Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in review

The old year is soon to be dying, and it feels like a good sort of a time to reflect on the year that was for me and my family. This year has been a crowded one in many ways for us, and hasn't always been easy, fun or pleasant. But we - in particular, me - have also been the beneficiaries of great joys and important realisations that I hope will enable us to build a rich and rewarding 2011.

At the start of 2010 I said that I had 5 main goals for the year:

1. Get the girls back into swimming and increase their competence in the water
2. Have a holiday!
3. Lose weight & get fitter
4. Move forward with growing our own food / living a little more sustainably / eating less meat
5. Start planning for our proposed house move

We certainly kicked the first two of these to the kerb, with the girls swimming weekly at lessons and often in-between times (all three are progressing rapidly) and our holidays to Echuca (in March) and Wangaratta (in July).

We also made some progress with the 4th goal, with me now planning weekly menus that involve only one red meat meal per week and no more than two white meat meals (including fish).

There's plenty more to do, though. The only growing food that we've had abundant success with this year, aside from our herbs and ever-fruitful citrus trees, is tomatoes. I have three enormously productive plants trouping along outside, producing without surcease - two Roma vines and a cherry tomato vine. I haven't paid for a tomato since May, which is ace. Next year I want to parlay our tomato success into many other veg and fruit.

With the third goal, I am indeed fitter, yes, but I weigh just what I did in January, and I'm really very OK with that. One of the unexpected growth areas for me this year has been my discovery of, and interest in, the Health at Every Size (HAES) and Fat Acceptance movements. Several notable FA blogs have helped me to understand that my weight is not, in and of itself, a problem, and need not be pathologised or demonised. I am changing this focus in 2011 to be about improving my fitness, stamina and spinal health, rather than looking at how much I weigh or how fat I am.

The fifth goal has been more or less jettisoned for now, as we decided in September to try to extend our longevity in our house with the acquisition of the big kids' loft beds, which enable them to share their bedroom yet still have a desk space and built in storage of their own. These are already proving a marvellous investment. We will now start looking to move house as my eldest child nears the end of primary school (5 years from now).

Aside from January's goals, so, so much else has happened this year.

The lowlights were terrible ones. The loss of a dear friend to a brain tumour in late June, followed by the death of my grandma (my last surviving grandparent) 3 weeks later, then the loss of our beloved elderly dog Basil in October, cast a pall of sadness and loss over the winter and spring for us all. I am still mourning all of these lost personalities, and coming to terms with the fact that they will pass this way no more. My 5 year old, in particular, has also been very obviously affected by the deaths of Dee and Basil, and we have had a lot of work to do there in helping her process her sadness and anger.

We also spent a large part of the cold, bitter winter, and chilly spring, sick, which made this already emotionally difficult time that much harder.

I also struggled with work-life balance in 2010, finding working at home harder than I had ever found it before, and wrestling weekly with chronic time shortfalls and rising exhaustion levels. This was exacerbated by the fact that my 22-month-old is not a very consistent sleeper. Until September or so, she was routinely up twice every night, sometimes more. I am thankful to be able to say that she now wakes only once a night, and sometimes surprises me with a sleep-through, so we are seeing some improvement there. Patience is a virtue sometimes!

The highlights of 2011 are hard to identify, in some ways; so much of the year has been sweet and bitter all mixed up together. I'd probably nominate my 5 and 7 year olds' birthday parties in May and August respectively (we covered both science and magic this year, with the 5 year old having a fairy party and the 7 year old a science-themed party, complete with her rather special cake). Our family holidays in March (Echuca) and July (Wangaratta), and two weekends away in October (Anglesea and the Yarra Valley respectively) were also wonderful.

Completing NaNoWriMo in November was a huge highlight and great satisfaction for me. Reading beloved childhood classics to my big girls has been wonderful and so soul-enriching, and watching them enjoy and thrive at their gymnastics has been lovely.

The toddler's explosion of language has been amazing, and the emergence of her personality has been fascinating to see. And, on a more generalised level, watching my three girls grow and develop has been a constant joy.

