watching for visitors

I love the gift of bird feeder and bird house from my parents. Both are artisan crafted, one of a kind spectacular creations in wood. The birdhouse is sitting under the Christmas tree right now, waiting to be placed in the gorgeous tree outside my porch.

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The open feeder is a glorious platform with roof that comes with a significant pole that can be greased, for keeping the squirrels on the ground and not in the feeder eating all the sunflower seeds. Finding a place for this feeder has been an interesting project.

In the balmy days of this years Christmas week, we tried out many locations for the feeder. I soon discovered having an immediate dislike to seeing any kind of object on a pole in any part of the view I have become so accustomed to. Anything man-made felt like a violation. Surprised and a bit dismayed by this reaction, I realized I needed time to process exactly how I wanted to be in relationship to the birds that would eventually swarm this feeder. I eventually realized that this feeder needed to feel as natural a part of the perceived landscape here as anything else. Finally a place made itself known, just outside the porch windows under the eave, hanging from a hook that was already there. Suggesting that this beautiful object be dangled from the house like an ornament on the tree….

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So it has hung for the past four days. I am watching for the visitors. Acutely aware that the starkness outside, that the absence of bird life for weeks now may have more to do with seasonal migration that actual food available in this place at this time.

My focus turns back inside to the food that HAS drawn visitors here for the past week. To the large pot roast prepared for my parents’ arrival days before Christmas. A pot filled with a tomatoey melt in your mouth beef chuck on a bone. A soup/stew simmered slowly for over five hours, with ample addition of carrots and onions to make this a truly memorable vessel of nourishment. There was heartfelt registering of the beef and vegetables that all came from my local farm share. We feasted on this one pot for days leading up to Christmas, accompanied by mashed potatoes one night, rice another, and crunchy green salads each time.   The theme continued into Christmas dinner, and sharing with even more visiting friends and family. My father created a most memorable butternut squash soup to accompany the roast chicken and vegetables dinner. Gorgeous golden orange soup carrying more of the richness of our beloved local produce, lovingly prepared, lovingly appreciated by all.

The day after Christmas I made a huge pot of vegetable soup ala Marcella Hazan, sautéing each vegetable addition to the pot, one after another until the pot was full of fragrant earthiness.  First the onions in olive oil, then celery, carrots, green beans, leeks, potatoes, a package of home preserved frozen corn from the end of summer, potatoes, rutabaga, a jar of home canned tomatoes, leftover chunks of butternut squash from the day before. All simmered for hours in a mixture of chicken and vegetable stock with a crust of Parmesan thrown in. Enough for more days of meals, for sending Mom & Dad home with a container full, and for mixing with the leftover butternut squash soup  from Christmas Day to make yet another spontaneously created one of a kind culinary experience.

Now Ben is my only visitor. We sit down to a lunch of the blended soup, creamy orange in color and complementing the earthen pottery it sits in,

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reflected in the translucent golden crisp hard apple cider we celebrate this meal with.

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It’s not just the soup, but the scene created around it, reminding me that the birds too might be considering the context for their next source of nourishment.  The reflection from the inside this morning is of Ben and Nora, heads together in mutual affection.  Even on this bleak and cold morning, the feeling is of warmth and love.  This too will always be part of the context that will attract the visitors.

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Soon Ben will return to school and it will be just me and Nora again, watching for the visitors outside. I’ve just mixed things up a bit, added some bread crumbs to the seeds.  I’m holding the energy of this past week of making feasts.  I have to believe that the birds will soon enough discover this new source for their feasting too.

recipe for christmas

What a perfect winter solstice morning. Dark and foggy, rainy and chilly. I look at the Christmas tree with its colorful lights reflected in the white walls and ceiling in contrast to the dark brick and black iron of the firing wood stove.

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Drinking my hot black coffee from the gleaming white porcelain mug. Feeling the illness that has plagued me the past ten days still in my body, but now having runs its course  the pain is gone, leaving an awareness of well being to reign at the same time.

Of course, Nora didn’t let me stay in bed all day every day this past week when that’s all I wanted to do. She did her best to entertain herself at the edge of the meadow with the collection of toys she keeps there, tossing the delaminating tennis ball in the air for her own amusement,

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and then bored even with that, run sprints until she was satiated. I would wait however. Eventually meadow time wasn’t enough, and when her insistent call for our ritual walk in the woods became too much to bear, I would nonchalantly don shoes and coat. Where I had to slow down and give in to whatever was having its way with my cells, I also needed to feel the life infusing fresh air and sun when it was there too.

This past week there were a few bright days. Walking even more slowly than usual, I could notice the subtle but clear changes of the season moving us toward the polarized awareness of the season, ice sculptures forming in the brook,

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small and hidden still in the rush of clear water.

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I became aware of my neighbor the church, the edge of light on the white steeple beckoning through the spaces between the trees.

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Even on a gloomy day, having Ben’s radiant smile there with me in the woods was a reminder of just how precious our time is together.

