Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Soul, Stitched

It is a good thing that I do not have the job of Helios, whose task it was to cart the sun across the sky. Because I was supposed to write this on the Solstice.

And so cosmologically I would still be hitching up the horses, cursing because I mislaid this bit or that bridle, and y'all would still be in the dark and waiting for the shortest day of the year (getting shorter every second) to be over.

So Merry Christmas, everyone.


Despite dire predictions of Earth's demise based on misreadings of Mayan calendars, December 21 did something fairly unusual for the first day of winter in the Northwest: It was clear, bright, and sunny.

Here's proof, toward the end of the day looking east toward the Cascades. (Sorry about all the wires. I didn't put them there. It's how we do electricity in the U.S. of A.)

More sunshine arrived in the form of a box of citrus fruits sent by our friend S., straight from the Sunshine State of Florida.

You don't need me to tell you all about the symbolism of light and dark and all the northern-hemisphere cultural traditions surrounding Solstice--there is probably more information on the Internet, both true and false, about its history as well as its intertwining with Christmas than you could ever read about even on the longest day of the year. Probably nearly as much information as there are video clips about cats.

(This makes me think of an ambitious essay I wrote when I was in middle-school English entitled something like "Light as a Symbol in Shakespeare." A topic that I apparently thought I'd covered completely and tied up neatly with a bow in just three handwritten pages. I suppose I tackled "Doves as a Symbol in Christianity" next.)

But the whole rebirth-perseverance-light-amid-darkness aspect of the Solstice can certainly make one think. By "one" of course I mean "me" as well as Lots of Other People. I think about how this beautiful Christmas season, which was once nothing but unconditional joy for me, is now threaded with sadness and loss (as it would be for all but the very young, and even that feels specious, in the wake of the massacre of innocents in Sandy Hook just a week ago). And how even more important it becomes to look for the light, the sparks of hope, now and in every season, every day.

Solstice this year, in the space of two hours spent with friends, felt like life compressed; good food, laughter, and sharing, pierced by a friend's announcement of very bad news as well as some very good news. Sometime during the day is when the play on words "soul, stitched" came into my head.

from Coffetypes
The phrase wouldn't leave me, all day, and I thought, oh, great.This stupid pun on "Solstice" is going to be stuck in my head, and it's going to insert itself into the title of this theme, and then it's going to work like flypaper, and be stuck all over with little tied-up fly-sized parcels of pseudo-insightful wisdom about the soul and stitches, and it will be as if it all naturally evolved and not at all as if I went out and forcibly captured and killed the flies to purposely stick them onto the flypaper.

But actually it doesn't feel tidy, smug, and wise at all. It did make me think about how stitches hurt, but also help heal an injury; how you can be in stitches of laughter, a commingling of joy and pain; how stitches hold things together even as they pierce the very fabric they're binding. My soul, which I usually avoid thinking about, seems to feel its stitches more and more.

And just like my compact, well-intentioned, but naive Shakespearean essay, these scraps are all I've got: "The Symbolism of Light and Dark, Pain and Renewal in the Human Experience," All in One Middle-School Paper!

In less eye-rolling moments, I think, well, maybe the play on words is more like a magnet than flypaper. Back to middle school again, this time to science class, where we put magnets under paper and then sprinkled iron filings on the paper and watched as the little black specks arranged themselves in patterns around the magnet. Stick the words down, and the ideas arrange themselves. Uh-oh, here comes my sophomore-college-year English professor with his fine-point Sharpie; he's going to write "Your paragraphs are like shopping bags full of metaphors" on my paper again.

Well, best wishes for lots of light in the year ahead. Perhaps the egg I cracked open on Friday while baking cookies is a good omen for that--it was a double-yolker, the first I've ever found.

Like so many so-called omens, the double-yolked egg is an omelette of superstitions: It signifies good luck! No, bad luck! No, impending marriage or the birth of twins, either one being good or bad luck depending on your point of view! No, it means a death in the family! No way, it means a financial windfall!
Ah, duality--gotta love/hate it. I say the double yolk on a rare sunny Solstice day in Seattle means good luck.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hippos, Hippos Hooray! It's Horse Goddess Epona's Day

Considering how much time, money, energy, and interest goes into everything horse around this house, it's rather astonishing that somehow it slipped right past us that December 18 is the feast day of Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses. (Thanks to author Susanna Forrest's blog for alerting us; we can always use another holiday.)

