Monthly Archives: December 2011

Best of 2011

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.” (Annais Nin)

Happy New Years Eve! In the spirit of celebrating roads already travelled on this last day of the year here were your favourite posts of the year, my favourite posts of the year, and Mike’s favourite photos from 2011.

Your favourite posts

The most popular posts from this past year (judged by traffic) were all pregnancy related. I guess there’s a reason why so many “mommy blogs” become big deals.

  1. Ten Great Gifts for Pregnant Women and Thirty Great Gifts for Pregnant Women and New Parents
  2. Introducing Dominic McKay Wolfe
  3. Koi Maan Luuk (or “I am pregnant”)
  4. Push it: Music for labour and delivery
  5. Ten good things about boys: Attaining synthetic happiness one gender stereotype at a time

My favourite posts

Some of the posts on the list above are near and dear to my heart, as well. But here are five other favorites of mine from the past year.

  1. A Baby-Shaped Hole In My Heart: In which I write about my growing love for my unborn baby.
  2. Dear Dad, Love Dominic: In which a three week old Dominic writes a letter to Mike about how he’s sad to be apart on his first father’s day.
  3. Looking Like Love: A Letter To My Parents: In which I write a letter to my parents about how wonderful it’s been to stay with them for five months over the period of Dominic’s birth.
  4. T’is The Night Before (A Children’s Story): In which I make lemonade from lemons by turning a string of awful, sleepless nights into a rhyming children’s story.
  5. More than a brighter shade of happiness: In which I think about joy, happiness, and the fruits of motherhood.

Mike’s favourite photos

 I asked Mike to pick five favourite photos but he came back with nine – one for each, long month of pregnancy. So with no further ado, here they are:

Thanks for reading this blog and following along with my (our) story! If you blog, leave a link in the comments section to your own favourite post or two from your blog this year, or let us know how you’ll be celebrating New Years Eve. 

I hope 2011’s been a great year for you and that 2012 promises great things.

With Love from Laos,
Lisa
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Family moments across the miles

7:40 this morning, just after I get out the shower, skype rings on my laptop. It’s my grandparents, playing with their brand new iPad.

When I answer, my grandparent’s living room pops up and I can see my mother and grandfather peering, puzzled, straight into the camera.

Me: “Hello?”

Pa: “Now how do you…”

Me: “Hello?”

Mum: “Don’t press that one!”

Me: “Hello? Can you hear me?”

Pa: “Well, where’s the other little thing?”

Me: “Hello? Did you call me?”

Mum: “It’s somewhere down the bottom there.”

Me: “You called me accidentally, didn’t you. And you can’t hear me.”

Pa: “I can’t find it.”

Me: “OK then, I’m just going to hang out around here until you figure things out.”

Mum: “No, not that one!”

Pa: “Bugger.”

Mum: “Oh, look. There’s Lisa. She’s, uh, got her bra on.”

Pa (laughing): “She’s getting dressed.”

Me: “Oops, I didn’t think the camera showed that far.”

Pa: “Why can’t we hear her?”

Mum: “I’m sure the volume switch is around here somewhere.”

Four minutes later, they finally find the volume switch and I find the rest of my clothes. Pa tells me all about the chook shed he is building for my cousin, and Nanna tells me about all the delicious baking she did for family Christmas. Then Mum takes control of the iPad.

Mum: “I’m going to show you something that will make you homesick.”

Me: “Great, thanks, that’s just what I need.”

Mum turns the iPad around so that I can see one of my favourite views in the world – the river out my grandparent’s window. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day. The tide is in and the water and sky are both a clear, shiny blue.

Mum: “Can you see the guy waterskiing?”

Me: “Yes, I can see him.”

Mum: “And the dog?”

Me: “There’s a dog waterskiing?”

Mum: “No, not waterskiing, on the footpath.”

Me: “Oh, OK. Yup, I can see that dog.”

Mum: “So do you feel homesick?”

Me: “Yes, yes I do actually. Thanks for that.”

