Wednesday, December 26, 2012

preparing for santa (or, DIY chimney)

ander was full-blown excited for santa this christmas.  it started, i think, with him understanding more fully who the "spirit of christmas present" is in charles dickens' a christmas carol (muppet movie version), and comparing him to st. nicholas, and reading clement moore's "night before christmas" poem, plus several other santa-y stories, and listening to him in national geographic's animal holiday.  the arrival of his letter from santa from the north pole helped, too, i think.

he started getting concerned about santa visiting because we have no fireplace or chimney, as we did in the home we owned last year.  would he still come?  i did my best to persuade him that santa's magic allowed him to go anywhere, by any means necessary, to bring presents for the people who believed in him.  also, he has lots of helpers along the way, including norad.

diana got involved, too, with the whole chimney deal, given that we had moved twee into her room to allow space for the family tree, named hoole, into our living room.  she really hoped santa would bring a little present for her under her tree, so she set to work making an entryway for him.

there's a lot you can do with a cardboard box, sharpie markers, adhesives, a creative mind, time to work, and patience with a younger brother whose only desire is to participate and be helpful (which he was, incidentally, in coloring and in making logs out of construction paper and tape).

steve helped a little by getting the laptop out to play our dvd of radiant fireplace.  diana added real sticks to the paper logs from ander, tissue paper in fiery colors, and led tea candles to enhance the effect.  the scene was completed by stockings and decorations on the "mantle" and a small setting of carefully decorated cookies, minty hot chocolate, baby carrots, and a handwritten note for santa.


ander had been meandering in and out of diana's room while she worked and created a little paper campfire of his own, which diana helped him set into his own makeshift fireplace.

ander's little fireplace and tiny plate of cookies (formerly hanukkah latkes)
ander's unadorned ginger cookies (four were required to make a visually-pleasing arrangement on the plate, according to him) and carefully-counted carrots for all the reindeer
ander considered trying to stay up all night on the sofa to catch a glimpse of santa, but was easily encouraged to go to sleep in bed instead, knowing that santa would come only after he was asleep
a warm welcome awaited santa's arrival here.  diana even attached a sign to her window to point him in the right direction.

and it worked! diana was elated to see not one but two little gifts under twee, both of them satisfying her immensely.  ander looked dazed and confused when he came out to the living room, not having anticipated that santa would bring more than one gift for him.

santa was good to us this year.  each child (and adult) got something special that suits our tastes and interests.  not too overwhelming and just enough to feel very fortunate indeed.  

see what happens if only you believe?

for those readers interested in video versions of how we prepared for santa, including a reading of the night before christmas, please enjoy my gifts to you: 


and, if you made it this far, you might also enjoy an animated card, courtesy of my newly-acquired subscription to

merry christmas, everyone!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

winter solstice

the sun is born again today
we greet the sun’s first morning ray
we sing and celebrate the light,
the sun’s born in the longest night!
(Diane Baker)

we learned this song from our friends in st. louis at our first winter solstice celebration and continue to use it as a touchpoint for this time of year.

we're having our celebration a day late, with very good reason.  steve is coming home today for a long holiday visit, one much needed by all of us to physically reconnect with each other.  there will be many, many points of snuggling and hugging and holding hands and just "being" in the same space together.

we'll get our family tree and adorn it with shiny, sparkly, glittery orbs and ornaments that remind us of light and of the sun that will return after the longest night and of the things in nature we enjoy this time of year: snowflakes, pine cones, cranberries, popcorn-on-a-string.

we'll eat food that warms our bodies and makes our hearts happy, and i'm going to try something new for a drink, a hot buttered rum (without the rum so the kids can have it, so it will more closely resemble harry potter's butterbeer).

we'll turn off the lights and sing our song, faces illuminated in candlelight.

we're introducing another family to our tradition this year; the kids will surely delight in the little presents brought to them by the winter solstice fairy.