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The razor edge between dark and light is present everywhere. Where the past few weeks have presented the darkest of days leading to this moment, now it is time to make the choice to walk into the light. Being able to make this choice, at this time, right now, has been the choice since the beginning of time. All these years of celebrating Christmas, the joy of reaching deep into my creativity and the joy that results, has been enough. But now I see that it might be possible to yield to a new way of experiencing this place. A new recipe for Christmas.** Reaching into my creative self always has been the light, the place of autonomy where I feel most true to who I am. It’s not about being selfish or self-sacrificing. It’s not about doing or not doing. I think of all my dear friends, family, colleagues, and people who I cross paths with on any given day. What is the light they are walking into? What state of being, what act of kindness or creativity or adventure lets that choice be the sign of their own autonomy while standing on the line between such equally powerful forces?

I’m excited to be on the other side of the darkness now. In the true spirit of Christmas, my ex husband bought and delivered a tree, and spent the time to trim and get it set up in the house. The generosity of friends and neighbors has warmed my heart during a vulnerable time, during a time when I don’t easily ask for help or reach out for what I need, bringing chicken soup and doing errands. This year, I have had to choose the light that comes with letting go and letting be.  Yielding is the gift.  So there are not five kinds of cookies or a handmade gift for everyone that I have labored for weeks over.  Gifts will be more spontaneous this year.  An intimate hour with a loved one just sitting in front of the fire.  So the house is not spotlessly clean. It still feels good in its warmth and charm. My parents arrive today for a week of being together. We are excited about just giving space to celebrating a sweet time together. To share Christmas dinner with those that can join us.  Just being together is the goal. Just doing as little as possible is the vision.

Choosing the light doesn’t mean the darkness is gone. It just means the weight of the light will only get stronger now.

 

**Recipe for Christmas

Ingredients:

waking up in the dark

multiple sources of light

some fire

a precious dose of self awareness; recognizing what makes you feel joy

Light the fire in the dark.  Turn on the lights.  Summon, for at least one moment, that which brings you joy.  Stay.  Simmer on low for as long as it takes to be, in love, in the presence of another.

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making biscotti

Making many different kinds of cookies is a reflection of Christmas that always shows itself to me right about now. Over time I have experimented and have emerged with an international repertoire to choose from each year. The sources are varied. When I make any particular cookie more than one year in a row, it gets added to the repertoire. If made four or five years in a row, they become part of a treasured archive, as cookies cherished and coveted and looked forward to each year by family and friends. The three that have withstood the test of time and are asked for each year are my grandmother’s almond crescent kurebies, Italian chocolate mostaccioli, and the raspberry filled Swedish tarts. Other years my Christmas tins have been filled with our family traditional cutout sugar cookie from my mother’s recipe, gingerbread men, German honey cakes, and Mocha-Almond Biscotti*** from a recipe found in ‘Eating Well’ magazine twenty-five years ago.

I can’t remember the last time I made the biscotti. They aren’t really all that special. They aren’t the rich buttery confections typically associated with the holidays. They are just simple crunchy sweet toast like cookies with mere hints of the flavors found so intensely in the other cookies. The recipe is from a magazine dedicated to cutting fat, making food lighter and more nutritious. These biscotti aren’t what you would expect, as cake like versions found in the bakeries. But there is something appealing about the crispness of these cookies, a light quality that offsets and balances the richness found in all the others. So I made them for years. Filled glass jars with them to give as gifts. Loved the process of making the marbled logs that would get sliced and baked again. And then just stopped for some reason. I don’t know why they fell out of the treasured archive.

Something has triggered my desire to add these to the mix again this year. I spent days ignoring the image that kept popping up and insisting to be seen.  Like the reflections in the water at the edge of my property where the brook begins.

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It is a large pond like body and depending on the time of day, offer gorgeous reflections to be seen.

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Every day for this past week I have stopped to gaze at the reflections there, wondering why.

I’ve been trained to see reflections. To see the image on the surface, the emotion on a face, the lesson that appears in the wake of disappointment or suffering. They are all things that show themselves to be seen. Then what? It’s like seeing anything arresting, the impulse to preserve the image, to remember it somehow, kicks in. As a professional creative, an architect trained to reflect my client’s wishes in the design of a building, as a fabric artist with my own wishes to express, or as a chef in my own kitchen of daily wonder, my work depends on this tool of reflection.

So I made the biscotti. Dug up the stained page where the recipe lives, made a few mental substitutions, decided to double the recipe, laid everything out on the counter. It all sat there for a day, a presence and a reminder, before I finally made the commitment. Not sure why it felt like a commitment, but it did. I was digging up something from the past based on a feeling or an image that triggered a feeling. It was just a feeling. A good feeling. I really didn’t need to analyze this or bring the meaning of the reflection to some conscious place. I just went with it. I loved the process all over again, let myself enjoy the memory right along with the present experience. I realized how much I have been working on letting memories be what they are, maybe even let them have a voice, let them go, and then just come back to where I am. I loved the feel of the moist marbeled dough and the pleasant memories evoked by the aroma of chocolate and almond together. I loved the feeling of Christmas that surfaced with it all.

The biscotti looked perfect when done. It was a pleasure to see the two large jars filled with these slices.

