Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Winter Break

It’s Winter Break at the Urban Homestead. For about two weeks, everything comes to a halt. The time is somewhat framed by the Christmas Tree and by Yuletide, but not completely. It’s more a state of mind—or, more precisely, lack of mind.

Winter Break means sleeping until you want to wake up, until the light filters into the room, dim from cloud cover. It means thinking about Soft Clothes right after dinner, if you want. It is staring at the juncos at the feeder with the cat by your side. Perhaps rereading a children’s novel—Paddington the Bear or Go to the Room of the Eyes, while considering the weather. Could it get any nastier? Why yes, it could. It just went from dank heavy fog to freezing rain. But, that’s okay. You weren’t going anywhere anyways. Maybe it’s time to start the soup for supper.

Winter Break isn’t all about sluggishness, although there has to be a few days of sluggy-ness during the break. It is also about long walks around town and visiting all of the local woods hikes—Bald Hill, Finley Wildlife Refuge, the Arboretum—to check out the mosses and lichens on the trees. It is about being outside every day, Embracing The Day, for at least an hour, usually more, before heading back home for tea or hot cocoa. There is not much light in the Northwest in the winter, so you have to catch it when you can. Working from dawn to sunset, literally, is depressing. Winter Break helps us over the hump of darkness. Embrace the Day!

Winter Break is, finally, about friendship. During the two weeks or so of Break, you see everyone you know and love, formally or informally. You spend hours talking with friends at Sunnyside or at home, travel to Eugene and Portland—eating good food and visiting. You also bump into local friends everywhere—the library, the sidewalk, at the movies or a concert. So many people leave town over Break that the rest of us rattle around a little bit and knock into each other more easily. A quick trip downtown can lead to four or five conversations along the way.

I love Winter Break, the shift in routine, the chance to sleep and stare out the window, the long hours in the pale winter light. It’s a gift that comes every year, just when we need it the most. And, when it is over, I’m almost ready to go back to work…but I am not above praying for freezing rain on Sunday afternoon—just enough, perhaps, for a two hour delay announced the night before?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lucia Day

St Lucia was an early Christian, living in Sicily. As is traditional in these stories, her parents were not happy with her choice of lifestyle—sound familiar, anyone?—and her mother set up an arranged marriage with a young pagan gentleman. There was nothing wrong with this young man except his religion, but Lucia refused to marry him and put out her own eyes, blinding herself, rather than go through with the ceremony. For this , she received sainthood. When Christianity made its way North, to what is now Sweden, they took St Lucia with them and grafted it onto old pagan celebrations there. Now, young girls is Sweden wake early (I’ve realized, living in Oregon, further north than Portsmouth New Hampshire, that this was not as great a sacrifice as it may seem. The sun rises after seven these days, especially in the rain), don white dresses, place a wreath of lighted candles in their hair, and bring buns and coffee around to the rest of the house, singing songs. Animals also receive special treats in the morning. They reenact the ceremony, with young boys wearing pointed blue hats with moons and stars on them, in the churches later in the day. It’s all about bringing light and hope back into the darkness.

I’ve always loved the visions of lighted candles and the idea of special buns, and years ago, Kris and I made them in the Bakery one evening, left them to rise overnight, and baked and sold them early the next morning. They were great warm from the oven. For years, I made the buns, curled on either end like an “S” and fed them to people. But the early morning thing…it didn’t happen. One year, I was wanting to share the buns and thought about having a gathering here, at the house. Invite people over for breakfast and have Lucia Buns and anything else they wanted to bring, then maybe go for a walk together. Not a bad idea—but the house is tiny and I had a long list of people to invite. Mark and I considered the options – which included holding the party in the garage at one point—and decided to move the whole thing outdoors. Bald Hill. It has the open barn so we were sheltered from the weather and a good trail to the top; it is in town, within biking distance for our friends without cars; and we all rarely go there, because it is so close. It was perfect.

We have been hosting the Lucia Day walk for six or seven years now. We gather at the barn around 8 am on Saturday morning, rain, snow, or fog. Some people carpool; some ride their bikes. I light a candle and place the little Lucia figure near it. Mark pours hot cocoa into everyone’s mugs—Swiss Miss, made nice and strong. We unveil the tray of buns, now made of a lovely whole wheat and squash recipe so that they are golden like the sun. There is seedless blackberry jam. I lay out a dozen oranges from the high school baseball team fundraiser—small orange suns on a beam. The sun comes up. Sometimes it is clear and we can see it rise over the mountains. Usually, it is cloudy—low cloud hanging like fog over the fields, or high clouds thinking about rain later in the day. Once in a while, we have snow. It doesn’t matter. We are protected under the barn roof while we gather. We talk. We admire the day, even when the weather is, technically, lousy. We are Hardy Folk, wrapped in wool and rain gear, drinking cocoa.

