Thursday, December 28, 2006

Russia...

The saying from Kenya (little by little fills the measure) remind me of the saying from Greece ("He who is not satisfied with little will not be satisfied with a lot.) Each saying speaks of the wisdom of moderation, step by step to achieve a goal, bit by bit to satisfy a need. The cautionary proverb from Russian warns us, "Better a little fire to warm us, than a great one to burn us." (Хорошего понемножку)

During 2005, we read several books set in Russia, written by Gloria Whelan, a favorite Michigan author of children's and young adult fiction. The first book offered engaging characters against the backdrop of the Revolution, the second and third followed up with more recent history. When we discovered a fourth novel earlier in 2006, we read it though we had concluded our focus on Russia. The interesting novels in this series are: Angel on the Square, The Impossible Journey, Burying the Sun, and The Turning.

We also read The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia, a memoir written by Esther Hautzig, a Polish girl who spent several years of her childhood detained in Siberia with her family for the transgression of being capitalists. I was mesmerized by this novel from its elegant opening paragraph "The morning it happened - the end of my lovely world - I did not water the lilac bush outside my father's study." Throughout the novel, the author give her reader a very real sense of situation and place... of Siberia. Consider this paragraph:

"The new school was a long, wooden, barrackslike building, much larger than the village school. As far as I was concerned, the most impressive thing about this building was that it was warm. School started in September and by October we had had our first snowstorm. After more than an hour's walk through the dark village, over the windy steppe, in clothes that had never been meant for an arctic climate, the first moments inside school were always filled with the purely sensual pleasure of --thawing out. In this school, we did not have to sit all day in our coats and mittens and when it was time to go home in the afternoon, it took courage to plunge into the huge, ice-cold Siberian twilight."


Our Russia Christmas doll is modelled after Esther in The Endless Steppe, despite her being of Polish birth. Late in the story, Esther expresses a desire for a thoroughly Russian outfit: "Sapogy and a fufaika. Knee-high, shiny leather boots and a green quilted jacket. They became my obsession; the magic garments that would make me invincible on the dark journey back from exile." I didn't manage the knee-high boots, my skill as a doll costumer not having advanced that far yet, but I did make our doll a "quilted green jacket" and a fur-trimmed hat, plus a tiny Faberge egg to as an accessory to represent the fine hand-crafts of Russia.
The internet has been an invaluable resource through the past few years. I was able to find information on Russian crafts, including lacquer boxes, nesting (matrioshka) dolls and hand-knit shawls. We read folk-tales on-line such as the Firebird, Ivan Tsarevitch and the Grey Wolf, and a storyteller's favorite, The Turnip. We found a wealth of information on Russian geography, a vast subject on this largest nation in the world. We found stories of Siberian Tigers and other wildlife, struggling for survival in a changing geography.

It is an interesting exercise to think about what one's life might be in each of these nations we have considered over the years. If one considers oneself "working poor" or "middle class" or "quite fortunate" what would that lifestyle be like in India, for example, or Peru? My family and I live in a modest house in the country, in the rural north. If we lived in today's Russia, perhaps we would dwell in a quaint dachaa little country house, surrounded by gardens of fruit, vegetables and ornamentals, living near neighbors who enjoyed working in their gardens as well.
Reading our way through Russia for a year was fascinating and perhaps particularly appropriate for a nation known for some very great literature. We also enjoyed a humorous travel documentary from Globe Trekker about the St. Petersburg to Moscow region and dined well on Chicken Kiev and an incredible Barley and Mushroom Casserole at Christmas time. Christmas traditions in Russia were interrupted and interfered with during the Soviet Regime, but were sometimes carried out in secret, though several days after our own celebrations as they follow the Russian Orthodox calendar. These days, the Festival of Winter is celebrated by most and Christmas can once again be commemorated openly.


photos by Aisling and Haiku, December 2060


The Quiet Country Kitchen... Greek Style Potatoes


At a dear friend's request, I am posting the recipe for the Greek Style Potatoes we ate the year we studied Greece. This recipe originally came from Allrecipes.com, my favorite online recipe resource.
In the summer of 2004, I planted Greek Oregano in my vigorously established herb garden. The oregano thrived and I dried and froze many lovely sprigs to use in my Christmas menu. Though this potato recipe does not call for oregano, I am fairly certain I used some in addition to the dried thyme and rosemary.
The original recipe, at the Allrecipes.com site can be found here: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Greek-Style-Potatoes/Detail.aspx Without further ado:

Greek Style Potatoes, from Allrecipes.com

Submitted by: Cathie Rated: 4 out of 5 by 131 members
Prep Time: 20 Minutes Cook Time: 2 Hours
Ready In: 2 Hours 20 Minutes Yields: 4 servings

"Herbs, garlic and lemon juice bring a taste of Greece to this simple potato recipe."

INGREDIENTS:
1/3 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups water
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
2 cubes chicken bouillon
ground black pepper to taste
6 potatoes, peeled and quartered

DIRECTIONS:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
2. In a small bowl, mix olive oil, water, garlic, lemon juice, thyme, rosemary, bouillon cubes and pepper.
3. Arrange potatoes evenly in the bottom of a medium baking dish. Pour the olive oil mixture over the potatoes. Cover, and bake 1 1/2 to 2 hours in the preheated oven, turning occasionally, until tender but firm.

This recipe appears in our "Allrecipes cookbook". Buy it online at http://allrecipes.com/arcookbook/

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 2005 Allrecipes.com Printed from Allrecipes.com 12/28/2006
Greece...

After the colorful splendor of India, we responded to the siren song of the Mediterranean, and immersed ourselves in the beauty of the Greece. There was so much more to this idyllic setting than the ancient mythologies we were already familiar with, thanks in part to the lovely copy of D'Aulaire's Greek Mythology the children's Aunt had given to them some years before. I read as much about the nation as I could, discovering hidden places with alluring names like the Dragon Lakes in the Epirus region in the mountains of northwestern Greece. I had always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail in the Eastern US. Now I yearned to hike through alpine meadows, cross 300 year old stone bridges, and find a gem of lake where I could sit and believe that dragons might rise from a hidden lair.

Even the Greek Christmas traditions surprised me. I think I expected them to be very similar to other European customs with which I was familiar. Instead, I encountered the unfamiliar, such as the Kallikantzaroi. I knew of elves and leprechauns from Irish lore, but had never heard of their mischievous Greek counterparts. These imps apparently rise from within the earth, only during the 12 days between Christmas and the Epiphany, to stir up trouble. They put out fires and sour milk, and braid horses tails. A sprinkling of basil-scented holy water will keep these naughty creatures away. Offerings are also made to naiads, the spirits of springs and fountains, on St. Basil's Day, the traditional day for exchanging gifts. On the Epiphany, priests dip crucifixes into the sea and give them the Blessing of the Waters. This is not a familiar celebration of the season, after all.

