Ho Ho Ho! Mother Nature gave me some spectacular gifts this holiday season. You, too?
When I stepped onto my front porch, for instance, I realized that a hummingbird’s been ferrying fresh fluff-and-stuff to the fuchsia plant along our walkway. Using her beak as a needle, and spider silk as thread, she stitches the cushiony material to a sturdy branch. A quick whirl of her tail feathers, and voilà! Her walnut-sized home’s beginning to take shape. #RoomAtTheInn
Just yesterday, I spied a pair of perky ears, lurking behind the low-lying wall in our backyard. Could it be…? Yes! Wile E. Coyote loped along our fence, and then posed for the camera before trotting up the neighboring hillside.
Oh, and hey, did you notice the tender green shoots, poking their heads through the damp soil at his feet? We’ve had lots more rainstorms of late, and the thirsty soil is gulping it right down! Here’s hoping El Niño showers us with bountiful rains this winter, so we’ll have wildflowers aplenty, come springtime.
“Walking in a Winter Wonderland” might suggest snow flurries and hot chocolate to some, but it sings to me of blue skies and sandy beaches.
When sunlight slants through the water just so, the waves sparkle and shimmer like jewels. Nudged by strong currents, they’re capped these days with frothy meringue peaks. You can’t buy holiday treats like this, anywhere! But at Aliso Creek Beach, they’re free for the taking.
Here, the simple joys of the holiday season, accompanied by the ocean’s magnum opus.
The sun sinks below the horizon, and a pair of surfers wash ashore.
Behold! They stand at the water’s edge, in soggy board shorts and dreads. We witness together the grandeur of this moment.
In this season of giving, we’re encouraged also to receive…
Unspeakable joys, for those who watch and listen. Timeless gifts, no proof of purchase required and no expiration date.
Baking sugar cookies on a rainy day…
Wholly present in the here and now.
Flattened cookies can’t dampen our spirits…
We’ll smear them with frosting, add jimmies and sprinkles!
Elves in the kitchen, working their magic…
Licking their fingers when no one’s watching.
Sweet as nectar, this special day…
Behold! The stuff of Christmas memories.
The tea house is filled with the homey smells of fresh-baked scones, cut flowers, and holiday goodies. Ornaments hang like jewels from the ceiling, intertwined with plaid ribbons and twinkling lights. Sara’s wearing her Winter Princess gown, and why not? It’s our very first holiday tea, and we’re celebrating in style.
Sara chooses the TreeHouse luncheon, strawberry tea, and a heart-shaped scone. I opt for the quiche and vanilla tea.
Our server places two teapots and strainers on our table, suggests we might want to read our tea leaves when we’re done.
Sara spoons a generous amount of sugar into her teacup, adds liberal swirls of cream. She tells me she’s tasted sugar cubes, once or twice. So yummy! “At my grandma’s house,” she adds.
“My Nana used to plop them into her English Breakfast tea,” I say; and though I’m flooded with nostalgia, I’m smiling at the effervescence of this day.
Our server returns to the table, refreshes our water glasses. “Those flowers are 100% edible,” she reminds us. Sara takes a nibble, promptly
steals repositions my camellia.
We eat our fill, and then visit the adobe houses and shops along Los Rios, the oldest neighborhood street in California. I follow Sara’s lead…
Turns out, Santa’s elves have an affinity for gardening. Seems they also love birds, same as us.
Such a coincidence, too, that this watering can looks very much like a teapot.
Ho! Ho! Ho! The Grinch nailed a wreath to his front gate–because, you know, Santa’s watching.
Sara’s transfixed by the “love dove” on this merchant’s porch, but I’m drawn to the rusted birdcage that stands empty. Save for its rusted patina, it looks identical to the one in which my Nana kept Curly, her pet canary.
We admire a local artisan’s wares: kitchen utensils, bracelets, and jewelry, exquisitely carved and then polished to a high sheen.
A caboose rumbles down the railroad tracks, chasing its engine, and Christmas tunes blare from hidden speakers. Sara’s humming to herself, and so am I. There’s an easy harmony between us.
We savor our special outing, capture its magic in a gazing ball….
And as quick as you can say “Cinderella,” Sara’s traded her princess gown for play clothes!
“Now,” says my little elf on the shelf, “it’s time to bake Christmas cookies!”
It was when our mutual friend Katrina Kenison introduced me to Amy VanEchaute's blog, My Path With Stars Bestrewn, that the seeds of a friendship were planted. In a later entry, “While My Pretty One Sleeps," Amy wrote a gorgeous tribute to her beloved Momma, who seemed to me the stuff of fairy tales. At once magical and ephemeral, Amy's Momma reminded me of my sweet Nana—not mirror images, mind you, but similar in all the places where light exists and love makes itself manifest in the world.
