Sermons and Step-Parenting

IMG_1654I gave my first talk in my new ward yesterday. It’s up at By Common Consent, if you’re interested. It’s difficult for me to know how much to share with new people; there’s a line somewhere between giving context, and giving oneself away. Of course, my modus operandi in my writing is being an almost entirely open book- but things are a little different in real life. Does one stand at the pulpit and pound a fist and say “Listen up! When I say I know what it’s like to be tried, I know what I’m talking about! And not just in the comfortable way of tight finances or a husband who forgets to pick up his towels!” Yeah… probably not. But sometimes I want to— I’m never dishing platitudes. Maybe that’s just part of getting older? I have less patience with people who love their problems, and more patience with knowing things usually work out, even when “working out” seldom means what we want it to mean. Anyway, that was the gist of my talk.

My husband’s ex-wife attended our ward yesterday. I don’t get nervous when speaking, so it didn’t really phase me on the stand- but it’s part of an emerging pattern of interjecting herself when we have the kids. A phone call each evening (which is what he does when the kids are not with us) is perfectly fine and reasonable, but half a dozen phone calls and twice as many texts in a few hours is a bit over the line. We clearly have some work to do.

I realize it must be very difficult to have another woman have access to and personal time with your children. This isn’t a challenge I’ve been given, but my capacity for empathy is decently calibrated, so I can imagine those shoes being uncomfortable, particularly at first. I want her to know that her kids are being loved and cared for with us.

Learning to be a good step-parent is like anything when you’re learning— you’re going to goof a few times, but sincerity and love go a long way towards cementing new bonds. I’ve never done this before, but I have been a step-kid and I have been a kid of a divorce, and I’ve been trying to remember what I needed; the answer always comes down to love. If I err on the side of love, I think it’s pretty hard to go wrong.

From day one, I decided all children in our new family would be treated and loved equally. There would be the same set of rules for all the kids. They are radically different children, and all five have wildly different needs many days, but it’s possible and necessary to make the family a place where everyone is loved, and everyone’s input is valid, and most importantly, wanted and heard. Despite the fact my own kids are here every day and my step-kids divide their time between two homes, all kids have dedicated space and a dedicated voice here. Taking the time to listen— really listen— has already opened up some unique and healing conversations with my step-kids and with my own kids, as we navigate combining families.

The kids are getting along better than I ever dared hope. They’re 17, nearly 13, 11, 10 and 8. They’re playing together, working together, helping each other, giggling a lot, staying up way too late talking, teasing each other, and now, even solving problems together. Just like siblings. At first everyone was understandably careful, but I see the problem solving and relaxing as evidence of feeling comfortable and safe— and that’s a good thing.

I haven’t been writing about this much because honestly, I haven’t known how to navigate the new interpersonal byways. My kids are used to being part of my narrative, and while I give them veto power now over anything I write about them, they still are used to being part of a somewhat public story. I’ll clearly be more careful with my step-kids’ privacy, but I simply cannot ignore the impact and beautiful part of our lives they are becoming. My husband encouraged me to just write; to do what I do best. So here it is.

For their mother, I want her to know what their father already knows— maybe it will help her feel more comfortable: They are safe and loved here in this newly formed, unconventional family. I will love and protect them as if they were my own. And that’s saying something.

Recipe: Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Slaw and Pickles

006-003The first time I had this meal was in the basement of Emma Smith Bidamon’s brick house on the rising May banks of the Mississippi River. I fell down the staircase after dinner, utterly and completely fulfilling my conversion to Mormonism, but my warmest memory is still sitting in the basement kitchen, listening to the cicadas and breaking bread (and pulled pork) with a group of friends I call family.

Bishop Brown, the same good man who drove my TARDIS moving truck from Washington State to Washington DC two summers ago (if you need an adopted father, I cannot recommend Bishop Brown highly enough) prepared dinner for his flock- and introduced me to the finer aspects of southern vinegar barbecue sauce, and the divine alchemy of brine-cured dills atop a pile fresh slaw. I cannot bite into it without tears of happiness welling at the corners of my eyes. This recipe is my July gift to you.

