Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas day dinner–no cooking required.

Much of the world has entered the holiday season under the threat of Covid. Holiday gatherings, a highlight for many, are necessarily smaller or cancelled altogether.

For some, a Christmas without parties and large family gatherings will seem … well, not like Christmas at all. 

I’ve been thinking about this as I talk to my family about their holiday plans, and there’s a lot of similarity in what they are going through to what my husband and I have gone through as expats. We’re used to holidays far from parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. We know how the ghosts of family-filled Christmases past haunt the table set for two on Christmas eve. We’ve learned how to fill the holidays with meaning even if we can’t fill them with loved ones. I imagine most other expats have done the same.

It occurred to me that the lessons we’ve learnt are applicable to those stuck at home due to Covid. So here are some musings on how we’ve navigated (and come to love) solo holidays.

  • Treat yourself the way you’d treat guests. Do you usually make a special dinner Christmas Day? Cook it for your household, even if that’s only two people. Do you stay up late partying to ring in the new year? Well, put on the stereo and dance, no matter how few you are.
  • If the previous idea raises too many ghosts for you, create new ‘traditions’ instead. Throw out the holiday rulebook. Instead of a party, go for a hike with your household. Instead of buying a live tree, get creative and make one with your immediate family out of whatever’s lying around the house. Instead of a formal meal in the dining room, have pizza and popcorn while watching a movie on the couch. The more different the new tradition, the less likely those Christmas ghosts will show up. Just make the new plan as much of a treat as the old (not simply your usual routine). 
  • Dress up. Staying home? Put your party clothes on anyway. It will make the day feel special, even if all you do is lie around reading books.
  • Share with family and friends far away. This is so much easier today than it was 27 years ago when my husband and I had our first Christmas overseas. Then, I wrote letters describing our Christmas punch and mailed photos of our tiny Christmas tree. These days, we share via telephone, Skype, Zoom and FaceTime. It’s not the same as being there, I know, but I am thankful for the opportunities we have to be ‘together’ for the holidays.
  • Focus on what you can gain, not what you’re losing. Quiet time with your partner and/or children. Time alone to do what you want, not what the whole gang wants. Freedom from the intense cooking, cleaning and planning that go into hosting holiday events. A chance to re-think your holiday traditions. A reprieve from that loud uncle who always drinks too much and starts talking politics … I’m sure there are plenty of things you’ll happily miss out on this year.

No question about it, this year’s holiday is going to be different from normal for most people. But that doesn’t mean it has to be bad. Make the most of the opportunities to try something different this year. Who knows? Maybe something you do this year will become part of your holiday traditions for years to come.

Childhood Literary Inspirations

In the lead up to the Tamariki Book Fest, I’ll be posting a series of blogs about the importance of books from my perspective as a reader, parent, teacher, and author.

I grew up with books, which should come as no surprise to anyone. Because I write fantasy for children, people often expect my childhood literary inspirations were books like The Hobbit, The Earthsea Cycle, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or other classic fantasy stories.

I read these books as a child, but the ones I really remember are quite different.

Heidi: The natural world has always been my comfort zone, so I immediately connected with a character who prefers a life running around the mountains with a herd of goats over one learning proper manners in the city. Some of the scenes in the book were so vivid to me as a child, I can still see, feel, smell and taste them.

Little House on the Prairie: Another book whose main character is a tomboy—I sense a theme here. Little House on the Prairie appealed to my sense of adventure and love of the natural world. I even learned some gardening tips from it that I still use today. 

Doctor Goat: I can still recite this silly rhyming picture book in its entirety. It taught me about rhyme, meter, and being silly. Yes, Dr. Seuss books did too, but Doctor Goat is what sticks in my mind decades later.

Time Life books: My father had a near-complete set of these non-fiction books. They fed my insatiable desire to understand the natural world for many years. They were written for adults, but I read them over and over again until I understood.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Something about these stories sticks with me long past the point where I can accurately recount them. Perhaps it’s the way they hone in on our most fundamental wishes and fears and turn them back on the characters who express them. Perhaps it’s just because they’re freaky and often horrifying.

So, what books inspired my own children’s books? None of them individually, and all of them collectively. My own stories are crazy-quilt patchworks of everything I have ever read, stitched together with my own personal experiences (some of which can blow any fantasy adventure out of the water). My rich reading life, coupled with a ‘real’ life lived to the fullest, has furnished me with an overflowing font of story ideas.

As a parent, I have tried to provide the same rich book life to my own children, and I’m passionate about getting kids reading. Come join me and and a fabulous line-up of local authors at the Tamariki Book Festival (Nov 22 at Tūranga), and let’s celebrate the wonderful stories written right here in Christchurch!

Books and Children—Beyond Academics

In the lead up to the Tamariki Book Fest, I’ll be posting a series of blogs about the importance of books from my perspective as a reader, parent, teacher, and author.

The research on books and academic achievement is clear—children who experience books from a young age have better literacy on entering school and carry that advantage all the way through to university and beyond. 