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They came out so much crunchier, much ‘harder’ than I remember. I resisted the idea that maybe these cookies needed to be removed from the archive for good, that they really don’t belong in the Christmas repertoire. I didn’t want to be wrong. I ate a dozen of them, crunching my way through the sweet dryness until I thought to dunk one in my tea. And there it was! The way to eat these cookies! They are the perfect dunking cookie, a perfect palate for absorbing the warmth and flow of something liquid and ever changing, and solid enough to hold it together long enough to be fully experienced. Smile smile.

 

***Mocha-Almond Biscotti

2/3 cup blanched almonds, whole or slivered

2 cups all-purpose unbleached white flour

1 cup sugar

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1/4 tsp. salt

3 large eggs

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

1 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tsp. instant coffee powder

1 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted

1 tsp. pure almond extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spread almonds on baking sheet and bake until lightly toasted, about 12 minutes. Set aside.

Whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl, whisk together eggs and vanilla, add to dry ingredients and mix until just smooth. In a small bowl, mix cocoa, coffee and 4 tsp. water. Divide dough in half. and almond and almond extract to one half, melted chocolate and coffee mixture to the other. Mix each until just incorporated.

Place half the almond dough on a well floured surface. Dough will be moist so don’t be shy with the flour. Pat into a 4″ x 8″ rectangle. Top with half the chocolate dough. Roll up lengthwise into a cylinder and roll cylinder back and forth gently to form a 14 inch log, 1-1/2 inches thick. Repeat with remaining dough. Place logs on parchment covered baking sheet. Bake for 20-25 minutes until firm to touch. Transfer to rack to cool. Reduce oven to 300 degrees.

Cut logs diagonally into 1/2″ slices.

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Stand slices upright on pan with space between each and bake for 40 minutes. Let cool before storing in airtight container. Will stay fresh for up to one month.

every day

During Thanksgiving I took a walk I love to take when visiting, the part of the Bristol Hills along Canandaigua Lake at Seneca point and then up the steep incline of Bopple Hill Road. It is a challenging bit of road which in the past has left me gasping after just a few hundred yards. But this year I was up and over the first stretch without a thought, feeling strong and full of deep breath. Sharing my delight at this experience of ease with my mother, I mused that I must be in better shape than I thought, that even the modest walk in the woods with Nora each day must be making a difference. She agreed. Even voiced out loud and emphasized the importance of doing this every day.

Yesterday I knit all day long. Favorite movies kept me company like old friends can do. From the time the sun came up until the dark hour just before bed. I noticed where this work of the day was broken up by the few essential things I do every day right now, the ritual of coffee, yoga, framing a morning photo in the camera lens, some writing, preparing and eating food, bringing in some wood for the fire, walking in the woods with Nora. These things I am currently in the habit of doing every single day are necessary and vital. Yet at some point during the completely present place I was joyfully letting myself be in with my project, even with these every day essentials providing the relief of punctuation, I still wondered if the work was enough, if maybe I should be doing something more.

I have to keep reminding myself it’s the time of year when I completely and wholeheartedly want to let go to the making of Christmas. Each year this involves a project or two that requires serious commitment if I am going to finish in time. Every molecule of my creative energy swirls toward the day. Everything I see or make or do is weighed and measured as a possible giving, a possible gift. Every year while home, I ponder in this place I love to be. Consider how it might actually become the place I live in every day all year long.

Every day provides structure. It is a structure that lets meaning of spontaneous come alive. Every day the sun rises.  Taking a picture each morning  gives me a platform to feel uniquely into the day, whether I am in the shadow or the light of the sun’s emerging presence.

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Coming upon my favorite view down the brook every day, the one I without fail stop to take in fully, settles me into a different place in my body depending on where the light falls.

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Watching Nora on our path together is always breathtaking.

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Sometimes I can capture it. Sometimes I have to just be with her fully and completely in those moments, knowing I will experience her majesty and beauty in so many other unexpected ways. And coming up the last bit of the loop facing the entrance to the house, I always take in the energy of laughing garden Buddha every day too, resting in the shade of foliage most of the summer, now fully exposed and ready to take on winter.

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His presence is a reminder that even if I am sitting in one place all day long, even if what I do seems to be repetitive or monotonous or frivolous, it is possible to experience it with peace and enthusiasm.

For me, these things that we see and do every day create the breeding ground for enthusiasm in life. We can hold onto the illusion that the structure is safe, will give us something real to hold onto each day.  But the fact is, even the habits and rituals that seem rote or predictable hold the spark of enthusiasm and joy. We just have to be willing to let go of any expectation of what we think is stable.  As Pema Chodron teaches, imagine that the raft we are on in the middle of the lake begins to disintegrate and we find ourselves with absolutely nothing left to hold onto.  Only then will the things we do every day hold the potential for being enough.

So I watch myself, fully into the season now of letting go to passion for making Christmas, noticing the difference from last year, the strength of my willingness to let go even while negotiating whatever form of judgement arises to challenge my enthusiasm for this time.

My experiences of the past year of every day have made a difference.