Sunday, December 30, 2012

a pea-picklin’ end to 2012

Saturday, December 29
Starting Sunday’s post right now because I want to capture the sky. On the horizon is a low bank of clouds that has been there all day and, at this moment, is a soft, suede-like grey-blue. The clear sky above is pale yellow, reaching up then through a full range of robin’s egg blue, interrupted only by a jagged wedge of cloud that is, again, that suede grey but with a slight lower lip of pink. And this is just to the south. Impossible to hold on to as even now, it has changed.

Early now. Head ajumble with pressure, the year’s end. Not the overt pressure to drink, be merry, toot a horn and sing hallelujah with a chorus, but the more subtle pressure to look back, be reflective, and to look ahead, be resolute; the pressure that causes us to codify our lives and make lists of The Best, The Worse, and What I Will Do Next Year To Make My Life Better. Since I am reflective too much of the time and too many times have been fooled by thinking plans make for happy endings, well, it seems folly to set aside time for such activity. Still, I make lists …

2012 Word of the Year: Squally

Tweet of the Year

Things I Had Thought About for Years, Accepted I Would Never Do, Then Suddenly Did
  • Created an Etsy shop
  • Made hand-dipped beeswax tapers

Things I Didn’t Plan At All, Happened Anyway
  • Changed the name of the beeswax business, created a new website/blog and began writing for it on a weekly basis
  • Got on the Twitter train
  • Made two candle molds (botched three)
  • Got a cat
  • Got my mother’s piano
  • Got an abscessed tooth and a root canal
  • Threw cinnamon in the beeswax 

Things I Thought I Would Do But Didn’t
  • Win a million bucks in the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes

Things I Had Hoped To Do and Actually Did
  • Put a railing on the upper deck
  • Made a closet for the bedroom loft out of two old doors, a wooden rod, and some old, free-standing shelving
  • Constructed shelving in the bathroom for light bulbs, tools, mouse traps, nails and screws, twine and tape, batteries and extension cords, vacuum cleaner bags, assorted junk, and down below, a litter box
  • Sold beeswax candles at the Marquette Farmers Market most every Saturday, end of May through a week or so ago

Things That Worked Out Though I Couldn’t See How They Would Until They Did
  • Buster going with me to the farmers market every Saturday (but one)
  • Finding space for all my stuff in a home with no closets
  • Living comfortably in a drafty old cabin that still gives splinters …

There is more, all the nuance, all the oblique, but today I am anxious to complete a slight restructuring of the beeswax closet that began yesterday, with the addition of a shelf, which led me to see that if I took out the boards that make a shelf behind the microwave (necessitating sorting through all the junk on that shelf), and then cut down one of those boards to add to the shelf just made, increasing its depth, and then added another shelf above it … well, as you can see, there is much to do. The beeswax closet is an odd space tucked below the stairs, open to the kitchen but its narrowing depths accessible only through a hobbit-like door that opens into the living room. It is the center of this 20-by-25-foot cabin, and it grabbed my imagination the moment I walked in.

The door.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

in a snow globe with buster: it was just the winter solstice

I may have mentioned that Buster tends to sleep in these days, not getting up when the rest of us do, the rest of us being Elliott (the cat), and me. As the morning routine begins without him, I adjust ever so slightly, now and then pausing to listen for the sound of snoring or the sound of snuffling or the sound of stumbling about. If I hear the stumbling or snuffling or nothing at all, I go upstairs to check on him, Buster, my old dog.

This morning the snoring stopped. I went upstairs, leaving the oatmeal cooking on the stove. Buster seemed to be asleep, then lifted his head, put it down, stirred just a bit. I flipped the switch to turn on the outside light and saw that snow was falling. By trying to stand, Buster helped me to lift him from his nest in the bed, and I carried him downstairs, through the living room, the kitchen, out the back door, down the three steps to the yard where I set him down. He took a minute. Sneezed. Righted himself. Shook out his fur and took cautious steps.

I went in to turn off the flame under the oatmeal. On the radio, a chorale singing carols had gone from decking the halls to Gloria. Even though I don’t usually listen to Christmas carols on the radio, it was too early for the news, and the carols sounded good, so I left it. In excelsis Deo followed me as I went back out to check on Buster.

A half hour before dawn, the sky a deep, dark blue. I could see out through the fields, the little trees dotting the landscape, inky shapes taking on a fresh shadow of white. Snowflakes danced in the slightest of winds, weaving in and out of the spotlight’s beam, falling downward, drifting upward, skewing this way, toddling off that way. Buster peed, and then as he hobbled to and fro, trying to discern his way, I went over to him. He felt my shadow, stopped, waited for me to pick him up. I carried him the few feet back to the house, walking through a snow globe, gently shaken.

Buster peeing in the snow, circa April 2011.
He no longer lifts a leg to pee.
Buster photos by D. Sobolewski.