Pulled Pork

  • 3-4 pound pork roast
  • Salt and pepper
  • Penzy’s Barbecue of the Americas spice rub (but really, use whatever rub you like)
  • 1 cup water

Rub the roast with the spices, throw everything in a slow-cooker or crock pot in the morning, and let it cook all day on low. That’s it. It’s so simple.

Barbecue Sauce

  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1 Tbsp dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbsp molasses
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp salt

Whisk all the ingredients in a bowl, and set aside in the fridge until the pork is done. Adjust seasoning to taste. I like the tang of vinegar, some like it sweeter. You can also, if you feel like it, use a store-bought sauce in a pinch, and it’s honestly almost as good.

Tracy’s Fresh Coleslaw

  • 1 head green cabbage, sliced super thin.
  • 3 large carrots, thinly julienned (I do this with a serrated veggie peeler)
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 Tbsp minced dried onion, or 1/4 cup fresh grated (I prefer dried here- yay food storage!)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp celery seeds

Shred the cabbage and carrots and set aside in a large bowl. Whisk remaining dressing ingredients in a bowl, then toss with cabbage/carrots. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Go buy some good brine-cured kosher dill pickles. Most commercial brands are cured with vinegar, and they’re great too, but a refrigerated brine pickles is a whole new party. Trader Joes carries a good brine pickle. So do most nicer grocers. If you can’t find them, regular ol’ pickles will still be really good. While you’re at the store, pick up some really yummy looking soft buns- something better-looking than regular hamburger buns, but those will work in a pinch.

When the roast is done and utterly falling apart, usually perfectly around dinner time if I started it before about 10 am, turn the slow cooker off and lift the roast onto a plate. Save the liquid in the cooker. The roast will fall apart- that’s a beautiful thing. Shred it with some forks, and return to the slow cooker. I usually add some of the pot broth back to make the pork super moist, but do what you think will taste best given your roast and your broth. Pour the barbecue sauce over the shredded pork and toss it all together.  Is your mouth watering? Mine is, just thinking of it.

To serve, pile the sauce soaked shredded pork on a bun, add a heaping scoop of the freshly made slaw, and top with some thin slices of your briny pickles. This is one of those particular dishes where the whole is sublimely greater than the sum of the simple parts.

I usually serve it with baked beans and follow with Ree’s Texas Sheet Cake, which is simply truly the best sheet cake ever. I won’t even try to top it. Now go watch fireflies and hang out with your friends while you all marvel at what a good cook you are!

NB: As a person with a bad gluten-allergy, I skip the bun and have everything else in a bowl like a salad. It’s just as good. Beware of hidden gluten in commercial barbecue sauces.)

Warp and Weft


There are some deep stirrings and upwellings from the long-undisturbed layers in my bedrock. I haven’t figured out yet what they mean, or where they will take me, but it feels like it’s the roadmap for the next chapters of my life. What does one who learned how to breathe and swim and make a life in chaos and upheaval do with peace and stability? I don’t know yet. I suspect, like everything, it’s about trust.

Learning to be a wife again, to share parenting duties and household burdens and joys, to incorporate a life with five children instead of just three. Learning to share space and time again, and dropping the no-longer necessary armor from my solo-parenting years. It’s all a process, all about trust.

I’m comfortable in the space of uncertainty. Oddly enough, that fact gives me some certainty in navigating these new shoals of my life. There is stability where for so long there was nothing beneath my feet, and even though that stability is still so unfamiliar, comfort with uncertainty in my surroundings is something of which my navigational skills are finely honed and bedrock confident.

I feel like a mobius, both coming and going. A paradox, this because of that, but not that without this. I am laced in finely wrought tension, where the creation is beautiful beyond comprehension, now brought forth from the stored, vulcanized silks spun my entire life.