As for big changes and decisions, 2010 has seen a few of those, too. One of them was digital - I decided to take my aged blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis, out of the public domain in June, prompted by a few uncomfortable cross-overs between the online and offline worlds I inhabit, and thus this blog was born as my open-access, play and childhood-based space.

Making the decision to resign from my job in November, and finishing up at Christmastime, was probably the biggest change of all, but it's one I feel very much at peace with, even though I agonised for months about it before I did it. Having been with my employer for almost a decade, it does feel strange to be no longer working there, but it also feels very right. This was the change we needed to make for the new year.

I have loads of ideas and plans and hopes for how things might go in 2011. I have things I want to do more, things I want to do less, and new things I want to try. Part of leaving my job for me, leap of faith as it is, is about focusing on what's important to me and my family, and trying to get some clarity around how I can work in the future (not to mention what I might work at). I have some serious thinking to do on these subjects in the new year.

Right now, I'm not thinking to make long-range predictions, though - I just want to enjoy a pause, in January, from routine and busyness and juggling, and marinade in relaxed, unhurried time with my family. February will see a renewal of structured activity for both the kids and I, but this golden month of summer is about being, not doing.

I wish you and yours a very happy 2011. May it be filled with all you wish for, and short on grief and sadness.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Present of the year award...

goes to Uncle J (my brother), who gave my 7 year old this very simple and very much adored air=pressure rocket launcher for Christmas.

Thankfully, as we were out at my aunt and uncle's spacious vineyard property in the Yarra Valley, there was plenty of room to test it out.

Everyone got into the act! For a toy built on such a simple principle (compressed air = explosive output), it is exceedingly fun thing to play with.

We made ourselves sweaty leaping madly on the thing and no other toy or game was even unpacked; between walking the vineyard, feeding and petting the horses, the grand lunch and sipping my aunt and uncle's latest vintage Shiraz on the verandah, there was no time for anything but launching rockets.

My parents both had a go, as did I, the 5 year old, the little girl, and my aunt and uncle. My husband, my brother and my 7 year old had a competition to see who could get it to fly the highest. The toddler discovered she could get it to fire by sitting down hard on the button, which highly amused her (and us).

A-1 present, that ;-)

Friday, December 24, 2010

So this is Christmas

For us, Christmas this year will be a happy one, spent with family and food and excited children. There will be presents, there will be turkey, there will be crackers and tinsel and carols on the stereo.

As we were coming home from a Christmas Eve carols service at church a couple of hours ago, my 7-year-old asked that we stop for a minute and think about those experiencing a different kind of Christmas, as the minister at church had suggested.

So we stopped, and I thought:

- about the family of my dear friend from my first mothers' group, who died in June of a malignant brain tumour. Her children, aged 7, 5 and 2, are facing their first Christmas without their Mum.

- about the people injured, killed, stranded, orphaned in the Christmas Island tragedy. I thought about the agonies that those parents must have faced to be be driven to take such desperate risks.

- about the victims of war everywhere in the world; the dispossessed, the brutalised, the murdered.

- about the countless women, some of them wearing the faces of my friends and my relations, who have suffered violence, degradation, humiliation and harassment at the hands of men. I know too many, too many, for whom Christmas is a season to be endured for its capacity to trigger awful memories or worse yet, repeated violence as alcohol loosens both tongues and inhibitions.

- about the children who are not, as my children are, secure - children who are precariously balanced between starvation and survival; orphaned or abandoned; or loved and cherished but by parents who are unable by the accident of their place of birth to provide them with anything, even a safe place to lay their heads. What's Christmas in that context?

I thought of them, and I will still think of them, tomorrow when the shining faces of my happy, well-fed children greet me, when we open gifts and exchange embraces and sing together. And I will be thankful for the Christmas that I am privileged to have. I will not squander the simple joy that I am able to feel. I will not take it for granted, and I will not forget my obligation to act where action is in my power for those whose Christmas is one of broken hearts, not overflowing ones.

