31 March 2010

Vanilla, vanilla and...vanilla

I have quite a bit of catch up to do since we're approaching May's midpoint, and I left my blog dormant through most of April. I think for now, I'll just plod along and leave the posts up on the day I post them for a bit, and I'll backlog them later. Here's a post I actually wrote back around Easter weekend but never posted because I couldn't get a camera and a cord and a computer all in the same place at the same time. But I have finally triumphed on that count, so without further ado, here is a very old post for your reading enjoyment:

I have so many baked goods in my apartment right now it's ridiculous. I have The Best Fudge Brownies Ever that Jason made for me. Those are enough to satisfy my every culinary desire. But several special occasions this weekend required my baking skills. And here I am to tell you all about them.

The first occasion was Jason's brother Josh and Josh's friend Justin were coming for a visit. There were driving out from Chicago to visit a couple of schools on the east coast, and they were wondering if they could crash with us. All they needed or asked for was a place to sleep. Yeah, like I could have guests coming into my house and not make sure that they were well-fed. And on top of a family visit, it was Josh's birthday. So of course I was going to make him a birthday cake, right? Right. So Jason called his mom and asked what kind of cake Josh likes: vanilla cake with vanilla frosting. Of course. Talk about my nightmare dessert. Not the slightest hint of chocolate to be found. Oh well. It was Josh's birthday, not mine, so I made him what he would like.

I used a recipe from Megan's mother-in-law that is known as "Mrs. Benson's Cake." It is an excellent doctored cake mix recipe with the perfect texture. (Before you yell at me for not posting the recipe here, rest assured that I am working on a full recipes page, and it will be included therein.) It called for two 10" cake pans, but I only have 8" cake pans, so I used those thinking it wouldn't make too much of a difference. But when the cakes were done they were quite high, and layering them on top of each other would have made for a very tall cake indeed. So I decided to make 2 mini-cakes instead, cutting each cake in half horizontally to add a layer of frosting. Vanilla frosting. I only made one of the two and saved the 2nd cake for later frosting.

Josh and Justin and Jason all really liked the vanilla-vanilla cake. I thought the pillsbury vanilla frosting on a vanilla cake was kind of gross. But they were happy, so one chocolate-less dessert success.

Before my victory could settle, I had to think ahead to my Easter lunch. Jason and I were invited to have lunch with our neighbors, Megan and John (who we LOVE), and a few of their friends we didn't know very well. I volunteered to bring my mom's from-scratch mac'n'cheese (again, recipe forthcoming) and a dessert. Megan was making some sort of chocolate pie, so once again, I felt that I had to make a non-chocolate dessert. "Well, fine," I thought. "At least I already have a good cake to start with. But I am NOT frosting this one with store-bought vanilla icing because it will be gross and I've never met some of the other people we're having lunch with, so this is my chance to make a good impression." So I searched madly through my cookbooks for a good vanilla frosting recipe, which I found in trusty old Better Homes and Gardens. I headed to the grocery store to pick up a box of confectioners sugar.

We were also invited over to my pastor's family's house for Easter dinner. It took me a very long time to get back to them because I wasn't sure what time lunch would be. When I finally worked out the timing, all of the primary dinner elements were covered, so I volunteered to bring...you guessed it...a dessert. But there was no way I would be compelled to make yet another chocolate-less dessert. So while I was at the grocery store, I picked up the ingredients to make Robin's Chocolate Raspberry Bundt Cake of Deliciousness. (That's what it's called in my family traditions cookbook.) I got everything I needed, and when I got back to my parking spot, I decided it would be a good idea to call and see if it was alright for me to bring a chocolate cake. I expected an answer along the lines of, "Heck yeah! Your chocolate raspberry bundt cake is delicious! No way we're turning that down." But instead I was met with, "Someone else is already bringing chocolate cake." I was crushed, thoroughly discouraged and slightly perturbed and indignant that someone else would dare to make a chocolate cake when I was coming to dinner. Then the small rational voice interjected with, "They probably don't know you're coming and that you're on dessert duty." Okay, okay. Fine. I won't make my chocolate cake. But I am NOT going back to the grocery store. So I trudged inside with my now useless groceries.

I spent the next several hours in a mad search through my cookbooks, trying to find something that was not chocolate (so my dessert wouldn't completely put the chocolate cake to shame, so grand was my indignance) and not vanilla (because I most certainly was NOT going to make 3 chocolate-less desserts in 3 days). After hours spread out on the living room floor with the boys trying to watch March Madness over my indignant huffs and puffs over vanilla desserts, I finally settled on my mom's Cape May squares from my family traditions cookbook. Surprise surprise. I don't know why I have so many books of recipes when I almost always end up making something from my mom's arsenal. I had everything I needed to make them. Except that I'd have to use the confectioner's sugar intended for my homemade frosting. Good thing I bought some chocolate frosting at the grocery store just in case. I hoped Megan wouldn't mind and was somewhat relieved that there would be some chocolate in my weekend.