Epona (which means "divine mare" in an old Celtic language) was the protector of horses, donkeys, and mules as well as their riders and grooms.

She was also a fertility goddess (corn and foals are part of the symbolism in her statues, so this fertility seems to include agricultural bounty).

Unlike other Celtic icons, she found her way into the mythology of the Roman Empire and was granted December 18 as her feast day, continuing her equine stewardship by protecting the Roman cavalry as well as stables.

"Worship  me."
Why December 18 was selected seems to be a bit of an unknown. Her day of honor falls during Saturnalia, an approximately week-long festival celebrated by the ancient Romans beginning on Saturn's feast day, December 17. (She's bracketed by Saturn's wife on December 19, so she kept some pretty high-falutin' company.)

It's also close to the winter solstice, December 21. I will leave it to far more mystical types than me to make any connections they wish.

It seems an odd date on which to celebrate anything horsy, as nature intends for foals to be born in spring (and mares would naturally mate not long after their birth), so you'd think Epona wouldn't have much to do at that time of year. She'd hardly be blessing the clipping of a horse's winter coat or chipping away at frozen water buckets with a hoofpick.

Interestingly, though, the season surrounding the solstice (the ancient influence of which is reflected in the way we celebrate winter holidays with feasting, abundance, and light during this dark time in the northern hemisphere) is harnessed to a few other equine associations.

Saint Nicholas, for example, rides a white horse when he sweeps into the Netherlands in winter. On the eve of December 6, children leave out straw and carrots for this steed.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas rides his horse through the air; this animal leaps from roof to roof on the eve of December 6 so that the saint can climb down the chimney into the house (clearly the inspiration for the American Santa Claus, who needs eight reindeer to pull off this trick).

In Greece, horses and oxen enjoy a day of rest on December 18, as it's the feast day of St. Modesto, a patron saint of farmers.

December 26 marks the Christian saint's day for St. Stephen, patron saint of horses; in England and Ireland this day is a big one for horse racing, while in Austria horses receive a blessing.

"Hi, kiddies." (image courtesy Wikicommons)

In Wales, the post-Christmas season was traditionally marked by visits from the Mari Lwyd ("gray mare"), a creature represented by a horse's skull affixed to a pole, which was carried by a man hidden beneath a white cloth. The jaw was wired so the skull could open and shut its mouth to snap at people when it visited homes and pubs with its entourage, who engaged in singing, banter, and verbal one-upmanship in the hope of earning treats.

So...what does one do to celebrate Eponalia, if one doesn't happen to have a handy pony skull on a stick?

Offerings are always appropriate for Goddesses, so it's suggested that you leave out horsy treats such as apples and beer for Epona. (Beer? But of course. It's made from a grain, after all, and horses love their grain. Just ask Black Beauty in his eponymous film: "Oats! Wonderful oats!" And Irish trainers have long added Guinness stout to their horses' meals.)

Then feed a carrot to your friendly neighborhood horse. Lacking that, eat the carrot yourself and count out the date by stamping your foot 18 times.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Every Tree's the Best Tree Ever

We usually fetch our Christmas tree from a forest of firs set up in the lot of a fruit and vegetable stand near our house. But this year, we decided to venture out of the city and visit a u-cut tree farm, and make a day of it by stopping at a quaint place to have lunch.

I don't know how that devolved into eating Chinese noodles in the food court of the local mall, seeing "Lincoln," and then picking out a tree in a lot just across town. Oh well. It was still a lovely day.

 And it's a lovely tree. Funny how every year, the tree we pick out is The Best One We've Ever Had.

The chosen tree swooshes through the baler.

It's carried home atop the car, Romney-style.
Ruh-roh. A bit too tall. Another scrape added to the ceiling.
A great thrift-store find: vintage ornament hooks--the only kind that work.
To Pebble and Django, the tree is just a glorified water fountain.

