christmas, in twelve days


It's the middle of the third week of Advent and despite my well laid plans, I am as unprepared for Christmas as I've ever been.  This weekend we'll get our tree.  (One advantage to waiting this long is the tree farms usually start discounting their trees; the biggest, most perfect ones are picked over, but we live in a hobbity kind of house anyway and we just want something small and natural looking, so it works in our favor.)  After a month of everyone else's lights and decorations, I'm so looking forward to the arrival of Christmas at our house!Christmas lasts for twelve days, from the 25th of December through Epiphany, on January the 6th.  There are several saint's days in that span and lots of different ways to celebrate, but I promised to share a bit of what we do here.  Honestly, it's nothing dramatic.  So much of the excitement of Christmas is simply the build up that comes through the waiting of Advent.We usually attend a church service on Christmas Eve, then wake up Christmas morning and celebrate in the usual way with gifts (if there are any) and breakfast and spending the day with family.The 26th is St Stephen's Day (or Boxing Day).  "Boxing" refers to an old English custom of masters filling the banks or "boxes" of apprentices with monetary gifts.  It's a day to think of charitable giving.  You could box up some things to donate or open a piggy bank to make a donation.  We'll make sure to play "Good King Wenceslaus" that night and talk over our giving goals for the next year.The 27th is St John the Evangelist's Day.  Tradition says he was served poisoned wine and survived!  We'll make mulled wine that day. (I love St. John's Day!)  You can mull apple cider instead, for nondrinkers and children.

Gluhwein recipe:1 bottle cheap red wine3/4 c water1/2 c honey or sugar2 cinnamon sticks1 orange10 cloves2 star anise (optional)Orange liquer, brandy or rum (optional)Put water in pan to boil. Add honey or sugar until dissolved.  Put the cloves in the orange, slice it into halves, squeeze in the juice and then put the squeezed halves in.  Add cinnamon and anise.  Let simmer for ten minutes or until it begins to thicken a little.  Pour in the wine, heat gently.  DON'T BOIL.  Remove peels, cinnamon and anise.  Serve in mugs with an optional shot of liquor.

The 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  Honestly, by this time, I'm ready to quit observing things for a few days, so I don't plan anything big for this.  Gertrud Mueller Nelson celebrates children in some way on this day and I think it's a good time to bless your children - or children you know - with an actual blessing, or at least by telling them you love them.

A Celtic children's blessing:Grow gently, (name of child),in love of God.We bless you,and prayChrist be near you,now and each hourof your life.

My husband's company closes down for the week between Christmas and New Year, so we'll use this time to rest, hike, visit the ocean, do puzzles, etc.   I also like to finish writing the Christmas cards and send them out and prepare the new calendars and journals for the upcoming year.xmaslanterns2We celebrate New Year's Eve/Day pretty quietly.  We sometimes gather with friends or family, sometimes stay home.  Almost always though, we write out plans and hopes for the next year.January 5th is Twelfth Night.  There are a lot of fun traditions for Twelfth Night parties.  We don't usually invite people over, but we do make a cake and hide a bean inside.  The person who receives the bean in their slice of cake gets to be the King/Queen for the night (if you make a paper crown and find a scepter for them, all the better) and choose when to have more mulled wine, what movie to watch or game to play, etc.  This is also a traditional time to pack up the tree and put away the decorations. (Except for the creche!  The wise men are just arriving to meet the newborn King!)January 6th is Epiphany.  Depending on how you count, technically the 13th day after Christmas, but it's the day when the light of Christ is revealed to the world (the Magi have arrived!)  Some families save their gifts until this day.  Personally, I like to have the Christmas decorations put away the night before so that this day feels light and clean and fresh.   Apparently, I just discovered, in Ireland, this is also called "Women's Christmas" because all the work of celebrating is done and women can get together for high tea (with wine!) I mean...yes! I may just invite some ladies over and celebrate that day!Hope that gives you some ideas for an easy, beautiful Christmas celebration!  I'd love to hear how you will celebrate these twelve days!Merry Christmas, friends!tonia

work, in progress


They've torn down the old apple trees and the thicket of blackberries along the trail.  In their place are sections of chain link fence held together with orange construction tape.  Our town is growing.  The airport needs a new access road.  Warehouses will go up, businesses will move in; more houses will need to be built.

So much of life feels like it is going the way of the fields and the apple trees right now.   The planet is at the mercy of unchecked prosperity; culture is trying desperately to keep up with technology and rapid change; our bodies are reeling under the weight of industrial pollutants and foods.  Personally, we are facing the reality of a truly empty nest, trying to imagine what marriage, what life itself, will look like in a pared down environment.  Some days I feel like my hands are clutching sand.