Our Greek doll, Laria (which means "the stars are mine"), is proudly holding her book of traditional carols or kalanda, so that she may sing along with other neighborhood children, and be rewarded with figs, almonds and coins for her songs.

Despite all of these unexpected discoveries about Greece, it was no surprise to me that the food was a delight. For our Christmas dinner, we enjoyed - among other things - spanikopita (spinach pie) and Greek salad, potatoes with Greek seasonings, and Honey Cake, an alternative to baklava. This rich, sweet cake, drenched in golden honey, was a favorite in our household though each of us could eat only a little bit at a time.
According to GreekSpider.com, there is a Greek saying that "He who is not satisfied with a little is not satisfied with a lot." We were satisfied with our study of Greece, though we would have enjoyed much more. It was time, however, to move on to Russia with the new year.

photos of Aisling, December 2006
India...

To study only how Christians in India celebrate Christmas would be to learn almost nothing about this nation of contrast and variety, in which Christians are only a tiny portion of a vast population. In a nation of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims, traditions of faith and culture often become interwoven. When the Christians in southern India light small clay lamps on the flat roofs of their homes at Christmas time to show their faith, they are mirroring the tradition honored by Hindus earlier in the year at Diwali, the festival of lights. As in many nations, Christmas in India has also become a secular and commercial holiday, familiar to many non-Christians through media depictions.

For me, learning about India was almost sensory overload. India is a visual delight from the image of the white and stately Taj Mahal rising against a cerulean sky, to the Bengal Tiger
moving like a shadow through tall grass. A peacock fans his gaudy tail in a courtyard garden. A woman in a colorful sari paints rangoli on the walls of her home. These intricate designs known as the "prayers of India" highlight the beauty and cleanliness of one's home and are thought to please the deities.

India is also a fragrant pleasure from the scent of Nag Champa, burned as incense or inhaled directly from the delicate ginger flower, to the taste of curry and other spices rising from the cooking pot. Prior to studying India, our idea of Indian food was mostly "Country Captain Chicken" from the trusty old Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook Limerick and I received as a wedding gift - a recipe which is "almost Indian" because it contains curry powder. During 2003, we tried a variety of other Indian foods, ate lots of the Chapatis we had learned to make during our study of Kenya, and become used to the delicious aroma of homemade Chai lingering in the air.

There are several of our adopted countries that I would love to revisit, particularly some of the early countries which we studied when the children were too young to delve very deep, and when we were primarily concerned with learning about their Christmas traditions. Chief among these is India, though we did dig as deeply as we could, because there is so much more to learn.

I do revisit India occasionally by reading a favorite young adult fiction, Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan. Or more tangentially, by watching Bend it Like Beckham and eating Indian food, which is visiting India via Great Britain but lots of fun nevertheless. This one is more of a stretch (bad pun intended): I do yoga on quiet mornings, alone in my living room, and somehow that links me to India too. However far-fetched the connections, we never completely leave behind these countries on we've focused. They become too real and vivid on our internal map of the world to leave behind.


photos by Aisling, December 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006



Peru...

While studying Africa, it occurred to me that we had studied a country on each of the continents except for South America. I checked out books on several South American nations, and settled on Peru, whose ancient mysteries intrigued me. I was curious about how native customs and imported customs would intertwine.

Peru is a place of mystery and enigma, beginning with the inexplicable Nazca Lines. These lines, created by the removal of dark stones to expose light earth, create symbols and designs that can only be recognized from the air. The Nazca Indians of 200 BC to 700 AD (or CE if you prefer) could not have seen their completed designs which are intricate and stylized, representing things such as spiders or hummingbirds. Were the lines geographic signposts pointing to the rising sun, or "walking temples" similar to the labrinths of other cultures? No one really knows.

Setting high in the Peruvian Andes are the fascinating ruins of Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas; a place forgotten for centuries by everyone but the locals. Even in modern Peru, there remain traces of cultural traditions that are unique in all the world, such as the Floating Lake People, or Uros, of Lake Titicaca. The ancestors of today's Uros created free-floating islands to escape the threatening Inca and Colla. Today, the Uros still live on floating mats which they weave of Totura reeds, which they pull by hand from the lake upon which they float. Though today this way of life is a tourist attraction, it reverberates with the echoes of a past the Uros are gently floating away from.

Set against this backdrop of ancient native traditions, in a setting of almost other-worldly beauty, are the cities and villages of modern day Peru. The stately pagentry of the Catholic Church has been embraced by many, leading to Christmas celebrations that resemble those of other predominately Catholic nations. If the Christmas tree is a focal point in many North American households at this time of year, the Nativity scene is central in the Peruvian commemoration of the birth of Christ.

We named our 2002 Christmas Doll Louisa. I made her costume and headdress in the style of those worn by native Peruvian Dancers, but she carries the Nativity scene in her arms to show her Catholic faith. Peru is like our Louisa, blending the old with the contempory, native traditions intermingled with imported customs, Turkey dinner with tamales roasted in corn husks. Where else but Peru would the Three Kings arrive, laden with gifts for the Christ child, accompanied by a train of llamas?
photos by Aisling, December 2006

Friday, December 22, 2006

Kenya...

The wild sweet heartbeat of Mother Earth seemed to beckon us to Africa the following year. We settled on the nation of Kenya, whose cornicopia of climate and terrain seemed to represent the variety of the continent. In learning about Kenya's geography, we learned of hills and lowlands, woods and savannah, the Indian Ocean coast and Lake Victoria. In learning of Kenya's people, we learned of village farmers and city dwellers in Nairobi, as well as Masai Warriors and people of Middle Eastern descent. As a matter of fact, we first encountered Chapatis, a traditional Indian flatbread, when studying Kenya. We would find them a familiar favorite by the time we studied India two years later.

The celebration of Christmas in Kenya includes the traditional roasting of goat meat or beef, a dish called nyama choma, which is seasoned with garlic, lemon, curry, tumeric and other flavorful spices. With these familiar spices scenting the air, Kenyans gather to share family stories and other traditions. The birth of Christ is celebrated with song and religious services. Churches are decoriated with flowers and greenery, ribbons and garlands.

We named our Kenyan doll Kamaria, which means "Like the Moon" in Swahili. She is dressed in a traditional Kanga (a long piece of cloth, wrapped around the body) with a skafu, or scarf, as a head covering. I like to think she is heading to the church with the greenery she is carrying, perhaps singing softly to herself, and walking softly in time to the same heartbeat of the Earth that called us to Africa. Or perhaps, she is chanting to herself in the poetic, alliterative language of her land, this Swahili proverb meaning "Little by little fills the measure."


Haba na haba hujaza kibaba.


photos by Aisling, December 2006



Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Japan...

