Tuesday, November 7, 2017

24 Degrees and Cloudy

Sylvan's blue and orange glove keeps slipping out of my knitted mitten.

He and I wave to Ivory on the school bus, go down the street, and up and over the bridge.
There is a skiff of snow on the ground, a hint of sunlight through the clouds, and the sound of birds chirping. Flocks of black birds morph across the sky, the morning light flashing off of their wing flaps, and for an instant they are foating glitter.

Our hands slip and we switch sides.

I can't remember what we talk about, but the kid walking next to me is happy and bubbly and is rattling on barely audible over the drone of trucks. It is hard to imagine that just half an hour earlier, he was screaming about breakfast and shoes and going to school in general.

The snow and cold surprised me.

I wasn't ready.

Sylvan is bundled up in snow pants and bright orange sneakers.
His sister's hand me down bogs I saved from last winter are still too big, and I haven't had a chance to take him looking for new ones. I said sorry a million times, as I begged him to just put on his shoes, to just get out the door, to put on a hat.

Our walk to school takes less than 15 minutes.
It is the same amount of time as the school bus takes to arrive. 
Across the playground, I see Ivory scamper off the bus and run inside.

I leave Sylvan standing just inside the school yard fence and keep walking.

Suddenly, two arms wrap around me, as his hurling body comes from behind and almost knocks me to the ground. His face grins up at mine.

The grows brighter, birds are chirping tucked away in hedges, but I feel noticeably colder as I walk on alone.   

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Pumpkins become Jack-O-Lanterns

The two of us are face down in a giant pile of leaves.
I'm laughing, and it hurt.

I raked the maple leaves in our yard into a giant pile thinking that the kids would be excited, or at the least, would want to jump into them just once. Instead they watched me for a few minutes, shrugged their shoulders, and asked to walk down the street to a friends house. I let them go, think that this is just what 6 and 9 feels like, and continue to rake the leaves waist high.

I am slowly, grudgingly coming to terms with the delay of our house remodel (again). The many moving parts that need to come together to start the process of tearing down and rebuilding our house, didn't come together in time to move out and start before the cold set in. For weeks, probably months, I've been avoiding a house, that no longer feels welcoming to me. I avoid my garden, my kitchen, my living room (there is no where to sit anyway), barely see my family. I've move through sadness, anger, disappointment, frustration, hopelessness, desperation, sometimes all at once and in no particular order. Slowly, I've settled into something like acceptance, and the realization that I need to figure out how to make it feel like home.

So, the kids and I move furniture.
Their room is newly divided into a reading nook and study area. A book shelf, moved to a new location creates an illusion of privacy between their sleeping spaces.
The new (to us) sofa, fills up with laundry.
I shuffle shelves, rehang art, un-box books and Legos.
Adam, breaks down and tucks away all the boxes I collected all summer.

Chaos becomes chaos.

I brush the leaves out of my hair.
Adam gets up. We both hurt our hands..
Dinner is cooking. Four pumpkins are waiting on our porch.
I climb up on a stool, move aside my collection of tall items in the pantry, to find a partial bottle of rum my dad left behind on a visit years ago.
I pour everyone eggnog.

The kids are up to, and past their elbows, in the sticky and slimy innards of pumpkins.
Seeds become snacks.

Pumpkins become Jack-o-lanterns.
A house becomes home.

The next day the wind scatters the leaves across the yard.
Raking them was purely an exercise in fun and futility. Every fall I let the leaves lie where they lay. There had been no broader plan away.  The air is decidedly crisper, and the edge of cold adds excitement to the change of the season.  I hold onto both the ideas of change and hope, and settle back into home. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

#SNAPchallenge Day 5, Day 6 - We Blew It

Sunday:  SNAP Challenge Day 5 

Sylvan and I made Oatmeal Muffins.

It is a recipe from another of my standby cookbooks. It is a cookbook that I grew up with. My mom had a copy of an earlier edition, and my Oma gave me the one I have. It is the More With Less Cookbook.

To total cost for 12 muffins (we ate 8) was $1.78.
The cost of the coffee share $1.52.
Total cost of $3.27.

Breakfast was late again.

Very Late.

Adam resumed working on the bus and I finished moving around plants, cleaned the kitchen, and started the weekly task of baking bread.

My new favorite bread recipe is the Basic Bread from Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jenifer Reese. It involves scooping a bunch of ingredients in a bowl, giving it a stir and dumping it into a loaf pan for a few hours to rise. To cost per loaf, is $0.60.

I also started the process of making Pork Liver Paté. I first experimented with paté, when I purchased a few whole chickens, cut it into pieces, and froze all but the livers. It was delicious. This spring, a friend and I split the cost of a whole hog, and we also requested to get the organs.

Why not try Pork Liver Paté?
Pork Liver ($2.85)
Onion (CSA)
Garlic (CSA)
Sage (from the garden)
Half and Half ($0.09)
Brandy (from an old stash I keep for Christmas Cookies)
Cost $2.94

To be honest, I'm not sure that I like the pork liver paté. Some cuts of pork have this smell that I can not stand, pork chops and some times even roast, and the paté has that same underlying aroma. I put it in the fridge to chill and hope the sage and brandy will dominate that porky, pig smell.

The kids snack on carrots, pears and apples (CSA).

