their mental health) they get lots of breaks. But, I’m rarely alone in this open-concept space to do work.

Brian has set-up his workshop in the garage. Our one-car garage. So, not only can we not park a car, we can barely store anything out there, and he can barely work on large projects. The kids have outgrown their rooms and the available living area. There’s no place they can tuck away with a group of rowdy friends without disturbing me when I’m trying to work. And, c’mon, but we have one bathroom for four people. Yes it’s a nice bathroom. We worked so hard on it. But after potty-training two kids in it and not having any space for my grown-up get-ready stuff, I think it’s time Brian and I had our own space. Sanctuary! I’m so tired of cleaning pee off the seat!

And the gardens. While I will always treasure the time spent happily toiling in them over the years and all that they’ve brought us, we put in the main garden with little knowledge and experience. We would make different choices now on location and orientation. Put simply, our beloved forest–source of anxiety relief, foraged food, and childhood adventures–makes gardening in our main garden so much harder than it needs to be. We battle the light and the weeds from all the trees dropping walnuts and pods and acorns.

Don’t get me wrong–our homestead we’ve built here is miraculous. I truly do feel like this home was a blessing from God. And we have treasured it and cared for it and loved it. It has sheltered us through some pretty hard times and kept us safe, and warm, and happy. We’ve been happy here. This home is utterly perfect for a young family. But it’s a starter home. And we’re not starting out anymore; it’s time for us to start a new chapter.

But, that’s proving challenging. We just so happen to have put down roots in a town with some of the highest property values in the state. That’s awesome for us for selling this home, not so much on trying to find land–more land than we have now–to build our dream homestead. We have building plans for a cabin. Of course we’d select a cabin! Brian is project managing at his new job, which, combined with a decade of engineering experience and the fact that he also has built a house before (and fully renovated this one) means we’re going to be doing a lot of the work ourselves. The plan is to sell our current home, upgrade Campy (oooh thank you for so many good memories Campy!) to a travel trailer, live in the trailer on our land while we build the cabin.

My strength remains planning. I’ve got a multi-tabbed spreadsheet going with building costs sequenced out at four different price points, different scenarios all based on different sale prices of our current home. I’ve got estimated monthly budgets at different price points to make sure we’re not over-stretching ourselves. It’s glorious. Spreadsheets spark so much joy.

All we’re missing is land. An acre in our town is around $100,000. Which, yes, is pretty ridiculous. So long goal of 5 acre homestead and hello the small 1 acre homestead. We’ve always made a point about encouraging everyone to use their land–however much that may be–to the best of its potential, even if it’s only a quarter of an acre. But, Brian is salty about it–he wants at least 2 with 1 acre forested so we can harvest a few mature trees to mill our own lumber for the build–and I get it. I so get it. We have done the small homestead thing for a decade. It’s been amazing, but we know we’ve always wanted more land.

But, I also can’t make things cost less than they do here. We’ve barely recovered from 2 years of Brian not having steady work, so our budget isn’t sky-high, and there’s pretty much nothing shy of 8 acres on the market right now (for $450,000–there’s a bulk discount, apparently, but that is still more than our max budget for land and house). Still, we’re determined and, I mean, I’m biased, but I do think we’re excellent problem-solvers. We’ve got 7 different solutions to our current problem and one of them is bound to work.

So, here I am. I’m updating you all so you can be a part of this journey with us. In the meantime, the light has changed in the past week–our little part of the Earth is tilting back towards the sun. Spring is coming. It’s going to be awesome.

One-Pot Mediterranean Chicken & Rice (with pistachio-parsley pesto, za’atar roasted tomatoes, and homemade pita)

Monday it reached 90 degrees with 70% humidity in Central Indiana. It was oppressively hot. Yet, thanks to late snow and frost followed by heavy spring rain, we also had not yet planted-out the Main Garden for the summer. With several consecutive days of high heat and a forecast calling for more rain in a few days, I knew that Monday was the best possible day to get our vegetable starts out of the greenhouse and into the ground. So, I bent in the muggy heat, sweat dripping off me, and successfully planted-out tomatoes, summer squashes, and herbs, then sowed carrots, corn, and green beans. It was breathless work, but it was worth it.

After that, I really didn’t feel like cooking. Earlier in the day I had thawed some chicken and stuck it in a marinade roughly resembling a Greek flavor profile. I made pita bread, thinking maybe chicken gyros. But then, by the time dinner rolled around, the prep for gyros seemed insurmountable to me, despite having the hardet parts complete.

So, what’s a girl to do, but pull-out her trusty Dutch Oven, favored purveyor of all one-pot dishes. I had some pistachio-parsley pesto waiting to be usesd in the fridge. Some leftover slow-roasted za’atar and red wine vinegar tomatoes that had gone on bruschetta. And lots of leafy baby greens threatening to expire if I did not use them in a timely manner. Combined with my already marinated chicken and some basmati rice, suddenly I had a plan that would deliver a delicious meal in under 30 minutes and with only a few minutes of upfront prep. Win! It was tasty and filling and with warmed pita on the side, felt decadent without it being overly heavy or rich.

Mediterranean Chicken & Rice
Yield: 8-10 servings (enough for a crowd!)

olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 chicken breasts, diced and marinated (recipe below)
2 T The Spice House Greek seasoning blend (or your own mixture of your favorite Mediterranean herbs)
1 1/2 C basmati rice
2 1/2 C water
sea salt and pepper to taste
1 C baby kale (or a mixture of other baby greens you have on hand)
1/2 t crushed red pepper (or more to taste)
1/2 C pistachio parsley pesto (recipe below)
1 C roasted za’atar tomatoes (recipe below)
1/2 C crumbled feta cheese
1/2 C fresh grated parmesan cheese (or more to taste)

In a Dutch Oven, or your favorite large, lidded pan, heat a few turns of the pan of olive oil over medium-high heat. Remove chicken from the marinade and add to the hot oil. Saute until nearly cooked-through, about 3 minutes, then add the onions. Cook another 3 minutes, or until onions are soft, then add the minced garlic, crushed red pepper, and greek seasoning blend (or your own mixture of Mediterranean herbs–seriously, you can’t mess this up) and cook 1 minute. Add the rice and stir it into the mixture, tossing it around to toast it in the flavors in the bottom of the pot for 1-2 minutes. Season with sea salt and pepper and add the water. Place the lid on, turn the heat down to low, and let the rice simmer for 12 minutes, about halfway.

Halfway through, remove the lid and add everything else: the greens, the pistachio parsley pesto, the tomatoes, and the cheeses. Stir it all in well, then replace the lid and cook another 10-12 minutes, stirring twice so the bottom of the pan doesn’t burn with the cheese, until rice is done. Serve with warm pita.

Greek-style Marinade for Chicken:
1/4 C red wine vinegar
1/4 C lemon juice
1/4 C olive oil
2 t ground oregano
1 t smoked paprika

Mix everything together. Place chicken pieces into marinade in a lidded container and let set several hours or overnight.

Za’atar Roasted Tomatoes:
2 pints grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
2 T olive oil
2 T red wine vinegar
1 T za’atar
4 cloves garlic, minced

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Halve the tomatoes and place them on a baking sheet. Drizzle with the olive oil and red wine vinegar. Add the za’atar and garlic and then toss loosely together. Arrange them (mostly–don’t spend forever carefully placing tiny tomatoes) cut-side up on a baking sheet. Slow roast tomatoes for 1- 1 1/2 hours.

Note: These are excellent to make when you have tomatoes about to go bad. They freeze beautifully and are a wonderful addition to all kinds of dishes. For more of an Italian flavor, substitute your favorite Italian herbs for the za’atar.

Pistachio-Parsley Pesto:
1/2 C italian flat-leaf parsley
1 C baby spinach (or your favorite baby green)
1/4 C basil
2-3 cloves garlic
1/2 t crushed red pepper (or more to taste)
1/3 C roasted pistachios
1/4 C olive oil
sea salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor, add everything but the olive oil. Process together until all herbs have been finely chopped. Add the olive oil and process for less than a minute, until smooth.

Note: This also freezes beautifully. Herbs in olive oil frozen in ice cube trays are one of my favorite easy ways to preserve summer’s bounty and can add such lovely bright flavor to dishes with minimal effort (place ice cub into pot–ta da!). The combinations here are endless. Mix-up the herbs and the nuts. Have fun with it.

Homemade Pita:
Yield: 6-8 pitas

1 1/4 C warm water to 110-115 degrees
1 T yeast
1 t sea salt
3 – 3 1/2 C AP flour

Heat water to 110-115 degrees and add the yeast. Let it stand for a few minutes. Transfer to a stand mixer (or bowl, if kneading by hand), and add sea salt and half the flour. Use a rubber spatula to work the flour in, and then add the rest of the flour, up to the third cup. Work it in with the rubber spatula again (or turn the mixer on to low with the paddle attachment, but I don’t like dirtying two attachments, so I just use the spatula). Using the dough hook, or your trusty hands, knead the dough for 5 minutes in the mixer 8-10 minutes by hand, working in the remaining 1/2 C of flour as necessary to form a dough that is slightly sticky but smooth, elastic, and very workable.

Divide dough into 6-8 even pieces. Flour a board and roll the pieces into balls. Using the flat palm of your hand, press firmly down in the center of each ball to form a disc, and then use your fingers to work the dough out to a rough 6 inch or so circle. Let each circle rest in a little flour on the board and after you’ve completed your final circle, cover them all with a tea towel and let rise for at least 1 hour, until circles are noticeably plumper and thicker.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grab a pita gently and turn it over so that the rising side is on the bottom, touching the sheet pan. Repeat with two more pitas, or as many as you can comfortably fit onto a sheet pan and still have room to maneuver a spatula to turn them over. Bake pitas for about 7 minutes, then flip them over to the other side and bake another 3. Remove from the oven and serve.

