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.

Healthy Cookies? No Thanks …

Seventeen years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, I tried very hard to do everything the pregnancy books said I should do. Exercise, diet, sleep … the pressure to be perfect so my baby turned out okay was something all mothers can relate to, I’m sure.

My biggest pre-pregnancy vices were coffee and sweets. Coffee was easy to forgo—the moment I got pregnant, it made me sick to even smell it.

Sweets were harder to give up. I vowed not to eat any sweets I hadn’t made myself. But that only encouraged me to do a lot of baking, so then I vowed not to bake anything. That make me miserable.

I decided to adapt my favourite recipes to make them ‘good for me’, so I could justify eating them. I started with a cookie recipe I loved that was already full of whole grains and nuts.

Following the advice for pregnant mums (which I’m sure is completely different these days), I eliminated the sugar, sweetening the cookies with fruit juice instead. I cut down the butter by half, removed the chocolate, and added more nuts.

The resulting cookies nauseated me.

I don’t think they were necessarily bad, but they were emotionally unsatisfying and difficult for my stomach—a bit wobbly already from pregnancy—to digest. I choked them down anyway.

I thought maybe if I tweaked the recipe a little bit …

The second batch made me feel sick, too.

For over a decade, I couldn’t even look at the recipe for those cookies (not even the original recipe, which I loved) without feeling a bit queasy.

I’ve recently rediscovered those cookies, and am happy to report I’ve recovered all my love for the original recipe.

This comes from Farm Journal’s Cookies. Don’t change a thing. Trust me.

Wheat/Oat Crisps

3/4 cup shortening (I use 190g butter)
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup water
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
3 cups quick-cooking rolled oats
2 Tbsp wheat germ
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1/4 cup chocolate chips (I actually increase this to 1/2 cup now)

Beat shortening and sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in egg, water and vanilla until creamy. Stir together flour, salt and baking soda. Stir flour mixture into creamed mixture and blend well. Add oats, wheat germ, coconut, nuts, and chocolate chips. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto lightly greased baking sheets. Bake at (180ºC) 350ºF for 12 – 15 minutes. Cool on a rack.

Love your Library

I’ve blogged in the past about how much I appreciate libraries, but it bears repeating. I can’t deny I prefer writing in my lovely office, but modern libraries are beautifully set up for those who need to work away from the office, with power points, standing desks, and quiet spaces. I’ve spent the past two days in the public library. My word count is down, compared to working at home, but I’ve enjoyed the people watching.

One of my key observations from the past two days is how the library is a safe space in the middle of the city. A fellow at the table next to me spent an hour working on a jigsaw puzzle while his computer and phone sat unattended and unobserved on the other side of the room. Parents of toddlers calmly browse the shelves while their little ones scamper around happily out of sight. Those same toddlers swagger through the library to visit their favourite books, posters, and egg chairs as though they’re in their own living room. When their parents eventually look up and find their children gone, they don’t panic, but casually stroll after them, stopping now and again to check out an interesting book on the way. After three o’clock, kids of all ages descend upon the library to read, hang out, and play games until their parents are able to pick them up. The implicit assumption is that everyone in the library is kind, helpful, and honest. I’m sure that’s not entirely true, but the expectation is so high, I think anyone who tried to behave in a socially unacceptable way would be instantly frog-marched out of the library by all the other visitors.

It’s good to have these spaces. It’s a reminder that we can create safe spaces, where strangers from all walks of life can mix and mingle over a shared love of books.

Gluten Culture

“I’m allergic to gluten-free.”

That’s my son’s line when people ask.

In part, it’s true; he’s allergic to buckwheat, which is often used in gluten-free products. But what he’s really saying is that gluten-containing foods are a staple at our house. Our diet and our family culture would break down without gluten.

It’s been a while since I blogged about a bread day, but they still happen. Every two or three weeks my husband fires up the bread oven and bakes two dozen loaves of bread. I follow with a couple of cakes, cookies, or whatever sweets I feel like baking. On the tail-end heat, my husband might throw in some bac-un or seitan—gluten-based meat substitutes.

Between the bi-weekly gluten fests, we make pastries, muffins, scones, crackers, and all manner of other gluten-containing food.

If we took gluten out of our diet, we’d lose a protein source and a suite of family activities.

And, yes, you can bake gluten-free bread, cakes and cookies.

But they’re not the same.

There is something fundamental, something visceral about the feel of gluten—under your hands as you knead bread, in your mouth as you chew it—something that is integral to my family’s enjoyment of food.

Yes, I think we’re all allergic to gluten-free.