We take an afternoon trip to the library and then head to a coffee shop. The kids split a GIANT macaroon ($2.00) while we read our new books.

I head off to yoga class and leave Adam in charge of kids and dinner.

The kids eat slices of fresh bread.
Adam approves of the paté.

To expedite the remainder of the meal, Adam pulls Costco Pot Stickers out of the freezer and cooks up the remainder of a partial bag.  By the time I return, he is back to working on the bus and the kids have built a giant fort in the front yard.  I think the cost of the Pot Stickers was about $10.00 and this was the third meal from that purchase.  Let's estimate the cost of the meal was $4.00 with the the dipping sauce.

The total food cost for the day, including the daily cost of the CSA, was $14.85

Monday:  SNAP Challenge Day 6

Today, we blew it. 

There was no school.   

I enrolled the kids in a comedy day camp at the Missoula Community Theater.  It cost me $50 per kid. I earned just over that working, today, and I am lucky enough to have a job that pays more than a living hourly wage.  I know the SNAP challenge is about access to food, but we can't ignore the lack of access to affordable quality childcare options in our community.  While we are talking about child care, lets also mention health care and affordable housing.  Not one of these can be considered alone.

These are basic life needs.

For years I wondered what was I doing wrong, or what was wrong with me, that these were things that I couldn't attain and couldn't provide?  I have no student debt, but maybe I just majored in the wrong things? (Yes, things.  I have multiple undergraduate degrees.)  Got the wrong advanced degree? Moved to the wrong town?  Married the wrong person?  Had children at the wrong time? Where was the choice that resulted not being able to afford basic things?  I was sucked into this myth of personal responsibility that keeps us isolated, ashamed, voiceless and un-empowered. 

Last night, the kids packed their own lunches:  left over Mac and Cheese, fresh fruits and veggies, and for an additional snack, the left over muffins from Sunday Breakfast.  Their meals, and our lunches, invisible in our daily food budget.   

Adam and I both run from work to their comedy skit performance at the end of the day and once we are all piled in the car, there is less than an hour until I needed to be at the Monday night city council meeting. 

The kids asked for Taco Sano. 

We relent.  

It was the second time we have eaten there in almost 9? years of living in Missoula.  Our fridge is full of beets and chard and eggplant and there is half a loaf of fresh bread, but sometimes I just don't have the brain space to manage it all - or the time.

For the past two years, I have pretty much keep our family on the same budget we were on while receiving SNAP.  When I initially started working, and I subtracted the SNAP benefit we lost, we netted a $120 a month.  Because, I could fit my work hours into the time my kids were at Head Start and public school, it was a choice that made sense.  

Kind of. 

We paid $25 for a quick dinner.  Add to that the daily cost of the CSA (with Double SNAP Dollars $2.04) and the cost for breakfast $2.86, which brings the total spent on food today to $29.90.

I wish I could say, that being able to spend $30 on food in a day, and having transitioned off of SNAP benefits makes me feel secure, more certain of a future.  For the past few years I have been struggling to put words to this guttural reaction that I have every time I hear a person, from politician to friend, talk about people in poverty.
There is something wrong.
We are having the wrong conversation.
This isn't about getting a job to get off of food stamps.
This isn't about being smarter with personal finances.
This isn't about gaining access to health care by opting in to your employers health insurance plan.
This isn't really about making better food choices.
These are all small parts of an incomplete and broken whole.

I don't know where to start, except to say: "You are talking about me."


Sunday, September 24, 2017

#SNAPchallenge Day 4

I haven't ventured outside or changed clothes since I got up Saturday morning.

Yesterday I went through the annual ritual of cleaning and rearranging the house to accommodate all of the house plants moving back into our living space. By the time I looked at the clock is was 5:30 and I figure I might as well spend the rest of the day in pajamas.

The whole point of these posts and participating in the #SNAPchallenge is to raise money for Double SNAP Dollars, which doubles the purchasing power of SNAP benefits spent on fresh fruits and vegetables.  So please, if you have the resources and value expanding access to fresh fruits and vegetables, take a moment to DONATE HERE!  My family has lots of practice cooking on a limited budget, because SNAP used to be our food budget.  These posts might make it seem too easy, but it wasn't.  I am calculating the Double SNAP Program into my daily expenditures, which helps a lot! I also have the benefit of being raised in a family that cooked and gardened, and receiving SNAP  forced me to budget, plan, be creative and look for ways to supplement our "supplemental" benefits. 

For a late weekend breakfast we doubled the Puff Pancakes recipe and served them the options of Plum or Apricot Sauce. Puff pancakes have been a family favorite for years, and I posted the recipe HERE back in 2012.  It has survived the passage of time.
4 eggs (4 x .25 = $1.00)
1 cup flour (0.09)
1 cup milk (0.25)
Plum and Apricot Butters (practically free - lets estimate cost at $0.21 for sugar)
Coffee (daily cost of our coffee share - $1.52)
Total Cost $3.07

In spite of being completely overwhelmed by my day to day, I have been canning a few of my favorite foods.  I'm not sure if that grounds me in my day to day or just adds an extra layer of stress, but fruit sauces are simple and quick.  We opened a jar of Plum and Apricot butter yesterday, and both of these were practically free.  The apricots came from the small tree in our yard and the plums came from a neighbor.  Canned fruit is expensive - organic canned fruit is ridiculous - and so, for years I have picked and canned, dried or frozen summer bounty. 

