Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Learning to Improvise: Oatmeal Cookies

Every so often, I’m reintroduced to the idea of choosing a song as your personal mantra. I love music, it’s a huge part of my life (I have a post I want to write about this, it’s just waiting for the right recipe). And a few weeks ago, it felt as if music was seeking me out to send me a message. I was listening to the radio in the car, which I don’t do too often because I usually listen to my iPod, and a song came on that I haven’t heard in years. It’s one of those songs that immediately transports you back in time and conjures up memories of big hair, summer vacations, and junior high sock hops. But once I sifted through those images, I began to hear the song in a completely different way.

REO Speedwagon was telling me to “Roll With the Changes.” And as I sat there and listened carefully to the lyrics, I knew they were right. When I lost my job, it threw me for a loop. All of a sudden all those plans that Ryan and I had for our lives were put on hold and the landscape of our future was changing. As time went on and the news about the economy worsened, I felt a dark cloud settle over my head and wondered when, or if, it would ever get better. And now, here I am a year and a half later still looking for work and still listening to dreary economic reports. But I’ve begun to ease my way out from under that dark cloud. I realized, a few weeks ago, when I listened to author Kate DiCamillo speak about stories and how they are all around us, that the combination of cooking and story telling is responsible for helping me take those small steps from beneath the darkness. They have both helped me learn to “roll with the changes” and even learn a little something from them along the way. The long holiday weekend over the 4th of July served up the perfect example of both.

A couple of weeks ago, we had to add an addition to the fence in our yard. We had been having some problems with the neighbor kids taunting Murphy and hitting him with sticks. My attempts at speaking with them proved fruitless. The tipping point was when they began spraying my dog in the face with an unknown substance. That weekend, a friend helped us install a corner privacy fence to protect Murphy from any further harm. Once the dog was safe, it was time to “dress up” this ugly fence appendage.

The back corner before the fence addition and yard work

We hadn’t been able to do much with the yard this summer until that weekend so the list was long, but included ideas on how to make the back corner look more appealing. There were bushes in another garden that needed to be removed because they had grown too large for the space, so we thought we might be able to use those near the new fence. And one of my favorite local greenhouses was having a sale on perennials so I was finally able to get some of the plants that had been on my wish list for the past few years to fill in the space the bushes would be vacating. We didn’t have any definite plans. We decided, instead, to just start working and see where it took us. The entire time, REO Speedwagon was cheering me on inside my head. And after several days of hard work, we were both very proud of what we had accomplished. Not only was Murphy safe, but the yard had been transformed into our own little backyard oasis. We even found an inexpensive bird bath/water fountain and can now listen to the soothing sound of water cascading down the levels while we sit outside and watch Murphy tear apart mulch (this is his new favorite activity).

The new fence after being "dressed up"
This is where the bushes used to be and these are the plants that replaced them

I love all the color in this garden now!

Murphy and his mulch

Murphy loving up the sod we put in to cover the huge hole he dug

The new bird bath/fountain

Between all the digging, planting, mulch distribution and mosquito swatting, we had a Fourth of July BBQ to attend. I offered to bring a recipe from the box. Originally I was ambitious and planned on bringing a cake or other intriguing dessert, but after all the yard work, something a little simpler sounded more appealing. I decided on oatmeal cookies. As I gathered ingredients and read through the instructions, I knew I had chosen the perfect card. The last line on the card says “use spices and flavoring as desired.” I rarely improvise when I make recipes. I can follow instructions and make a decent dish, but I just don’t have the talent to know what spices and flavors can be thrown together to create a culinary masterpiece. But when I read that line, I got goose bumps. Of all the cards I could have pulled from the box, I chose this one, the one telling me to improvise. Considering the activities occurring in the yard and the song that kept popping into my head, I knew I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect recipe for the weekend.

I wasn’t too adventurous. The only flavoring I added was 1 teaspoon of vanilla (I know, how boring). But that’s only because I chose to add chocolate chips instead of raisins. I want to make these cookies again and next time I’ll choose raisins because then I think they allow more flexibility to work with spices. I immediately thought of cinnamon, or perhaps even a dash of nutmeg. Now that I’ve acquired quite a collection of spice jars, I’ll have a plethora of options to truly make that batch of cookies my own special recipe. But as for the boring vanilla and chocolate chips…they were fabulous, and a big hit at the party, especially with the kids (cookies are an easy grab-and-run type of food that can be snatched and then eaten in the tree house away from prying adult eyes that send warnings of spoiling your dinner).

At the conclusion to the long holiday weekend, Ryan and I sat on the deck listening to the trickling fountain, admiring all the beautiful new plants, and smiling at our dog who was safely taking a nap in the middle of the yard. I considered the song that had gotten me through all the hard work and was reminded of another that keeps finding its way into my head that is just as inspiring. I first heard it on an episode of Bones and as soon as I did, I went directly to iTunes to download it. The song is “Keep on Trying” by Poco (another oldie, but goodie). The chorus to the song goes like this:

And I feel so satisfied when
I can see you smile
I want to confine in
All that is true, so I’ll
Keep on tryin’, I’m
Through with lyin’
Just like the sun above
I’ll come shining through
Oh yes I’ll
Keep on tryin’, I’m
Tired of cryin’
I got to find a way
To get on home to you

I have this song in my “Sing Out Loud” playlist for when I’m alone in the car (I DON’T sing in front of anyone, I’m terrible, but I love to do it). It’s one of those songs you feel in your bones when you belt it out from deep inside your diaphragm. I’ve always loved that line about the sun shining through and it made me think of how I’ve felt during the past year and a half of uncertainty. Put the two songs together and I think they make for a very strong mantra (hey, who says you can only have one mantra song?). Life never goes according to our plans and maybe that’s a good thing. If I hadn’t lost my job, I never would have started this blog and I may have kept letting the stories in the world around me slip away. But now, my eyes are open and my ears are tuned into the music coming across the airwaves. Who knows where it will lead me next.


  1. Very inspiring Molly! Funny how life stands in front of us sometimes until it gets our attention!? Oatmeal cookies sound wonderful! :-)

  2. That is TERRIBLE about the neighbor children and Murphy! I am so sorry you had to deal with that. I do love your new little fence corner. I also love how you tied in music and lyrics with this post. Just lovely, Molly!

  3. Those oatmeal cookies were beyond fantastic! Easily the best cookies I'd had in a heck of a long time!!!