Thursday, December 25, 2008

Simply Christmas

I'll admit it right up front: I love Christmas. Not for the piles of presents—I like receiving gifts as much as anyone else, but honestly, what I love about this holiday of lights is not the accumulation of more stuff.

Nor do I love the commercial-ization of what once was an especially spiritual and giving time of year but has now become the season of shopping, during which every advertisement encourages us to buy, buy, buy.

No, what I love about this winter holiday is its green and joyous roots, which come through no matter how over-commercialized, over-consumptive, and simply stressful Christmas has become.

I love the lights, the joyful music, the spicy smell of sap from evergreen trees and wreaths, the opportunity to practice generosity and the warmth of fellowship, and the quiet time to reflect on the year soon ending.

The holiday that we call Christmas began for all that. Long before Black Friday and super-special discounts that encourage mob behavior, Christmas was a celebration of light and the miracle of renewed life in the darkest, coldest days of winter.

In those days before central heating guaranteed warmth and electricity stretched daytime deep into winter's nights, and before the technology of fossil fuels transported people and goods from continent to continent, winter was a season that took concerted effort to survive.

When the solstice came and the sun rose and set far to the south, appearing to hesitate before finally, gradually turning back toward longer days and shorter nights, celebration was most definitely in order.

Hence the lights, including the tradition of the Yule log, a massive log that would burn through hours of darkness, and the Hannukkah candles, symbols of survival through the most difficult of times.

And the evergreens, brought inside as reminders that life continues even when the soil itself freezes and snow mantles the earth. The music and feasting to warm bodies and lift spirits depressed by the cold and lack of daylight.

And just as important, the stories told specially for this time of year to remind us that even when times seem bleak as the weather, we are capable of miracles as bright and promising as the shimmering stars that guide us, tales that hold out hope that our best selves will lead us into a new year and new life.

If you look past the advertising, the sales, the exhortations to buy more and bigger and fancier stuff, Christmas is still there.

It's in the unexpected and genuine smiles, the sound of voices raised in joyful song, the heartfelt giving of gifts, the acts of sudden generosity like shoveling someone else's sidewalk, the invitations to gather over festive food and drink, the moments of quiet when we remember why we are here, and the lights, both those twinkling from houses and the eternal, ever-changing show in the heavens overhead.

It's in the darkness and the blessing of dawn, but most of all, Christmas is the spirit that burns within us all, every day.

This post comes from my weekly newspaper and radio commentary, which is also available in audio version as a podcast on my web site,

I'm taking next week off for the holidays, and will return to blogging early in the new year, with some changes and some great news. May the new year bring you all a richer connection to your community, and great joy! Blessings, Susan

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lighting the Darkness

Each year on winter solstice, my husband, Richard and I celebrate the passing of winter’s longest nights with a party: we fill our bellies with homemade eggnog (recipe below) and our hearts with the companionship of friends and family.

To warm our spirits, we light the darkness, filling dozens of paper bags with a scoop of sand and a small votive candle, and lining our block with these luminarias. As dusk falls, party-goers help us light them one by one; the small flames burn through the night heralding the sun’s return at dawn.

Before our relatively recent understanding of the effect of Earth’s rotational eccentricity on day-length, it must have seemed as if the sun retreated each fall, leaving only darkness and cold. Then, as if by magic, our celestial source of light and heat had a change of heart after winter solstice and the days gradually grew longer again.

Hence the predominance of decorative and symbolic lights in our winter holiday celebrations. My Celtic and Scandinavian ancestors lit bonfires atop hills near their homes on the shortest night of the year. The ancient Norse illuminated the dark times with a 12-day feast in halls lit by burning log and taper, where bards recited epic poems in which heroes triumphed over the darkness of evil just as the returning light would eventually banish winter’s long nights.

The luminarias that Richard and I light every year are a tradition we picked up in our years in New Mexico. These "little lights" evolved from bonfires and hanging paper lanterns lit to guide the procession portraying the Holy Family in their search for shelter. (The paper-bag lights are still called farolitos, “little lanterns,” in Santa Fe, but are luminarias elsewhere.)

