Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Kolachkis for Grandma Ruth

My father’s mother died of cervical cancer when he was five years old. Her name was Ruth Emma Ruston and she was only forty-two. The closer I get to that age myself, the more I find myself thinking about my her. At this age, what would it be like to know that I might have to leave behind my husband and three sons?
My dad has this picture of her at a family party in this fabulous red dress, a bit out of place for a Sunday afternoon get-together. She is looking at the camera with a big smile on her face. My dad said that she went into the hospital the week after that party, and she knew she wasn’t coming out. That dress was her favorite dress.
This year, both at the holidays and in my work, I’ve been focusing on reaching out to her, trying to build traditions with her that we were never able to have. In that spirit, I made kolachki cookies, for the first time, with Grandma Ruth in my butter-yellow kitchen.
As I’ve been doing our genealogy and family history, I find that my family resemblance is to her line of the family, the Ruston line with its Polish heritage. It wasn’t a leap to try to connect with her over a Polish cookie. I am not historically talented in the kitchen, something I’ve been working on for the last few years. So my offering to her spirit was the attempt to make something that was a bit more complicated.
The dough was prepared the night before and chilled in the fridge. The black walnut filling was mixed and beat into submission. And then I pressed the dough out between two layers of wax paper until it was paper thin, almost translucent. As I rolled the dough out, firmly and repeatedly, I thought about my Grandma Ruth. I thought about the line of Rustons, who come through Wickers and Whitchers, Whitchers and DeLoziers, Loziers and Zabriskis, Zabriskis and Terhunes, Zabriskis and Van Der Lindes, back into Poland. And I rolled the dough thin and smooth.
It felt as if dozens of women stood in the kitchen with me, cutting out three inch squares, dolloping golden filling on them, and folding opposite corners in over each other. The warmth from the oven made fingers and dough supple and into the oven they went to cook. Besides the fact that I need to work on my folding skills, they are delicate and flaky, and delicious.

I wish my father could have better known his mother. I wish that I could have known her. I’m not sure if she ever made kolachkis or if her family ever had, but in my heart I made them to honor my unknown Grandmother and all who came before her, so that I could be here, with hands in warm dough, and heart full of love, peace and wonder. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Grieving at the Holidays

