Vanilla Extract, Creativity, and Grief

August 19, 2014

Random, maybe. But the more I thought about it and read through old posts, I realized that I have been putting into practice much of what I have read these past few years. Creativity, especially using both hands, moves memories through our brain, helps us process trauma. Opens up new pathways in our brain, good thoughts and success lead to more good thoughts and success. I wrote more on that here.

Many folks have asked how I make my own vanilla extract, I thought a blog post would be the easiest way to share what has been working for me.

I start with buying good vanilla beans, usually from Amazon. I like Madagascar vanilla beans for extract and buy at least a 1/4 pound at a time.

IMG_0756-001My rule of thumb is 3 to 4 vanilla beans for every cup of vodka. So if you have a 1.75 litre bottle of vodka, about 7.4 cups, that is at least 28 vanilla beans. I cut them in half.


Sometimes I make a long slit in each bean half, sometimes I don’t.  I pour off some of the vodka to make room for the vanilla beans. I save the that vodka to use in our airlocks when we brew beer. Some recipes say use cheap vodka, it is just extract. I disagree. I use a mid-shelf vodka, I am going to be baking with my extract, why would I want off flavors from cheap vodka?

IMG_0774-001Stuff the 28 vanilla beans that you cut in half into the vodka bottle, top it off with some of the vodka you poured out and put the lid back on. Give it a shake, its fun to watch all the vanilla “caviar” float around. And this is my favorite part, place your nascent vanilla extract in a dark place and forget about it for about four to six months. Give it a shake every now and then, open it up and smell it just for the rush, and then put it back away. The longer the better.


I buy four ounce bottles to share with friends and family, plus the four ounce bottles fit nicely in our cabinet.

IMG_0758-001 I sometimes strain the extract, sometimes I don’t. I like the little specks of vanilla caviar in my baking. When I am ready to bottle I sterilize everything, even though nothing is brave enough to grow in vodka, proper sanitation is always appreciated. I do not add water to my extract, why would I do that? Some do, I don’t. I pour the extract, which is now this gorgeous dark brown and smells of all things good, into a large measuring cup, pour from the large measuring cup to a smaller measuring cup to fill each bottle with four ounces of extract. A funnel is a necessity, not a luxury. I add one of the soaked half beans to each bottle. Cap it, wipe it down, and label it.


The assembly line set up.

Be creative with your labeling, it is part of the fun. We have a story about our laughing “Belgian” which you can read here.


The finished product!

I like to keep a container of vanilla sugar marinating on the shelf, vanilla sugar adds another layer of flavor to whatever you are baking. Makes the best vanilla frosting, tastes like vanilla ice cream. I use it in egg custards, cookies, especially biscotti, oh and homemade chai, a little vanilla sugar just sets everything apart from the rest. This batch of extract I had some vanilla beans left over with plenty of caviar left in them. I simply scraped the caviar out into a bucket of sugar and mixed it well, threw the beans in there as well, and it is already smelling heavenly. You can also just cut vanilla beans in half, scrape out the caviar and mix with sugar, does not have to be vodka soaked beans.


The vanilla caviar scraped from the soaked vanilla beans.


Vanilla Sugar after the caviar has been well blended.

I have a bottle of bourbon vanilla extract started, I think the bourbon will add yet another layer of flavor to all my baked goods and custards. You can also use brandy. I wouldn’t use Everclear, I haven’t read of great results with that product.

Bourbon Vanilla Extract

Bourbon Vanilla Extract

My kitchen is my place of peace, it is a place of creativity and healing. At times bittersweet, I miss little boys on step stools going through the spice cabinet and smelling all the different spices. I could let Ryan sit on the counter when he was just a little guy and he could name all the spices.  I came across notes Justin had taken about cookie baking, he had handwritten some of my recipes down in his notebooks. Taken notes on how to properly fluff flour and measure. I cry a lot in my kitchen, and that is a good thing, tears are healing. My hands and body move, memories move, new things learned, the ache is always there, but it gives birth to beauty. Scents and textures connect me to the present moment, they open up new pathways of experiencing life in small ways. They become the path of my grief journey.