Merry Christmas to you all. May it be full of every bright blessing.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmastime in the city

Today my partner took a day off work, I turned my mobile phone off (it has been running hot with end-of-job freneticism, as I finish up my from-home work role on Friday), and we took our three girls into the city for a day of Christmas fun.

The ostensible purpose of our trip was to see the Myer Christmas Windows. If you are an Australian, you know all about the windows; if not, this is a tradition, dating from 1956, whereby one of the oldest retailers in the city creates a Christmas story themed display in their shopfront windows for over a month. This year the theme was the Nutcracker, and both my big girls were very keen to see it, being past ballerinas themselves and avid ballet fans. (Gymnastics has claimed their affections this year, and will be their sport again in 2011, but I would not be surprised to see one or both of them return to dance at some point in the future).

The day started off with a train trip into town. Everything about riding the train was exciting - buying and validating the tickets, boarding the train, watching out the windows, and (joy! joy!) travelling through the underground loop to get to the right station. My 22-month-old was beside herself with delight.

The queue for viewing the windows initially looked intimidating, but it actually moved fairly smoothly, thanks largely to two very polite but very determined security guards who prevented every attempt at queue-jumping (I was astonished at how many people tried it on - honestly, very rude behaviour). We spent our 25 minutes in the queue very pleasantly, listening to a guitar-playing busker, talking to the older kids, and rocking the toddler (happily asleep) in her pusher. Despite being another wet, cold December day (summer? what summer!), the mood of the crowd was mellow enough and we all enjoyed looking at the unusually northern-Christmas-like slate grey skies and blossoming umbrellas in the decorated mall.

The windows themselves were lovely:

and the kids really enjoyed them:

especially the fine detail in the ballroom scenes.

Leaving the windows with three slightly fatigued children, we decided on a stroll through the Royal and Block Arcades. If you are not from Melbourne and ever visit, I would so recommend a walking tour or even just a wander around Melbourne's lanes and arcades. They are the part of the city I miss the most now I don't work in the CBD, and the girls hugely enjoyed the beauty and surprises that they had to offer.

Gog and Magog were appropriately festively attired, too.

We ended up in Australia on Collins, a more modern shopping centre than the lovely arcades, for lunch, but even there, hanging baubles captured imaginations and created fun, and we managed to complete the very last of our Christmas shopping.

Then we took a tram down Collins Street to Southern Cross Railway Station, Melbourne's large architecturally-designed railway switching point between urban and rural rail lines. The girls loved the tram ride, if this were possible, even more than the train ride. I wasn't fast enough to photograph it, but the sight of their three heads together pressed against the glass made me smile.

Before we got on the train to head home, the girls ran off some steam on the patch of lawn out front of the Age building (the Age being Melbourne's local broadsheet newspaper).

By the time the train arrived back at our home station at 3:30, just over 6 hours after we'd left, we were a very tired, very cheerful, and very Christmasified family! Indeed, the big girls are out for a drive with their Dad right now checking out Christmas light displays, so I'm sure there is more Christmas excitement to come when they get home.

It must be said - it's the most wonderful time of the year ;-)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas picture books

When I came to write this post about favourite Christmas stories, I found myself stymied by a couple of things. Firstly, there are such a lot of Christmas stories around, selecting a few seemed impossible, especially given how many my kids and I read each year. That was a problem in and of itself; how to select when the field is so wide?

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, it struck me that Christmas stories come in many different shades and hues. There's the nativity stories, with varying degrees of overt Christian sensibility. There's the "true meaning of Christmas" stories, with their generosity / family / love / sharing / giving themes. There's the Santa stories (the significant sub-genre of Rudolph stories fit in here too). There's the offbeat stories, that pick up festive moods or ideas without really being straight Christmas stories at all. What a field, and each kind of story has some strong contenders for favourites (and also, let it be said, some duds too).

So in the end, I have listed 5 Christmas stories that are very different from each other, but all have been enjoyed by my kids and all, I think, are very good of their kind. I don't think I'd even say they are our all-time top 5 (although the #1 on the list is probably our all-time #1). They are, however, a good selection covering a lot of Christmas ground.

