Sunday, November 30, 2014


The funny thing about living in a strange land and a different culture is that the big things that I thought would be hard, or intimidating, or intense, are often not. Another language, a different political climate, a different bio-region, those are expected and can be adapted to.  Ultimately it's the million little things that sometimes push me over the edge and into if not exactly homesickness, then an unnamable longing for that small difference. In flavor, in attitude, in habit...

It can be any old little thing, not in an of itself significant, but ultimately, when added to the stresses of everyday life they compound to my frustrations...

How bad American baked goods continue to taste (Sorry, but my palate can't handle the amount of sugar that's standard here.). The atrocities of a non-decimal measuring system. Antiquated seeming online banking. How drugstores don't have make-up testers…

Life is just moving along at its usual pace and then suddenly some small detail throws me off. Even after all these years.

One of the things that I continue to struggle with year after year here, is the holiday season. Overall, I can't quite put my finger on what bothers me about it, but it's a lot of little things.  It's probably an equal mix of our particular lifestyle, cultural differences and circumstances.

I can't remember  ever having "holiday stress" back home, but here I can't really remember a year it hasn't happened at some point. Living in Finland I was both indifferent to Christmas, and always involved in it the way you are in a homogenous culture where everyone celebrates it more or less the same way.

Our family was never that into the material side of Christmas, but we have a lot of traditions around food and they're common ones, the same that most everyone in our small county has. Most of the joy of Finnish Christmas is in preparation, from advent calendars, to baking gingerbread all through December, to making all the food and decking out the tree together well before the day of the celebration. It feels handmade, instead of store-bought.

On Christmas Eve everything quiets down and stays so for a couple of days: stores close, freeways quiet down, public transportation stops running. Everyone has time off. Compared to this, the American holiday season seems to me a little harried and slapdash.

There are almost universal rituals to Finnish Christmas, from going to Church, to listening to the president declare Yuletide Peace, to lighting candles at the cemetery, to the Christmas sauna, none of which I miss on their own, but all of which somehow add to that quiet pace, that driving to be somewhere just doesn't do.

Over these last six years, we've been working on cultivating our own traditions. We only drive to see family on Christmas and stay on Island with our other family for Thanksgiving. We participate in the community's Solstice celebration in many ways. We do something with friends on Christmas eve.  I've introduced certain foods I make each year from "the old country". We try to make all of our gifts and create all of our own decorations.

To ward off the holiday blues, I've made plans for all kinds of little celebrations and small measures that will hopefully keep reminding about what I really like about this season: the lights amidst the darkness, the giving and reciprocity, good food, handmade things, the chance to turn inward, yet embrace others.

Still, I find myself missing the quiet darkness of the Finnish Christmas season. I miss the cemeteries lit with candles. I miss the good gingerbread and the less-than-chipper Christmas songs. The straw goat decorations. The St. Lucia parades. The weird green marmalade marbles on every coffee table. Yet none of these things would by itself alleviate this feeling. It's the combined absence of hundred small things that makes me a little sad. I guess maybe that's what homesickness is, missing those things you can't quite name.

What are your traditions?  Any (realistic) tips for a stress-free holiday? (The just don't give into it-advice is not really helpful.) Anybody out there who doesn't celebrate the (something that as product of a uniform culture is still really hard for me to wrap my brain around.)? Any other expats with the holiday blues?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Be Grateful?

Sometimes the world is slightly thrown off it's axis. The way we look at things is altered, the things we thought were cohesive, no longer make sense. Ordinary activities seem a little more disjointed, a little pointless. We hug our loved ones closer to us again, are kinder to friends and more patient with strangers.

At others we grow bitter and shake our fists at the sky and hold angry monologues in the living room, because we have been here before. There is an insult to this injury, because it is one of many, part of a pattern that becomes clearer with every new hurt. We scold ourselves for holding out hope, against hope. We shake our heads at our own naiveté.