So I frosted cake #2 with chocolate fudge chip frosting, made my best batch of mac'n'cheese ever, and set to work on the Cape May squares. How can I describe Cape May squares? They are a layered bar with yellow cake on the bottom and...a sort of sweet, cream cheese custard on top. They are way better than they sound. But I wanted to add a little interest so I mixed in some of my homemade strawberry jam with the cream cheese layer. I cut up the squares and put them on a plate so I could test one and make sure they were edible. The result was subtle and delicious. And my presentation of the bars, all arranged in a diamond configuration and covered in powdered sugar and adorned with strawberries and freshly picked flowers, was quite impressive. But I forgot to take a picture. Of course.

So here are the remnants of the vanilla x's 3 Easter weekend.
And here is what I learned: if you're going to make dessert, claim chocolate early.

30 March 2010

Good Friday

Now that I'm all caught up, I figure it would be good to not wait a month before posting again. Consistency...that's the goal...

Two weeks ago was was Holy Week. Church wise, Holy Week is my favorite week of the year. It is power-packed with goodness. Sure, I love the Christmas pageant, the Christmas Eve service, the general spirit of Advent, the deep mystery of the Incarnation, the Christmas carols. There isn't much that tops Christmas. But it's Holy Week that houses my favorite service of the year: Good Friday.

Maybe that's weird. Maybe it's strange that I look forward to a service that centers around the death of Jesus, that focuses on His agony and barely even glimpses to Sunday morning so as not to rush too quickly from death to resurrection. Historically, I have not enjoyed Good Friday services. I much prefer the Easter Eve vigil type of service, one that is triumphant and celebratory and even somewhat raucous in its exultation. But for the past two years, my church has celebrated Good Friday in a very particular way. Last year we went through the 7 words of Christ from the cross. This year, we did 8 stations of the cross, following Christ's journey from Pilot's sentence to Jesus' death.

I've been to 3-hour-long Good Friday services where several local churches come together and the pastors each share a mini-sermon on one or two of the last words of Christ. From what I remember, those services were dry and dull and intentionally depressing. Granted, I was young. Even now, I don't really do "sad" well and even less so then when I would rather be skipping around sheep fields in my pigtails than sitting inside a dark church on a beautiful spring day that I had off of school.

But my church goes through these meditations through the eyes of lay people, each sharing their insights and gifts in a different way. Each person has a different perspective, a different way of looking at Good Friday. And even though each person and each reflection is so unique, the service flows together seamlessly, a perfect tapestry displaying the beauty of the body of Christ. It is deeply beautiful and profoundly powerful. This service models what I think the Church should look like, each person using his or her gifts to benefit the rest of the community.

This year, we included several art-based reflections: two drawings and a song. Music is a staple of any Christian gathering, but I loved the presence and valuing of physical art in the service. Recently, Andy Crouch came to Gordon College and spoke about culture-making and the need for the local church to encourage and promote all sorts of making. This is an issue that is very close to my heart. I struggle a lot with what it means to be a Christian artist...not a person who produces art that has outright Christian themes and messaging, but a Christian who is also an artist (or an artist who is also a Christian) and the intersection of those two classifications. I struggle with how so labeled "Christian art" is often of a lesser quality than what those outside of the church are producing. I blame this somewhat on limited resources but Christians are plugged into the ultimate resource: an infinitely creative God. So that is really no excuse. I think the bigger issue is that the church is very good at accepting people's "offerings" of their gifts and encouraging them for trying. This is evidenced by church camp talent shows where the people who get the loudest applause are those who are trying rather than succeeding. We celebrate their courage and their effort. We're good at doing that, and that's good. But I think we fall short in two equally important and equally compassionate areas: 1) guiding people who are not gifted in certain areas toward areas in which they are gifted, and 2) training up and encouraging people who are gifted in certain areas to become more excellent and promoting excellence as a worthy and God-glorifying value. Okay, I'm going to end my soapbox rant there and go back to the Good Friday service...

Last year, I put together a masterpiece I entitled "The Blood Medley." It is an arrangement of all of the best good old Methodist blood hymns: Nothing but the Blood, When I Survey, Hallelujah What a Savior (Yes, I used a song with Hallelujah during Lent. All you good high church people, know that I struggled with this and found it to be unavoidable.), There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood, Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, and And Can It Be. Because I was working with such quality source material, The Blood Medley is nothing short of brilliant. Solid gold.

My pastor asked me to do The Blood Medley again the next time we did Communion at church. Sadly, though brilliant, The Blood Medley is also very vocally challenging, and it requires two voices, and every time communion rolled around (which is sadly only once a month), either Jason or I was sick and incapable of producing the necessary vocal range for a performance worthy of The Blood Medley in all its glory. This was the case for this year's Good Friday service as well. Sorry, Blood Medley. You'll have to lie dormant for at least another month.

