Friday, December 9, 2016

Christmas Traditions and Wassail

Right now I have the Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas song stuck in my head. Some people hate that song, but it has a bit of history in our family. Back when it came out on record--an actual record--Daddy and some of his siblings got the album for my Uncle Keith for a Christmas present when they were kids. But Uncle Keith got it "used." Somehow Daddy and Uncle Calvin, I think, managed to listen to it repeatedly before Christmas without the recipient finding out. I'd never really thought about it until recently, but that must have been quite a feat of sneakery. How on earth do you do that? Siblings are nosy and the Chipmunk Song isn't exactly hard to recognize.

So I grew up hearing the Chipmunk Song on this old record at Mamaw's house and the story that came with it. It's now a part of Smith Family Tradition. In the non-extended portion of my family, we have some other traditions, like the Christmas pudding (or the "figgy pudding" as Daddy sometimes calls it) and Shaina's wassail. We have had these traditions since Shaina and I were in junior high. In 7th or 8th grade, our English teacher had us read A Christmas Carol, and at the end of the semester we had to do a project. I can't remember the purpose or the exact guidelines, but Shaina chose to make wassail and the next year when I was in that class, I chose to make a Christmas pudding. At the time, I absolutely hated that English class. But looking back now, I think Mrs. White was wasted on teaching junior high. I would have rather her teach my college-age self instead. In junior high I hated the work... and I was not the greatest student. Much has changed. Now, I think I would actually enjoy it. Although English class was the bane of my existence back then, I am grateful for these delicious traditions that came out of the ordeal.


1 gallon fresh apple cider
1/2 gallon orange juice
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2- 1 Tablespoon mulling spices, depending on your taste
2 cinnamon sticks, 7-8 cloves, a cardamom pod, crushed so the seeds come out; star anise, mace, the last heel of a used-up nutmeg, a few allspice berries, or whatever whole spices you may have lying around in the baking pantry.Crush them under a heavy pan to get more bang for your buck.
1 orange, sliced thin
1 lemon, sliced thin

Put the sugar in to a large stock pot, pour the juices over it, and give it a stir to dissolve the sugar. DO NOT toss out the jugs from the juice. It's easier to store it in these than have a huge pot in the fridge. Take your mulling spices and put them in a mesh tea infuser. If you don't have one, just tie the spices into a little pouch made of cheesecloth and drop it in the pot. My tea infuser has a chain with a hook on the end, so I just attach that to the lip of the pot. Turn the heat to medium high and let the wassail come to a simmer as you slice the citrus. Put the slices into the pot and stir it occasionally until it's hot and the flavors have come together. The spices may not be strong enough at this point, so if you plan on serving it immediately, use the larger quantity and smash them up good. If not, the spices should adequately flavor the drink by the time you're ready to refrigerate it. Just don't leave them in there the whole time...It will turn into cinnamon juice if you let it!

At this point, you can serve it or let it cool for later use. If not serving immediately, let it cool completely before pouring it into the orange juice and apple cider jugs. (Don't forget to fish out the spices and citrus rounds first.)It's easiest to do this with a funnel and an extra pair of hands. If serving immediately, I find it's easiest to have a 1-cup glass measuring cup (with a saucer to set it on between uses) to scoop and pour it into mugs. There's a lot less dripping and spilling that way. (P.S. I hate messes and sticky.) Put an orange or lemon slice from the pot in each mug. If you're feeling frisky, give it a splash or rum too!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Saddle Soap and Mink Oil

Written back in June:

Today I sat down with a tin of saddle soap and a tin of mink oil. After several weeks of adventure in Alaska, it is time to clean and recondition my old boots. I should probably do this more often. But the rare occasion when I do take the time to maintain my boots, I am flooded with memories.

The smell of the saddle soap reminds me of the few other occasions when I sat down to clean my boots in the past...Once in married student housing during college, while Titus was deployed. Those were the days before scars from barbed wire and sticker vines marred the leather, after we bought the land. I wore my boots in the apartment, every day, because I had an illegal kitten to keep me company during my lonely days of pacing the floors. Kitty's favorite game was attack-the-feet. I wore my boots as a form of armor. The second time was at our rent house in Hughes Springs. I recall sitting in my wing-back arm chair during the agonizingly long summer. (I think I had to interrupt the cleaning process to squish a cock roach; one of hundreds I killed in that sieve of a house.) And most recently, in October. A splendid monsoon had hit us just in time for Titus' sister and our nephew to visit us from bone-dry southern California. I sat on the living room floor working the soap into my bedraggled, soggy boots as everyone else played Marble Works.

