The Christmas Letter, a Dying Art

The Christmas season is upon us and we are all frantically making preparations for the big day. There are gifts to buy and menus to plan, people to see. There is one tradition I hold on to. It is the Christmas Letter.

Now I know in the busyness of Christmas these have often gone by the wayside. They are time consuming and the postage is expensive but I so love to receive a letter so I think others do too. Years ago I used to hand write my letters. I didn’t have as many friends. As my children came along my time was taken up in other ways so it became harder. It was still part of Christmas preparation though.

By the time my third child came along it was downright onerous but I still could not give it up. It was too important. Thus was born the form letter. Now I know that makes some of you cringe but it was necessary. I refused to send a card without some information on the family. It was often the one time a year I touched base with old friends and extended family.  It became my job to make it an interesting letter worth reading. Beside it just made more sense to send one good letter than a few notes that repeated themselves over and over.

My letters evolved to include pictures that the kids drew, signatures and pictures taken through the year. I developed a bit of a template that I follow. Each child gets a featured paragraph of activities and accomplishments, family events and holidays are highlighted and other news is shared. I try to keep it around two pages. I don’t want to bore anyone. My friends liked the letters so well they started doing their own. Over the years we all still anxiously await the yearly update from everyone. And my kids loved seeing the mail come in.

To save costs I buy cards on Boxing Day sales. Pictures are now printed on the letters with the ease of the computer. I used to photocopy in the old days. And now that my children are grown and moved away they still get a paragraph about their yearly exploits. And there has been one very great spin off that I didn’t figure on when I started. I now have three decades of family history nicely paraphrased in the letters. I have kept every one and hope to publish a family history for the kids. I would never remember all we have done but I have a handy reference.

So for all my young friends it may be a tradition worth starting. I know it will take an evening of your time but down the years it will be so worth it. Your time is your most precious gift and in these tough economic times it is something we all have to share.  And I am sure there is an old Aunt somewhere that would love to hear from you this Christmas. Enjoy.img_2165

Sauerkraut, Carrying on the Tradition

I have always been hands on and keen to learn. My Mother and my Mother in law were both pretty practical women who took pride in providing the best for their families. They both worked. My Mom was a nurse and my Mother in law helped take care of the ranch. It never got in the way of gardening and producing fine healthy food.Traditionally pickling and fermenting vegetables was a way to ensure a supply of vegetables well into winter when refrigeration was unavailable

One thing I learned very early on was the art of making sauerkraut with the cabbages grown in the garden. It was a great day with Grandma and Grandpa on hand along with the kids to shred and pound the kraut. I was able early on to procure a beautiful 5 gallon crock which has served us well for over thirty years. Well worth the investment. These can be found in hardware stores and some farm stores such as Peavey Mart.  The best kraut is made the old way.

Now you may wonder why in this modern day in age I don’t just buy a jar when I need it. Simply put it tastes way better. Also it is less processed and more economical. I ascribe to the closer to nature, less processed and local food movements. It is hard to improve on good basic old fashioned cooking. So on to the sauerkraut as I learned to make it.

You will need:

a crock or other large study container

A clean post or bat or similar object to beat the cabbage

a plate

cheesecloth

a large jug of water or other similar weight

fresh cabbage

Coarse pickling salt

water bath canner

Method:

Into a clean crock place a layer of shredded cabbage. I have an electric shredder but you can also hand cut thin slices (the size of a dime) or use a manual cabbage shredder or mandolin. Do not add the core as it will make the kraut bitter. Now comes for the exact part. NOT. As with many old recipes and method this is subjective. For every couple of large bowls of shredded cabbage ( about a two inch layer in my crock) I sprinkle one handful of salt evenly over the layer.  2-3 tbsp. Now this can be adjusted to taste. Too little salt will result in a soft kraut. Too much will produce a pink discolouration over the fermenting process.

Now you get to pound it. The idea is to compress the cabbage and force out the juices. This is a great place to get the kids to help. Repeat the layering, salt and pounding until you have all your cabbage done. I did about two gallons of cabbage (2-3 cabbages) and ended up with six quarts of Sauerkraut which is enough for us at this stage of our life.

