Of Texas and Rebirth

Jump to Arroz con Pollo

With all this beautiful weather, the girls and I have been spending most of our time outside.  My parents live out in the country–it takes twenty minutes to get to the nearest town and we could walk to a large cattle ranch no matter which way we went down our road.  The road that their property abuts is fairly quiet, shaded by very old trees.  It’s so peaceful.  The girls and I walk down the road for about a mile on lazy afternoons.

I scrounged up some flower pots in my mother’s shed and bought some soil and seeds.  I decided to go with local flowers–bluebonnets, cockscomb, daisies, and cacti–in the hopes that eventually I will find a job and begin anew with a new apartment or house with a yard or patio in which to plant these flowers.  It was a lot of fun to plant the seeds with the girls, albeit rather messy.  We also planted the verbs and veggies we’d need for salsa.

By the time we were done, the girls thought it was a fabulous idea to roll and jump in the mud.  But such is the life of a parent.

We also caught a caterpillar munching on my mother’s roses.  I put it in a jar with a bunch of leaves, punched holes in the lid, and we watched the little guy munch away.  We also got to see what caterpillar feces look like.  Sadly, though, it seems the little caterpillar has passed away.  The girls wanted me to catch another one for them, but I didn’t want to negligently take another life.

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. ...

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess Ēostre/*Ostara flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals. Germanic peoples look up at the goddess from the realm below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I was to mixed up in my own depression, the girls missed out on Ostara and Holi this year.  So I’ve been trying very hard to make sure they get to enjoy Easter.  We still did some pagan things–coloring eggs, having an egg hunt, and talking about rebirth–but I also explained to the girls that some people celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter.

And here, I must admit, it’s been difficult instructing the girls in two faiths.  They see similarities with Jesus and the Green Man, which makes sense to me as well.  But I do worry if it will make it difficult for them to understand what Jesus means to Christians.  Or maybe I’m just not explaining it right?

I’m finding symbols of crawling out of a destructive situation popping up in my life lately.

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph...

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph was taken during Kali Puja at Naihati, a town in West Bengal, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve had dreams where the Hindu goddess Kali, normally associated with death and destruction, has talked to me.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been leery of talking to “dark goddesses,” mostly because their destructive power is not something to trifle with.  But Kali was not telling me to go out and to destroy things.  In one dream, she was warning me about a great evil–a random guy I was having a conversation with in the dream.  In another, we were having tea at some random coffee shop, like a pair of old friends, and she was telling me how my situation (the husband/divorce issue, joblessness, isolation) is only temporary, like most things in this world.  Kali has appeared like a grandmother figure, as well.  After talking to some Hindu and pagan friends (and an anthropologist friend) about these dreams, which at first confused me, and doing my own contemplative introspection, I think Kali is telling me that some things must end for good things to begin.

Icon of the Resurrection

Icon of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ostara and Easter are both about death and rebirth.  Ostara is a Germanic goddess who is associated with the spring equinox.  She symbolizes the rebirth of nature after its death (winter).  Easter is literally about the death and resurrection of a god (Jesus).  Holi is also about the death and rebirth of the Hindu god of love, Kamadeva, who helped Parvati (of whom Kali is an incarnation) to marry Shiva (god of destruction and rebirth) at the cost of his life.


Arroz con Pollo

I grew up eating what my father refers to as “Texican cuisine,” or what many people call “Tex-Mex.”  One of my mother’s favorite dishes to cook was arroz con pollo.  I cooked it for myself during college, but stopped after about my third year of marriage because my husband wasn’t a fan.  Arroz con pollo, which means “rice with chicken” in Spanish, is pretty popular in Latino cooking and, like most Latino cooking, varies widely from culture to culture and family to family.

Arroz con pollo is one of those dishes that you can whip up to feed many people, and it requires very little work.  As with most of my family recipes, this is my best attempts to measure the palmfuls or shakes of the spice jar, so you may want to adjust the spices to suit your palette.