I'm of, of course, talking about the events of the last two days in the media, about Fergurson, the grand jury's rather unprecedented decision to not indict, about the civil unrest and militarized law enforcement response that followed. The talk of the town, the fodder of news and social media.

I was going to write about something else, about our travels last weekend to a family gathering to celebrate Charlie's grandma's birthday, about our favorite haunts in Port Townsend, a little Victorian city by the sea, full of wooden boat enthusiasts. How we ran into our dear friends in the middle of the street. How we always emerge from the bookstore with more than we can carry.

That all seems more than a little trivial today, but at the same time, I don't really have any words to write about the elephant in the room, its ghostly presence just standing next to all conversations, large, imposing, but hard to make sense of.

I'm still new to this country, still figuring out how this society works, where its traumas and pressure points and fault lines lay. How we deal with things here, what the codes and states of civil discourse are...

All I can say is: in our disbelief over yet another glaring injustice, let's not get use to it. Let's hold onto those unlikely hopes, because it's from those hopes getting dashed time and time again that our outrage stems from. And if we don't feel that outrage, then we'll be truly lost, used to idea that what we know in our gut is right will never come to pass in the world.

And more than that,  beyond continuing to nurse our best hopes for our towns, cities, counties, states and for this country and continuing to be outraged when those hopes are dashed, we each of us need to think of something concrete we can do, to make sure these injuries don't keep compounding to the point where we're completely crippled.

That's what I'd like all of us to do even as we gather around heaping tables and quality time with loved ones: be grateful yes, talk and exchange ideas and acknowledge the myriad of collective hurts that hang over our heads, but also, come up with a plan of action, however small, to expand that gratitude and grace we're supposed to feel around these holidays.

Wishing you all a warm, kind, loving and thoughtful Thanksgiving,

Friday, November 21, 2014

There's A New Moon On The Rise

…and you know what that means.

New Moons are a grand time to start something, to plant something, to let loose all the wild horses and hoary beasts of your imagination. And apparently, New Moon in Sagittarius is all about creative ideas and visions. Correct me if I'm wrong, Astrologer friends.

I'm working hard on lots of things at once and hoping that all my pins and balls stay airborne, or at least land squarely in my hands. In the meantime, I hope to be back soon with good news and more substantive posts. Wish me luck...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Things I Did Not Do

I don't know about you, but one of the many things that occupies real estate in my brain is a running list of "things I didn't do today/ yesterday/ this week/ this month/ this summer/ this year".

It goes something like this: Today, I totally didn't remember to not pick fights. I didn't stack as much firewood as I'd hoped. I didn't take any good pictures. I didn't call back any of the people who called me. I didn't finish my writing piece like I had hoped.

Yesterday, I didn't make dinner and we ate rolls and leftovers for dinner. I didn't remember to soak fava beans for tonight's dinner. I didn't go have dinner with anyone even though I should have.

This week, I didn't finish my editing work and now I have a deadline. I didn't write any of the letters I was going to. I didn't go on a walk with Charlie. I didn't finish my holiday card design.

This month, I haven't finished any of the blogposts I was going to do. I haven't managed to call my sister.  I haven't had dinner with any of the ten people/ families on our list.

This year…nah you get the picture though.

I don't know why it's these lists that keep playing in my head instead of the ones of my accomplishments. It's like every time I do something, learn something, make something, I instantly forget it ever happened, because there's always a thousand other things to do. Only, mostly likely I'm never going to get them done to my satisfaction. And this, my friends, is bullshit.

So instead here's a list of things I have accomplished lately:
Today I stacked firewood and went harvesting craft-materials.
Yesterday I said no to social time in favor of playing dominoes at home with my sweetie. I had a great meeting with a new friend/ collaborator.  I got to share goats and turkeys with a little gal who was stoked.
This week I sent out mail to some of the many people who are important to me. I sewed some pretty cool things and made plans to do sewing with a friend. I had some productive meetings. I made a huge batch of sauerkraut. I read some great books and worked on my website and my short stories. And I made three rather decent soups.

