Snow Days and Spontaneity

Snow Laden Trees

I woke up this morning to a foot of fresh, new powerdery snow, a veritable winter wonderland! While snow days bring out the curmudgeon in some, I find overall that, like mass power outages and ice storms, snow days bring us together in fresh new ways. They are when northerners get to act more like southerners – we talk to our neighbours while shoveling, pitch in where our help might be needed, throw up our hands and laugh at the insanity of wedging garbage bins on top of mounds of the white stuff.

There are squeals of delight all down the street as school children sloosh along sidewalks, chasing friends with a mitt full of fluffy crystals. This sudden shift is a gift given to us by nature. What I’m interested in here is the joyful, child-like wonder we often feel when waking up to trees laden down like those in picturesque Christmas cards. But there is something else, and that is what is dropped.

For a day, or two, we realize that nothing is going to be perfect. Nothing is going to run quite right. We will likely be late for work, and others, in a similar position, will understand. Or, we call in a ‘once in a while’ home day. For a time, we let ourselves and others off the hook of needing to strive for perfection. Even high-performant newscasters break a smile at the flakes fly in their face while reading the weather, or at scenes on the live-feed of drivers trying to shovel themselves out of lane ways. We drop our shoulders, and maybe take a luxurious hot bath in the evening after the shovelling is done, and drop into a more fluid, state of accepting what is. After all, there’s nothing to be done!

Leaning Into The Holidays

Christmas wreaths

I always been a fairly last minute shopper, and relentless Christmas enthusiast. For me, I believe the two things are somewhat related. I enjoy carolers in the mall dressed in Victorian velvet cloaks and top hats, and the palpable excitement that builds a few days before the holidays. As fat snowflakes float above, illuminated by a streetlamp on a dark December evening, I feel the nostalgic sense of holidays past flood through me.

And yet, as a mom of two with seven nieces and nephews, I have had to adjust my desire for spontaneity with a bit of planning in order to grow into the role of creating Christmas magic for my own children. It’s a tall order. And of course, I have incredible appreciation for the traditions and ambiance my own mother created in our home, complete with crafty tree decorations, boughs on the hearth, cookie baking from heirloom family recipes, and the whole nine yards. With no fire place or mantle, and the sole parent within the ethos of the Christmas tradition, in a vegetarian family at that, I know what I create will not be exactly like the holidays of my childhood. But perhaps this is the key – blending planning and spontaneity, new traditions and old, to drop into that same Christmas spirit in a slightly new way with my children.

When expectation and busy-ness arise, notice the tendency to shift into avoidance. Bah Humbug! In my first few years with my daughter, I did avoid stepping into the role of holiday parent. I spend the first Christmas with baby at my parent’s place, leaving our own home tree-less and dark for the week. Over the next years of her pre-school life, I spent winters in India. We didn’t mention the holiday much to our daughter, and celebrated with ice cream sundaes at a Rajput palace terrace one year. With an 18 month-old and out of the country, it is as simple as that, “Oh, it’s Christmas day, let’s have a sundae!” The year my daughter turned three, and I was in late pregnancy, due on the solstice, I had no choice but to shift into an earlier preparation for the holidays at home in Canada. I went out to buy a few simple decorations and lights for a tree, and asked my sister for two of our simplest tried and true cookie recipes. At 39, it was going to be my first full-blown Christmas in my own home. Would I be able to maintain my enthusiasm for the holidays, while finally having to do some of the real work?

I have! I’m five years in, and still leaning into the holidays. How can we get back to a gentle savouring of the holidays, knowing that there is an increased busyness, increased expectation, and frankly, expense? I chalk it up to mindful appreciation balanced with keeping it simple. This is a blend of a top-down approach complete with perspective shifts and check-ins, and a bottom-up approach with practical strategies for relieving stress. To me these both implicate and inspire each other.

Let’s start with the practical.

Prepare

Who had not admired the prepared family member who started squirrelling away holiday gifts in July? Yes, starting early definitely decreases the hassle of having to decide upon, purchase and wrap presents at the very last minute when the malls are at their most crowded, certain items will be sold out and you have other things to do to get ready to celebrate. But without foregoing the fun and spontaneity of holiday browsing and shopping during the actual holidays, you can still relieve the inconvenience and panic of super-last-minute shopping. Put pen to paper today and identify those for whom you need/want to buy gifts, brainstorm gift ideas and when and where you’ll find time to get them.