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken leg quarters
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small tomato, diced
  • 1 cube tomato bouillon
  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon cumin (more or less, to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (more or less, to taste)

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan.  Add the chicken and fry it until it is completely brown on the outside.
  2. Remove the chicken to a bowl, set aside.  (Note, the chicken is still raw and blood may drip, so you want it in a bowl you can easily sterilize.)
  3. Fry the rice in the chicken grease.  Add the onion and bell pepper.  Fry, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender.  Add the tomato and fry a little bit more.
  4. Add the water, tomato bouillon, and spices.  Stir thoroughly.
  5. Cover and let simmer until the chicken is thoroughly cooked (about an hour).  The rice will cook before the chicken does, but it will not burn.  Stir occasionally while it is cooking.

Arroz con pollo goes very well with a fresh vegetable composition, like black bean salad, and homemade iced tea or horchata (or margaritas).

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Spring is Summer and Tarantulas for Teaching

Springtime in Texas doesn’t really exist.  “Winter” doesn’t, really, either.  But there is a rather obvious span of chilly, wet months which people who live in Texas call “winter” because it happens during that time of the year so named by the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.  As I’ve mentioned before, the intermediary seasons of springtime and autumn don’t seem to exist in the South, and so the transition from “winter” to what is mildly named “summer” is rather abrupt.

List of U.S. state flowers

Bluebonnets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

March 20 for those of us living in the South, then, was really the “first day of summer.”

Texas Paintbrush

Texas Paintbrush (Photo credit: Knomad)

The chilly nights are now gone.  Days warm up to the mid-80s ˚F.  Garage sales and yard sales abound.  Children–including my own–play outside as much as possible: coloring with chalk on the sidewalk and driveway, blowing bubbles, tossing around a ball, digging for dinosaur bones in the sandbox, picking wildflowers, chasing butterflies.  I sit and enjoy watching their playtime, smelling the neighbors’ barbecuing, listening to distant tractors, or simply soaking up the warm sun.

Summer came in less than a week.  One day, the trees are all dead and bare, the grass still brownish and starved-looking.  Then after a week of rain, suddenly daffodils and dandelions and redbuds and my parents’ plum trees were all abloom.  They added some color to a gray world, much like a 1930s lithograph.  Then little green shoots began to dot most of the trees, and other flowers–wisterias and bluebonnets and Texas paintbrushes and dogwoods and primroses and oxalis and random yellow wildflower–made the landscape seem alive.  And, by the end of that week, the trees were all covered with leaves.

Early spring narcissus

Narcissus (Photo credit: mobilene)

On nice days, one of my brothers or my parents would walk down the quiet country road with the children and me.  We’d observe the world waking up from dormancy, counting cows and horses and goats.

During this time, my youngest brother returned from Texas Tech on spring break, bringing what I’ve dubbed the “Panhandle Plague” (a rather nasty cold) with him.  Combine this with a week of rainy weather (forcing everyone to stay inside) and you have a good petri dish for germs.  After he went back to school, we all came down with it, and most are still recovering.  But that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the outdoors (and fortunately the kids bounced back the fastest, so it didn’t faze them much).

Mourning Doves will perch for safety but eat o...

Mourning Dove (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I just sit on the front porch and watch the cars race down the distant highway.  Life here in East Texas is slow, so it’s easy to just sit and soak up the world around me.  I’ve learned to recognize the calls of the local red-tailed hawk and know which trees it likes to roost in at night.  I’ve noticed that mourning doves really only coo early in the morning and in the evening.  I let the crickets and frogs serenade me (but I’m still unsettled by coyotes–probably because I’ve overheard them killing some hapless critter too many times in the past).  I can spot all the trees and shrubs in our area that were killed by last year’s vicious summer heat and drought (and that sometimes makes me wonder if climate change is pushing the Texas scrublands eastwards).

Oxalis triangularis

Oxalis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve taken to walking around the yard barefoot as much as possible.  It’s therapeutic, letting me feel like I’m reconnecting with the earth.  A neopagan mentor of mine once advised me that walking barefoot in the dirt is important spiritually (at the time, I was living in Dallas and finding myself getting sucked into the selfish materialism that plagues the “Beverly Hills of the South”).  I must admit I didn’t do that very much–not even in Ohio–until recently.

But lately, feeling the lush blades of grass between my toes is revitalizing.  Digging my toes into the clay soil is soothing.  I’ve learned that I can tell how warm it will be during the day by feeling the temperature of the morning dew under my feet.  Sometimes I feel like I’m getting back in tune with Mother Earth, and so when I’m at my lowest points emotionally, I try to go outside and dig my feet into the grass and just let the world surround me.  I suck at meditating, but I do have these moments where I just lose all thought and almost feel a part of the living things around me, instead of a separate body.