By the year 2000, we had been homeschooling for a couple of years and found that we had a lot more time to study our focus country - throughout the year, not just at the holidays. What a fascinating world, full of more color and variety than we could have imagined. My young daughters were already fans of Japanese animation, and they were eager to learn more. So, we rolled up our sleeves early in the year and dived enthusiastically into our exploration of Japan!


I designed a workshop called "Three Days in Japan: Through the Two Foot Door." Each day, we learned a few phrases, some history, and did a hands on activity (origami, a mini zen garden, Kokeshi dolls.) We also tried out one of their traditional activites, like reading Haiku or having a Tea Ceremony. We actually constructed a "two foot door" - like those in a traditional Japanese Tea House - to crawl through and had we our tea on the floor. During these three days, my girls tried Japanese foods and became proficient with chopsticks; a skill that must be serving Senryu well as an exchange student in Asia! We read Japanese storuies, such as The Crane Wife, The Toungue-Cut Sparrow, and Momotaro Peach Boy. I would love an opportunity to repeat those three days with more participants, but as it was, the girls and I had a wonderful, memorable time, with little infant Sijo as a wide-eyed witness.

It is funny that we went from the reverance of an old world Christmas in Poland, which had me seeking the spiritual meaning of the season, to the commercial vibrance of Christmas in Japan, a nation that is less than 1% Christian, as I understand it. In Japan, all Christmas traditions are relatively new, and include a lot of color and glitz. They have something called "Christmas Cake" which is a big seller in December. Christmas 2000 was not the first year we had a cake ourselves, but I doubt most Japanese sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus over their cake as we did.

A meal of Yakitori (chicken, water chestnuts and scallions on skeweres), rice and tea made up an unusal menu for an American Christmas, but we were happy to spend those few hours "in Japan" while the girls wore their improvised Kimono's and our little Japanese doll, Setsu, looked on. Setsu's name came from a Pearl s. Buck novel, The Big Wave, about the impact of a Tsunami on a coastal village.

Japanese words and interests settled in for the long haul in our home. Though we moved on to another adopted country in the new year, in many ways we were never quite able to say Sayonara to Japan.


photos by Aisling, December 2006

Tuesday, December 12, 2006



Poland...

What stayed with me after our study of Poland was complete was the symbolism and meaning behind their decorations, their songs, and even their meals. How fortunate we were to be invited to a dear friend's home for a traditional Polish Wigilia on December 24th, 1999. The name of the Christmas Eve feast comes from the latin word vigiliare, meaning to watch. Though once used for the evening before any feast, it has come to stand for the Christmas Eve meal... the "watch" or the wait, for the Christ-child to be born.

Everything served by my friend was made with love and attention to detail, from the Gefilte Fish to the various traditional components of this annual feast. We passed an Oplatek wafer around the table and broke pieces off, to celebrate our Unity, truly sharing the meal in a meaningful way. Traditionally, celebrants would have attended Midnight Mass, known as Pasterka, but small children and our own traditions precluded that conclusion to our first Wigilia.

The little dove on our Polish doll's arm does not symbolize "peace" as one might expect, but Contentment, according to Polish lore. An Old World tree might contain a heart for love, a fish for fertility, a Santa for the spirit of Christmas. A church ornament would represent religion, a pine cone warmth, and a house shelter. A flower is a symbol of beauty, a fruit basket means plenty, and a Teapot means hospitality. An angel Stands for the Eternal Life that awaits and a pickle, apparently, is thrown in for just for fun. Have you learned about the Pickle ornament? It is the last ornament placed on the tree - secretly. The child that finds the pickle wins a special gift, tucked away for just that purpose.

Through my friend's very special dinner and a nice video travel guide we purchased, Poland came to life for us that year. I find that I have a new feeling during the holidays since I've started to learn about different cultures and customs. There has always been a feeling of expectation... but now I quietly contemplate what I am awaiting. I do not want the season to be a chaos of consumerism. I want more than the giddy flurry of preparation; more than the excited flutter of expectation. I want to take joy in each and every moment of the watch... the vigilaire... the Waiting for Jesus Time.
photos by Aisling, 2006

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Australia...

We went way south for Christmas in 1998, at least in imagination. My mother-in-law travelled to Australia and New Zealand that year and we coordinated our study with her trip. It was fun for the kids to have some picture books directly from Australia and I enjoyed reading a crafting magazine from "Down Under."

Our Australian doll, Joey, is dressed for a Christmas Barbecue. Because Christmas arrives in the southern hemisphere during the summer months, she is barefoot and wearing a sleeveless dress. Australia is something of a "melting pot" as is the US, so their traditions include elements from England and Scotland and other "motherlands."

We ate our Christmas Picnic on the living room on a blanket, near the Christmas Tree. I believe we ate "shrimp on the barbie" and other summer fare. The children were pleased to meet the Lamington Man, the Australian cousin to the Gingerbread Man, and to learn a few Australian Christmas Carols. This was particular pretty, and very Australian in its imagery:

North Wind

The north wind is tossing the leaves,
The red dust is over the town,
The sparrows are under the caves,
And the grass in the paddock is brown,
As we lift up our voices and sing,
To the Christ child the heavenly king.

The tree ferns in green gullies sway,
The cool stream flows silently by,
The joy bells are greeting the day,
And the chimes are adrift in the sky,
As we lift up our voices and sing,
To the Christ child the heavenly king.

That pretty carol, whose tune I had to improvise, makes me want to hang "joy bells" on my front porch to ring each morning... not just at Christmas time, but all year long.
photo by Aisling, 2006

Saturday, December 09, 2006



Ireland...

How do you put Ireland in a nutshell? Even their Christmas traditions are rich, complex and woven with threads of Celtic imagery. Being part Irish in both heritage and inclination, my clan was eager to learn more about Irish holiday traditions.

The familiar carol "Twelve Days of Christmas" took on a whole new meaning for us, as we learned that it was written as a Catechism of the basic tenets of Catholic beliefs. In a time when Irish Catholics had to hide the evidence of their continuing faith, this song allowed children to learn about God, "the true love" in the song who gives gifts to the singer. And these are the gifts given to each Baptised believer:

A Partridge in a Pear tree is Jesus, the son of God.
2 Turtle Doves are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
3 French Hens Faith, Hope and Charity, the theological virtues.
4 Calling Birds are the 4 Gospels, or the 4 Evangelists.
5 Golden rings represent the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Pentateuch.
6 Geese a-laying stand for the 6 days of Creation.
7 Swans a-swimming are the 7 Gifts of the Spirit, the 7 Sacraments.
8 Maids a-milking are the 8 Beatitudes.
9 Fruits of the Spirit or sometimes listed as the 9 classifications of Angels.
10 Lords a-leaping remind singers of the 10 Commandments.
11 Pipers piping represent the 11 faithful apostles.
12 Drummers drumming are the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.

There are other sources on the Internet, but when we learned about this I used Anna's pages about Ireland. Look here for her page about Irish Christmas customs:
http://members.tripod.com/~pg4anna/xmas.htm. I was glad to see that these interesting pages about Ireland are still maintained.