When you have filled your crock to the desired amount cover with cheese cloth. Place plate ( it should almost completely cover the cabbage) place the weight (jug) on top and place in a cool place away from the main household activities. The juice should cover the cabbage. Some people will add water but I have never had to do that. Less is more in my books. As the cabbage ferments it will produce an odor caused by the fermenting process. I like to leave my kraut about 3 weeks but anywhere from 2-6 weeks works. It is strictly a matter of taste. The longer it is left the stronger it gets. You may clean off the sides as you go along as you may see yeast growing.

When your kraut has fermented to the desired taste I then process it in a boiling water bath canner for 20 min. This stops the fermentation process and preserves your sauerkraut. Skim off the dark or yeasty part on top and discard before placing in jars.

Follow standard methods for safe home canning. I have a great book from Bernardin that has been my go to for years.

If you find sauerkraut a little too sour to eat here is a tip also from the mother in law. While heating grate a little raw potatoe and a dab of butter and cook. It mellows it out nicely.

Note: As the canning season comes to a close I start running out of jars. You may note the two antique jars I used. I happened to have some rubber rings so figured why not use them. Kind of a throw back to the two Moms.

People, Weird, Wacky and Infinitely Interesting

My grown children always say I have the most interesting friends. They are the most unlikely collection of people you could imagine. I like to think I have carefully collected them from many places and times in my life and they have all helped to mold me into a well-rounded individual. And yes you all know who you are. You’re probably the only ones reading this.

I would like to say they all fall into some neat category like well read, creative, wild and adventurous or some other such category. Honestly they don’t. Each one brings a unique gift to my life. Some I have known for most of my life and some are new. I hope they can say the same.

Unique is the word that comes to me when I think of many of them. I have some that come from the years spent together in school. The odd thing is that some of them have become better friends lately than they really were back then. Perhaps we have grown to appreciate the journeys we have traveled and the wisdom we have gathered. I find them very comforting even though they live far away and I mostly talk to them on Facebook. We share a bond that has bridged the decades.

One of those particular friends is very dear to me. We have kept close and shared families, vacations and the ups and downs of life. As close as we are we are very different people but strangely seem to be in tune with each other. She is probably the closest thing to a sister I have. Another very dear friend of mine has literally raised her family alongside ours. Many a day was spent together harvesting gardens and preparing food. Our children call each other family. She has now moved away which is very sad for me but we do still see each other. Friends like these are very precious and I am grateful to have these two amazing women in my life.

Some of my friends are friends who share common interests. We work side by side on community projects. Many of these friendships started at soccer, football and basketball games. Friendships were forged over games or fundraising activities. We cheered on, drove and sometimes fed each other’s kids. In retirement they are the same people working together making our community better. We laugh together, cry together and often have rousing discussions on what is wrong in the greater world. People who do not take part in outside activities and volunteer really miss out on meeting this group of people. They may not be the friends you invite home to supper but they are sure fun to hang out with.

I also have friends that I believe came into my world to broaden my perspective and help me to learn new things. I find these friends especially exciting. They challenge me. They come in all age groups and I know I have friends that have no idea how these people have come to be my friends or why. I know why so that is all that matters. They help me feel vital and alive and I am happy they round out my life.

My very best friends are my family, immediate and extended. I didn’t want to forget them. They are an eclectic bunch. We tend to take them for granted but we shouldn’t. Many are not close to theirs so I am happy I am to mine. And there are a lot of them!

Lastly there are the acquaintances. That pretty much includes my whole special small town. They may not always like you or get along but they are always on your side in the face of tragedy or hard times. They wave or say hi when they see you. They chat in the grocery store and show up to the same meetings and events. They are a part of your soul if you grew up rural. There is a comfort in being surrounded by people you know. I will give you a heads up, if you are new to town, you will be noticed. Not because people are snoopy but because people are interested. How nice is that to be drawn into this circle of people.