Maybe one day I’ll get the hang of it.

Tarantulas for Teaching

Texas Brown Tarantula

Texas Brown Tarantula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we have the stretches of rainy days, the girls get bored because they have to remain indoors.  So I wind up being creative in the things I do to keep them occupied.  One of the games we play is “name things that start with this letter.”  One day, we were playing with Letter T.  The kids quickly ran out of things that began with ‘T.’  So, I suggested “tarantula.”  Naturally, they asked me what a tarantula was.  I decided it was time to give the kids the foundations for learning to gather their own information.

First, I took them to my parents’ encyclopedia shelves.  There, we looked for the first ‘T’ volume and I opened it to the entry on tarantulas.  I showed them a picture of the big, hairy spider in the encyclopedia and read aloud some of the details about it.

Then I explained that you can also use the internet to find information.  I took them to Wikipedia and showed them that you can type in “tarantula” and find an entry.  We compared the physical encyclopedia to the electronic one and noted that the information was about the same (Wikipedia actually had more details).  I also showed them that one could do an internet search for tarantulas, or even just pictures of tarantulas.

Similarly, on a later day, Starkitten and I had a discussion about doctors issuing shots and how getting shots (or any other probing that doctors do) is not meant to harm the patient.

I explained, “The doctor gives you a shot, or puts the stick on your tongue, or shines the light in your eyes to make sure that you are healthy.”

“What is healthy?” Starkitten asked.

“Let’s go look it up.”

So I proceeded to take her (and Sunfilly followed) to the encyclopedia shelves again.  This time, we pulled out the dictionary, determined through phonics that “healthy” starts with the Letter H, and I helped them find the entry for “healthy” in the dictionary, which I read to them.

Then I showed them, once again, that they could also use the internet for more information.  I have a dictionary widget on my laptop (incredibly useful for anyone who loves to write) and showed the girls that I could type in “healthy” and get a definition, a list of words with similar meanings (and opposite meanings), and an explanation of how the word itself came to be.

Hopefully, this will plant the seeds for a thirst for knowledge.

Jobitis

I’m still suffering from, as my sister so wonderfully coined, “jobitis.”  It came about during a discussion in which I lamented that for all the interviews I’ve had in the last two years–and the exponentially greater number of resumes and applications I’d sent out–the way employers rejected me you’d think they believed they would contract the Black Death if they hired me.  People who have shared such an experience, whose unemployment makes them feel like a social leper, have jobitis.

But that hasn’t stopped me from applying for jobs.  My law degree pushes me into the legal job market, which is incredibly brutal.  Jobification as a lawyer typically requires a level of schmoozing and ass-kissing I’m incapable of doing.  This is especially true in East Texas, where, like North Louisiana (where I grew up), securing a job has very little to do with one’s actual ability to perform the tasks at hand and more to do with who your father is and what part of town you’re from… and sometimes which church you attend (if at all).  And so, while law school was relatively a piece of cake, I lack the charm and golf finesse and fancy wardrobe required to actually work for a law firm (and that’s kind of a tough case to pitch to one’s student loan servicers).

I’m not limiting my job search to East Texas, but since it’s the part of the state in which I currently reside, it’s where I’ve placed a good portion of my efforts.

My law degree has also made me “overqualified” for any other kind of work.  I faced this problem in Ohio and Dallas, as well.  Even the kind of work I once did (call center) is now unattainable simply because I’m too damn educated.  In all this time, I’d only had one interview scheduled, and it was a phone interview at that, and the company flaked on me.

I have seriously considered standing in front of the courthouse of any of the major Texas cities holding a sign that read, “Will draft pleadings for food.”  Or even just a busy high-rise, holding a sign that read, “Will oppress the masses for food.”  Or even just start rejecting the rejection letters potential employers send me (which others have done before).  And if my jobitis proves to be chronic, I may very well have to.

I could go off on a soapbox tangent here about how my law school still insists most of our class is now gainfully employed, making an average of $100,000 a year, when that is far from the truth (many are in my position or worse), so that they can dupe another couple hundred cash cows into a lifetime of debt (unless they came from a wealthy family–and even then it’s arguable at this point whether a job will be waiting for them when they graduate, and their parents’ money not simply wasted).  Or how unemployment numbers don’t count those who’ve graduated and haven’t found work, whose unemployment benefits have expired, who were denied benefits, or who simply just gave up looking.