At some point, we pack up the food to keep it away from roaming dogs, tuck oranges in our pockets, and head up the hill. It’s not a long hike—no more than a couple of miles round trip—but the view from the top looks out over the entire valley. We stand, watch the sun, eat the oranges, talk some more, then head down. We’re home by about 10:30. Every year, the group shifts and changes—but there are always eight to ten people willing to get up before dawn on Saturday morning, pull on layers of clothes, and come to Bald Hill for Lucia Day buns and cocoa and the walk.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


It’s raining. It is, after all, Oregon in Winter and “there will be months of rain” before the sun comes again in June. But, today, it’s a steady rain.

There are many types of rain here. Some days, it’s not rain at all, just an incredibly thick cloud cover that goes on into the sky for twenty minutes when you fly out of or into Portland. Some of the clouds are thick and puffy, others long and lean, and they just go on forever. If there is a break in one layer, the next reaches over to cover it. Clouds. No moon, no stars, no sun—just clouds. Sometimes, a piece of a cloud breaks off and twines itself around a Douglas Fir, or a mountain top, or the edge of a waterfall at Silver Falls State Park, obscuring the branches or lines and angles of rock, creating a classic Oregon moment. Sometimes, the clouds come down to the ground, mix with wood smoke and exhaust fumes, and create air that feels like you are back in Dickens’s London on Christmas Eve, with Scrooge. This usually happens the week before Winter Break….maybe it’s just the general feeling at school. On these days, I wrap up in wool and mutter “Dank” as I walk out the door. Christmas lights glow in the distance on my way to and from work. Clouds, especially low clouds, do not mean rain, they just mean no sun.

Then there is rain. Today is a steady rain, but not too cold. The air smells fresh and the cats will go out. I walked home from the library last night unclogging street drains with a long stick in the rain and it was quite lovely. The surge and swirl of water freed from the leaf and needle dams….It could be worse. It could be a cold rain, when the air is about 35 degrees. Then, the cats stay in at loose end and chase figments across the living room, or hunt me for entertainment. No one likes cold rain. And, although every student (and teacher) prays for the temperature to drop so that it will turn to snow, it never does. It does, however, become freezing rain, the nastiest rain of all. It’s hard, and it stings, and the roads freeze over – and school might have a two hour delay—but, unless it is a huge storm, it’s ugly. There is no beauty in a freezing rain.

All of these rains are quiet rains. Sometimes, in the spring and fall, the changing points of the year, a loud rain will come in, pounding so hard on the skylight of my room that class will stop and stare at the ceiling. “Whoa!” they say.”It’s raining.” Once in a while, it even drowns out the classroom voices. After these rains, there are rainbows reaching across the hills and the kids at the window will point them out to the rest of us, like they point out rare sunlight in December.

We live with rain and clouds all winter long. Occasionally, I catch a glimpse of the moon or leave work for a rare sunny late afternoon, but, usually, there are clouds, mist, fog, drizzle, showers…water. And then, one day in June, the sun comes out, the light stays until ten o’clock, and it’s summer here. We think it’s a fair trade.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


The garden beds are finally put down for the winter. There are a few dinosaur kale plants we need to eat before the chickens find them and the sprouting broccoli, first crop of spring, is hidden under the remay. Today, between downpours, I cleared out the tomatoes, stacked the cages, and moved the big black tubs near the house for the winter. All of the finished vegetable plants have been chopped into the compost hoop under the laurels. Last weekend, I raided leaves from the street using the neighbor’s abandoned recycling cart to haul the wet piles into the back yard. The cats rolled in the street as I raked, assured that they were safe as long as I was around. I spread leaves six inches deep over all of the raised beds, burying weed seeds deep in the mulch. Over the winter, the chickens will root through the leaves, mixing in soil and poop, creating new earth. The coop has been covered in plastic sheeting to break the wet west wind, the cat carrier moved into the rabbit hutch and filled with straw for a winter bedroom for Lola, and the benches are all in the garage for the cats to climb on during the winter rains. Until the seed catalogs come out on New Year’s Day, the garden is resting.