Consolidate

As I mentioned, I have seven nieces and nephews. Without doubt, part of the stress of the holidays is the extra expense. As we’re already into December, and if you’re reading this, you are likely not a planner by nature, so it is too late to talk budgeting. That said, there may still be time for a strategy my siblings and I have found really helpful: gifting to nieces and nephews in rotation. Let’s face it, after gifts from parents, grandparents and the Jolly Old Elf, a present from one aunt rather than two is not going to be missed by the kids. But the savings to you in time and money are significant.

Convenience

If mall fever is the thing that causes you the most stress over the holidays, and you feel disconnected from the box store experience, or question their ethics, shop locally and make it convenient too. Shopping in local, independent stores often provides a neighbourly experience and on a human scale. Last year, I bought most of my gifts from an independent children’s bookstore. Not only was there cider at the door of the wooden storefront, but they featured books by local authors, and I was able to shop at leisure in a cozy environment and get good advice from someone who truly cared about children’s literature.

I know, if you have relatives who live a distance, shopping locally and shipping the presents just doubles the cost (or takes value away from the kids) and is a last-minute gifter’s nightmare. But I have found a solution that has given me a lot of pleasure over the years. Rather than clicking automatically onto an Internet retailer, I call a boutique in the town where my relatives live. When I make a call to Woodbury Mountain Toys, I feel the slower pace of life carry over the phone line; I picture the cheerful, painted wooden houses peeking out of the green-top mountains as I read out my sister’s address. The shop keeper says she thinks she knows my sister. When I hang up, I feel the warmth of a holiday interaction and my shopping for the Vermont cousins is done!

Abiding Presence

With this, I feel myself leaning into the holidays already! And yet, I’m aware that these practical solutions in and of themselves are not a fix-all. In fact, I can see that they would only minimally change things without the ultimate dropping into the experience which is the essence of mindful living. Truthfully, my list-making, July shopping relatives are not less stressed or more enjoying of the season. This is what turned me into a last minute shopper in the first place – my insistence that holiday magic comes from being lit up, and super present to the moment.

One of the hallmarks of mindfulness is being with what is. As the energy of the holidays ramps up to a frenzy, what does this mean in terms of mindfulness. Putting ourselves on notice to drop into the spirit of abiding presence even more this season.

Breathe

Whenever you feel the tension of to-doing, or a resistance to increased holiday traffic or extra engagements, take a few minutes to come back to the breath, and just be in the body. Busy-ness creates a heady feeling that life is spinning out of control. Just stop and give yourself a few minutes of nurturance amid the chaos every hour if you can. During those few minutes, take your mind completely off-line of worry or complaint. Be with the sensations of the body and with the enjoyment of the feeling of the breath as it moves through the body. I know you know this. Just give yourself the gift of a three-minute breathing break several times a day.

 Savour (even when there’s aversion)

On your way home from work, school, the shops in the evening, slow your pace slightly, look around, and notice perhaps the crispness of the air, the sound of the crystals in the flakes of snow as they fall, or if you’re not in a place that is this quiet, perhaps the view of the fluffy flakes illuminated by a street lamp.

Notice any seasonal decorations, natural or artificial, specific to one culture, or universal. Notice any aversion toward a certain type of decoration or what may appear to you to be excessive or over-the-top, and try even for a moment to see it in another way, saving the environmental pointers for another time, or turn it into service by writing a blog post on how to celebrate with less of a footprint). For us in the northern hemisphere, the colourful lights are a symbol of warmth and illumination in the darkening days approaching the winter solstice. The large air-puffed Frosty the Snowman on a neighbouring lawn could remind you of the lightness of how children play in the snow.

If you find yourself railing against carols in the mall so early in December, notice that, and just listen to the sound of it without labeling or describing. Listen to the notes and the harmonies. If this comes up because you don’t even celebrate Christmas, notice all of the carols which relate to snow, being together, bringing nature in or celebrating the greens of the season, spruce trees, holly and cedar wreaths. (If you’re from a warmer clime surrounded by carols about snow, sorry, that’s a whole other level of de-contextualization to deal with!)

Enjoy the smells and sounds and tastes of the season, get nostalgic if that’s what comes up. Let it all in!

Celebrate

Even if you haven’t celebrated actively for many years, try leaning into the holiday season by choosing a few activities that make celebrating meaningful to you, and planning to make time to enjoy them. Here are a few suggestions for resuscitating a meaningful season.