I'd be interested to hear of any others people are attached to!

1. The Jolly Christmas Postman

Janet and Allen Ahlberg are geniuses in my opinion (and I will devote a later post to exactly why I think so) and this Christmas story is pure delight. The combination of beautifully detailed illustration, gentle and funny rhyming story, the use of fairytale and nursery rhyme characters, and the interactivity of the book is just magic. Each page features a letter or card for a different fairytale recipient, all inserted into envelopes on the backs of pages, and there is twice as much reading in the inserted bits as in the storyline itself. Highly recommended for 2.5 years and up (younger ones will enjoy the pictures but probably rip the letter / card inserts).

2. Twas the night before Christmas

Sometimes you just can't go past the classics, and this well-known Christmas poem, which was read to me every Christmas Eve as a child, remains dear to my seasonal heart.

My 5-year-old is the biggest fan of it from my three kids this year; she's enjoying it as much, I think, for the curious and (to her) archaic language as for the lovely illustrations.

3. The Fox's Tale

I could have picked lots of nativity stories, but this one is one our favourites. Written by Nick Butterworth, it tells the story of the nativity from the perspective of a fox who observes the shephereds and angels on the hillside, then follows them to the stable to see the infant Jesus. It is a pretty straight-up nativity story, couched in terms that toddlers can absorb easily.

4. The Polar Express

I think most people come across this Christmas phenomenon at some point, if only because of the movie it produced. (We haven't seen the movie as yet, but may do so this Christmas). It is a beautiful, lyrical story about the polar express, an imaginary train that takes children to the North Pole on Christmas Eve to see Santa on his way. It is magnificently illustrated and has a simple and charming message. My kids all love it.

5. Wombat Divine

As an Australian, finding stories about our Christmas (the hot, dusty, non-snowy kind, with non-reindeer type animals) isn't always easy.

Mem Fox, well-known Australian author, delivers a very sweet, accessible one in Wombat Divine, the tale of a bunch of Australian animals putting on a nativity play, and the dumpy, childlike, sweet as sugar wombat who struggles to find his place.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

5 days old

(This is an old post from 2004 on my other blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis. It's seasonally relevant now and this is still my favourite Christmas poem, so I thought it might be worth revisiting).

My favourite Christmas poem isn't really a Christmas poem per se, although it does use Christmas themes and seems to me to encapsulate that nebulous and so-often-lampooned concept, "the spirit of Christmas".

I'm not talking about gifts, although the exchange of gifts is, to me, more than a merely commercial exercise, it's a complex social exchange that can, at its best, represent deep affection and generosity. I'm not talking about Santa, reindeer, Christmas trees, decorations, Myer Christmas windows or hugely light-bedecked suburban houses, although all of those things are minor pleasures of the season to me (remnants of a happy childhood, I suspect). I'm not talking about Christmas carols, much as I do enjoy belting them out or crooning them as seasonal lullabies. I'm not talking about friends and family, although seeing them is a side benefit of our societal obligation to engage with relationships again at year's end. I'm not even talking about food, much as I loooove Christmas fare.

To me, Christmas is about birth, and beginnings, and renewal, and the wonder of newborn life. Religious elements aside, the story of the nativity has always moved me. The labouring mother, probably afraid, suffering, in a strange place. The no-doubt-anxious father, hovering around, maybe running off to get clean cloths as the birth approaches. The baby boy, born in blood and tears and happiness as all babies are, time without end. And then the explosion of joy at this beginning - angels in the sky, a beacon star, kneeling shepherds and later, grave Magi bringing royal gifts. Gold for a King, Frankincense for a Deity, and Myrhh for the dying at the end. A very deep foreshadowing for such a tiny life, and capturing that mixed sense of wonder and exultation and love and fear and bittersweetness that every parent feels - well, that I felt - when they look at their newborn child, and think "She'll grow. She'll change. She'll hurt." To me this is what Christmas is - the joy, the pain, the fear, the expectation, the utter humanity of birh - the everyday miracle.

That's why I like this poem, by Australian Francis Webb, even though it's only partly "about" Christmas, and partly about a birth of his own (his son's).