This year, I was asked not to provide a bonus musical number but rather to give one of the actual meditations in song form. My station was the crucifixion, Jesus being nailed to the cross, the thieves on His right and left, the mocking of the crowd. I've been thinking about the song for weeks. I wanted to write a hymn. I had the opening line of each verse and a haunting melody that is probably a combination of several hymn melodies already in existence. I had a framework for what I wanted each verse to communicate. I had a few ideas for words and lines that fit in my rhythmic scheme. So I figured it would be a relatively easy song to write. I would string together some of the best loved phrases from the classic hymns and paint them into a new story. Well, an old story but told in a new way, like those photo mosaics that use tiny photographs to recreate a classic image (like this one)...existing pieces of art used together in a new way to display a grander scheme. So with so many puzzle pieces in hand, I thought this would be an easy song to write. Just put it all together and fill in the gaps. Easy peasy, right? Wrong.

I had the hardest time bringing it all together. I just couldn't communicate what I wanted to communicate. I spent a long time bashing myself on the head with this song. I asked Jason for help. We talked through the significance of the crucifixion, the depths of Christ's suffering, the deep realities of the cross. And the song just wouldn't write. So I walked away from it for a few days, weeks, whatever. And then Good Friday came up and I still didn't have a song for the service that night. So I sat down and I tried again.

It's generally hard for me to get in the spirit of Good Friday. There is a part of me that minimalizes Christ's suffering on the cross because I feel like anything is endurable for a short amount of time, especially when you know it won't last forever and something good will come out of it and you'll be fully restored in the end. In a season marked by an unclear future and purpose--a season in which I feel like swiss cheese and uncertainty is the holes--the cross does not stir the proper emotions of compassion and conviction because Jesus knew it didn't end there. He knew the victory to come. He knew the pain wouldn't last forever. Maybe I'm wrong about that. Maybe His scars still burn with the sins of the world. I don't know. Maybe that's completely theologically off-base. But all that being said, I had a very hard time writing a stirring song about the crucifixion.

So I decided to scrap it all, all the partial verses I had trudged through, the neat little framework I had built. And I added a chorus. A simple, "Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy on me." I ended up scrapping the chorus for the final performance of the song, but it was a necessary starting point in writing the song...the pencil lines behind the sketch that made the whole thing meaningful for me. And I started writing.

As I wrote, I was called to remember that the hands and feet that bore the nails belonged to a Person. And not just any person...a Person who performed miracles with those very same hands and feet. I thought about the people He healed, the children He encountered, His gentle touch as He imparted healing and love and forgiveness for sins. I remembered the places He walked, the dust He gathered on His sandaled feet and the hems of His robes. I remembered that He was a person. A person who went places and did amazing things. And how tragic it was for His followers, His friends, the world, to lose such a person as that to a bloody and humiliating death.

I remembered the mocking. I condemned the mockers for their impudence and audacity. How dare they shout curses at a dying, seemingly helpless man, let alone a man they bowed down and worshiped days before? I was angry at them. Disgusted. Ready to call down fire from heaven.

I wanted to remind those people about just Who it was that they were crucifying. I wanted them to know that they were killing and cursing the Person who gave them life and held more power than they could imagine. I wanted them to know that He was innocent and they were guilty. And that's why He was dying before their eyes.

And then I tried to imagine the baseness and hardness of heart that would stir those people to be so angry and cruel. I thought about their expectations of Messiah, their oppression from the Romans, their hope that He would come and free them from years of subjection and derision and restore them to a favor with God that would be witnessed and feared by their captors. They wanted justice, violent and triumphant justice. They expected a conquering King. And He was finally there. They knew the kind of power He had displayed. And then they saw Him hanging on a cross, giving up on the cause, not fighting back...silent like a lamb being led to slaughter. Powerless. Weak. A failure. Their deepest longings, all their hopes and expectations, all the ways they dreamed the prophesies would be fulfilled, were hanging on a Roman cross. And to them, that meant that this man was not the Christ as He had claimed to be. And to lie about something so sacred, to manipulate their deepest and most heartfelt expectations, was a sin guilty of a public and torturous death. I don't know anger or indignation that would compel me to mock a dying man. But I do know what it's like to have an expectation of what it will look like when God shows up, to feel as though He has promised me grand deliverance, and to have my hopes thoroughly disappointed. I know that it doesn't make me sad. It makes me angry. It makes me question who God says He is. It makes me feel as though I am entitled to a more powerful God. And now I know, that when I demand anything of God other than Who He is and what He does, it makes me just like those people shouting at Jesus to come down off the cross and save Himself. He could have. But He didn't. And those people are the reason. I am the reason. He cared more about saving me than about sparing Himself. His desire and passion for a restored relationship with His creation was greater than the pain, the shame, the death. And that is why the cross is a symbol of strength and of victory. Because He was able to forsake and restrain His power and to love a twisted and corrupted people and to say, "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing."

And it is in that spirit that I wrote this song and that I now share it with you. Without any further ado, I give you my Good Friday offering...