There’s a Man in My Kitchen


It was in a tiny studio apartment kitchen in Capitola-by-the-Sea where I first realized I could cook. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen as a kid— my mother is an exceptional baker,  and like all kids, I “helped” her, but baking requires measuring, care in amounts, and a degree of precision that often made my attempts fall flat. Literally. While my mom’s baking skills are renowned, I took my failure to reproduce her fineries to mean a general failure in the kitchen. It wasn’t until I had my first apartment (shared with the daughter of a Beach Boy. Not even kidding.) that I realized cooking and baking are like Mars and Venus. Not even the same world. The first savory dish I ever attempted was a broccoli and cheddar soufflé. (Yes. I am Soufflé Girl.) It was spectacular. All these years later, I can still remember the gulls crying out my upper-story window and taste the salty Pacific air as I pulled the perfect soufflé from the oven, astonished that it actually worked!

My love of cooking was born. Right there, in that moment. It’s kind of cool to have a rubicon where I can clearly pinpoint a turning point in life. I went from being timid and skeptical to feeling like SuperGirl, in one divine moment of alchemy between egg, vegetable and sharp cheddar. I’ve never looked back.

Since then, I’ve gotten better at baking, but it’s still not my passion. Too much carefulness is required, and it annoys me that humidity, temperature and precision can all turn something lovely into a lumpy dumpy mess. Cooking is instinctual. Baking is science. (I bet Abby will take after her Grandmas.) Plus, adding in the whole “flour will kill me” issue kinda takes the joy out of baking.

For all of my adult life, the kitchen had been my realm. I’m a good cook— I can wing it, make my own recipes, and I have the instincts to combine things successfully into good food. More than that, I utterly enjoy it. Going into the kitchen is relaxing and calming for me- holding my Wustoff ten-inch chef’s knife (it’s been with me longer than my children) and slicing, chopping and julienning are transformative, therapeutic acts. The knife rocks over the scarred wooden boards of my block, and it becomes a meditation. My kitchen tools are loved, and most of them have stories, memories, and people attached to their acquisition and use. Sure, sometimes I toss dinner together from freezer-fixins’ just like everyone— but really cooking remains a simple joy.

Now… for the first time in my adult life… there’s another person in the house who loves to cook. And I don’t know what to do.

My dad didn’t cook. None of the men in my life have ever cooked. I don’t think my brothers made their own toast for breakfast until they were adults. And all of the sudden, there is a large man in the middle of my kitchen. He likes my knives, and how honed and heavy they are. He likes my thick cutting boards, scarred with time and memories. He notices the All-Clad pans that were worth the investment long ago. He appreciates the solid clay bowls, and the wooden spoons made in France. He himself chose the five-burnder gas stove for the kitchen I now call mine. He notices and enjoys the fineness of my tools. And he cooks.

He cooks. He bakes. He does the dishes. He sweeps up after dinner. When he’s in the kitchen, he’s not “helping” me— he’s just… in the kitchen, enjoying cooking as much as I do. I catch myself standing like a deer in the headlights, caught between movements, words half-formed and unsure what to do with my limbs as I find him once again effortlessly navigating the finer points of kitchen alchemy. I’ve been doing this alone for so long, my patterns are well established, and I keep tripping as I turn to do something, a step of the kitchen dance, and find I now have a partner in this timeless domestic rhythm.

He gently laughs at me, as I stall mid-movement, unsure for the first time in years what to do next. This is all new.

I suppose there is always an adjustment in a new marriage, in a new family. We seem to be doing really well in many ways- my kids adore him, and have for a long time. Both of our families are very happy with our choice of each other and have fully embraced us. His kids, while not here as much as mine, seem happy with us and are acclimating to having new siblings. Our belongings have melded together beautifully in the house. There’s a whole lot of harmony.

I just have to get used to a man in my kitchen. A man who is a much better baker than I am