Not looking so shabby after all, now is it? What awesome things have you accomplished lately?

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Little Recipe And Yes, I Am A Witch

…but it has nothing to do with this broomstick.

You may have noticed, I've been in a bit of a hibernation mode lately, as far as this blog is concerned. There's a lot going on and with the ever shorter days it's hard to get it all done. This time of the year, I always take great pains to get enough sleep and make sure I eat well, because I feel like the increasing darkness leaves me vulnerable to colds and other illnesses.

Speaking of which, I often get asked for recipes of things we eat, but frankly, I usually cook in the darker hours of the day and mostly off the cuff, I don't often get around to fulfilling those requests.

Here's a seasonal recipe so simple, I'm almost embarrassed to call it one, but it's perfect for fighting colds and using leftover garlic seed.

I love garlic planting season because it's a promise of summer and spring. You gently separate the bulbs, trying to keep the skins intact (but if you can't this recipe will come in handy!), soak them over-night in vinegar, dig a little trench for them, cover them with that loamy soil and tuck them under some straw. It's like putting your plant babies to bed for the winter.

Garlic is one of those homestead crops that I'm willing to give ample space in my small garden, along with potatoes and beans, because it's easy to grow (knock on wood), abundant, keeps well and is expensive to buy.

It's great medicine against colds, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, supposedly can help lower your cholesterol and fight cancer cells, an all-around wonder-plant. It's also pretty much in every meal we eat.

One of the things I've never seen sold, or been offered, in this country is "Russian Garlic" which is this delicious fermented garlic I loved getting at the "Kauppahalli", an indoor market place in my home town. So I thought myself how to make my own. It was not hard ridiculously easy.

Fermented garlic becomes soft and delicious and much easier to stomach in emergency cold care as it's raw form. Trust me, if you like garlic, you'll love it. If you don't like garlic…I don't know, eat a cracker or something…

Here's how you make it, or any other fermented vegetable for that matter:

You'll need: garlic, salt, water, a vessel. That's it. You can also add pickling spices, but maybe try the plain version first.

-Clean the garlic. If you're ambitious, you can nip off the though bottoms. Can you tell who's not ambitious? Good.
-Make a brine. A rule of thumb is 1-3 tablespoons of salt to a quart of water. Err on the side of too much. Salt is what keeps your concoction from molding. Too much salt, however will keep it from fermenting. If you use coarse salt make sure it emulsifies. You can always mix a little in warm water and dilute.
-Cover cloves fully with liquid
-Leave in a not-too-cold, not-too-warm place. 60-70 degrees is ideal. This is almost never the temperature in my house.
-As you can see I make mine straight into quart jars. If you do the same don't screw the lids on tight. You'll need to make sure some air can escape.
-In a few days you should see bubbling in your brine. If not, maybe you have too much salt and need to dilute with more water.
-If mold starts forming, fear not. Skim it off and add more salt. As long as your veggies are fully submerged you're all good.
-Leave the garlic out for 2-3 weeks and then test. If you like the taste and the consistency refrigerate. I've had my current batch for about a year now. Great as a little side dish, or appetizer.

There's also a pickled version I haven't tried to make yet. Oh and a bonus homestead hack: if you're done drying herbs, fruit, or berries, but want to make sure they don't mold cover your storage container with a cloth instead of a lid. Make sure to lid in a couple of weeks so that they don't get stale.

Now about that broomstick…if you follow me on instagram, you may know already that our resident rooster and I are at odds. Since we came back from our big trip he's taking to attacking me whenever opportunity arose.