Note: For extra pita-love, and if you have a clean oven, you can place the finished pitas directly on the bottom of your oven for 1-2 minutes so they develop a crust. It’s delicious.

Welcome Back: Late Spring Homestead Updates

It has been quite a long time since I have felt up to writing a blog. Working a full-time, demanding job in academia, homeschooling both my kids, doing as much homesteading as possible, and living through a devastating global pandemic while also in the midst of all of the historical socio-political and cultural touchstone moments of 2020-2021 has been as tiring as it sounds. I’m certain you all can relate. ❤ 🙂

While I have been tired–I think the term being thrown around most these days is “burnt-out”–that doesn’t mean I haven’t been content and even joyful at times. In truth, it’s a Sunday morning at 6:30am right now. The rest of the Hull’s are asleep still, having stayed-up late sitting around a campfire at the edge of the forest.

I’m on the back patio, tucked next to the raised bed garden, sipping my coffee, listening to the diverse and eloquent range of birds surrounding me and watching my two cats roll and stretch in delight. I’m looking at all the weeds I need to pull, the few new flowers I treated myself to for the perennial garden, and wondering where in the world I’m going to fit the additional herbs I have sitting in a flat on the ground.

Today will be a busy, but good day in the gardens. We’ve been systematically planting-out seedlings from the greenhouse in the raised bed garden. We’re a few weeks later this year due to some late snows and frosts, but we have a bed of cilantro, italian parsley, and Asian greens, another bed of head lettuce, broccolini and basil, and then more basil and what will be four tomato plants (different varieties), in addition to the Mediterranean herb bed (which is why I can’t stick the other herbs there–different soil needs). I’m still trying to sneak in beets, radishes, kale, spinach, and more where there’s room, and a variety of potatoes are happily buried in their soft-sided potato barrels. The tea garden has three kinds of mint, bergamot, echinacea, and lavender, among all the other herbs like sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, catnip, tarragon, and marjoram. Borage, sage blossoms, chives, and lavender blossoms are all cutely tied and hanging upside down on a wire in my kitchen, drying. We inoculated some silver maple logs with shiitake mushroom plugs and set them beside the raised bed garden.

The more heat-loving seedlings that go in the main garden, things like tomatoes, peppers, squashes, and beans we have left safely tucked away in the greenhouse, but I think we’ll plant them out today. It’s been lovely outside.

The forest is coming alive, first with the wildflowers: hyacinth, anemones, and trout lillies followed closely by some of the first wild foragings: wild garlic, dandelions, wild violets, bitter lettuces, stinging nettles, and then, yes, morels. This year we found a reliable patch and were able to return three times for picking. I made a simple cream sauce to accompany a splurge-dinner of steak, which we ate around a fire rather than inside.

Last year we labored over building more infrastructure: the greenhouse, the raised bed/perennial garden, and expanding the main garden, and this year it’s been amazing to take advantage of it. We’ve been in this home and on this land for 10 years as of a few weeks ago (we signed closing documents on my birthday and it was the best gift I’ve ever gotten). We immediately dug a garden where the main garden now sits, though much smaller, and we have been lovingly fighting with it tending it ever since, battling weeds and shifting shade from the forest that surrounds it. We’ve made it work, though, little by little. Each year we add more infrastructure, more planning, more deliberation as we gain knowledge and experience growing things. There is a consistency to having put our fingers in the same patch of earth year after year for 10 years, watching it develop, nurturing it with compost and green goodies; and in return, it gives us delicious and nutritious food.

This year we added infrastructure inside our home. Brian built-us a grow station after he watched me drool all over the page of a particularly aesthetic premade one in one of my favorite gardening magazines. It was $800. We were never going to spend that on a grow station. A few hundred dollars in an eye-pleasing a durable sheet wood and some grow lights, plus a weekend of hard work, and we have a safe, warm, and light-filled place to start all of our seeds for the summer garden. But, even more so, a place that I can grow greens indoors year-round, right in the kitchen. Right now I can open a can of preserved fruit, or grab a frozen pepper from my freezer, always breaking the seal and smelling. It smells like sunshine and summer. But I can’t grow fresh food in the winter right now. I’m so excited to be able to simply reach over and harvest a handful of greens in the dead of winter, one step closer to growing more of our food year-round.

Both cats think we put a warm-earth bed in our home just for them. Doors to the cabinet are forthcoming. 😂

Most people understand homesteading as a self-sufficiency movement. As with a lot of families during the pandemic, we have been watching more television than we used to. Burn-out and TV is easy. Lately, we’ve been avidly watching “Homestead Rescue” with the Raney family from Alaska on Discovery +. Marty Raney, the father, reminds us of Brian with his intensity but big heart. We laugh together at some of their shared behaviors and imagine that Brian will be even more like him when he’s older. We also just really like seeing all the homesteading, in all its variances across the country. In each episode, though, the goal is that buzzword: self-sufficiency. It’s not a bad buzzword at all, but I think like so many other commonly used words in our vocabulary, it gets imbued with ideals and attached to people, places, behaviors, and activities, becoming a narrative about what homesteading is and isn’t, and by proxy, then, who’s doing it, and who’s an impostor or hypocrite. It creates hard lines rather than allowing for bridges in between, which, I think, is why so many homesteaders need rescuing in the first place: it’s all or nothing.

We can’t be self-sustainable on this plot in the ways that the homesteaders on “Homestead Rescue” are attempting, so how can we call ourselves homesteaders? We don’t have acres. We have barely a half-acre. We do have resources in abundance around us, but the forest isn’t ours technically speaking. My professional home-field is rhetoric and composition, and more specifically cultural rhetorics (and writing center studies, but that’s not relevant to this paragraph). I read and think and write a lot about the rhetoric of community and about how community makes and shapes culture. Brian is a Maker. Makerspaces are also community spaces, where people gather to make and do together, strengthening one another. And before either of us were involved in those fields professionally, our vision for our homestead was always more “community garden,” than the romantic notion of an isolated homesteader, tucked away from society and civilization.

We are actively trying to reshape homesteading to be about doing as much as you can with what you have, wherever you have it. Use your resources wisely. Maximize what you can do. Constantly seek to grow and learn. And, mostly importantly, build and sustain a community around you so that whatever you don’t have in resources or can’t grow in food, you can connect with someone who does. All of us together can support one another and feed one another, making one another stronger, sharing the load, the bounty, and the lessons. They do this often in “Homestead Rescue,” whenever they seek a helping hand from a neighbor and even point-out the importance of knowing your neighbors while homesteading. There’s strength in numbers, strength in more collective knowledge, and strength in sharing together.

We do as much as we can here, where we are, which is all we could afford 10 years ago. Heck, it’s still all we can afford after the financial upheaval in our family the past few years. It isn’t all we want. We dream of acres and forests and running rivers, of places to build cabins for extended families, of an acre of food, of a sugar bush, and more livestock. of solar panels and hydroelectricity, of passive heating, beehives, and root cellars. We look at land all the time. Maybe one day we’ll be able to buy some. But for right now, we’ve found some stability, a small measure of sustainability, and each year, more and more community, and we’re clinging onto it.

We’re still learning at this homestead. We’re still growing. Each year we embark on new projects with different lessons and pieces of wisdom. We still have a little room to grow. And now that the kids’ schoool year is coming to a close, and vaccines are on the rise, and we all stretch and yawn and wake-up after what feels like a prolonged hibernation, I am–once again–excited to share it with you all.

A late April snow blanketed already leafed trees and plants, and buried daffodils and tulips.

Sick Food: Chicken Noodle Soup 3 Ways

I’ve been sick. No, it isn’t COVID-19, thank goodness. It’s just a sinus infection run amok thanks to a confluence of genetics, weather, and environment. I’m dizzy–sometimes intolerably so–prone to migraines from the pressure, and super tired. You know. The usual. It isn’t life-threatening in a time when that distinction feels incredibly potent, so I ignored it for the first week and kept working my normal schedule, and then admitted it by the second week, just in enough time for me to feel likely even worse than I would have if I’d just rested during the first week. It’s been three weeks and two rounds of antibiotics (I just started the second round yesterday) and I’m finally starting to feel measurably better, though a quick trip downtown to campus yesterday landed me on the couch wathing old seasons of “The Amazing Race” for 5 hours recovering until I finally let myself go to bed.

During this period, especially those first two weeks, very little sounded good that wasn’t a carb. Except, of course, chicken noodle soup, that magic elixir of healing and comfort. But eating the same soup over and over can get quite boring, even with the most delicious of soup recipes. So, naturally, we made three different chicken noodle soups. I say “we” because for the first round of soup, I was so sick that Brian had to make it using my recipe. He is not an adept cook, so this was extra special and he did marvelously.

It worked its magic, though, and after a few days of eating that I was able to cook again, making round two and then a week later round three. Each of these soups are classics in our home that all help when you need a big warm hug in a bowl. The first is the most classic American-style chicken noodle soup. The second is actually a Vietnamese-style pho/ramen mash-up. It’s a mash-up because I rarely have the rice noodles that pho requires on hand, especially in sickness “emergency” and so tend to use ramen-style noodles more often. It is originally inspired by this recipe from Nom Nom Paleo. My kids have simply called it “The Good Ramen” since the first time I served it and it’s one of their favorite dinners. The third was inspired by the second, using a lot of the same process but adjusting the flavor-profile to be Latin-American inspired.