"They Nailed My Jesus to a Cross"

They nailed my Jesus to a cross.
They nailed His hands and feet,
The hands that made the leper clean
And caused the blind to see,
The feet that walked upon the waves,
Those wondrous feet and hands
now covered with Messiah's blood.
Behold! The Son of Man.

They nailed my Jesus to a cross,
A thief on either side.
And all around the crowd demands
My Lord be crucified.
He could have called the angels down
So justice would be served,
But He Himself bore all the wrath
Their guilty souls deserved.

They nailed my Jesus to a cross,
God's one and only Son,
Light of the world, the Word made flesh,
The Christ, the Holy One.
Behold Him now, the mighty King,
His glory veiled in shame.
My Lord was broken and condemned
Though I deserve the blame.

I nailed my Jesus to a cross.
'Twas I who drove the nails
With all my sin and all my pride
And all the ways I've failed.
Yet Jesus looks down from the cross,
So ready to forgive.
He says, "My child, do not fear.
I died so you could live."

Once again, this is a weak and partial half-disclosure. Without the intro, the melody, Jason's brilliant piano accompaniment, this is just a poem, and not an excellent one at that. I felt bound, limited within the constructs of the song. There's so much more I wanted to communicate. I found myself repeatedly complaining, "There just isn't enough room!" Maybe the chorus would have helped that. Maybe not. But there you have it. Another song. My 3rd in 8 weeks of this 2nd year of weekly makes. I've had one awful, one brilliant, and one good enough. Which is exciting to me after a full year of creativity unmarked by music. I might finish this song with a resurrection verse. Maybe not. We'll see. I think if I went back to it, I would feel the need to edit, which is not fun for me, so I probably won't. But the song served its Good Friday purpose. And it gave Jason and I another opportunity to play an original song together, which I just loved. So I am satisfied.

29 March 2010

A Brightly-Colored Mushroom

Last Saturday morning, I woke up early. Not on purpose. The one day I get to sleep in...but no such luck. There really is no good explanation for why I was so wide awake on a Saturday morning. I am never ever wide awake. Ever. The only reason I can conjure is that I was having a dream that would not allow me to sleep any more. In my dream I was crocheting. But I wasn't crocheting the granny square blanket I've been working on for almost 2 months now. And I wasn't crocheting the cute slippers I made for my sisters for Christmas. I was crocheting a mushroom. And in my dream, I figured out how to do it. So I think my dream woke me up so that I could use this new knowledge it had worked out for me.

I obediently got out of bed, packed up a hook and some yarn, and Jason and I headed to Panera. Because really, if I'm going to be awake in the AM hours of a Saturday, I'm getting an asiago bagel bacon egg and cheese sandwich out of it. (Seriously, if you haven't had one of these, it will change your life. Go to your nearest Panera tomorrow morning and get one. They serve them up to 10:30am Sunday-Friday and up to 11:00 on Saturdays.) There we sat in Panera, Jason working on the computer and me crocheting a mushroom.

And as it turns out, my dream was right. I do know how to crochet a mushroom although I had never done it whilst awake. Here it is:
Pretty cute, huh? I have absolutely no idea what the point is of a crocheted mushroom is, but there you have it. I can do it. My dream taught me how.

Also during that Panera trip, I read through a journal I wrote while I was on a 3 week wilderness expedition before I started my freshman year of college. I had never really been camping before, but I thought that if I could get through 3 weeks hiking through the wilderness with 8 complete strangers, freshman year of college would be a breeze.

So I set out into the woods with my new hiking boots and my new hiking backpack and absolutely no idea about what I was getting myself into. And let me tell you, it was one of the most difficult and physically taxing experiences of my life. There were times when I thought to myself, "What if I just walked into that ditch right there and twisted my ankle? They couldn't make me keep going." Don't get me wrong...it was also one of the most satisfying and beneficial things I've ever done. But there were moments and days when it was really hard.

In one of those moments, I saw a little brightly-colored mushroom growing on the forest floor. It was a little burst of orange in an otherwise brown landscape, and I thought to myself, "That is one colorful mushroom in an otherwise very drab environment. It looks so out of place, but here it is. And it's doing just fine. If that little mushroom can survive and even thrive in this environment, so can I." And from that moment on, whenever I saw a brightly-colored mushroom, I was reminded that I belonged there and that God was with me and that I could still be my colorful little self, even in the middle of the wilderness.

It was one of many lessons He taught me in those 3 weeks. But I think it's especially pertinent to my life now. So I brought that little crocheted mushroom into my office, and it's now sitting on my desk reminding me that I can be a little burst of color in a somewhat drab environment, that God is with me, and that I'm going to be just fine.

28 March 2010

The Best Fudge Brownies Ever

When I get in a food slump, I like to read the recipes that come on the back of food packaging. I hardly ever actually try them, but they often inspire me to use that food item for something other than the specific purpose for which I bought it.

