Oh Christmas Tree!

This time last year, I wrote a blog post about Christmas trees and our family’s unorthodox take on them. I argued that, while our trees may not look like the traditional pine tree, they embody the spirit of the season.

This year’s tree is no exception. After years of suggesting we build the tree out of LEGO, the kids finally agreed. For over a week, the living room floor was a construction zone, strewn with LEGO bricks, mini-figures and gears. The two-metre-tall central structure took two evenings of negotiation, planning and construction. Then there were the branches—marvels of LEGO engineering.

Then came the whimsy—that took the longest. A combination staircase/ ladder/ escalator/ elevator winds upward from level to level. A waterwheel turns lazily on the eighth floor. Gravity takes a holiday as a kayaker paddles straight up, trailing his pet shark on a lead beside him, and emergency personnel (including the undead) carry an injured person up the side of a column. Mini-figures evoke Escher on a section of staircase. A large ship juts from both sides of the trunk, as though the tree grew into place around it. A man fishes from the ninth floor. Motorised gears turn a fantasy clock, spin a merry-go-round, drive a hammer in a dwarven workshop, and spin a star. Under the lowest branches, a kiosk sells tickets to visit the tree.

And all that is before ornaments were added.

Now, mini-figures greet Santa Claus, and a giant butterfly takes flight from the top of the tree. Snowflakes, baubles, and our eclectic mix of homemade ornaments (including the Christmas tardigrade, quite a few insects, and possibly the only Trichonympha ornament on the planet) add to the seasonal cheer. To the Christmas purist, I’m certain our tree is an abomination.

But … evenings of family fun, laughter and creativity—the Christmas season doesn’t get any better. 

See the tree in action:

 

Summer Soup 2019: proof we really are nuts

The family made our annual Summer Soup on Sunday. 

I think we definitively proved we have no self-control when it comes to gardening or cooking. In spite of me reducing my garden area this year, and despite the knowledge that our son is leaving home in a week (and won’t be around to eat this year’s soup), we managed to make even more than usual.

We filled all three of our big stock pots, and it took from 7.30 am to 9.00 pm to pick, chop, and process all that soup.

We had soup for dinner, I put a meal’s worth of soup in the fridge, and there are 28 beautiful quart jars full of soup lined up in the cupboard. 

Summer Soup is full of potatoes, carrots, soy, green beans, zucchini, tomato, sweet peppers, hot peppers, onions, garlic, sweet corn, beet root, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and celery. The only thing not from the garden is the salt. It’s a burst of summer goodness for the cold days of winter. It’s a quick and delicious meal when we all come home late. 

But it’s more than preserved vegetables. It’s a whole-family team building exercise. After a dozen years, it’s a family tradition. Each soup-making session brings back memories of early years, when the kids’ help was more of a hinderance. They took enormous pride in their work those years, reciting the vegetables they’d cut every time we opened a jar.

Now they’re both accomplished cooks, and their help allows us to go way overboard on soup-making. They’re less vocal about it now, but I think they’re still proud of their part in Summer Soup.

As I’ve mentioned before, anyone can make soup, but it takes a family to make Summer Soup.

Crazy Cake Season 2019

I’ve been remiss. Crazy Cake Season is two-thirds over and I haven’t posted a single cake blog!

I admit, it’s because I felt this year’s cakes weren’t as good as previous years. In part, the kids asked for challenging subjects for their cakes: slime moulds (daughter) and a 3-D map of Wellington with all the buildings (son).

I resisted the urge to create a big pile of dog vomit slime mould for my daughter’s cake, and instead created a log covered in slime moulds of various species. Mexican paste worked well for the stalked fruiting bodies, and a little gum arabic glaze made them glisten like the real thing. All in all, it was a successful cake (she was able to identify most of the species, so I got points for biological accuracy, at least), but it wasn’t a cake with a lot of visual appeal for most people.

The Wellington cake was trickier. A map of Wellington? In cake?! I opted for a Wellington-themed cake, instead. Mexican-paste letters created a passable replica of the iconic Hollywood-style Wellington sign. A Mexican paste whale tail rises over the choppy waters of the harbour, and a replica of the Beehive proves you can actually make that building uglier than the original. The map? Well, I did try to create a map of the neighbourhood where my son will soon be living, but my icing wasn’t behaving well (it was a very dry 30 degrees C in the kitchen, and it was variously melting and crusting over), and that bit was quite a disaster. The end result wasn’t something to feast the eyes on.

But in the interests of full disclosure, here they are: this year’s lacklustre cakes. The good news is that they tasted great! The slime mould log was a lemon curd jelly roll that was one of the most flavourful cakes I’ve ever made, and perfect for summer. And the Wellington cake was a reliably delicious spice cake recipe with a beautifully soft texture. So, regardless of their look, they were enjoyed by everyone.

One more cake to go in Crazy Cake Season!

The Ghost of Christmas Trees Past

Growing up, my parents had an artificial Christmas tree. It was hauled out of the attic the weekend after Thanksgiving and assembled and decorated, ushering in the Christmas season.

I remember one year having a real tree—I loved the smell in the closed-up winter house.

When my husband and I married, we spent a few years finding our Christmas tree tradition. For the first two years, we had an eight-inch tall artificial tree in our mud house in Panama. After we returned to the US, we wanted something bigger. So we spent months making a six-foot papier-mache tree, binding on raffia needles and painting bark on the branches. It was a labour of love, and we used it until we had to move across the country, and knew it wouldn’t survive the experience. 