I halved and dried bags of plums, already made plum butter, and yesterday I canned 7 half pint jars of  Chinese Plum Sauce.  We use it as a dipping sauce for egg rolls or as an ingredient in stir fries for the cost of spices, sugar and half a cup of dried plums.  The plums came from a neighbors tree.  The kids picked them for me. I bought the spices a few days ago..  but I think the total cost of ingredients used came to somewhere around $4.00.

We had such a late breakfast, that lunch turned into snacks.
Milk ($0.50)
Carrots (CSA)
Apples (CSA)
Tortillas ($0.60)
Cheese ($0.64)
Total Cost $1.74

Sylvan requested mac and cheese for dinner.  Made from scratch mac and cheese is one of my favorite, quick recipes that has great left overs.  I have included the recipe in past posts as a good way to use up WIC eligible ingredients.  I left out the Worcestershire Sauce, because we were out, and I was still in pajamas and there was no way I was going to leave the house.
1 lb pasta  ($1.38)
butter ($0.54)
flour ($0.04)
milk  ($0.25)
cheddar cheese ($1.28)
corn (CSA)
salad (CSA daily cost with Double SNAP Dollars $2.04)
pork roast (left over from a weeknight, slow-cooker dinner)
Total Dinner Cost $5.53

Just as I was headed to bed, after folding the most ridiculous pile of laundry, Adam came inside from applying the first cost of finish to most of the school bus floor.  He turned on the burners on the stove for a late night snack.
2 tortillas ($0.30)
left over pork roast and gravy

The total daily cost of our food today, and a little food that is stashed away on the shelf for later: $14.64.

The prickly pots of cacti still need a home.  They usually end up on the only south window sill in the kid's bedroom.  I spent all day organizing the downstairs, and taking those plants upstairs, will start another ripple effect.  Right now, I am promising myself, that I will change clothes and leave the house, prior to my 5:30 yoga class.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

#SNAPchallenge Day 2 and 3

I gave myself permission to delay posting about day 2.

Day 2 was the day of the Northside vs. Westside Softball Challenge with I helped organize. There are still a few banners in the car that need to delivered back to the game's sponsors, but other than that, it is over.  It is a fundraising event for the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation, and I still need to tally up the final expenditures and earnings, but overall it was a success. The Westside won 18 – 9.

Back to the #SNAPcallenge and food related issues.

Breakfast was oatmeal. Oatmeal is a perfect breakfast choice for my family of picky breakfast eaters because it is easily customizable. Adam and I eat it as a savory dish topped with onion, cheese, eggs and greens, while the children opt for brown sugar and cinnamon.

Oatmeal (4 x .043 = $0.172)
Cheese (0.16 x 2 = $0.32)
Eggs (0.21x 3 = $0.75)
Swiss Chard (CSA)
Brown Sugar (4 tablespoons = $0.096)
Coffee (cost of my coffee share per day is $1.52)
Total cost of breakfast $2.86 for a family of 4.

Adam and I both packed tomato pie for lunch and the kids ate at school.

After school, I gave the kids 5 dollars and sent them to the Missoula Community Food Co-op. “Buy something healthy,” I said, and they came back with a miniature chocolate bar and Annie's Gummy Bunnies. Not quite what I had meant. Snack Cost: $4.00

They also had apples (CSA), so not all of the snacks were forms of sugar wrapped in packaging. And I grabbed a slice of cheese on my way in and out of the door ($0.32).

We ate dinner at the Softball Game... we set up a propane grill and sold hotdogs, cucumber salad, chips and an assortment of drinks and candy to folks who attended the event.
Hot dogs are a totally legit dinner option, and because I did some of the shopping for the event I am going to use the per unit cost of hot dogs and buns rather than the price it would have cost to buy them at the event. Usually, if hot dogs appear on our dinner table, it a special treat, synonymous with lighting a fire in our fire pit.

Dinner was not healthy. Let's not pretend. I was running around like crazy making sure everything was going correctly (and it did) but I let the kids make minor food decisions on their own.

Skittles (I made them share - $1)
Soda (I made them share - $1)
Hotdog Buns (4 x 0.38 = $1.52)
Hotdogs (4 x 0.35 = $1.39)
Potato Chips (4 x 0.16 = $0.62)
Total Dinner Cost $5.53

Total Cost for the Day 2 was $12.71 plus the per day cost of the CSA $14.75.

SNAP Challenge Day 3.

I let the children sleep in, to recuperate from the late night at the game.

Breakfast happened in two shifts. Adam and I ate first and when the kids woke I made them breakfast as well.
3 tortillas (0.15 x 3 = $0.45)
4 eggs (0.25 x 4 = $1.00)
cheese (0.16 x 2 = $0.32)
Coffee (cost of my coffee share per day $1.52)
Oatmeal (4 x 0.043 = $0.172)
Brown Sugar (4 tablespoons = $0.096)
Total Cost for Breakfast $3.56

Adam took the last piece of Tomato Pie for lunch along with a handful of plums (CSA). I forgot to pack lunch and by the time I came home to meet the kids I was almost shaky. They of course, had lunch at school. It is pretty normal that I run from thing to thing and forget to eat... not the best habit. I ended up with an extra kiddo at my house for a bit and we all needed a snack. Tortillas and cheese it was. I cooked tortilla after tortilla and melted cheese, cut wedges and piled them on the table.