I wonder how many people I know, a whole lot over the years. I am a people person so am very comfortable around people. How lonely I would be without them all. Take a minute to think about all the people whose paths you have crossed and be thankful for how they have enriched your life. Thanks guys!

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Volunteer Week

It seems fitting to reflect on volunteers during Volunteer Week. Now I think we all have some idea what a volunteer is. These are people who give freely of their time and talents with no expectation of monetary gain. None! But do we really appreciate what they do?

Volunteers are found everywhere in all walks of life but I do not believe they are more evident than in rural communities. Yes they do great stuff in cities too but I believe the need is greater in rural due to the lack of services available for hire. It is said that volunteers are the backbone of a community and I truly believe that is true.

In small rural communities volunteers supplement so many services that are paid for in larger communities. They raise funds to augment health care, build buildings for many community needs and raise funds to help those less fortunate. They coach teams, run thrift stores and museums, rebuild historical sites and clean up the towns and highways. They visit the sick, the dying and the lonely. They are very good at providing events and cultural activates from concept to delivery. It is often the only way fun things will happen. Oh and they can sure put out some great food, which they often donate. They have passion.

Many volunteers are involved in short term projects, which really shows the value of “many hands make light work”. However there are those amazing people who give tirelessly to many projects and organizations often sacrificing personal time. Those are the people you know really well because they show up everywhere and not just to eat. What would we do without them? They will tell you it is all worth it. They are rewarded with a sense of accomplishment and many great friends.

So this Volunteer Week, thank a volunteer. Remember they are the ones organized that great concert you went to or the class you just took. They will be there to make sure your kids have opportunities and that the teachers feel appreciated with goodies. And if you don’t already volunteer maybe this is the year to try something new, learn a new skill and meet some great people. Be part of what makes your community great. Volunteer.

7 Canvases and a Box of Paint

January is often a month that signals new beginnings and resolutions. It is a time to slow down and reflect on yourself after the busy season of Christmas where the focus is on giving. This was a great January for me. I was selfish and spent time with me! If you know me you will understand that this was difficult for me. I am always busy doing stuff, helping where I can. Outgoing, sometimes obnoxious (yes, if you really really know me you know this). This January I was selfish.

I am creative by nature. I show my creative side in many ways, crafting, sewing, cooking and the like. The one thing I long to do is paint. It is the one thing that my world interferes with. I used to paint. When my kids were little and I had a great group of artist friends around me to encourage. Life got busy. People moved. It became more difficult to set aside time and space to paint. Yes you need space away from little fingers that want to help. I would paint the odd picture but there were years between. After a while I lost confidence in my ability to put paint to canvas. So it was time.

The challenge came over an August cup of tea with a wonderful painter friend. Since we don’t live close anymore we decided it was time to challenge each other to paint. Three pictures this winter and we had to try something different, to stretch ourselves. In an effort to share with her I posted to Facebook. This was an encouragement I did not count on or fully appreciate the affect it would have. Thank you all my friends for the likes and positive feedback. Apparently I can still paint recognizable paintings. It has been fun having friends even find out I paint. Yes it has been that long.

Once I got started it started to flow and as one friend said it is spewing forth. Now I normally paint with oil paints and a palette knife. So my challenge was to try out Acrylic paint, use a brush and to paint quick impressionistic pictures. No time to over think. I painted out a bunch of canvases with a background underpainting and got busy. I started with bales and prairie. Something I love and am very familiar with. I tried an abstract mountain scene and then a harbour scene. My limited white paint supply dictated a change. I even did a “paint by number” art tutorial with my Granddaughter which was fun for both of us.

What I really gained was a peace I haven’t felt in a long time. My soul has longed to use this Spirit gift and I wasn’t really happy until I did. Blogging is another one I have wanted to practise. Today it’s two for one. In these difficult economic times it has been wonderful to retreat into appreciating beauty, simpler things and an opportunity to be truly grateful. I highly recommend doing something you want to do, just for you. What gifts do you have?

Mental Health Week

“THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, Luke 4:18

This is how my week started and it has been knocking around my brain since. The question posed at church was who are the poor we relate to in our North American existence? Do we really understand poor?

