Well, I did it! I wrote every day from early October to New Year's Day 2010. Now I will write for fun when I feel like it and see where that gets me. Cheers to all my small-blessing-appreciating friends!

Sunday, January 31, 2010


I like the smooth hardness of nutmegs, also the veining on the inside. We have a small nutmeg grater that was my Grandma's. Curiously, nutmeg grating was an activity at the Montessori preschool my sons attended.   Considering the number of times I have grated a knuckle along with the nutmeg, I am surprised they would have tots doing this. Both boys were enthusiastic nutmeg graters. They had a brilliant idea to open a nutmeg stand, similar to the ubiquitous lemonade stand. David said earnestly, " It will be so nice for people coming home from work who forgot to buy nutmeg at the store."

Obviously nutmeg is a nut. It comes from an evergreen tree native to the Molucca Islands. Like many of the Spice Islands plants, it is grown throughout the Indian Ocean region and in the West Indies. It is grown in Zanzibar (one of the best-named places) and is shown on the flag of Granada.  It was a valuable trade item since Roman times. The Wiki article states that "at one time, nutmeg was one of the most valuable spices. It has been said that in England, several hundred years ago, a few nutmeg nuts could be sold for enough money to enable financial independence for life." According to another source, in the 1800s in Connecticut, scamming peddlers sold wooden fake nutmegs.

Nutmeg is also the source of mace, which goes so well with oranges in baking. Mace is the brilliantly-colored inner coating of the nutmeg.

Apparently nutmeg contains psychoactive substances and has been used as a hallucinogen. However the unpleasant taste of an intoxicating dose of nutmeg, along nasty side effects and toxicity have kept it from popular use. This is why you shouldn't feed eggnog to your pet!  I wonder whether the Montessori school knew about this?

Friday, January 29, 2010


I was wondering about our baking spices. We have all heard of the romantic Spice Islands, which could be smelled miles out to sea. But what countries are they? What do the trees look like, that produce these spices? How do they grow? In ancient times, spice traders kept secret the sources of their precious wares, but I have only to consult Wikipedia.

I began with my very favorite, cinnamon. We all have seen the little rolls of cinnamon bark, so we are quite certain they come from the bark of a tree. I looked it up and found that cinnamon trees are native to  Sri Lanka, that paradisaical isle with precious stones for beach pebbles.  Strange stories abounded in Western lands about the source of this valuable spice. For example, according to the Wiki, "in Herodotus and other authors, Arabia was the source of cinnamon: giant cinnamon birds collected the cinnamon sticks from an unknown land where the cinnamon trees grew and used them to construct their nests; the Arabs employed a trick to obtain the sticks." Indeed, cinnamon was distributed to Europe through the port of Alexandria in Egypt. The history of cinnamon is very interesting and worth reading about.

Cinnamon is cultivated in many countries around the Indian Ocean, including India and Indonesia, as well as Brazil and the West Indies. It is an evergreen plant in the laurel family (which, incidentally, includes avocados - who would have guessed?) The trees are coppiced to produce many young shoots. Their outer bark is stripped away and the inner bark collected and dried. This is our cinnamon, without which there would be no cinnamon toast! 

Soon I will write about nutmeg and clove.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Petite Musicians

Our house if full of musicians. Most of them are quite small, and some are strange. Here are a few:

How many homes do you know where a clown performs happily with a cat and a dwarf - accomplished string players all?

The little Dutch boy and the angel join in a jolly folk tune with heavenly descant

My favorites of all are the baroque ensemble. They are so elegant! They are mismatched in size but make such charming music together.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Winter Flowers

Hellebore and pieris. There is always something beautiful to be found in the garden. They are displayed in a sake bottle, but still so very English!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Time Spent vs Time Let Go

We talk about spending time. The expression is weighted with the idea that time is a limited and valuable commodity that will "buy" us something. Limited? Yes, certainly, but I don't care for this market-place metaphor. Time it there... what we accomplish during its passage is up to us. We are blessed if we can apply ourselves to things that we love to do. But we can also let it pass like water through our fingers trailing in a stream. We are often taught to feel guilty about "wasting time". Why?