Though we are separated by distance—1,900 miles, more or less—my subsequent conversations with Amy brought us closer. Over time, I came to realize just how much we have in common. Our personalities are uniquely our own, but we approach the world with a shared sense of wide-eyed wonderment, are attuned to music about Mother Earth and her creations, and words that whisper to us the wisdom of Transcendentalists, matriarchs, and the Eternal All-knowing.
A few weeks ago, when Amy posted a picture of the Victorian-style wreath she’d created as a Christmastime homage to her mother, I wished aloud for a memorial spot where I could visit Nana. Amy expressed similar regrets about her own grandmother. As fate would have it, “Maymer” is buried in a cemetery less than nine (count 'em, 9!) miles from my house.
Right then I realized that we’d ventured into that serendipitous space where wishes are sometimes granted, the realm of possibility where you don’t dare blink, lest you miss all the fun and magic. “I’ll make her a wreath,” I heard myself say, “I’ll find Maymer’s grave and lay it there for you.”
Get this: I’d never made a wreath for a loved one before, much less a total stranger! So what? My inner voice asked. I answered the challenge by grabbing my car keys and heading to Michaels. Not for me, something purely decorative…I'd pull together thematic elements! The circular shape would speak of unity—the joining of hands across the miles, a warm embrace in absentia. And the sturdy evergreens would represent our grandmothers’ character: strong women who endured hard times without complaint, who embroidered the fanciful into the everyday, and who sowed seeds of grace in every word and deed.
Behold! My first-ever homemade bow! See the tiny angel? She represents Maymer and Nana, spiritual giants of short stature. In the curve adjacent to the gilt-edged bow, I placed creamy white roses, as fair as our grandmothers’ porcelain complexions.
Here and there, I scattered various gifts of earth and sky, to help illustrate the underlying meaning of this circle: Hope, that thing with feathers; pinecones that represent growth and renewal; a sprig of cedar that symbolizes strength and healing; holly that speaks of loving sacrifice; and twining ivy, to depict the precious memories that cling to the very fabric of our being.
On these scrolls are written the songs of our heart: "Deep Peace" for Maymer, and “His Eye is on The Sparrow” for Nana. I tied them together with a tussie-mussie of forget-me-nots, tiny blue flowers that grew prolific in Maymer’s garden and inspired Amy’s momma to write this gorgeous haiku:
Twinkling from the garden path
©Marjorie Neighbour, 1982
I then clipped two candles on the upper right corner, humming as I placed them among the greenery: These little lights of ours, I’m gonna let ‘em shine… Sprigs of mistletoe are scattered at the base of the candles, for who deserves bunches of kisses more than a beloved grandmother?
A chubby bird hovers mid-air, a shimmery gold confection that catches the sunlight with its feathers. Into its bosom, I tucked a pale pink rose from my backyard garden—a secret treasure of the sort that I suspect Nana and Maymer loved best. Over time the petals will fade and crumble, but as with our most cherished memories, their essence will remain.
Here’s how my finished wreath looked, lovingly placed as it was near the cedar tree where Maymer rests.
I discovered nearby yet another wreath, created with bougainvillea flowers by Mother Nature herself! It’s a very unusual arrangement, which makes me wonder if I was meant to stumble upon it in my walk across the grounds. And just beyond the reach of my camera, a songbird flew from tree to tree, chirping when it landed but never lighting long enough for me to get a clear glimpse of it. Felt more than seen, it was identifiable only through the sweetness of its song. “Like the soul,” Amy suggests to me later.
Sunset at the cemetery
This wreath is truly a gift of the heart and of this season. It honors the circle of life, a miracle with no beginning or end, and brings tidings of comfort and joy to both the giver and recipient. In the same way that the Winter Solstice turns back the dark by lengthening the days, this gift has swaddled us in warmth and light—new friends who feel as if we’ve known each other forever, pulled by our grandmothers into a wordless embrace that is nothing less than divine.
Martha Stewart, I’m not, but I can turn out a plate of gingerbread cookies that taste pretty decent. Way better than they look. It was a cherished family tradition, in fact…until, that is, two adorable little boys grew into fine young men that ventured out into the world to build exciting lives for themselves and forge their own traditions. As kids are wont to do.
I don’t begrudge my boys this birthright. Of course not, don’t be silly! We’re transitioning, too—in fact, this is our first Christmas in our new home! As always, our tree is decorated with family heirlooms, old and newer–delicate ornaments on the highest boughs because Toby’s made himself a cave among its lower branches.
I’ve also strung twinkling lights along the mantle. Hmmm, where to put my music boxes? I’m still pondering. Oh, and did I tell you? Earlier this week, I baked sugar cookies with my little friend Sara.
