Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Creating an Empire

One of my earliest, most vivid memories is of a field trip I took to Mrs. Hampton's house, my first and second grade teacher. Her father had constructed an elaborate network of concrete and cobble ditches through the woods for her when she was a child, and there was a beautiful greenhouse. I don't remember many details except for the magic I felt in that place and wishing I could play there forever.

We've lived in this house in downtown Raleigh since 2007. Yesterday afternoon I was watching our boys playing in the backyard with two friends, listening to the giggles and screams and remembering back to when my oldest was a baby and I dreamed about building a tree house. When we moved in I was pregnant but didn't find out for another week. The back yard was desolate. There were fifteen or so pine trees, and barely a patch of grass. The hardwoods were skinny and sad. My first garden was the potted plants I had brought with me from our previous house, potted tomato plants, lopsided trellises that I couldn't sink deep enough into the hard clay soil, and chocolate mint that dried up and died a couple months later.

But every time I looked out at this backyard, I saw the potential. Back then, I picked out a strong magnolia that would one day be the perfect spot for kids to build their empire. When the pines went flying through the air dangling from a crane, our backyard world seemed to open up. A few years later, I had two little boys helping their dad hammer away at wooden pallets and scrap wood, and then Joe's sister and new husband (or was he still the fiance?) came over to help us lift a platform onto posts under that magnolia. For the past few years we've added to the platform - a slide we found on craigslist, a busted garden hose swing, the old stairs and railing from the deck, a downspout for sending messages - and the boys now have this ridiculous tree house that I refer to as "our lawsuit waiting to happen", and it's just pure magic. It's magic if you still have a shred of your childhood imagination.

There is still work to be done, but that childhood magic colors my view. I look out now at the perimeter and instead of seeing the unruly vines and thorns, I see secret paths to be cleared and planted. There's a canvas being layered upon with frequent winged visitors, stick-wielding boys, and an occasional stray cat. And we are terrible at growing grass - so very bad at it - but no one seems to mind.

I wonder if in adulthood part of what drives us is whatever magic took hold of our minds and hearts when we were little, whether we are conscious of it or not. If it doesn't drive us, perhaps it should. We should play! Our hearts and minds come alive when we explore and create, whether that is in nature or in other pursuits. It's so fun to try and trigger this in my boys' minds simply by dropping a suggestion, daring them to attempt some physical challenge, or giving them a story line to draw from. I know I'll pay next year for not enforcing homework in the afternoons, but for right now, I think the magic, creating stories, and being kings of their empire is more important.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Morning Garden Walk

Each morning I step outside to see what growing, what new, and as my son interjects, "what's old." I love the cool air and the birds with just a faint buzz of traffic in the city. 

I sat on the deck for a moment to watch the cat listen to the birds with her ears upright and her head slightly jerking from side to side, and when I had gone back in to feed her breakfast I glanced over my shoulder and noticed the chair was still bouncing ever so slightly on the deck. I puzzled that even a minute after I was gone, that transfer of motion and energy kept the chair vibrating as a sign I was there not long ago.

I wonder that all of nature with its wind and sounds and vibrations points us to a sign that not only was God here not that long ago as He breathed life into dust and set particles in motion, but that He is still here.







Friday, March 20, 2015

Excellence in Mediocrity

Recently the opportunity was put before me to have a presence in an on-campus teaching setting. I thought about it, I really did. I imagined getting to know students, the environment I'd try to foster, the potential to invest in young people. I even went so far as to consider whether I'd allow music in the lab and if I'd show up with cookies -- I'm truly embarrassed now for disclosing that last bit.

And then, before I had a chance to continue the conversation, my oldest came down with a stomach bug that took him out of school for two days. That ended the conversation for me as I realized that for as long as my kids are still too young to be home alone, (and I wouldn't leave kids alone of any age when they are sick except to run to the pharmacy), and as long as I don't have quick and easy access to childcare in these cases, having something scheduled with a high commitment level is off the table for now. Not only did he need me there, there were no less than eight loads of laundry as he sleeps with sheets, mattress protector and no less than four blankets, which all had to be washed two at a time along with a pile of casualties of the all-night spewing. So as week after that initial discussion, I politely declined with my reason, which was well-received.