Nothing would deter him, not bribery, having a bucket of water thrown at him when he snuck up on me, sweet talk, threats, brandishing sticks, or even being kept at bay by those same sticks. He would not quit. Somehow he was determined that I'm after his ladies and rightful empire. If you've never been attacked by a rooster, you have no idea how wildly they fly at you and kick with their spurs and peck. It's not something you can really withstand day in and day out.

Since I like having a rooster, he's part of the flock, protects the hens, offers the prospect of chicks and is generally a good addition to the homestead, I tried to figure out a way to get him under control without accidentally hurting him (which had almost happened already).

Frankly, I admire his impertinent attitude, as inconvenient as it is. He's wily and obstinate and knows his own worth, which I like. We all him Ukko, or Ukkonen, or Thunder Rooster, because "ukkonen" means thunder in Finnish. "Ukko" means old man, or the main God in the Finnish Pantheon. Yeah, I know, maybe naming your rooster after the king of gods is a bad idea...

There's countless, endless message boards about how to make sure the roosters know you're the boss. Like all message boards, they contain completely contradictory advice, but the consensus seemed to be that you had to show it you meant business. Apparently you had go after him first. For that, I needed a weapon that would intimidate him, but not hurt him if it actually came to blows. Which is where the broom comes in. It's weird, makes a noise and does that amorphous shaking thing that chickens don't like, it's prickly enough, but won't actually hurt him, because it's broad and soft.

I tested this theory about ten days ago, by first pushing him with the broom when he attacked me and then running after him and whacking him on the bum with it. Worked like a charm. A truce was reached, though I would not turn my back to him for extended periods of time and he likes to come to the garden fishnet and scream at me, safe in the knowledge that he's behind the magic forcefield of the net.

All I have to do to ensure my safety is to carry the broom with me at all times and shake it at him occasionally. So, you can expect to see a lot of outfit shots with said broom. "We should really get a picture of this for your Witch Blog…" was the suggestion that prompted these shots.

Besides planting garlic, I've been harvesting surprising goods from the garden. A new, tiny crop of lettuce came up, along with some chickweed that the chickens love, and my beets are still going strong.

I dug up the last of my potatoes, a local variety called "bucket a hill", and brought in my remaining cabbages, which were slug-eaten on the outer leaves, but huge and surprisingly pretty.

I still have leeks, parsley, chard, mint and of course, kale coming, though some stuff may go away in the next few days if the frosts predicted here really come about.

In anticipation, I made a salad for dinner from kale, mint, parsley and nasturtiums, dressed with olive oil, Bragg's and nutritional yeast. Hey that's another recipe! Cooking school! Witch Blog!

I've been wearing my typical home day garden duds: a dump sweater, a dump dress, bloomers made from dump procured fabric. To dress it up and to address the witch-theme, I did wear my favorite pin, given to me many moons ago, by one of my favorite witchy Moon Sisters, Amber.

Storms have been coming and going, moving clouds and felling trees on our path. Charlie had to take a saw to get to work today.

On the marsh, the swans are visiting, another sign of impending winter. As much as it's hard to slow down with so many projects and plans and ideas, I love this season of inwardness and burrowing.

How are your long nights going?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Life And Death On The Old Homestead

A while back, I wrote a little piece about landless homesteading and it's transient joys and sorrows. This being the day of the dead for some folks, the dying time, a season when nature retreats into itself, I keep thinking about the cyclical nature of raising animals and growing plants. 

Last week we said our farewells to Calypso, the little boy goat who's birth we got to witness last spring.   When I say goodbyes, I mean it. The sunday before slaughter day, which I knew I couldn't be at because I had to work, I went over to the goat pen, scratched his ears and thanked him for the good company he's been these past months, for being gentle with the little ones we've brought to visit him, for being sweet and funny and a good goat all around. Of course I told him I loved him. I always tell him that. He's my pal. 
A week later we had him for dinner. 