Cooking is something I want to be really good at. And to be really good at anything, first you have to learn to follow the rules, and then once you've mastered the art, you can break the rules all you want, and then it's called ingenuity. But if you never follow the rules and just do your own thing from the start, you'll never reach mastery of anything. This goes for poetry, music, painting, science, exegesis, driving, language, you name it. Every medium has its limits, and you must first learn to respect those limits before you break them.

But I get bored following all the rules. Which is probably why I'm the jill-of-all-trades type. I learn just enough about something so I can improvise because my goal is always to create something new. (Okay, maybe not with driving, but you get my point.) I run into this issue a lot with sewing. I have a really hard time completely following a pattern. I also have issues following recipes. I like to add my own ideas, change things up, bring something into existence that has never existed before!!! It's just more exciting for me that way. And maybe the end product is not always "better" than the result the recipe or the pattern or the rules stipulated. But it's an exercise in imagination, and I think that's more important.

But then I bought a bag of King Arthur Flour. And on the back was the recipe for "The Best Fudge Brownies Ever." Now I am sure that plenty of people have made that claim, but when King Arthur makes a claim about a baked good, you best listen. So I did. I made the recipe without one single alteration. And let me tell you...these are the best fudge brownies ever. So here, for your culinary pleasure--without alteration or interference from your truly (except to say that I used ghirardelli cocoa and mini chocolate chips)--is the recipe:

"There's no dessert more satisfying than a warm, fudgy brownie; and we daresay these are the best brownies you'll ever bake. Cut through the shiny, delicate top crust to reveal a deep-dark, rich, super-moist brownie underneath, perfect with a cold glass of milk (or a scoop of vanilla ice cream!)."

The Best Fudge Brownies Ever
1 cup (8 ounces) butter
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups Duth-process cocoa
1/2 teaspoon salt*
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups chocolate chips

*Increase the salt to 1 teaspoon if you use unsalted butter.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9x13-inch pan.

In a saucepan set over low heat, melt the butter, then add the sugar and stir to combine. Return the mixture to the heat briefly, just until it's hot, but not bubbling; it'll become shiny looking as you stir it. (Heating the butter and sugar a second time will dissolve more of the sugar, which will yield a shiny top crust on your brownies.) Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl.

Stir in the cocoa, salt, baking powder, and vanilla. Add the eggs, beating until smooth; then add the flour and chocolate chips, beating until well combined. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the brownies for 28-30 minutes, until a cake tested inserted into the center comes out dry (though it may have a few crumbs clinging to it). The brownies should feel set both on the edges, and in the center. Remove them from the oven, and after 5 minutes loosen the edges with a table knife. (This helps prevent the brownies from sinking in the center as they cool.) Cool completely before cutting and serving. Yield: 2 dozen brownies.

(Disclaimer: I forgot to take a picture of my brownies. This is a picture from the King Arthur website from a similar recipe.)

Is your tummy growling yet? Mine sure is. I am thoroughly taken by these brownies. Those of you well versed in the art of brownie-making will know that these are just a touch on the cakey side due to the 4 eggs. So that means they're not quite as chewy as box brownies. For a long time, I thought box brownies were the pinnacle of browniedom. But there's just something about brownies made from scratch. They're just so satisfying. Jason thinks they're a little on the rich side. He's probably right. It's a good idea to make these when you have a few friends to help with the consumption. And seriously, friends and homemade brownies? It doesn't get much better than that.

edit: Blogging about these brownies today was just slightly tortuous. So I resolved to make them as soon as I got home from work. I trudged home through the rain salivating over these deliciocities. And lo and behold, I walked in the door and was greeted by the most fantastic husband ever and a pan of freshly baked "best fudge brownies ever." Yeah, I know. You are all jealous. And you should be. These brownies (and Jason too) rock my face off!

27 March 2010

A Flower for Tea

Last year for my birthday, Jason took me out to tea. We went to a little tea shop in Salem next to Rita's Water Ice, and he diligently sat with me and ate scones and tea sandwiches because that is my ideal meal and one of my most favorite things to do. He drew the line at cucumber sandwiches, so I ate all of those. It was a lovely time. He also gave me a "coupon" to be taken out to tea sometime again within the next year.

Well, my birthday is coming up again soon, and I wanted to make sure to use my coupon before it expired. So a few weekends ago, we planned a date at The Wenham Tea House, which is the oldest continually operating tea house in the country.

I was very excited to go to afternoon tea. I wanted to get all cute and dressed up and springy because that just seems appropriate for tea. I know that people have afternoon tea all year round, but it just seems like a springish thing to do. Maybe it's the flowers on the teacups. I don't know. But regardless, I envisioned a springtime afternoon tea experience.

Unfortunately, I live in New England, and we don't really get spring here. We get endless winter followed by a few weeks of freezing rain and mud and then the trees start blooming around the end of May and two days later, it's summer. So as you can imagine, on the mid-March day Jason and I set out for afternoon tea, it was just above freezing and raining in torrents. There go my cute springtime attire plans.