It seems that you no longer need to be on the same continent as your family to experience classic family moments during the holidays.

And that?

Priceless.

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Christmas in Laos

Two quick writing tidbits: First, Writing Wednesday will be back next week and I’ll be sharing the title of book baby! I find titles difficult, and this one took me more than three years to settle on, so I’m super excited that during these past few months I’ve finally decided on a title that I love. Come back next week to find out what it is.

And, second, I received my first peer-feedback on my memoir this week – from Gina Holmes, the award-winning author of Crossing Oceans and Dry as Rain and founder of Inspire a Fire. I was thrilled to read her endorsement:

“This is a positively riveting memoir by a talented author and globe-trotter. I loved journeying with Lisa McKay as she sought the love of her life and a place to call home. I can’t recommend this beautiful and triumphant story enough!”

But this week hasn’t been all (or even mostly) about writing, so it seems fitting that this week’s post should be mostly focused on sharing a couple of snippets of our Christmas in Laos.

We may not have had a traditional Christmas tree, but we did have a Christmas fireplace and we even ended up with some nicely wrapped gifts piled beside it (thanks mostly to Mike’s staff who, incidentally, were also the only ones who bought Dominic presents – I suspect that’s the last year we’ll be able to get away with that).

 
I stayed busy feeding the Christmas elves by cooking up a storm in our toaster oven. Along the path to banana spice loaf with lemon glaze, chocolate chip cookies, and caramelized onion and sweet potato frittata, I’ve had to do a lot of something I never dreamed I’d do again after completing my high school cooking classes in Zimbabwe – cream butter and sugar by hand with a wooden spoon.

Twenty years later that endeavor still takes just as long and is just as laborious, but at least I have an interested audience to play to. Although, sometimes those audience members (particularly the furry one) are a little too interested in the process.

Feeding the Christmas Elves milk

Cooking the Christmas Elves cookies

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were lovely – relaxed and friends-filled. Our housekeeper, Oun, brought her baby around for us to meet. We had lunch with friends on the Khan, and another couple of friends surprised us at our house that night with carol books in hand and “caroled” us.


 
On Christmas morning we had two friends around for what turned out to be a champagne brunch, and then two more for a Moroccan dinner. The food turned out a whole lot better than our family Christmas photos.


 
Despite (and in some ways because of) the crying baby soundtrack, we had a delightful Christmas. We hope yours was every bit as special. Thanks for dropping by!

More than a brighter shade of happiness

“What have you been thinking about joy recently?” Mike asked me over lunch the other day.

“I’ve been thinking about that research suggesting that people are happier before they have children,” I said. “And about how happiness and joy are different.”

“Are you going to write the easy post about how you often feel less happy on a moment to moment basis since Dominic’s birth, but you have more joy in your life?” Mike asked.

“No,” I said. “Because, although I would like to think that this is true, I’m not actually sure that it is.”

Despite the fact that joy is the theme of this month, I’ve been trying not to think too hard about the difference between happiness and joy. This question confuses me, and thinking too hard about anything confusing in the face of this enduring sleep deficit is still a struggle. But there’s no getting around it, if I’m going to exert even a half-hearted attempt to grapple with the concept of joy, this particular question must be confronted.

Mike and I first started talking about joy a couple of weekends ago when we were hanging out at Zen and I was feeling low low low. Mike asked me what I was thinking about regarding joy on that day, too. As I recall, I told him I didn’t feel at all joyful and I didn’t feel like talking about it. Also as I recall, Mike being Mike, he persevered with the conversation, anyway.

“Happiness is present focused,” Mike said when I gave in and asked him what he thought about the difference between joy and happiness. “Joy is more future focused. Also, happiness is more self-focused while joy is others-focused.”

“Like how we feel about Leslie’s and Ryan’s engagement,” Mike continued. “Objectively there’s little in it for us other than a kick ass party, so why do we feel so elated by this? I think that feeling of gladness we feel at their good news, that’s less happiness than it is joy.”

