Thursday, December 18, 2014

Little House Projects

When E and Z's teacher assigned them projects for their Little House on the Prairie unit, to be completed at home this month, I almost had a conniption. But it turned out to be a good thing for the projects to coincide with holiday preparations, because it kept me from getting over-involved, pushing the kids to more complicated projects that I would end up doing mostly myself. It was fun to "help" M make his Little House log cabin four years ago, but there was no way that was going to happen in December.

Z knew right away that he wanted to bake bread. We checked out the Little House Cookbook from the library, read the section on bread and how all the ingredients work.  Z made the 'light bread' recipe. He did all the measuring, mixing, kneading, and shaping, while I stood by with the camera. The only part he didn't do was take the bread out of the hot oven (this photo is staged). Then he wrote a short report with the recipe and pictures of all the stages of production. We put the bread in the freezer and brought it out yesterday morning before school. It was kind of nice having his project all done almost two weeks in advance. I also really like that this is a totally consumable project and will not add to the stack of box projects we already have in the basement.

I thought it would be kind of nice for E to do a project that involved a pioneer skill as well. Since he already knows how to knit, I suggested that, but he refused. We got a couple of books on pioneer projects and crafts, but mostly they're 'girly' crafts like sewing and quilting. There were no 'making bullets' or 'carving a bracket' or 'staring down a bear to get to the honey tree' projects in any of the books.  Now, all my boys can hand sew a little, and E can knit, but I guess he's not quite ready to take those skills out in public. I suggested making a covered wagon from a clementine box, but he didn't like that idea nearly as much as I did (I might still make one for myself!). Finally he settled on a diorama. I stood by and made helpful suggestions regarding materials and helped him find supplies and held things together while he squeezed on the glue and cut out the horses with a razor blade, but otherwise tried to stand back while E made a milk carton cabin and barn and a jewelry box wagon with button wheels and twist tie hoops. I think it's pretty darn cute (and I could go crazy cutting out tiny people and making a tiny vegetable garden and putting tiny supplies in the wagon, but I restrained myself).

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Fat Quarter Gift Bag Tutorial

Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about more environmentally friendly gift-wrap options, with lots of creative ideas from my commenters (saving and reusing old wrapping, not wrapping Santa gifts, using bath towels).  The following year, I made a great big pile of gift bags, using fabric from my stash, Goodwill, and a discount fabric store. Those bags had some problems--they were mostly too short, and the ribbons were located too close to the top. Since then, I've added a few more bags to my stash every year or two using fat quarters. I've found the fat quarter makes a bag the perfect size for most gifts (a book, a shirt, a medium-sized toy), so that along with a few very large bags and a few very small ones, I've got a range to meet most of our wrapping needs. They're super fast and easy to make.
Fat Quarter Gift Bag

1 fat quarter in festive fabric
1 piece of ribbon about 12-18 inches long

Step 1: Fold your fat quarter in half, right sides together 

Step 2: Fold the ribbon in half and lay it on the inside of your folded fabric about four inches down from the top, so that the ribbon ends extend inside the fabric and the folded end sticks out past the edge about 1/2 inch. Pin in place. (Note: this is the only pin I use, but if you are more meticulous than I am, you might want to pin along the side and bottom edges of your fabric.

Step 3: Starting next to the fold, sew along the bottom edge of the bag using a 1/2 inch seam allowance. One-half inch from the edge, stop with your needle down. Lift your presser foot, turn the fabric 90 degrees and sew up the side, back-tacking over the ribbon for extra stability.

Step 4: Hem the top edge. This is a good opportunity to practice using your hemmer foot. I know I could use all the practice I can get. 

Turn your bag right-side-out and that's it! 

Here are this year's new bags.

When you're ready to wrap, just punch a hole in your gift tag and slide it onto the ribbon.

