We had no social obligations this Christmas. No parties, no get-togethers, no nearby family to visit. There are definitely family and friends I would like to visit, if we lived a little closer to them, but we don’t. And so far our vision for our Christmases has been one of quiet, of slow traditions unfolding within the family.
This is, to be sure, a long-term plan. Right now we have a three-year-old and a one-year-old, and the idea of traditions, of a quiet Christmas rhythm, is a bit foreign to their nature. Nathan is now old enough that he remembered Christmas lights from last year. (Actually, he’s been bugging us intermittently all year long to put up Christmas lights again.) So the Putting Up Of The Christmas Lights had a very festive air to it, infused with the excitement of long anticipation. He may have also remembered us bringing our little potted tree into the house, although I’m not certain of that. Otherwise, though, I’m not convinced that he had any idea of what to expect for Christmas.
(His understanding of holidays in general is delightfully fuzzy right now. When he would see Christmas lights at a neighbor’s house, he would say “They have Christmas!” Any tree wrapped with lights is a Christmas tree, regardless of its type. I’m still not sure that he understands that Christmas is a day. Then again, his understanding of time in general seems to divide it into “right now,” “very recently,” and “everything else.”)
We had only a few gifts to open on Christmas morning, which suited us perfectly. We’re going to avoid making gifts the centerpiece of the holiday as long as possible. One of the best parts of the holiday (for me at least, and I think for Nathan) was instead our Christmas Eve walk around the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights. Given his general fascination with them, I’d been meaning to do such a walk for a while, and it seemed an entirely slow and appropriate thing to do with our evening on Christmas Eve. I hope that we’ll be able to do that walk again in the coming years.
There are many other things that I hope to do in the coming years, as they become appropriate. But for now we are rolling with our kids’ interests, trying to find the right kinds of activities that they can participate in and enjoy.
A little while ago, Patsy made us some lovely bowls, one for each of the kids. This is the same friend who gave us a set of handmade baking dishes for our wedding, and who provided us with our gorgeous cookie jar. I’ve been reminded of just how much of a treasure these things are. By and large our kitchen is populated with things from thrift stores, along with some good pots that have been gifts. There are a few items we bought new, and some good tools in there. But the things that really give me pleasure, that I enjoy every time I use them, are the handmade things from Patsy. Every time I do a casserole or a crisp, it goes into one of the baking dishes she made us, and I get to run my hands over the surface and admire her amazing artistic ability. Every time my kids eat from their new bowls I love feeling the shape, the perfect weight of them in my hands.
One of our dreams is that slowly, over time, our house will come to be populated more and more by things that were not mass-produced but created by craftsmen. Sometimes those craftsmen will be us — our bookshelves, the quilt hanging in the living room, our raised beds are all examples of our own work. Sometimes things will be from friends or family, like Patsy, and sometimes from other people who we don’t know well… but our goal, our ideal, is that even when we purchase an item, we’ll buy it directly from the person who created it. We’re a long way from that (not least because our household is not currently a safe place for anything we don’t want damaged; Nathan had another bowl before this one, for example). But it’s something to work toward. I grew up around extremely capable, artistic people, and in my world, being handmade makes something all the more beautiful.
Quite a while ago Nathan started really enjoying letters — asking me to draw them, singing the alphabet song by himself, pretending to fingerspell along with me, all that good stuff. (The fingerspelling is the best part. He’ll hold up one small hand and move his fingers into semi-random positions while he says things like “Cat. E, Q, 4. Cat!” It absolutely cracks me up. But I digress.)
With all this letter interest, I decided I wanted some alphabet blocks for him. Now, these are neither rare nor particularly expensive, unless you get caught up in the desire for handmade, eco-friendly, fair trade toys. Which, I must admit, I am. We’ve bought all our toys so far from thrift stores, but if I were going to buy new, I would really want buy something which was lovingly hand-carved by a local artisan from blocks of wood sustainably harvested from a tree that had naturally fallen down in the forest, and that, while alive, had really, really wanted to be made into children’s toys.
In case it isn’t obvious, I may be exaggerating a bit here for effect.
