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:

 

Time Travel over a Cup of Coffee

I had every intention of blogging something cheerful about springtime this week, but when I sat down in my usual cafe to write the week’s blog, I was confronted with my future … still hopefully many years away, but it reminded me to appreciate today and make the most of every day.

I ordered my coffee and tucked myself into a seat, determined to get some writing done.

Seconds later, she sat down at the table next to me, appropriating my attention before I’d even pulled out my pen.

How her hip hurt her! Up at three AM with the pain. Cup of tea to help her get back to sleep. Lemon in her tea, not milk—she wouldn’t drink something that looked like dirty dishwater. But, then, you know what happens after a cuppa. Up an hour later to pee, and then, well, you may as well get up.

She rattled on for twenty minutes—a live blog post of the worst kind—rambling, comprehensive and incomprehensible, exposing her loneliness, her sense of purpose lost in deteriorating hips and retired life.

She grasped at relationships—her neighbours who looked after one another, as all neighbours need to do.The old woman at the grocery store who needed help with her bags. But she needed no help, not yet, while she watched her friends fail.

Her friend in a nursing home who had a wee flat, complete with bathroom and kitchen. Had I seen those before? She had no idea homes had flats. She had only ever seen single rooms.

She visited her friend in a nursing home. Younger than her but needing help. She had a wee flat, complete with bathroom and kitchen. Had I seen those before? She had no idea homes had flats. She had only ever seen single rooms.

But when she’d visited her friend in a nursing home, she’d had a kitchen. It was like a wee flat. Had I seen those before?

A scratch in the vinyl record of her memory—she skipped like an old 45. By the third repeat, I saw the despair deep in her eyes. How much longer could she fool herself, her children? How much longer could she cling to autonomy, freedom, purpose? How long before she joined her friends in the incarceration of age?

Lessons from a Stone Plant

It was a silly little gift, perched at the top of my stocking on Christmas morning—a tiny stone plant. It wasn’t much to look at—a few fleshy leaves and that was it. I put it on my office windowsill, where I could watch it grow.

But it didn’t do much—just sat there looking like a pebble.

In March, it grew two new leaves, and I expected it to get bigger, but two old leaves shrank in time with the new ones’ expansion. A month later it looked exactly as it had before.

I’d nearly given up on it ever doing anything interesting, when a bud emerged from the centre of the plant. It was different from the new leaves that had sprouted earlier. The sprout grew into an unmistakable flower bud, and I wondered if the stone plant’s flower would be as unassuming as the plant itself.

Then it opened. It was only one, but it was spectacular, coming from such a nothing of a plant.

It reminded me of some people I know—unassuming at first, but capable of spectacular things if nurtured and given time. A good reminder to always be patient and nurture those around us—you never know what they may blossom into.

Topping the Cake

Red currant jam and coconut on devil’s food cake.

Cake, as I remember it growing up, always had icing on it. Super sweet quick icing, usually, made with Crisco and powdered sugar. I’m sure there was occasionally cream cheese frosting and buttercream frosting. And, of course, frosting came in multiple flavours, including chocolate and peanut butter.

But in my memory, there was always frosting on cake.

I still enjoy frosting, but these days, I’m far less likely to use frosting on a cake than something else, or nothing.

Powdered sugar on top, jam in the middle of a coconut cake.

My current favourite is jam. We always make too much jam in the summer, when fruit pours off the berry bushes and screams out to be preserved. So using a cup of jam to fill and top a cake doesn’t seem excessive.

The best jams for cake are tart ones like currant or gooseberry. I heat the jam slightly in the microwave so it’s smooth and spreadable. Sometimes I just put jam between the layers, but other times I glaze the top with it, too. Once there’s sticky jam on top of a cake, I can’t resist sprinkling things on it—coconut, chopped nuts, grated chocolate—anything that compliments the flavours of the cake and jam.

Straight chocolate is also a nice cake topping—not a continuous layer as you would do with a ganache, but artistic squiggles, dark on a light-coloured cake. They’re pretty and delicious.

I also like powdered sugar sifted onto my cakes. Sometimes I make a stencil out of paper to create pretty patterns with the sugar.

Some cakes need no topping, for beauty or for taste.