Tim and I are trying an experiment that is a nod to the idea of Sabbath.  Tonight we will turn off the computer and the phone, sit down to a beautiful table and spend the evening companionably as if we were each other's delightful guests. No practicing, no chores. It is not that this doesn't happen anyway quite often, but we choose deliberately to set aside this time outside of time in that marketplace sense. How will this feel? Time will tell.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pruning Lavender

Pruning lavender - now there is a remedy for winter blahs! Clogged with fallen leaves, with dried up flower stalks making a prickly halo, these little lavender bushes looked quite sorry. I pulled out the leaves and dead stems, trimmed off the old flowers, and they began to look much better. And I began to feel much better too, because every snip or snap brought a burst of fragrance.

I never would have guessed lavender would do well here. It only requires two magic ingredients - well-drained soil and full sun. Our clay would not even enter the running for well-drained soil, but before planting lavender and sage out in the parking strip, I mixed the top several inches of soil with a rough ceramic grit used at golf-courses to break up heavy soil.

I have seen lavender growing in a number of places I wouldn't have expected it. One is the northeast end of the Olympic Peninsula near Sequim. The Olympic Mountains are known for their rain forest, receiving 140 to 170 inches of rain a year, but Sequim is in the rain shadow of the mountains with only 16 inches of rain each year. The area is known for lavender.

Here in rainy Portland, I prune my lavender and breathe deep. It isn't Provence, but it is a little bit of heaven.

Organic Forms

I am looking out the window at a tree. It has mottled bark decorated with frilly lichens. The branches are wiggly and irregular, held out like the arms of a child reaching up to catch snowflakes. It is a twiggy complicated tree.

I am too much inside rectangular walls these winter days. I wonder what harm it does the psyche to be inside most of our lives. All these flat, pale lifeless surfaces! Today I am wishing I was in a cabin in the forest. It would have a moss-covered roof and low eaves, windows on all sides, and the sound of water running. Natural wood walls and simple furniture would sooth the mind. It would be comfortable and warm inside, but much more closely connected to the outside than our fancy house. There would be less stuff in it, but outside would be all the riches of nature.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Losing Gracefully

Here is an oddball small blessing. I just lost at scrabble - lost quite stupendously - against two seven-letter words augmented with overall fine play by my beloved. It is very easy under such circumstances to become morose and grumpy toward the inevitable end of the game, where I am stuck with a rack-full of unmanageable consonants. We have even had to make a house rule that it is ok to moan and groan when you draw bad letters turn after turn, and partners are not to take offense. However... I feel that the world will be a happier place if I make an effort to lose with a cheerful countenance! I am going to attempt the good old British sportsmanship and "What ho, old boy, well played!" If I can do it without a sarcastic curl to the upper lip, I will consider myself to have laid up a tiny little treasure in Heaven. I will bet there are other occasions in life where my practice in losing gracefully will come in handy.

Then, sometimes, we also have to win gracefully.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

January Fragrance

The sarcococca is blooming. This tidy evergreen shrub with it's boxwood-like leaves is visually quite shy, keeping to the shade, a modest supporting player to the showy asters of fall that grow at its feet. Its white flowers are inconspicuous, followed by purple-black berries in spring. But these shy flowers open in January, just when everything is sodden, chilled and depressing.

Their scent rolls out, filling our porch with rich fragrance. With your eyes closed, you might mistake it for a tropical plant, so lush is its perfume. It is a fragrance that stops visitors in mid-step. "What is that?" they exclaim. We who expect it, stop to inhale - and smile, no matter how gloomy the weather.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Used-Book Stores

Would you rather walk into a big-chain bookstore or a used-book store? No contest for me - the used-book stores have character, and who knows what treasures are to be found inside? They encourage you to linger and explore. The proprietors are usually knowledgeable enthusiasts who will order a book for you if they don't have it.  I enjoy hanging out in a dim corner trolling through boxes of old westerns (yes, I am currently on a fad of reading westerns!) The old recipe books are fascinating and frequently funny - I picked one up today and opened to a recipe titled "Begin four days ahead" calling for a beef muzzle and saltpetre. I put it down quickly when I reached that part.

