fourth candle

Well, here we are again, the fourth week of advent and I'm afraid that I've squandered this beautiful season of waiting and stillness by scurrying around, making, ordering, researching, doing. How hard it is for me to keep the quiet in this busy time! Perhaps I need to declare a fast from so much doing. What would it look like to simply not make gifts, nor decorations or cookies or holiday cards or any of those other things that I love so but end up costing too much in my spirit and my ability to move through these days slowly, calmly, open to any opportunities for hospitality and love? Of course balance is the answer, right? Not extremes. It's just that my balance always seems to be tilting toward busy, slipping towards more instead of less.
We found out last week that in addition to Willa's dairy allergy, she also can't have wheat, soy, yeast or chocolate. And this has set me reeling a bit ... trying to figure out how to feed her (and myself, as long as I'm nursing) without making separate meals, and with plenty of protein and fat and calories. It's necessarily taking quite a bit of time these days, thinking, planning, reading and learning. It will get easier, of that I'm confident, but for now it's a bit inconvenient, to put it mildly. (Inconvenient but totally worth it. She's already sleeping so much better and the thought that she's been in pain for the last 13 months is enough to make this baker gladly banish flour from her kitchen.)
So I'm letting go ... holiday cards this year will be New Year's greetings. Willa's Christmas presents will be done in January. Christmas cookies are just going to be different this year. (But hey--several of those cookies you all recommended as dairy free options are also flour-free. And there's always marshmallows!) Traveling will be a challenge. I'm figuring out which restaurants have gluten free options ... did you know that many fast food french fries are dipped in flour before being fried? And that soy sauce has wheat in it? Oy vey.

In the midst of all this scurrying and learning and trying to say no, it's good to remember Sunday's lectionary readings and hear of Mary, being told by an angel that she will bear the Savior of the world, and to hear her amazing, impossible "yes." Yes, she says, to public ridicule and shame, to disappointing and perhaps losing her betrothed, to swollen ankles and a sore back. Her advent wasn't easy either--nine months of pregnancy culminating in a donkey ride and labor in a stable. Her advent--and Christmas too--wasn't cozy and calm, one great feast of homemade goodies and twinkling lights. And if Christmas is about anything it's about God coming near, about learning to see God in the middle of our crazy days, in the midst of pain and sleeplessness and grief.

So maybe Advent doesn't have to be the rarefied season of stillness and quiet that I imagine.  Maybe it's ok for it to be busy and harried just as life so often is. God, after all, entered into human life just as it is, not as we want it to be. He envelops this world with love, says Padraig O Tuama, just as Mary swaddled her babe, just as we wrap our gifts.

So if you are up late addressing cards, wrapping presents, baking or traveling, if you are feeling stressed and tired and far too busy, I invite you to just embrace that busy-ness right now instead of bemoaning it. Look for God in the wrapping paper, in the flour bin, in the ever-ticking clock. Yes, let go wherever you can, simplify as much as possible, but then feel God's peace in the midst of the storm instead of waiting for the storm to be over. It's there, and you can carry that stillness with you as you go.

The peace of the Lord be always with you, my friends.


one woman's compost is another woman's pickle

Hmm. A title like that certainly sets me squarely within a certain demographic, doesn't it? Anyway, we've been doing a lot of it around here--canning, that is, and it hasn't been a bad thing at all. Au contraire ... I don't know when we'll get to have our own garden again, but when we do, it's going to be a pickling garden. Tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, a few peppers, onions and garlic. And some chilis. Should be just right for ketchup, tomato jam, pickles, saurkraut and kimchee.
Why am I telling you about all this now, you may ask, in the middle of advent, with snow on the ground? Well, besides my slowness at getting around to posting things, it is only recently that we have fully benefitted from having a store of canned items on the shelves. No fresh veg for tonight's dinner? No problem, grab some pickles and some kimchee and we'll call it good. Need some fruit for breakfast? Thank you, homemade applesauce!
But really it's because I've had numerous conversations lately about things like cloth diapers and homemade yogurt. Things that are daunting to consider when you haven't done them before, but that can be incorporated into a life such that they hardly feel like extra work. For me, canning was that thing that alternately attracted me and intimidated me. For years I've wanted to experiment with funky flavored jams and sauces, I've wanted the health benefits of lacto-fermented pickles, I've wanted to keep eating September's tomatoes into the spring. But oh, the botulism! The failed seals! The time in a hot steamy kitchen!

This fall I took the plunge, armed with my great aunt's canning jars and several books from the library. I read instructions over and over, I sanitized like crazy, I felt ridiculously proud over lids that popped just like they were supposed to. 
And you know what? It wasn't so bad. Not nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. Just like anything, once you understand the process and have a system in place, what initially required huge effort gradually takes less and less, until the work slips easily into the rhythm of the day. Canning isn't going to become part of our weekly routine, like making bread and washing diapers is, but it will be part of our seasonal rhythms, the way we celebrate and take advantage of the harvest. So here's a little prod of encouragement--if there is something that you've wanted to change about your life, or wanted to experiment with--something like using cloth napkins instead of paper, or making your own granola for breakfast--well, there's nothing like doing it.