In light of it being Mental Health Week my thoughts turn to the poor of spirit. That is something I can wrap my head around. There is lots of that around. With the economic downturn, the loss of jobs and the fear surrounding this we are seeing plenty of those poor in Spirit. Fear and frustration leads to anger and depression. We see it daily on our newscasts. Suicides, spousal abuse, school shootings, demonstrations. There is a pervading anger brewing in our world fueled by the fear of sustaining a lifestyle we have grown accustomed to, actually taught to expect. What will we do if we lose our job, our car, our fancy clothes, weekly pedicure and trip down south? A wise friend commented that the things that stress him out the most are the stuff he owns. He might be better off without them. We are bombarded with the lure of fine things and experiences, told how we are supposed to think and are left wondering why our world is so messed up.

It has occurred to me that when I am most stressed out it is because I am focused on the wrong stuff. Lots of bad things have happened in my life just like everyone else. Floods, car wrecks, deaths and crisis. Everyone has stuff to deal with. Why do some handle it better than others? Personally when I really need help I turn to God. I was raised by very faithful parents and Grandparents and have over the years been influenced by many fine Christian friends. I am not trying to get preachy here, just telling you my experiences. I draw great comfort from God, his word and his people. I can count on him in the best and worst of times. I am at my worst when I forget about Him. It is as natural as breathing to me to believe. What makes me sad is the trend to discount and discredit Christians and the way Christianity is displayed to the world, often by Christians. It is not politically correct to be overtly Christian in today’s society. You do it often at peril of ridicule. Sadly what so many desperate people don’t see is the very real comfort that comes from being in a relationship with God.

So Luke spoke to me this week. It is my duty to share my love of God with others, not to force Him on anyone but to sincerely offer a lifeline to those who are struggling these days. Take time to see the small miracles that are part of your life that God has provided and see what is really important to you.

I am grateful for my family, for a full belly and a warm bed and house. I am in awe of snow weighing heavily on the trees, on the opportunity to know and share a visit with good friends. Throwing the ball for my dog this afternoon is occurred to me how privileged I am to have a dog and two cats, to be able to afford to feed and care for them. And to have friends who share their passions and greetings on Facebook every day. This may not sound terribly exciting but it is what makes my life rich. Hope you find time to enjoy your riches too. And if you haven’t been to church aside from a wedding or funeral in a long time, try a few out. You might just find something there you are looking for.

And remember the little things bring great joy if we take time to enjoy them.

Enduring Rituals

35 years ago a family ritual was started. It happened not because it had its roots in ancient memories or because of religious reasons. It was born out of poverty caused by being newlyweds with children living in a small town. We did not have high expectations or extravagant needs. Our options were limited and funds more so. The need to be met was how we can celebrate our Anniversary or birthdays.

Now there are no high class restaurants where we live. Don’t get me wrong there are plenty of places to get a great meal but nowhere to go for an intimate dining experience. And remember I said our funds were limited and we had small children. By the time you add babysitting, wining and dining and some entertainment the cost for us was prohibitive. What to do?

The best wedding present we got was a fondue pot. Remember they were very trendy in the early seventies. We opted for a fancy meal and movie night. The kiddos were all tucked into bed, a nice bottle of our favorite wine was uncorked and a few of the latest movies were rented at the local movie gallery. And the meal was spectacular. Steak, chicken, shrimp accompanied with mushrooms, peppers, onions and garlic bread was set out ready to fondue. It was a private time reserved for special occasions and it cost a fraction of the cost of going out.

Over the years the kids grew and the special evenings continued with the kids having their own night. Pizza was made and a special movie was on tap for them upstairs with strict instructions not to bother the grownups. They have since left the nest but the fondue nights still continue. It is still important to mark milestones with a special meal and celebration. And it is still cost effective and private.

In this day and age of economic stress it is still a viable option for couples anywhere. Find something special you like to eat, crack open a bottle of wine, put the kids to bed and relax with some favorite movie or Netflix series. Remember no matter what is going on in your busy life it is still important to celebrate why you are together. Start your own ritual and build memories.