Tortillas (0.15 x 8 = $1.20)
Cheese (0.16 x 4 = $0.64)
Apples (CSA)
Total Snack cost $1.84.

I ran off to meet some friends after Adam came home and left him in charge of dinner.  For Dinner he served the left over slow cooker Potato Leek Soup that I had made a few days before. I will not include the cost of it here, for consistency, but with the exception of a few pieces of bacon and the broth, it was made entirely from CSA ingredients. The soup was served with a side of salad.
Lettuce (CSA)
Tomatoes (CSA)
Carrots (CSA)
Cucumbers (CSA per day cost $2.04 with Double SNAP Dollars).
Total Dinner cost $2.04.

SNAP Challenge day 3 total is $7.44.

The low day to day expenditures on food require that most of our meals are made from scratch or almost from scratch.  Over the years I have acquired a few cookbooks I return to again and again.  I also heavily rely on googling combinations of food that are found in my fridge at a given time.  The main thing that keeps me going: an over inflated sense of confidence that I can make something for nothing.  It has gotten my this far.

Some of my favorite cook books:
Make the Bread, Buy the Butter
Dinner: A Love Story
Betty Crockers Cookbook: Bridal Edition
Good and Cheap (which is what the pictures in the post are) 
Canning for a New Generation

Please consider donating to my Double SNAP Dollars Fundraiser by clicking HERE!!!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

#SNAPchallenge Day 1

We got up a little earlier than usual.

Today was ONE LESS CAR DAY in Missoula and rode my bike down to the end of the street to walk back through the neighborhood and scoop up kids along the way.  I wore cloth shoes and it rained, but the rain has finally cleared the wildfire smoke from the air, and everyone was in good spirits. 

Breakfast was quick.
4 tortillas (0.15 x 4 = $0.60)
5 eggs (0.25 x 5 = $1.25)
2 ounces of cheddar cheese (0.16 x 2 = $0.32)
Coffee (cost of my coffee share per day $1.52)
Cherry Tomatoes (FREE – no really – I have been saving these seeds for 5 years now.  These were tomatoes that volunteered in my yard when we moved to our house and I have replanted them every year since.  I grow them for the cost of water, except I have a flat rate water bill that doesn’t change based on use…  so we will just call them FREE!)
Total Breakfast Cost: $3.69 for a family of 4

Wet shoes and all, I walked to the Clay Studio to get a few hours of work in before heading to my Wednesday City Council Committee Meetings.  I am working on a custom order of mugs that are forcing me to branch out from my usual shapes and patterns.  It is fun and challenging.

Lunch was equally quick and poor planning on my part.  I should have just packed a lunch last night and saved myself a commuting trip.
1 tortilla (0.15)
Left over pulled pork (from Adam’s staff party)
Salsa (0.12)
Total Lunch Cost: $0.27 (for myself – Adam packed left overs)

For tracking purposes, I will track the cost of food when I prepare it.  We often eat/pack left overs for lunch and their costs will be recorded the first time a meal is served.   

Both of our kids are now in school and it is a Title 1 school.  An overwhelming percentage of our student body is low income and therefore all students have the option of a free school lunch.  Both of my kids often choose to participate in the lunch program.  Direct effect on my food budget = $0. 

I did purchase a coffee during the city council meetings – for transparency I am mentioning it – but am not tracking it as a food purchase.  Why do you ask?  During the time that received SNAP benefits.  I had a separate, very modest monthly budget for coffee purchases at coffee shops.  Unlike coffee, the ingredient, purchased at a grocery store, coffee purchased at a coffee shop is not an eligible SNAP expense.  I allowed myself the small luxury of guilt free coffee shop purchases, because I realized that I needed a mental health break during my week.  So, so many blog posts on this blog were written in that setting and the kids and I were all so much better off for that small expense. 

Popcorn (0.15) 
Popped from bulk kernels.  

Dinner was a summer favorite.  Tomato Pie.  The basic recipe can be found here, but I omitted sour cream and sugar, and reduced the milk to half a cup. 
Tomatoes (CSA share)
Basil (CSA share)
Onion (CSA share – I purchased a CSA share this spring.  The price I paid for the averages out to a daily cost during the season of $4.07, but I purchased it from a vendor that participates in the Double SNAP Program.  This would reduce the per day cost of fresh fruits and vegetables delivered each week to $2.04 per day.  That is amazing.  I just used Tomato, Basil and Onions in a pie for a total cost of $2.04.  My next CSA delivery is tomorrow and I still have beets, carrots, and chard from last week.)
Milk (0.07)
Cheddar Cheese (4 ounces x .15 per ounce = 0.60)
Egg (0.50)
Flour (0.09)
Butter (0.7)
Total Cost for Dinner: $3.65 for a family of 4 with leftovers

Total for the Day: $7.76

Quick note on price calculations:  If they are items I purchased recently I am using receipts to calculate per item cost.  For pantry items (flour etc..) I am googling the costs based on volume used.

Even I am surprised by the daily amount spent! 

The low amount of funds spent on meals is LARGELY the result from the ability purchase a CSA share through the Double SNAP Dollars program.  The cost of tomatoes alone starts at $3 per pound, onions often range around $1 per pound, and basil is pricy… and I multiple pounds tomatoes, a giant onion, and a liberal handful of basil…  Suddenly one tomato pie hoovers in the $10 - $13 range.  That is a huge difference if the daily food budget is a total of $20.   