Want further instructions for the things I've mentioned?
Bread: No-knead is a good place to start.
Granola: Here's our current favorite recipe.
Yogurt: We use the instructions and process from The Frugal Gourmet Keeps the Feast, but there are plenty of directions online.
Diapers: Green Mountain Diapers is a great resource for information/washing instructions, and also a great source of reasonably priced diapers.

and the canning we did:
lacto-fermented pickles: instructions from Wild Fermentation.
tomato jam: recipe here.
ketchup: recipe from Well Preserved.
chili sauce: recipe also from Well Preserved.
watermelon rind pickles: recipe from My Mother's Southern Kitchen.


Rhythm of the Home

Just a quickie: I'm excited to tell you that I have a little piece in the winter edition of Rhythm of the Home. If you aren't familiar with it, it's a wonderful, seasonal resource for family crafts and activities. Check it out!

A few other things we're excited about around here:

:: An owl who lives somewhere in the neighborhood, and visits at night with his who-who-whooooting. Finn heard it on his own the other night, and was so thrilled he could hardly sleep. Plans are afoot for an owling adventure  ...

::Pork fat from our local egg farmer, rendered into lard! Not nearly as hard as I expected ... and oh, those cracklings are good snacks for a little girl who needs to gain weight. Now visions of pie crusts and fried chicken are dancing in my head.

::Putting together a list of dairy free cookies I can make this year. I'm a firm believer that Christmas cookies should be different than those made the rest of the year (no chocolate chip cookies!) ... but now they also need to be butterless and that's tough. No spritz, no russian teacakes. Here's what I'm thinking so far: both gingerbread and fruitcake bites will be fine with lard instead of butter, since they don't depend on butter for flavor. Fairy pillows (marshmallows) will once again make an appearance in my kitchen, as will almond clouds and chocolate covered pretzels. And I'm going to try a ganache with coconut milk for the fabulous layered peppermint bark. Any other thoughts?

::St. Nicholas visited our house today, for the second year now. I think it's a tradition we're going to stick with, just as a way to honor the man and the generosity that inspired Santa Claus. In our house, we read books and tell stories about him in the days leading up to Dec 6. And then the day itself is a day for getting (a new Christmas book and something handknit to keep warm) and a day for giving--the day we shop for toys that will be given to charity.

::and a little thought for you to inspire some quiet as you go through these busy days:

We can make our mind
so like still water
That beings gather about us
that they may see,
It may be, their own images,
and so live for a moment
With a clearer, perhaps even with
a fiercer life because of
our quiet.

source unknown, attributed to W.B. Yeats 


and so it begins ...

We're starting simply this year. Traveling over Thanksgiving meant I was surprised to walk into church on Sunday and find it was already Advent, a season that has become increasingly important to me. So we bought some greens, fashioned a wreath, sang a few songs, and lit that first candle. It was simple, and it felt just right.
I've been reading To Dance with God, by Gertrude Mueller Nelson, a book about incorporating the church's liturgical seasons into home and family life, and she has some profound things to say about Advent. Do you know the story about the origins of the advent wreath, that people took wheels off their carts and wagons and brought them inside, festooning them with light, making a clear statement that this cold, dark time is a different time, a time to turn inward rather than produce? Isn't that amazing? Think what it would mean if took a wheel off our car to use for a wreath ... it would be less a decoration than a discipline, a forced slowing down and simplification.
November was a tough month for us ... a month when the busyness of boarding school life threatened to wash over us, and we both felt like we were drowning. I'm still adjusting, I think, to the absence of Retchel. I knew I was spoiled in Hong Kong, having someone help even a few hours each week with child care, housecleaning and laundry. But knowing you are spoiled doesn't make it any easier to adjust to not being spoiled, and I just keep waiting for someone else to show up and fold the clothes. So we've talked, we've schemed, we devised some systems, and I think we're in a better spot now. Just having a plan does me so much good.
Anyway, in the midst of this, I kept reading about the importance of slowing down even when the pace of life picks up, about mindfulness and breathing. And while it's easy to pass it off as cliche mumbo-jumbo, I am here to tell you that it really does work. Literally slowing down my movements and my words, setting aside that never ending list, focusing on what is in front of me: a boy experiencing his first snow fall, a girl who needs help getting to sleep. Even when I can't slow down any of the outside commitments, physically moving more slowly and tangibly committing to do less each day still helps. My heart and mind stop racing, my breath gets deeper, and things seem manageable. This certainly isn't an "efficiency tip"--how to do more in less time--but I wouldn't be surprised if the final productivity tally was similar to moving through life hurried and rushed. I'm not counting, though.
And I'm not, it goes without saying, going to actually take a wheel off our car ... or our bike or stroller, for that matter. But I am going to move slowly. Be still and know that I am God. And even if that means that all we have for advent is our little wreath and a calendar, that's ok. (and a banner! We're still watching for light.) We don't need an elaborate devotional plan or a Jesse tree or even a Christmas tree just yet. We are keeping company with Mary, who waited and wondered 9 long months, and with all those who are waiting and longing for God to break into this world.
In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength.
May it be so for all of us.