diana's planning on offering performances in her quark puppet theatre, including but not limited to "a quirky quarky holiday," complete with santa quark, and irish dance demonstrations during her "icicle festival."

maybe some will sit tight long enough for a reading of the candleberry elf from sparklestories.  i imagine i'll find diana curled up sometime today with the return of the light: twelve tales from around the world for the winter solstice by carolyn edwards.

and maybe we'll dance to one of our favorite winter songs by enya.

i want my children to know, to believe, to encompass, to embody the idea that we all can be lights in the darkness.  we do not need to fear the night.  our own individual brilliance can be enough to sustain us, maybe even be enough to lead the way for others to follow and find their own way to shine.

i am happyer at home, bathed in and warmed by the incandescent glow of my children.  happy solstice to all, and to all a good night.

Friday, December 21, 2012


it all started off a little something like this...

december's nature journaling took us to jacob mini farm, a lovely little secluded place in between davis and winters.  we'd been there before as a family to pick out our very first christmas tree in california.  we had just started moving into our house; the tree was our first thing inside the house, i think, around the winter solstice.  we had not been back since, as we'd gone to pronzini's on other years for a pre-cut tree.

the weather was good, fortunately, sunny and not too cold.  it had been raining off and on, so the ground was still squishy in places, perfect for tromping in boots.

we arrived before our journaling companions, so we spent some time picking out holly, mistletoe, sprays of incense cedar and douglas fir to decorate the house, and beautiful persimmons for our winter nature table.  then we wandered throughout the farm, quiet except for the donkeys who occasionally brayed for a treat.

it was on the way to the barn that she found it - the tree.  the tree of her dreams.  the tree that was perfectly little tree, the one illustrated by deborah ray in the storybook version of e.e. cummings' poem by the same name. she knew it.  she wanted to take it home and care for it and decorate it and dance around it with her brother, singing "noel, noel."

from that moment, diana wondered how she could acquire little tree for her very own.  it was so very small, and we wondered if it was even available for purchase.

all the trees at the farm are self-cut and $35.  every one.  no matter how tall or how small.  no matter the species or the size.  the only rule: you had to leave a sufficient whorl of branches at the base of the tree so it could continue to grow in years to come.  good, strong, hardy branches that could handle the work of taking in the sunlight to nourish the tree for new growth.

the very nice gentleman who sold us the sprays of evergreen and our other nature treats went and got the owner, miss emily, for us to to speak with regarding little tree.

we asked if we could dig up around the tree and take it home in a pot and care for it.  nope.  they don't allow digging here, just responsible cutting.  and, as it turns out, the reason for the one-price-for-each was to encourage people to take the larger, hardier trees rather than the smaller ones just because of the price.

emily came with us to see little tree so she could show us just where we'd need to cut in order to leave sufficient growth to sustain it.  it turns out that little tree was just barely older than a seedling, put in just this year.

she was kind enough to offer diana a deal, to cut a tallish branch off a tree she was planning to prune anyway, and charge her just the amount she usually charges for a spray that size.  diana appreciated the offer, but was still deep in thought about little tree.

she was able to pull herself out of that thought long enough to enjoy her friends for nature journaling, which involved noticing similarities and differences.  each person went off in a different direction to locate three items that looked very similar: pinecones, nuts, leaves, needles.  studying one selection of items closely, the idea was to see if enough differences could be noticed to identify the one taken away by the rest of the group.

there was also the fun of cracking open the pecans.  diana and her friends discovered the joy of placing a nut on the picnic bench and stomping on it just hard enough to crack it open, but not too hard to damage the nutmeat inside.

diana fretted over her decision.  she was in love with little tree but was torn about its prospects for survival should she cut it.  she appreciated the offering of alternatives, and she politely tolerated my intrusion of questioning the financial prudence of such a selection.  in the end, though, she knew it was her decision and that i would support her by ensuring we could come back after the weekend to bring little tree home.  so i gave her have the time and space to decide.