I don’t agree with Mike about joy being tied to anticipating future good things, but then again I don’t think that I’m a very future-oriented person. If anything, I get more joy from remembering past blessings than I do thinking about the future.

However, I think Mike’s point about joy being related to empathy – being rooted in an appreciation for the “good” in life even when that good doesn’t directly benefit you – is fascinating.

Many dictionaries define joy as intense or especially exultant happiness, but this doesn’t seem nuanced enough to me. Even if I don’t find it easy to pin down exactly why, I feel as if joy really should be something more than just a brighter shade of happiness – something wider and deeper, something that stems from beyond myself and my pleasures.

I think the man who listed joy as one of the “fruits of the spirit” in Galatians 5:22 would agree. That man would probably say that true joy is a by-product of our appreciation for, and relationship with, the divine.

A good friend recently made a similar point by email.

“Joy is hard to quantify, no?” she wrote. “I think that joy doesn’t always make you happy, because the fruit of the spirit is the result of the work of God in your heart and experience shows this to be not exclusively a blissful journey. (Maybe sometimes we are more like in the stage of ‘the flower-bud of the spirit’? I mean, fruit will probably come, but not for a few months yet…).”

“I love that image of a flower bud of the spirit,” I wrote back. “I will hold the image of jasmine in my mind. At least, I’ll hold it in my mind until Mike teases me that I’m really more one of those carnivorous, meat-eating flowers you find in the Amazon. And then I might wonder aloud what sort of poor marriage decision that little flower made to end up having to adapt to living in the tropics, and tell Mike that sometimes flowers just do what they have to do to survive. Then we’ll both laugh. Thank goodness that, most days, we can both still laugh.”

We did plenty of laughing this morning when Dominic suddenly decided that our dog scratching himself was the funniest sight he’d seen in his whole little life and laughed until he turned bright red and started hiccupping. Today’s so far been a good day full of long baby naps and bright baby smiles and leisurely walks under cloudy skies to pick up groceries. Today I think of Dominic and smile. Today I can say without hesitation that Dominic’s birth has brought great joy into my life.

But today doesn’t tell the whole story of this last week.

Last week at this time I was alone in the house, exhausted from several nights in a row of broken sleep, unable to escape the screech of power tools right next door, and trying in vain to settle a grumpy baby who didn’t want to put down (or to sleep). I was walking the floor of our bedroom with Dominic in my arms, crying, thinking that this could not possibly be the point of life.

I would like to be able to say that even in that desolate moment I felt that the demanding, wailing bundle in my arms had brought joy with him when he burst into my life four months ago. Yes, I would like that. But the truth of the matter is that I simply felt so bereft of happiness and joy that I had a hard time conceiving that I would ever really feel either happiness or joy again.

I would also like to be able to say that even during that moment that felt so joyless, I still knew that the demanding, wailing bundle in my arms had brought joy with him when he burst into my life four months ago. Yes, I would like that. But the truth of the matter is, the only thing I knew for sure in that moment was that I still wouldn’t wish his birth undone. If the Archangel Gabriel had appeared in that instant and offered me the chance to hand Dominic over, I would have refused (unless Gabriel had promised to bring him back markedly more cheerful in a couple of hours – then I would have relinquished him with great haste as well as both happiness and joy).

Perhaps I still don’t have this difference between joy and happiness all sorted out in my mind because they’re impossible to completely untangle in real life. Sometimes, I think, joy does feel like a brighter shade of happiness. But sometimes in moments when happiness is nowhere to be found, I think it can feel like peace instead. And perhaps sometimes it’s not really a feeling at all, but more an attitude, or even knowledge.

I don’t think that knowing you don’t really want to push the reset button regarding the existence of your child – even in those dark, exhausted, tear-drenched moments – quite reaches the lofty heights of joy. Perhaps, however, joy can sink its roots deep into this knowledge and continue to grow even when the fertilizer of happiness is in short supply. Because I believe now that what I discovered last month about love is also turning out to be true of joy.