The smell of mink oil--just the phrase "mink oil"--reminds me of Daddy. He taught me how to take care of leather in the first place. Looking at my poor old boots, I can't help but think they never would have gotten this broken down if I'd taken care of them as well as Daddy would have. I am always striving to be a better good steward of what I am given, whether it's my boots or garden tools, or vacuuming the interior of my vehicle...Daddy set an example to follow when I was a kid, and he still does now. As I work the mink oil into the leather, "do it right, do it once," "don't be lazy and cut corners," and "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well" runs through my head...Life lessons from Daddy. He probably learned them from Papaw.

While I have only cleaned my boots properly four times in over six years of owning them, I have worn them almost every day. Most mornings I pull on socks, stuff my feet into my boots, and continue without giving it another thought. But lately, the old Heritage Stockman Ariats have been begging for a little more attention. The leather around the ball of my foot is worn out to the point of leaking when it's wet outside. The treads are worn smooth on the bottom, and now I have worn the soles down to the rubber inside. These old dogs are showing some age. Technically, these are riding boots. But I have mowed yards, wandered trails, climbed trees, walked over tundras, and hiked to glaciers in these boots. They have seen the stirrup of a saddle exactly two times. I recall all the places I have gone in these boots, and the people who walked with me. Each chapped wrinkle, every gouge to the leather, brings up a memory of exploring the land with Titus in the East Texas summer heat. Or switching between my sodden boots and my rain boots after a storm blew in at camp on the Noatak River (during a mission trip to help build a summer church camp for teens in the northern wilds of Alaska). Old memories. New memories also...Staggering along the difficult hike to Exit Glacier. I was exhausted by the climb, but the further up we went, the more energetic Titus got. I have no idea how he can thrive as the oxygen levels diminish--personally, I like my oxygen. And then walking the Upper Troublesome Creek Trail with Titus a few weeks ago near Talkeetna, Alaska. My feet were killing me on account of having worn through the last of the padding inside my boots.

I don't know how much longer these old boots will last. Maybe I can get them repaired or something, and extend their life a bit more. But if these croak, I will get another pair and put many miles on them also. And with every mile and every scar to the leather, I will remember where I have come from.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Listening to Mamaw's Voice

Late last summer, I felt inspired to go through the books on my library shelf and place notes inside the front covers detailing when I got it, the occasion, and who gave it to me. This information is always fascinating to me when I come across it in a used book or a book in an antique shop, so I began what I thought would be a quick project. After nearly an hour and a dozen books, however, I decided to upgrade the endeavor from "quick project" to "time-consuming project."

Some of my favorite old or old-looking books. :)

Hand cramps aside, I began to realize just how many of my lovely books were from my Mamaw: a Mark Twain book after I had wrist surgery, a copy of Pride and Prejudice when I was on my Jane Austen kick in high school, and a set of reprinted old American cookbooks from the 1800s when I was taking history classes in college. So many lovely old books! (And a few new ones, like the fifth Harry Potter book Mamaw got for me and my cousin. I may have absconded with it completely...Sorry Kason!)

As I pulled books from the shelves, I realized how much Mamaw had invested in me. Not only a love of books, but a love of reading and good storytelling. I can remember sitting in the den with Mamaw reading The Little Mermaid to my sister and me (the non-Disney version.) Or we would be sitting on the creaky, very formal, couch in the living room. Mamaw would pull James Harriot's Treasury for Children out of the brass bucket which served as a magazine caddy, and we would request a specific story. Moses the Kitten was a particular favorite, as was Bonnie the draft horse, but regardless of the topic, I absolutely loved listening to Mamaw's voice. I still do. Precise and measured, genteel and Southern, I could listen to her read a phone book. It is a dialect brought about from a lifetime of drinking very strong, very sweet, iced tea with a squirt of lemon. ...That's my theory anyway.

At Mamaw and Papaw's house, there exists the earliest example of my written and illustrated work: "Holly the Horse." I was probably around four years old, so I required a scribe, but other than that, it was a completely original piece. (Except for the subject, Holly the Horse. She was one of the characters used to teach the ABCs to my kindergarten class. "A- Annie Alligator, B- Barry Bear, C- Carol Cat and D- Danny Dog...") Most people would have tossed out my first book. It was scrawled on printer paper for a dot matrix printer and was produced by a prolific "artist." I am not even joking--when I decided to finally clean out my closet as a teenager, I removed bushels of coloring book pages and drawings, as well as every worksheet I ever completed from Pre-K through the sixth grade. As well as heaps of National Geographic magazines. I may have had a paper hoarding problem. Don't judge.