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Processed with VSCO with a5 preset

"My work is loving the world," Mary Oliver wrote. When we first moved here we made ourselves promise to notice the landscape.  To really see it before progress changed it.  We set out to appreciate the open fields and hedgerows, the stands of trees along the rambling creek, the stillness of all that open space.  I know the curves and hollows of our trail by foot because we've walked it nearly every day for years - in the freezing cold, the rain, the fog, the heat.  We've even walked it in the dark with only the light of the full moon.  Day by day it has become our own.  Not in the sense of physical ownership, but through familiarity, and understanding.

The changes are hard to take.  I was angry after the loss of the thicket and the trees, the wide fields. And there's a part of me that's angry that I can't keep my children near me forever.  It is natural in us to feel jealous, possessive, of what is beautiful and good.


There's a book I've been reading slowly, about the first Oregonians.  The ones who walked this land before my ancestors arrived to cut down the trees and make farms, dam the rivers, cut in roads, build power plants and fast food restaurants, kill the wolves and over fish the salmon.  The piece of land that our little town inhabits used to be an annual meeting place for the Northwest Tribes.  I think of them lately, how it was to watch others encroach and change, to watch the things they loved being stolen and - to their minds, at least - ruined.  How do you find the grace to live in the middle of such a painful dismantling and not give up hope?  I don't think they knew; there is no answer in the book I'm reading.  There is no sure answer in my heart.

I keep going back to Mary Oliver:"Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished."

This is important, I think, this matching of work with standing still, with astonishment (and in her first line, with love.)  Lack of these things seems to be at the root of so many of our problems today.  How can you preserve what you are too busy to see?  What you do not value, let alone love?  To train ourselves to focused wonder, to unembarrassed cherishing, to standing still and seeing, and to consider such things our life's work.  Maybe that's a way forward, even if it's not a solution to the loss.

Before the bulldozers came this fall I watched a red-tailed hawk pirouette over these now broken fields.  She wasn't hunting, she was playing.  I stood and watched her for a long time.  She dove and swooped, bolted upwards and then floated down with her wings wide-spread to skim across the surface of the tall grass. Over and over again she danced, drinking in the goodness of the sun, the air, those shimmering fields.  I came home and recorded it in my journal, the abandonment, the sheer joy of it.  The words are still there now, and as soon as I read them they conjure for me again the beauty of that morning.   The bulldozers have taken the field, but the hawk and her dance, the joy, are my own.  Today when I passed by the same spot, I searched the sky for her but she wasn't there.  The field was full of tire tracks and churned mud, the footprints of progress.  But along the edge, where the fences wobbled, was a bright stand of tansy and the red-brown tendrils of the blackberry vines that are never deterred for long.  I smiled to welcome them back, to encourage them to find the gaps, to stake a foothold in our changed and changing world.

advent, the tender season



Gertrud Mueller Nelson says that Advent comes to us when "Nature seems asleep. The season is dark, and all that is becoming is hidden from our sight."  Much of the church year has a martial, triumphant feel, but Advent, I think,  is a woman's season - deeply quiet, patient, and tender - and that is probably why it draws me so.  It is a time of waiting, nurturing, and anticipating, more than celebrating and doing; the antithesis, almost, of the cultural Christmas season.

In order to enter into this contemplative time (which for us begins on December 2nd) it helps me to work backward mentally from Christmas and imagine how I want the arc of the season to go.  Like many people, I grew up celebrating Christmas as a stressful, exhausting month of spending that culminates in one bloated and excessive day.  When I began to understand the cycle of the church year and how it was designed to focus the heart and mind, that pattern became very dissatisfying.  But because the pattern is so culturally ingrained and difficult to change, we found we had to opt almost completely out of parts of it in order to regain our perspective.  (We are still in the process of shedding old expectations and habits, so what I share here is just a snapshot of our process, not an answer for everyone.)

Except for the young children, we do not give many gifts at Christmas.  Each year is a little different, but for the most part, we have found this area to be the hardest to change and to maintain any kind of balance.  Buying a gift for one person inevitably leads to buying for a second, then the worry about whether the gifts are equally valuable, and will someone else's feelings be hurt or will that person feel slighted and if we're buying this for one person shouldn't we also buy it for that other one and oh no! I forgot your Aunt Martha!  It's relentless.  So we began to opt out from all of it.  Some years, we pool our money and rent a beach house as a family.  Some years we just spend the day together.  But until we feel free of the consumer pressure and hysteria of it all, we will not add gifts back into our Christmas celebrations.