End of SNAP Challenge Day 1!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Lets Add to the Insanity of the 2KL4SKL Bus Project: The SNAP Challenge

So, we bought a school bus.
I'm hoping its not the worst decision we have ever made.

Adam has slowly, much too slowly been morphing it into, what hopefully will be a living space. 

 And I have been trying to pack up our house, sew a million curtains, and keep life normal.  We have successfully (what is success anymore??) been navigation the line somewhere between a mess and a disaster.

Some days I drop both of the kids off at the bus stop, other days I drop off one at the bus stop while the other would rather hold my hand the whole way, since I walk past the school on my way to work anyway. We always arrive just at the front just as the buses pull up to the back.

I spend more than I ever imagined staring at a computer screen, navigating an entirely new and foreign world of a federally funded affordable housing project. Damn, that shit is complicated.

Late August, I received an email about participating in the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition's SNAP Challenge to raise funds for the Double SNAP Dollars program that, true to it's name, doubles the value of SNAP benefits spent on fresh fruits and vegetables at participating locations. So, SNAP is the snazzy acronym for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formally known as Food Stamps), and the challenge is to have folks to pledge to live on a limited food budget for a week. The guidelines are to spend $5 per person per day. For my family of four my budget is that is $20 per day. Which now, as I'm putting it in writing sounds a little wrong - pledge a week to eat like a poor person – a strange kind of class appropriation, except for years I didn't eat like a poor person, I was a poor person.

I started this blog, in part, to indirectly talk about poverty in America.

So of course, I'm in.

First thing first:

SNAP. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The program is miss-named. For many, including my family, this SNAP wasn't a supplement to an existing food budget. It is the food budget.

Second thing second:

SNAP can be spent on FOOD PLANTS! This is a less widely promoted benefit of the SNAP. I was unaware for the first year or two, but as soon as I figured it out, I planted entire gardens using SNAP benefits to purchase seeds and starts.

Third and best of all:

Participating locations in Missoula (farmers markets, a few CSAs, and the Food Coop) will DOUBLE SNAP benefits.
 So cool.
 Every summer, I would turn my SNAP benefits into wooden tokens, spend those devoted to fruits and vegetables, and hoard a few tokens into a small stockpile (and an accounting nightmare for those who track the tokens) until I had set aside to buy a bulk purchase of pork from the Farm to Market Pork vendor.
Because it was a way to budget and bulk purchases are cheaper.  When you buy more than 20 lbs of meat there is a discount. Buying in bulk is not always an option when the daily budget is $5 per person per day. But, when SNAP benefits spent on Fruits and Vegetables, go twice as far it opens the remainder of the supplement up to so many creative possibilities. In addition to bulk pork purchases, there are the cases seconds tomatoes and peaches that I canned and lined my kitchen with and lasted far beyond the summer season.  

These days, I work one just over half time job, hold an elected office that has a stipend and provides health insurance for Adam and I, sell my pottery, and Adam works full time. We no longer receive SNAP, but our food budget and habits haven't changed much since those days, and I am still regularly drowning in the anxiety of my day to day.

Our SNAP challenge starts, the 20th and ends the 27th.
I will try to post along the way.... you can follow along... 
And you can have a positive impact on people's lives by increasing access to healthy food choices.. 
It can be found here:

My Double SNAP Dollars Fundraiser

My goal is to raise $1000. (My secret goal is to raise twice that.. but shhh... )
The overall goal is to raise $16,000, which results in a purchasing power worth $32,000 to be spent on fresh fruits and vegetables.  

Lets talk about food, food access, and poverty.    

Oh, and lets also talk about how cool are vanity plates are that arrived for the school bus today: 2KL4SKL! 

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Great American Solar Eclipse 2017: A Moment Among Moments

Strong, cold wind blows down the beach, the water is so cold my toes tingled and the kids still get soaked from head to toe, splashing in the space between solid land and sea.

The kids shriek and run.  They gather up rocks, poke at pieces of jelly fish, and these moments alone would have been worth the drive.  The moments with friends and the most decadent camping food, in the history of camping, would have been worth the drive.

But, the excuse for this trip, is a moment 1 minute and 55 seconds in length.

Intellectually, I had been prepared for this moment.

We had listened to podcasts, heard other people's stories, shushed the children on the eleven hour drive split between two days: "Shhh!!! Listen, to this story.  They are talking about what we are about to see."

"Don't look at the sun without your glasses.  It's dangerous."

The sun was bright, the temperature dropped, our shadows become duplicate, the spaces between the leaves turned into a thousand pinhole cameras, and then the light rolled in waves.

Emotionally, I was completely unprepared.

In an instant the moon and sun became one and neither was recognizable. I dropped to my knees and found myself staring into the space that just moments before had been the sun, it felt as though my whole being was being drawn into the center of our solar system, looking past the center, at the bright dot of Venus on its orbit beyond the sun.

Time stood still.

Time moved too fast.

People cheered and it was a moment we all shared, and yet I have never felt so void of my own physical presence.

Much too quickly a blinding flash of light shot back into view and the process reversed. The light rolled across the ground and the shadow crescents mirrored those before.