Full confession: I still buy a couple rolls of wrapping paper every year. C prefers using it, and I use it for the Santa gifts (although Santa is starting to lose his relevance around here, I'm afraid). But I love how the gift bags make it much faster and easier to both wrap and clean up; and they require much less storage area than both paper gift bags (which I am incapable of throwing away) and reclaimed wrapping paper. I hope that in a few years, these are all we'll be using--and that I'll have given enough away that they're all we'll get back, too!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Weekend Things: Lucia Day

I love spreading our holiday festivities out through the whole month of December. It seems silly to put so much planning and preparation into just one day (although Christmas is never just one day with C's family, which is divided into multiple factions). I also like to think that having several small celebrations along the way helps dissipate some of the agonizing anticipation. Judging by the number of times a day E says, "When is going to be Christmas?" and Z growls, "Want Christmas," like Jan Brett's Christmas Trolls, I don't think it's quite having that effect.

Saturday morning, I woke up early, snuck downstairs, took the saffron roll dough out of the refrigerator, and settled on the couch with my laptop and a cup of tea. I had just been complaining about how our house is never quiet--if it's not kids fighting, it's one playing electric guitar or drums, and if the kids are in bed, it's my husband banging out Christmas carols on our badly out-of-tune upright grand piano with the cast iron sounding board--so I had to take advantage of an hour of just me and the Christmas tree lights in a quiet house to try to put a few paragraphs down in a piece I've been agonizing over.

When the dough had warmed up enough, I put rolled it into s-shapes and placed them near the warm oven to rise.

This year, I used cranberries instead of raisins in buns, to give them a Maine touch. I first soaked the cranberries in orange liqueur to make them nice and moist (and delicious) and added them to the dough, which works out much more nicely than sticking them on top.

While the buns baked, I snuck outside and took some pictures of the snow that had fallen in the night, a surprise treat after a week of rain and sleet.

At breakfast, I read a little bit about Lucia Day from our Christmas in Scandinavia book. A solstice celebration (December 13 was the solstice in the Julian calendar) that traces its origins to the Goddess Freya (who was associated with the number 13), Lucia Day, like all of the holidays this time of year, is about bringing light to the darkness. 

I don't have any adorable blond little girls to bring us the buns in bed--and none of my adorable blond little boys showed any interest in doing so. So we ate in the kitchen. At breakfast, Z said, "I like how we celebrate a lot of holidays in our family...because I get a lot of presents and good food." Oh well, so much for my hope to de-emphasize the commercial / acquisitional aspects of the season. At least he liked the buns (he ate six at breakfast!). 

After breakfast, we got to work finishing some gift-making. Z's gifts were mostly done, except for labels, and M is an artiste and cannot be rushed, so it was mostly E and me working.

I decided to let the boys off the hook with vacuuming until Sunday (when I wouldn't be home to listen to them complain) and they went outside to make the most of our few inches of fresh snow--E snowboarding and Z making snowmen inspired by Calvin and Hobbes. In addition to this one (which is throwing a snowball at the basement window) there was a beheaded one behind my car--as if I had run over it.

While they were outside, I finished decorating the tree. I thought about just leaving off the breakable ornaments this year, but once I started poking around in the box, I saw so many old favorites, most of which made it on the tree, though I skipped the glass balls and a few that I just don't care for that much. I also made some more gift bags and got our boxes (mostly) ready to go to Colorado.

In the late afternoon, while the boys were upstairs cleaning their room with M as drill sergeant supervisor (they did a marvelous job--for the first time ever without me doing most of the work), I thought about making cookies from the dough I had optimistically gotten out of the freezer Friday night (which I had even more optimistically mixed up the previous weekend) or wrestling with Christmas card labels on the computer. But instead, I relaxed on the couch with an eggnog and David Sedaris's Holidays on Ice for my annual reading of "Santaland Diaries." It makes me laugh out loud every time.