The simple act of lighting a candle in the window at this cold, dark time of year has its origin in the Celtic traditions that preceded the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. In Christian households, the candlelight offers welcome to the Holy Family or hospitality to any lonely traveller. In other homes, the candle symbolizes the return of sunlight at the Winter Solstice.

Irish tradition is filled with story-telling, song and laughter. These elements have always been an integral part of our family. In fact, many of our stories have a distinct Irish lilt. Limerick's family history is peopled with Irish lads stowing away on cattle-boats and other fascinating characters, so looking to Ireland for Christmas traditions was not like visiting a foreign land at all. It was more like coming home.
first photo by Haiku, second photo by Aisling

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Mexico...

December of 1996 found us preparing for our first Christmas in a new home. Initially, I did not plan to "adopt a country" for Christmas as we had done with Sweden the following year. However, at some point in the year, the girls asked me which country we were learning about this year. How do you say no to children asking to learn?

I decided on Mexico, knowing that a pinata would be a fun addition to what proved to be a quiet Christmas, now that we lived far from all of our relatives. I found some children's Christmas books set in Mexico and we dived in. We read Tomie dePaola's The Legend of the Pointsettia and Nine Days to Christmas (A Story of Mexico.) My mom began to sew some little tiered skirts of Christmas fabric for the girls, and I hastily put together a costume for a brown-haired, brown-eyed doll.

The girls were excited to have a yellow star-shaped pinata like little Ceci in Nine Days to Christmas. They loved the story of Ceci's first "Posada." I especially like this passage that describes Ceci's trip to the market place with her mother to purchase her pinata:

"As they entered the Christmastime market Ceci stopped still. Fairies and goblins must have been here in the night, she thought. How else could it be so beautiful! There were candies and toys and sparklers and painted clay figurse of Joseph and Mary and the donkey, and little lambs and cows. But Ceci didn't look long at these, for on ahead, swinging and turning in the wind, were the pinatas."

Though the term "Posada" apparently means Inn in Spanish, the tradition of Posada means much more. December 16th, nine days before Christmas, the celebration begins, commemorating the journey of Joseph and Mary before the birth of Christ. A procession forms, led by those who carry the nativity scene. The people carry lighted candles, or gifts for the Christ child, and sing the song of the Holy Pilgrims. The worshippers are "refused lodging" at the first two inns, but offered welcome at the third. Here the celebrants enter, to feast, to break open a pinata filled with toys and sweets, and to share the joy of the season with family and friends.

Celebrations really aren't that different in other cultures, are they? The difference is in the details, but the joy of spending time with loved ones, sharing food and drink, raising voices in song and laughter... those are common threads that tie people together all over the world.
photos by Aisling, November 2006

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Pepparkakor Cookies...


I wish I could give credit where credit is due, with this recipe. I found it among some children's books about holidays in other countries and copied the recipe to try, but failed to note the source on my copy. There are lots of variations on this recipe on line, but this is a nice simple version with which to start.


Ingredients:
  • 3 cups sifted flour (I replace 1 cup with whole wheat flour)

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of ground ginger, ground cloves and cinnamon

  • 1 cup butter or (non-transfat) margarine

  • 1 cup dark brown sugar

  • 2 egg whites
Directions:
  1. Sift together flour, spices and soda.
  2. Cream butter and sugar until very fluffy then beat in egg whites. Slowly work in dry ingredients.
  3. Wrap and chill for 12 hours.
  4. Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
  5. Roll out dough to 1/4 inch thickness on lightly floured board. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters.
  6. Bake on ungreased baking sheet for 10-12 minutes until light brown on edges. Cool on wire racks.
  7. Serve plain, dusted with powdered sugar, or frosted and decorated. Or, pierce with needle after baking before cookie hardens to thread with ribbon and hang on tree.

Photo by Aisling, Cookie Cutters, November 2006

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sweden...

The world has become a much smaller place since my childhood. When I was a four year old girl, I probably barely knew there was a Sweden. Not so my ever-so-curious first born child. When Senryu was 5, I read some of the American Girl books aloud to her. When we read about the character Kirsten, a Swedish Immigrant to America, Senryu became fascinated with the custom of the young girl in the household dressing as Santa Lucia. Not being of Swedish descent, this was a tradition I was only vaguely familiar with myself, so off to the library we trekked. That many years ago, the internet was not at my fingertips, so we researched things the old fashioned way.

We were able to find a few resources about Swedish holiday traditions and Senryu was eager to try everything. That year, we rolled out thin Swedish GingerSnaps, called Pepparkakor (recipe to follow in another post this week) and dressed an inexpensive craft store doll as Santa Lucia. Our girl is not carrying the traditional tray of goodies for her family, but she does wear a wreath of candles atop her head. I understand that modern girls general enact this custom with pretty battery operated candles, but our girl has a trio of white birthday candles in her grape-vine crown.

I love this description of the Santa Lucia custom which I read in Sage Cottage Herb Garden Cookbook, by Dorry Baird Norris:

Saint Lucy's Day - December 13

"In Sweden, at dawn on Saint Lucy's Day, the youngest daughter of the household, wearing a crown of bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) alight with candles, wakes her family with coffee and pastries as bright as her crown. A visit to the barn, with goodies for the farmhands and extra rations for the farm animals, is followed by a trip to church. There homage is paid to Saint Lucy, who brought sight to the blind and food to the hungry. Like her, the Lucibrud (Lucy Bride), wearing her glowing crown, brings light to the congregation, reminding them of the summer to come, of green growing things, and of plentiful food for all."


As a teen, I had a bevy of penpals across the globe, from England, France, Isreal, Italy, and even Sweden. I still have some of the letters that a curly-haired blond girl named Ulrika sent to me, with a list of words in Swedish for me to learn. I can still count to ten in Swedish, though I've never had an opportunity to learn whether my pronunciation is correct. I don't think she and I ever got around to discussing Christmas traditions, but I was glad to learn more about her culture all those years later, spurred on by my daughter's interest in the world outside of our cozy little house in the woods.

photos by Aisling, November 2006

Saturday, November 25, 2006


The Christmas Dolls...

In 1995, my daughters and I began what was to become an annual Christmas tradition, though we didn't know it at the time. Nor did we know that ultimately, the tradition would transcend the Christmas season, and become a special part of our lives throughout the year. Most especially, we did not see how this tradition would open the door to the world... for all of us, but for Senryu most of all.

The dolls in the photo below each represent a country that we have read about; whose cuisine we have tasted, whose arts we have admired, whose history we have considered, whose countryside we have wandered - if only in imagination. We began in 1995, just delving a bit deeper into the holiday traditions of Sweden, and almost 12 years later, an amazing new facet has been added to our study of other cultures, as Senryu spends a year in Taiwan on student exchange.