Here is one of the ways grief works in our minds… I fall asleep thinking about my new cat, and how quickly she slipped into her own night time pattern. And how different her pattern is from any of the other cats I’ve had. Had. Because they’re dead now. Bella died in June. Bella hasn’t even been dead for a year. Bella’s only been six months. And I miss her. As cute as Mara is, she is an addition, not a replacement. And I want to have them both. Then I want all five of the deceased and alive cats all in one space. In one time. Right now.
And then I remember that time is a cycle of wheels and gears interlocking and pulling away. Some return to meet over and over and some gears only touch once before travelling onward. Our lives are these wheels within gears, within circles of family and friends. We need time and distance to distort the powerful emotion of feeling all that love at once or we would explode from the wonder of it. But sometimes, in the wake of the awe, we forget that these cycles and shifting circles are what our lives are made up of. And grief is part of that cycle.
I remember Bella’s night time pattern. Every night, before sleep, a kiss on the nose. If I forgot she would cry at me, kneading her feet angrily or worriedly on the bed. It was never the same emotion. And I remembered them, every one of those separate occasions as if they were a flip book of images in my mind until they became the same still. A thousand emotional moments becoming one feeling, one memory, and bringing her back to life. I could hear her tinny, obnoxious cry. And I could feel her coat under my hand. I could feel her push her face against my lips. I started to cry with a kind of grief I haven’t let myself feel for months.
The house is decorated for the holidays. We give our cats a stocking of toys and catnip in the morning. It was hard enough when Luna died. This year, Bella won’t be there either. I know our holiday morning will be bittersweet, making new memories while being haunted by old ones. It’s why learning to be in the moment is important. This year, more than any other, I have a long list of friends who are dealing with the loss of a parent or pet, most of them within the last few weeks. It’s the cycle of life. And it’s heartbreaking.
It’s hard to lose someone at the holiday season. And it’s hard to be missing them when we are focused on family and loved ones. The weight of our grief directly correlates to the weight of the love we held for the lost. And when we are surrounded by family, by joyous, loving emotions like the holidays evoke, some of that grief will seep through. The most important piece of advice I can give you is to be gentle with yourself. The holidays are about compassion and you have to start with yourself. There’s no timetable for grief. What takes some people months, takes others years. Even then, it never truly goes away. The loss is always with us. So go easy on your grief and let it flow through you.
The other day with friends, I realized that I would never say to Bella again, “Nobody wants your anus,” as she was prone to presenting it to people in greeting. I cried for a minute, out of nowhere to my friends. They asked what was wrong and I told them and immediately laughed through my tears, because it was such a strange thing to miss. I said that it was stupid and my friends said, No. It wasn’t. And they were right. The tears gave way to smiles and funny stories and the day went on. I didn’t ruin it with my grief.
So who cares if you’re at a holiday party and you think about your dad and you cry. Everyone loses people they love. Everyone understands. And if they don’t, maybe we need to make them. I shed a tear for my Grandpa every Christmas morning when I eat my orange, because he’s not here.
The last Christmas together, 2009.
It’s when we hold our grief in that it eats at us and it hurts. That’s when keeping it behind walls until it bursts out ruins our days and moods. At the holidays, it’s impossible not to think about our fresh losses. We’re afraid of our grief. We’re afraid to bring it up because of the tears that threaten to follow. But what doesn’t work through us lives within us. So those who are grieving need to be able to be sad so that we can push through the crust of grief to the happy memories underneath it. The swifter you allow the flood, the sooner it ebbs.
If you aren’t the one grieving? Give your friends a break. Invite them to your festivities even if they’re dealing with a loss. Remind them they still have you. Be understanding if they choose not to come. Be understanding if they show up and are not the life of the party. Holidays are not about how things look. They’re about brotherhood and sisterhood and compassion.
I spend a lot of my time hanging natural ribbons on trees in memory of those no longer with me. So I both make and collect ornaments that do the same thing. I have an angel cat for both Luna and Bella. A hummingbird for my grandparents and an owl for my grandma. You could also get some heavy card stock and cut out suns and snowflakes. Write the names of your Recent and Beloved Dead on them and hang them on your tree.
Drink a toast to those you miss when you are all gathered together. Have everyone raise a glass and speak their name. Share funny or heartwarming stories about them. Set a favored cocktail out on a clear space as an altar and offering for them. Bake the cookies they loved or used to make themselves and share them.
Put out a bunch of tea lights and candles, unlit. Throughout the day, as you remember a happy memory, light another candle. Literally allow the love and memories you had to bring light into your holiday. The darkness of winter seems to last forever, but this is when the light begins to return. I use the holiday as a reminder that there is joy after the sadness. Grief may pull at our hearts but love will win out in the end.

Blessings to you and yours this holiday season. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Christmas Orange

There is an orange peeking out the top!
As part of my spiritual practice, I celebrate Winter Solstice. It can vary in date year to year, but this year, I’ll be celebrating Solstice on December 21. I grew up, like everyone else I knew, celebrating Christmas with my family on December 25. I observe two holidays this month because I still celebrate Christmas. I love Christmas. I am full to the brim of Christmas Spirit.
Happiness. Peace. Kindness. Compassion. I celebrate Christmas as the holiday of family and humanity. I light candles at night to honor and revere the goodness inside each and every one of us, and wish for peace on earth, that the good will shine through. That light will win out.
This is the time of year for compassion. When someone wishes you a Merry Christmas, say “You, too.” If someone wishes you a Happy Holiday, say “You, too.” If someone wishes you a Happy Kwanzaa, say “You, too.” If someone wishes you a Merry Solstice or a Happy Yule, say “You, too.” It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s something you celebrate. People are wishing you good tidings in the spirit of brotherhood and joy as dictated by their faith. Return the favor. Don’t be a Scrooge.