Holiday lights are meant to illuminate, a word that means “to light up,” and also, appropriate to our modern insight into the way Earth’s tilted axis is responsible for the annual alternation in day length, “to explain, make clear, elucidate.” Light alleviates our intellectual and spiritual darkness, bestowing knowledge and understanding.

As I strike a match to light a wick at our solstice celebration and place a flaming votive candle on its bed of sand inside a paper bag, I think about what I learn from these lights The paper bags by themselves are flimsy and flammable, the candles small, the sand simply grit underfoot.

Yet together candle, lunch bag, and sand do their part to illuminate the darkness: each slender wick feeds liquid wax into flame; the paper walls shelter that flame from wind and snow and their translucency diffuses light; the sand grounds the bag and prevents the flame from incinerating the paper that protects it.

Inside their flammable shelters the candles burn steadily hour after hour through the darkness of a long winter night. When dawn comes many of these ethereal lamps are still glowing softly, demonstrating the extraordinary resilience and beauty in the simplest of materials.

This year marked our eleventh winter solstice at home in this rural south-central Colorado community, and our eleventh "light the darkness" party. Throngs of friends arrived to help fill and place luminaria bags, and to light the candles even as air temperatures plunged after sunset. By dark, our house was packed with friends, the inside air suffused with warmth and joy.

"We could see your house from blocks away," said one couple as they shed coats and mufflers before joining the crowd. "It glowed."

Hours later, after the last guests had left and Richard and I had finished cleaning up, we stepped outside into the year's longest night. We walked down the sidewalk lined with flickering candlelight under a black sky twinkling with silver stars.

Walking hand in hand in the quiet darkness, breathing air cold and sharp as ice, my spirit glowed, lit by the commonplace grace of love--and the beauty of small candles burning in simple paper bags.

Luscious Eggnog
(Adapted from Joy of Cooking)
One dozen eggs, separated
1 pound powdered sugar
2 1/2 cups dark rum, brandy, or bourbon
3 cups skim milk
3 cups half 'n half
2 cups whipping cream
whole nutmeg for grating
Beat the egg yolks until smooth and slightly frothy. Then add powdered sugar gradually, beating slowly (or else you'll choke on sugar dust) and constantly. (I use a stand mixer for this recipe. It's much easier, especially when beating the whites.) Add the liquor--I use rum--and beat until thoroughly mixed. Then cover and leave the mixture for an hour or so to let the flavors blend. Add the milk, half 'n half, and cream. Cover the mixture again and refrigerate for at least three hours (I do this stage the day before I want to serve the eggnog, and let it mellow overnight in the refrigerator.) Just before serving the eggnog, beat the whites in a large bowl until they form soft peaks. Fold the whites into the nog, grate nutmeg over the surface to taste, and enjoy! (Serves 25 or so if you use small cups--it's potent!)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Going the speed limit

Over the last month, my husband, Richard and I have driven several thousand miles just around the state of Colorado as I've done book events for Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, my collaboration with Steamboat Springs photographer Jim Steinberg. The book is getting loads of great press, from TV news shows to features in the Denver Post and other newspapers, as well as Denver's own 5280 Magazine. (That's thanks to Jim's stamina and persistence: he's been on the road for weeks, doing a media appearance and/or book promotion event every day!)

The chance to travel the state from Craig in the far northwest corner to Durango in the desert southwest, and from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs has offered some lovely sights and experiences. But as we've driven hither, thither, and yon, I've thought about my vow to live generously, leaving plenty of space and resources for the other species with whom we share this miraculous green and blue planet.

Richard and I live pretty lightly in the passive solar house we dreamed up and he helped build. In winter, the sun supplies much of our heat, helped by a super-efficient wood stove and a small gas fireplace for cloudy days. Our lights are compact fluorescents, our toilets water-saving, our yard is largely a restored native bunchgrass and wildflower meadow that uses little water and no pesticides or fertilizers. We work at home, thus avoiding a commute, and we do most of our errands on foot; we grow a large chunk of our food in our kitchen garden and buy as much of the rest locally and in bulk as we can; we live on a reclaimed industrial lot right in town rather than cluttering up the remaining wild habitat with our house, car, fences, pets, and yard light.

