Monday, September 26, 2011

kung fu

I had a canvas with a bunch of not good painting on it, like that crappy jizo, then I tried some techniques I have never done. ANYWAY, I have this old book by Bruce Lee called Bruce Lee's Fighting Style, or something equally forgettable. It was a 29th printing, the binding was broken and it was written on by some kid, so I took some pages out, since I love that style of book with the guys in kung-fu outfits posing mid-fight. It looks so peaceful, even though it teaches you how to kick the crap out of someone. I glued the pages down, then drew my little girl over it. It says, Learning to fight taught me not to fight. Which is very true. I studied martial arts in my late teens/early twenties. Wing Chun. I miss fighting, particularly sparring with my friend Fisher. He taught me a lot.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Yes, I know that Mabon and the Autumn Equinox is on Friday night. I understand that I am a full two days early to talk about it, but we celebrate on the 21st, generally, speaking, because Lucia died on the 21st. Part of the reason we mark the seasons and began celebrating the pagan rituals associated with Mabon, Yule, Ostara and Litha is because we honor the passing of another season without Lulu while welcoming and celebrating the change and beginning of a new season. As the earth changes, our grief changes, adapts to the weather, or contrary to it. But still, everything moves.

Raising our children in an earth-based spirituality is one of the things my husband and I can wholeheartedly agree upon. We agree with almost all the other stuff, like discipline and bedtime and all that stuff except religion. I take the children to Mass here and there, but my husband is decidedly anti- organized religion. Having an earth-based spirituality together helps ground us in what we share spiritually and what we truly both believe in important for our children to learn ethically, morally and spiritually. We are part of something larger--a system of life and death. We like to teach the children to experience the world as something to be respected and alive with change. We teach compassion and nurturing love. The earth is our mother. She will take care of us. We will take care of her. You know, just like the song says.

Mabon is my favorite celebration, I think. I love autumn and celebrating the cooler weather. The coming of winter is something I particularly love. I am definitely a child of the winter. There is a lot to do to honor this change of season. We wake excited. All of us. First thing Beezus said this morning was "It is FALL!" She thought all the leaves were going to fall overnight, which kind of cracked me up. I keep forgetting that she doesn't remember being three totally. Only little snippets of memory.

Anyway, our rituals on this day are really ones shared by the kids and I. Sam traditionally works all day, so he comes home to a clean house, smelling of stew and baked apples, and all kinds of beauty and deliciousness. First thing we do throughout the day is clean. Clean, clean, clean. We call it Fall Cleaning. And we clean so we can cleanse. Sage smudge to cleanse our spirits and our house.

We usually spend the afternoon gathering things for our evening feast. Mabon celebrates the harvest, as well as the autumn and change.  And it celebrates the balance of darkness and light. I make a big batch of lentil stew, and some corn, and some pumpkin. Apples are a big part of our day. But first, we gather. We gather wildflowers to make an arrangement. I beg my husband not to weed our lawn from about August on. Not that we are good at weeding any time of the year, but I love goldenrod and the other crazy wildflowers from this area. My husband and I get into screaming matches about weeds. In my opinion, weeds are a term of abuse. It is simply a matter of perspective. Last weekend, I was horrified and angry that my husband pulled out all the goldenrod in our backyard despite me specifically asking him not to. Angry, I tell you.

It rained today. Almost all day, so we decided to tramp about in our rainboots with a basket (my childhood Easter basket, actually) and some scissors, and go a-gathering anyway.We found a lot, including two matted down goldenrods, which look just fine in the pitcher.

 We also bought some Indian corn on our way home and two little pumpkins for our centerpiece.

We start with a wooden plate my husband made many moons ago, and besides the flowers, we gather leaves, acorns, things that remind us that autumn in coming.

We then line it with grape leaves. I shared about my huge grape vine in the back. We have been thinking about making a grape vine wreath this year, even though we have one my stepfather made us. It is the vine that keeps on giving.

Then we put three candles in the center. For autumn we put the brown ones, at Yule we will exchange them with red ones, and at Ostara, we will put white ones there. We don't light candles at our dinner table in the summer, because it is still light.