Categories: Grieving, Hope, Justin, Ryan.

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The Wisdom of Pooh, Whispers of Love

July 24, 2014

“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”

– A. A. Milne

I have been asked what is written on a thin leather bracelet I starting wearing recently, and as I can’t speak without crying, I thought I would tell the story of how I came to wear this gift.

Snapshot-Scans115-001Justin was our Christopher Robin and our Tigger, it all depended on the day. He would sing the bouncy Tigger song much to the delight of whoever could hear him, and with his rain boots and slicker, he could easily be Christopher Robin. We spent many a happy moment watching Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day and would have tea parties in our own make-believe Hundred Acre Wood.

This was a hard spring, and the precious gift of new pictures of Justin caught me unprepared. That smile, those eyebrows, the joy on his face, they were such unguarded pictures of him, so beautiful. I could recognize the grief wave, knew what it was, but it still beats you up pretty good. I wanted to reach through those pictures and touch that face, hear that laugh that had just left his lips.

It was right around the same time that I came across an artist on Etsy, a marvelous on-line assembly of artisans from all over the world. I am not even sure how I found C. Johanesen Studio, maybe it just found me, but the first bracelet I saw was the Christopher Robin quote on a thin leather wrap. I cried the rest of the afternoon and wasn’t sure why. I kept coming back to it over and over again, and the same reaction, tears. Tears are good, they upset the puppy, but tears are cleansing, they move through us, release chemicals that our brains need, they can bring clarity. I knew I desperately wanted that bracelet, I read the quote over and over, but I would be crying too hard to place an order. I thought about that quote all the time, out in the garden, doing dishes, and then I caught a flicker of recognition. Justin, is that you? “If there ever is tomorrow when we are not together”, yes that tomorrow came. “There is something you must always remember”, okay, but you know that I struggle with memory now, “you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Yes, but can you see me Justin? I am surrounded by a mounds of tissues, curled in a ball from the pain, dodging the pup’s tongue as he tries to lick my tears, I am not really feeling the brave and strong right now. “But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart…I’ll always be with you.”

Not unlike putting a puzzle together, I started to fit the pieces together, Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin, “I’ll always be with you.”  It took me a good month before I could pull myself together enough to focus on placing an order, and when it arrived it was perfect. I can hear you telling me those words. I am new to this, this new way of relationship, building a different sort of relationship with you, I am very slow to catch on. And hesitant, the world might think I am crazy, but I don’t care anymore. I have more leads to follow, now I can see them, we have your journal and notes for a reason. You had such a rich interior life that I didn’t know, and the loss of your companionship is such a heavy fog, but maybe I am learning. Learning to hear your whispers.

My love for you didn’t die, and if love does not die, then your love for me did not die, your love for your father, and Ryan did not die. Your love for your aunts, uncles, cousins, friends still lives and has the power that only love has to touch lives. Whispers of love. May love be your legacy Justin. And I will try very hard to remember, I promise.



Categories: Faith, Family, Hope, Justin.

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Cardonnacum, a place with thistles, the accident site.

July 20, 2014

A place of thistles, small purple heads nodding in the Minnesota wind. A sky so blue and wide, it seems to go on forever. Milkweed growing wild, a natural butterfly garden. Cattails growing so dense you cannot reach the water’s edge. Wind making waves of the wild wheat and grasses. Many ponds and rivers crisscrossing the landscape on either side of the interstate. We had reached Luverne, MN, the place where Justin died.