But all that is just an aside. The truth is that, when I thought of getting alphabet blocks for Nathan, my primary thought was that they would be so easy to make.
We have scrap 2×2’s. We have a woodburning tool. Sure, the blocks wouldn’t be all neat and fancy, but being handmade goes a long way with me, and being essentially free goes even further. And it would be so easy. All I needed was just ten minutes with the table saw and then some time with the woodburning tool to burn the letters in.
And, several months later, I finally managed to pull out the table saw. I am burning the blocks a few at a time, in moments when the kids are safely occupied elsewhere.
They aren’t neat and fancy. They are slightly uneven in size, occasionally saw-burned, and hand-lettered. No one else, anywhere, will have a set of alphabet blocks quite like this, but I like them. And Nathan doesn’t seem to mind them, either.
The kids love it. There something about being outside that both of them respond to. Maybe it’s just the change of pace after a long winter indoors, but I don’t think that’s all. I feel the same lure myself, and it drives me to bring out toys, our meals, my knitting. I find myself brainstorming outdoor chores that can be done with baby in arm — any excuse to prolong our time outside. Nathan has lately demonstrated a solid ability to stay on the property, so I’ve increasingly let him stay outside on his own (although I still check on him frequently, both to make sure he’s ok and that he isn’t digging in the garden).
But truly, there’s something about being outside that rests my soul, even just on a little suburban lot. For example, what is the insane pleasure that I get from finally being able to hang my wash outside again? I know it’s temporary (the spring rains aren’t nearly over), but the simple act of taking the wash outside and spending a few minutes pinning it up is marvelous. It feels serene.
And fortunately we have a lot of outdoor work coming up. The enormous plant order that I placed last fall has now arrived. This includes not only fruit trees, but an eclectic mix of other edibles — more strawberries, some novel raspberry varieties, etc. This means that there’s a non-trivial amount of work on our plates to get all these things in the ground. Very, very exciting to me…
It was a morning of slow unfolding. Ryan awake and restless at 5, Nathan up at 6 but clearly tired. I tucked him back into bed just before 7 and heard Ryan again. Nursed him back to sleep and spent almost an hour clearing off my desk. By 8 Ryan was getting up and I was wondering where everyone was — it felt like midmorning to me. Not the expected sequence of my day, but a calm rhythm, without the harried urgency that comes when too many things need my attention at once.
And despite being a bit short on sleep, I felt good. Maybe it was because I’d been reading Buddhism for Mothers and something had seeped in. Maybe it was because I was still mulling over the words I’d read on Steady Mom, an excerpt from her book about wholeheartedly embracing being a mother.
Maybe there’s a Third Law of Motherhood, something like “For every rough patch there is an equal and opposite smooth spot.”
But as I set my porridge down on the table and saw the light spilling through a vase of daffodils, the simplicity of the scene struck me in a moment of beauty. Simple food, clean water, spring flowers from our yard, and the light of a new morning illuminating it all.
1/3 c steel-cut oats
1/3 c hulled millet
1/3 c amaranth
3 c water
1 T butter
Combine all in a saucepan, turn on medium, and let cook, stirring occasionally, until the water is absorbed and the porridge has the consistency you want. I like mine about the consistency of oatmeal. Serve with brown sugar or a drizzle of honey, and optionally with a little milk.
I keep a 1:1:1 mixture of the grains in a jar in my cupboard, to make it even easier.
Yesterday was another mild, partly sunny day. Nathan spent literally hours of it outside, using his backhoe loader to excavate a portion of the dirt next to our front walk.
We’ve got to build that boy a sandbox, I thought to myself. Intermittently over the next hour I played with thoughts of where it could go, how we would keep the cats out, etc. But then, fortunately, I caught myself. At least at the moment, there are far more exciting places for Nathan to dig (and which we’re also fine with him digging in). There’s a fantastic mountain of dirt and half-digested sod in our back yard from the lawn we cut out for our vegetable beds, for example — and that’s likely to get much bigger with this year’s work on the front yard. Why was I thinking of building something special? If the past is any indication, he’d quickly ignore it anyway.
After all, finding a little niche for yourself is half the fun.