The other morning out of the corner of my ear I heard a report about the Mayan end-of-the-world that did not happen, that was not, after all, really predicted to happen, but was just a calendar ending, and someone was explaining this, a man with what struck me as a soft, practical, slightly amused voice, and somehow relating it to the winter solstice, that shortest, darkest day of the year that people of old celebrated, in a sense, as it marked getting through a darkening time and on to the days when days brightened, having to start somewhere, of course, so the brightest days starting with a day just the tiniest bit brighter than the darkest day before. I am mangling this report, but whatever the man said reverberated and shook things up in my head, just a little, and when the thoughts drifted down, I celebrated.

View from a winter solstice.

{Every Sunday since July 29.}

Sunday, December 16, 2012

building bridges

A few weeks back I dug holes in the earth and planted flower bulbs. Hidden inside the bulbs are yellow and orange daffodils and purple and white crocus. As each bulb disappeared, smoothed over with dirt, a hopefulness arose.

The “yard” around my cabin when I moved in was simply acres of overgrown farm fields abutting against this structure set down in its midst. With a scythe and reel mower I chopped away at the knee-high grass and wildflowers. The mowing took so much time in May and June and July that I wondered when I would ever get to other chores. This year, the second year, I pushed the lawn out a bit, still with the scythe and reel mower, which was so much easier to use after I replaced the two small “C” rings that keep the mower's handle from falling off. (I had lost the rings the first summer, making do, as it were, with spare wire.)


All summer, I mowed around five piles of moldy old scrap wood and in November burned four of those piles. As I pushed the yard outward, I discovered and discarded mounds of deteriorating blue tarp, clear plastic water bottles, a few rusty beer cans, and what might best be called the flotsam and jetsam of human life. And I went out into the overgrown fields, bringing back nine trees to transplant around the house—one birch, five spruce, three serviceberries. The birch, moved in April, seems to have taken, but the serviceberries are questionable. The spruce, just moved in November, have so far held their own against some pretty powerful northwest winds.

This morning, a light rain dampens the few splotches of snow dotting the yard. In the fields, the grasses lie low lorded over by skeletons of goldenrod. It is easier to traipse about the fields when there is snow on the ground, as long as you’re in snowshoes, and I did this a week or so ago, finding a stand of young birch just beyond a patch of old, broken-down apple trees. Nearby, at the end of a deer trail, there is a plot of white pine. The mother pine is as big as a house and saplings of all sizes surround. In the spring, I will transplant one of those saplings, maybe two, to the south edge of the yard and bring in another birch or two. I will move wild roses to a bed along the porch’s west side. Towards the head of the drive there is a viburnum tucked back in the brush, on the edge of the gully, and it is sending up shoots which I hope to transplant along the south side of the new carport. In the fields, red-twig dogwood abounds, and the other day I uncovered one that is just beyond the yard on the cabin’s north side. With hedge clippers I cleared around it and in the spring will be mowing that much farther out. I can see the dogwood from the window above the kitchen sink and admire its dashes of red amid the brown and grey, muted green, tired wheat.

Red-twig dogwood.

Every day I stumble forward, stumble back, make infinite mistakes and maybe, just maybe, get a few things right. With any luck, bright colors, once buried, come forth.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

burn, candle, burn: but how? ... that's my beeswax

A variety of beeswax candles.
As much as I enjoy rambling on about other things, it’s time for a little information on beeswax and candle burning. It seems simple. Strike a match, touch flame to wick, there you go. But why does the wick take the flame? How does it keep it? Keeping the flame alive is such a hard thing to do.

Candle combustion is well explained in Beeswax: Production, Harvesting, Processing and Products by William L. Coggshall and Roger A. Morse. This book is somewhat of a little beeswax bible, and in it are many gems and nuggets, such as:
The beginner making beeswax candles is likely to experience some difficulty in determining the correct wicking to use. (Amen to that, brother.)

… a draft is the candle’s worst enemy. (Amen.)

Beeswax is a natural product and this in itself means there is variation in it. (Thank you, Mother Nature.)

… pollen and propolis stain the wax and are the primary sources of beeswax’s distinctive color and odor. (Thanks again, Ma.)

If greasy, first wash with warm beer. (Nothing to do with candles, of course, but in a recipe for a wood cleaner. Fresh beer is not necessary.)
The explanation of candle combustion is a couple of pages long, but the essence is this:
A candle burning properly is the result of interactions among candle diameter, wax, wick, air movements, drafts, and other factors.
So, if you stare dreamily at a burning candle, it may actually be the scientist in you studying the intricate interactions necessary to bring forth this single flame.

The original Soo Line beeswax candle.

