An Advent Garden

by Erin Fossett

The December holidays can be a hectic if festive time of year, a season that can leave us ungrounded and disconnected from our natural rhythms. And yet, this season can also be a call to strengthen these connections, while paying tribute to some of the most fundamental relationships in our lives: our connections to the earth, to plants and animals, and to the people around us.

One way we try to honor these connections in our home is an advent garden, a tradition that has become an anchor of my family’s celebration. It is also a tradition that can be adapted to your own beliefs and traditions, expressing what the season means for you.

To make our garden, I spread a starry blue cloth on a corner table at the beginning of December, and then add four unlit votive candles. Other people might want to use an advent wreath of pine boughs, though I admit that I’m too intimidated by florist wire to try this myself. Instead, I arrange a spiral of small stones to symbolize the first week of advent, the Festival of Stones, which commemorates the earth in its most basic form.

The first light of Advent is the light of stones,
Light that lives in seashells, in crystals and in bones.

This verse is one I learned at my son’s Waldorf school. It can also be found on a wonderful collection of holiday music, The Christmas Star, by Mary Thienes-Schunemann. Every evening, we gather before bedtime around the garden. We turn out every light, even the Christmas tree. Then, singing this verse, I light a single candle for the first week of advent. We might sing a song, and I might read a fable or myth of the earth, including creation myths from various cultures. One source of wonderful stories for the solstice season is The Return of the Light, by Carolyn McVickar Edwards.

This first week, our focus is on our connection to the earth. We try to go on a hike or snowshoe, and my children keep an eye out for special rocks that they can add to our spiral. In years past, I have also wrapped individual stones, seashells and crystals in tissue paper. Each night, my children choose one to unwrap and we add it to the garden. We end our ritual with Silent Night, or another song, and I lead them upstairs by candle light.

The second light of Advent is the light of plants
Plants that reach up to the sun and in the breezes dance.

The second week of advent we celebrate the Festival of Plants. I add pine boughs and moss to the garden, and I may wrap up some pinecones for the children to open, as well as seed packets that we can plant in the spring. I try to keep most of the garden natural, but my children like to add their own touches, and it’s always interesting to see what they come up with. We’ve had the plastic pine trees from my son’s train set, bits of orange peel and a pomegranate. The important thing is to make it personal, an expression of what has meaning for you.

This week, we talk a lot about plants, celebrating the bounty of the earth and expressing gratitude for the people who grow our food. We also pay special attention to our garden, thanking the sleeping plants outside. This year, we’re even talking about planting a tree during the holiday season. We light two candles this week, and continue with our stories of the natural world, reading stories such as The Miracle of the First Poinsettia by Joanne Oppenheim.

The third light of Advent is the light of beasts
Light of hope that shines in the greatest and the least.

The third week of advent, we celebrate the Festival of Animals. Our garden is starting to take shape now, and the children get excited adding figures of favorite animals from their toy collections and our nativity set, as well as small animals that I’ve felted. We may set out a bowl of birdseed, or a bit of hay, to represent caring for animals.

Last year, we also made bird feeders from pine cones dipped in peanut butter and bird seed and hung them out in our backyard. We leave carrots out for the bunnies and pumpkin seeds for the squirrel who visits our back door a few mornings a week. We tell animal stories and think about how much we appreciate all living things. One group of stories that my children particularly love is James Herriot’s Treasury for Children, which includes a family favorite, “The Christmas Kitten.” We light our third candle and celebrate the growing brilliance of our garden.

The fourth light of advent is the light of you and I,
The light of love and friendship, to give and understand.

The final week of advent is the Festival of Human Beings. Add to the garden pictures of special people: relatives and historical figures that have inspired you. My children like to include doll house people as well as figures from our crèche set. By the end of the week, our garden is quite crowded. My children often play in it, moving the figures around.

I set up a pathway of little gold stars leading to the table, and each day move Mary and her donkey a little closer to the garden. All four candles are lit and their brilliance is reflected my own children’s faces. Books I like to read this week include All I See is a Part of Me by Chara Curtis and The Shortest Day by Wendy Pfeffer, which also includes some craft ideas for celebrating the solstice.