Doug drove us a few miles outside of town so that we could retrace his steps. We came down the highway the same direction Justin would have been heading and parked the car, and my heart knew, a keening cry came from the very bottom of my soul. We had to cross an exit P1010877ramp and then walk down a hill to the body of water, the wild grasses and thistles pulling at our jeans. Doug had stopped to retrieve something from the trunk of the rental car, I don’t know how he managed to surprise me, but he had packed a beautiful cross in his luggage for a roadside memorial. The cross that Doug had made during his journey through RCIA and had laid in front of the altar the night of Easter vigil long years ago.  How hard to watch a father walk with a cross to mark his son’s passing, my IMG_9631-002heart took a picture, the blue of the sky and smell of summer in the air. We had to watch where we walked as the ground was marshy and wild, an area undisturbed. We got as close to the edge of the water as we could and Doug rested the cross down in grasses and cattails. I had not imagined the body of water so large. We could only see the water through the cattails and I understand why Justin’s vehicle would have gone unnoticed except seen from certain angle.

We were blessedly alone, just the wind for company, and flowers. Wild purple thistles, pink milkweed, wild daisies, and hundreds of cattails. I had thought that maybe the accident would replay in my head, that God IMG_9679-002would let me see it, to see how the car flipped and landed upside down in that pond, I thought perhaps I would hear the tires screech, hear the roof hit, but I didn’t. And kneeling there, peering through the cattails I felt all desire to know the details drain away. In the stillness I heard birds, the hum of insects, and the wind, the glorious wind that made the flower dance. I could not have created a more beautiful memorial garden. There was no sense of a spirit at unrest, I know his ghost does not haunt that pond, there was no distress in the wind. That pond and ground have been forever hallowed by his passing, his sweet spirit kissed that place and left some of his gentleness behind. Holy ground, we walked holy ground, sacred ground.


We stayed as long as we could, it was hard to leave. I laid purple thistles on his cross. I wished I had remembered to take a few to keep as a remembrance.  The thistle is an ancient Celtic symbol of nobility of character, it also represents survival, as it will flourish where others cannot. So hard to turn our backs and walk back to the car, I remember how warm the sun was, how I let my fingers touch the different plants as we walked back, how peaceful that hallowed spot was, virtually hidden from all eyes.

Grief turned up like fresh earth in the garden, soaked by tears. We have stood at Cardonnacum, a place with thistles, and I can hear our gentle son tell us, you are survivors, mom and dad, just like the thistle.



From an elevated rise, you can see the pond more clearly.


Categories: Doug, Grieving, Justin.

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“Watch Me”

July 3, 2014

The memory of little boy voices calling us to watch them, “watch me mom”, watch me dad.” I can hear my mother’s voice saying “watch them, take the time to watch them, you only have this moment.” They were not the voices of arrogant, spoiled children, they were the voices of well-loved, confident children, they knew we would watch them. Sometimes we failed to take that time, but I know in my heart we “watched” more than we didn’t.

I had a neighbor tell me that I would never get anything to grow in our front gardens now that our trees were gone, just too sunny, just too hot. I smiled and silently said “watch me.”  There is something about hearing the words “never, can’t, you won’t, impossible”, that bring out those words “watch me.”

I have learned over the years to not tell a Norseman something cannot be done, they are men of few words, but the head tilts, the eyebrow raises, and then they precede to do whatever they were told was not achievable. They aren’t ones to crow about it, they just move on to the next immovable object.

“Watch me” makes me think of an older Justin being told by a teacher that he would not succeed in college, “watch me”, being told by us that he just had surgery and couldn’t live at the bottom of the hill at Franciscan still in a walking boot and crutches, “watch me”, again not in an arrogant manner, but a quiet strength. We finally just learned to watch him and enjoy the ride.

I think a lot about what image of God we imprinted on our sons, how much bad programming they will have to undo. It is funny what sticks with a child. I remember after my father died my mom saying that God had answered all her prayers for the house they had just bought two months before his death, she had dreamed of a family room with a bay window, a rancher, but then she said I forgot to add your father, I forgot to include him. In her grief, I can recognize that she was trying to figure out what had just happened. I know that she prayed for my father’s health, but at thirteen that made an incredible impression on me. I would get tied up in knots about praying about anything because what if I did it wrong. What if I forgot an important detail? From that single grief driven remark from a beautiful, loving woman, I extrapolated my base formation for prayer. I thought it best to not pray at all because the vision I had of God was one of waiting, waiting for you to leave something or someone out, waiting for you to do it wrong so that he could exact retribution. Don’t snort or scoff, the image of an angry Almighty is a popular one. Often used to procure “good” behavior and instill fear, provide a backbone for a culture – not a living, breathing relationship.