Friday, December 14, 2012

there are no words

My heart is sick with grief after today's terrible, terrible incident in America. Those children, those poor families. I'm just going to share pictures snapped on recent walks of things that are innocent and sweet, things those poor babies would have liked. Shattered otherwise.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Winter and Summer Mix It Up

A honeybee at the nursery in December, out of season.
We humans, huddled inside parkas and scarves and mittens, know full well that it's winter here in the Puget Sound area. (All humans younger than 10 and older than 18, that is. In between exist primates who, for reasons of youthful vigor or fashion, seem impervious to cold and rain--or pretend that they are--and go about in tee shirts and tiny skirts and cute but useless puffy vests.) It is raw and gray most days, with rain either threatening, spitting, or bucketing down.

Calendula in bloom
But after a hot, dry summer that extended well into fall, some of the plants and a handful of insects don't seem to have gotten the message that winter's here.

In just the past two weeks I've seen cosmos plants--those blowsy butterflies of summer--still clinging stubbornly to their blossoms. The geranium out front continues to pump out half-hearted flowers, and a crocosmia in the back garden only just gave up the fight. A cherry tree on one of my walking routes has popped open dozens of blooms, and calendulas are shining like supernovae.

Go to sleep, already!

At the same time, those plants that typically brighten up a dim winter day are flaunting their colors. With those Anna's hummingbirds that somehow manage to survive this far north zipping around and singing squeakily, it would feel downright tropical around here if it weren't for the mercury dropping.


Leaves of creeping geranium species

Fruits of strawberry tree

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Colorful World of a "Tie-Dyeing Mom Entrepreneur"

The boundless creativity of humans, even among just my small circle of friends, never fails to amaze me. It's so gratifying to see them simply enjoying their artistic and crafting endeavors, perhaps selling a few items here and there for fun, or actually launching a business with their talents.

Rainbow Kids is one such business. This home-based enterprise, which specializes in creating "vibrant and unique tie-dyed clothing for babies, children, and adults" by hand, is the brainchild of my friend Stacia Caplanson, whom I've known since our college days together. Her creativity blooms in the tropical colors of the cotton clothing she sells online and at craft fairs. 

In the 1980s, Stacia and I shared many cups of tea and beautiful southern New England days together, sometimes daydreaming about starting neighboring small farms before our post-college careers took us along different paths and, eventually, different coasts (but not before Stacia taught me how to milk a cow and to overcome my fear of making bread with yeast). 

She was the first person I ever knew who owned and used a spinning wheel.

Today, Stacia produces her vivid clothing in a studio at home in Massachusetts. The process begins with mixing powdered fiber-reactive dyes with water. The clothing is folded, tied, banded by hand, and soaked in a "mordant solution" (a substance that fixes dye to fabric) before having the dye applied with squeeze bottles. Then the clothing is put into a plastic bag so that it can "age" for 24 hours.

After the dye has bonded with the fabric, Stacia rinses out the items and washes them twice so that all traces of excess dye are removed.

At this point, she gets to relish the colorful results of her work. "It is a joy to view each creation as I take it out of the washer. No two are exactly alike," she notes on her website, Rainbow Kids Tie Dye.

Stacia likes to say that each piece is as unique as the person who wears it.

Many people are interested in the origin of the  materials used by crafters, and Stacia enjoys sharing that information with them. 

"I believe in using quality materials that create a product which will be loved and worn for many years," she explains.

"I use fiber-reactive dyes which create colors that are vibrant and long lasting on the 100% cotton clothing that I dye. Most of my dyes and clothing blanks are sourced from a socially responsible company in California that has been in business since 1969. The quality of their dyes is exceptional, and I appreciate that they carry organic cotton clothing, offer clothing sewn by a Bolivian women’s co-op, and source fair-trade products."

Stacia started her own business in October 2008 after years working as a museum interpreter and historian demonstrating spinning, weaving, knitting, quilting, and wool dyeing.

"I wanted to start a home-based business that would allow me to be creative, have a flexible schedule, and create a fun product," she says.

She'd always loved dressing her son in tie-dyed clothing (for one thing, it made him easy to see on the playground!), so she pointed her talents in this new direction. First, she asked a tie-dyeing brother-in-law to teach her how to tie-dye. "His advice was to just jump in and start doing it—and he was right!" she recalls.

 "I did some research, bought a kit, and just started dyeing...and haven’t stopped since then. I was out selling shirts and socks at my first event, a local farmer’s market, just three weeks after I had learned  to fold and dye."

Being a self-employed artisan often means long hours. For Stacia, this includes the wee hours of the night.  "I do most of my work between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., while my family is sleeping," she says.