Since this final week usually includes the solstice, I try to focus on how we can bring more light into the lives of those around us. We may visit a soup kitchen, go to a nursing home, or take small homemade gifts to neighbors and friends.  On the day of the solstice, we try to forego electric lights as much as possible, and spend a lot of time outside (weather permitting). Last year, a friend gave each of us large white votive candles and we wrote our wishes and intentions for the coming year on the outside of our candles before lighting them. Another favorite solstice memory is of the snow cave we dug in the back yard one year. We set out votive candles in that sheltered space to represent the birth of the light. We left them lit in the snow as long as they lasted, long after my children went to bed, and it is a memory that still means a lot to each member of our family.

If the idea of the advent garden doesn’t appeal to you, you can think of other ways to incorporate your connections to the natural world into your holiday celebrations. Hike or snowshoe together with family and friends. Plant a tree or some indoor bulbs that you can enjoy during the winter months. Do something special to honor the animals, and to help the people around you. The important thing is to make the season meaningful for you and your family, celebrating traditions that will create memories and connections into the years ahead.

Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.

Erin Fossett provided the photos of her Advent Garden. The snowy scene was taken by Mary Claflin. Originally posted in November, 2010.

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Embracing Darkness

by Erin Fossett

 

We had a power outage one night a few weeks ago, when my children were in the bathtub and my husband was working late at the office. I managed to dress the children in the darkness before I went to find some candles. When my husband arrived home a bit later, I was telling them a story in the candlelit bedroom. My husband raised his hands and made a shadow puppet rabbit on the wall, and then a bird flying across the half-lit ceiling. My children were enraptured. Do it again, Daddy, they said. We all tried it then, and what started out as something of a frightening experience for my children turned magical by the time they settled down to go to sleep.

The lights went on again sometime after midnight, but the evening has settled into my children’s imagination, something they’ve talked about many times since.

 

Remember the night we made shadow puppets?
Remember the night when Daddy lit all the candles and it was so dark?
When can we do that again?

The event made me think about how few times we truly experience darkness in our modern lives. True darkness, like true silence, is a rare thing. And yet I think my children, and the children inside all of us, hearken back to some distant ancestral memory…winter nights made magical by storytellers spinning tales in the darkness, the only lights the stars and the embers of a fire around which everyone gathers, seeking warmth. There is something magical for me about such a scene, people clustered together for heat and light, rather than scattered to their various corners of the house, to their various devices and diversions and pursuits. Since that night, I’ve tried to think of more ways to bring this feeling into our home, while at the same time accepting and even honoring the encroaching darkness of the coming winter season.

 

A moment of darkness: As the days shorten, and we eat our dinner after dark, I like to turn out the electric lights and then light a beeswax candle at the center of our table, a single point of light in the surrounding darkness. As I light the candle, I say the following verse that I learned from my son’s preschool teacher:

 

Though daylight wanes, our flames burn bright;
Our candles glow in darkest night.

We share a moment of silence in this circle of candlelight, and then we may talk about what we are grateful for, or of someone we miss or want to send special blessings to. I find that this interlude seems to draw us closer, and brings a mood of reverence to our table and a sense of gratitude for the meal we are about to share. On some nights we eat the entire meal by candlelight, and something about that circle of light within the surrounding blanket of darkness seems to nourish us as we face the coming season.

An hour of darkness: Lately, I’ve also tried to honor the darkness with a special moment before bedtime, extending a ritual we’ve followed in past years during the Advent season. I light a candle in the kitchen and lead my children upstairs to bed by candlelight. Then we use the candle to light another in a special glass fronted lantern on a shelf in my daughter’s room. We say our prayers or blessings by candlelight, or briefly talk over the events of the day. There is something about the candlelight that seems to invite my children to voice wishes or concerns they might otherwise find hard to share.

I’m also experimenting with reading stories by candlelight, or, better yet, using this candlelit interval to invent a story, making a creative leap into storytelling that feels easier in the darkness. With my children’s help and input, I’ve recently been shaping one story about a fairy and a magic raccoon. The story takes twists and turns that I would never have expected, helped along by their suggestions (We need two red haired princes, one good and one bad. We need a factory that builds giant Legos…) It’s a way for us to share in the act of creating, of making something from nothing, while carrying on the dreamy tradition of long winter nights.