I think back to the night of Justin’s death. I always prayed for the boys at night. When that officer came to our door that next day, I did ask myself, did you forget to pray for him, is this your fault, was the angry, vengeful God just waiting for the night when you let your guard down to take your heart? Did I do it wrong, in my ignorance did I ask the wrong things, pray the wrong prayer, did I fall asleep before I got to the part where it counts?

For almost three years God has been silent, not just silent, absent. Dark, so dark. I realize now that all my childish misconceptions of God had to die, if I was allowed to feel Him, then I would have not let go. In complete abandonment of darkness, there was a stillness that allowed me to think. In the dark He reveals His true heart in a single word, Mercy. In any and all situations, simply pray for my Mercy, my Mercy cannot be outdone. What parent can resist a child’s plea for mercy, we are overcome with tenderness and reach out to stroke the child’s cheek, our hearts melt.

There is a song by Don Harris, “With All Faith”, one line in particular plays over and over in my head, “press into the heart of the Father.” That is an image of invitation, of open arms, of a child resting its forehead on a parent’s chest to hear their heartbeat. Childish? No. Childlike, yes. Sign of a mature faith, absolutely, for we finally see ourselves for who we are, beloved children of God. A God who we can say “watch me”, and we are watched with a delight and joy. He watches with eyes of mercy, he waits for us to tell Him all about our day, to spill into His lap all the pieces that are simply too big for us, and have Him sort through the collection from our pockets, lint, string, tissues, buttons, nothing is too big, nothing is too small.

Dad didn’t die because mom didn’t pray right, dad died because his heart was too weary and diseased to beat any longer, our bodies wear out. Justin didn’t die because I didn’t pray right, Justin died because we live in a world where accidents happen. They died because we all will die one day, our time is finite. With that in mind, there is a great gift we can give each other, the gift of watch keeping, to watch the cat bird as it sits on top of the tallest pine and sings its heart out, to watch our children grow, to watch as waves chase the little sandpipers along the shore. In that state of conscious watchfulness, we become aware of the Other, the presence of One who watches with us and over us.

“His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me”

Civilla D. Martin, 1905




Categories: Dark Night, Faith, Justin.

Dragon Riding

July 2, 2014

My love affair with dragons began when I was about 4 years old, Puff was my first. I was very envious of little “Jackie Paper” who romped and played with Puff through his childhood. I loved going to the Enchanted Forest in central Maryland just to see the wonderful dragon that was perched atop the castle gates. Unicorns, winged Pegasus’ were charming, but dragons won my heart.

Back in January, I came across a book by Robert J. Wicks called “Riding the Dragon.” I had heard Dr. Wicks speak probably 18 years ago and had remembered him. I got it for my Kindle and couldn’t put it down. Some pages I read over and over again, struggling to take it all in. I had to walk away from it for awhile and think. In the preface for “Riding the Dragon”, Dr. Wicks speaks of “post traumatic growth” and learning to ride our dragons rather than stuffing them back in their cave, or running and hiding from them. He spoke of the transformation that can come from dragon riding.

In my reading on the death of a child I have come across some parents who touch on the subject of becoming better people for having experienced the unthinkable. In my mind as I wrestled with this, my first thought was why did Justin have to die for me to cease being a terrible person, why did he have to die so that I could become “better?” I wavered between despair and worse as I took inventory of myself before Justin’s death. I went back to Dr. Wicks and read again his incredibly kind words. He advises one to be very gentle in this self-examination. I finally ordered the book itself, I needed to roll around in the pages. I love my Kindle, but for this I needed paper. Six months later and numerous visits between the pages, my thought is different. I don’t believe it is a matter of “better”, just different. Being open to post traumatic growth does not mean that I was a horrible human being before Justin’s death, flawed, sinful, yes – but not horrible. Part of the journey is to make peace with the person I was before his death, so that I can hug her and move on to embrace the new. She will always be with me, sometimes I miss her, but mostly there is peace. I will still fail, am still flawed, will still sin, but dragon riding can bring humility and acceptance, can usher in compassion and wisdom.