It is hard but satisfying work. "I both love and am frustrated that my business is  a one-woman operation," she explains. "I love being able to say that I am the creator of  all the things that I sell and am frustrated that I never have as much inventory as I wish I had when I head out to a market or festival. I also both love the flexibility of being able to be up working  at 1 a.m. yet wish there were more hours during the day to get everything done!"

Her love of craft and color started early. "I have always loved the creative process of working with fabrics, fibers and colors," she notes. As a child, she recalls enjoying all kinds of crafts, particularly making shadow boxes, sewing, knitting, cooking, and doing macramé.
A strong element of play still enlivens her work. Asked to name her favorite aspect of her craft, she quickly responds, "Playing with color! I am constantly learning and creating new color combinations." As inspiration, she cites "the playful nature of children."

Any advice for other crafters who'd like to make the leap into marketing their creations? 

"Love what you do, be prepared to learn a lot and work harder than you ever have,  and know that it is a roller coaster—there are no guarantees and you need to be in it for the long haul," says Stacia. "There will be days when you sell lots and there will be days when you sell little. Some days I long for the stability of the steady paycheck. Building a business takes time and many talents, from creating your product, to researching venues, posting on Facebook, setting up your tent and display, greeting your customers, and paying your taxes.  Find a community of fellow artisans who will share with you what they know and share your triumphs and despair. And believe in yourself and your product."

Tie-dyeing mom entrepreneur Stacia Caplanson is a proud member of the groups Artisans of Western Mass, and Etsy Teams SAHM of Etsy and Made in Massachusetts. Stacia also feels it is important to give back to the community and so she participates and donates to fundraisers that benefit organizations such as Relay for Life, Food Bank of Western Mass, the United Way, and Room to Read, which promotes literacy. 

You can find her colorful creations online at, at farmer's markets in some areas of western Massachusetts (as well as holiday craft festivals), and at outdoor festivals such as the Annual West Brookfield Asparagus Festival, Red Fire Farm’s Tomato Festival, and the CT Garlic and Harvest Festival, and at a local natural food shop. In 2012 Stacia was invited to sell at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival as well as street festivals in Hartford, CT, and Worcester, MA.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Crafty Cravings and Cratered Cheesecake

Advent calendar not made by me.
Crafting-wise, I am called on the carpet every year on the eve of the first day of Advent. November 30th is when I remember, "Oh. Yeah.
I was going to make an Advent calendar for my daughter and maybe even my niece and nephew across the country."

November 30, however, is a bit late to start working on something that is to be used early on December 1.

And then I remember that I had once planned to make an Advent calendar for my sister. Decades ago. She is now all grown up and the mom of that niece and nephew I mentioned.

It's still not too late to make all those crafts I intended to give as Christmas gifts, but give me time. I am ahead of schedule for being behind schedule on those.

Fortunately, it is much easier to go to craft fairs than it is to make crafts (or it is if you go to really good craft fairs, not the events that my friend F. dubs "crap fairs"). There's no shortage of excellent craft fairs in the Pacific Northwest, and two of them fall on the first weekend of December (when I have given up hope of ever making those Advent calendars, anyway).

The first one I enjoyed this past weekend was the Phinney Neighborhood Association's Winter Festival and Crafts Fair. Jewelry, clothing, pottery, toys, ornaments, journals, cards, hats, candles, prints--the variety of arts and crafts is mind-boggling and inspiring. And it's all displayed in a blue wooden building that dates back to 1904, as well as a 1918 brick building, both of which once served as schools. If you weary of crafts, you can park  yourself near the bake sale and take in entertainment that includes belly dancing, marimba music, Morris dancing, and the Ballard Sedentary Sousa Band.

I was tempted by oh, so many things and constantly forgetting that I wasn't supposed to be buying myself Christmas gifts. Luckily, I came across a beautiful display of letterpress prints by Ilee Papergoods in one of those moments of forgetfulness. And so it was that I came home with this cheerful picture of a rooster perched on a coffee cup shouting "Good morning." I figured with somebody that enthusiastic about getting up at the break of dawn waiting in the kitchen, any day would be off to a good start.