over the weekend, diana counted up the money she had been saving and was relieved to discover that she had sufficient funds to purchase little tree.  she did not appear concerned in the least about the cost; when it comes to such an intense attachment for her, she does not hesitate.  she behaves in a similar way when it comes to charitable donations - her energy is directed towards identifying and connecting with a need, and her attitude towards the monetary aspect reflects a sense of feeling she has enough and wants to share her bounty, rather than approaching it as a purchase.  i'm not certain how she developed that perspective, but i am certainly glad of it.

by sunday night, she had reached a conclusion: we would go back to the farm and ask emily to show us precisely where little tree could be cut.  if that preserved enough of little tree for diana's satisfaction, she would bring it home.  if not, she would accept emily's offer of the clipping from another tree.

so off we went on monday morning, special red envelope with money in hand and hope in her heart.

emily came out to greet us.  i was pleased to see how she worked mostly with diana, recognizing that she was the customer, and i was more or less along for the ride.  what a ride it was, and full of unexpected gems.

as diana led the way to little tree's location, emily told us about the effort required to maintain the farm her parents had started in 1956.  she told us about the massive pump needed to sufficiently irrigate the trees through the long, hot, dry seasons.  about the insurance she needed to carry because people were walking on her land, many of them carrying and using the sharp implements she offered for customers to cut their own trees. about how she had other employment to provide income for the rest of the year, since the farm was open only in the month of december until the 23rd but required year-round tending.  it was not offered by way of describing hardship, but to inform and educate in a manner that generated even more respect for independent farmers than we already had (being participants in a csa).

i think diana knew in her heart that what must be allowed to remain on the slender stem of little tree's trunk would leave her with very little to take home.  the essence of little tree-ness would be lost.  she grew quiet and thoughtful when emily marked off the cut point.  then she shook her head and took a few moments to compose herself before heading to the tree that emily had offered to prune for her.

emily was fantastic. she did not seem to think it was odd that diana was disappointed, or that diana needed time to consider her decision.  after all, emily was quite obviously a lover of trees. she took the time to point out examples of where customers had done well in leaving sufficient growth and lamented over the anticipated demise of other trees where the cutting left little to nothing for the tree to work with.

when i asked about some of the brown tinges i had observed, thinking it was a sign of dehydration at some point, she explained how the trees could be sunburned.  her parents had planted pecan trees to help shade the evergreens from the intense summer sun.  the effect was noticeable when we explored different parts of the farm.

she pointed out the trunks of different trees and had us smell the sap residue, comparing the fragrances that emerge when the life blood of the trees is released and exposed to the air.  diana had already found that the sweet smell of the incense cedar was most prominent when she cut our previously-purchased sprays to create a scent jar.  what a sensory experience for diana, though, to help emily make the pruning cut with the saw and inhale the intoxicating scent from the fresh would.  emily cut an additional slice of the branch for us to add to our nature table.  the sap was wonderfully sticky and beaded up along the edge.

emily explained to us the origin of the concept of "trimming a tree" - that when people would go into a forest and cut down a tree and bring it home, they would trim it by pruning here and there to create the desired shape and overall effect.  it made me think of sculpting using a living medium.  she said it was in later times that the idea of trimming became associated with adding decorations to the christmas tree.

diana carried her new tree back to the car, careful to hold the trunk away from her coat to avoid the sap.  emily carefully wrapped the trunk with newspaper so it would not leak onto the car's interior.  diana happily paid her $2.50 and was excited to get a half-dollar coin as her change.  emily told us she had found a roll of them when she was searching through some stored items and thought it would be fun to offer them as change instead of quarters.  (of course that got us started on a discussion of dollar coins and how diana has a ritual and tradition of acquiring them from her papou.)

we wished each other well and best of luck in the future.  when we told her we would be sad to miss little tree's expected growth over the next year because we would be living across the country, emily assured us that we would have plenty of opportunity to find a tree farm to explore out there.

on the drive home, diana got a little too close to the slice of incense cedar emily had cut, and exclaimed that she had sap on her tongue and teeth! wanting to keep it from spreading into other areas in her mouth, she spoke with great care to move her tongue as little as possible.  it is difficult for her to render herself entirely speechless, though, and in her attempts to talk about her plans for her tree, the sound came out as twee.  and the name stuck as easily as if it were covered in its own sap.