But we're driving across the state every few days to do some book promotion event or other. How does that fit into living generously?

Not as well as I'd like. For one thing, there's the use of gasoline, a non-renewable resource that distilled from ancient plants, long buried and turned to oil. I'm not sure that using the remains of these distant ancestors to power our car engines is either very respectful or wise, but it's what we do. Still, I'd like to be as frugal with this fuel as possible. Because we live where winter means traveling on snow-packed highways over high-elevation mountain passes, we drive a Subaru Forester, a small, all-wheel-drive SUV that has been getting about 24 mpg. That's good for an SUV, but nothing to brag about.

Then there's the roadkill. You can't drive anywhere and without seeing the carcasses of other species, large or small, on the roadside. It seems to me the more we drive, the less generous we're being for the wildlife that share the space our roads cross.

I was thinking about both of those issues--using oil and roadkill--as we headed home from a book-promotion event a few weeks ago. As I spoke my concerns out loud to Richard, I had an idea:

"Let's resolve to never drive faster than the speed limit," I said.

Richard, who is a careful driver but not immune to the joys of zipping down the open road, considered it.

"Okay," he said. Then he bumped the cruise control down a few notches.

Somewhere along the way on the next trip, he said out of the blue,

"It's more relaxing this way."

"What's more relaxing?"

"Driving. I'm not always watching the shoulder of the road for the highway patrol."

"Good," I said.

The next time we filled the Forester's tank with gas, I calculated the mileage. And then figured it again, because I was sure I had made a mistake. Nope. By dropping our speed to the posted speed limits, we were getting nearly five more miles per gallon of gas. (Most of the roads we take are rural two-lane highways, which means going 65 miles per hour... or so, instead of 75.) That's a lovely surprise, as is the fact that over the several-hundred-mile-long trips we've been making, we really aren't losing much time--twenty minutes or half an hour at most.

Speed does make a difference with sharing the road too, as we realized when the deer jumped out in front of us the other evening and both we and the deer escaped without so much as a whisker harmed. It's a relief to slow down and not worry so much about avoiding collisions with other drivers and the other species who live here, and thus saving their lives--and ours.

The bonus in driving the speed limit is one I already knew and had forgotten in my rush to get "there" quickly: slowing down means you see more. I wouldn't have noticed the almost full moon hanging chalky and white in a winter afternoon sky if we'd been whizzing along so fast, and I certainly wouldn't have bothered to stop and shoot this photo. Half an hour later and twenty-five miles up the road, that same moon hung silver in a lavender sky over rose-blush pink peaks, and we stopped again. That shot graces the cover of my upcoming memoir. Slowing down gave me a gift of beauty I treasure.

Slowing down makes driving less exhausting all around--in terms of mental and emotional energy, use of fuels distilled from the bodies of those ancient plants, and in sharing the road and the landscape with other vehicles and other species. And it gives us the gift of increased awareness of the places we travel through. That's a wonderful return for the simple act of living more generously.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Snow – at last

It's been a near-historic drought year here in the south-central Rockies, and I've been uneasy for months. I know that I can't do anything about the weather, and that worrying doesn't change a thing, but I can't help feeling sympathy for the community of the land, the wild species whose relationships weave the fabric of this place. I am stitched to this high-desert landscape by the heart. When it hurts, so do I.

So I've worried as weeks have passed in between the scanty offerings of storms, and the weather has been warmer, windier, and dryer than normal. (Whatever "normal" means in the brave new world of global climate change, the unintentional experiment on a grand scale that we can only watch and hope won't be as bad as the models predict.)

In early October, a rare storm system graced this valley with 24 hours of much-needed rain and snow. I relaxed, thinking it was a harbinger of wetter weather. No. The storm passed, the sun returned, and the weather warmed up again beyond seasonal norms. For nearly two months, the sun shone, day after perfect day. The drought got worse. The soil dried to powder. The slopes of the ski area stayed bare.