All that to say, I am indebted to Mamaw for instilling in me a love of not only reading, but writing, and storytelling, and old books. This is only one facet of who Mamaw is and what she taught me. I could talk about the fried pies, or how she sings hymns from choir practice as she cooks breakfast, or the four o'clocks she planted around the front porch... But those are stories for another day.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Muddy Boots and Empty Floors

[Written April 18, 2016]

Often the days are filled with messes, his boots tossed in the middle of the floor.
Frustration. Aggravation.

But remember those days when his boots were far away,
And the house was filled with a hollow quiet.
Not a sound.
Only my restless footsteps scattered on the floor,
So silent.

No laughter, no music, only the ceaseless crawling, ever crawling
Of minute
By minute,
By hour...
Day by unending day
One after another, yet it seemed to never move, that time of waiting, waiting, waiting.

Hurry up and wait they said. And forever wait I did, in that
Quiet house where his boots did not tread, did not track in mud and soggy gear and sweat-soaked cammies, all piled up on the floor of my memory.

So I paced the empty floors of the quietly clean house willing the slow painfully void-filled months
To speed up.

Now, however, I have those muddy boots back, as tripping hazards on the dusty floors, and I am rather too busy to clean them.
Because he's home.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Bob Book

So, my previous post said the book I illustrated would be available two days later...but there were technical difficulties. However, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, Mrs. Cheryl was finally able to get the book on Amazon! Here is the link to buy it! Traveling Bob is available in both hardcover and softcover.

Today I am going to share a few photos of the illustration process. I began with a photo of Bob the dog, then looked up various dog breeds online to find references I could use to draw her. I settled on the miniature pinscher as my model. While Bob was probably a mixed breed, she most closely resembled the min pin.

I modeled the recliner off of a horrid 70s yellow piece of yuck that belonged to my husband in college.

One of the last sketches I drew.

First I sketched the scenes out on watercolor paper; then I followed the outlines with ink to turn it into a sort of coloring page.

Unfortunately I did not get very good pictures of this phase. Natural light is best...lesson learned.

I also did a test run of this ink-over-pencil method by drawing a sketch of Kitty on the windowsill and then painting over the inked in lines. I erased the pencil after the ink dried. I had no idea what I was going to do if that plan didn't work!

Smokie was jealous.

The final step was to paint each picture with watercolors. Once I got the sketches done everything went so much faster! I really enjoyed my sunny spot in front of the window. I could watch birds as I painted or keep an eye on the cats stalking through the grass in the front yard. At this point, my color-test page is quite blank. By the end of the project, it was nearly covered in shades of brown and green.

I shared the picture on Instagram when the project was still a secret. The photo of Bob was visible, sort of like the hidden Mickeys in Disney movies. :)

I was particularly proud of a few of the finished pieces. They were the last ones I drew, which isn't surprising. Figuring out who Bob was as a character on the page and translating that into a drawing was a challenge at times, but for some of the scenes I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Those were the most fun and effortless!

I think of this one as "the oldies house" with the green recliner, 70s yellow walls, and red brick fireplace. I bet the Bee Gees are playing in the background. :)

A work in progress next to the nice, respectable Prang watercolors...

One of my very favorites almost ended in disaster. I accidentally smeared the black watercolor on her nose...and with watercolors, there's no undoing or covering up mistakes with dark colors! I was quite devastated, so I took a break. When I came back to my desk, I turned the horrifying smudge into a rock! I am most proud of this one because I was able to rescue it from disaster.

And here's my cheap-o watercolors that came with a Disney's Frozen coloring book. Haha!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Picking Up Where I Left Off 20 Years Ago

Two days from now, a children's book that I illustrated will be released on! I will post a link later when Traveling Bob is available. But for now I am going to share how I began drawing.

I can remember being very little and sitting at the kitchen table at Mamaw's house with a huge sheet of paper and several colors of finger paint. My sister, Shaina, and I splattered and smeared paint across our blank canvases with reckless delight. Running my fingernails across the slippery surface of the paper, I made little claw marks that I thought looked sort of like rainbows. After theses pieces of "modern art" dried, Mamaw hung them upstairs it the room the cousins all knew as The Dusty Room. This hallowed place became the permanent home of the artistic fruits of all of the grandchildren. Mamaw provided us with paper, colored pencils, markers, and an old cash register--which inspired us to begin charging admission. The Dusty Room was transformed into an art museum, and Mamaw became the first patron of my art.