 

I also find that when I finally blow out the candle, my children seem to accept the darkness, and coming sleep, as a friend, rather than as something to be feared or fought. It makes me think of another blessing I used to say for my daughter when she was a baby, a verse I found in Shea Darian’s wonderful book on family rhythms, Seven Times the Sun.  It begins….

 

The dark comes like a blanket,
Protecting us at night…

This is a season to think of darkness as a blanket, a friend, an ally, not as something to be overcome.

NOTE: Remember, adults should never leave a candle or lantern unattended, especially around children. I often keep our candle in a glass fronted lantern when I read to my children, and keep it well away from books and other things. I also keep my hair tied back. I try to teach my children that fire is both a magical and a powerful force, one that requires care, thoughtfulness, and respect.

Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.

Reference: Seven Times the Sun, Shea Darian, Gilead Press, 2001, p. 140.

First published November 7, 2010

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An Ancestor Shrine

by Erin Fossett

When it comes to decorating our homes this time of year, our thoughts often turn to pumpkins, black cats and fake cobwebs. I enjoy decorating for Halloween, but also feel a call to observe the deeper meaning of the holiday.

The feast of Halloween originated with the festival of Samhain (sow’un), the Celtic new year, in which the veil between the worlds was said to be thinner. Samhain Eve was an opportune time to contact the spirit world, often through scrying, that is, seeking a vision in a mirror or a bowl of water. It was also a night to honor those friends and relatives who had passed onto the next world themselves. For this reason, I like to include a shrine to my own ancestors among my Halloween decorations.

My shrine is a small table that sits in my living room, near the piano that belonged to my great-grandmother. I cover the table with a silk cloth, and then lay out photos of my grandparents, great-grandparents and any friends or family members who have passed on. Other ideas for decorating your shrine might include a copy of your family tree, or favorite items that remind you of your loved ones. I include a brooch that my Grandma Mary gave to me when I was a little girl, a pen my grandfather used and an offshoot of an asparagus fern plant that sprouted from one at my grandmother Anna Mae’s house. I also decorate my shrine with candles and flowers, especially marigolds, considered the flowers of the dead in Mexican culture.

Each night in late October, before going to bed, I light the candles and spend a quiet moment thinking of my family members, those I knew and those whom I never had a chance to know. I thank them for all of their hard work and dedication, the struggles many of them underwent to come to America, to raise their children and provide for their families. My great-grandparents were ethnic German refugees who fled the steppes of Russia just before World War I and settled on a farm in eastern Colorado. One of their sons married my Irish grandmother Anna Mae, whose own mother had sold flowers on street corners in Denver when she was only twelve years old. My Grandma Mary, on the other hand, grew up in an Oklahoma orphanage where her Hungarian immigrant mother worked as a seamstress, and she lived through the Dust Bowl. Thinking of their struggles, and their resilience, I honor them for all that they sacrificed, and for how they influenced who I am today.

For me, this moment with my memories and my gratitude is a way of tying into the cycle and continuity of life, and of dealing with some of the emotions that the falling leaves and grayer skies may inevitably bring forth. This shrine also provides a wonderful opportunity to talk to my own children about my grandparents and other family members they never had a chance to meet.

I also like to honor my relatives by making old family recipes or favorite foods from our traditions. These might include corned beef and cabbage in honor of my Irish grandmother, or potato dumplings in remembrance of my German-Russian great-grandmother. One year I even undertook a homemade pumpkin pie, even making the pie crust from scratch as my Grandma Mary used to do. Food is a wonderful way to share memories and carry on traditions, and as the smells fill the house I can almost imagine I will find my own grandmother at work in the kitchen, telling stories and giving treats to the children.

Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.

All photos by Erin Fossett.