I’ve always used Betty Crocker’s recipe, but my sister Sheryll suggested I try this one, instead. Ho ho ho, I’m happy that she did! The cookies were tastier, and the dough was easier to work with. Anyway, let’s not bother ourselves with the how-to’s and what-fors, ingredient lists and steps involved in mixing…you can get all that from the link above, HGTV and the Food Network. We’ll just focus on the fun stuff, shall we? To wit: time spent with Sara.
We sandwiched the dough between two sheets of parchment paper and flattened it with a rolling pin until it formed a rectangle, 1/8” thick resembled the State of California—a topographical marvel that included high deserts and low plains, a rugged coastline, and fault lines that ran the length and breadth of the dough.
Next step: choosing the just-right cookie cutters from a motley collection of shapes. Yes, I got all misty-eyed when I retrieved from the cupboard these talismans of special holidays past. Dinosaurs, sharks, guitars, angels, teddy bears, unicorns, Santa Claus, hearts and stars and moons, oh my! And more! Sara untangled the giant heart from the rest and held it to her chest. (“This is for my Mommy.”) Sorry, saguaro cactus and Halloween cat. You didn’t make the cut.
Again and again, we dipped cookie molds into flour and pressed them into dough, twisting them ever so slightly before separating the shape from the surrounding scraps. Roll, press, return the scraps to the refrigerator for chilling and re-rolling.
Look! We’re getting the hang of it!
Before long, the hardwood floors were dusted with snowy-white flour, and the scent of fresh-baked cookies drifted from the cooling racks into the rest of the house.
Sara spread a thin thick layer of frosting (canned, I confess–don’t hate!), and then let loose with all of her creativity.
Sugar crystals, pearl candies, edible paint, sparkly red and green sprinkles…apply liberally, give the cookies a shake and then add more, pat everything into place, sprinkle an extra dash of glitter for good measure…no such thing as good enough!
Hours later, we collapsed on the sofa stood back to admire our handiwork. The kitchen was a mess—sparkles, sprinkles, and crumbs everywhere, but behold, this wondrous plate of cookies! Edible art, a feast for all senses.
There was a taste test, of course…
And everyone agreed…
Best cookies ever!
Yes, there were imperfections. Some cookies were soft in the middle; others were brittle to the point of being fragile. Dark or pale, broken or flawless, didn’t matter. This plate of cookies, this baking day…love made visible, all of it. I can’t think of a better gift this in the whole wide world, can you?
Here’s hoping the sweet memories of this day will hold a place in our mental scrapbooks, long after the very last cookie crumb gets eaten.
vintage postcard via AllPosters.com
I'm no poet, but this morning feels almost lyrical.
The sky is a velvety black jewelry box, brimming with diamonds and silver.
A candle glows warm in the kitchen.
White lights twinkle among the branches of our tree, tiny spotlights for handmade treasures.
Your emails and blog entries sparkle on my screen. We play, sing, and rejoice with one another, and my heart is exceedingly glad.
I am home for Christmas, in that magical place where the lovelight gleams, and I can't believe I'm not dreaming.
One of our favorite Christmas traditions isn't all that traditional. To wit: When things get hectic, as they are wont to do this time of year, we abandon our "obligations" (wrapping presents, writing Christmas cards, baking cookies…), and make our way back to the ocean.
Lucky for us, Laguna's thisclose! In this vibrant beachfront community, artists and surfers share a peaceful coexistence, and tourists try their best to blend in with the locals. That's no easy task, given that this is a town where creative self-expression reigns supreme.
It's also known for its upscale village vibe, but even when you're browsing Laguna's fanciest boutiques, you never forget you're by the ocean.
That's what appeals to us most.
Waves crash against craggy rocks, inviting us to play. We squat, and as we explore the tide pools, we are misted with salty spray.
We stroll the boardwalk. People-watching's a given, of course, and we stop often, so as to admire the beautiful (if sometimes freakish) native plants.
As always, Mother Nature's tucked a treasure trove of gifts into the sandy waterfront…
…and stashed a few surprises in the highest branches. (I didn't notice the hawk perched atop this tree, for instance, until after I downloaded this picture.)
As evening approaches, the coastline develops a shimmery glow so luminous, it rivals a twinkling Christmas tree.
The sky darkens, and pink-tinged clouds roll in. A flock of seagulls lands atop this outcropping of rocks–front row seats for the impending sunset.
"Look," I whisper. I hear murmurings from those who surround us. And then…a widespread hush. The whole world falls silent, it seems, when the sun drops below the horizon.
And in that quiet space between daylight and darkness, we are refreshed and renewed…filled again with the spirit of the season.