I could also admit that sometimes I do get a little jealous when I look at my Facebook feed and it’s filled with people I care about getting awesome jobs, going on fantastic trips, finding their happily ever after, getting the house with the picket fence… and my life is falling apart.  It’s not to say that I’m not happy for them, because I am, but sometimes it makes me feel like a buzzkill when I need to talk about a problem because I don’t want to rain on a friend’s parade.  And sometimes I’ve wondered if there’s something wrong with me for failing at life.  I realize now that these are also normal human sentiments that we all feel at some point (hopefully not multiple points) in our lives, but when those moments hit me, it’s hard to not beat myself up.

So I make light of my situation by over-generalizing it:  “I’m an overweight 30-year-old who lives with my parents and plays World of Warcraft.”  Few outside observers would care for the details, as it’s all about the stereotypes.

Or I crack jobitis jokes to myself.

I am pleased to say that my husband has signed up for AA and has taken up cross-country running again (he was a star in college) to help keep his mind off the booze.  Hopefully, for his sake and the kids’ sake, he will follow through with it, as the girls need a sober father in their lives.  For the most part, he is cooperative with me.  We have had our bitter exchanges via email or over the phone, but I also understand that this is pretty much a normal cycle for divorcing couples.

He is also mailing me a box of things I’d forgotten or couldn’t fit in the car when I left, including the cord for my camera, so that I can upload photos again.

I find myself also borrowing the “Serenity Prayer” from my Christian friends to keep myself from panicking about all the troubles I must grapple with.  The prayer says:

God/dess, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I still have my existential moments, and even had my “Why does every man think I’m ugly and horrible?  I wanted to be treated like a queen!” moment.  Thanks to good friends and countless virtual monsters needing slaying and beautiful starry nights at which to gaze in silent awe, I’ve muddled through each of them, feeling a little stronger after each one.  And each time, I say that prayer to remind myself that there are some things I cannot change, and worrying over them will only do me more harm.

In the meantime, while waiting to jobify, I’ll sun myself like a turtle on a log while the kids play outside, before it gets too hot for that.  And I’ll masochistically level my noobish retribution paladin on a PvP realm.  And I’ll keep writing my fiction.

And try to appreciate all the things I’d hurried past before.  Maybe I’d missed something important along the way.

Keeping the Winter Holidays Simple

Jump to Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

Jump to Homemade Holiday Stockings

Winter is one of those seasons that always seems so magical.  Maybe it’s because I’ve rarely seen snow and I love being lost in the sparkling, snowy winter worlds in books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or White Fang or Dragons of Winter Night and Christmastime television programming like It’s A Wonderful Life or the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (or pretty much anything else that takes me back to nostalgia about my childhood).  As a young adult, I’d often imagined myself in some snowy countryside cottage, drinking hot cocoa while sitting next to a roaring fire with a book in my hand and a cat on my lap.  And that would be a perfect way to spend a winter’s day for me.

Well things had changed a lot since my young adult years, but I still find myself unusually fascinated with snow.  And now that I have kids, I can relive the magic of this time of year with them.

Some of that weird white sparkly stuff shuts down Dallas when it strikes.

Usually in Texas, we’d get a day or two of snow.  It would shut down the entire city, because we Southerners are not very confident about driving in the snow.  In Louisiana, it was an even rarer occurrence and would lead to a greater freak-out and shut-down of things.  Heck, if it was predicted that a snow- or icestorm would be nigh, the local Wal-Mart would be packed with people stocking up on food, water, bullets, and whatever else will help them survive this hellish weather.  That’s “Yankee weather.”  Give us some triple-digit heat, 90% humidity, and sweet tea and we will feel much more comfortable.  Give us that weird white stuff, and we panic.

Of course, as I’m typing this, we are having an ice storm (and since I’m out in the country, it’s killing my internet connection–my link to the outside world).  And of course I’ve made sure to have an eon’s supply of food and water in case the world ends.  Because, like I said, winter weather makes Southerners nervous.