The Christmas Orange
In celebrating Christmas, my favorite family tradition involved the mystery of the orange in our stockings. While we waited for my Grandpa to drive over to our house to be with us while we opened presents, we would empty our stockings, filled with little toys and candies… and an orange. The memories are so strong that every time I hold an orange in my hands and smell the citrus fragrance of the rind, I think of Christmas morning when I would peel it open and gobble the fruit down. There was an orange waiting for us every year.
My mom remembers having one some holidays, but not always. It was my dad who had an orange in his stocking every year. He said it sat on top of his stocking, hiding what was beneath it. And our oranges served the same purpose, to better hide the surprise of what prying eyes would soon find inside. In researching the tradition of the Christmas orange, the only thing that was clear was that its direct origins are still a bit of a mystery.
Laura Ingalls Wilder references getting an orange in her stocking as a child in 1880, and that it was a special treat. According to the Food and Nutrition Encyclopedia by Audrey Ensminger, with the advent of the new rail system, and the abundance of ripe oranges out of Florida and California, there was a fair supply of them available to the public in the 1880s.
What a special treat at a time of year when there isn’t a lot of other fresh fruit available. Lucky for us, winter is the peak of harvest season for citrus. In England, I found that putting oranges in the toes of stockings pre-dates World War II, but became a common tradition during the war. It must have been an especially delicious treat during rationing.
Whether or not the use of oranges derived from the mythology of Bishop Nicholas, better known as Saint Nicholas, is unclear to me. In modern times it is associated with his story, and I know that it’s always easy to find correlations in retrospect. Either way, Nicholas was a good, wealthy man born in Turkey in the fourth century who spent his life helping the poor. Folklore says that he secreted money into three stockings of three daughters of a man who could not afford a good dowry and feared he would not find them good husbands. In the story, the gold melted inside the stockings where they hung over the fireplace and the young women pulled out three golden balls in the morning. Statues of Nicholas often show him holding three golden globes, and many people see Christmas oranges as a symbol of Saint Nicholas’ generosity.
Did oranges come into vogue as a treat of the season and then become associated with the globes of St. Nick? Or did oranges come into use because they were seen as twins to the symbols of Saint Nicholas’s patronage? And does it matter? I hold one in my hand and I smell Christmas kindness. I think any version of Santa or Saint would approve.

Making Decorative Pomanders
Pomander balls go back to the 15th century, used as natural air fresheners. To make them, you need oranges, a lot of whole cloves, and something you can use to pierce the skin like a toothpick, pin, nail, or wooden skewer. You can also use citrus fruits like clementines, lemons, limes, tangerines, or kumquats (kumquats make adorable tree-sized pomanders).
Some people like to make designs with their cloves and others cover it with them like a second skin. For best results, I recommend covering as much of the orange with cloves as you can as the clove oil acts as a preservative. Use your pointy thing of choice to poke in holes before inserting cloves (or your fingers will soon start to hurt). If you need a guideline for your rows, you can wrap a rubber band or masking tape around the center to get you started. You can leave room in your pattern to tie ribbons around the orange for hanging and display. I use cotton cording that I can weave around the cloves. Then hang the pomander in a closet for a couple of days to allow drying time, as they can get moldy (one woman on-line said she puts hers in her fridge, but I’ve always shut them away in a closet). Scent-wise, these will last a few weeks.
If you want them to last through the season, you can coat your pomander with powdered orrisroot to help preserve it. For pomanders that both last longer and spice up your home, you can coat your pomander in a mixture of ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, and powdered orrisroot; three tablespoons each.

In the spirit of bring things full circle, you can keep the dried out orange husks of the pomander decorations you make at winter solstice and turn them into rattles at summer solstice (look for that post, coming in June of 2014).

Monday, December 9, 2013

Supporting the Arts

Image from the campain for What Follows.
Are you a fan of fantasy and science fiction stories? Do you like other world and other worldly immortal creatures? Do you like post-apocalyptic dystopias? Do you want to read new and originals stories where those genres combine?

This year for the holidays, consider donating some money towards seeing a bunch of starving writers' dreams come true. I have been invited to write a short story for a new anthology, What Follows, which will be the second anthology published by April Steenburgh and Christy Lennox. They just began a Kickstarter campaign to fund this new and exciting project.

The way Kickstarter works is, you pledge money towards the project, and you can pledge any amount you desire, beginning with $1. But there are tiers of backer donations that come with gifts for our gratitude to your sponsorship. If the goal of the project is met, money changes hands and you have been part of manifesting these characters and stories into print! Into a live thing that exists in the world! And if we don't reach our funding, no money changes hands.