Magic Healing Chicken Noodle Soup
Yield: about 4 quarts

2 chicken breasts (unless you made homemade stock and have the whole chicken)
5 carrots, diced
3 stalks celery, diced including the hearts and stems
1 large sweet onion, diced
1 pound medium width egg noodles (homemade, frozen, or dried)
about 3 quarts homemade chicken stock (or boxed/made from “better than bouillon” soup base)
the juice of 1 very large lemon, about 2 T
2 to 4 T honey (to taste – more helps your throat)
1 T plus 1 t herbes de provence
1 t plus 1/4 t dried lavender flowers
sea salt and pepper

Optional Homemade Chicken Stock:
1 whole chicken, uncooked, legs and wings chopped
½ head of garlic, unpeeled and just smashed
5 celery stocks, roughly chopped
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
2 large carrots, roughly chopped
3 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
5 sprigs fresh parsley
5 sprigs fresh thyme
½ lemon
5 whole peppercorns
1 T sea salt
about 3 quarts of cold water (enough to cover everything completely in the pot)

For the stock: Place the chicken in a large pot with a lid and add everything else.  Pour water in, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer.  Simmer about 4 hours, skimming the fat off the top periodically.  Place a small-holed colander over a large pot or storage container and strain the stock into it, reserving the chicken. The chicken will be so cooked it will shred off the bone and the skin. You can use this meat however you’d like. You can freeze stock in portions.

Note: You can use simply a chicken carcass (no meat left on it) to make stock, and in fact, this is really excellent to just get in the habit of doing. If you’re just using a carcass and not the whole chicken, I recommend using 2 for this quantity to get a flavorful stock.

For the soup: Place chicken stock in stockpot and bring to a boil.  Add whole chicken breasts and poach until done and soft, about 20 minutes.  Remove to a cutting board and dice, then add back to stock.  Cut-up remaining vegetables and add to stock, then season with everything else (but the noodles).  Boil for 10 minutes then add the noodles and cook until done – about 10 more minutes.  Add a little more lemon juice and the 1/4 t lavender just before serving for fragrance.

Note: Feeling naueseous? You can add up to 1 t of fresh ginger to this.

“The Good Ramen” aka Instant Pot Chicken Ramen
Yield: about 2 1/2 quarts

For the broth
1 heaping T whole coriander seeds
5 whole cloves
3 inch section of fresh ginger, peeled, chopped into a few sections, and bruised
1 whole sweet onion, roughly cut into smaller chunks
1/2 jalapeno, seeded and cut into a few smaller pieces
3 T tamari reduced sodium soy sauce
3 T fresh or bottled lime juice
1 fuji apple, peeled and diced
1 large bunch of fresh cilantro, stems separated from leaves and stems cut into pieces
1 whole 4-5 pound chicken
1 T sea salt
8 C cool water

For serving-
extra soy sauce (to taste)
extra fresh or bottled lime juice (to taste)
2 T honey
1/2 t siracha or more to taste
extra chopped jalapeno
the chopped cilantro leaves removed from the stems from earlier
chopped green onion
the chicken from the broth, chopped
Ramen-style or Rice noodles, thin

For the broth: In an Instant Pot, heat on “saute” and warm the whole coriander and cloves for 1-2 minutes, until very fragrant. Add the ginger and onion and cook another 1-2 minutes, stirring, until even more fragrant. Immediately add 4 cups of cool, fresh water to stop the cooking. Add the jalapeno, lime juice, soy sauce, and sea salt. Add the chicken, and then the chopped cilantro stems and apple. Add the remaining water just up to the “Max Fill” line (this will depend on the size of your chicken, so it may not be 8 cups exactly). Using “manual pressure” cook chicken for 14-16 minutes (14 for a 4 pound and 16 for a 5 pound). Release the pressure and then strain the broth into a large stockpot using a fine mesh strainer. Remove the chicken to a cutting board.

For serving: The broth should not be in a large stockpot on the stovetop. We just need to bring it up to a hot temperature again enough to cook the noodles. I always add a little extra soy sauce and lime juice to the broth (probably 2 T each) and then let everyone add more to their taste (we all are citrus lovers and will ALWAYS add more fresh lime over the top). I also add honey and a squirt of siracha to the broth. Now, it’s time to “add” the noodles.

For the noodles, we tend to have on-hand most the packages of instant ramen. These work! Just discard the seasoning packet and use the noodles. Presto. You can use boxes of plain ramen noodles. You can use rice noodles. To cook the noodles, I’ve done this several ways, recognizing that traditionally the noodles would not be added to the entirety of the broth so that they don’t overcook. What I wouldn’t give for some actual ramen bowls with the lids (maybe one day?). I’ve taken the extra care to heat about half the broth in a separate stock pot, added the noodles (not boiling!) and put a lid on for a few minutes until the noodles are done. I’ve added noodles to a large bowl and poured hot broth over and put a make-shift lid over (this did not work the best). And I’ve simply gone “to heck with it” and added the noodles directly to the large stockpot, knowing we’ll likely eat most of this, anyway, because that’s how good it is. 🙂 Choose your path.

Once you’ve got finished noodles swimming in happy broth, top with the cooked, diced-up chicken, green onions, extra jalapeno, extra cilantro, extra lime juice, soy sauce, and siracha (if you’re Brian and I). Or, simply chicken, green onions, and lime juice if you’re our kids. YUMMY DELICIOUS.

Ah! I was so sick I forgot to photograph it. 🙂 Photo forthcoming!

Latin-Inspired “Chicken Ramen”
Yield: about 2 1/2 quarts

For the broth
1 t whole cumin seeds
1/2 inch cinnamon stick
1 T chili powder
1/4 t ground oregano
a few turns of the pan of olive oil
1 sweet onion
4 cloves garlic
1 carrot
1 large bunch of cilantro, stems cut from leaves and stems only for now
1/4 C fresh or bottled lime juice
1/4 C honey
1 1/2 T sea salt
1/2 jalapeno, seeded and cut into a few pieces
1 whole 4-5 pound chicken
8 cups cool, fresh water

For serving
extra honey
extra lime juice
siracha, to taste
sliced avocado
chopped cilantro
chopped green onion
thawed frozen corn
extra jalapeno
the chicken from the broth, chopped
ramen-style or even thin pasta noodles

For the broth: Using the same process from “The Good Ramen,” add the spices to a dry Instant Pot and toast using the “saute” function for 1-2 minutes. Add some olive oil to make a paste and then add the onion for 1-2 minutes and then the garlic for another 1 minute. Add 4 cups (half) the water to stop the cooking. Add all the other ingredients and then cook on “manual pressure” for 14-16 minutes, as stated above. Release the pressure carefully and then strain the broth into a large stockpot using a fine mesh strainer, reserving the chicken to a cutting board.

For serving: Using the same process from “The Good Ramen,” add a little extra lime juice and honey to the broth. Add a squirt of siracha to taste. Use the same methods as described above to choose your noodle cooking path, recongizing that if you use regular pasta noodles, your best option will be to add them to the stockpot and let them simmer 6-8 minutes. Once you have finished noodles and tasty, tasty broth, let each person top their soup to their choosing. For Brian and I this means all the fixin’s of avocado, corn, jalapeno, ciliantro, green onion, chicken, and even more lime juice. For the kids it’s usually just chicken, maybe some corn, green onion, and lime juice.

Let’s Talk About Self-Care and “Doing it All”

Yes, We Know Self-Care is Important (an Introduction):
A few years ago, just after I graduated with my MA, I was was asked to participate in a panel discussion for incoming graduate students. One of the students posed a question to the panel about self-care, and balancing work and life in grad school, and everyone turned to look at me because everyone knew this was in my wheelhouse. My scholarship is situated in the realm of emotions, embodiments, and community relations, so the notion of wellness is folded in to my scholarly pursuits. Indeed, I had spent a lot of time in grad school focusing on care, whether for self or one another. And as an alumni turned faculty member, my perspective should have provided insight and encouragement. In short, I should have nailed the answer. Instead, I completely fumbled. Like, not just a little. I catastrophically fumbled. I actually said something to the effect of, “I had so much to do that the idea that I was also supposed to stop doing all the things to take care of myself became a source of guilt, perpetuating a severe anxiety loop that seemed inescapable.”

I work full-time in higher education. My job, like most jobs in education, is not constrained to 9-5 Monday-Friday. There’s more work to do than time to do it in, and a lot of my work is relationship dependent, and so ebbs, flows, gets messy and complicated, and doesn’t always align with my calendar or to-do list.

I also homeschool both kids right now. That job, like any homeschooling caregiver would tell you, is also full-time. There’s planning and prep work. There’s content delivery and assessment. It also is relationship dependent, and so, just like my “real” full-time job, gets messy and complicated and doesn’t always align with my calendar and to-do list.

I also try to homestead, or at least as much as we can do right now. Homesteading is a value-system and a lifestyle, which means that if I’m not doing it all, I tend to feel like an impostor at best and a hypocrite at worst. Homesteading for me means we try to make a lot of our own things from scratch, whether that’s food or home improvement projects, using the skills we already have but also stretching ourselves to constantly grow and learn new things. It also means we try to build a community around us, which is, in part, the motivation for this blog. This means a lot of attention to gardening, to animals, to cooking seasonally and from whole ingredients, and reducing waste–trying to make-do and improvise and constantly, consistently striving for more knowledge and more skill–alongside blogging, vlogging, Instagram-ing and networking.

I am also a mother. And a wife. These relational entanglements are fragile–they require care and attention and hard work to maintain and build and grow.

And I am also a person. Just me. I am also fragile. I require care and attention and hard work to maintain and build and grow.

I am, thanks to the amazing women who paved this path with blood and strength, able to have these options; to have the choice, and a path to having it all. But, our society has yet to let go of its cultural norms and systemic patriarchy, and so here I am, more often than not doing it all.

We exist in a system informed by gender and lived experiences that means that yes, even now in 2021, we women still do the lion’s share of the household and family management. There are exceptions to this, of course, but they are still exceptions; they are in opposition to what is considered normal. Men get congratulated on a daily basis for doing what women have been expected to do alone for centuries. We have a second-gentleman for the first time in Washington who is, thankfully, quick to point this out.