As you can probably imagine, once you remove most of the pressure of gift-shopping/buying/wrapping/presenting you have released a lot of time, money, and energy and it's easier to consider a month of simple, contemplative practices.

Our Advent was a little different when we had children at home.  We lit candles each night and read prayers and scriptures; we also unwrapped and read a different Christmas book each night; we kept a Jesse Tree and hung ornaments on it; we moved Mary and her donkey around a wooden wreath.  (Kortney outlines a really similar practice in her beautiful (free!) e-book. It has many more resources. I highly recommend it!)  Our children LOVED this time and it has been a little sad to move on from it, but that is the reality of life.  These days our Advent-keeping is much simpler.  I purchased four candle holders from Goodwill and some plain beeswax candles and I will make a little wreath with greens and succulents.  We'll light the week's candles and pray from The Divine Hours each night, maybe read from  Child In Winter.  Our church is holding weekly contemplative services on Wednesdays, so we'll go to some of those as well.  For me, Advent is a time when I reconnect with the idea of goodness and hope waiting to be born into the world, of the sacrificial love that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus all represent.  What am I bearing into this aching world?  In what ways am I loving outside myself?  Am I sharing God's love with others?  Are we as a family reflecting light and hope?   In what ways do I need God to heal and rebirth me?

In the still of Advent, the questions of the soul can begin to be answered.


It's not all contemplation though, we do celebrate a few days during the Advent season:  mainly St. Nicholas' Day, St. Lucy's Day and the Solstice.

St. Nicholas Day is December 6th and he is, of course, the inspiration for most of the Christmas mythology we have now.  He's a joyful, pure-hearted saint and we love taking time to remember him.  For years now, I have used this day to give books to my family.  I love, love, love to give books and I spend a lot of time thinking through the year what I'd like to share with each family member.  This is a tradition unique to our family, but one I hold very dear.  In addition, we are having a little party for friends this year.  In keeping with the St Nicholas traditions, we'll collect socks for the homeless and do a fun sock exchange and I ordered fair trade chocolate coins to hand out.

St. Lucy's Day (Santa Lucia) is December 13th.  This was an especially fun day to celebrate when our daughter was young.  Traditionally, the oldest daughter gets up early and makes saffron buns and coffee for the family and serves them while wearing a candle wreath on her head.  We never managed a candle wreath, but we will still do the saffron buns and coffee, of course!

Solstice is the longest night of the year and the beginning of winter and we typically observe it very simply by keeping the lights off and only using candles, accepting the darkness of the winter and the gradual return of the light.




Christmas itself is a full twelve days and there is plenty to celebrate there too,  (St John's day gets mulled wine!  Yay!) so I'll write more about Christmas as it nears.  It can be difficult with everyone else around decorating their hearts out, but we do wait until as close to Christmas Eve as possible to get our tree and decorate it.  I can't tell you how much I love waiting.  It makes the anticipation of Christmas day so much more exciting when all these little events slowly unfold each in their own time.  We'll bring out the creche around the same time as the tree, and start to slowly fill it with the various figures.  First Mary and Joseph, a few animals, then on Christmas Eve the angels and the star, the shepherds and their flock.  The wise men have to wait for January 6th - Epiphany! - but they are on their way too and sometimes they show up on a bookshelf or in another room, making their way to God in their own time and on their own path.


There are so many resources online to help you understand Advent and Christmas, but I hope this gives you an idea of what it can be like.  My main encouragement is to slow everything down and strip it back to something that feels life-giving and hopeful for your family - that's the whole point of this season anyway.  Please feel free to ask any questions!

Much love to you,


hara hachi bu


The old generation Okinawans are among the longest lived people in the world.  They have a lot of tricks about how to accomplish this:  a sense of life-purpose, intimate family/friend connections, a simple diet based on plants, regular gentle exercise such as walking and gardening.  The other thing they practice is hara hachi bu - the idea of eating only until they are 80% full.  I don't know if you could find a concept more foreign to American culture.  We're a clean your plate so you can have dessert kind of people, an unbutton the top button of your jeans kind of people, not an I feel satisfied so I'll quit while I'm ahead kind of people.