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Preserving Summer Herbs

by Erin Fossett

September is a month of changes. When our lives were bound more closely to the land, it was a time of hope, and celebration of the harvest. It was also a busy season, as farmers worked feverishly to bring in their crops before the first freeze. There was a feeling of abundance, but also of transition, of letting go.  We still feel it, watching the change of the seasons. The days continue to shorten, leaves change colors, and even in the glory of Indian summer the nights take on a chill. In our own gardens, the plants that we nurtured so carefully for months are now going to seed, losing their summertime glory. Soon it will be time to clip away the old growth and turn the soil over, preparing the ground for winter.

One way to celebrate the energy of September is to preserve the flavors and scents of summer through herbal teas, vinegars, flavored oils, and honeys. Whether you have a full garden, a kitchen window box, or buy your herbs dried and in bulk, these creations are fun and relatively simple to make, and offer another way to share seasonal bounty with your friends. (For buying dried herbs in bulk, as well as herbal making supplies, visit Mountain Rose Herbals.)

Herbal Iced Tea Cubes. In September, I try to make daily batches of strong herbal tea, using the last of my chamomile, lemon balm, peppermint, and catnip. I let the tea steep for up to eight hours, and then pour into ice cube trays and freeze. The finished ice cubes will store in freezer bags for up to three months, and can be added to smoothies, or melted and diluted with hot water for a refreshing cup of herbal tea.

Ice cube trays are also handy for freezing big batches of fresh tomato sauce or pesto, using the last basil from your garden. Let the sauce cool thoroughly before freezing, and store the frozen cubes in freezer bags for up three months, thawing as needed.

Herb Infused Vinegars. Herbal vinegars make a flavorful addition to salad dressings and dips, as well as a nourishing daily tonic to help strengthen the blood or tone the digestive system. Good herbs to use in your vinegars include garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, tarragon, and sage. Experiment with combinations. Pairings of dill and peppermint, or fennel and ginger, are wonderful for upset stomachs.

Place about a cup of finely chopped fresh herbs (or ¼ cup of dried herbs) into clean pint-sized glass canning jars. Cover the herbs with organic apple cider vinegar, leaving about an inch of room at the top of the jar. (Avoid white vinegar, which is bleached with harsh chemicals.) Cover the jar tightly, label with the ingredients and date, and then store the mixture in a dark place at room temperature, shaking vigorously every few days.

After about four to six weeks, strain out the vinegar by pouring it through a colander lined with a doubled piece of cheesecloth or an old sheet. Be sure to squeeze out all of the infused liquid from the plant material before composting. Store the mixture in glass jars or tincture bottles, carefully marked with the ingredients and date. The finished vinegar will keep for a year.

Herbal Oils. You can also use herbs to make flavored olive oils, for both internal and external uses. In this case, place 1/3 cup of already dried plant materials in a clean, dry glass jar. (Make certain the jar is completely dry, as any moisture can ruin the oil.) Cover the herbs with high quality, organic olive oil, leaving an inch or two of room at the top of the jar. Cover this mixture with a cloth for the first few days, before you seal the lid, as the plants will continue to expel gasses as they absorb the oil. Also be sure to check the mixture after a few hours to see if more oil is needed to cover the herbs.

Let the oil sit in a sunny window for 10 to 14 days, shaking daily, before straining the plant material out. Store the finished oil in a dark place, and use within a year. You might want to try garlic, oregano, or basil for use in cooking or dressings. I also like to make a mixture of calendula blossoms, lavender, and plantain for a wonderful skin conditioner.

NOTE: An easy way to dry herbs is to scatter them across an old window screen outside or in a sunny window, or hang bunches upside down until the blossoms dry and can be extracted.

Herb Infused Honey. Herbal honeys provide a wonderful addition to hot teas during the winter cold season. To make these, melt a quart of locally grown (if available) wildflower honey over low heat until it is just warmed through. (Don’t let it boil.) Add ½ cup of finely chopped fresh herbs, such as lavender, ginger, lemon balm, or chamomile. (Use only ¼ cup if the herbs are dried.) Leave the mixture on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then pour the honey (without straining) into heat-resistant glass canning jars. Secure the lids and label with the ingredients and date. The herbs will continue to infuse the honey as it sits. You can then either strain out the honey as you use it, or drink the tea with the herbs still in it. The honey will keep for 18 months.

Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.

All photos taken by Erin Fossett.