The idea that we women are in charge of our own self-care and that this is the secret to doing it all is sexist to the core. If we’re doing it all, even taking care of ourselves, there is simply mathematically not enough time in a lifetime to get it all done, and so it feels shameful. We blame ourselves. We feel guilt over working too much. We feel like failures. And so the loop repeats.

I know I’m not alone. I also know that women are not alone in this, though that is my experience and what I am speaking to in this post. There are people all over the world who experience all manner of mental and emotional health crises and slumps. Not all of them can point to self-care as an intervention. Nor is access to self-care something that is equitable in our culture, not just because of sexism, but because of racism, classism, colonialism, capitalism, and prejudice. I don’t pretend to have all the right answers, nor am I recommending all of my journey would intervene in your life in the same ways. I am, however, sharing my self-care thoughts and journey here, plus a little of the wisdom of trial and error I’ve picked-up along the way, in hope that it supports, encourages, commiserates, and maybe even comforts some of you.

My 2020 Pandemic Self-Care Journey:
Ever since this pandemic first impacted my life directly in early March of 2020, when I began working from home full-time, I have been reflecting more and more on self-care because I knew it would be more important now than ever. It’s something I had already been trying to do more of, anyway, but hadn’t always done successfully, as illustrated in the brief anecdote I shared in the introduction. You see, self-care is something we talk a lot about, but for women, especially women who are doing it all, we don’t often talk about the things that get in the way and how that feels in our bodies. I get emails from university chancellor’s recommending I take advantage of this program or that, or that I take time for myself, but the working conditions of my job plus the expectations of my family life make that untenable.

All of the self-care I had been undertaking helped stem the hurricane, sure. I no longer suffered from major panic and anxiety attacks as I had throughout grad school. I considered this a huge win and a sign that what I was doing was working. But it wasn’t enough. By Fall of 2020 I was burnt-out. I had what I described best as leadership fatigue. I was in charge of everything. I was leading because that’s what everyone needed from me and what my position in higher education demanded; it’s what my family needed–each person in the middle of their own mental health crisis and journeys. I carefully managed my emotions, my behaviors, and my time in order to manage the emotions and wellbeing of those in my care–those I lead. But it was lonely and the responsibility overwhelming. I had so many decisions to make every day and each one of them impacted bodies and relationships in long-term, potentially devastating ways.

Last Spring, at the outset of this work-from-home pandemic journey, I focused my self-care on the garden. This was something I had dearly missed in grad school because, I was right, I simply did not have the time. Every spare moment, including every single vacation we took during that time period, involved me reading and writing for my thesis. I wrote on trains, in cars, on planes, in deserts, on lakes, over oceans, and in moutnains. I had felt for a long time like a part of me was missing–the homesteading part. It felt wonderful to dig-in, get dirty, and grow so much lovely food. But then summer ended, and our greenhouse we knew would not be warm enough without more infrastructure. And so we put everything to bed, letting it rest.

In Fall I wanted to focus on my physical well-being. I had gained weight in grad school (no surprise given the stress and the long hours sitting at a computer) and had not had the opportunity to meaningfully exercise enough to get it off. Surely, working from home with a forest in my back yard, I could fit this in. But then I didn’t. And when I didn’t, I felt guilty; like I lacked discipline and focus. I am weak. I am the source of all of my anxiety. Because I am in charge of my self-care.

I regrouped. The advice is always to lower your expectations, make smaller, more attainable goals: “OK, maybe I don’t need to lose all my grad school weight in the middle of a global pandemic. Let’s just focus on wellness.” I tried to reinvigorate my once-daily yoga practice–15 minutes in the morning. I began listening to audiobooks while doing chores or cooking dinner. I let myself splurge on fluffy books with next to no content instead of weighty literature. I bought Bath and Body Works out of an aromatherapy scent I adored and that made me feel content whenever I smelled it. I diffused a similar scent at the dining table where I work all day. I focused on taking 10 minute walks–just 10 minutes–as an act of forest bathing where I would use my senses to ground myself rather than thinking of it as exercise. I started talking with students about self-care, comparing what we all were doing. I went to weekly and sometimes bi-weekly therapy appointments.

And still, by Christmas I was completely burnt-out.

And so I took deliberate and careful time over Winter Break to reflect. (side note: I resisted saying “winter break” because faculty do not get breaks. “Breaks” are when we do all the work we don’t have time for). But, sure, I had a lot of planning and prep to do for Spring, but without the daily management of teaching, I did have more time. Besides, planning and prep when done effectively can be a form of self-care. And that’s how I framed it for myself: If I put the time in now, then all Spring semester, I just have to follow along. No more daily decisions. Just stick to the plan.

I thought about where I felt the most stressed, when I felt the most stressed, and what I could control or how I could interevene to help. I journaled about it. Talked to myself about it. Talked to God about it. And came-up with a one word answer: agency.

All of my teaching and mentorship in higher education focuses on fostering this within the students in my care. Now, I knew I needed my family to be able to enact agency. Agency means that intrinsic motivation, responsibility, and effort coalesce happily towards a goal or deliverable. It means that people feel confident to make decisions and choices for themselves and connected to the relationships in their life enough to make meaningful and reciprocal interventions. In other words, agency would help create loving boundaries for me, as a leader, and for my kids, as growing learners.

This would relieve the leadership burden I felt. It would even power dynamics in my relationships. It would release some of the time committment of my responsibilities. It would create time I could use for myself without me feeling like I was taking it from somewhere else. And, it would also benefit everyone in my family. I developed a multi-level plan in the areas that I knew would have the greatest impact, and have added them to the pile of self-care strategies I just discussed. Here’s what it looks like:

Kelin’s Agency Intervention Self-Care Strategy 1: Relationship
With a life partner, it helps when you both are pulling the same wheelbarrow, so to speak. Brian and I had been pulling two separate wheelbarrows for years, each of us trying to grow and do and become independently and in different directions towards different end-goals. We knew we desperately needed to work together, but we communicate so differently it was hard to understand how to do this. I also knew I needed a way to share the responsibility for self-care for both of us as partners, and the strict divison of labor we were doing wasn’t cutting it.

So for Christmas, I made Brian a relationship box.

I used a recipe box and notecards. Using the dividing tabs that came with the box, I sectioned-off the 5 love languages (physical touch, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and gifts) and 3 levels of dates (free or inexpensive, moderate, and splurge). On the notecards I wrote actions that could be taken to satisfy each love language and ideas for dates at each level. For example:

  • physical touch = hold hands while watching television
  • acts of service = take on something for me today to support self-care time
  • quality time = cook a meal together
  • words of affirmation = write an encouraging note for something accomplished that wsa hard
  • gifts = pick a gift from the list (yes, we each wrote ideas of things we wanted)

When we’re feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, and even ignored or unloved, it’s likely that our “relationship bucket” is empty, so we can go to the relationship box, pull out the card that moves us in that moment, and simply display it in the lid, where the card would be displayed if it were a recipe, for the other to find. No questions asked.

The funny thing is, since introducing the box, neither of us has had to pull-out a card to display. The idea that these are the relationship interventions we have in our “tool box,” makes us more attentive to doing them each day. As you might have guessed, this is agency–each of us acting on our own accord for a shared goal that also creates in us beneficial emotions that has the lovely side-effect of helping us in our daily lives. It both creates more time for self-care and creates a shared responsibility for self-care beyond the individual.

Kelin’s Agency Intervention Self-Care Strategy 2: Parenting
At 10 1/2 and 12 1/2, my kids are ready for some major agency intervention. I explained how I changed our approach to homeschooling in my previous post, which is designed to increase their level of control and responsibility (and intrinsic motivation) in their learning. It also has dramatically decreased the amount of time each day I have to spend in direct management of their learning.

In addition, though, we also implemented the Hull Family Weekly Meeting. Every Sunday after virtual church we gather in our main living room. The meeting has a standing agenda, printed in the Notes on our family shared calendar.

In their journals for school, at the beginning of each week, both kids have to plan their breakfasts and lunches. I have a printed list of all the breakfast and lunch options available from things we always have on hand. It’s up to them to make the plan, communicate it to me, and negotiate if I will be providing any of the cooking for those meals. Most of the time, I’m not. Some of the time I am, but it’s usually something I prep on the weekend, like corndog muffins, chicken nuggets, or breakfast burritos. It also gives me an opportunity to make transparent the work of the food: one kid wants the special yogurt that I can only get on Thursdays from Market Wagon on a Tuesday. Not possible. Make a different choice. Or, no, I can’t make chicken nuggets this weekend because I either don’t have time or we’re out of chicken. If you wanted chicken nuggets, you should have put in a request before I did the shopping. Make a different choice.

Meals negotiated, we move on to self-assessing their chore completion. I printed-off a list of every chore I needed them to do each week in order to maintain what I call our home’s “ecosystem.” I stress that it is an ecosystem because if one person doesn’t do a chore when they say they’re going to do it, the whole system tends to fall apart. I gave them each the choice of chores, day of week, and time of day. Choice is critical to encouraging agency. Underneath each assignment is an area to check it off. At the meeting, they go through and count their checks then record their score of how many completed out of how many possible checks. We negotiate whether anything needs to change and talk a lot about learning and growing. Nobody will be perfect, but we should see a positive progression over time. I stress which chores are most important to the ecosystem. And if there is, for example, a regression instead of a positive progression, they have to journal about why this happened–what got in the way–so we can discuss strategies. Sometimes they get to suggest a consequence.

Next we compare our schedules. The kids grab their syllabusses with the semester schedule, which helps them preview and prepare for Monday morning. Brian and I pull-out our work calendars. We have an honest dialogue about what we can expect from one another this week based on how busy we all are. This helps the kids understand themselves in relation to us, which is also crucial for agency. At this point in time, we also make at least one plan for a family quality time activity–watching a movie, playing a board game, or going on a hike are all favorite picks.