But, in Texas, that day or two of snow would usually fall sometime between Yule and the Super Bowl (like how last year’s snowstorm in Dallas killed the city’s economy because the local businesses were counting on the Super Bowl commerce to pull them out of the recession), which is really when you’d want snow to fall, anyways.  It feels timely.  Even in that freak spring of 2010 when it snowed right after the Saints won the Super Bowl.

I learned that in Ohio, it can snow in November.

Not that it really bothers me, or that it shocked me.  It just felt weird to see snow when I was still recovering from overindulging on Thanksgiving fare.

It was a sleepy afternoon, when the kids and I had finished off the last of the leftover turkey, pumpkin pie, and stuffing.  The tryptophan had taken over, and we’d snuggled up with the dog in my bed.  When we awoke from our nap, which was longer than usual, the first thing I did was groggily lead the dog to the front door so he could do his business.

Starkitten, who stood behind me, screamed what she observed:  “SNOW!!!”

And the dog–a four-pound chihuahua–decided he wasn’t going to do any business in that fluffy, cold, white stuff, even if you threatened to put him in the pot to be tonight’s supper.

I guess I got part of my young adult winter fantasy: I'm certainly enjoying the snowy countryside! And, clearly, so are the kids.

The kids had the opposite reaction.  It took a lot to convince them to get appropriately dressed for the snow, but it was worth it.  As if by instinct, they started having snowball fights, making snow angels, and tried to build a snow-T. rex (apparently a snowman is overrated).

All that frolicking in the snow got me into the holiday spirit.  We put up the tree the next day and baked cookies and played in the snow some more.

By “holiday spirit,” I don’t mean wanting to go out and buy a bunch of things.  I think the commercialized version of Christmas is insulting to everything the holiday–and all winter holidays–stands for.

This is a depressing time of year: shorter days mean lower melatonin levels.  Some people suffer mood changes from this–and it’s an actual affliction that doctors treat, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or, endearingly, SAD).  The world is still and quiet–something that didn’t really hit me until this winter, when living in the snowy North made me notice why our ancestors had such a need for winter holidays.  The world really does seem dead.  And the snow that blankets the earth, while beautiful and sparkly, is also blinding.  And seeing so much white and black and gray (very much unlike the cozy world of Whoville) makes me instead feel like I’m living in a German expressionist painting or a third-rate knockoff to a Tim Burton film (as in no Johnny Deppto make it better).

One of the candles I used to illuminate my home for Yule last year. I think this picture speaks to what winter holidays mean: a light in the darkness. Hope. Peace.

It’s no wonder our ancestors needed a celebration of lights to get through the winter.  Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, is probably the first thing people think about in terms of winter holidays.  Despite the fact that Jesus was most likely born in the summertime, his birth is traditionally celebrated in winter.  There is much historical literature which suggests that this was to make it easier for people to convert to Christianity, as older holidays occurred during midwinter: the Jewish celebration of Chanukah and the pagan holidays of Yule (Celtic/Germanic) and Saturnalia (Roman).   All of these holidays, at the core, are joyous celebrations of hope, whether it be the birth of the Sun or Son (of God), Oak King or King of Kings.  Or about getting through oppression (i.e. Chanukah and Saturnalia).  Heck, even New Year’s is a culmination of sorts, filled with lights and merrymaking (even the Chinese New Year falls in the cold-as-hell months).

The winter months are depressing.  People need something happy to help them get through it.

That’s why I must admit the terrible commercialization of Christmas is a bit off-putting to me, and I’m not the Christian in my family.  It’s disgusting because the focus on material things detracts from the hope the holiday (whichever holiday one observes) offers.  Gift-giving is fine, but there is no reason to pepper spray a stranger because you really have to get that Xbox for your kids or trample a kid because you have to be the one to snag that expensive video game on sale (and Black Friday at Wal-Mart tends to be marred with violence).  Of course, some people have to go overboard with gifts, such as by wrapping presents with money or giving a pen encased in pure diamonds.  And, of course, we are inundated with commercials on TV and the radio (and ads on the internet if you don’t use an ad-blocking software) that say, “If you love him/her, you will buy [insert unnecessary and expensive item].”

The holiday season ought to be about togetherness, about celebrating whatever deity/deities you worship, and–especially in this crummy economy–about weathering it through another year.

Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

There are several lists like this out there, but I figured it’s worth sharing again.  There are so many things that you can make for someone or pay for that would be incredibly meaningful to them and much less materialistic than, say, a diamond-encrusted pen or an Xbox.