Last month I wrote about how love for Dominic hadn’t swamped me like a tidal wave but was creeping in slowly and inexorably, like a rising tide. I don’t know why I expected joy to be a different kettle of fish in this regard, but I did. Subconsciously I’ve been thinking of joy as something you either have – flowering full and perfect in your life – or don’t have at all. It took my friend’s letter to make me realize that I had missed a foundational implication of the fruit of the spirit analogy – the fact that fruit, uh, grows. Slowly. As in weeks, months, and entire seasons slowly. This much I do know about the process, despite the fact that I’ve never been all that talented at growing things and prefer to buy my fruit from others who have done the hard and careful work of tending.

Gosh, wouldn’t it be easier if we could buy joy from our local grocery store or, better yet, instant-download it directly into our lives using the buy-with-one-click button on Amazon?

Easier? Maybe.

Better? I can’t articulate exactly why, but I suspect not.

I will strive to remember that as I rue the irony of spending the next month thinking about peace in the midst of our ongoing negotiations with our noisy neighbors. I will remember it tonight when I wake up in the wee dark hours, as I will inevitably do, to reach down and place a hand on a stirring baby. And I will remember it this afternoon as I go soon to get him up from his nap, change him, amuse him, feed him, love him. If part of deep joy necessarily springs from focusing on others, this mothering thing surely means that my emotional greenhouse will eventually be a fruitful, joyous, sweet mess of color. And in the meantime, there are fresh mangoes and tamarind available at the little stall just down the street. Maybe I’ll take Dominic for a walk in that direction this afternoon.

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Writing Wednesday: Killing Your Darlings

Last week, after a string of awful nights, I decided to write a children’s story. The fun I had writing this little story did not make up for the exhaustion and aggravations of the previous week, but it helped. As I rhymed my way through verses about dogs, roosters, mosquitoes and various other midnight misadventures I even found myself laughing.

My 2nd favorite line was the one about wishing all the roosters would die, but my absolute favorite line of the whole piece came at the end of the stanza about mosquitoes.

It’s 4, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
She hears a buzz, the mosquito trademark
Little legs brush her cheek like lace
She swipes, misses, and hits her own face
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, eight hundred… [beep beep beep beep]

As I wrote this last line I was thinking about the sorts of things that I feel tempted to say every time I’m woken up by one of those little winged demons in the middle of the night.

I intended the “beep beep beep beep” to be a stand-in for language that is, uh, slightly salty. I found the image of Mama Bear unable to get back to sleep and lying there swearing at the mosquitoes was enormously, therapeutically, funny.

Except… no one else got it (at least, not that I know of). Everyone I’ve asked said they thought those beeps were an alarm clock.

Don’t you hate it when your favorite line just doesn’t work outside your head???

Samuel Johnson is reputed to have said, “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I know I have been guilty (and probably will be again) of working entirely too hard to keep lines and scenes that I like even when they do not serve the overall story well. I have also been known to be petulant and resistant when told that lines and phrases I particularly like are not communicating what I want them to say.

I often need a lot of time and distance (more than I generally like to allow) to work up the dispassionate editorial eye that tells me when I need to “kill a darling”. I’m slowly getting better at this, but I’m not sure it’ll ever come easily.

As for my children’s story… I don’t quite know what to do. I could change the last line of that mosquito stanza to [beep &*$ @(*! beep] or the more elegant [bleep bleep bleep bleep] which may better convey my original intent. Or I could leave it alone and accept the fact that my genie has purposed for good (or, at least, clean) what I purposed for evil (or, at least, naughty).

What do you think I should do about the kids story? And how do you figure out when you need to “kill a darling”. How difficult do you find that?

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The exhortation of the dawn

Happy Monday morning folks. It’s 5:30am here, I’m saluting the dawn as I have almost every day for the past four months, by feeding a little one. So in honour of early morning wakings here are some beautiful words from the Quran to kick off a fresh new week:

Listen to the exhortation of the dawn.
Look to this day, for it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities
of your existence,
the glory of action – the bliss of growth
the splendour of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream,
and tomorrow is only a vision,
but today, well lived,
makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day.
Such is the salutation of the dawn.

