Saturday, December 29, 2007

Stones and a Spa for Winter

I've just come back from looking at the proofs of my French Republican calendar (you can order it from me at my website store) and I'm thrilled by its beauty. I had a lot of fun creating the calendar grids and embellishing them with colors and fonts. Plus the photographs taken by my friend, Christine Valters Paintner, are incredible.

One of the things I love about the calendar are the seasonal items associated with each day of the year. Usually these are plants, trees, vegetables and fruits, but in Nivose (the month which covers December/January) the items are mostly all minerals, and I was wondering how I was going to honor these items. Then my friend, Elizabeth, suggested a trip to the Korean spa in Lynnwood for the day after Christmas and lo and behold, they have various mineral rooms as part of their offerings.

Hanging out in hot water is one of my very favorite things, and doing that in a luxurious atmosphere, where I could dip in and out of various bubbling pools, and alternate that with visits to a steam room and a sauna was a perfect indulgence for the day after Christmas. The Korean spa also has a cafe, a lounge, body scrubs, massages, pedicures and manicures and other delights I didn't sample.

But we did try the various rooms: a sand room, a charcoal room and a meditation room lined with elvan stone (which is apparently harvested from the bottom of the ocean surrounding Korea). Each of these minerals is supposed to have a different effect on the body and it was interesting to compare the results. I loved the sand room; it reminded me of happy afternoons spent on Southern California beaches and it made me feel sparkly and alive. Neither of us liked the charcoal room much; it felt rather dull and lifeless to me. Elizabeth loved the meditation room and so did the other women who were in it (they had all fallen asleep as far as I could tell). It amplified my (dehydration?) headache and actually gave me a backache which persisted for a day afterwards. I wonder if it magnifies physical symptoms that are already present.

I like knowing that I can go back to the spa when I want to experience certain minerals that will show up in the December calendar. We went on the day associated with lava. I think a hot tub and a stone room are as close as I will get to lava on December 26.

Christmas this year was the day of the dog, and I finished reading Mark Doty's beautiful and brilliant memoir about his life with dogs, Dog Years, on that day. It's exquisite. Sad, profound, uplifting. It will without doubt make my top ten list for the year. It might even be the best book I've read all year.

The photograph above was taken by Mylene Bressan and can be found at

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Shopping and Solstice

For years I've been rather critical of the emphasis on shopping at this time of the year. This disdain serves me well as I hate shopping. I put it on a par with going to the dentist, something one must do but let's get it over with as quickly as possible. Armed with a list of what I want, choosing a time when the store is least crowded, I'll dart in, grab what I want, pay for it and leave. (I used to feel guilty because I felt I had deprived my daughter of the pleasure of happy mother-daughter shopping expeditions, browsing lazily through choices, wandering the mall, but it turns out she hates shopping as much as I do. It's her boyfriend who's the leisurely shopper.)

So it came as a total surprise on the Winter Solstice when I usually observe a day of quiet and rest that I longed to go shopping. I must admit this wasn't a desire to go shopping in general: I wanted to go to Lush. Now if you know Lush, you'll understand (especially if I add that I had just run out of their violet scented soap) and if you don't know Lush, you should check out their website and you'll understand. Still it didn't seem like a good idea to go downtown to the mall and the Lush store three shopping days before Christmas. Especially when I was committed to spending a quiet day with no electricity, no telephone, nothing but silence and candlelight.

But in the quiet of my apartment, with the rain pattering on the windows, just me and the dog who was sleeping, I started thinking maybe shopping at this time of year is a natural activity not an artificial one. Our natural response to darkness is to light lights, whether they're candles on the Advent wreath or the bright lights of the nearest store. And our natural response to loneliness is to gather with others, whether that's at a feast on Christmas eve or in a shopping mall. It also occurred to me that bright lights and parties are a great way to push away the thoughts of death and feelings of loneliness that imbue the season.

So what did I do?I went to Lush. And it was sweet. I had an eggnog latte while waiting for the bus. When we got downtown we passed a group of young black men singing doowop songs a cappella outside one of the big department stores. One of them stopped to help an old lady into her cab. People were holding open the doors to the mall so shoppers laden with bags could pass through. There was a carousel and and a long line of kids bundled in jackets waiting to ride on it. There was another long line at the hot dog stand and inside the Sees candy store. Lush was crowded but no lines. I got the last bit of violet soap (and a few other presents) and jumped back on the bus.

When I got home I went on my solitary, quiet walk through the wintery woods and stood for a long time in the holly grove. And that was just as wonderful.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Slow Cookie Epiphany

Every year I have the intention of making 13 different types of cookies for my solstice party, a tradition adapted from the Southern European custom of serving 13 desserts on Christmas Eve. I've never made it to 13; my highest number is 7.

This year, since my goal for my Solstice party was to be as relaxed as possible, I decided to make just my favorite cookies, one batch a night during the week leading up to the party. I also halved the cookie recipes which helped enormously--no more juggling multiple baking trays and drying racks.

But by Wednesday night, I was cranky. I had to throw away two batches of cookies, one because the sour cream had gone bad, the other because I accidently put in too much baking soda. I started to get a little panicked about getting all the cookeis done. I was in a hurry and impatient. The dough kept sticking to the rolling pin. The cookies fell apart when pried from the cookie cutters or else they stuck to the bread board. The kitchen was hot. It was late. I wanted to go to bed.

That's when I had my cookie epiphany. I realized that when you're just checking off items on your to-do list, even if they're things as fundamentally satisfying as making cookies or writing a novel, they become chores.