Over the next weeks, I will highlight each of our dolls and the country she represents in the order we experienced them, sharing some of the activities we engaged in as we studied them. Each nation has been interesting to me for it's own unique reasons. Each is colorful and fascinating for an armchair traveller. More important than that, this exploration of the great wide world has inspired my oldest child to be more than a traveller in imagination, but a traveller in action.

I hope you enjoy sharing a little whirlwind tour of our wondrous Earth! Check back soon!





photos by Haiku, November 2006

Sunday, November 19, 2006

In the Patchwork Forest….

Just a mile from our home is a forest that in the autumn looks like a patchwork quilt. It is bittersweet when the leaves fall, because we know that the trees will stand bare and bleak on the rise of the hill until Spring. The positive side of this seasonal change is that the nest of the pair of Bald Eagles at the edge of the woods becomes quite visible without it’s leafy green camouflage.


Now, with the leaves curled and brown and littering the forest floor, an interesting thing has become apparent. The eagles are building a new nest just a few feet away from the old one. The farmer on whose land the eagles nest believes they are taking this action because the tree in which the old nests sits is dying. How could the eagles know that?


I never thought much about watching eagles fly before we moved to this rural northern location, over 10 years ago. I never knew how the sight of an eagle moving across the blue sky over the lake would cause me to drop whatever task was at hand. Though I respected them as a national symbol and as a protected species, I wasn’t familiar with the breath-held-in-wonder, eyes-riveted-to-the-path-of-flight sensation that would stop me in my tracks. Now, amazingly, I’ve seen eagles hunt in the fields across from our house. I’ve looked on as a young eagle flew in it’s parent’s updraft. I have watched an eagle alight from it’s nest, and lift with elegant strength into the air.


This afternoon the sight of those nests, high on the trunk of two old hardwood trees, reminded me of all of the blessings of living just a little off the beaten track. In all seasons, nature has wisdom to pass on to us... if we’re listening, and if we’re looking closely enough. I forget that sometimes and move along a little too quickly. Glimpses of simple things, like eagles nests and brittle leaves fallen to the forest floor, remind me to slow down and listen to the lessons of nature.


“Come forth into the light of things. Let nature be your teacher.” William Wordsworth

Thursday, November 16, 2006


The Quiet Country Kitchen: Homemade Granola

At a friend's request, I am posting my recipe for Granola. This is originally from the frugal sourcebook, the Tightwad Gazette. This lends itself well to creativity, allowing you to add favorite ingredients to vary the recipe.

Homemade Granola

Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 5 cups oatmeal
  • 1/2 cup raisins (add this optional ingredient after cooking)
  • 1/2 cup dry milk(optional)
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • pinch of salt

Directions:

Mix brown sugar, oil, and honey in a saucepan. Heat until the sugar isdissolved. Combine dry ingredients in a large cake pan. Pour sugar mixture overdry mixture and mix well. Bake at 375 degrees F for 10 minutes. Let cool inpan. Store in an airtight container.

Optional: Add nuts, wheat germ, coconut, dates, etc.

Aislings's Notes: I add vanilla & almond extract to the sugar mixture after Itake it off the burner, but before mixing with the dry ingredients. I have made it many times without the dry milk if I didn't have it on hand. Also, I bake it for 5 or 10 minutes, stir it a bit, and put back in the oven for a few minutes. When the oats look just slightly golden, I consider it done.

My favorite version is Vanilla Nut, which I make with vanilla and almondextracts, some coconut flakes and finely chopped nuts (almonds, or pecans, orwalnuts) and without raisins. (One of my kiddos is not fond of raisins.) This is really good with a fresh banana chopped into it.

This morning I ate mine with sunflower seed kernels, raisins and vanilla soy milk.

photo by Aisling, 2006

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Sunday Baking…

I snuck away from the rest of the gang for a little while this afternoon to begin my Christmas shopping. I didn’t buy much, but enjoyed the atmosphere of “the season” that prevailed in my local discount emporium. By the time I got home, the boys were ready to head outside to sled for the third or fourth time today.

I threw a vegetarian spinach lasagna together quickly. While it baked, I made a double batch of granola on the stove top, which went in the oven to crisp up when the lasagna came out. Apparently, the urge to bake which seems to arrive with the gales of November was upon me. After dinner, I made apple cake muffins to have on hand for school and work lunches this week.

The boys went out to slide down the hill on their roll-up sleds a few more times. The snow was thawing slightly, giving the boys a fast, slick surface to race on. When they came in to warm up and eat apple cake muffins, we draped wet snow gear all over the house to dry. We snuggled up together and read a chapter in our current read-aloud, and Tanka fell asleep in the crook of my arm.

photo by Haiku, November 12, 2006

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Thunder Snow…

It has been a quiet weekend here in our little house on the hill. Friday, a lovely sunny day, included the usual weekday busy-ness. The weather report predicted heavy snowfall, so in the late afternoon I decided to tackle a job I’d put off all week; bringing in and stacking a load of firewood. Three hundred logs later, the fresh cool air had turned icy cold and the wind had become frantic.

I made a warm supper of spicy pumpkin soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. As we finished dinner and peeked out the front door, Haiku noticed that a cold rain was falling. Limerick and I went outside to tuck in a few loose edges, and the rain turned to wet, heavy snow. Hurrying inside, we closed the door on the wintry blast and threw another log on the fire in the woodstove.

As on most Friday evenings, the kids and I piled onto the big queen-sized bed to watch an episode of Ghost Whisperer. The lights were off, the program was a bit spooky, and every once in a while, distant lightening tinted the curtains at the big double window in the master bedroom. All of a sudden, we felt thunder rock the house. The sound and tremor lingered for a long drawn-out moment while our eyes grew wide in wonder.

Thunder snow happens so rarely. It is one of those gifts of nature that cannot be held in one’s hand. One can only wonder at it… and then let it go.

Inside our home, we were warm and cozy under the big green crazy quilt my grandmother stitched from polyester remnants many years ago. Outdoors, the earth was tucked into a whole-cloth quilt, which remained pure white and pristine until morning. Before breakfast was even made, that new-fallen snow wore the tracery of little feet making trails, and the tracks of large snow balls being rolled. With red cheeks and bright eyes, Sijo and Tanka came in for apple cinnamon waffles, fresh from the waffle-iron. I sipped my coffee while they ate, looking out the window at the snow shrouding my garden, and I was thankful for a weekend with nothing to do but sit at home with my family.
photos by Haiku, November 11, 2006

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


On Doing Nothing...

There is a Spanish proverb that speaks to my soul. I’m not Spanish. Rather, I am “English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Native American/Cherokee." In other words, I am a garden-variety American. Despite that, I am seduced by this very Spanish sentiment: "How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterward." Ah, the lure of the hammock in the golden afternoon! Oh, for a life that includes a daily siesta!