Until yesterday at about twilight, when the storm the weather bureau had predicted would miss us didn't. It began with huge clumpy flakes of snow so wet they melted on contact, running straight into the soil and down the upraised faces of shrieking children. My husband Richard and I watched the snow swirl down and begin to stick with a cautious sort of joy.

If you've never gone for months without seeing a cloud block the sun for more than a few minutes or weeks without feeling the moist balm of a raindrop, it's hard to explain how huge is the relief when moisture finally suffuses the atmosphere. It's as if the very earth wakes up, and so does some essential part of us. The air fills with the fragrance of quadrillions of tiny creatures revived. Inhale that moisture, that fragrance, and your spirits just can't help rising.

All of life requires water--humans are something over 90 percent water by volume, and about 60 percent by weight. We may no longer live outdoors, exposed to the whims of weather and the appetites of other species, but we can still die of dehydration. Our cells remember that, from gut to brain.

So last night as the wet snow poured out of the sky and piled up, first half an inch, then an inch, then two inches, then six, forming a heavy and wet and white blanket over the landscape; as we shoveled and sweated and got soaking wet from within and without clearing our half-block of sidewalk plus the neighboring park; as we crawled into bed with aching muscles and the snow still sifting from the low clouds, Richard and I were almost giddy with relief.

And when we woke this morning to four more inches of crystalline powder that fell as the night's temperature dropped; as we shoveled our stretches of sidewalk again, tossing snow atop snow, we rejoiced. Moisture has returned to bless our high-desert landscape. Life resumes. Hallelujah!

(I shot these photos this morning at dawn. The first shows the creek we're restoring along one edge of our formerly blighted industrial property. The second is the raised beds of our kitchen garden--the two mounds that look like logs are broccoli, still green under their insulating snow-blanket . In the third, the first light is hitting the peaks above town.)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Winter greens for the winter blues

Have you ever wondered why the winter holidays celebrated by Northern cultures involve evergreens? When deciduous trees and shrubs drop their leaves and flowers are long gone, when daylight disappears and nights grow long, when the soil itself freezes and snow mantles the ground, we need a reminder that life will indeed continue. Hence the evergreen Christmas trees, wreaths of fragrant fir and pine, ivy garlands, and holly centerpieces with shiny leaves and bright red berries.

Those are things I love about Christmas--especially the resinous smell of pine and fir sap, a fragrance that reminds me of sun-warmed summer days even as icy winds blow down the valley and snow dusts the peaks.

But when I find myself feeling the winter blues, I need more than the fragrance of evergreens or the shine of holly berries. I need fresh greens to eat. There's something about ingesting crisp leaves full of chorophyll, the green pigment that plants use to capture the sun's energy, that lifts my winter mood. We live less than a block from the local grocery store, so it's easy to go buy a box of those organic greens from California. But I'd rather eat greens I've grown with my own hands here in my own soil. And although we plant spinach and market greens in fall, and manage to keep some of them alive over the winter, they grow so slowly once the day length drops below 10 hours and the night's lows drop below 10 degrees that the harvest is occasional and tiny.

So this year Richard and I decided to experiment with growing fresh greens inside. Our house is designed to capture the winter sunlight for heat, which means it's got lots of windows facing south and thus can function as a decent greenhouse. In mid-November, long after our last real garden harvest, I planted one flat of spinach seeds (Catalina, my favorite variety from Rene Shepherd) and another flat of Rene's Paris Market salad mix. The Paris Market mix started sprouting in less than a week; the spinach took a bit longer. They're putting out their first real leaves, and looking a bit leggy, so I've taken to moving the two flats from our bedroom where they get sun for less than eight hours a day through the 8-foot-wide sliding glass door, to the living room, where a 16-foot-wide bank of windows occupies one whole wall. If my experiment works, we'll be eating fresh salads in the New Year.

And that--along with a spicy-smelling piƱon pine tree cut to thin our overgrown local forests--takes care of my winter blues.

(Thanks to local artist Rod Porco, maker of extraordinary sculptural baskets and talented woodsworker, for the wreath above and for our firewood and Christmas trees!)