I've been thinking about this concept for some time.  Not just about eating, but about consumption in general.  The science behind hara hachi bu is that it takes 20 minutes for the nerve endings in our stomachs to register we are full.  If we eat until we feel full, as most of us do, then we have already overeaten and stretched beyond our natural capacity.  Eventually we will need more food to create the satiated feeling we are looking for. (More food = more weight = poor health.)  It's the same with our money and our time, of course.  The level at which we are satiated rises with each new luxury we indulge in.  I used to be satisfied with grocery store coffee. Enough said.  My need to create tasks and fill my hours increases with my perception of my own importance.  How will I know I am valuable if I'm not complaining about too much to do and responding "Busy!" to every "How are you?"

Hara hachi bu says it is best for us if we take less than what we feel we need.   Our bodies can't tell us what we need in the moment we are consuming, so our minds must be wiser than our bodies.  What if I bought 20% less food at the grocery store?  Would that eliminate the last of the food waste we generate and be closer to what we actually need?  What if I only planned enough tasks for 80% of my day and left 20% for serendipity or naps?  What if we lived on 80% of our disposable income?  Bought only 8 of the 10 books I think I want? Committed to keeping 20% of our calendar free?

Maybe a practice like that would get me closer to the balance my mind and soul are continually seeking.

Do you have a hara hachi bu practice?  Id' love to hear your thoughts. 

becoming available to yourself


Recently, I pulled out my journal to see if I could remember when I started working on this new novel.  I found the answer back in the July pages.  The months before I'd been wrestling with the balance between what I felt were two distinct callings.  One required availability, the other - writing - required isolation and focus.  I couldn't see how to make both of these callings work, so all through the month of June I am writing out an explanation to myself about what I think is the correct choice: availability.  The writing must not be important in the long run, I say to myself.  It's always about people, it's always about showing up.  In June, there is a sense of relinquishment.  I can remember the feeling of release, a certain peace.  Writing would wait.  Then in July, a succession of unexpected events.  These were small things:  conversations, decisions by friends, a gift from someone close, a paragraph in a book.  These were sudden and illuminating, like matches being struck in dark corners: Oh, I see.  By the end of that month, I had decided that I *must* write, even if it was just 250 words a day.  I would inch my way along both trajectories.  I told other people about my decision, committed myself, made it hard to back out.  I made it to 10,000 words, 15,000, 20,000.  At that point, the landscape began to shift.  Decisions were made apart from me, obligations, relationships sifted, time opened up in a new way.  There were more small things.  Every book I picked up - some I'd bought years before and left on the shelf only to randomly select them again now - was the story of a woman coming into her truth.  Every time I grabbed a magazine, it was a woman telling how she made the hard choice, how she chose her path and stuck with it even when it meant disappointing others.  Friends who all along had been counseling "availability, availability" began to say "it's time for something new."   I began to admit things in the journal I'd never allowed myself to say.  Things I wanted but hadn't given voice to.  In the space of four months everything heaved and buckled, became new ground.

What's interesting to me about all this is in hindsight, I'm not sure if the changes were  inevitable and I was just awakening to them, or if the changes came in response to my decisions.  When I look back, its almost as if this life had been lying in wait for me to choose it.  Each step I've taken has been met with a surge of reassurance, clarity, and confirmation.  But I sense that if I had not taken the steps...if I had stayed on the path I was already on, there would have been reassurance and confirmation there too.  I'm almost certain of it.  That scares me a little, to think I could have just gone on with what I knew and what felt comfortable, that life itself would have risen up and affirmed that choice too.  What might I have missed had I not taken the small messages, the little match flares that were revealing another way?  May Sarton suggests it:

"The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up."

I have felt this stagnation, an underground current pulsing, not allowed to find release.  When I think of so many women I know, I am struck by how their deep thoughtfulness, their tremendous strength and creativity is put to use holding relationships together, managing dysfunctional family members, being the emotional center of their homes or jobs or communities.  I cannot imagine where we'd be without such women, but I am also struck with the inequity of it.  What have we lost in terms of wisdom, art, culture, science, diplomacy, language, and much more by allowing ourselves to be available to everyone but our own selves?

It's something to think about.  Questions to ask ourselves in moments when we can be honest.  Step back, look.  What is pulsing underneath the surface?  What longing hasn't even been allowed the words to describe it?  What would you do if there was no one who needed your daily involvement?  There are seasons, certainly, when these longings and gifts have to take the background, but in my own life, they weren't just in the background, they were in a tight little box labeled "probably never" or "probably too late."  What about yours?  Are they somewhere they can be nurtured and watered even in a dormant season?

"And now we who are writing women and strange monsters

Still search our hearts to find the difficult answers,

Still hope that we may learn to lay our hands

More gently and more subtly on the burning sands." ~ May Sarton

Sending love and courage to all my brave-hearted friends today.