And I’m quite fond of cakes with the topping baked on—chocolate chips and chopped nuts sprinkled over the batter before baking is particularly good.

I still like frosting, but other toppings have the advantage of traveling better than frosting does, and I enjoy the variety of flavours and textures along with my cake.

Footstool Everlasting

Few items from my childhood survive today. No surprise. At age 49, having moved nearly a dozen times as an adult, and ending up half a world away from my hometown, it’s surprising anything remains.

My footstool, however, not only remains, but is still in daily use.

I don’t recall how old I was when it was given to me, but I don’t think I could have been more than four or five.

My grandmother painted it, and I seem to recall some other family member—a great uncle perhaps—had built it years before. So it wasn’t new when I got it, only newly painted with my name and one of my favourite animals. I doubt Grandma ever suspected I’d grow up to get a master’s degree in entomology (and chances are she wouldn’t have encouraged it had she suspected). But I was clearly already headed that way as a preschooler.

I remember using the stool as a table, back when my legs fit neatly underneath it. I remember setting up tea parties on it, doing artwork on it, turning it upside down and pretending it was a boat, setting it on its side to form a battlement for some imaginary fortress.

When I was a teen, it served to give me access to the top shelf in my closet and as a handy homework table.

The stool moved with me when I left home. My husband has employed it in the bottling of beer, and my kids remember standing on it to work at the kitchen counter or workshop bench. Today, I’m the only one in the family who still needs a footstool, but it continues to come in handy as a low computer stand for those of us who like to work on the floor.

After more than fifty years, the footstool is as solid as ever, and just as functional as it was the day it was built. The paint is sadly worn, gone completely from the often-banged edges and corners.

But someday, when I can no longer sit cross-legged on the floor to work on the computer, perhaps I’ll repaint it for one of my grandchildren, so it can have another life as a boat, battlement and art table.

A Bird in the Bush

bellbird

photo: Sid Mosell (CCBY2.0)

Last Thursday was frenetic—I had a challenging work day and then ran errands in heavy afternoon traffic. By the time I arrived at my husband’s work to pick him up, I was tired, and my brain restlessly analysed the day’s events.

The day was warm, and I sat in the car with the windows down waiting for my husband. Time to catch up on my e-mail …

Twee-dle … A lone bellbird called lazily from a nearby tree, cutting through the sounds of the city and the clamour inside my head.

Twee-dle

I pocketed my phone and closed my eyes as the sound transported me to the bush where I lay in a tent listening to the forest wake up. The clamour in my head stilled. Somehow my email no longer seemed important. The conundrums of the day lost their urgency. My shoulders relaxed and I took a deep breath.

Twee-dle

There was time to savour. No need to worry.

Twee-dle

Trouble could wait. I needed a few minutes in the bush.

Twee-dle

All I needed to do was listen.

Wear Your Hair with Pride

“Why do you have white hair?” asked the young girl, impertinent as only a seven-year-old can be.

“Because I’m getting old,” I replied.

“No, I mean why don’t you dye it?”

“Because my white hair is beautiful–it’s actually silver and sparkly.”

She wrinkled her nose. “It’s not silver. It’s white.” She snorted and stroked her own hair, brown and straight. “When I get that old, I’ll dye my hair.”

There was no point arguing with her. Silver hair is a beauty a seven-year-old can’t possibly appreciate.

But even beyond the fact that my silver hair has come in with body and curl that my youthful hair never had (it sat on my head like a wet dish rag), my silver hair is beautiful for what it represents.

Like ANZAC poppies that remind us to never forget those who died for our freedom, each silver hair is a reminder.

Lest we forget the struggles over which we have triumphed:

• As a parent, the screaming newborns, toddler tantrums and teenage rebellion
• Mental health lows
• Physical pain and illness
• Emotional pain—loved ones lost, relationships shattered
• Natural disasters and those made by humans
• The acts of violence against ourselves, against those we love, against our neighbours.

Every silver hair reminds me I have not only survived, but thrived. Every silver hair is a badge of honour, a challenge met, a goal surpassed.

Dye my hair?

Why would I ever hide my hard-won medals?

Strength.
Bravery.
Perseverance.
Patience.
Sheer bloody-minded stubbornness.

I wear these badges of honour with pride—my silver sparkling medals that streak my hair and remind me what I’m made of.