Then the kids and I add leaves, and acorns around the edges.

 The little pumpkins and one ear of Indian corn, with the husk taken off. (We bought three with their husks.)

I added sunflowers my mother bought me from the Farmer's Market last week to our wildflower bouquet. We put the bouquet on the sideboard most days, but on Mabon, we leave both on one end of the table, since we always eat at the other end.

With the husk from the Indian corn we used in the center piece, we make a little Harvest Goddess figure. It is so easy. You simply tie a piece of yarn or string or twine as a head, then pull two husks out of each side for arms, and tie them up, and then tie a little lower for a skirt. We added it to Lucy's altar as a part of the autumn remembrance.

We tied the other two ears of Indian corn together for our interior door decoration.

When Sam got home, we ate our feast--lentil stew, arepas made out of corn, and rice. We always start our meal talking about how the day is in perfect balance of light and dark and we are moving to the time when the air gets colder and the days shorter. Then we say how grateful we are for our food and family and sharing this time. Then we chow down.

 For dessert, I baked some apples stuffed with walnuts, raisins, cinnamon and brown sugar.

After dinner we light the first fire of the season. It was a small one, because it is actually humid here. We throw in bay leaf and salt as symbols of protection for our home and family, and we do a little sage smudge and pass the talking stick. All in all, it is just a beautiful day. Blessed Mabon, my loves.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

sugar skulls

I have always wanted to make sugar skulls. Not just paintings or papier mache, but real, edible sugar skulls. A few weeks ago, wandering around Michael's, as I am wont to do, I saw that Martha Stewart makes plastic skull molds.

I was delighted on one hand, and on yet another, I was also standing there, my kids spinning in circles in the fake flowers, saying, "What the Fuck?" No, really, Martha?. Skull molds? It is a strange world we live in.

I bought them.

Of course, I friggin' bought them.

Because they are called party molds, I wasn't sure how they were going to turn out for sugar skulls. Sugar skulls are both incredibly easy to make and also a wee bit of magic. My first batch was riddled with first world problems--organic unbleached sugar looks like sand, and so my skulls really looked like sand skulls, which is more DUNE than Dia de los Muertos. And I poured water into my sugar from my Brita filter and too much went in, so it was too wet, which ruined the drying time...see, first world problems.

Let me start with the recipe. One cup of sugar. One teaspoon of meringue powder. A little bit of water, like seriously four drops. Or better, get your hands wet and mix it all together. I went out and bought white sugar, unlike the above picture, and tried again. The consistency is like sand. You mix it, press it into the molds, then flip them onto some cardboard, and they should pop right now. My first brown batch didn't come out of the molds at all--too much water.

So, I mixed the second batch a day later with white sugar, and when I flipped the molds over, the white ones were perfect. I let them sit overnight.

The recipe book I have says, "Mix some food coloring into powdered sugar for icing." Yeah. That didn't work for me. It was terrible. I had cookie icing, and dyed it some colors, and used that, which was very wet. I am terrible at baking and all things delicate. So, they are truly terrible, but I did a few with Beezus screaming--MAKE IT PINK!

The only thing I like about these sugar skulls is that they look like Mexican wrestling masks. But in general, I think they are terrible. I might make some icing for them to experiment, but I really have so much stuff to do, I can't even believe I spent this much time on them. Here are the last four empty slates...still figuring these out.


Tomorrow is Mabon, and we are very excited to be feasting and getting ready for the Autumn. I will blog about our feast and our celebration. With love to all.

Friday, September 16, 2011

repainting the jizo.

Watercolor is notorious for fading in the sun. And as I approach three years since Lucy's death, I am finding my earliest of post-Lucy watercolors sun-damaged and faded. Take for instance one of my first mizuko jizo. I used to paint two styles of jizos, now, I paint about five. But my earliest jizos were either clusters of jizos, each with a prayer. And the other was more of a pop-art kind of jizo. It just depends on the mood I am cultivating at the moment. I remember painting this one, and the joy I felt at painting Lucy alive and playing peek-a-boo.