Then babies happened, and for a few years, our Christmas trees were real trees—there was no time or energy for creativity in those early years.

By the time we moved to New Zealand, we were settled into the parent routine enough to be creative again. And summer Christmases invited creativity. We fashioned trees out of driftwood, dead branches pruned off trees in the yard, an old fishing net, fencing wire and flax stalks, copper plumbing, live runner beans—most trees were inspired by what was lying around the property at the time.

Last year, we fashioned a DNA strand as a Christmas tree. Elegant and simple.

This year, we went for crazy, creating an architectural monstrosity from cardboard boxes.

You might wonder what the point is—wouldn’t it be easier and more, well, Christmasy to do a more traditional tree? Yes. But what is a Christmas tree for?

I view a Christmas tree as a focal point—somewhere for family to gather. Our trees have always been decorated with ornaments that have a history—maybe they were made by someone special, or given by a friend, or came from an exotic location. Decorating the tree has always been a time to celebrate the family stories behind the ornaments.

Why shouldn’t that family activity extend to making the tree itself? This year’s tree took a lot of time to make, and we spent several evenings as a whole family working on it—making a tremendous mess of the living room, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company and creativity. That’s exactly what Christmas traditions should do.

So, perhaps our trees don’t meet the traditional definition of a Christmas tree, but I think they embody the spirit of the season.

Upcoming Events!

This Saturday, 24 November, will be a great day for book lovers in Christchurch! Two great events will be running all day. I’ve teamed up with author Jo Carson-Barr, so we’ll both have a presence at each event.

Jo will be meeting readers and selling both our books at the Wham Bam Author Jam, at the Addington Raceway from 10 to 4. Lots of other authors will be there, too, from New Zealand and Australia. It’s a great chance to discover some new authors and books!

Get tickets and more info

I’ll be at the Tamariki Book Festival in Raoura Park from 10 to 3, along with a bunch of other local authors. The Festival includes readings (mine is at 10.20 am), activities for kids (including a scavenger hunt with prizes!), and opportunities for kids of all ages to do a little creative writing of their own. I’ll have live insects for kids to check out, and will talk about how I use science in my creative writing. I’ll also be selling my books and Jo’s.

Get more info about the festival

 

Potential Realised and Unrealised

But those apricots may or may not survive the next nor-west wind. The blueberries might be eaten by the birds before they ripen. The tomatoes could be hit by herbicide overspray. The beans might be stripped by hail. A thousand disasters might befall any of these plants and destroy their promise. And sometimes those disasters do happen—hailstorms have shredded the garden, wind has stripped every tree of fruit, birds have plucked out every seedling from the ground, overspray has twisted and stunted vegetables and decimated the grapes. I can be certain of at least one disaster every year.

But every year, something goes right, and potential is realised. Maybe the hail comes with a little extra rain that helps the vegetables recover from the damage. Maybe that wind-blown fruit can be used to make chutney. Maybe the birds ignore the blueberries, and we eat them until we think we’ll turn blue ourselves. Maybe the wind is blowing the other way when the neighbour sprays, and the garden grows unmolested by agrichemicals. A thousand things can go right and lead to abundance in the garden.

I think about this a lot as I prepare my son to leave home in a few months. He’s taking his final high school exams next week and will head to university in February. For him, it’s a time of incredible possibilities, as he launches into adulthood and pursues his passions.

But he has a difficult year ahead of him—on his own for the first time, in a new city providing lots of distractions, and without his support network of friends and family around him. A thousand things could go wrong. He could focus too much on fun and fail his classes. He could focus too much on classes and become over-stressed. He could make no friends. He could make the wrong friends. He could start drinking, smoking, using drugs. 

No doubt, one or more of these disasters will happen next year. 

But I like to think that possibilities for my son are a bit like possibilities in the garden. Regardless of the disasters, some things will go right. He may make good, positive friendships. He may enjoy Friday-night partying without losing sight of his studies. If he does fail a class, it might convince him to redouble his efforts. A thousand things could go right.

In the garden and with my son, I’m preparing for things to go wrong—for potential unrealised. But I’m also preparing for things to go right. There’s an abundant harvest building up, and I can’t wait to see what it is.

Learn Something New

My first skeins of mohair yarn, showing improvement from left to right.

Not long ago I learned to spin. I should have learned earlier, right after my angora goats were shorn the first time, but I looked at all that mohair and lost heart—it was too much for me to deal with. So I dropped it off at a commercial spinner.

A year later, the spinner still hadn’t spun my mohair and finally admitted they had no intention of ever getting to it, so I picked it back up and brought it home.

It was time to learn to spin.

At first I hated it. It was fiddly and frustrating. The resulting yarn, if you could even call it that, was thick and lumpy. I was set to give up on it.

But a friend who spins encouraged me to keep working on it—it’s always hard at first, she said, and that lumpy thick yarn is beautiful and artistic in its own right.

I took her advice, and kept at it. A hundred metres of thick lumpy yarn later, I suddenly found I was producing fairly consistent worsted-weight yarn. And I was enjoying it!

Learning something new is never easy. I know I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s worth repeating. We watch accomplished people at the task, and we think, “I’d like to do that.” Then we try, and our efforts are fumbling, the results uninspired. It takes determination (and often encouragement from others) to push through the initial discouragement and get to the point where you can enjoy the new skill.

I’ve tried to teach my kids that it’s worth pushing through that learning hump to gain a new skill. Sometimes I need reminding myself.