When my life gets especially busy, running from one activity to the next, I think of that proverb, and yearn wistfully for the idyllic lifestyle many of us imagine Europeans to live. Surely their children play soccer, or more accurately, football. Surely there are ballet lessons, martial arts, or music instruction. But one imagines a long leisurely lunch, quiet conversation with a loved-one, or blissful solitude. One daydreams of pristine linens and silky duvets, a Mediterranean breeze through an open window, and the sweet escape of an afternoon nap.

This longing for long hours of “nothing to do” is a strange sentiment coming from one who has yet to master the art of the Sunday afternoon nap. I seem to wake groggy and impatient, and ready for my other 5 or 6 hours of sleep. Or worse, I lie awake the entire time, unable to doze at all, thinking of all the many things around here that are half-done, if not completely undone by the hands of a little mischief-maker. Perhaps, what I am really yearning for is the ability to relax and to accept that I will never keep everything in our home spotless and perfect.

Perhaps I am wishing I really was the type to embody that Spanish proverb. In the meantime, my cats have got it all figured out. If I live with them long enough, maybe a little bit of their langour and grace will rub off on me.

photos by Aisling, Autumn 2006

Friday, November 03, 2006

Looking around in Awareness…

If I were an ancient Celt, this would be the dawn of a new year. Well, I’m not, though some of my ancestors were. I’m not sure I understand the logic of beginning the year as so many things in nature die or fall into a long, deep slumber. I do understand the longing for a long, deep slumber… but that’s another a blog-entry for another day!

For some time now, I’ve thought of the start of each month as a “Mini New Year.” It is so hard to keep a resolution all through the year, but taking something on for just one month is not nearly as intimidating. I have to be honest, aside from thinking that phrase “Mini New Year’ on the first of each month, I have not done much with that concept.

Now that I think about it, in our modern society there are a few good reasons to make November the start of a new year. This is the month of Thanksgiving. An outlook of appreciate and gratitude is certainly a good approach to living at any time of the year. This is also the onset of a season filled with gatherings of family and friends, traditions and storytelling, and bountiful feasts. Those are all things I want my life to be filled with every day.

Note to self:
Begin a new year, right now. My resolution: Live every moment instead of rushing through, hurrying from one thing on the to-do list to the next. Remember this quote from James Thurber: "Let us not look not back in anger, or forward with fear, but around in awareness."
.

Photo by Haiku, October 2006

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


A Pocketful of Beechnuts…

This has been a long, cold October with an abundance of rainy, overcast days. Friday afternoon, we finally had sunshine and just a chill in the air, so we decided to go see the new baby at the neighbor’s farm. “Going next door” takes on a whole new meaning on this rugged country lane. After a steep hike of about ½ mile, Haiku, Sijo, Tanka and I arrived. Our hostess, let’s call her Peppermint, approached us with a handful of beechnuts. I can’t remember ever trying beechnuts before and I knew the children had not. Peppermint showed us how to peel back the husk with our thumbnail to get to the sweet little nutmeat inside.


Then it was time to meet the new baby, who has not been given his name yet. “Harvest” is high on the list because he was born early in the month of October and there is already an “Autumn” in the gang. Peppermint pulled opened the gate and we stepped in to meet the newest guy in the llama herd. Cocoa, the friendliest of the llama’s approached us - eager for chunks of apple and a really good scratching on her neck. Her big dark eyes were welcoming and her demeanor, as always, very sweet. The other llama’s held back a bit, but eventually came forward to have their photos taken and to get a better look at the interlopers in their field. The baby hovered near his Mamma, but watched us with very curious, bright eyes until we left the pasture.

Afterward, Peppermint decided to give us a lesson in beechnut gathering. It was a perfect day to sit under the giant beechnut tree, which is probably 80 to 100 years old, and search through the thick mat of fallen leaves to find the triangular nuts hiding below. Our hostess explained that this type of tree was sometimes called an Elephant Tree, and looking at the textured silvery-gray trunk it was easy to see why. As we sat, stuffing our pockets, the day was lively with country sounds. A light breeze flirted with the leaves and a soft rain of beechnuts fell around us.

At last, we headed back down the hill. I had a pocketful of beechnuts. The vista of fields and lakes was incredible as we descended, a perfect picture postcard of autumn splendor. At home, we were greeted by 3 fat round pumpkins sitting on the green bench on our front deck. The children had selected those earlier in the day at a local farm market. We also brought home a big green gourd shaped like an apple, a bag of our favorite Honey Crisp apples and a quart of clear, amber honey from a nearby farm.

On Sunday evening, we carved the pumpkins and scooped out the seeds. Limerick carried the pumpkins to the porch and lit them for a “trial run.” Little Tanka was thrilled to see that his entire pumpkin, with its rather thin shell, glowed with an eerie orange light. I took a quick look at the spooky luminosity of the pumpkins and then headed back indoors to roast pumpkin seeds, drenched in butter and garlic.

And now, the “big day” is here. A wild wind is blowing leaves into the air, limbs are breaking off the old willow up the road, and there is a noisy roaring in the space between the window panes and the screens. As it is most years, the Halloween vibe inside our house is more “bountiful harvest” than ghosts and goblins. Instead of cobwebs, we have gourds and tiny pumpkins, and a gaggle of “good witch” rag dolls sitting on the entertainment center.

Though it is early morning as I write this, I can predict how the evening will unfold. We won’t get children knocking on our door. Instead, we will make a drop-off of little goodie bags for the neighbor children as we head to town for “trick or treating.” After touring several blocks of homes in various states of Halloween adornment, we will take the chill off our cold fingers by a stop at the fire station for hot chocolate and a few moment’s shelter from what will certainly be a very brisk night.

We will head home after that, but will make a final stop at the fire-station that is closer to home. Limerick will gab with his fellow “on-call” fire-fighters while the kids play in the mist generated by an old fog machine. At home, with their costumes askew, our children will exclaim over the candy in their bags, their version of a “bountiful harvest,” while Limerick and I smile at the antics of our children, the greatest harvest of our intertwined lives.

photos by Aisling, October 2006 (birch trees, Cocoa the llama)






Monday, October 23, 2006




Life Set to Music...

Much to my amazement, I live in a house where the television is on most of the time, though I have been a “music person" for as long as I can remember. As a young adult, if you had asked me to predict what my daily life would be like at “Forty-something” I would have definitely mentioned music playing when describing the atmosphere of my tidy, well-decorated, home. I guess I was wrong on a few counts! We’re not as tidy as I would have imagined and my decorating is done based on what we can afford, and what we inherit or just stumble across, rather than on some overall vision for our home environment. But, despite budget or time-constraints, having music playing often is something that I should be able to achieve.

Recently, I was listening to a classical music program in my car and I heard a song that made me reflect on a few of the many moments in my life that were set to music. When I was about five years old, a baby sitter played piano and sang “Jeepers Creepers where’d you get those peepers?” providing a flashback to the late 1930's in our late 1960's living room. At about the same age, my cousin and I sang “Jesus Loves Me” in church. Years later, I broke down while singing “Amazing Grace” at my uncle’s funeral with another cousin’s wife.