We had a great weekend over here – the kind that make dreams of happiness. Here are a couple of pictures of what we’ve been up to recently.

What about you? How do you salute the dawn? Have you read words recently that have stirred your heart?

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T’is The Night Before (A Children’s Story)

It’s 8, and Mama Bear gives a yawn
She’s very tired, she’s been up since dawn
All day Baby Bear needed loving and feeding
Up and down he set emotions stampeding
She goes to bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, three, four… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 10, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
Drums and cymbals and music, hark!
These are sounds she is daily dreading
The loud late strains of a Lao wedding
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, three, fifty… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 12, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
Papa Bear’s snoring sounds not like a lark
She tugs his arms down from over his head
Papa Bear sighs and rolls over instead
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, three, eighty… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 1, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
This time she hears a familiar dog bark
Zulu has chased a cat up a tree
And is leaping around in a wild frenzy
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, three hundred… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 2, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
Baby Bear moans, stirs, and lets out a sqwark
Mama Bear leans over and hands him his dummy
It’s a 24-hour job, this being a mummy
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, four hundred… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 3, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
“It’s morning! It’s morning!” the roosters remark
Mama Bear thinks about chicken pot pie
And how she wishes the roosters would die
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, five hundred… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 4, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
She hears a buzz, the mosquito trademark
Little legs brush her cheek like lace
She swipes, misses, and hits her own face
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, eight hundred… [beep beep beep beep]

It’s 5, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
It’s Baby Bear again, a wee hungry shark
She rises and reaches for her little boy
He gives a sudden, toothless, grin of joy
She picks him up, she kisses his head
She thinks, “this is almost, maybe, better than bed.”

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Surprise endings and a fish foot massage (A Writing Wednesday post)

Yes, that is a picture of Mike in Cambodia, reading my manuscript while fish nibble at his feet. That was more than a year ago, and if you’d told me then I’d still be fine tuning this book 13 months later I may just have jumped into the pond and let the fish have me.

Sometimes it’s a good thing that we don’t fully realize in advance just how much work is in store for us when we follow our passions.

On Sunday Mike hung with Baby Bear while I wrestled with the ending of my memoir. This has to be at least the tenth time I’ve gone through this manuscript in the last two years. I thought that this final read-through before I sent it off for copy-editing would take me about half the time that it actually did – surprise!

And that’s not the only surprise I’ve had in the last two weeks.

I had thought that the draft was very tight, but I trimmed more than a thousand words from it in this final go around. Surprise!

I had thought I was 100% happy with flow, but I ended up having to do more intensive editing on two chapters – one struck me as too long, the other as too dense. Surprise!

I had thought my ending was excellent, but when I got to the end of this final edit I was plagued with the nagging feeling that I hadn’t quite nailed it. Surprise!

This last one perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, when I hired an editor nine months ago to give me some unbiased feedback on the book, this was one of the things she mentioned.

“I felt a little let down by the ending,” she told me. “Just those last few lines… they’re not as strong as they could be.”

At the time this was one of the few pieces of feedback she gave me that I discounted. I did think it through carefully, but decided she was wrong. Now, nine months later, I’ve decided that she was right after all. It seems that I am not the world’s fastest processor. (This is another thing that shouldn’t surprise me, but still regularly does).

I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong with the previous ending for a couple of days, not until I was trying to explain it to Mike one evening.

“It’s just… it’s just… it’s just that it’s cute, I finally finished. “And a bit glib.”

So on Sunday I sat down with a cup of tea and my iPod and the laptop and stayed there for the several hours it took to eke out the 183 words that make for a different and better ending, a much better ending. The last chapter of the book is set on the day before my wedding, and two of the sentences in that ending state:

I want Mike to be beside me whatever form home might take for me in the future. I am convinced that a white picket fence with him would be better than bumping down a dirt road without him, and that traveling a dirt road together would beat out a white picket fence that’s mine alone.