Five Days Old by Francis Webb (1961)

Christmas is in the air.
You are given into my hands
Out of quietest, loneliest lands.
My trembling is all my prayer.
To blown straw was given
All the fullness of Heaven.

The tiny, not the immense
Will teach our groping eyes
So the absorbed skies
Bleed stars of innocence
So cloud-voice in war and trouble
Is at last Christ in the stable.

Now wonderingly engrossed
In your fearless delicacies,
I am launched upon sacred seas,
Humbly and utterly lost
In the mystery of creation
Bells, bells of ocean.

For the snowflake and face of love
Windfall and word of truth,
Honour close to death.
O eternal truthfulness, Dove,
Tell me what I hold -
Myrhh? Frankincense? Gold?

If this is man, then the danger
And fear are as lights of the inn,
Faint and remote as sin
Out here by the manger
In the sleeping, weeping weather
We shall all kneel down together.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Gluten free gingerbread

I've had a few requests in the last few days for my gluten free gingerbread recipe, so here it is, for your allergy-friendly seasonal baking pleasure! I adapted this recipe via trial & error for g free from one in Stephanie Alexander’s book. The main thing to remember is that gluten free flour crumbles easily and doesn’t adhere together like wheat flour, so you have to accept a certain amount of re-rolling when you get to the cutting stage.

Ingredients (To make about 40 cookies)

170g softened unsalted butter or marg (butter tastes slightly better but marg gives a silkier texture)
180g dark brown sugar
½ cup golden syrup
2 egg yolks
480g plain gluten free flour (I use Organ All-Purpose)
2 teaspoons xanthum gum (sometimes I omit this and it still works but is crumblier in texture)
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon bicarb soda
4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground allspice


Cream butter or marg, sugar and golden syrup in an electric mixer or with hand-held beaters. Beat in the egg yolks. Sift all the dry ingredients together (or just mix them, it doesn’t make a huge amount of diff). Add dry ingredients to the egg / sugar mixture on low speed in the mixer or with electric beaters until it is coming off in wet clumps. With your hands, form the dough into a ball, wrap it in cling wrap and stick it in the fridge for at least an hour (half a day is better).

After chilling, take dough out of the fridge and let it warm up to not-solid, usually about 20-30 minutes on a summer day. Flour a board and roll out your dough, aiming for a thickness of around 5mm. Do not be discouraged if it all crumbles to pieces on the first roll-out – gf dough just needs a little more love, that’s all ;-) Regroup the dough and re-roll until you get a smooth sheet, which might be the first time or the second but is usually, in my experience, the third time.

Cut out your cookie shapes and put them on a cookie tray lined with baking paper. You can decorate them with candy baubles / sprinkles at this stage if desired. Bake in a 170C degree oven for 10-12 min.

Once they are cooled, you can use Royal Icing or those store-bought icing pens to draw edging on them if you want to. (We are in cookie-factory mode here at the moment so we don’t do this step – it’s just too time-consuming with three little kids “helping”!)

Hope it works out for you – it usually does for us!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

We Play - Christmas things

This week we've been baking. Gingerbread and shortbread, gluten free and yummy, for our Christmas cookie boxes that we give as presents to teachers, workmates, family and friends.

Last Sunday we put up and decorated our tree. It was a wonderful day for all of us.

The little girls and I have been busy making lavender bags to give as drawer scents as part of the special gifts for special teachers that we're putting together. We're using lavender we collected and dried from our garden, and leftover pink sparkly mesh from my 5 year old's fairy party back in May.

And although I can't show you a photo of it, we've also been busy singing Christmas carols, attending Christmas club, holding mock Christmas concerts at home (where the big girls can practice their school / kinder concert routines, and the toddler can join in with great enthusiasm), watching Christmas Wiggles DVDs, and attending Christmas parties.

Blessings of the season to you all. I won't be playing in this meme now until after Christmas (ironically, because there is too much on!) but I wish each and every one of you a joyful and peaceful Christmastime and plenty of play to fill every heart.