Sunday I joined some friends for the Christmas Bird Count. We saw a big flock of bluebirds (so strange this time of year, but so beautiful against the snow!) and a big, gorgeous bald eagle. When I got home, I made potato soup and the cookies I neglected Saturday (spekulatius, using that St. Nick mold, above, and my usual Joy of Cooking recipe, only I used orange flavor instead of almond extract, because I was out of the almond, and I think they're the best batch ever. Orange and cinnamon go so well together). After dinner, C and I stuffed and stamped Christmas cards (I still haven't printed out the mailing labels) while we watched Charlie Brown's Christmas with E and Z, while M played guitar in the basement with his open mic buddy.

Hope you're finding ways to bring light to the darkness this time of year, friends.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Place in Mind

"On New Year’s Day of the first winter we lived on our land, I put my son, Milo, into a little blue backpack and took him for a walk in the woods. The day was warm––topping forty degrees––and sunny. Melting ice dripped from the eaves and the softening crust of snow yielded to my footfalls."
I'm super excited that Northern Woodlands magazine picked up a short piece I wrote about a tree and an onterested in trees or wildlife or nature or silviculture or conservation, I'd recommend you subscribe. The magazine is always full of interesting things about this neck of the woods.

I'm super excited that Northern Woodlands picked up for their Winter 2014 issue a short piece I wrote about a tree and an owl and a little boy who has grown up very fast. Unfortunately, it's not available online, but if you pick up a copy of the magazine, flip to the inside back cover, and it'll be there in the "A Place in Mind" feature. And if you live in the Northeast and are interested in trees or wildlife or nature or silviculture or conservation, I'd recommend you subscribe. The magazine is always full of interesting things about this neck of the woods.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


 A few weeks ago, I threw together a couple of quick projects, born out of necessity.

The first is a phone cozy. I'm not a phone person at all--if it were up to me, I probably would not even own a cell phone yet. I rarely call anyone with it and never hear it ring. Sometimes I send a text. I do find it handy for checking my email (a little too handy, perhaps) and I like having access to the internet (mainly because I'm so prone to getting lost).

Anyway, my old phone (which was one of C's old androids. Unlike me, he sees the cellphone as the fulfillment of his childhood Star Trek dreams. Also, he uses it a lot for work) quit holding a charge, and when C took it in for a new battery, found out he could get me an i-phone for less than the battery. So he did. I can't say I'm upset. I much prefer it to the old phone. But I was still treating it like the old phone--tossing it in the bottom of my cavernous bag--and decided it needed a little protection. Something in felt, I thought, so I wet-felted it a case. I don't love wet-felting--I think because I don't feel as much control over the outcome as in needle-felting--and the result is a bit more urban Hobbit than I had hoped for (I think I have an idea to make the ends less lumpy in future). I'm not sure what the outside pocket's for, but it seemed like a good idea to have one. But in any case, it's doing its job of keeping the phone not-broken and making it easier to find in the bottom of my bag.

The second is a set of business cards. I found myself needing to give my contact information to someone on a professional basis and being reduced to scrawling it on the back of an old receipt (actually, I just took his card and emailed him, but it was a close one). Sometimes I find it hard to operate in the world as a grown-up. So I threw together some cards, real-quick. Just printed off my computer (if I give away all ten of those, I might consider actually getting real cards printed).

I hadn't done much creative recently, and it was nice to dash off a couple of instant-gratification projects just in time to hit the holiday making rush in stride.

Monday, December 8, 2014

So It Begins

I always feel blindsided by December. It's like I imagine the stretch of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is as agonizingly endless as it was when I was a kid, rather than a mere three-and-a-half weeks.

This season inspires in me the equal and opposite desires of wanting to both hand-make and -bake my way to holiday magic and run away and hide in a cabin in the woods. It's like Martha Stewart and Henry David Thoreau are dueling in my gut. And you know Martha wins.

We started our book Advent (aka Christmas Book Countdown or CBC) on time, although it took a couple of nights of me just wrapping up just the one book (even with remade gift bags and printed tags I couldn't muster the time/energy/after the kids were in bed combo last weekend). I wondered if maybe the boys would be over the CBC this year, since E and Z hardly ever read or ask for picture books anymore, but they've been enthusiastic so far, especially when their favorite Jan Brett books about naughty trolls come up, and M will gamely open the book when it's his turn, although he doesn't stick around to hear it. 