After Mike read the new ending he came into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around me.

“Aw,” he said into the top of my head. “Do you really mean that? That a dirt road with me is better than a more comfortable, stable home without me?”

I thought briefly of the special little (frustrating) adventures that this particular dirt road has held during the last few weeks, and then I laughed.

“I meant it the day before our wedding,” I said.

Mickey Spillane once said: “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.” Do you agree? And do you struggle more with endings or beginnings in your writing?

Around the block: The UXO Museum

So I’m starting a new theme on the blog here called “Around The Block”. Some days I get to 11am and find Dominic looking at me and I swear he’s wondering whether it would be possible for me to get any more boring. So most days we take grateful advantage of the cooler weather here at the moment and go for a walk.

Last week, as I was walking him around the block, I thought I should take a camera and give you some glimpses of things we find on these daily perambulations. Today we’re going to start with the UXO (unexploded ordinance) museum, which is just around the corner from our house.

UXO museum entrance

Some facts about UXO in Laos…

Per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country, in history. Despite the fact that Laos was not officially involved in the conflict, more than half a million bombing missions were conducted over Laos during the Vietnam War in an effort to disrupt the supply lines between north and south Vietnam. During these missions, the US Airforce dropping 270 million bombs on Laos.

Up to 30% of these bombs failed to detonate.

About 80 million unexploded bombs remain in the ground, and about 25% of villages in the country are contaminated with unexploded ordinance.

Most of this UXO is related to cluster bombs. A cluster bomb is pictured below. Just one of those little balls can injure or kill a person.

A cluster bomb

Most years someone is injured or killed every day in Laos by UXO. Last year, however, the number of UXO accidents dropped to one injury or death every two or three days. Most accidents happen when children pick up these little balls, or when farmers disturb them while they’re planting or harvesting.

UXO Lao employs over 1,000 people and needs on an average US$6.5 million to cover operations every year.

No funny stories to end this post, just a link to the UXO Lao donation page. You can see that they’re not exactly up to speed yet in terms of web presence or leveraging international support, so if you would like to donate to UXO Lao feel free to write to me and I’ll try to help you figure out how best to do that.

One Standard Thursday: Life unmasked

Life: Unmasked Dominic wakes up from his morning nap at 8 AM (so you can imagine how early he was up the first time). On the way into his room I almost step in dog puke – Zulu’s clearly been begging food from the neighbors again. Dominic’s clothes are wet when I pick him up, despite the fact that his diaper was changed less than two hours earlier. These cloth diapers appear to be leaking more than I had thought they would, perhaps because we have no running hot water to wash them in as per the manufacturing instructions.

Dominic is grumpy and there’s at least an hour to go before I wanted to feed him next, so I put him in the stroller and walk fifteen minutes down to the tiny grocery store that I’m hoping will have the ingredients I want. No. No cream cheese, or hoisin sauce, or fennel. I think about buying one of the two imported tubs of vanilla icing on display (I’ve been flirting with the idea of trying to make a chocolate cake in the toaster oven) but I don’t. Nine dollars is a bit of a stretch for icing, even if it did wing its way here from the U.S.

Dominic starts to fuss. I can’t fit the stroller into the small store, so I pick him up and try to juggle baby, basket, and picking up necessities. That doesn’t go well and I cut the expedition short. As I’m trying to hold Dominic and pay, my phone rings. It’s Mike. He says there’s no electricity at the office all day and he’ll be working from home if there’s electricity there – is there electricity there? I say I don’t know.

But.

It’s cloudy and cool as I walk home and Dominic falls asleep in the stroller as motorcycles zoom past us. Back at the house there is electricity. My bed has been made and my laundry done by a dear woman who shows up five days a week to do these thing for us. When I arrive she is busy squeezing four kilos of oranges that Mike bought off the back of a truck last night for $1.25.

Mike made fun of me for thinking that cream cheese, hoisin sauce, and dried fennel would be available in our town but I would like it noted that I was being an optimist. Have you written a life unmasked-esque post lately? Leave the link below.