But I would not be defeated. I found my warmest skirt/sweater combo and went to work on a coordinating headband that would add some flowery goodness to the ensemble. And here it is:
Unfortunately, I took these pictures on another rainy day so the color isn't fantastic. The flower is actually a bright purple, so it springed up my outfit quite nicely for a lovely pseudo-spring afternoon tea.

26 March 2010


Let the catching up begin. Bring on March! Contrary to what you may think given the pleasantness of the warming up of the world, I really do not like March. I find it absurd that a 31 day month does not include a single holiday. And by the time March rolls around, I have no patience for its flip-floppy weather. Just be warm! What is so hard about that?? Okay, enough ranting. Now we can bring on March.

My first weekly make of March was quite a mystery for some time...even to me. I had been rummaging through my fabric scrap drawer and had come across some lovely strips of flannel. I decided that I would make some sort of bag using a single continuous strip of cloth. I was inspired by a bag I had seen once that was made entirely out of a continuous zipper. Here is a pretty good example. If you need a little better of an explanation, here is a scary infomercial-type video that shows how it works. Yikes.

Anyway, that was my starting point. I decided to use two different fabrics to emphasize the sweet diagonalness of the pattern. And I just started sewing the long strip to itself winding around and around as I went. (I really need to start taking in-process shots because I'm sure this makes no sense.) When the strip ran out, I stopped sewing and evaluated what I had...which was a bag with 3 corners on the bottom. I spent the next 2 hours--Yes...2 hours--trying to figure out how to tuck in the bottom single-cornered side so that I would have a nice rectangular, flat bottom with a front and back and sides that were squared off. I folded and pinned and unpinned and refolded. I cut out a cardboard bottom to see if pinning around a solid piece would be easier. It wasn't. In short, this bag--or whatever it was--totally owned me.

So I took a rotary cutter to it. (That's the sewing equivalent to a pizza wheel.) I cut off the double cornered half and sewed up the side. I now had a flat bag. Much smaller than my original intention and not nearly as cool. But it turns out that when you sew a strip of fabric diagonally and 3-dimensionally, it just doesn't come out squared. End of story. Defeat accepted.

Because of the seams from the strips, I had a large amount of flannel folding all over the place inside my bag. So I decided it needed to be lined. I pulled a random bit of fabric from my scrap drawer (now a large pile on my floor) and cut it to what I thought would be the right size. But flannel, though soft and lovely, is thick and obnoxious, so measuring the outside of the bag produced a lining that was too big. I measured again and resewed. Still too big. So then I got really angry, took the rotary cutter to my lining and whacked off about a half an inch. Maybe it was a full inch. I don't know. I was distraught.

Of course, my lining was now too small, but I was determined to make it work. I thought, "Hey! Maybe if I add straps to the sides, it will make up for the gap-osis between my lining and the outside of my bag!" Brilliant, Robin! And you already have a matching strip of fabric cut into the perfect width! I sewed it up and tried to turn it right-side out. But again, we were working with flannel. And there was no way that little strip of fabric was ever going to turn right-side out. So what to do? I didn't want to waste any more fabric on this stupid bag. But what else could close the gap between my lining and my outer shell? Why, a zipper of course! Because I'd never sewn a zipper into anything before, and what better time to try than for a project that was a complete disaster? Really, how hard could it be? I even had a zipper that was kinda sorta almost the right size! Woohoo!

Well, I'm guessing that the right time to sew in a zipper is not when the bag is otherwise fully assembled, and especially not when your liner and your outer shell don't match up. So it was a...trying experience. But I ended up with...

a zipper pouch...that is only somewhat functional...and will most certainly fall apart if you don't hold it just so when operating the zipper.

So, was my little diagonal bag project as nifty as a continuous zipper bag? Not even close. But I did try a few new things including some very poor geometry. And if you don't look at it too closely, it is kinda pretty. And the original intention of the diagonality remained intact. So there are small victories in the midst of disaster.

As a side note, in searching for bags made of zippers, I found this little number, which just might have to be an upcoming project. Maybe once March is over. I think I'll have better luck and a better state of mind come April.

25 March 2010

Show #5

So back at the end of February, there was another Kalos coffee house. This one was to celebrate the 2nd issue of the arts journal put out by the seminary community. The theme was "Light." Here is the post about my submission to the journal. I had both of my cathedral window wall-hangings on display:
The night before the coffee house, I still didn't have any way to hang either wall-hanging, so I was working on sewing sleeves on the back to hold a dowel so they could hang. And then the power went out. So there I was, sitting on the living room floor, hand-sewing by candlelight. It felt so lovely and colonial. (But I must tell you...my candle-light stitching was far from impeccable.)

I got some really positive reactions to my cathedral windows. People seemed to like them. But it is a little difficult because I'm the only person who has submitted any sort of textile anything to the 2 editions of Kalos so far. So I don't know if people really get what I'm doing or not, if they see what I do as "art." I guess it doesn't really matter because these cathedral windows are really important to me and grew me in so many ways. Even so, I do hope that a fellow sewer or crafter of some sort steps up for the next issue. There are quite a few talented writers and photographers who contribute to the journal, but I think a little more diversity of media would make it better. Just my opinion.