I yearned to be in the moment a little longer, but just as instant as the return to light had been, the physical was all too real and I realized just how long we had been staring, off and on, directly at the sun. The kids tugged at my arms.  "Can we go?" "I'm hungry."

We order lunch and occasionally get up to check the progress of the sun across the sky.

We dawdle on the way home.

We drive through the forest, a dirt road edged by blackberries so thick that they blend reality with that found on the pages of a Tom Robbins novel,  small state highways that lead us though small towns, past farm stands and, eventually deliver us into the endless golden expanse of wheat fields.

Too soon, our route overlaps that of previous adventures and we stop in at our ritual last destination before heading home.

Going home seems unusually hard. The sky is black and heavy with smoke and in passing we see trees silhouetted against pockets of flame on the hill side. We unload.  The whole trip seems surreal. The proof we went somewhere, saw something, is the giant pile of dirty laundry spread out across the floor, a large box of canning peaces on my kitchen counter, and the knowledge I now know at least one way to cook clams.

Steamed Clams - AKA Best Damn Camping Food Ever 

I had never, ever cooked clams before.  I don't live by a coast and they always look terrifying when I quickly walk past them at the grocery store seafood counter.   We stopped at a seafood market, looking for oysters, and because it is the wrong season we brought back 5 pounds of clams....  and I got a much needed cooking lesson.

6 cloves of garlic (thinly sliced)
2 sticks of butter 
1 bottle of white wine
  • heat the butter in a large pot and add garlic
  • pour the entire bottle of wine into the pot, bring to a rolling boil,  let it boil for a while
5 lbs (more or less) clams
Salt to Taste

  • pour the clams in the pot, add a good solid shake of salt, put a lid on the pot and bring it back to a rolling boil
  • while the clams are boiling/steaming chop a parsley
1 bunch of parsley  
  • Stir a few times, and make sure the clams have opened.. add parsley and serve with bread (toasted/grilled if possible)
  • there might have been a squeeze or two of lemon involved.  I'm not certain...  there definitely was lots of laughter, my rowdy kids, good friends and a few beers - so, not sure on the lemon...  but it certainly can't be bad.  
NOTE: If a clam didn't open while cooking, DON'T eat it.  No one wants to find out what happens when you eat unopened clams. 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Weeks of Cherries

For an entire week our mornings and evenings were filled with the chink, chink, chink of cherry pits.

Two cherry pies, cherry danishes, and quart bags of pitted cherries are in the freezer.  

Jars of apple cherry jam are on the shelf.

Once a year we drive up to Finley Point to pick cherries in the summer sun and then jump into the clear  cold water of Flathead lake.  

The silver fruit picking ladder gets warm  in the sun and is almost to hot  to touch against my skin as we move from one tree to the next. The sticky, sweet, dark red juice runs down my fingers as I fill the same basket over and over, carrying it up and down the ladder, and we fill the cardboard boxes we brought along. The kids pick cherries for a while, and then get distracted and sprawl on blankets, eating lunch and running through a sprinkler the owner’s of the orchard left on.

Between my feet and the ground, between where I stand on the ladder and where the children play, between here and now and an America I have never known, there hangs a shimmer of memory that is not my own. Around the edges of everything there is a halo that might just be something akin to descriptions by John Steinbeck or stories gathered and relayed by Studs Terkle.  There might have been a time before corn rolled over fence rows, in which some people followed the harvests, knocked on doors, traded chores for buckets of milk, and slept in stranger’s barns and haystacks.  It is a thought neither fact nor fiction.

We have cherry pie for dessert and cherry pie for breakfast.

These are a few of the fleeting weeks of summer.

There is still a large shallow box in the fridge with stemmed, firm, dark red cherries.

Handful, by handful content shrinks, but it is not yet gone.

Past Year's Cherry Recipes.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

That One Time I Tried to Put Words to a Series of Moments on my Daily Commute

These days I am largely stuck driving to work, since I am juggling my husbands schedule, dropping off and picking up kids from friend's houses, unpredictable summer activities and all those other errands that have to happen.  When I have to the opportunity, I usually choose to walk the 1.2 miles from my house to work.

During the winter months, in the dark and snow, I ride the bus. The commute gives me an opportunity to interact, talk with, listen to, and observe folks I might never bump into otherwise.

This is a series of non-fiction snap shots that crowded around in my head into I finally put them on paper.  I entered it in the Missoula Public Library - 2017 Writing Contest, in a moment of boldness, that made my skin tingle, my heart pound and caused me anxiety for days...

I didn't win.

And even though the skin on my arms is already prickling and the heart pounding and anxiety is sure to follow, I am sharing my writing here:

En Route

The man across from me is holding onto the poll. I think he says something to me and I don’t quite catch it. I lean forward to respond. He is practically dancing as the bus is moving.
He holds his walkman toward me and yells: “Sorry, can’t talk right now. Listening to Led Zepplin.”
 I lean back against the seat.  He bangs his head and kicks the air. Jean jacket. Black backpack. Mullet. Walkman and earphones.

