Holidays – your favorite time or your worst nightmare?


It’s that time of year for candlelight and warm beverages and heart-warming stories. Do you have happy memories from your childhood holidays? So many people don’t–and it often makes their adult holiday times less than enjoyable.

I’m glad to say my childhood memories are mostly positive. With nine living kids in my family let me tell you, when we came down on Christmas morning, it looked like heaven had opened up and dropped a giant bag of presents on us—all piled under and around the multi-color lighted real tree. Even though none of us received a lot, the combination of a few things for each of the nine of us added up to what looked like a mountain of treasure. Plus, many of us were close enough in age that we could look forward to potentially sharing goodies with each other. Another favorite tradition for me was getting the honor of moving Joseph and Mary one step closer to the manger each day, then putting the baby Jesus into the scene on Christmas eve. Oh, and of course singing hymns together that night.

Do you start celebrating early so you can get more fun out of the season? In Chicago we have a radio station that starts playing only Christmas music from November 1st on! Do you try to make your present-day holidays fun despite not-so-happy memories? Or do you just struggle to get through these days and hope not to get majorly depressed? Are you religious and hope to spend extra time attending services? I’ve sung in a choir at a few times in my life—I have some fond memories of singing during Advent and at Christmas night celebrations.

If you’re single and don’t have a family (or have one that you don’t care to see) while all your friends disappear into theirs, this time of year can be crummy. If you’re single and want to create a special time, find some other single women (I know it can be hard; some single women are reluctant to identify themselves as such) and plan a story-sharing evening. Make it a potluck gathering so no one person has to do too much work. Share good memories of holidays. Share ideas for making the end of the year special and for celebrating the beginning of the new year. Encourage each other. Get to know each other better. Plan something fun together—bake something together. Go ice skating if you’re still young enough, or drink hot toddies if that feels better. Or maybe drink hot toddies and then go skating… Doesn’t matter. Whatever feels good is good.

What do you do for fun or satisfying ways to make this time of year special?

Patinoire du marché de Noël : Plaisir d'hiver 2006

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Virtue, thy name is “spread thy baking tasks over time”

'Cavendish' bananas are the main commercial cu...
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Okay, I’ve had this passel of bananas browning on my counter for the past week. They oughtta be good ‘n’ ripe now, I tell myself yesterday as I start washing the dishes piled in the sink from the last few days. It’s time to make that recipe I planned on when I deliberately bought way too many bananas (hey, the Costco on Elston has great prices!) for me to eat.

Been waiting for the moment when I am not under a high-pressure deadline for a project. But I also have to psych myself into the mood to dig out the flour and sugar and baking powder/soda. Anyone know an easy way to remember which type goes in which kinds of baked good? Which leads me to think about baking and how the types of baking recipes I’m even willing to consider are all fairly simple. None of this puff pastry, handmade pasta or piecrusts, or brioche (oh, yeah, I never touch yeast after a couple of truly mediocre efforts many years ago when I was still a married, stay-at-home mother). Yet I love things like banana bread for my breakfast, and I can make it so it feels really healthy. So why do I resist baking so stubbornly?

I’ve decided it’s not that baking is so hard. It’s first because my ingredients are usually buried in the back of some cabinet or closet—where in the world did I put that stuff when I moved?—which means I can’t just start. I am passionate about being able to do what I want to do immediately when I decide to do it. None of this running out to the store because I don’t have any vanilla or my brown sugar has hardened into a block of concrete. And then there’s the dozen-plus bowls and utensils I’ve got to dirty up—and wash afterwards.

So last night I still have some energy left at 6 pm. I think, I’ll put the butter out to soften tonight. If I pour the sugar on it, it won’t be too exposed. Not sure what happens to butter if you leave it out a really long time. I read somewhere that when you leave margarine out for days/weeks it never gets moldy or  anything–meaning it’s truly plastic. So I guess butter must eventually mold or get sour.