I don't often blog about work. I never want any of my students to come across my blog and be given a reason to think I'm less committed to them than any of their full-time tenure-track professors. I teach four different distance courses, and I enjoy this. I especially enjoy getting to know the students that stick with me for a few semesters and have the guts to call me up to discuss homework problems and sometimes the other stuff going on in life. So what I have to say about this is basically, what I have is enough. I don't need to be "going places" to be valid. Being part time and attempting to serve them well is enough.

The times I get worked up over my lack of career ambition and progression is when I read academic and adjunct blogs, spend any time on Linkedin, or see posts of my academic friends' research pursuits in my Facebook feed. It's not that any of these make me envious, it's just they make me aware of my immovable position on the academic totem pole and wonder if something is wrong with me for not wanting to move upwards. Last spring this reflection triggered major anxiety, personal insecurity, and panic over my course materials. I was completely torn up inside over why I didn't want more.

We are taught to want more. More money, more house, more love, more vacations, more respect, more influence. The typical American day is spent in the pursuit of more; although in uncertain economic climates many of us are just trying to hold on to what we have. Being content and staying still, never seems to be an acceptable option. Sometimes the endlessness of the pursuit of success all around me melts my resolve to be good or do well at anything. I don't see the end game and see nothing but futility and emptiness in the journey. I can't muster up motivation.

The anxiety I experience isn't really about obtaining something physical. It isn't about titles or job descriptions. It is about identity. It is incredibly tempting to think identity has something to do with those things, but that is the furthest from the truth. As long as we continue to allow identity to be entangled in position, title and possession, we will make poor choices and constantly feel inadequate in our lack of those. We live lives chained to obligation and hopes for things of fleeting nature. We make excellence something to strive for or something that with enough effort will be bestowed upon us rather than something we to choose to be.

I believe that in mediocrity of position, we can still strive for excellence and be excellent in how we treat others. Colossians 3:17 states, "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." I believe that excellence as a follower of Jesus comes through setting our hearts on Him, in acting out His love towards others, and not thinking of ourselves, period. The motivation comes not through fear or competition, not from duty or hope of advancement, but from a desire to love as He has loved, and do that with a grateful heart.

When I am able to shut off my inner voices and reflect on how I am loved and how I am loving, it is okay to let those other things loosen their hold on my conscious mind. In the end, our legacy is love. Sure, it would be fantastic to leave behind some money to the kids, but their inheritance is the Kingdom of God, and I pray to Him that they see that and that their lives become about love. I pray that I wouldn't fear reaching the end having not made a name for myself. I hope to God that He will continue to loosen my grip on my own definition of worth and value so that I can live a life that actually reflects His love.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Kiln Unloading

Well... I just unloaded the kiln, and there were some real boogers in there. I used an earthen red clay that I was told could be pushed to cone 5 that didn't perform well with the glaze. The indigo float pulled away from the clay. The small platter that I put on stilts completely slumped. A few pieces were okay, but still weren't everything I had hoped they would be. I will definitely not be using this clay with my current glazes again. I may end up just using the remaining clay to make more tiles to protect the kiln shelves. One of those got some severe runs from a bowl that just dropped glaze off the sides. Some of the glaze made it all the way to the kiln floor, which is NOT GOOD. I'm not sure how we will deal with that. When your floor is covered with new pieces that didn't turn out at you hoped, and your kids meanwhile won't try the banana nut bread you just pulled out of the oven, it's hard not to feel like a total failure and start planning on how you will sell your equipment and ship off the kids to boarding school. But if you've been doing this for a few years, you step back and say, okay, what can we salvage here? What was good? What can I change. Well first things first, I'll wrap up one of those loaves and take it to someone who will appreciate it and shove the rest of the other INTO MY BELLEH.

The glazes didn't behave as usual on the speckled brownstone. I'm trying to figure out if it was the firing or the glaze application or something else. When I began the firing on Wednesday, it was 75 degrees outside. When I unloaded this morning, it was 21 degrees outside. Could that have something to do with the firing? I don't know. Anyhow, there are several pieces like this one that just didn't turn out. There's no way to salvage them, except to say, "I learned something."

As for the indigo float, I was at the bottom of the bucket on half the pieces, and pulled out a new bucket for the rest. The old bucket was pretty thick, and the new bucket was very thin, so the results were quite varied. This indigo float is usually a stable glaze. There were two pieces that I washed off and re-glazed, and those were by far the worst.