I sit at my desk with Tatsuko, Justin’s dragon, she has been on my desk since his death. Justin IMG_9188-001loved dragons also, those of you who knew him, knew his email address was Stardragon. He thought them terribly misunderstood and had respect for their wisdom, he had such a whimsical way about him. I think of the magnificent artwork Ryan has on his chest, ancient dragon wings form the background for an ancient Celtic cross. No small wonder that I was so drawn to dragon riding, it must be embedded in the familial memory.

To stand in front of one’s fiercest dragons, it breathing fire, tail lashing, and to know you can run towards it, all you have to do is get a single hand hold, leap, and then you are astride, is liberating. You may get thrown, you might get stepped on as you roll back to your feet, but you leap again and eventually you ride that dragon. Lessons must be revisited, dragon riding is not easy. But then you have an experience, it may have been uncomfortable, but you realize that it came from being on the back of your dragon, that from its wings you had a unique perspective.  Maybe you even laughed out loud at the sheer freedom, you fought hard to get on the back of that dragon. And you looked with greater compassion at your fellow dragon riders, honored and humbled by their scars and fresh wounds of battle.

You loosen your dragon’s rein and let him have his head, energized by the wind in your face and the fierce beating of your hearts, fear sits where you left it, at the mouth of the cave where your dragon had been waiting.

Categories: Faith, Hope, Justin, Ryan.

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June 22, 2014

Our surviving son turned 27 yesterday. This is our first time having a child who is 27. Twenty seven is significant. It is those few years before 30, you are past those tumultuous years of early 20′s, you relax a bit, it is a nice age.

I treasure his birthday, our Ryan, I will never take another birthday for granted. I do look fondly and sometimes longingly back on the early years, but this week I have reflected on the joys of having an adult child in our life.

They are funny. You are past all the silly stuff of having to act like a grown-up around them and can just be yourself, so pictures of things that are on the Wegman’s shelf of odd foods from Britain sent on a smart phone to your adult child, are funny. Warped humor is best when shared.

They hold fascinating perspectives. They bring a freshness to old topics, like having an eye exam and the doctor asks “one or two, three or four, which is clearer?”, their life experiences can bring a clarity to long held suppositions and accepted beliefs, sometimes they can shatter a belief. They constantly breathe out fresh life and challenge us to see with new eyes.

They are resourceful and quite capable. There is a quote from a movie that runs through my head, the father is speaking to the mother about their young son, Jonathan says “I know – we taught him well, he’s smarter than you, he’s tougher than me.” I don’t know about teaching them well, I am not sure I taught them anything. The older I get the more I realize the miracle that surviving the “growing-up” process is, it increases the wonder I feel when I hear that strong, confident voice on the other end of the phone. One day you realize that they are smarter than you and that they are tough, they continue to get back up after being knocked down. And you relax, you know that whatever challenge they are facing or sharing with you, they don’t need you to fix it, they are more than capable of being creative and persevering through to a resolution.

Our lives are graced with his presence. I don’t say blessed, the most over used word ever. Not all people and not always, but largely, people tend to toss the blessed word around far too easily, when good happens then they see it as being “blessed.”  That implies that the absence of  good or “blessing”  means you have screwed up or lost favor.  We live by grace and mercy. I see God’s mercy in our son’s face. I see the light of grace in those gray/green shadowed eyes, I see God’s story unfolding in his life that has precious little to do with what we did or didn’t do. He is a child of grace. I have learned to see God through his eyes and shed my long held perceptions of God.

The days are never long enough, the hours never enough that we spend with our children, there is always a hunger for more time. But they were and are enough. If there was one wish for my children to know, it is that they are and always have been enough.

Categories: Family, Justin, Ryan.

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