I decided to slow down and enjoy the process. Who cares if I didn't make a lot of cookies? I could always buy cookies at the store. And as soon as I slowed down, that magical thing happens which always happens in slow time. Time just flew by while I was savoring the silky feel of the flour, the pliancy of the dough, the scent of the spices. The cookies started behaving, rolling out perfectly on the board, filling the baking sheets, emerging from the oven golden and fragrant.

Over the next few nights, I revelled in the cookie-making process. I was alone and sometimes wondered if it would be more fun if I were sharing the experience, but I also liked the silence which allowed me give the process my full attention. Cookie making became a meditation.

In the end, I only made three of my favorite cookies (Kourabiedes, Advent pretzels and Zimsterne). Since I never got around to making my signature lavender shortbread cookies, I did buy some excellent ginger shortbread cookies at the store, but you know what? No one at the party ate any of the store-bought cookies. Apparently they prefer slow time cookies.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Advent Wreath made by an urban forager

Here's my Advent wreath for this year. I made it using a new technique. For years I've been gathering materials for my wreath during walks around my neighborhood, but, I must confess that I often carried a scissors with me, to help me harvest the evergreen boughs I craved.
For the past two years, I've used a new method which I call urban foraging. I go to the nearby 100-year-old park and look for downed branches under the trees. Often a big December windstorm helps me out by shaking branches loose from the trees. But this year the weather had been fairly calm before my excursion. I still found more than enough material to make my wreath. I found yew branches (with a few berries still on them) and other branches with tiny pine cones. I got offerings from Sequoias, cedars, pines and cypresses (but no holly--holly branches just don't break off like other evergreens).
One problem with this method is that the materials are pretty dry and the Advent wreath doesn't last as long as it would if I harvested living plant materials. But it's worth it for the lack of guilt, both in raiding the park (illegal) and cutting branches off plants (I always ask for permission, and usually bring a gift, but am never really convinced that they say yes).
I use the colors of the four directions for my candles: yellow for east, red for south, blue for west, and green for north, and put the greens I associate with each direction close to those candles. So I loved the blue-tinged evergreens I found to go around my blue candle and the yew branches went by the north candle (yew is often planted on the north side of churches because of its association with death and rebirth) and the cypress branches which had new yellow buds on the tips went near the eastern candle.
You can still see the white of the foam base showing through in places so I still need to pick up a few more branches. I look forward to seeing what evergreens appear along my path.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Colors of Christmas (or should I say Yule?)

I walked to the park on Sunday to gather my greens for my Advent wreath (yes, I know I'm several weeks behind) and I was stopped in my tracks several times by the brilliant combination of red and green. No wonder these are the colors of the season.
It got me started thinking about how certain color combinations signify certain holidays. You can't really wear red and green without evoking Christmas. The same with orange and black which always screams Halloween.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Feverfew Cures Migraines

In the depths of grey November, there are still a few flowers blooming on my block and one of them is the cheerful, omnipresent feverfew. I don't know why I haven't written about it before since it's one of the most important plants in my life: it cured me of my migraines.

Ever since I was 8 years old (when my mother took me to the doctor to see if I needed glasses because of my bad headaches--I did need glasses but that wasn't what was causing my headaches), I've suffered from migraines. I've never been as completely incapacitated like some of my friends. I've never ended up in the emergency room with a migraine. I rarely threw up. But I did during the worst migraine I ever had. It came on during a European trip with my aunt, right after a rather rocky crossing of the English Channel on a ferry. (My worst migraines almost all happened while I was traveling.) I spent the next 24 hours in a hotel room off the main square in Bruges. Every time the bells in the clock tower across the square rang the hour, I woke up, threw up and crawled back into bed.

At that point I had tried everything for my migraines. Prescription medication didn't work. Dried feverfew capsules didn't work. Sometimes two aspirins taken right at the first sign of a headache was enough to ward it off. Often it wasn't. I don't remember who first told me about feverfew, but it worked the first time. I've been using it for years and I've had very few migraines and those have been mild. I think part of the reason it works is that I now know relief is available. And I want to let everyone who suffers from migraines know that too.

It's so simple. It grows everywhere (in the Northwest, anyway). It's free. And it absolutely works. I pick three leaves (medium sized leaves, usually tender new leaves) off the nearest plant I can find whenever I get that suspicious feeling that maybe the headache I've feeling is actually a migraine. You want a plant that hasn't been sprayed so I do choose my plant carefully. I eat one leaf and it usually tastes bitter. I wait about five minutes and eat another. And after another five minutes the third. By that time, the leaf actually tastes more sweet than bitter, which indicates to me that it's working.

The biggest difficulty I have is convincing anyone to try it. The longer you've suffered from the agony of migraines, the more things you've tried (unsuccessfully), and the less likely you are to believe relief is possible. And I admit that belief is part of the magic for me. I believe it works and so it does. (Although I must say it has also helped many friends who I've convinced to try it). Yet when I tell people about it, I can see that look in their eyes that says "It may have cured your migraines but it will never cure mine").

If you suffer from migraines, I urge you to give it a try. Here's what you do. Find a plant. They grow wild in the Northwest. I always have one growing in my garden. I keep my eye on the plants in my neighborhood. The plant in the top photo shows the cheerful white daisy-like flowers, besides a feverfew that has no flowers but the characteristic leafy foliage. It smells rather tangy. It tastes bitter. This photograph shows another feverfew growing in the parkway. They can grow to about three feet tall.