1/2 lb butter, 1 c sugar, 1/4 c water and 1 tb...
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And did you know that unsalted butter (the kind I like best) doesn’t get as soft as salted butter? Even though I soften it all night (and sometimes all the next day if my timing gets screwed up) I still have to beat the hell out of it with my long-handled wooden spoon in a valiant effort to cream it with the sugar. None of this using oil, or melting the butter. And none of this using the electric mixer. Somehow I’ve convinced myself the texture of the finished product is better if I expend all that energy by hand instead of taking shortcuts.

Okay, I did it. It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. Christmas music is  playing on my customized Pandora Internet radio station. I just finished cleaning up the dishes and utensils and have taken the banana-oatmeal bread out of the oven. Do I feel virtuous? Absolutely. Am I going to have a hard time waiting until it’s cool enough to have a piece for breakfast. Well, duh.

Anyway—as we all learn eventually—the trick is to break up the dreaded work into tasks that can be spread over time. Oh, yeah, and maybe I’ll try to carve out a space to keep all my dry baking stuff in one spot. Maybe this way I’ll get a few more of those goodies baked for friends and family this Christmas.

And have many more opportunities to feel virtuous, too… ” )

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On living sparely yet generously


I’m moving in a few weeks. In preparation I’ve been sifting through my accumulated stuff. Interesting what I thought was essential when I downsized to move to my Chicago condo. Now I’m turning my heart and mind to starting a new, modified-minimalist approach to living–i.e., stop holding onto so many objects.

One nice part of this process is being able to choose things from among my Christmas candles and cookiessurroundings that I think my family members might enjoy having. Haven’t wrapped this many Christmas presents in a long time.

My daughter points out to me that it’s nice to live so that you have absolutely anything and everything you could possibly need should you decide one day to repair an appliance, wrap a massive package, or create a special gourmet dinner that requires an unusual herb or spice. Being able to be creative at will, without having to go to the store to buy items, has been fun all these years. But the fact is, the closer you live to the center of a great metropolis, the less space you get for the same money.

Now, as I read recently in Frenchwomen Don’t Get Fat, there is beauty in planning what you will eat for only a day or two and walking to the store to buy just what you need. There is luxury in making and enjoying a very small serving of any wonderful dish that strikes your fancy–including those with such rich and decadent ingredients as heavy cream and dark chocolate.

In my current Chicago neighborhood I can walk to two different grocery stores, but neither one of them carries even slightly exotic or unusual items. I can’t get, for example, leeks at either place. Even something as basic as basil isn’t a staple in Hispanic groceries.

The new neighborhood, Lakeview, while it doesn’t have a reasonably priced grocery store in walking distance has dozens of other places to get what you need. I look forward to exploring it.

But most of all, I look forward to living even more in the moment. Like the Japanese who make a prayer out of making and serving tea, I will try to  complete the steps to each task with full attention and appreciation. From walking through a snowstorm to the store, to riding the bus through Lincoln Park to downtown, to lighting candles and gazing out my new windows down the lovely street where I had my first apartment at age 19, I relish the chance to practice living my life sparely yet generously.

May your thoughts be warm and your heart full of love this blessed Christmas week.

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What do you do when you have a ton of work to do and you just can’t motivate yourself to do it? Hey, it’s a wind-chill of 16-below outside–the wind is ridiculous. And it’s Sunday, and I’ve got Christmas lights and decorations and flickering candles and Christmas music in here. Is it right that I should have to sit at the computer and not enjoy all that?

Well, part of the joy of working at home is the ability to work at strange hours like 4 am if you want. And I did accomplish a lot of personal chores today, so at least I don’t feel lazy. That means I will plan on one of those incredibly productive Monday mornings tomorrow. I can usually get more work done in 4 hours in the early hours–providing I keep the email program closed–than I do in a whole typical day with distractions.

Are you planning a love-filled Christmas this year? I am so glad to be alive and well and blessed with a 17-month-old little pistol of a granddaughter that this Christmas feels especially joyful and emotional to me. I hope you are feeling much love for family and for the whole human race.