Here are a few of my ideas for inexpensive but meaningful gifts:

  • Bake his/her favorite cookies, bread, or pie.
  • Knit a scarf, pair of socks, or mittens.
  • Make a “coupon book” of IOUs, such as for a night of free babysitting or pet-sitting, housecleaning, and so on.  If you are skilled in a profession (ex. a massage therapist or computer expert), maybe toss in a few freebies related to that profession.
  • If you grow herbs, you could make aromatherapy tea bags or sachets or even infuse them into candles or soaps.
  • If you are a photographer, make a framed collage of the recipient’s name in art.
  • If you are an artist, use your talent to make something special for that person.
  • Make a fun, framed photo collage–maybe even include newspaper clippings or maps from the town where you and the recipient first met (hometown for family members, maybe the town where you went to school with your BFF, that sort of thing)
  • Make magnets.  For instance, if you have a friend who is obsessed with Doctor Who, print out 1-inch pictures of the Doctor in each of his incarnations, and maybe the TARDIS, laminate them, and glue them onto square-shaped magnets.
  • You can even make your own greeting cards.
For those who are pressed for time (or shipping is ridiculously high) or don’t have confidence in their talents, there are some unique options out there:
  • Give the gift of experience:  Movie tickets or scuba lessons (or a gift certificate to a spa or getaway cabin, if you have the money to spend) are such an example.  Think of something that would mean a lot to the recipient, and such an experience will be something that he/she will remember forever.
  • Order personalized calendars–there are several companies out there that will make them.  Some will even let you add “family holidays,” like Grandma’s birthday or the annual family reunion, to the printed calendar.
  • Donate to a charity in your loved one’s honor.  There are charities like the ASPCA and Oxfam America (an international charity where you can choose exactly what the money goes to–like educating midwives or buying mosquito nets and vaccines) which will send a holiday card to your loved one saying that you gave the gift of hope in their honor.  You can also check local charities–there are women’s shelters, homeless shelters, animal shelters, veterans’ groups, and the like who will do the same thing.
  • Order a personalized travel coffee mug.
  • Name a star after him/her.
  • Go to a local embroiderer and get monogrammed towels, gloves, or something else practical.  You help local business and please those who prefer practical gifts.


Homemade Holiday Stockings

That being said, I’ve never been a fan of buying those really big Christmas stockings, because they demand to be overfilled.  And overfilling them requires spending a lot of money.  And overfilling also means giving a lot of gifts, which perpetuates the entitlement culture that has become associated with this time of the year (and that reminds me of an annoying eBay commercial that aired this year with some whiny tween dictating what her gifts should be).

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have a lot, and so we usually didn’t get much for Christmas.  A tradition we had, which was fun, was that when we put up the tree, each of the kids had a small stocking to hang on the tree (it was the size of a small child’s sock).  Every night, “Santa” (a.k.a. my mother) would place a small candy or toy (like a race car or wind-up toy or nifty pencil) into each stocking.  This way, when Christmas rolled around, it was more about the warm fuzzies of togetherness than getting gifts.

My husband and I decided to carry that tradition over, now that the kids are old enough to get an idea of this whole time of year.  Since all I could find were those obnoxiously big stockings (of which I am ashamed to admit to own a few, for winters past, but mostly for decoration than function), I decided to make the little mini-stockings myself.

All I needed was:

Stocking-making tools

  • a toddler sock that had been missing its mate and was still in good condition
  • glitter glue
  • rhinestones
  • snowflake confetti
  • colorful string
  • Gorilla glue

Then came the decorating:

  1. I first wrote the first initial of each girl’s name on her appropriate stocking.
  2. It helps to do this over some newspaper, so as to avoid getting glue all over the table that has been in your family for three generations.  Because that stuff is a pain in the arse to get off.
  3. With Starkitten’s help, I decorated with more glitter glue.
  4. Then we added the rhinestones and confetti, attaching them with Gorilla glue.  (I actually did not let Starkitten touch them once I put on the Gorilla glue, but she directed where I should place what.)
  5. Then I folded up some colorful string and glue it to the back corner of the sock so that it could hang from the tree.

Starkitten's stocking--Her initial smeared a bit because Sunfilly wanted to poke the pretty sparkles.