The windows of the bus are splattered with tiny drops, caked across the surface of the glass in layers to render the outside almost invisible. I am wearing both layers of my coat, hat, gloves, boots and my thermal long underwear. I slide the hood of my coat behind my neck. It is warm in here. A woman gets on and hoists herself up on the seat across from me.
Sneakers in the snow.
Sweat pants in the driving wind.
Wrapped around her shoulders is a blanket, not the kind the kind that is woven and fringed and you might see on a hipster paired with cowboy boots and a smart hat, but the kind that depicts a sports team and might be thrown in the corner of a dorm room. She pulls the edges closed across her shoulders and around the front. I wonder if she has been crying. She tucks her hair behind her ears. Does she need help? She actively avoids eye contact. I start to say, are you okay, but then does one ask that across the aisle of a crowded bus? We all filter out of the folding doors and disperse to other buses, down sidewalks, and into buildings on our way to our respective places.

The man next to me smells.
There is nowhere else to sit.
People get off and there is room, but I don’t move.

Big brown eyes keep looking at me from a white fur lined hood. “My daughter likes you,” says a woman with a Hispanic accent. “She usually likes one thing, a purse, a dress, but she says she likes everything about you.”
 “Hi,” I say. “Do you go to Headstart? My kids went to headstart too. The Brown Bear class and the Rainbow Trout class. In which class are you?”
She just looks at me.
“They added full day classes”, her mom chimes in.
“I am so glad to hear that”, and I genuinely am. I feel relief for her as the bus drives away. I watch her hold her daughter’s hand as they walk along the sidewalk .

“Does this bus go close to the Cracker Barrel?”, she asks.
Dark hair pulled back. Thick eyeliner. The kind I could never pull off. Her hands are fidgeting with a paper, it is a job application, and a big bunch of keys.
“I am new in town. I lost my keys. I had to pick them up at the police office this morning. Just now. It’s my Audi. It has been at the hotel all weekend. I am new in town.”
Her eyes are brimming with tears.
“That sounds terrible,” I say. “This bus goes to Reserve, but not as far north as the Cracker Barrel.”
 “That’s okay, “ she replies, “I would walk miles to get there.”

“I love the buses here”.
A young man sits two seats down from me. He might have been cute once. He is slightly unshaven, still has a bit of acne which leads me to think he is younger than he looks, and he has no teeth that I can see.
“Yesterday, I was at the food stamp office with my babies’s mama, and the bus was running late. Two buses were driving one in front of the other. It was so funny. The one we got on was totally empty. They should have cancelled one. I love how bike friendly this town is.” He nods at his bike mounted to the front of the bus.
“My bike doesn’t do well in the wet and snow,” I respond, “the breaks just don’t work right.”
“He looks at me incredulously: “You haven’t tried to fix it?”
“I have.”
I am dying to know what happened to all his teeth, but I don’t ask, because there is this unspoken rule that adults don’t ask each other these things.
“I have four kids”, he goes on. “They are four and two and I have twins, but they don’t live with me right now and I am working to get them back. Twins are hard, you can’t change two diapers at once or feed them at the same time. I have another set of twins in Washington state. They live with their mom… We didn’t even know if the babies were mine and a friend of mine said twins run in the family and said to look into it. Turns out my grandma’s sisters were twins and since twins run with the guy..”
“Twins run with the mother,” the man across from us interjects. “I have three sets of twins. I have nine kids.”
 I look at him in relief.
“Excuse me”, chimes in the girl next to me.
She is obviously an exchange student. She might be from Japan.
“My mom had me and my brother but we are not twins. So, I don’t have a chance of having twins?” She giggles: “I mean twins are a good deal. You have one pregnancy and get two babies, but…”
She trails off and giggles again.
It is infectious.
“Look a free couch,” the no-teeth man says gesturing out the window.
“There are a few of them,” I joke, “I can’t fit them on the bus.”
 “Of course there are. In this neighborhood.”
I pull the cord and get off.
I don’t wonder what he means.

A man gets on. He is tall and lanky and clean. He always has on the same sweatshirt. It is black and has a white printed medallion that says something about a dance group. You would almost think he wears it ironically. I think he is homeless.

I own a car.

It is still dark outside and I sink into my seat and flip open my book. I look around and count the people on the bus: one, two and me. This is the first round of the day. They both have their noses bent into books and I turn back to mine.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Solid Ground

“You know what's great about plants.”
“I don't know. What?”
“That they are plants!!!” Sylvan looks at me incredulously. “Don't you get it?”
Ivory shrugs, and eats a raspberry.

The sky is peach and glowing.
We are sneaking a few raspberries at dusk.

The kids are up, way to late, once again.
The three of us walked down the street to water our garden plot.
Adam is washing the dishes.
The house is finally starting to cool down.

These fifteen minutes of my day are the only ones that seem to echo the rhythm of past summers.
I am trying to breathe – just breathe.

The sky fades to dark.
On the way home, I cradle a hand full of raspberries to share.
Soon after, we fall into our beds, on top of sheets and blankets.

I feel like I am treading water – cold icy water – that makes it hard to breathe.
I could dip under any moment.

My days and weeks are filled up.
I run back and forth, back and forth, drop off kids, pick up kids, bring them to work with me.
I count hours and try to figure out where to fit in more.
I relish the time when I can hang my laundry on the line.

I make lists: work lists, house lists, to do lists.
I check lists: who needs what, when and where.
I forget lists... I forget to make lists. 

 I don't make it to the grocery store.

The kids and I drive across town.
I have a free cup of coffee waiting for me at a coffee shop and the kids share a bagel before morning swim lessons. As we walk back to the car, my wildly unpredictably moody pre-pre teen girl, reaches for my hand:

“Don't you ever wonder how the star got inside the apple?”