This time, the coffee house was in a smaller, darker room, with strings of lights hung overhead. The feel was much cozier than the first coffee house, which was held in the great hall, which has terrible acoustics and is not really conducive to listening or focusing attention on the stage. Once again, I played in the open mic section of the evening. (I'm not sure what one has to do to be a part of the "regular program," but I'm not going to get into that right now.)

I asked Jason to play with me, which was a great call. I know that I'm capable of performing by myself, but when I do, all I can think about afterward are the many mistakes I made on the guitar which then made my voice a little shaky for a beat or two. It's fun for me to share my songs, but it's much more fun to have a little back-up. Enter Jason. Jason and I have tried to play my music together before. It's always been a little frustrating and slightly awkward because so many of my best songs were from a period when our relationship was really shaky, and the main content is about not wanting to marry Jason. I write from emotional overflow, so tumultuous times produce stellar songs out of me. But it makes it hard to include Jason in those songs.

I've never wanted to do music by myself. That has never been part of the plan. So I decided to try to incorporate Jason for this coffee house and just see how things went. He is a much better guitar player than I am, and our voices blend quite nicely, so there was no reason we couldn't make it work.

I flipped through my journals and songbooks to try to figure out what songs to play. Light is one of my go-to metaphors so I had quite a few to choose from. I stumbled upon this song I remembered starting a few months ago and was surprised to see it edited and finished. I don't remember doing that. It's called "Run that Darkness Down," and it is currently one of my favorite RGO's (Robin Giberson Originals)...right up there with "Orion" and "Bouncy Ball in a Blender." It saddens me that I can't upload sound clips on blogger. It seems wrong to have the lyrics here without the music. Don't get me wrong--I think they stand alone just fine, but the song is a much better experience when heard. Oh well. So as to try to include you in this lovely bit of songwriting, here are the lyrics:

Somewhere the sun is rising.
I don't know why it's hiding.
I wish it would ride out with banners flying high.
And with his tail between his legs
The dark would quickly run away
Cutting his losses, mumbling curses as he fled.
And I...I would run that darkness down.
Oh and I...I would run that darkness down.

Somewhere a breeze is blowing.
I don't know where it's going.
But if it's warm, I wish it'd pick me up on the way.
And without one backward glance
You know that I would take my chance
That breeze would carry me to a brighter kind of day.
Oh and I...I would ride out on the wind.
Yes and I...I would fly out on the wind.

It's hard to fight against the sleep
That's making all my darkest dreams
Seem like they're really real and coming after me.
So I will just turn on the light
And I will let that light fight
All of my battles 'til the morning rescues me.
And on that day...I will run that darkness down.
On that day...I will run that mean old darkness down.
Yes and I...I will run that darkness down.
Oh and I...I will run that darkness down.

So there you have it. A song that I have written in the recent past that isn't awful. Quite the contrary...I'm really proud of this song. It isn't too deep or profound. It's just a really fun song to sing and to play and it brings a little hope and sunshine to my cloudy days and instantly improves my mood. Songwriting success. Way to go, Robin.

So Jason and I played this song and "Oh Little Forgotten," aka "My Sparrow Song." I wrote that one back in my junior year of college. It's loosely based on the Matthew 6:25-34 and 10:29-31 passages that tell us not to worry because God cares about us more than the sparrows and they do just fine. That's not really the tone of the song, but that's the basic message. The tone is more, "Stop being so scared. Get up out of your ashes. God has not forgotten you. He is here even now." It's a message I need to hear continually, and this song has been really helpful in reminding me of the truth of God's presence and love and provision and challenging me to believe He is here.

So back to the coffee house...Jason and I played these two songs. He played guitar on both and sang harmony for "O Little Forgotten." And it was the most fun I've had playing music since CMC. It all went so smoothly, and I didn't have to worry so much about my guitar playing or my vocal tone because Jason had my back. So I could just focus on the words of the songs and the truths they communicated. I could just sing those truths to my soul and enjoy being filled up with them.

We got quite a good reaction, which is always my least favorite part. (I never get nervous or start to shake until it's over.) But I was pleasantly surprised when several different people asked us if we play out often at other places. We do church stuff together but never stuff like this. So that was encouraging that we seemed like we did it all the time. And one guy even came up to me to tell me that "Don't Mess with Me" was the highlight of the last coffee house. I was completely floored by that...mostly that he remembered "Don't Mess with Me" and that I was the person who did it. That was way back in October!

So this is a very long post to say that I really enjoyed the February Kalos coffee house. I'm excited to see what the next theme is. I've decided I'm going to submit a song in addition to whatever else I do to see if that'll get me into the non-open-mic portion of the night. And I'll definitely be doing more of my music with Jason from now on. And I'm excited about "Run that Darkness Down." I wish you could hear it!!