(by the way, emily's suggestion for using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to dissolve the sap on our hands was excellent and effective.)

per emily's suggestion, we found a pot large enough to hold the trunk, filled around it with river rocks for ballast, added water, and trimmed it to a lovely triangular silhouette.  twee should remain green and happy at least through christmas that way.

diana found solace in the knowledge that little tree will be nurtured under emily's tender care, and she is vastly content with twee, excited by every new discovery: its size sufficient to accommodate an entire strand of lights, its strength suitable for holding small ornaments.

and she's delighted to have enough money to buy her brother the perfect christmas gift to fulfill his model rocket enthusiasm.

welcome to our home, twee.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

this is not your mama's snowflake

up until last year, i thought of making paper snowflakes as amusing diversions and interesting experiments in making symmetrical patterns.  i even posted recently about websites you could use to create if you don't have paper & scissors handy, or just don't feel like messing with paper and scissors.

this year is different.  this year, i see what vi hart has done with snowflakes, and i am inspired.  (you'll already know by now how much we love her mathy food and her music.)  diana and i watched some of these videos late last night, in the dark, while ander slept, and we could hardly put ourselves to bed, marveling and planning for what we will design.

now watch this one about hexaflexagons (there are many, so feel free to do a search for more!):

what started the video-watching madness last night was a twitter link to hexaflexasnowflakes, not by vi hart, but inspired by her, i think:

and then we recognized a video (actually, it's a series of two) about turning a sphere inside out that diana remembered watching some time ago.  she loved it then, and loves it now, and felt like she understood it and could follow it more this time.  maybe it's because she had been watching about hexaflexagons and was primed for comprehending the twists and turns.  maybe she's more flexible and coordinated in her thinking because of the math learning she's done over the past year.  maybe at night, when the brain is winding down and primed for sleep, it can be relaxed enough to push beyond the constraints of conventional, rigid thinking and be opened to the possibility of seeing things is a new, creative, inventive, imaginative way. 

all this is not to say that making a paper snowflake needs to be like this to be worthwhile.  there is a lot to be said for the joy that can be found within the time and effort spent in folding and cutting and opening and being amazed that you cut along the correct edges so it didn't fall apart into a bunch of papery bits.  but if you've had fun with cutting and folding beautiful paper toys and enjoyed making origami creations, like we have, and are looking for something a little bit more...well, just more, then this might be for you.

and, lest you think that all of this folding spiraling and cutting is just for snowflakes, then you might not be familiar with kirigami, the art of paper cutting.  oh, the things you can do!

happy creating!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

books especially for chanukah

moishe's miracle by laura melmed

latkes, latkes good to eat: a chanukah story by naomi howland

candlelight for rebecca (american girl)

alexandra's scroll: the story of the first hanukkah by miriam chaikin

the tie man's miracle: a chanukah tale by steven schnur

the power of light: eight stories for hanukkah by isaac singer

the stone lamp: eight stories of hanukkah through history by karen hesse

for additional chanukah and other winter holiday reading, see our recommendations here and here.

happy reading together!

and to keep your fingers busy, check out the holiday paper crafts at the toymaker.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


this past weekend was all about lights.

there was the tree lighting ceremony on main street in woodland, just a few blocks' walk from where we live:
there was plenty of room in the plaza behind the choir and other musicians.  we could really enjoy the songs and still be out of the crowd.