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At Home in Summer: Staycation

Shaw & Pepe enjoying their staycation. (Photo by Waverly Fitzgerald)

By Waverly Fitzgerald

At home in the summer seems like an oxymoron. at least in Seattle, where summers are glorious. Most of us spend as much time as possible outside. And even when we stay home, we stay outside our homes: on balconies, on decks, sitting on the front porch.

So I thought instead of writing about projects to do inside the home, I’d write about staycations, a neologism which made it into the 2009 Merriam-Webster dictionary, and other ways of being at home and not at home at the same time.

Staycation

The word is generally used to describe a vacation that you spend staying at home, perhaps doing things you wouldn’t normally have time for, maybe reading, gardening, watching videos, or working on some creative pursuit. One of my co-workers took off a week recently to finish her novel. She didn’t finish it, but she did take it apart, spreading the pages across her living room, and reconstructed it with a better sense of the direction she needed to take to finish it.

This is a slightly different version of a staycation and a game I like to play. You simply visit the places where you would normally take guests. In Seattle, that might be the Pike Place Market, the Ballard locks or the troll under the Fremont Bridge.

This one seems to require a certain amount of self-discipline, that I’m not sure I have. How do you resist the urge to clean out the basement or watch daytime TV? But maybe that is the perfect staycation.

Tourist in my Town

This is a slightly different version of a staycation and a game I like to play. You simply visit the places where you would normally take guests. In Seattle, that might be the Pike Place Market, the Ballard locks or the troll under the Fremont Bridge.

You can also make a hotel or B&B reservation and truly immerse yourself in the vacation experience. One year for my birthday, my friend Kim and I stayed at a boutique hotel in downtown Seattle. Some of the musicians for the Bumbershoot festival were staying there, as well, and we got to talk to them during the wine tasting the hotel sponsored every evening. We ate out every meal and spent a long leisurely afternoon at my favorite book store, Elliott Bay.

You can also play this game by picking a neighborhood or nearby community which you don’t know well. Then spend the day exploring it, just as if you were a tourist. I did this with my friend Michael one Saturday in the then-sleepy (now ultra hip) Seattle neighborhood of Ballard. We wandered down the main street, window-shopping, and found a cool new coffee shop.

The Random Road Trip

Photo by Waverly Fitzgerald

Photo by Waverly Fitzgerald

This reminds me of another game you can play if you want to get a fresh perspective on your life. I’ve never tried this one but I read it a long time ago in a magazine and never forgot it. The author wrote about going on weekend drives with her children where they would flip a coin every time they came to a corner to decide which way to turn.

You could also do the same thing on a walk around your neighborhood, just as a way to break up routine and perhaps find yourself in someplace totally unexpected.

While researching this article, I found a wonderful essay written by Matt Hannafin about exploring his new home, Portland, using a variation of this technique.

Secular Sabbath

You could also just take a vacation from technology which is the idea behind the secular sabbath. Mark Bittman wrote about this in the New York Times in March 2008, and the term has spread rapidly. It refers to unplugging from all sorts of technology: computers, cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, televisions, etc.. My amazing web designer, Joanna Powell Colbert, wrote about the pleasure of unplugging in a recent entry of her blog.

Julia Cameron suggested a version of this in The Artist’s Way when she recommended her readers undertake a week of reading deprivation. I regularly assigned this to students when I was teaching a class based on the book, an assignment that was always greeted with howls of outrage and disbelief. More howls when I said that even listening to NPR was forbidden.

Although this is a difficult exercise, it produces amazing results. Sometimes reading is a way to insulate yourself, to keep your mind occupied with external input. Freed of the constant barrage of other people’s words, you get a chance to find out what you’re thinking or to interact with your environment in a new way. And isn’t that part of the joy of a vacation?

For more information about vacations, consider attending the National Vacation Summit, sponsored by the Take Back Your Time Day movement. John deGraaf, the founder of Take Back Your Time Day, always gathers the most interesting thinkers and activities in the fields of public policy, education, science and art. The conference occurs on August 10 through 12 in Seattle.

Have you ever tried any of these ideas in your life? Or do you have your own ideas about how to take a vacation while staying home?

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