  •  Baking is therapeutic – the sense of mastery in actually making cookies or tarts, the nurturing smell of sweets in the oven!
  • Attend a children’s holiday concert at a school. I love the multi-faith winter concerts that preschools and primary schools often put on. Even if you don’t have children, find out if you can join friends or relatives for a school event. They might not think to ask you or consider you would be interested.
  • If you are interested in Christmas culturally or just enjoy the lighting of the candles though don’t consider yourself religious, this is a great time of year to actually go to church, no questions asked. Churches expect to have one-timers to their services on Christmas Eve, or for the carol services hosted earlier in December also. Find out what is happening in your area, and consider singing along with a choir for free (or by donation) in a local church. For people on a tight budget, this is a way you can go to what in many cases will be a very polished performance by a choir without buying tickets to a concert venue. And singing really does make you feel better. Collective singing and chanting have been proven to release oxytocin, the bonding, feel-good hormone.
  • Consider heading out to a community tree-lighting ceremony, or other winter festival.
  • If you’re without family for the holidays, you might want to find ways to volunteer with an organization to help others and have fun doing it, whether it is distributing food baskets, helping to prepare or serve a community dinner or joining a group to sing at a retirement residence. It is a perfect time of year to join a group or to volunteer at a meaningful one-time event.

There are so many satisfying ways that communities come together over the holidays. If your mind turns to complaining about the consumerism or commercialization of the season, direct it instead toward finding ways you can get involved with an activity you can really get behind. Ho Ho Ho!

Quick Vegetarian Cooking for Families with Young Kids

Finger Food Bake

I love cooking and food, don’t get me wrong. But, I almost never spend more than half an hour cooking dinner. And yet, as a vegetarian with young kids, I can’t just pull chicken fingers out of the freezer. What’s my secret? I’m committed to the idea that it is just as fast to cook fresh foods at home as it is to order in. I get loads of satisfaction from chopping and sautéing, 15 minutes of each, short order cook style!

People think cooking vegetarian food is complicated. Believe me, I think roasting a turkey sounds complicated. It is just a question of trying new things, and maybe experimenting with new ingredients. Add kids to the equation and you’ve got another conundrum: how to get vegetarian kids to actually eat vegetables! Take pasta for example, a go-to easy dinner for most families. But between the ages of 2 and 12, many kids don’t like sauce. Hence the restaurant kiddie menus highlighting pasta with butter. My solution? Chunky primavera non-sauce.

Pasta Primavera

When trying to go can-free, I hear people complain that no one can possible have time to make their own pasta sauce. This all depends on what you think of as sauce – a thick 2-hour reduction takes, well 2 hours to make. But you can make the chunky primavera in less than 30 minutes. Put your pasta water on to boil, and then chop, chop, chop go the zucchini, vine-ripened tomatoes, asparagus or broccoli, a few kalamata olives and kale or collard to wilt on top. Cube about half a brick of firm tofu. Next, toast basil flakes in olive oil, add tofu cubes, zucchini and a bit of tamari or Bragg’s (unfermented soy sauce). When you fry the basil flakes in a bit of oil, you’ll notice they release their aroma much more than when you add them to a dish later on. Finally, add the rest of the vegetables (except the kale) and a bit of water, and salt if you wish, and cover the pan for 10 minutes on a low heat. I find having a frying pan with a glass lid an essential. By now your pasta water will have come to a boil, and you can add the pasta noodles so your dishes will both be ready at the same time.

Ten minutes later, wilt in the kale and presto, a kid-friendly dinner that is delicious for the rest of the family. Serve the kids’ pasta with butter and place the tofu chunks, broccoli trees and maybe a wilted kale leaf on the side. And you get a sumptuous Primavera.

Finger Food Bakes for All Ages

Not only will my kids not eat sauce or soup, they won’t eat dal! That excludes half of the vegetarian’s repertoire right there. Over the years, I’ve learned that finger foods are a hit, so I make something akin to a toddle tray for dinner that’s suitable for the whole family. Cast aside the idea of making fish fingers and french fries for the kids and preparing a whole separate dinner for the adults. Instead, slice a brick of tofu into five large slabs and place them on a baking pan. If you have time you could marinate them in olive oil and tamari, but I usually just drizzle Bragg’s over the tofu right on the pan. Lay a bunch of washed asparagus spears on the pan beside them. Then cut a sweet potato (and potato if you like) into long pieces like fries with the skin on. Drizzle the lot with olive oil and sprinkle with with Celtic sea salt. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes. Serve as a simple, finger-food meal that includes two super foods!

In my next blog posts, I’ll look at a Vegetarian Christmas dish that fill the house with the smells of the season. I’m also working on a post on holiday mindfulness entitled Leaning into the Holidays.