Lastly, we have a feelings check-in. Liam found a heart-shaped rock when we were last in South Haven on the beach, so we take turns holding the rock and discussing how we’re feeling. This models a lot for the kids when Brian and I take our turns, and also helps them learn to express and advocate for themselves difficult feelings that might arise. It helps them feel valued and respected as people, and we don’t discourage them voicing complicated and difficult emotions that might have arisen during the meeting. It also helps us all know who might need extra support and care this week.

This meeting has been crucial to me releasing some of the leadership burden I was feeling because it consistently reinforces everyone’s ability to participate and intervene in the family.

Kelin’s Agency Intervention Self-Care Strategy 3: The Work Calendar
This strategy is less about agency than it is about restructuring the daily management I found so stressful to making decisions. I think the Dave Ramsay saying about telling your money where to go is the same for your time. I decided to tell my time where to go, very deliberately and with a lot of careful thought, until the end of the semester, when I know I’ll have fewer constraints. I have told myself when I need to shower if I am to fit-in my new routine of 15-20 minutes of pilates each morning. I have told myself when I am prepping for class, attending to the administrivia of the writing center, when I am eating lunch, reading, writing, attending therapy, and squeezing in a 20 minute workout in the middle of the day. I have scheduled recurring meetings with students I know will need my support and with co-workers I know I will need to communicate with. I simply have operated my calendar as one would a Dave Ramsay budget: on a near-zero balance.

I have left a few precious hours here and there each week for those necessary meetings and other incidental interactions that need to happen, but for the most part, from now until my birthday in May, I know what I need to do each and every day to get it all done. (And, consequently, what I have to say No to in the meantime).

I always thought this would stress me out because I could see how behind I would be getting. It has rather had the opposite effect, though. I can more easily make critical decisions about my time based on the balance I’ve already tabulated. I can prioritize, adjust, and adapt quicker and with less emotional effort than ever before. So I missed a workout today–it doesn’t mean I lack discipline, it means something more important needed my care and attention in that moment. I have 3 workouts scheduled in the week. My goal is to hit 2 of them.

Concluding Thoughts:
We’re three weeks in. I’ve managed pilates every work morning. I’ve snuck in workouts. I feel not only happier but more energized, more able to participate and do and be in my daily grind than I have in a long time. I feel like I’m operating at my best right now, which is not something I think has happened in two years.

Brian sees us as a system of relations with effects and affects that circulate and cause patterns. We are bodies in relation to one another, not islands or buckets, responsible for ourselves. We are better partners to one another.

I am a better mother to my growing kids. I no longer have to manage everyone’s time all day every day, and that alone has been a huge weight off my shoulders. They know what they need to do. They know when to do it. And they are in charge of self-assessing whether or not it got done.

And I am better to myself. When self-care doesn’t happen, it is either a choice I made for self-care (“I don’t want to do pilates this morning; I’d rather read a book and sip my coffee”) or a choice I made that is still for me (“if I have this meeting today instead of next week, it means that week won’t feel as bogged down”). It is not a lack of discipline. A failing. Self-care is no longer solely my responsibility. It is shared between all of us. In designing systems for agency, I no longer have to do it all.

For more thoughts on a feminist approach to self-care, read this excellent article from CoFEM.

Homeschooling 2.0: Spring Semester Changes

Happy Saturday morning, lovely readers! It’s been a whirwind couple of months here at the Homestead, so I need to start providing some updates on our goings-on because it’ll be Spring before we know it. In fact, I just ordered seeds a few days ago!

But before we get into that, I’d like to talk about education. As you know, I work in higher education as a professor of English and in writing center administration. My job is demanding but high-impact and values-driven. I love it. You also know that Chloe and Liam both experienced a lot of anxiety last Fall early in the semester as they attempted virtual learning through our public school system. After talking with them both, we embarked on our first-ever homeschooling journey.

Once we got going with homeschool last semester, I felt a little off-kilter about it, but seeing as how we were kind of thrown into it, I think we did an admirable job. Most importantly, it accomplished what it needed to: it reduced anxiety for all of us and helped both kids exercise more balance in their days.

But, it took a lot of time management and direction from me each day, which is not only hard to do while working a full-time job from home, but I know is not good for the development of my kids as advancing learners. I also felt like the emphasis was consistently on the content rather than understanding the activity of learning the content. In education, this would often be referred to as the bucket approach–the idea that learners just need to be filled with the right things to become educated.

As a liberal arts professional, I strongly disagree–education is about learning to think critically and communicate that thinking out to an audience. We are fond of reminding everyone that the more you learn the less you think you know, the opposite effect of the bucket approach. Moreover, truly effective education helps a learner position themselves as a life-long learner–someone who understands how and why they learn, which necessarily involves metacognition and fostering an environment that encourages learner agency, a word that means a learner is responsible for themselves and exercising intrinsic motivation.

So, over Winter Break, while planning my spring courses and doing administrative work for the writing center, I also made a lot of changes to how we do homeschooling. This was a lot of work and also, I mean, what the heck is going on in the world? So most of the time I felt like this meme of this smartly dressed dog concentrating on his job while the world burns around him.

Nonetheless, though, I got done. The kids started back at homeschool this past Monday. I finished all of my college course prep yesterday. Classes start Tuesday. I’m feeling as prepared as one can feel in the middle of a dystopian reality.

Homeschool Adjustments Made:
1. Reduced the reading load but kept the complexity = too much content means they didn’t have time to meaningfully engage with it. I loved the reading list that came with our curriculum, which is why I wound-up purchasing it. It takes a decolonial approach to social studies, which is a huge part of what I do every day in higher education. It focuses a lot on the implications of history on bodies, and especially bodies of people of color and minorities. It includes a ton of minority and people of color voices in the reading list. For those interested, I use the Build Your Library American History 2. Here’s a lot of the books we’ll be reading this semester (though not all of them)

2. Added weekly low-stakes reflective writing in a journal = for literature they get to choose from a list of literature discussion questions; for social studies they are prompted to reflect on things that interested them, confused them, or made them react during the reading and write about it; and at the end of the week they self-assess through reflecting on and writing responses to a series of consistent questions.

3. There are 4 major projects that organize their interaction with the content = the curriculum I chose last semester included a few project ideas, but none of them really signified creative engagement. Last semester I made my own project to finish-out the semester (they had to collaborate on a historic fiction book about the Civil War). This semester I didn’t want to think of things on the fly (not only is that stressful for me, but it’s less effective at influencing learner agency) so I’ve plotted 4 units of 4-5 weeks each. Each project I’ve designed to incrementally scaffold towards learner agency through metacognition and critical thinking (I’ll briefly outline them below).

4. They get time in the schedule to pre-write and reflect on the work of the major project in their journals, right in the context of all their other reflective writings, which helps them see the relationship between all of the content and thinking they do.

5. Lots more feedback from me = each Friday they turn-in their journals and I read through their weeks and provide feedback. The feedback is NOT on grammar, punctuation, or format. It is feedback that asks questions or prompts for more critical thinking. Things like, “what do you think this means?” and “this is an interesting thought, can you explain it more fully?”

6. They have a full syllabus now, including a full semester schedule. This helps them see where they’re at in relation to the semester. It’s like a trail map on a long hike. Walking endlessly can feel overwhelming if you get tired and don’t know where you’re at–you start to think you’ll never stop walking. If you look at a map and see you’re halfway through, though, it’s a lot easier to moviate yourself to keep going.

7. In the syllabus I list a weekly schedule instead of a daily schedule. I give them the pages of books they need to have done by the end of the week, or what activities, etc… need to be done, but they get to decide when it all gets read.

8. I introduced an actual English text = it irked me that there was no formal writing instruction in the curriculum. Literature is not writing; they are two separate disciplines. Furthermore, writing is not natural but requires metacognition, instruction, and practice. Writing is a way of thinking and making our thoughts visible to ourselves and one another, though, so it’s an incredibly useful skill when trying to increase learner agency. They are using a college-level textbook that many professors use in first-year writing because it encourages reflection and is super approachable. It’s called Habits of the Creative Mind. I use a different text for first-year writing because I think Habits is more of a “back door” and I prefer college students to walk through the “front door,” but I do think this one is highly effective for “writers who don’t know they’re writers.” It’s a good fit regardless of age level, and I do have my college students read a few of the chapters alongside the primary text I use. For my kids, though I’m not using every chapter because some are asking too much of them, but for the most part–who cares if it’s for college? Each “chapter” is less than 4 pages long and provides at least 2 low-stakes writing activities to reinforce the concept. These are done in their journals.

9. I provided an overarching theme to our learning that aligns with our family’s values: we are travelers, not tourists! Travelers have a deep engagement with where they are, whereas tourists are visitors mostly focused on relaxation and amusement. Travel is hard but instructive and therefore rewarding. Each major project uses this theme.

10. I drastically changed the schedule = the traditional school model of “these same subjects at these same times every day of the week” was not working for us. We have different energy levels at different times of days. Some days we need to do more of one thing and not others. And college does not operate on this kind of schedule, so fitting my work-life in with homeschooling was challenging. The schedule I’ve designed prompts the kids to do certain activities and subjects at certain times, but these change each day and are flexible to adjustments. In fact, just yesterday we swapped two time blocks out based on how they were feeling and it went smoothly. The schedule exists so they can see about how much time they need to do the work of the week.