St. Nicholas visited us Friday night. He dropped into each boy's shoe a small wooden puzzle and golden walnut (I've been meaning to make Catherine Newman's gilded walnut ornaments for like ever, and finally got the supplies together last week and made them Thursday night while watching "Upstairs Downstairs." That's how wild and crazy C and I are...while the rest of the world is obsessed with "Breaking Bad" and "Orange is the New Black"--or whatever the rest of the world is obsessed with these days--we're getting Netflix DVDs of a low-budget show made when we were babies. But it is really good, I swear). I love stocking stuffers more than anything, and like the idea of spreading them out to other holidays before (St. Nicholas's Day) and after (Three Kings Day) Christmas, since the stockings get kind of passed over in the gift-stravaganza of Christmas morning.

Saturday was rainy/sleety and we spent the day inside, cleaning in preparation for the tree (can I tell you how great the kids helping me clean is working out? E and I pulled out and vacuumed behind all the living room furniture a couple of weeks ago, so when we moved things around to make room for the tree, there was hardly anything we needed to do. It also makes it possible for me to do cleaning I never had time for before--like dusting, sorting through piles, tidying my own things--while they're picking up and vacuuming). I also made apple cider caramels and cookie dough (I never got the cookies made, but there's always next weekend), and ordered Christmas cards. And we watched The Muppets Christmas Carol--my favorite.

Sunday afternoon, after some more housework and homework (E and Z were assigned a project this month, ai-yai-yai!), and after the sleet had melted off the woods, we went out in search of our perfect tree.

We've had three or four nor'easter already this fall (and another one coming tomorrow!), which have been hard on the fir trees; they break in half or fall over in the high winds of such a storm. We had such good luck with a storm-toppled tree top a few years ago--the branches and needles are much denser than in a younger, smaller tree--that we decided to take advantage of the storms' destruction and look for a downed tree. 

We found a fine specimen hanging upside down (like the original Christmas trees) from the branches of another tree. Its parent that had sprouted three leaders, so our Christmas tree has three trunks and a kind of crazy, bushy top.

I couldn't decide which of the many tips to put my fluted glass tree-topper on, and it's a good thing I didn't (and also a good thing that I ran out of time before I put on the last box of ornaments--the breakable ones) because the tree fell over today. It seems the multiple trunks were a bit more than the stand could handle. C has since strung it to the window frame with fishing line, so it should be okay, but still, I might hold off on the glass ornaments until I'm sure it will stand.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


In the midst of our do-nothing weekend, I did do something...I cut out the binding for M's quilt...

and sewed it on! (Thanks to Rachel for the suggestion to machine-sew the binding on, or it would probably be another ten years before I finished!)

I first envisioned this quilt nine or ten years ago, back when M was in preschool and wanted to be an astronaut. I bought the fabric about six years ago. I started planning and cutting nearly four years ago (thinking I'd have it done by his birthday that May--ha!). I pieced the big stars over the next two years (talk about tedium) until I had all the squares complete. A little more than a year later, I had the corner stars done and the top put together. A month or so after that, I had managed to apply borders. And in time for M's birthday this past May, I had it long-arm quilted.

Needless to say, at thirteen M's career aspirations are a bit different than they were at three. Astronaut is no longer in the cards. But I did hear him once mention aerospace engineer, and I'm holding out hope for rock star, so I think the quilt's theme is still appropriate.

This is the quilt M had on his bed up until Saturday. I made it when I was pregnant with him, out of the little fabric squares we had tied up bird seed in for our wedding. I stuffed it with two layers of polyester batting so it would make a nice cushy spot for him to lie on on the floor. It's gotten pretty well-worn over the years. Yet, after I put the new quilt on his bed, he said he still wanted to hang onto the green one. Can I tell you how much I adore this kid for not caring, nor ever once mentioning, that his quilt was covered in flowers? 

This is the green quilt when it was new, and M when he was new.
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