Here it is faded out of its frame. So, maybe this is not gauche, or something, but I repainted it very carefully. Now it looks like this.

I'm happy I did it. I was nervous to ruin this painting, but it was undisplayable before, and now, it looks like it did. I even got to tone down that obnoxious signature. Yay.

Today is picture day at Beezus' school. So, she suggested we take a picture of us. We tried.

This one, I was holding the camera, and then Thomas Harry was angry with the entire situation.

This one is the one we set the timer for.

Beezus didn't like the timer one, so she decided she would just take a picture of Thor and Mama.

Have a lovely day. We finally have some fall weather. It is beautiful outside, and so we are going to go play.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

the talking stick

As we approach Mabon, or autumn equinox, we always consult our favorite book for earth-centered celebrations called Celebrating the Great Mother. It is just a lovely book with guided meditations for children and crafts around the seasonal changes and pagan holidays. It has recipes for your feasts, and ideas for decorating your altar.

Mabon is next week, and we have begun preparing by creating our autumn table, which will be added to on the equinox. But for now, we have the staples.

We have recently moved our altar to an old Shaker table next to our fireplace. I'm not sure how long it will be there, but at least until we light our first fire on Mabon. We always have Lucy's candle, local wildflowers in a ceramic vase, salt, sage, a bowl of water, a meditation gong, the Buddha, a mizko jizo, a crystal and a piece of amethyst, incense and for autumn, we like to cut apples width-wise which creates a beautiful star right in the center of the apple. If anyone is interested, I can share the meaning of these items, but otherwise, I will assume you know what each piece is on there for. The other rather large thing in the middle is not a wand, but a talking stick.

 The talking stick is something we started last Mabon. It is an activity in the Celebrating the Great Mother book, and we loved it. We were using this beautiful carved driftwood that Ines sent us (see left) as our talking stick, but we kept an eye open for a new talking stick that we could create together as a family for our family. The idea of the talking stick is that it is a piece for the entire family to create. The talking stick is a way to hold a meeting, I believe, in some native cultures, but in a family, we use it as a way to introduce the idea of patience, good people skills, sharing and listening. We found our talking stick this summer. We think it was part of an old chair we were throwing out, but it ended up being perfectly cut in our walkway, and it looked like a talking stick. We wrapped the stick in leather strap. Beatrice sanded it and waxed it with beeswax. We are keeping our eyes open for a feather for the talking stick and maybe something with which to decorate it. In general, though, the talking stick can change, morph and grow according to your family. I know ours will be more decorated when Beezus gets more interested in it, as has happened with everything in our family.

As a family, we sit in circle most evenings after dinner. We light the candle and talk about our day, or read stories, or just wrestle. We drink tea. Thor bounces up and down demanding tea after dinner. (peppermint or chamomile tea harvested from our tea garden with a little sugar and lots of milk.) So does Beatrice for that matter. The talking stick is introduced on certain days, like Mabon, or a birthday. But some nights, like tonight, just when we are feeling gratitude. I thought I should write about it, because it has become a wonderful part of our family time.

Usually we smudge our space with some sage, and bless each person with the smoke. To bless each person, a parent takes the lit and blown our sage stick with a bowl under it to each person. Each person, big or little, takes the smoke from the sage and washes it over themselves. Sometimes I say to each person as they bring the smoke over themselves, "Sacred smoke, cleanse my spirit and make me ready to accept love." We say a prayer of love and gratitude that we are together, and then each person takes a turn holding the stick. When it is your turn holding the talking stick, you get to speak. Only you. No one is allowed to interrupt you, or comment. We all must listen and sit in circle. Thor usually sits on my lap. Because Beezus is so young, she usually talks about what she is thankful for, or what she is upset about (her brother stealing her polar bear Umi). Thomas kisses the talking stick, usually. But it is a great way to start the tradition of talking as a family and having time where everyone is listened to and heard.