The kitchen blackboard schedule for ease of reference
A more detailed schedule in their syllabus

The 4 Major Projects:

  1. Map Your Learning Process (Week 1 – 4)
  2. Learning Journey Archaeology (Week 5 – 9)
  3. Choose Your Own Adventure (Week 10 – 14)
  4. Discovery Island: Investigate to Infinity and Beyond (Week 15 – 18)

Map Your Learning Process:
Everyone learns differently, which is why you need to make your own learning process visible to yourself. Remember how we talked about writing helping us make our thoughts visible? A map is a form of writing; it’s also a form of art. Art is, arguably a text to be read. It communicates to a viewer-reader, after all. So, for this project you will be mapping how you learn. Maps can take many forms–a game board is a map, a hiking trail guide is a map, a globe is a map, an illustration of our solar system is a map, and a flat drawing of the continents and countries is a map.

Below I’ve listed some questions to help you consider what all goes in to learning–it’s likely more than you think! Each of us have feelings about learning that play a role. Where we are can play a role. What we’re learning plays a part. Consider how you might read and feel differently depending on the subject, as well.

  • How you think/feel about learning? Anxious? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? Excited?
  • What environment do you prefer? Inside? Outside? Alone? Quiet? Music?
  • What technologies do you learn best with? Pen? Paper? Laptop? Tablet? Book? Movies? Games? Video Games?
  • What think you like learning around? Tea? Hot Chocolate? The cats? Cookies? Your favorite blanket? A messy room? A clean room?
  • How long can you learn before you attention span wanes?
  • What gets in the way? Family stuff? Chores? Fun things? Distractions? Feelings?
  • What stimulates you? Talking with someone? Taking a walk? Reading? Writing?

Learning Journey Archaeology:
After mapping your learning process, you now see what all relates and impacts how you learn–it’s a lot! For this project you’ll be expanding on your maps and a journal entry for English to consider how your learning process has developed and grown over time. You’ll use your memories of events, feelings, and experiences, and then use those experiences to write a story.

Whereas with maps we drew a process of learning and included activities related to l earning to help illustrate what impacts us as learners, this project asks that we become archaeologists. We have to dig through our histories, helping us put together a picture. Once we have this picture, we can draw some conclusions about learning, ourselves as learners, and about how both are experienced and felt in our bodies.

This project should be a narrative–a story–but does not have to be limited to a written document. A narrative can take many forms–a graphic novel and a power point are all relevant ways to “write.” Use your creativity, and most of all, what you think expresses your learning journey best.

Choose Your Own Adventure:
The past has implications in the present and the future; in fact, what we do today shapes what our world will be like in the future! For this assignment you will be traveling back through the time periods we’ve studied to select your own adventure. All adventures start with a question–the spark that leads us to travel somewhere for some purpose. You should look at your journals for clues of what seems interesting and exciting to you about what we’ve learned. Using this spark, you will explore, forging new paths with your ideas and tracing your journey in some way that others can follow. This can be a map, a story, a documentary movie, an illustrated guide book, a travel brochure, and more–anything that can be “read” by a viewer-reader that would make them want to take your adventure, too.

Your project should clearly state your spark–your question–to ignite the curiosity of your viewer-readers and then should persuade viewer-readers to take your adventure by connecting it to our present day–did what happened in your adventure change something for us in our world now? Is there something some people have and others do not have as a result?

Discovery Island: Investigate to Infinity and Beyond:
In this project we will be field scientists discovering and exploring a small part of the world around us–our own Discovery Island–to better understand how we live and how we feel in this world. Together we will collect water saamples from a variety of local sources and from rainwater, then test them. Once we have tested them, we will analyze the results and from there, the possibilities are seemingly infinite! You can compare water samples across various locations to draw conclusions about the safety of our drinking water. You can investigate acid rain and ecosystems. Or, you can use water to investigate soil and its health for plant life.

Once you have investigated using the scientific method, you will initiate some impact for our small island. For example, you might write a letter to the major with your findings, start a website, or create a volunteer activity. This project can be collaborative or individual.

Initial Thoughts:

In this set-up they have choices and control, both necessary to fostering an environment of learner agency. They are also tasked with thinking about the process of learning, which encourages metacognition. And they’re also being asked to exercise independence and self-direction. Because the focus of the first 2 projects is on themselves, it naturally encourages intrinsic motivation. I also do not assign grades, but only give feedback intended to generate more thinking; it’s a risk-free environment, perfect for taking chances, making mistakes, and getting messy with their learning.

Chloe is going to be in 7th grade next year, and is loving this. In her words, “I feel like I’m in college,” to which I replied, “Well, you kind of are.” She practically preened when I told her I’ve worked with college students who were homeschooled and started at a younger age. She is at an age where she wants more control and responsibility, and so this is very good for her.

Liam will be in his first year of middle school as a 5th grader next year, and likes the idea of having control and autonomy, but needs a lot of redirection and encouragement to exercise it wisely and conistently. This is developmentally appropriate for his age, and so really, if I get to the point where I don’t have to say, “It’s in your syllabus,” 7 times a day, I will be one happy homeschooling momma. Challenging him in this way will help him make the transition to middle school a little easier, and will serve him well in managing his anxiety.

Christmas 2020: Bake All The Cookies!

We made it through the Fall semester, both with Homeschool and my university’s semester! Celebrate! I still have some things to button-up in both places before I can say “Winter Break!” and even then, the kids will get a break, but I will be planning the next unit for them while also planning for my Spring course and the coming semester at the writing center. There is no such thing as a full break in academia because that’s when you have time to do all the things you didn’t have time to do during the semester. 🙂

But, with the Break comes less day-to-day demands on my time, which does help me focus on creating Holiday Magic for my family, and this year–2020–I feel we need that dose of wonder and belief even more. 2020 being 2020, aside, the past two Christmases for my family have been less than ideal. Two years ago Brian’s father passed away unexpectedly at Christmas and we also lost a few other important things. We dubbed it the Year of Loss and muddled through. Christmas that year was bittersweet.

Last year I was determined to make-up for it, but Brian had just started his business and was working long hours doing odd things and wound-up deathly ill. After two weeks of fighting it, and actually saying aloud to me, “it feels like I’m dying,” on Christmas Eve I tried to take him to the ER but he stubbornly refused, so I have one sad and alarming-looking photo of him trying to watch the kids open presents on Christmas morning before he had to retreat to go back to bed. The following day I did get him into the ER where they immediately took the obviously incapacitated grown man with a gray pallor back to treatment and referred all questions and paperwork to me. They diagnosed him with severe pneumonia and Legionnaires disease, administering fluids, inhalers, and some other things. We wonder now if he didn’t have COVID-19, though, because one of his customers at that time had recently travelled to China and Brian had been in direct, close contact with him. He certainly had all the symptoms.

Which brings us to this year: 2020. Ha! It’s been a strange and upsetting year, to put it mildly, yet it’s also another bittersweet year because we got to spend an awful lot of time together, suddenly, which is something I had desperately wanted. We did some amazing things this year in spite of the pandemic.

And so far this Christmas season, things are full of wonder and belief. It’s been magical! Chloe and I put-up the Dickens Village together as always, we found a great tree at a local tree lot and had fun decorating it, and I fussed over the mantle and added new decorations all within a week of Thanksgiving. For the 12 days before Christmas I always give the kids little presents each morning to build anticipation (socks, stickers, ornaments, crafts, etc…), we started our annual gingerbread house, we went to two COVID-safe outdoor light events in central Indiana (Christmas Nights of Lights at the Indiana State Fair and Winterlights at Newfields at the IMA), and baked cookies (so. many. cookies). It’s a week before Christmas today. Our church is doing a parking lot Christmas Eve service where we all tune-in to the radio and stay encapsulated in our vehicles right up until the end, where we all silently and with masks on get out of our cars for a candelight moment. I have a fun and fussy Christmas Eve planned with a full high tea for breakfast/lunch and a fancy dinner. It’s all been just lovely.

One thing we can’t really fix is the fact that we won’t get to see and spend time with our friends and family, so in the midst of baking this past week, I thought why not send a little bit of our Homestead to them! Baking is part of our holiday tradition and it’s also a proven stress reliever, so, I may have gone a little overboard this year: BAKE ALL THE COOKIES! Cookies make everything better. I mean, while it may sound delicious, who really wants to eat 12 dozen cookies by themselves? 🙂 I wound-up sending cookies to far-flung family across the country and sent some to the students who work at the writing center. Below are all the recipes. I have so many more I wanted to bake, but I mean, really, there’s only so many cookies one can bake/eat/mail at a time. 🙂

Peppermint (or not) Chocolate Crinkles
Yield: 1 dozen

6 T salted butter, softened
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into pieces
1 C sugar
1 large egg
2 t vanilla extract
1 t peppermint extract (optional)
3/4 C AP flour
1/4 C cocoa powder
1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
6 ounces white chocolate chips (optional)
about 1 C of powdered sugar for coating

In a stand mixer or mixing bowl with an electric mixer, cream the butter with the sugar until very light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla, and peppermint extracts and beat another minute.

Meanwhile, melt the bittersweet chocolate in a double-boiler, a glass shatterproof mixing bowl set over a pot of simmering water, or in a glass measuring cup in the microwave, stirring frequently. Be careful not to overheat the chocolate; residual heat will help continue to melt, so it’s best to pull it off the heat just before everything is melted and continue to stir.

Add the melted chocolate to the mixing bowl of butter, sugar, etc. . . and beat together until well incorporated. Measure the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt into the bowl and beat together until a soft dough forms. Stir in the chips, if using.

Place the bowl in the fridge to let the dough rest for 15 minutes. In a separate container, add the powdered sugar. Using a cookie scoop or forming balls of dough with your hands, roll dough into 2 inch balls and coat in the powdered sugar.

Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and pat them down lightly with the palm of your hand, just enough to depress the ball shape a little. Bake in a preheated 350 degrees Fahrenheit oven for 13-15 minutes. Remove and let cool before servings.