Okay, so all you want is a “proper” burn. First, get yourself a proper candle. Determining the size, wax* (including fragrance and dye additives), and wick is the chandler’s responsibility. Everything else is yours, and this is it:
Avoid drafts.
Drafts can be dangerous, drafts can put a candle out. A draft can cause a flame to veer slightly one way or another, causing one side of the candle to melt a little sooner than the other, leading to drips of wax, maybe a messed up tablecloth, a drained wax pool, a leaping flame, a candle burning more quickly than it might otherwise. Stuff like that. In addition, each time you burn your candle, burn it as long as it takes for the wax pool (the melted wax around the flame) to reach the edge of the candle. If you burn the candle for less time, you will probably get a tunneling effect. If at any time the flame becomes larger than you like, douse it and trim the wick to about one-quarter inch before relighting. That’s about it. Though some day I should write about drips. I’m sure I’ve known a few. And oh yes, don’t let your kids play with candles, especially at the dinner table.

Meanwhile, out come the Christmas decorations.
P.S. When  putting out your candle, if you would prefer that the wick not smolder, use a metal rod of some sort, like a a shish kebob skewer, to dunk the flame in the wax pool. Once the flame is out, lift the wick out of the pool.

*Candles can be made of many different substances known as “wax.” From the website of The Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers:
Throughout most of recorded history in Europe, wax has meant beeswax. During the past 150 years a number of other substances have become known as waxes—a loosely defined term referring to substances with similar properties to beeswax, namely:
  • plastic (malleable) at normal ambient temperatures
  • a melting point above approximately 45 °C (113 °F) (which differentiates waxes from fats and oils)
  • a relatively low viscosity when melted (unlike many plastics)
  • insoluble in water
  • hydrophobic
Today waxes may be natural secretions of plants or animals, artificially produced by purification from natural petroleum or completely synthetic. Thus waxes can be further categorized as natural, synthetic, mineral hydrocarbon and petroleum.

{ Now go burn your candles! Properly! }

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Saturday night dinners, with candlelight

On Saturday nights we ate in the dining room. My dad grilled a steak and my mom baked potatoes. There would be some kind of vegetable and an iceberg lettuce salad. The table was laid with a cloth, usually green, and two tapered candles in unassuming brass holders. The candles also were green, sometimes white or ivory, always paraffin. We used everyday dishes, and I like to think that one of us girls willingly helped Mom to set the table, but that would be stretching it. I do know I enjoyed lighting the candles and did so when told it was time. My dad would bring in the steak, someone would pick out music, and then, as the first scratches came through the hi-fi speakers, we paused. Would it be South Pacific? Camelot? High Spirits? As the overture began to play, someone would “Name That Musical” and dinner would begin.

My dad served from his spot at the head of the table, a slice of steak, a baked potato, whatever vegetable lay in wait. Plates would be passed, the first going to me, on my dad’s right, my eldest sister being the intermediary. The second plate went to my dad’s left, to the middle sister. Then back to his right, to the eldest. And I wonder now: What is all this squabbling about? For I can hear the whining and moaning and teasing as I write this. Whatever the vegetable was, I would refuse it, and in turn my mother would urge me to try it, assuring me that it was as sweet as candy. Peas, especially, were as sweet as candy. It all starts to echo and grow and be riffed upon, and now I see my eldest sister has curlers in her hair and really would like to be back in her room, away from it all. There seems to be all this noise. My father carries boldly on, trying to serve us each as we please, always asking if we want this or that rather than just doling it out, and when it’s my mother’s turn and he asks if she would like some peas she says with great animation, “Why yes, thank you! I would love some peas. They are so sweet—just like candy!” And the echoing begins anew.

After we each have a plate, we say grace, then eat. We are to mind our manners, have polite conversation. But we prefer to make each other laugh, and especially want to make Dad laugh, and my middle sister has a knack for this. A simple story of one day in the seventh or eighth grade has him in stitches, falling off his chair. This relieves the pressure on me to eat vegetables and allows my eldest sister to slip away, if she so chooses. Politics and issues of the day are rare topics, though as we get older, things such as Vietnam and Nixon, marijuana and racism all make it to the table, sometimes with the help of company, but sometimes not. Usually, I suppose, it was just chatter about our daily lives.

After dinner, the table was cleared by one of us girls, and this chore was never bemoaned, as it was the lead-in to dessert, most likely a bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. About this time the candles became enticing. How slowly could you put your finger through the flame? What might happen if you held a spoon this close? How about this close? And how about we push at that little lip of wax around the melted pool … No, we were not to play with candles, and yet at the dinner table we always did. But only with the tapers. There were often other candles, like the little 15-cent-each pilgrim boys and girls, but they were never lit and could not, under any circumstance, be lit. I have a very dark memory of once threatening to burn a pilgrim, taunting my mother with it, but I do not remember if I am holding the little pilgrim’s wick close to the burning taper’s flame or if my sister is. One is threatening while the other watches, daring it to happen. Was there a quick flame and curl of smoke? Did we realize in a flash that we had crossed a line we had better not?

On Sundays, my sisters and I ate hamburgers and chips in the back room while watching “The Wonderful World of Disney.” My parents ate their burgers in the kitchen, alone, in peace, without candlelight.

{Who knew paraffin was toxic? Luckily, we survived. Thanks for visiting!}