Follow the link below to check out the cool backer gifts. Ever wanted to see your name used in a story? Now you can! Thanks in advance to anyone who had a little extra money this season to help me see my dreams come true!

Click here to be a true Patron of the Arts and help bring a book to life!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Human Kindness

One of my favorite things about the holiday season is witnessing moments of kindness between strangers. These events occur with more spontaneity at this time of year than any other. The most memorable and heart-warming moment for me happened during the holidays of 2001.
The day of the attacks on the twin towers in September happened the day before I started my training as a cashier at a local grocery store. I had moved to a new city that summer and spent weeks unable to find a job. I spent the day of the attacks glued to the television we hadn’t even had hooked up yet. When I went in for my training, everyone was in a state of shock and horror.
It wasn’t just the people working there. It was everyone coming in to shop as well. The city I live in has a large refugee and immigrant program and there are a lot of veiled Muslims who live here. They were here before the attacks and here after. But what I witnessed after 9/11, in the store, was horrifying to me.
I hadn’t been there long enough to know any of the regular customers yet, but what I saw were couples and mothers shopping to feed their families, day in and day out. It was their only agenda. They all had different colors of skin and different styles of dress and each of these was widely varied. After the attacks, I saw the majority of my community respond fearfully to the women in their hijabs. In their fear they were not kind, and they felt free to make horrid comments to the women shopping that I cannot even write out for you. They literally walked up to the veiled women shopping, minding their own business, and accused them of killing people in New York City. Of hiding weapons beneath their hijabs and demanding to see what was underneath them. And much, much worse.
I am grateful that my grocery store allowed all of the cashiers to refuse service to those customers who would not cease in harassing the Muslim families. And I did. Often, at first. It is always heartbreaking to me how cruel people can be from their place of fear.
What is it that makes us lash out like wounded animals at each other? How does hurting other people make us feel better? I understand being afraid. I understand having fear. We are each allowed to feel the emotions we feel. But we are not allowed to inflict them on others. We are not allowed to wield them like weapons against other people. We are all animals, that is true. But it is supposed to be our human compassion and brains that lift us above our animal nature.
It was the shadow that fell over my joy of getting to know the community here, the humanity of it. And then the holidays happened. One day, in one shift, one man’s generosity renewed my faith in the goodness of people.
A Muslim man and his wife came through with healthy grains and vegetables and fresh meat and milk and eggs. Honestly, it was the healthiest display of food I ever saw anyone bring to my register in all of my time at the store. The couple were traditional and she was veiled. They had a small child with them and when their EBT card was denied (the system often went down, which had happened that day), they began to count out their cash and put things back, like the asparagus and the turkey and the box of cereal for their son, who unlike most children, did not cry in complaint. It was obvious they were struggling to decide what to keep.
An older man behind them asked me how much more they needed, while they sorted through their groceries. They only had $20 and I whispered apologetically that they needed another $80 to cover it, and that the system was down- that it wasn’t their fault. Customers were often impatient and the technology was no one’s fault. The Muslim woman started to apologize nervously to everyone in line as well. But the man smiled compassionately at them and handed me a hundred dollars. All he was buying for himself was bread, lunch meat and milk.
At first the couple would not take it, but he insisted. I will never forget what he said. “You need help, and I am in a place to give it to you. I would like to think that when I need help, someone will be in a place to give it to me.” The family thanked him profusely and gratefully. You could see the surprise wash over them. As they were leaving, the husband turned around and told the man that he would never forget his kindness. And the man said, “Just repay the favor some day.”
When they left, the man would not hear me say anything about it, waving my gratitude and tears away. He said it wasn’t a big deal. “It was to them,” I assured him. And it was to me. I have never forgotten it either.

Sometimes kindness comes in the form of a simple smile. Making eye contact with your cashier during your holiday shopping. Taking a moment to saying thank you to all of your cashiers, to anyone working in service for you. There are a lot of people in the world and we don’t know everyone. But at some point in our lives, even our closest friends were strangers to us. And every stranger is someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, friend. We have choices every day in what face we show to the world. Spread compassion and kindness throughout your days. It is the simplest and most beautiful language we can share and it is a language that will shape the world around us into a brighter place to live.
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