i think we might have even contributed to the entertainment.  we brought (and wore) our own sleigh bells to shake in rhythm with the music.  ander especially appreciated "deck the halls" but was somewhat confused and disappointed when everyone sang the first verse twice instead of going on to the second verse.

we were actually right next to the tree, so we had a front-row seat to the excitement!
fat cat cafe, situated conveniently right behind the tree, was open late and happy to serve us.

when we went home that evening, ander was sad because we don't have our tree yet and he really wanted to light something.  ever the generous sister, diana didn't want him to be unhappy, so she brought out her little tree from her room, adorned it with lights, and encouraged ander to conduct his own countdown and plug in the strand, over and over.  it was a success!

the next day was the woodland holiday parade.  once again, living close by made a big difference in our enjoyment.  we easily found a space shielded from the sun and easy enough to duck away from the crowd and stretch our legs.  it was a wonderful opportunity for woodland to shine.
(and now for some gratuitous cookie-making photos which are not related to the topic of this post but are cute, nonetheless):

at dusk, by prior arrangement, i set out the paper bag luminaries.  when it was really dark, the kids and i strolled up and down our block to admire our neighbor's handiwork.

finally, for the musical part of this post, may i offer for your listening pleasure the sounds of our favorite jewish boy band, the maccabeats, to celebrate the festival of lights:

and from a spinoff group, called stand four:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

piano recital

here it is, diana's much anticipated piano recital, including the debut of one of her own pieces.

these were recorded on december 1st at the home of mrs. marjorie mcbee, diana's piano teacher.


needless to say, i am pleased she discovered a love of music and pursued it.

and i am happyer at home because i get to hear her play and create.  it fills my heart.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

the capitol at the capital

a holiday is a lovely time to visit our state capitol, i think.

the wreaths were an elegant, understated touch
wait, didn't archimedes say this first? before the gold miners?

circling the great seal
diana with fellow roman goddess minerva

christopher columbus and queen isabella

the acoustics in the rotunda are impressive. oh, to be able to sing in here would be pure joy for me!
the grand staircases and elevators were ander's favorites

some really cool facts are available at the kids zone, but the tour guide really kept diana interested with all of the information he shared about the tiled floors, the domes, the doors, the colors, and the "secret" stairs. and he did it so that she felt comfortable asking questions.  you know, in a "not like a tour guide who says that it's ok to ask questions but then kind of gives the impression that questions are not really ok" kind of way.  diana sometimes feels uncomfortable asking questions when on a group tour, but definitely felt encouraged to do so.  she felt like he really involved the kids in active participation and discussion.

what a warm welcome to government!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


a fellow homeschool mom and i were taking a few minutes to catch up with each other after our childrens' piano recital.  we hadn't seen each other for a while and it was really nice to reconnect.

she suggested a book for me to read - one she had found fascinating and enlightening.  it's called quiet.

i googled it and found the author susan cain's TED talk about the power of introverts.  i bookmarked it to come back to when i had time alone to watch it, which was now, late at night, when the kids are asleep and the whole house is quiet.

it brought me to tears.  tears of relief that someone else could so accurately describe the how and why of who i am, of who my daughter is, of who i think my son may be.

i think it explains why homeschooling works as well as it does for diana, and for me, too.  the opportunity to be flexible with how we choose our space and our time and our companions and the way we work together.  we can read or watch together and discuss and then go back to reading or writing or getting in our creative zone - alone.

don't get me wrong - we do enjoy our group activities.  diana loves to go to her classes in aikido and irish dance and weaving and clay and go on tours and explorations and to book club.  after each activity, though, even as soon as she gets into the car, she finds something to read and asks me if we could stop talking for a while.  she's happier one-on-one with her piano teacher, in individual lessons in watercolor technique, in her intimate group for nature journaling, in imaginative play or intense discussion with a single friend.  and i think she is at her most creative in long periods of solitude.  hers is a process that cannot be rushed; her most self-satisfying work comes out of having the time and the space and the quiet to allow her ideas to take shape and develop.