The only drawback of the these stores is that sometime the books are moldy. That gives me problems, alas, but most book stores are ruthless about discarding musty books.

How about a drizzly day in a small town at the beach, wandering through antique and odd used-book stores?  Sounds good to me!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Digital Cameras

It seems like so long ago that we had to take the film out of our cameras to be developed. Often whatever was on the beginning of the roll had been completely forgotten. Oops, that birthday party was six months ago! One didn't take very many shots (unless you were a National Geographic photographer) because of the cost of processing. The worst result of this was that there was no second or third chance if the focus was off or someone blinked or the top of her head was chopped off.

Our digital camera is cute and pocket-sized. I can be profligate and take many shots of the same subject.  It is so easy to download the pictures to the computer; the program keeps everything sorted into events and labeled by date and time. I can add comments, so that down the road we remember the "who" and "where" of our photos. I can alter the exposure if it comes out too dark or light. This came in handy with the snow pictures I have taken the last two winters because the camera averaged everything out, making the snow rather dingy. It is easy to crop the photos or straighten the tilted ones.

Best of all we can print out lovely color photos at any copy center (our home printer doesn't do that). Yesterday I printed a picture from our trip to Glacier National Park in 2006. This is the reference photo for a watercolor painting I am just beginning. Nothing digital about that endeavor!

I have heard it argued that the photographer's art has been debased by easy-to-use cameras. There are high-end digital cameras for those who love to play with depth of field and the other subtleties of photography, but to me the blessing of our little camera is that it requires hardly any twiddling of dials or fuss to do its job.  The "instant" photo above does just a fine job of taking me back in memory to this exquisite vista at the end of an exciting walk across a snowfield, high in a pass. We even saw mountain goats (a pretty big blessing in itself!)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Pocket Watch

I keep a pocket watch that doesn't keep time.

I keep it because this small thing is a link to one of the greatest blessings of my life. My father was a teacher of doctors. He stood at a blackboard most days.

He also taught dissection, that awe-full and essential part of a doctor's training. He knew every bump and fissure and thread and tube of the human body and understood how it worked with as sure a knowledge as you know your own hand. He was approachable and funny. He was a memorable teacher.

 I keep the watch because of the inside:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Here is a small blessing - zippers. Elias Howe, in 1851, patented an Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure similar to a zipper. Today they are ubiquitous and we take them entirely for granted until they jam. I bought a kit some years ago for mending zippers. It included an instruction book on common causes of zipper problem and how to fix them. The remedy is often quite simple.

Fixing things depends on having an accurate mental model of how they work and the ability to observe. My brother also taught me two more axioms of fixing things. One was the rule of screws: "Righty tighty, lefty loosey!" and the other was, "Assembly is the reverse of disassembly." In other words, take note of the order in which you take things apart and keeps the bits separate. These axioms don't apply to zippers, but they are useful to bear in mind.

So next time the cold wind bites, operate your automatic, continuous clothing closer and think of Mr. Howe.

Public and Private Thoughts

I have been thinking about why I am writing this blog and whether and how I wish to continue it. Friends have told me they enjoy it and have found it increased their awareness of life's small blessings. Others have pointed out that the blogging is for my own benefit, entirely independent of who reads it and what they think about it. Another suggested I keep a private journal on paper.

I know from several past attempts that I will not keep on with a private journal. (Nowadays my joints aren't up to a lot of writing by hand anyway.) It is the same with music - I simply don't play by myself. However, the activities that I do with others, and have kept up for decades - playing music with friends, singing in choir - are sources of unending satisfaction and renewal.

People blog, tweet and post on facebook; clearly the public expression of thoughts is widely appealing. Are we all exhibitionists? There is some innate need for connection at work, which I do not understand. Is it that we are, at heart, tribal, communal, village creatures condemned to isolation by our modern lifestyle? Or are we all egotists, wanting to strut our own ideas before a larger audience? Or is it just the newest medium of self-expression?

Writing like this certainly feels both productive and satisfying - sometimes humbling, as when I realize I have no idea what I am talking about (eg: batteries). I do like it when someone comments on a post, perhaps because it means there really are people out there and this is not a private journal.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Putting away Christmas

C. S. Lewis felt that "always winter, never Christmas" would be a sad thing, but so would "always Christmas". (We come closer every year with the extended pre-Christmas sales season.) In a way, I enjoy putting away the trappings of Christmas as much as taking them out in mid-December.