15 March 2010

Hot Chocolate

February was a long and dreary month. One day, I decided that the cure would be a nice mug of hot chocolate. So I mixed up my little powder and milk and hot water...and it just did not do the trick. It was simply not chocolatey enough. So I spent my final weekly make of the month trying to figure out the ultimate recipe for hot chocolate. I determined that I could only use ingredients I already had in my kitchen, and I set out for something a little richer.

For my first attempt, I melted a little bit of butter in a saucepan and added a quarter cup of chocolate chips. I melted those down and stirred in a half a cup of milk. I boiled some water separately and added it to my chocolatey goodness and finished it off with a little dash of cinnamon. The result was definitely richer than my package of powder variety. And the cinnamon was a nice touch on the back end of the flavor. But it tasted a good deal like liquid pudding. Which is fine if you like pudding. But it wasn't quite the flavor I had in mind.

So I sought out a little online help and found this recipe. Luckily, I had sweetened condensed milk on hand from sometime when I planned on making key lime tarts and did not follow through. At first, I was slightly grossed out by the idea of drinking condensed milk, but as it turns out, condensed milk is quite tasty.
(Disclaimer: I forgot to take a picture of my hot chocolate for you, so this is the picture taken from the recipe's website. You get the idea.)

This recipe was definitely better than my original attempt. But it still had a slightly puddingy flavor. I think it would probably be better if I used a higher quality cocoa. But my original vision was to melt actual chocolate for my hot chocolate. So I guess I am still on the quest.

If you have a stellar hot chocolate recipe, something smooth and yummy and not pudding-like, please do share! Especially if it includes melted chocolate. The weather is warming up this week, but I don't think there's ever a bad time for hot chocolate!

09 March 2010

Secrets, secrets...

Alright, so it's been forever since I've posted anything. The reasons for this are many-fold. And although very few of them are resolved, I thought I'd do a little secret-unraveling today to get myself back in the game here.

1) My blog hates me. Literally. It was perfectly content being all conventional and dotty in its basic template. And then I got bored and spent hours and hours and hours searching through every website of blogger templates I could find. And I finally found the perfect one: FluidYellow. It was everything I wanted: colorful and happy but still mostly white, not klitchy or chaotic at all, pretty without being all "HEY!! LOOK AT ME!! I'M FLOWERY!!!," and a lovely shade of sunshine yellow. Just what I needed for the never-ending days of winter and never-spring here in New England. I figured out how to download the template and upload it and still keep my widgets in tact. And I was sooo proud of myself. And then the dates were all screwy. So I fixed those. And then I noticed my pictures were being text wrapped. Blex. So I enlisted help. But the code for this template is just not happy. So that didn't work. And then...all of the images in the template disappeared. Completely. Gone gone gone. No more sunshine yellow. No more little gray boxes around my widget headers. Nothing. Gone. So I did some research and found out that the host server of the images probably deleted them. So I found the template again and downloaded the images and uploaded them elsewhere and then went through the code and replaced all of the links to the pictures with my own new links. This took hours, folks. ow-ers. And it didn't work. So once again, I've gone back to the www to look for a blogger template that I like as much as FluidYellow, all the while holding it as my ideal that nothing can ever ever top. It's been...discouraging to say the very least. But I will not give up. I think that my blog is just rebelling against me because I went all change-crazy on it. But maybe if I start posting again, my blog will remember that we're friends and stop hating me. Please, blog darling??

2) My weekly make for the third week of February is a big secret that I can't post about yet. (NO I AM NOT PREGNANT.) I am super excited about it, and I think it turned out really well. But I just can't go all public with it for another few months. I will clue you in by the end of June at the latest. I promise. I know that's a long time to wait. Trust me. I know. So to clue you in just a little bit, I'll let you know that it was a writing project of sorts.

3) I thought I was way behind. And that made this (in addition to the rebellion and the really happy secret I can't tell you about) not a happy place at all. Since the big year mark...no, actually since Christmas, I've been a little drained of creative stamina. I've still been making things...puff oven pancakes, crochet motifs, a fort in the living room, hours upon hours of crocheting the granny square blanket. And in the midst of all that, I didn't think I had been keeping up with my "one make, start to finish, every week" structure. I was so discouraged by this that I thought about altering the structure of my blog. I would still be intentional about being creative, but I would set a time goal instead of a project goal. That way, I could make more big projects like blankets or clothes without the pressure to finish them in a week. I would do more in-progress posts. But I know myself. I know that my original design for this blog has been helpful for me. It's easy enough that I'm not overwhelmed and despairing, but hard enough that I am still challenged by it and motivated by the deadline. So I'm not changing it. And as it turns out, I wasn't even behind to begin with. Isn't that exciting? Once I reconsidered my little secret as a make, I was all caught up.

So that's it. Updates coming sometime this week from the last two weekly makes and a coffee house post, and we'll be back on track. And just so I don't have yet another post without a picture, here is an invitation for you:

When you're feeling just a little too silly to make anything else, make faces!