When I sieved the pistachio, there was a lot of large precipitate that looked like chunks of glass, which I'm guessing was due to the really low temps we had a few weeks back. I had also thinned it out too much trying to get some of that precipitate to break back up. So the usual blend of light brown and pale green was more just light brown. I don't know what the precipitate was, but I know that not having that mineral in the mix had to have changed the resulting colors. There were also a few rough patches like in the bottom of the canister on the left. I don't know what caused that. It's not terrible, but it's also not how the glaze usually performs.







Another point - shino works best with textures. The pistachio glaze is a shino, and where drips run down the sides, it has a lovely effect. 


However, on the inside of this bowl where there in an uneven application of shino and no texture to work with, the glaze is not at its best.


See the difference below? Texture puts the shino to task.



And more pistachio shino below showing the difference in results. The holed canister highlights all the runs and how the breaks in surface create some fun effects.


The indigo float behaved mostly as expected on the speckled brownstone, but there were a few spots where the glaze seemed to slide off the side.


The large mugs mostly turned out great.



I pulled out the "happy" pieces for a group shot.



Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The ultimate free composted woodchips

A year and a half ago, a local tree company delivered a truckload of fresh woodchips at the top of our driveway. We played on our mini mountain for a week or so before spreading it out. Joe has been parking on the flattened pile, but noticed that they have softened up, evidenced by his tires spinning out this past weekend. Now, the woodchips are perfection for the garden, if we don't mind the potential for truck drippings in the mix. If you are interested in using wood chips on your garden, here are some things to consider.

1. Many local tree companies end up with loads and loads of woodchips that they would much rather give away to nearby residents than pay to haul them somewhere else.

2. Many of these tree companies have online signup forms to get a free delivery when they are working in your area. You want get to specify how much, so be prepared for a mountain.

3. These wood chips will be fresh and not color treated. You obviously don't get to choose the blend you get, so there could be hardwoods or pine, and there will probably be some leaves in there.

4. Make sure you give the company good directions to your house. The house being flipped down the road from us ended up with our free load last winter.

5. It takes 6 months to a 1 years for the wood chips to have beneficial use for your vegetable garden as they will take up available nitrogen as they decompose. The places where I spread fresh wood chips grew nothing - not weeds, not veggies.

6. If you like the ease of picking up bags at a store and dumping them over the garden, this is not the best option for you. There is the initial labor of spreading out your fresh pile, and then the followup labor of moving it where you want it. I spent a few hours yesterday filling up a garbage can and hauling it back and forth from the front yard to the back yard.

My struggle is always finding the right window of time to build up the beds with new compost and mulch. I like to let spinach, carrots, garlic and onion grow over the winter, so I have to try to avoid those little patches as I'm dumping out the loads.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Deep Winter

It is deep winter, or as deep as it gets in the Piedmont, and yesterday we got a strange yet wonderful lag in the cold after a week of no school. We drove off to a location not far out of town, a future park development site Joe wanted to visit. We arrived and walked down an old two-lane road, half grown over with the encroaching forest floor and recently blanketed in ice, giving way to sun and slush.

The road eventually dove under the water, sleepily submerged under Falls Lake, reminding us of the temporal nature of man-made utility. Where the water met the pavement was a thin, melting layer of ice. The ground was peppered in old shotgun shells and skeet disks, and boxes were strewn about either as targets or evidence of redneck libations.

Satisfied by the echoing thuds sticks and rocks made as they bounced across the ice, we turned down a trail to hike out to the point, and the forest began to close in around us. As we sloshed through, we noticed an increasing amount of rusty cans, tires and large cylinders and again puzzled at the passage of time. On our return back, we even found what looked to be the foundation of an old cabin and a chimney fallen down in the center. There was a hollowed out tree, fallen trees teeming with moss and fungal growth and massive oaks that had cast off old heavy branches but were still charting out new territory in the heights of the canopy.

When we finally reached the point, we ate our snack and found an old turtle shell, which fastened to a stick became the return hike totem of sorts. After sticking to the path, I pointed up at a ridge and told the boys to go explore, see what was just over the hill. Their inner-woodsmen unleashed, they took off and soon discovered a small ice-beach.

After a week of stagnation, trapped inside our walls waiting out the ice, we had opened the door and seen that nothing is stagnant --  not nature, not time, and certainly not decay. As we walked back to the car, Joe and I joked about we old people being tortoises and the boys being hares as we carried the turtle shell totem and the boys wove in and out of our path stopping to moan over wet socks and tired legs and then bolting ahead determined to beat us to the end.











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