The Dusty Room's transformation to an art museum was partly inspired by the local Michelson Museum of Art in town. Summer classes for children were offered there, and I remember pouring over the course schedule with Shaina and Momma. We took drawing and clay sculpting classes, among other topics. The museum also showed us a few of the exhibits when we were not in the class room learning.

However, in the Tumultuous Move of 1996, the summer art classes ended for us, as well as my gymnastics class that I went to every Friday. The move from Marshall to Harleton swept all of my career aspirations away...My Olympic Dream was crushed at the age of eight, I never attended another art class, and it was all because of the arrival of a baby brother. One might say I was quite bitter about the turn of events, considering I barely tolerated being a big sister until I was nineteen and living in the dorms as a college freshman. But in spite of the change of address, I continued drawing. (I never did do another back handspring, though.) Every birthday and Christmas I received sketchbooks, pencils, and other art supplies. I recall one birthday, a friend of my aunt's gave me the tool to combine my two (current) life obsessions: Lee J. Ames's Draw 50 Horses book. Pouring over each step-by-step page, I traced them before I mastered the technique. By the time I graduated high school, I could draw a horse quite well!

Doodling around on paper is fun, but what was I to do with my life? Not once did I consider an art degree. So I set my cap upon becoming a pilot. I had never even been on an airplane before, but flying sounded beautifully fantastic, and I heard that it paid well. So I began college at LeTourneau University. Flying a plane itself was wonderful. Learning about meteorology for pilots was fascinating. But everything else was incredibly stressful, and I was very far behind my classmates. Many of them had been flying longer than they had had their driver's license. They had pilot parents. But mostly, I lagged behind on account of my poor foundation in math and science. And I simply did not learn things fast enough to meet the rigorous standards.  And so my new found love became my first heartbreak. I became, once more, an outsider to a world I had just discovered. The friends I had begun making in flight school were suddenly cut off from me. The university had just moved the entire school of flight off campus to a new facility at the airport, so those people I looked up to--I never felt like an equal--were now beyond me in every possible way. I still try to keep in touch with them in the least stalker-ish way, but they fly for a living, and I can only sit on the ground reminiscing.

In this state I drifted through the rest of my college career, no rudder and with badly damaged sails. I scraped by with an Interdisciplinary Studies degree in history, English literature, and biblical studies, but I had no career path. Getting married shortly before completely leaving the flight school probably saved me from dropping out of college entirely. I decided I needed something, some kind of work. I started a Mary Kay business, and for about a year I puttered. Then I decided to throw everything I had into it, and I became very, very busy. So busy, in fact, that I decided my hobby days were over. No more hand quilting, minimal gardening, and my drawing had dried up when I started college. I had also abandoned music, which is one of my greatest regrets of my time in college. I can't even read music any more. All of this saddened me, but I figured it was just a part of life.

But then I nearly lost my sight when the retina of my left eye tore in November of 2013. The right retina wasn't doing much better, with several holes in it that had to be stabilized with laser surgery or they too, would have resulted in tears. Through the years, I had slowly and unknowingly been barring myself from the things I was actually good at, and it took a near catastrophe to realize it. I was an artsy person trying to be a technical person. When that failed, I tried throwing myself into running a business in a field that scared me...cosmetics! I was learning, but I was also casting aside the things that I was truly passionate about. Almost losing my sight made me slow down and reevaluate my motives. I was still chasing airplanes.

During the recovery of my surgery I had time to think. I was bored, prone to depression, and restless. I never went back to my Mary Kay business with the same vigor, but I still do a little of it. I began reading books for fun again, as well as my other hobbies. Titus would get me sympathy gifts when I was feeling particularly miserable, and one of those presents was the book Color by Victoria Finlay. She fascinated me with her descriptions of exotic places and intrigued me with the history of paints. Watercolors in particular caught my interest. I hadn't tried them since I was very young, and I had hated it. But I did some research, and came to the conclusion that the only people who said watercolors were difficult were those who did not work with the medium. I learned that a good brush is essential. So, armed with a coupon, I walked into a craft store and bought a small set of brushes (which had decent reviews online) and some student grade Prang watercolors.