If there is a problem, we use the ceremony to hear the issues, then afterward, we sit and talk about solutions. Hope this gave someone an idea for an evening ritual and way of connecting. This evening, I felt so much peace and love after our circle that I realized I had never really wrote about the talking stick and the way it has become part of our daily lives.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

wooden anniversary

The first of September was my fifth wedding anniversary. I definitely hit the lottery with my hunky, funny, cool husband. My husband and I decided to go away without the children for the first time, well, ever. I actually was fine with it, emotionally. I guess that was surprising even for me. The kids did great. I know my mother loved watching the children over night, and I loved reconnecting with my husband. We went to Lambertville, NJ, which is on the Delaware River across from New Hope, PA. There are lots of little antique stores and interior design places there. There is also an awesome flea market, right up the canal path that runs along the river. The canal path is fit for biking, walking, whatever. We took our bikes to get some riding in. The first morning we woke up in Lambertville, we rode to the flea market. It was awesome.

We are really low-key people. We don't buy each other gifts for anniversaries or Valentine's Day. We try to spend time together. But he always sends me flowers on our anniversary and my birthday, because I love getting flowers. The whole thing with the stranger coming to my door, the note to open, the arrangement, the fresh flowers on my table for a week. All of it I love. He did that, because he is wonderful. But when we get gifts for anniversaries, we try to shop together for something for our family. Our feeling about it is that the two of us working together for our marriage is what is to be celebrated.

For the fifth anniversary, the traditional gift is wood. I think our first anniversary, we bought a painting, since it was the gift of paper. My husband and I talked about it and decided to try to find something wood at the flea market and antique shops we poked around this weekend. We bought a few things--an antique side table and lamp (see the picture on the left, sorry about the weird window glare.)

But what I wanted to blog about was my favorite purchase which was an old printer's drawer. You can find them at flea markets and antique shops pretty easily. I had seen them around and always thought it would look cool hanging on a wall as a kind of curio box. I had thought that in passing, but never planned it out. But then, there we were in front of two gorgeous printer's drawers at the flea market. And I said, "What if we hang it above the fireplace?" And Sam nodded and couldn't visualize it and I said "Trust me. This is exactly the look we are going for." And he trusted me. See, printing for me as a writer, and Sam's father owned a print shop, so it is double meaningful for us. I had been trying desperately to find something for above the fire place. I could just absolutely visualize it. We rode back to Lamberville, my husband rode one armed as he held the printer's drawer.

This is the other thing, I love little things, and I have no where to put them. So, I filled the containers with things that represent our family--coins from Panama, Italy and New Zealand. I put the tickets to Sam and my first opera together and another ticket from our first concert together--Sigur Ros. There is the nest I needlefelted, and a perfume jar from Budapest, where Sam's sister lived when we first met. There is an artist's model. There is a pin from the 60s that says "Wages for Housework." Ines' carved wood block for Lucy. There are shells from Carly and some from Sam's father. Snail shells we found in our backyard, a metal medallion from Thailand. A naval pin from my father. There is a lighter from China that has Mao Tse Tung. And a little wooden peg person I painted of Sam, and one of Lucy. There is a pencil from Oregon Lanes, the now closed bowling alley in South Philly. There are religious medals of St. Lucy from Karen in British Columbia. Candles we made. There is a piece of sushi I made out of polymer clay. There are acorns we collected last autumn. And a cameo my grandmother gave me. There is a magnet from Esposito's Meats in South Philly, which was very near Sam and my first apartment. There is a worry doll and a button my sister made, and I just ordered a few terrariums in thimbles to add to it. Each of these things adds up to the story of our family.

This project was so friggin' easy and inexpensive. The drawer itself was only twenty-five dollars, and the little things I have been collecting for years. When we got home, Beezus and I went room to room searching for little meaningful things we loved that might fit in the odd shapes spaces where old printing plates once lived. It is the most personal, wonderful anniversary gift we could have given ourselves. And the best part of it is that it is exactly the look I wanted for above the fireplace. Earthy and funky and totally about our family.

Monday, September 5, 2011

concord grape jelly

A few years ago, I bought a stick from the Home Depot with a label that said "Concord Grape" on it.