I saw many chaotic, energy-filled rock concerts with friends during my young adult years. There were moments when I lifted my voice in chorus with other singers in great classical works, and times when I joined the sound of my guitar with other instruments in a rock band with a very “Eighties“ sound. I sang a song that I had written for my husband, then my fiancé, at the piano... just the two of us, lingering in the foyer of the remarkable house my family moved to when I was in college.

As a young mother, I spent hours sitting in the rocking chair singing song after song to a fussy baby, and then singing for a while longer after the baby had fallen to sleep. Over the years, the face of the baby in my arms changed and grew. There were other babies, just as sweet…just as precious. And there was a breathtaking moment when I first heard my oldest child, Senryu, sing in public, her confidence and bold spirit bringing tears to my eyes.

One year when Senryu was very small, I sang "I know Who Holds Tomorrow" in my straight-forward, mid-western accent at my Grandparent's church. At the same service, my Grandfather sang "Uncloudy Day" in his exuberant Mountain Music style while his banjo filled the room with joyful tones. It was heartwarming to hear some of my Grandpa's friends tell him that his granddaughter had inherited his gift for music.

Some songs make us think of a certain summer or a certain someone. This simple song, Music in My Mother’s House, made me think of all the ways that music has connected me with other people. It showed me how vividly music plays through my memories, like the soundtrack of my life. And, it made me wistful for more music in my home.

Music in My Mother’s House

There were wind chimes in the window, bells inside the clock
An organ in the corner, tunes in the music box
We sang while we were cooking, or working in the yard
We sang although our lives were really hard
*
{Refrain}
There was music in my mother's house
There was music all around
There was music in my mother's house
And my heart still feels full with the sound
*
She taught us all piano, but my sister had the ear
She could play the harmony to any tune she'd hear
Now I don't claim much talent, but I've always loved to play
And I guess I will until my dying day
*
{Refrain}
*
Those days come back so clearly, although I'm far away
She gave me the kind of gift I love to give away
And when my mother died, and she'd sung her last song
We sat in the living room, singing all night long
*
Singing la la la, la la
Singing the front porch songs
Singing the old torch songs
Singing the hymns to send her home
*
{Refrain}
*
words and music by Stuart Stotts - copyright 1985

This song was playing as I pulled up in my driveway. I sat in the car and listened until the last notes faded away, resolving to be more like the mother in the song. I think I have shared my love of music with my children to some degree, but too often this house has been filled with more noise than music. As I write this, my daughter is listening to modern music that we both love. The compromise is that she is watching the music video that goes along with it; I can live with that. I’ll close this now, to go and sing along with Haiku and Amy Lee of Evanescense.

photo by Aisling, October 2006


Note: You can learn more about the composer, Stuart Stotts, by visiting his website at: http://www.stuart.stotts.com/default.html Some great stuff if you follow the "goodies" link (sheet music, MP3s, etc.)! What a wonderful way to make a living!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Twilight Nocturne…

When the sun sinks into the turquoise depths of the lake and darkness settles over the hill, the night sounds begin. Always, the wind sings, but there are other songs in the night as well. Often we hear the coyotes cry… more “yip” than “howl” …. a choral nocturne that pierces the night. When they are quiet, and I think about the night sounds, it is wolves I hear in memory, rather than the little coyotes that inhabit our forests. What is it about wolves that haunts my psyche like no other creature? If cats are the wee bits of luxuriant, purring, comfort in my home and in my real life, then wolves are the companions of my dreams… the wild-hearted spirit-guides in solitary moments of contemplation.

The pacing of the timber wolves in a local zoo tugs fiercely at the ribbons of my heart. You can’t see these ties of empathy and kindred-ship, but they hold me entrapped at the cage that confines these restless spirits. Years go by when I cannot force myself to go back to the zoo, fearing the ache that will linger in my heart long after I’ve gone.

When my daughters were small, I read to them the native American story of The Jumping Mouse. This story came to life in my mind, inspiring me to write several simple songs to accompany the story. I then retold the story, in my own words, many times to eager up-turned faces and intently listening ears. Every once in a while, I pull out those sheets of quickly scrawled lyrics and rough chord structures and let my “wild heart” cry with the wolf in the story, who has lost his sense of smell. My sense of smell is intact. I can smell dinner simmering on the stove and the scented candle that flickers on the table… but perhaps my heart cries for some other loss… something I can’t quite define. The wolf in the story has lost a vital sense for a wild creature, but I always imagine that wolves today are crying for the loss of their Wild Places. Am I, as well?


During a long walk with Haiku through the “Enchanted Forest” at the end of our road, I wrote this poem to the rhythm of our footsteps:

I’d like to walk into
one of the deep secret places in the world,
so softly that the wild things could not hear me.
I would sit and breathe their wildness,
into my lungs,
into my being…
so that when I walked back out again,
I would be new and changed,
and something wild would flicker in my eyes.

A few counties over from here, wolves now wander through fields and forests that they have not roamed in many, many years. I try not to wish too hard for their presence in our own county, since these predators would be a hardship for the small farms that still survive here. But can I help it if I hear, mingled in the twilight nocturne of coyote chorus and rushing wind, the sweet keening of a wolf? Though the wolf-song I hear is only imagined, I sing along: “The wild heart of a wolf cries to the night. Senses are alive with sounds of delight. But, oh… my wild heart cries tonight.”

******

Post Script:

A dear friend, who has a very strong affinity for wolves, recently had a very personal encounter. She wrote about it in her blog: http://rapunzelscastle.blogspot.com/2006/09/laloba.html


One more note: I loved this eNature.com article on “Creatures of the Night” which arrived in my email box just as I was working on this post about wolves: http://enature.com/articles/detail.asp?storyID=379

Sunset photo by Haiku, 2005

Thursday, October 12, 2006



Quick Wardrobe Change...

Here is Autumn dressed for warm days and chilly nights, in seasonal colors.
And here is a sneak-peek at what the well-dressed garden will be wearing this winter!

How things can change in only six days time! The first photo was taken on October 5th. The second was taken this morning. The wind blew fiercely and the snow fell relentlessly for much of the day. Only the warmth of the earth kept the snow from accumulating significantly. In my gardens, icicles dripped from rose-buds and snow bent the heads of the sunflowers as if in they were in earnest prayer. Perhaps, like I have been, they were praying for a few days of bright, glorious Indian Summer before October ends.

photos by Aisling, October 2006



Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Lyrical Names…

In a blog-tradition (or is blogging too new to have traditions?) that a good friend told me about, I am going to re-christen my family with nicknames, so that I may tell stories about them in my writing without “giving too much away.” Just for the fun of it, all of our new names will come from the lexicon of poetry.