Sunfilly's Stocking

All Saints Day, Samhain, and the Amazing Pumpkin

Jump to Pumpkin Bread recipe

October 31 has many different meanings to many Americans, depending upon each individual’s background.

dia de los muertos display.

A Día de los Muertos display. - Image via Flickr by wolves4moe

To most everyone, it is Halloween, which nowadays means kids dress up like their favorite characters and go house to house begging for sugary sweets and, if they are lucky, they will accumulate enough to be so hyper that the combined energy of a classroom full of such children could power New York City for a week.  It’s also when adults decide to dress up as witty puns or sexy versions of something or really obscure sci-fi references and consume “grown-up candy”–alcoholic beverages and desserts displayed so as to appear to be entrails or brains.  To Mexican-Americans, it’s also El Día de los Muertos, which honors the dead in celebrations as boisterous as Mardi Gras.  To Catholics, it’s the day before All Saints Day, a day of spiritual reflection.  To pagans, it’s Samhain (pronounced “sow-en” or “sow-ayn”), which celebrates the last harvest and those who have departed this life; it’s also the pagan new year.

Pumpkins

Pumpkins are synonymous with American fall holidays. - Image by DrBacchus via Flickr

And, to most Americans, October 31 reminds them of pumpkins.  Of all the gourds that grow in the fall, pumpkins have become symbolic of this season.  Kids think of jack-o-lanterns; adults think of food.  Even typing this, I can almost taste pumpkin pie or pumpkin bread or pumpkin lattes in my mouth.

They are ubiquitous in grocery stores, hobby shops, farmers markets, and magazines this time of year, and I’m not complaining.  It’s an awesome fruit.

When it comes to edible gourds, the pumpkin is the most versatile.  You can brew your own beer in it.  You can eat the seeds.  There are hundreds–or maybe thousands–of ways you can cook it.  Yes, I may have an unhealthy fondness for pumpkins.

As a multi-faith family, our children get to celebrate two sets of holidays: Christian holidays and Wiccan ones.  So our kids were able to go trick-or-treating, celebrate Samhain, and then the humility associated with All Saints Day.  And because we are also a multicultural family, and my husband’s tribal traditions emphasize honoring one’s ancestors, the October 31-November 1 holiday season is especially important to us.  (I must emphasize that the assumption that East Africans actually worship their ancestors is a mischaracterization; ancestors are more like guardians or saints who watch over or intercede with the divine on behalf of their living progeny, or they may curse relatives who have done something terrible.  It’s a lot like East Asian ancestor veneration.)

In some ways, the three traditions are very similar.  All Saint’s Day, Samhain, and ancestor reverence all share honoring and remembering the dead in some way.  And the fact that All Saint’s Day and Samhain (and its descendant Halloween) share the same harvest-time spot on the calendar is no coincidence: when the Catholic Church was seeking to convert the pagans living in the European countryside, they aligned the timing of holy days with those already celebrated and that shared a similar meaning to ease conversion.

Green Man

A representation of the Green Man. (Image via R~P~M via Flickr)

Samhain also honors the male aspect of the divine (depending on the neopagan tradition, he is Herne, the Green Man, Pan, the Lord, just to give a few examples).  It marks the final harvest because in places above the Mason-Dixon line, this is when frost sets most nights and has effectively killed the summer grass and many plants.

Contrary to some hate rhetoric that circulates in the media this time of year, Samhain is not about human sacrifices or orgies with Satan or any other such nonsense.  The theology behind Samhain is that the male aspect of the divine dies with the harvest (to be reborn later in the Wheel of the Year on midwinter, when the days grow longer again) and the crone goddess mourns his loss.

In neopagan traditions, Samhain is said to be the day that doesn’t exist, when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead are nonexistent, making communicating with the dead easier (“the dead” isn’t just limited to people–many pagans will honor their departed pets as well).  Many pagans will light bonfires and set elaborate dishes for their departed loved ones; others may light up their homes with candles and leave west-facing doors and windows open to welcome the spirits or to help guide lost spirits towards the next life.  It’s usually a joyous celebration that typically lasts late into the night and involves feasting and music.