I know it sounds macabre when you put it like that, but that's the truth of it. It's never done lightly, or carelessly, but some of the animals folks keep, are destined to be eaten. It's the reality of homesteading. I know there are some vegetarians out there who would argue that there's no need to such a destiny and perhaps I will someday take on that conversation, but in the meantime, I think that if one is to be an omnivore, the kindest, most humane thing, is to raise an animal from a kid to slaughter and to do the deed yourself. Something I've personally been too chicken shit to do so far, though raising chickens for meat is in our "plan" for next year.
No matter which way you shake it, animal husbandry and even pet "ownership" means signing up for often  considerable heartache. Animals get injured. Animals die. I realized the other day, as I buried yet another chicken in the garden, that in the five years that I've been keeping chickens for eggs, more than a dozen of them have died from various causes; predators and mystery diseases.
I remember last winter, trying to dig a big enough hole in the frozen earth for five chickens, I doubted the whole point of that endeavor, the wasted resources of food and shelter, only to come home and find that the tiniest hole-gone-unnoticed could undo all of it. This was in February, the hungry month, when predators are the most likely to strike and there's little to eat in the woods, for them, for us, or for the chickens.
Of course, as soon as spring arrived, I came to my senses, patched up the coop with more wire and got thirteen new chicks. Why? 

Because, I suppose, it's worth it. Having eggs from chickens I know are happy scratching in the woods is, to me, worth any potential sadness, or loss of resources, in the event that they die from in spite of all of our precautions. 
It's worth it the same way every other homesteading venture is. Sure you can buy bread and chutney from the store, just as you can buy dried apples and sauerkraut, or smoked salmon, but learning to make things on our own, with ingredients grown at home, or from known sources, somehow seems to make the food more nourishing than its caloric value.
Growing a plant from seed, a chicken from a chick (or egg, if you're lucky!), watching a goat be born, ties you to your food in ways that shopping at the grooviest, most organic market never will. 
You do the dirty work: you knead the dough, you muck up the chicken coop and clean the eggs, carry the buckets of manure and clean the pumpkin seeds for toasting. There is reward in this. Deep, human feelings, slightly beyond words, hovering on the edge of your consciousness. You know they're there, but you don't quite know how to express the satisfaction of them.
The point of animal husbandry, beyond the mere food aspect, seems to be that it too is intrinsic to our nature. Humans have gone to great pains to meet other species in the middle, to alter their behavior to better suit companionship with us.

It's always curious for me to watch the cats, chickens and deer in my yard react to each other. They have their own dynamics and we have our own with each of them. 
Interacting with animals, whether wild, domesticated, or somewhere in between, seems to make us better people. There's acknowledgement there, that other beings exist and have their own mysterious and puzzling ways and though we can never really, truly understand them, we totally exist in the same space with them.  

And though I don't have any large mammals of my own, I feel very lucky to be able to get to know them. There's something humbling about being reminded that docile and domesticated creatures always have personalities of their own, their specific wild and unpredictable natures. 
Being able to milk a cow, or a goat, to rest your head against the flank of a warmblooded mammal who's more than happy with their part of the exchange, feeds that deep sense of belonging that makes homesteading such a joy. 
When I think about it, packing away meat in the freezer, canning vegetables for the winter, starting sourdough, cooking bone broth, or making a new batch of fermented cabbage that stinks up the whole house, I'm always reminded that I want this life, with all it's grievances and slight inconveniences. That it is those very things that remind me of my luck. That sometimes bathing in a basin is so much more satisfying than a long hot shower. That eating plain beets you grew yourself is at once a privilege, but also a universal human right that everyone should have, because the act of growing them should belong to everyone.
And I'm also always reminded of the glorious concept of energy exchange: that if the things that nourish this body of mine while I'm on this earth, the plants, the animal-people, agree to do so, then it is my part of the bargain to feed a whole horde of beings when it's my turn to go. That all this energy I'm consuming never disappears, is never wasted, but simply dispersed in different forms into the world universe. 
Now there's your hippie-dippie thought of the day…