Sugar Cookies
Yield: around 2 dozen (depending on size and shape of cookie butter)

1 C salted butter, softened
1 1/2 C sugar
1/3 C powdered sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 C vegetable/avocado/olive oil
1 T vanilla extract
1/4 t cream of tartar
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t baking powder
1 t salt
4 – 4 1/2 C flour

In a stand mixer or mixing bowl with an electric mixer, cream the butter with the sugar until very light and fluffy. Add the eggs, vanilla, and oil and mix another minute. Measure the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt into the bowl and mix to form a soft dough. Rest in dough in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface and cut into desired shapes. Place cut-outs on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for 6-8 minutes (bake time will depend on thickness and size/shape of cut-out, as well as desired done-ness. I prefer mine to have a soft chew rather than a snap).

Eat plain of frost with desired frosting. For mailing I did a simple water/powdered sugar/vanilla glaze to make it shelf-stable. For enjoying at home I always prefer buttercream, though royal icing will allow you a wider range of decorating choices (see example of decorated buttercream cookie above).

These were the first cookies I made this season, and since they were separate from the boxes I planned to send, I used my favorite cutters: snowman, mitten, and snowflake. 🙂

Shortbread Cookies
Yield: 1 dozen (depending on size and shape of cut-out)

1/2 pound (2 sticks) of salted butter
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 t almond extract
2 C flour
1/2 C powdered sugar

In a stand mixer or mixing bowl with an electric mixer, beat the butter until incredibly light and fluffy–this is important to help the shortbread have lightness since there is no raising agent. Add the extracts and blend well. Add the powdered sugar and continue to beat until light and fluffy again. Measure the flour and beat in until a dough forms. Rest dough in the fridge for 15 minutes prior to rolling out. I always make these smaller shapes than the sugar cookies (stars and candy canes instead of snowmen, mittens, and Christmas trees).

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface and cut into desired shapes. Place cut-outs on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for 6-8 minutes (bake time will depend on thickness and size/shape of cut-out, as well as desired done-ness. I prefer mine to have a soft chew rather than a snap).

I always glaze these with a mixture of water, powdered sugar, vanilla, and almond extract. I dip the entire cooled cookie in, and then lay on parchment or wax paper to dry. After a few moments, top with festive sprinkles and let continue to dry until the glaze is hard.

Italian Wedding Cookies
Yield: 2 dozen

1 1/2 C salted butter, softened
1 C powdered sugar
3/4 t salt
1 1/2 C almond flour
1 1/2 T vanilla extract
1 1/2 t almond extract
3 C flour
powdered sugar for coating

Cream the butter until very light and fluffy. Again, there is no raising agent, so we want light and fluffy butter for a light (not too dense) cookies. Add the extracts and powdered sugar and continue to beat. Measure the almond flour and beat in to the douguh. Measure in the salt and regular flour and beat until a dough forms. Using a cookie scoop or forming balls of dough with your hands, roll dough into 2 inch balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake in a preheated 325 degree Fahrenheit oven for 15-20 minutes (being careful not to brown them!). Remove the from oven and let cool only slightly (enough to handle) then roll in powdered sugar, being careful as they are going to be more fragile as they cool. Once completely cool, roll them again in the powdered sugar.

Amaretti Cookies (original recipe found on Pinch Me I’m Eating)
Yield: 1 dozen

2 egg whites
1 t lemon juice
2 1/4 C almond flour
1 3/4 C powdered sugar
1 pinch sea salt
1/4 t baking powder
1 t orange zest
1 T almond extract
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 C additional powdered sugar for coating

In a stand mixer or mixing bowl with an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites and lemon juice until stiff peaks form. Sift together the almond flour, powdered sugar, sea salt, and baking powder. Fold in three batches carefully into the egg whites, being mindful to not deflate them as much as possible. Add in the extracts and orange zest and fold in.

Line a baking sheet with parchment and prep a container with the powdered sugar. The dough will be quite sticky, so I find a cookie scoop the easiest tool. Scoop out the dough and roll carefully in the powdered sugar, then place on the baking sheet. Do this for all the dough. Let rest on the counter for at least 1 hour. Bake in a preheated 300 degree Fahrenheit oven for 20 minutes.

Gingerbread Cookies
Yield: 2 dozen

3/4 C salted butter, softened
1 C sugar
1 egg
1/4 C light molasses
2 C flour
1 t baking powder
3/4 t salt
1 1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t ground ginger
1/2 t ground nutmeg
1/2 t ground cloves

Cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Combine the molasses with the egg and whisk to combine, then add to the creamed butter and mix. Add all the spices and mix well. Measure in the flour, baking powder, and salt and combine until a dough forms.

Rest the dough in the fridge for 15 minutes. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface and cut into desired shapes. Place cut-outs on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for 7-10 minutes (bake time will depend on thickness and size/shape of cut-out, as well as desired done-ness).

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Yield: 1 1/2 dozen

1 C salted butter, melted
1 1/2 C brown sugar, packed
1/4 C white sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 T milk
1 T vanilla extract
2 1/2 C flour
1 t sea salt
1 t baking powder
1 1/2 C chocolate chips

Over the years I’ve tinkered with my base chocolate chip cookie recipe. Sometimes I want a chewy, rich cookie (like the one above) and sometimes I want something lighter (in which case I’ll do half-and-half brown sugar and white sugar), and sometimes I want something with a bit of a snap (do the sugar change mentioned above and split baking powder into half powder and half baking soda). No matter how you do it, creaming the melted butter with the sugars to a caramel-like consistency is key, as is resting the dough. The sea salt is also important because it off-sets the sweetness of the cookie.

Melt the butter in a saucepan or in the microwave. Measure both sugars into a stand mixer or mixing bowl with an electric mixer. Pour the melted butter over the sugars and beat until caramel-like in consistency (the sugars will be dissolved and it will come together, so you shouldn’t be able to see a separation of butter and sugar). Add the eggs, milk, and vanilla and beat. Measure the flour, salt, and baking powder into the bowl and beat until a dough forms. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Rest the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes (our butter was melted, which warmed the dough-up substantially, so we need a longer resting time). Using a cookie scoop or forming balls of dough with your hands, roll dough into 2 inch balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 350 degrees Fahrenheit oven for 12-14 minutes. Remove and let cool before servings.

Homestead Homeschool: The First 4 Weeks and Work-Homeschool-Life Balance

In (Pandemic) Life Updates: The “Lost” Two Months, I gave a quick synopsis of the struggles both kids were having with remote learning and announced that Chloe had decided to homeschool for the remainder of the school year, but that Liam had improved enough that we were keeping him enrolled in remote learning public school.

We made it one week of homeschooling Chloe before Liam’s anxiety severely spiked again, and I realized I was just done. I was done expending energy and time just trying to help him get through a day when it obviously hurt him to do so. Done emotional laboring and collaborating with overworked, underpaid, completely overwhelmed teachers and administrators at his school that, despite their best intentions and high degree of professionalism, can’t actually make many systemic changes on Liam’s behalf right now. There’s just no right way or one-size-fits-almost-all way right now in public education, and my son was hurting as a result.

Meanwhile, after that first week, Chloe’s energy and spirit was bright and high in ways I hadn’t seen from her in months. We had time for walks together, to talk together, to read and discuss literature together. We could eat breakfast and lunch together. And, most importantly, her screen time went from 13 hours per day to less than 2 (and most of those 2 includes her newly found leisure time to play Roblox or update her Youtube channel again). The answer for Liam seemed obvious. I decided I could simply adapt Chloe’s 6th grade curriculum for Liam’s 4th grade level, and just work with both of them together. They could read aloud together, work on projects together. We could have richer discussions and centralize our family’s focus in a powerful way–a way that I perceived would help simplify a complicated, fraught time.

I don’t know that I’m by any means an expert on homeschooling, seeing as how I’ve only been at this officially for four weeks. But I do know that so far what we’re doing is working. The kids report that they are enjoying their school days, that they feel less stressed than they did in remote learning, and that they feel like they’re learning. On my part, I feel as if I have a chance to help guide my kids towards a deeper understanding of how they learn and why, to help them discover learning strategies that will impact their engagement well beyond this time period, and to also encourage the development of their intrinsic motivation to learn. Below I’m writing out our basic homeschooling day, with notes and thoughts about my balance as a full-time remote profesional.

We start our homeschool day with Health. Sometimes it’s 8:30 on the dot, sometimes not. That’s the beauty of homeschooling: I can adjust and adapt on the fly. Often this is a short yoga routine or walk in the forest, but sometimes it includes reading age-appropriate articles on topics like self-care, how germs spread, personal hygiene, and what yoga does for our bodies and brains. Sometimes it even means picking-out a recipe for them to make at dinner that evening. In the fuzzy gray-area between getting dressed and Health starting, we have a brief (~5 minutes or less) morning meeting where we review the schedule for the day and I apprise them of any changes I need to make (maybe due to my schedule or a hiccup the day before) and have them write it into their schedule binders.

Some cookbooks in our Homeschool area for Health

Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: I wake-up at least an hour before the kids. I’ve had coffee, read the news, perhaps gone on a solo walk or a walk with Brian, so I feel good and ready to start my day. As the kids wake-up, I hop in the shower. They stumble groggily around for 15 or so minutes then start getting dressed, completing a few simple chores, and getting organized, during which time I take a few minutes to log-in to work stuff and make sure all is well. The writing center opens at 9, so I like to make sure before 9 that things appear smooth and organized for the day. I usually have to approve a login to the student-access writing center accounts, but that doesn’t take hardly any effort. It just means I have to be by my phone.