New Orleans Saints Logo

All Saints Day isn't about honoring the players of the New Orleans Saints. Instead, the New Orleans Saints get an entire season, from September through January or February. Celebrations are never solemn and typically require massive consumption of artery-clogging foods and alcoholic beverages. - Image via Wikipedia

All Saints Day, similarly, honors the departed.  Depending on the Christian denomination, it can vary from honoring those who have been beatified  because of their devotion to the Christian faith, and/or those whose souls are lost in purgatory or otherwise awaiting judgment, and/or all Christians who have passed on.  It’s significantly more solemn than Samhain.  People may or may not attend church on this day, depending on their faith and cultural background.  In some cultures, people light up their homes with candles (or even the graves of their loved ones).

All Saints Day Ceremony [Image 1 of 9]

All Saints Day can be a community-wide holy day or a quiet, personal time of remembrance and reflection. (Image via DVIDSHUB via Flickr)

Earlier I mentioned that many autumn holidays share a lot of similarities.  Because my husband and I are of different faiths and we wish to educate our children on both traditions (and actually all religions, in general), we have learned that it helps to point out how we are the same and embrace our differences.

This time of year is great for that.

This year, Starkitten is actually old enough to understand that it’s harvest time.  We walked around outside and observed the plants dying and the grass turning brown.  We observed the neighboring farms wrapping up harvest season.  She doesn’t really understand the concept of death in terms of loved ones (fortunately, we haven’t lost any close relatives or pets since she was born), so I spoke to her in general terms about ancestors and how this is a special time to honor them and then proceeded to give her the preschool explanation of All Saints Day and Samhain.

This time of year also great for cooking pumpkins.

And since it’s been a hectic autumn for us, I decided to cook one of my favorite comfort foods: pumpkin bread made from fresh pumpkins.

Making Pumpkin Bread

When choosing pumpkins for baking, you want to look for medium-sized ones with darker skin.  They will have the richest flavor and still have plenty of meat.  If they are too large, they will have lots of meat and seeds, but they don’t taste as pumpkiny.  The smaller ones really aren’t good for eating, although they are wonderful for painting for Halloween decorations.

The easiest way to prepare pumpkin meat for baking is to:

  1. Cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out all the seeds and stringy “guts,” and rinse thoroughly.  Then cut the halves into quarters.
  2. Place the pumpkin quarters with the meat side facing up on a baking sheet and bake at 300˚F for about an hour.
  3. When the meat is soft, pull out the pumpkins and set them on a rack or dish to cool.
  4. Once it’s cooled enough that you don’t burn yourself touching it, scoop out the meat (or cut it into 2-inch squares if it’s being ornery) from the shells and discard the shells.
  5. Puree the meat in a blender.

If you have any meat left over from making pumpkin bread, you can freeze it.  I typically pre-measure portions of pumpkin meat so that I can thaw out exactly what I need when I feel like making pumpkin bread later on.

While the pumpkin is baking, you can separate the seeds from the “guts” and then soak the seeds in salt water.  After you remove the pumpkin from the oven, leave the oven on.  You can drain the seeds and spread them out on the baking sheet.  Sprinkle a little cooking oil over them and bake for about 40 minutes (or more–you want them to be crispy).  When they are done, let them cool and you have a quick snack.

Ingredients for Pumpkin Bread

Pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds are rich in antioxidants, dietary fibers, vitamin E, and tryptophan--nature's sleeping pill. Serve them up as a side to a turkey sandwich for an extra-drowsy afternoon. - Image by Sei via Wikipedia

  • 2 cups of fresh cooked pumpkin
  • 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1/2 cup water

Directions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350˚F.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, soda, sugars, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and ginger.
  3. Add the eggs, water, oil, pumpkin, and molasses.  Stir until well blended.
  4. Pour into two lightly greased and floured 9”x5” loaf pans (or, if you wish to make cupcakes, into papered cupcake pan).
  5. Bake for about 1 hour (25 minutes for cupcakes), or until a knife stuck in the center of the bread comes out clean.

You can wrap the bread and freeze it if you decide to make large batches.  Pumpkin bread tastes well frozen because the longer it sits in the freezer, the more it brings out the pumpkin flavor.

If it's made from pumpkin--a fruit--it must be good for you, right?

Treat yourself and your significant other to a little coffee shop decadence with some pumpkin bread and chai that you made yourself.  Then you can stay in your jammies, listen to your own music, and know that you didn’t have to spend $15 to indulge yourself.

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