But what of the other, less tangible benefits of reading to children and encouraging a love of books? Research indicates reading can improve mental health, empathy, social skills, cultural understanding and imagination—all of which I can attest to in watching my own children and my students interact with books. 

My husband and I read to our children nightly for a long time. We only stopped when the eldest went off to university. Reading was family time at the end of each day. No one missed unless they absolutely had to. Not only did we read stories, but we discussed them after each night’s instalment—what did we think of the plot, the characters, the vocabulary the author used? What did we think would happen next? If the book was fiction, how did it reflect the real world? Our discussions took on history, writing, storytelling, race relations, sexism, relationships … if it showed up in a book, we talked about it afterwards.

We did all this, not so much for the literacy benefit to the children, but because we genuinely enjoy books and wanted to share that love.

The intangible benefits I’ve seen in my own children are huge:

Introspection: Most children’s books carry a message, either overt or hidden. Characters’ actions provide opportunities for parents and children to discuss behaviour in a non-confrontational way, and give children a safe way to evaluate their own behaviour. 

Love: The greatest thing we can give our children is time. I know in our family we were all busy. But by taking time every day to read together we said, “This is more important than [insert household chore here]. You are more important than [insert work obligation here].” It was a powerful way for all of us to daily reaffirm our family.

Imagination: We read some crazy books with the kids. The authors’ creativity was often reflected in the children’s subsequent play. Books fuelled their creativity by showing them ‘out of the box’ ideas and encouraging them to imagine ‘what if …’

Knowledge: Once kids realise they can learn stuff from books, they’re away, reading up on their favourite animals, looking up weird facts to impress their friends, or exploring their heritage through historical fiction. Books can both inspire and satisfy their curiosity.

Cultural understanding: Books are a window to unfamiliar cultures and alternate ways of thinking. Through books, children can walk the streets of foreign countries, experience different family structures, eat strange foods, and engage in daily life around the globe.

Mental health: Books can be a valuable part of a mental health toolkit. Bored? A book can take you somewhere exciting. Lonely? Book characters can become friends. Sad? Books can offer humour or positive stories to cheer us up. Overwhelmed? Books can give us a respite from our worries and responsibilities. Finding yourself? Books can provide role models for life.

The Tamariki Book Festival celebrates all the benefits reading provides for children—the tangible academic boost, and the intangible quality of life benefits. We hope to see you all there (22 November at Christchurch’s central library, Tūranga) to help us enjoy and celebrate the power of books.

Summer Soup 2020

No pandemic hoarding here, just the usual late season batch of Summer Soup. I’ve written about Summer Soup on numerous occasions (2015, 2016, 2018, and twice in 2019). We’ve been making it annually for at least a decade, and it has always been a family affair. In the early years, the children’s vegetable chopping efforts were more symbolic than helpful, but as their skills improved, their input became critical to the relatively rapid production of vast quantities of soup. 

This year, with our upcoming move, the garden output is less than in many years, and there’s so much to do, I wasn’t sure we would have a chance to make Summer Soup. In the end, I did it alone. Starting at 7.30 am, with many interruptions to help move furniture and tools, I began picking and processing vegetables. I pulled the final jars out of the canner shortly before 11 pm.

I listened to music and podcasts while I worked, and I got some brief help from my husband, but it wasn’t the same without the rest of the family there. Neither was the output—13 quarts of soup and 4 quarts of stock. 

I’m not disappointed—thirteen meals plus flavouring for four more will be lovely in the coming weeks and months—but I look forward to getting back to the family production of Summer Soup next year. It’s not just soup; it’s a celebration, and not nearly so much fun alone.

Crazy Cake #1–2020

It’s birthday cake season again! This year, my daughter’s brief for me was a Kura Tawhiti bouldering theme, with ‘maybe a climber and some alpine plants’ done in chocolate and hazelnut flavours.

I think both of us had a vision of a grey boulder or boulders with climber, plants, etc. But as I started in on the cake, the vision changed.

I made one of my favourite devil’s food cake recipes (from Tartine) in a range of round layer sizes. I sliced each layer in half and filled it with my homemade Nutella, stacking the layers in a wonky boulder-like shape. 

Then I stood there and contemplated the decoration. My plan had been to make the standard quick icing I use for decorating, but the amazing rich chocolate cake with decadent Nutella filling really needed something better than quick icing. It needed ganache.

So that’s what it got—chocolate ganache covered with ground hazelnuts to get a more appropriate boulder colour. 

I added chunks of hazelnut praline for a more rocky appearance, and made some alpine plants and a climber from Mexican paste. A few small final touches with a simple sugar and milk icing, and the cake was finished.

It didn’t look anything like I thought it would when I started, but it tasted absolutely divine! No wonder—it contained over 400 grams of chocolate, two cups of hazelnuts, and a gloriously unhealthy quantity of butter and cream. In the end, no one was paying much attention to the look—we were too busy oohing and aahing over the taste.

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:

 

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.

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.

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!