My oldest daughter will be Senryu, the Japanese term for an “haiku with an attitude.” This form of poetry is usually about human nature with a satirical twist, much like my daughter’s prose, or her witty commentaries. My second daughter will be Haiku. A haiku is often considered a snapshot of a tiny moment, and since she is an observer, a photographer and a nature lover it is particularly appropriate.

My usually humorous oldest son will be Sijo, after the usually humorous Korean version of the haiku. My second son will be Tanka, after the flexible, variable Japanese poetry form which often includes an element of the unexpected.

My dear hubby, bless his half-Irish soul, will be Limerick. For myself, I will use the name Aisling, from the Irish term for a dream, or vision, poem. There are my dreams… and then there is real life. Every once in a while the two cross paths, and those are the times I like to write about.
photo by Haiku, Oct. 9, 2006

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Autumn Cherry Blossoms…

After several cold rainy days, the clear sky and almost-warm air lured me from the house. I began my autumn garden clean-up and dug a bit more in the daylily bed that I am preparing for planting next year. A favorite flower is still blooming, as it has much of the summer. My Cosmos sway in this October breeze on their delicate ferny foliage, bright flags of pink, rose and pure white. I am at the stage of letting them go to seed, to ensure that they will grace my garden again next year.

In Japan, the seasons are given special attention. Spring brings cherry blossom time. The busy scurry of life is suspended for a time, while picnickers escape the cities to dine in orchards beneath the splendor of the blooming cherry trees. Sukura, sukura, the children sing, celebrating the sweetness of cherry blossom time.

In the early summer, Japanese school children and dedicated gardeners alike sow tiny seeds in tilled soil and in the autumn it is the delicate blossoms of the Cosmos which they planted that symbolize the season. Festivals, complete with scarecrows and “foot bath corners“, are held near vast fields of gently swaying cherry, pink, and white blooms. The Japanese call the Cosmos “Autumn Cherry Blossoms.” The season when leaves change color and fall from the trees, Kouyou in Japanese, is also celebrated with special sweets made in the shape of maple leaves.

In this rural northern locale, we celebrate Autumn with trips to the local orchards for crisp apples and long, slightly-confused meanders through the corn maze. Later in the month, we will select pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns and maybe give in to the temptation to buy just one more Hardy Mum that is too pretty to pass by. We return to simmering big pots of soup or stew, and do a bit more baking as the air grows chill and the first frost threatens.

I engage in all of those typical northern seasonal activities with great enthusiasm. I love Indian Summer and enjoy long walks on “sweater weather” days. I love the autumn mist that settles over the fields near our home between bouts of cold, drizzly rain. And, with a respectful nod toward my Asian kindred-spirits, I love to photograph the sweet Cosmos which tower delicately above my humble mums. How lucky I feel to have “autumn cherry blossoms” to delight me with their dance while I “tuck the garden in” for the year.
photo by Aisling, 2006

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Letting Go…

Though the calendar indicates a few more days of summer, here in this rural northern clime, the long slow pageant of Autumn has begun. Rich, vibrant color is creeping into the palette of greens the trees have worn all summer. Mums are for sale at all of the farm markets. Soon the leaves will begin to fall from the trees and leagues of tidy, diligent, homeowners will pull out their rakes. There is something picturesque about piles of fallen leaves in neighborhood backyards.

In the small pretty village near our home, residents sweep their leaves, bag them, and leave them on the curb for several a special pick-up. The department of public works will tend to the task of turning the leaves to mulch and compost for community gardens. Out here in the country there are other possibilities. Some folks still rake and burn their leaves, scenting the air with nostalgia. Others, rake and compost their own leaves, and conscientiously top-dress their gardens.

We have very few trees on our own little plot of countryside, since our property was a cow pasture before we took up residence. The few trees we have drop their leaves, serenely unbothered by what will happen next. The pear trees in the Orchard Garden drop leaves of a delicious shade of apricot that puts the greenish-brown fruit of late summer to shame. Our maples blaze in fire-kissed shades of red, orange and yellow. This year our new Thundercloud Plum will drop leaves of crimson and purple on the flower bed and across the front porch. Like the trees, we are serenely unbothered by what will happen next. We let the wind sweep the leaves away. Time and sunshine, as well as autumn rains and winter snows, will ensure that the leaves eventually enrich the Earth.

We are all so worried about eliminating clutter in our homes these days. There are countless articles and television segments on the subject. For some of us, no matter how hard we try to combat the situation, more clutter appears and seems to grow on tabletops or in the corners of our rooms. I wonder if our struggle with physical clutter is an outward manifestation of an inward battle with the clutter in our psyches? Who wouldn’t rather rake, bag up, and send away their most difficult memories? Wouldn’t things be more beautiful within our minds, more peaceful and uncomplicated, without the issues and frustrations of the past?

I try not to spend too much time worrying about my own psychological clutter. I watch the circle of the seasons, try to stay connected with the cycles of nature, and realize that if a little fallen leaf debris will enrich the Earth, a little hardship must certainly enrich my soul. I can’t even pretend to be “serenely unbothered” by the trials and tribulations of my life, but each year as I watch the trees release their leaves with perfect grace, I get a little bit closer to letting go.
photo by Haiku, 2006

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Beach Glass and Other Miracles...

I may never see an angel, but I have felt the rush of wings as a blue heron lifted off our pond. I may never see all the far away places I have dreamed of, but I have seen a lone red fox run along our creek bank under a brilliant moon. I have heard coyotes raise their voices as twilight fell. The world’s great riches may pass me by, but a wealth of tiny blessings touches me every day.

The most valuable thing I have ever found while wandering along the local shoreline was a bit of amber beach glass, worn smooth by the churning of the water. I found another piece; an incredible shade of aqua. The miracle is not that beach glass exists - that is easily explained - the miracle is that we care. Both of those bits of time-tumbled glass ended up in my pocket, and later in a purple-stemmed cordial glass in my china cabinet. Why do we pick up broken bits of glass and save them? Why do we hold on to an interesting stone with unusual coloration? Why do we take home a handful of tiny seashells, when there are a million others just like them still lying on the beach?

For me, these “saved bits” are just tactile reminders of the greatest wonder of nature: the mystery of it all. The mystery, energy and majesty of the universe are present in the gust of wind from the heron's wings as it lifts into flight, and in the stealth of the fox as it moves along the creek bank, and in the wild, sweet sound of the coyote’s cry. I cannot hold those things in my hand, so I save a little touchstone, or talisman, to remind me of the wonders I have been fortunate to encounter.

I haven’t been as adventurous as I once thought I would be. The things I’ve achieved in life are not the grand things I once imagined I would achieve. I live in a small house on a windy hill, not on the world stage at the pinnacle of success. But, how can I complain that life is ordinary, when I can walk in the rain and be drenched with nature’s blessings, immersed soul-deep in the mystery of it all?
photo by Aisling, Summer 2006