i thrive in the warmth of gathering together with welcoming friends, but i discover more about myself and the world in the quiet of conversation's end when we part.

i appreciate meeting with others to discuss a common topic, but my clearest thinking is in quiet contemplation.

i am looking forward to reading this book.  i recommend viewing this TED talk, whether you find yourself more introverted or extroverted.  if you're like me, you may find comfort.  if you're not like me, well, you may just come to understand me a little better.

i am happyer at home because home is a refuge, a source of solace and quiet.

Monday, December 3, 2012

more winter holiday titles to enjoy

nothing like going to the library and browsing what the librarians have set out to tempt young readers (and their parents?!).  to apply full disclosure here - the books listed below were my selections and may not reflect the views and opinions of my firstborn, diana, whose opinion i usually get before making such lists.  the titles with stars indicate ones she would personally recommend.

perfect for st. nicholas day:

the story of saint nicholas by mildred luckhardt *

the real santa claus by marianna mayer (this one has gorgeous reproductions of st. nicholas from european artsists)

depictions of holiday carols:

we three kings illustrated by olga zharkova

deck the hall illustrated by sylvia long

the little drummer boy illustrated by kristina rodanas

lovely little collections for christmas:

christmas fairy tales selected by neil philip *

a family christmas selected and introduced by caroline kennedy *

merry christmas: children at christmastime around the world by satomi ichikawa *

stories for hanukkah:

just enough is plenty: a hanukkah tale by barbara goldin *

latkes and applesauce: a hanukkah story by fran manushkin *

and for kwanzaa:

seven candles for kwanzaa by andrea pinkney

seven spools of thread: a kwanzaa story by angela medearis

what i look forward to reading for winter solstice:

the return of the light: twelve tales from around the world for the winter solstice by carolyn edwards

ideas for "making" things:

christmas crafts from around the world by judy sadler

christmas presents kids can make by kathy ross

crafts for kids: a winter holiday book by greta speechley

and other reading:

the little snowgirl by carolyn croll *

o christmas tree: its history and holiday traditions by jacqueline farmer

an early american christmas by tomie depaola *

little tree by e.e. cumming *

more titles are sure to come; for other lists of what we're reading, look here and here.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

making beautiful music

diana performed in her second piano recital this morning.  she's been taking lessons with a wonderful instructor, mrs. marjorie mcbee, since last august.

one of the things i really, really like about mrs. mcbee is that she accepts each student as they are and works with them to be the best that they can be.  she's encouraging, not scolding, and started off the recital by explaining and singing a song to all of us, parents and other family members included, about making mistakes - everyone makes them, and it's no reason to feel down about yourself and no reason for criticism - just start over or keep moving ahead.  it's so very clear to me that the lessons mrs. mcbee teaches extend above and beyond technique; poise, presentation, and music appreciation are also included.

mrs. mcbee also provides an opportunity for each of her students to shine in their own way.  among the performances were duets, violin and cello accompaniment, and singing.  there was humor and acceptance and some particularly breathtaking moments.

as was permitted last year, diana performed a piece of her own composition.  this one is titled "darke domaine" and was inspired by reading the septimus heap series by angie sage.  i've been privy to the development and editing and explanation and rehearsals of this piece, which takes on a slight variation in each performance.  i thought today's rendition was among her best.

i was not the only one impressed - several parents, even ones i did not know, came up to congratulate diana or comment to me about her.  though a bit uncomfortable with such praise, diana acknowledged it gracefully and afterwards expressed her relief that the recital was past.  it is exhilarating for her to play, and she puts her whole self into it, the intense concentration leaving her spent by the time the last chord fades away.

diana really does love playing her music.  you can see it in her movements, her posture, her face, her smile.  it is one of pure joy.

for those interested in videos of her performance, you may enjoy them here.