After Health we start our Humanities block with Social Studies. The curriculum I selected is called Build Your Library and so it is a reading-intesive curriculum that centers around history as its focus. The curriculum includes a basic schedule and assignment and project materials that I’ve found useful and also easy to adapt and customize. All of the books are sold separately. We’re doing Civil War through Civil Rights, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the opportunities we have to connect what we’re learning to modern day contexts. Our Election Day discussions were robust and fascinating. The kids rotate through quite a few books in chunks, but there’s definitely a primary text we lean on and they only read one creative nonfiction at a time (I’ve emboldened the primary text below and listed the creative nonfiction texts in order so far). They will read-aloud the primary texts together, practicing popcorn reading, and then either read individually or via audiobook (depending on availability) the creative nonfiction text. We are working on a long project on the Civil War that has smaller scaffolding assignments.

The book bin that contains everything we’re reading currently

Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: Once we’re done with yoga, it’s usually 9am on the dot. If Brian didn’t have time to make the kids’ breakfasts, I make them and they eat while they read. I generally make myself a quick smoothie (something I can eat and do work at the same time) and sit down at my “desk” (ahem dining room table) by 9:15. Work things have been up since 8:30, with sound notifications on, should anyone have needed me (and sometimes they do). I’ve already glanced at email, Discord, the schedule, Canvas, one.iu, and even Facebook groups of professional relevance, so I know what needs my attention first. I do have to circle in to make sure the kids are on task, especially if reading together, and once each week I’ve found I have to do the reading with them so they get caught-up to the schedule (at least they’re having fun reading together), but I generally get a solid hour to plug away on work before I need to shift them from one book to another. Once a week I have Office Hours during this time and so need to be available, but since I host those in Discord, it’s been really manageable to multi-task. At least once a week, I try to do a 15-20 minute Supernatural workout on the Oculus during this time.

After Social Studies, we have English. Usually this means we do their favorite part of the day–narration cards. Every Monday we have a discussion and answer reflection questions about our literature reading. On weeks we’ve finished a reading, I use Monday for true writing instruction. We’re building-up their summary and strong response skills with discussion, activities, and example worksheets. For their literature reading, which may be independent reading, audiobook reading, or me reading aloud to them, we have been completing after school or before bed to make better use of class time.

What we’re reading/have read in the first 4 weeks for Humanities–
Nonfiction: American History Encylopedia, Two Miserable Presidents, We Were There Too, Words That Built a Nation
Creative Nonfiction: The Underground Abductor, Silent Thunder
Fiction: The Giver, The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody

Narration Cards: These came with the Build Your Library curriculum, but I modified and added some personalized ones for each kid. These ask them to reflect on our readings, which I rotate between subjects, in a new–and hopefully fun–way. Chloe’s are very art-focused, and say things like: create a cartoon using 2-3 quotes from the text, illustrate a scene from the reading, create a Kinemaster animation asking and answering 2 questions from the text. Liam’s are drama-focused, and say things like: write a scene script for an important idea or scene, conduct a pretend interview betwen you and 1-2 characters, write a scene from the reading as if it takes place in a favorite fan-verse. They both have cards that say things like “retell the reading in your own words” and “annotate the readings with visuals.” Our science narration cards for science readings also get done during this time and say slightly different things.

Our narration card baskets

Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: If they do a narration card for English, which they do 4 out of 5 week days, then I get even more time to work once I’ve helped them select a card and gotten them started. I may have to circle in to do a time management check, and then need a few minutes to review their work. If I need to conduct a discussion or a writing lesson, then I’m actively engaged with them for this full hour. My work windows stay up with notifications on, should the writing center need my immediate attention (and it sometimes does). This is usually my most productive work hour of the day.

After English, they get a full-hour for recess and lunch. Again, once I’ve made them lunch and made myself lunch, I have still-more time to work. If I’m in the middle of a good workflow, I fudge the schedule a little to keep working until I’ve completed whatever it is I was doing. Occasionally, and especially if we did yoga and not a walk during Health, we’ll take a group walk at this time, which eats into my work ability. But, it’s lunch and I don’t really take a full lunch, so a 15 minute walk is fine, I think.

At 12:30 we reconvene for Science. Science is included in the Build Your Library curriculum (again, books sold separately). This year they are doing Astronomy, which is wonderfully appropriate for Brian and I to facilitate as two space-loving nerds. So far we’ve read two chapters in the textbook. On a week where we worked through a single chapter, the kids read aloud or independently (up to them) from the textbook the first two days, then we did a lab on Wednesday, did an activity or watched a video on Thursday, and then worked-on a learning comprehension set of questions on Friday. The second chapter we read took much longer, so they had more days for reading, a lab, an activity, several media days, and two reading comprehension days. I added narration cards for Science to increase engagement and reading comprehension. We just enrolled them in a NASA education course component that lasts a week, but is relevant to their studies, and also developed a list of even more science activities to make this time as active as possible. In addition to the textbook, they also have a companion creative nonfiction science reading. I read this aloud to them and we have very brief discussions about it afterwards. For these first four weeks, it has been George and the Big Bang by Lucy and Stephen Hawking, which has produced some very enjoyable laughs and memorable moments.

Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: I try to read the textbook on the weekends so I know what’s going on. Brian tends to facilitate the labs and activities for me once or twice each week. I facilitate discussions, read the creative nonfiction, and watch media with them.

After Science we have French. On Mondays and Wednesdays they do Muzzy. On Tuesdays and Thursdays they complete pages in their French workbooks and we go over the answers together, having short practice conversations as we do. On Fridays we practice conversations, read short stories in French, and do other activities like plan a Passport Night to France. (Note: I was once fluent in French. Given that I haven’t spoken any French in 15 years, I’m rusty, but it’s all coming back to me relatively quickly and easily).

Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: I tend to have meetings in the afternoon, which is why French rotates between an independent screen-based learning mode and a hands-on active learning mode. Depending on my week, they might do even more Muzzy than the two days, or we might skip a French day altogether.

After French comes Math. We started out using Kahn Academy, but both of my kids are creative-minded and profess to struggle with Math. I don’t think I’m bad at math, but I also don’t use most of the math equations and whatnot in my professional life as an English professor. Brian uses Math every single day of his life, but struggles to communicate the concepts in a way the kids can understand. Therefore, we have just switched to Beast Academy after they reviewed the materials online and felt positively about them. Beast Academy uses graphic story-telling to engage critical math thinking and then asks students to engage in the text for problem-solving. Given Chloe’s love of graphic novels and art, and Liam’s love of story-telling, and the fact that both of them are good creative problem-solvers but tend to freak-out if it’s just a bunch of numbers, I’m hopeful this will work out better for them. This was expensive, but they get beautifully illustrated books and workbooks plus online access for practice and review. It also has clearer schedule guidelines for me to follow than Kahn Academy did, so I know what to assign and when, which is helpful.

a page from a Beast Academy Math Guide

Work-Homescshool-Life Balance: More meetings happen during this time than any other time, which is why I need Math to be fairly self-directed. I’m also usually getting pretty fatigued by this point in the day. I drink decaf coffee to help control my anxiety, but have been adding about a 1/4 caf to my second cup of coffee of the day, the one that I treat myself to during this time. If it isn’t a special latte I make myself, then it’s a cup of green tea. Also dark chocolate. I’m hopeful Beast Academy will help us all feel better about this hour. If I managed a workout earlier, I tend to feel more energetic at this point in my day.

Because Math has not been going well, we’ve paused the Music/Art block at the end of the day. I think they get plenty of art-making time in the regular curriculum, but lack art-history and art instruction, which given that Brian has a BFA in painting and I took a bunch of art history classes, I’d love for them to do. They both are musical (Chloe plays flute and Liam trumpet), but we’re all usually fried by this point and Math has been taking double the time. It’s ok, honestly. I’m realistic to life and don’t want to push us to be and do too much right now. They know it’s a goal to work towards, but they’re also okay with how things are right now.

Work-Homeschool-Life Balance: by this point in the day I am BEAT. I’ve multi-tasked from 8 in the morning onwards. I need a breather by myself to center my thoughts. I keep my work tabs open and notifactions on, but tend to slip my wireless headphones on and either take a walk in the forest by myself to energetic music, or mellow to an audiobook while I do dishes and prep for dinner. I’m still available for work, and will keep those tabs open until 5:30 or 6. The writing center closes at 7. Before bed we read aloud from our literature reader, which has been a good and fun routine, especially on The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody, which is a delightful and fun read. I’m more relaxed by then and can put energy into the voices and dialogue delivery, much to the kids’ delight.

On the weekends: I take a few hours to prep the coming week. Build Your Library suggests a schedule, but I can tweak it to suit our family’s needs. I compare everyone’s calendars for the coming week and consider successes/failures from the previous week and the overall emotional/mental/physical health of all of us and make some decisions on what we’re doing. I may need to read ahead or glance ahead to make sure I have materials necessary for labs and activities and that we know what we’re doing. I make any materials: discussion questions, assignment sheets, etc. .. and print them out. I print things from the provided curriculum. I print the schedule for each of our binders and get them reaady for Monday’s morning meeting. Overall, though, I try to be intentional about sellf-care on the weekends. A lot of people depend on me to be at my best during the week, and taking good care of myself helps me be at my best. I clean, I bake, I read for fun, I do some chores while listening to audiobooks, I sleep in, I stay in pajamas all day. I plan the menu and make sure we have all the food we need so I don’t have to worry about it during the week.

My master binder that contains the Build Your Library full curriculum, our Science textbook, and the syllabus I made with each week’s schedule

I’m fatigued in places, but not empty, not “done” in the same way I was when we set-out on this journey. It takes a lot of self-grace and patience. Some days that’s easier said than done. Some days I focus on work more and other days on them more. Next semester, when I have a synchronous class to teach, that will make things a little more difficult. But, we’ll also be far more than four weeks in to homeschooling. In sum, at the end of this fourth week, I can say that the kids are engaged, happy, and healthier with this schedule, and that to me tells me all I need to know. We made the right decision. We are in this, doing this, living it, and learning to love it together.