The first task is to put away the ornaments from the tree. So many of them are laden with meaning (see Dec. 15th post) that I enjoy handling each one again as I pack them safely away.  Next the lights are untangled, coiled and put away. Now the tree looks plain and out-of-place, so different from the  mountain-scented beauty that first stood by our front window. Tim carries it out, leaving a trail of shed needles. We move the furniture back to its usual places and the living room settles into normalcy.

The door wreath is brought in and disassembled, creating more mess. The remaining holiday foods are gradually nibbled away or discarded. I wash and fold the towels and bedding used by departed guests, not resenting any of the cleaning and tidying up. It is part of the changing of the seasons. Just as the sun, reaching the most southerly point of its seasonal journey, stands for the magical moment of Solstice and begins to swing back north, our hearts stand for a few days in the glow of lights, then turn toward the distant but beckoning Spring.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Tim suggested today that batteries are small blessings. We do take them for granted until they give out. Even though I know generally how they work, they are mysterious, locking in all that electricity, just waiting until I press a button to release it. Especially mysterious are the little flat disk ones that look very much like a button or a silver pill.

Our car runs on batteries part of the time - it is a Prius and gets into stealth mode, ghosting along almost silently on battery power alone. It cleverly recharges its own batteries. We leave for the future worrying about what happens when its batteries give out.

Regular car batteries are not so different from those invented by Alessandro Volta in 1800. They are containers with  series of plates of lead and lead dioxide immersed in a sulfuric acid solution. The acid breaks down the metal plates, or electrodes, into positive- and negatively-charged ions, which migrate to the oppositely-charged plates. An electrical potential, in effect a driving force, develops between the negative and positive plates. Connecting them through a device allows a flow of electrons (negatively-charged) toward the positively-charged electrodes. Mind you, the electricity doesn't actually flow out of the battery to the device; the charge provides a push to electrons already in the wire, which move only a tiny distance. Confusing? Yes, well I think I am stating all this correctly, but am not entirely sure!  On top of this, these batteries can be recharged by creating a driving force in the opposite direction with an electric motor (alternator in modern cars). The lead plates eventually corrode away. Then we have to replace our battery.

The small "dry cell" batteries are even more mysterious, although the principle is the same. Alkaline batteries have two metals, usually zinc and manganese dioxide for the negative and positive electrodes, respectively.  They are separated by a gel of strongly alkaline material (as opposed to acid in the car battery). This alkaline material causes the chemical reaction between the metals to take place, causing charged ions to cluster to their oppositely-charged electrode.

Other kinds of batteries use more exotic metals for their electrode and exotic materials for their electrolytes. For instance, we hear about nickle metal hydride batteries and lithium-ion. Battery development is a very high priority for researchers because of the need for long-lived batteries for portable computers and phones and of energy-dense ones (that is, able to produce a lot of electricity for their weight) for electric cars.

Anyone still reading this is a patient soul indeed! Let's appreciate our little batteries for the marvels they really are.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Not the Last

Well, I felt like writing today. As long as you are breathing there is always more, right Gloria?

Tim persuaded me that we should work in the garden while the weather is mild and between rains. It turned out to be very nice outside - pink cheek weather. There were buckets and buckets of rotted leaves and pathetic frozen bits to remove.

But, guess what? The crocus are coming up, as are the snowdrops! I was clearing old brown leaves from around the hellebore, thinking I should cut back last year's leaves in a month or so, but discovered they are already lifting sleek shiny buds above the soil. One plant is already showing the pink promise of flowers opening soon. So I cut back the leaves. That always worries me a bit - doesn't the plant still need those leaves? However, generations of ruthless English gardeners have done it and so do I. It is so nice to be able to see the shy flowers.

The red flowering currant has fat buds, as do many other spring bloomers. The sarcococca hasn't opened it's scented January flowers yet, but they are ready to go.

I think gardening makes one optimistic. Wonderful things always lie ahead.