I had been dabbling in watercolors for about a month when Mrs. Cheryl, who was like a second mom to me, asked if I would be interested in an illustration project. I hadn't seriously tried to draw anything for several years. I accepted the challenge, and I feel like I have finally picked up where I left off twenty years ago, an eager student, ready to explore museums and learn new things.  I don't know if I'll ever "make it big" as an artsy person, but it is rather rewarding to see my name on the cover of a book. :)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I Drank Those Colors In

Two years ago this week I nearly went blind. I went to my eye doctor for a new prescription for contacts, and by the end of the day I was sitting in the office of a retina specialist. The retinas of both eyes had holes in them, and the left had developed a tear which, if left unchecked, would result in complete blindness of that eye. I had known for several years that I was at risk or retina detachment, so I knew what symptoms to look for. They just happened to occur when I already had an appointment. So my eye doctor dilated my eyes when I told him I had been seeing silvery blobs drift across my vision as well as gobs and gobs of floaters. He saw the holes that had formed and immediately called a specialist and asked that I be seen as soon as possible that day.

So I needed to get to Tyler, which was about forty-five minutes away. I didn't know how to get there, and furthermore, I could not drive safely since my eyes were so dilated that the light made it impossible for me to open my eyes more than a slit. Eyes watering profusely, I felt awash in a dread panicky feeling. I had no idea how I was going to get myself to that new doctor. I fumbled my way out to my truck with my disposable sunglasses looped over my regular glasses. Too much light came in around the edges for them to help with the brilliant sunlight, so I put my contacts in as I sat in the driver's seat trying to figure out what to do. With my normal sunglasses on I could tolerate opening my eyes. Good. I couldn't focus on the screen of my phone. Not good. I looked up at a shop sign outside the window, and I could not read the huge letters...I needed to be able to read the little print on highway signs to drive the unfamiliar roads. After a painstaking effort, I was able to navigate my phone book;  I called Titus, who was at work, an hour away from where I was. Maybe he could come get me and drive me to Tyler...or at least tell me how to get there, although I couldn't read the directions I would write for myself. No answer. I tired his office phone. Again, no answer. I didn't have the plant's main office number, so I called my dad who does the water treatment for Titus' plant. My idea was to get that number from Daddy and then see if they could get Titus on a phone to talk to me, since he must have been out on the floor where the machines were so loud he couldn't hear his cell phone.

"Hi! Um, my eyes are broken, and I need to get to Tyler, but I don't know the way, and I can't get Titus on the you have the main number for his office?" I squeaked.

Daddy was just a few blocks away in Lowe's. I was on the road now--heading in the complete wrong direction to get to Tyler, it turns out. But I could get to Lowe's! (I could drive to Lowe's in my sleep!) What were the odds of Daddy being off that weekday? Very slim. And what were the odds that he would just happen to be right down the street when I called? Impossible. This was yet another instance of God's provision that day.

So Daddy drove me to Tyler, and as my eyes slowly returned to normal from the extreme "hoot owl" look they had when dilated, I was able to squint out the window at all the trees. In East Texas, the trees wait until nearly Thanksgiving to turn, and this was the most brilliant I had ever seen them. That day on the road to Tyler, they were at their peak. The pines were scattered with oaks, maples, sweet gum, dogwood, redbuds, crepe myrtle, and muscadine vines that were so brilliantly colored you could mistake the scene for New England. At this point I had no idea if I was going to lose my sight or if the doctor could fix it. I drank those colors in. I knew if I lost my sight that day that I would always remember those trees.
A tree in our back yard in Hughes Springs around the time of my eye surgery.

After the minor heart attack of figuring out a plan, I felt calm. I didn't know how things were going to turn out, but I felt at peace and I was already amazed at how things were falling into place. Those fiery trees were like a rainbow of promise, that even if I lost every drop of my sight and never saw colors again, God was still good, and He would provide.

My view of the back yard while recovering from surgery.

That day I had laser surgery on both eyes to stop the tearing in my left eye and prevent the holes from becoming tears in my right eye. The next night I went to the hospital for the big surgery where I was given a scleral buckle in my left eye. (Don't look up the YouTube video of that surgery unless you have a tough stomach.) Retinal detachment doesn't hurt at all, but the damage is permanent. I lost a little of the peripheral vision on my right eye, and pretty much all of it on my left eye, including some at the top and bottom of my vision. (So there's a C-shaped scoop that's gone now.) But I am so thankful for what I have left! Now every year when I see the leaves changing colors, I remember how God brought all the pieces together and preserved my sight.
A lovely crepe myrtle with bamboo in the background.