On Sunday, I went with my friend F. to the Urban Craft Uprising at Seattle Center, which I'd long  heard about but had never attended. There was a distinctly different vibe to some of the crafts here; lots of jewelry, cards, and other items had a sort of hipster or Goth or steampunk or other aura to them. I use these terms loosely because please note I am not remotely cool and hence am just borrowing adjectives here.

But there were plenty of the more whimsical and playful things I like, such as the adorable felted animals holding human (doll) heads in their jaws made by Moxie, and we stopped to snort and giggle at the weird juxtapositions of naivete and danger in the cards produced by the folks at the aptly named Unusual Cards.

One of those whimsical, playful things beckoned to me and implored me to take it home, and I wish I hadn't had to resist its high-pitched little voice out of a sense of Duty and Responsibility to the household budget and buying stuff for people other than myself. It was an absolutely precious pink chenille animal that I guessed (correctly) was a sheep with a very bunny sort of charm (which makes sense, as it was a creation of Hasenpfeffer Incorporated).

I went back to take a second look just as somebody else was scooping it up and purchasing it. Sigh. Well, at least I know where to find one of its cousins (that would be here).

Upon returning home, I felt inspired to do something more creative than loading the dishwasher. Hmm. Couldn't do needle felting because the last stupid needle broke last week and the new ones hadn't yet arrived.  Not inspired enough to draw. But baking? Oh, yes. In fact, that would be easy: the resident teen had made cheesecake for Thanksgiving, and there was virtually a bucket of cheesecake filling left because we'd made too much.

So it'd literally be a piece of cake to make one--just smash up some graham crackers (such a satisfying activity) and make a crust and bingo; easy as pie. The Thanksgiving cake had developed huge cracks as it baked--which didn't mar its taste at all--but this time I'd turn out a picture-perfect one.

Which I did--but the effect was pretty much destroyed when I set the cake on the counter to cool, opened a cabinet, and reflexively ducked as a heavy bowl dropped like a bomb from the top shelf and landed right on the cake. So instead of exhibiting cracking worthy of the San Andreas fault, the cheesecake boasted a large caldera. Which I totally intended, of course.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Second Christmas

The pumpkins, which have all gone squishy, have been tossed into the garden-recycling bin. The cranberry sauce is gone, and the last of the turkey sandwiches, soup, and stir-fry has been eaten. Now, with the first day of Advent, we're easing ourselves into the Christmas season.

Last year, Christmas was a melancholy blur. It probably is for most families when they've lost a family member, particularly in that first year after their passing. For a long time there didn't seem to be any credible reason why plants should bother coming up, or any point to setting goals. Only the mechanics of day-to-day life and the push of responsibilities forced me to keep on any sort of track.

This summer, though, the resident teenager tentatively asked (treading carefully so as not to appear immune to my feelings) if Christmas this year could be a little bit more like it was in the past. And, of course, it will be. It is her time to enjoy the traditions we've relished for half a century and to renew them for us, as well.

Most of those traditions are the ones that take place in our home. The external ones seem to come and go. In some cases, the event itself disappears (for example, the wonderful Ballard North Pole, a beautifully decorated house we visited every year until the creators retired and moved to central Washington; the nerve!).

In others, the event goes on, but I go alone. Although the resident teen was delighted to receive a little paper Advent calendar--cheerfully reliving childhood by opening the door to peek at what was inside--she wasn't particularly psyched to tramp through the rain and go to see the reindeer and the camels visiting the local nursery for the Christmas season. For some strange reason this attraction doesn't have the same pull on a teen as it does on a three-year-old. Nor does strolling through a Merrie Olde Craft Faire or riding on a Santa Train.

OK, I don't go ride on the Santa Train by myself. I do have limits.

Last year the season of lights was dim for us. This year spirits are a bit brighter. We'll pull out the Advent house and hide a treat in each drawer. The tree will go up, bearing ornaments new and old, many with a story to tell. The manger scene, the old toys, the Christmas village will all be in place. Stockings will be hung by the chimney with care.

There will be memories (and though I am grateful for them, they can also skewer me with pangs of despair and bitterness; I think perhaps that only those who can see the Thestrals completely understand that even beautiful memories of missing loved ones are not soft, woolly blankets that muffle all pain).

Despite ourselves, we will all  be laughing; the lights will twinkle, the candles will flicker.

In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night . . . And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. 

--Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "The Little Prince"