I say I bought a stick, because I couldn't really believe it was going to turn into a grape vine. I planted it in the sandiest, crappiest part of our yard, which was behind our basketball goal, and in the two feet between the driveway and the neighbor's fence. I gave it the best start in life that I could as the possessor of the Black Thumb of Death. Anything that grows for me dies a slow death either from too much water, or not enough, from neglect or obsessive love. From ambitious plans in subpar soil. It reminds me of when I showed my friend Sid my bonzai. "I think it is dying, Sid."  She looked at it, the branch she gently touch crumbled beneath her fingers. "Oh, honey, I think your bonzai is already dead."

I don't know why I thought the grapes would be different, but I think it is my ultimately optimistic view of the universe, like Sisyphus, I imagine the rock might stay the next time. One must imagine me happy. I hoped that we could have a fenceline of concord grapes, which rank a solid two in my favorite fruits of all time. (Strawberries win it.) And in the end, somehow Dionysus took pity.

This year, imagine my surprise when the grapes actually friggin' grew. I was surprised at least. I actually like grapes. The grape vine exploded. I have no idea what I am doing, but I asked Sam to make some kind of fancy fency, and string them up.

Layers and layers of concord grapes. It looks like someone who knows what they are doing, even though by all rights they should be dead.

Last year, I had some grapes that grew ripe. I ate one off the vine and vowed to pick them all the next day, but when I went outside the next morning, they were all gone. It was like some clever crow heard my braggardly and lazy ways and alerts the swarms of crows that descended. This year, I tried desperately hard to stay on top of it. Concord grapes are one of the few fruits that stop ripening off the plant, so you must pick them when ripe and beat the birds.

Friday, my mother and I went outside with some buckets and the kids and picked, and picked, and picked and picked. Then posed the children in this very unnatural way with the bowls of grapes in front of them, because don't you always let your kids hang out on the floor with the dog and his Kong ball and play with grapes?

 I poured myself a large tall iced coffee and got to work. I got this recipe from my sister for a small batch of concord grape jam or jelly or preserves. I don't know which is which, but the ingredients are literally grapes and sugar, so maybe someone can help me figure out which I made.

 Started with four cups of concord grapes. (Or one quart from the market if you aren't fortunate enough to have your own grape stick.)

 You then get an 8"x8" casserole (or two quart) Put one layer of grapes down, covering the bottom.

Smoosh (sp?) them up with a potato masher. Squish them. Release the hounds juices.

 It gets soupy. Then you add the remaining grapes on top of it. Cover it and microwave it on high for three minutes. My understanding is that microwaving is recommended over cooking for fruits with a lot of pectin, which apparently concord grapes have. You then uncover and microwave for another four minutes.

 Your house smells amazing at this point. I mean, totally amazing.

 Set up a strainer with a pouring bowl underneath it. Now, remember, we started with four cups of grapes, you pour that four cups of cooked down grapes into this strainer, over a bowl. You want all the seeds out.

 Immediately, it looks like this. You push the swollen grapes through, releasing the liquid and keeping the skins and seed in the strainer.

 All said and done, it looks like this. It took a lot of squishing to get the liquid. It seemed like I wouldn't have enough, but I did.

 Grape juice looks a lot like blood.

 Four cups of grapes turned into two cups of grape juice. You then put that in a half quart saucepan. You add equal amounts of sugar to your liquid--so two cups of sugar for this batch, but it will entirely depend on how much liquid comes out of your grapes.

 Put on the stove for a quick boil, not quick as in for a minute, but quick as in a rapid boil for fifteen minutes.

They tell you to do the gel test (put a spoonful on a plate, let cool, see if it hardens.) after fifteen minutes to make sure it is turning into jelly, but that didn't work for me. It just seemed like really good grape liquid. It was delicious warm on freshly made yogurt. I was contented, even though it didn't gel. I made a stick turn into something sweet and yummy. I put it in the fridge and the next day...

It was definitely jelly.

YUM! It tastes amazing, everyone loves it, and it goes with everything. Hope you can make your own concord grape jelly/jam/preserves.  I will probably have a few more grape related recipes coming your way.