I breathe.

In moments like these, I momentarily touch solid ground. 
Life might be crazy, but everything is just fine.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Knead and Rise

I have been writing and re-writing an an artist statement to accompany my First Friday show at the Missoula Community Food Co-op. The official event is on April 7th, but my pots will be on display for the remainder of the month.

"This will be easy," I thought. After all, the wheat design carved onto the surface of my mugs, bowls and plates is an external expression of a more than a decade long ritual I have created for myself to process the news of violence and conflict present in our world. But still, the words to articulate feelings and motions are hard to construct.

I was 18 for 31 days when September 11th became a date marooned in the year 2001 and we entered a pre- and post- world.

Slightly tipsy, from my first honey brown beer, at an elevation over 5000 ft, in my best friend's college dorm, I watched bright dots flashing across a night sky and I was struck by the surreal beauty of what could have been mistaken as fireworks on screen but what were in reality bombs over Bahgdad.

I graduated college with a peace sign on my cap listening to a president, who-was-not-my president, give our commencement speech. I got married, birthed a daughter, finished graduate school, moved across the country, gave birth to my son, bought a house and got a job.  I plant and harvest my garden, wash laundry, cook meals and bake bread.

I bake bread.

I bake bread because it is an activity that I can do with my children, a moment we can share that nurtures both the body and soul.

I bake bread because there is something intensely grounding in the motions that connect me with women who kneaded warm elastic dough before me in their own places in time, with women whose houses I walk into and see plump freshly baked bread resting on the counter, and with women who engage in the same rhythm of knead, rise, knead, rise and bake all around the world.

Sometime, I bake out of rage, powerlessness, and desperation in an invisible and futile gesture of compassion.

This is Syria.
This is Iraq.

This is where wheat originated.
This is where, 10,000 years ago, ancient grasses became grain.

As I knead, I imagine that life must go on in a war zone the way life goes on everywhere.  People fall in love, get married, have children, have hopes and dreams.  People engage in the mundane tasks of everyday life: go to work, care for their children, do laundry, cook meals and bake bread - until those task of everyday life stop.  STOP.

What then?

What then becomes of hopes and dreams?

As our national rhetoric and even local politics devolves to the level of Muslim bans, the refusal of refugees, and the persecution of immigrants of all kinds, I carve wheat on the surfaces of my pottery.

Wheat tells a story.

The origin of wheat from grasses in the fertile crescent, to an ubiquitous presence all around world, with long histories and varied uses across many cultures and within our own, the story of wheat is not a story about difference but it is a testament to just how much we share in common.  

Monday, February 20, 2017

Legislative Committee Meeting Road Trip

Today is President's Day. 

This kids are off school, wrestling around the bedroom as I am typing, because sleeping in on a day when there is no school just is not an option. 

We are going on a road trip. 
We are going to return to a few of our favorite Helena places.  
I might be bribing the kids a little bit, because I have an ulterior motive. 

We are making a quick jaunt over the pass to make an appearance at a legislative committee meeting to make a public comment on House Bill 361.  This bill revises the criteria for who is eligible for SNAP benefits cutting benefits for many low income Montanans while also costing the state upwards of $500,000.  Go figure.  I can only assume that the sponsoring legislator likes poor people even less than he likes being being fiscally responsible. Driving two hours to go speak for a few minutes about proposed legislation is a a new adventure for the three of us and I have to admit that I am pretty nervous.  I spent the last three hours writing and rewriting my comment.  Here is what I have come up with: 

Hi, my name is Heidi West. 
These are my children, Ivory and Sylvan.

House Bill 361 is not only fiscally irresponsible, but also displays an ignorance of the demographics, diversity and complexity of who and why people are poor in Montana. This bill goes further than just restricting access. It also undermines the judgment of professionals who work with SNAP recipients and make a system work as well as it can, for as many people as possible.

We are one of the many families that depended on SNAP. From 2009 until 2015 I worried about many things: I worried about holding onto 12 months worth of income documentation for my LIEAP application, I worried about getting sick with no access to health care, I worried about not providing enough opportunity for my children; I worried about finding houses to rent that we could afford but were also a safe; I worried about snow boots and warm coats and occasionally toilet paper but I NEVER ONCE WORRIED ABOUT HOW I WAS GOING TO FEED MY FAMILY.

SNAP benefits provide a small but essential buffer between having a home and being homeless, between being able to absorb an unforeseen expense and disaster, they are what allow thousands of Montanans to make it through each day and hope that though hard work, creativity, patience and planning they will create the right combination of opportunity and success to provide for themselves.

Low income individuals, and especially low income women and children, are members of a largely voiceless and under-represented demographic. In legislatures around the country, the value of lives is degraded into conversations about drug tests, sugary drinks and more generally the idea that SNAP recipients are undeserving.  The people that are being spoken about in these legislative proposals, are me. There is no accurate stereotype of who a SNAP recipient is:  they are moms and dads, they are kids, disabled folks, and people who for some reason or another are in challenging times; they could be your waiter, your kid's preschool teacher, your friends and your neighbors.

You have the opportunity and responsibility, to give voice to the voiceless and to represent the whole spectrum of Montana citizenry – maintain access to SNAP benefits and let Health and Human Service workers do their jobs.  Thank you.