When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Oh, deer!

Our family made a new friend on Christmas Eve.  We were in the kitchen, looking out at our sunny backyard and watching an assortment of critters as they went about doing whatever it is that critters do this time of year, and I thought it would be nice to give the squirrels a little Christmas present.  I scattered a big handful of nuts in the shell on the deck, and then we all waited to see what would happen.  It didn't take long for a bushy, gray little fella to show up, his eyes wide when he realized what a gold mine he had discovered, and the four of us were entertained for quite a long while watching the squirrel run repeatedly from the deck to the lawn, where he frantically buried each discovered treasure with his cute little paws.

I felt bad when the squirrel had taken away the last of the nuts and came back looking for more, so I threw another handful of nuts outside, plus a piece of the carrot I was chopping in preparation for Christmas Eve dinner.  Once again, the little guy worked diligently to carry away each nut one by one, and then as a reward for all of his hard work, he perched himself on the railing of the deck and ate the carrot right there.  He then scampered up to our kitchen window sill, stood on his hind legs and looked right at us as if to ask if we were sure there weren't any more nuts we could give him before he scurried away.  I'm sure we'll be feeding this new friend throughout the winter now, a situation that benefits all of us.  (The squirrel loves receiving his free treats, and we all love having a chance to watch his behaviour up close.)

When we bought this house, one of the things that appealed to us most was the large, beautifully treed backyard.  Having grown up in Northern Ontario where trees and grass and critters abound, both Matt and I wanted to raise our family with a opportunity to appreciate these wonderful things, and our yard has not disappointed us.  The second winter we lived here, we had a very unexpected natural visitor in the week after Christmas, and every year at this time we retell the story and are still awed by it.

It was a peaceful winter afternoon; Will was napping, I was out getting groceries, and Matt and Noah were reading quietly.  Out of the corner of his eye, Matt noticed something go past the dining room window and thought it might be a raccoon, until the heard the sound of something clomping on the deck (and realized that if that was a raccoon, it was an unnaturally large one!)  When he went to investigate, he was shocked to see a deer staring at him through the kitchen window.  He called Noah over to see the incredible sight, and the two of them watched her in disbelief (and thankfully photographed her so I could see her later) while she stood silently looking back at them for several minutes.  Eventually, she darted off the deck, gracefully jumped over our five-foot fence, and disappeared, leaving Matt and Noah with an amazing story to tell when I returned home.

We have always wondered where that beautiful creature came from, how she found her way into our city yard, and whether she made it back to her own home safely once she left ours.  (We sure hope so.)  When I look into the deer's deep brown eyes in the photograph, I am filled with a sense of peace and I can imagine the earth must have seemed to just stand breathlessly still for those moments that she stood there, gazing in at us.  The boys both wondered afterwards if maybe she was one of Santa's (rein)deer who had come to pay us a visit and I can understand why they thought so.  Seeing such a gorgeous, gentle creature up so close must have felt like some special kind of magic.

I love that our family has so many opportunities to watch in wonder the many creatures who share our yard with us.  Living among the cardinals and blue jays, the rabbits and chipmunks, the birds of prey, the mice and even the skunks has given us a delightful subject for regular family conversation and a deep appreciation for the richness of our country's natural beauty.  These lovely wildlife friends are truly a special gift for our whole family all year round.  

Thanks to Noah (squirrel), Matt (deer), and my mom (cardinal) for capturing some of our favourite backyard friends in photos.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Warm drinks, warm hearts (Spicy mulled cider mix)

When I was in university, my mom received a Canadian Living Christmas Book from her mom as a gift.  The book was full of pretty holiday craft ideas, delicious sounding recipes for Christmas-y dishes and baked goods, and instructions for creating thoughtful handmade gifts.  I used to love looking through that book when I came home at Christmastime, and every year I would choose a project or two for myself to make and give away.  It made me really happy to share something I had crafted on my own with people who were special to me.

I had long forgotten about that book until a couple of years ago, when my aunt Christina and I were packing up my grandma's apartment for a move and we came across her personal copy of it.  Inside the front cover was a handwritten note from my grandpa:

Sadly, my grandpa passed away a few years ago, but I'm very glad now to have my grandma's copy of the Christmas book on my own bookshelf.  Each year during the holidays, I read my grandpa's inscription and hear his voice, and I remember the many wonderful Christmases our extended family shared together over the years.  These kinds of warm memories are always a meaningful part of each new holiday season for me.

In looking through the Christmas book this year, I was drawn once again to a recipe for a spicy mulled cider mix that I remember making often years ago.  It's a simple combination of spices and dried orange rind that packages up very prettily in glass jars or stainless steel tins, and makes a delightful warm drink when simmered with apple juice (or red wine, if you prefer a more adult version!).  The original recipe calls for cinnamon, cloves, and allspice, but when I was in the bulk section buying these ingredients, I noticed the bin of star anise and couldn't resist adding some of that to this year's version of the cider mix.  The combination of ingredients looks and smells really beautiful!

Spicy Mulled Cider Mix

3/4 cup crushed cinnamon sticks
3/4 cup chopped dried orange rind
1/3 cup whole allspice
1/4 cup whole cloves
1/3 cup star anise

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and gently mix.  Package cider mix in glass jars or stainless steel tins.

To make spicy mulled cider:

In a saucepan, combine 4 cups of apple juice (or a mixture of apple and cranberry juices) with 2 tablespoons of the spicy mulled cider mix.  Cover mixture and bring to a simmer.  Gently simmer for 20 minutes; strain into mugs.  Makes 4 servings.

For an alcoholic version of a spicy mulled drink, substitute red wine for the fruit juice and add honey to taste.

Share a little warmth with the ones you love this winter, in the form of a pretty tin of mulling spices or a steaming mug of mulled cider or wine.  This treat's fragrant, spicy goodness is sure to become a part of some new happy holiday memories.

Merry Christmas to all of you!  May your homes be blessed with lots of love and laughter this holiday season and throughout the new year.  xo

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Homemade Christmas crayons

I've always loved the cheery, colourful art of children.  Give young ones some blank paper and a box of crayons and it's amazing what their wonderful imaginations can create.  Inevitably though, once little artists have drawn multiple masterpieces, their crayons end up as stumpy wax bits that are difficult for small hands to grasp.  What to do with these last colourful crayon remnants other than throwing them away?

Crayola has come up with a crayon-making machine that turns leftover wax pieces into brand new multi-coloured crayons.  Seeing all of the flyer ads for this toy over the holiday season has reminded me of a simple craft project I used to do when the boys were smaller and we had lots of leftover crayon bits lying around (with no crayon-making machine to speak of).  With just a few regular kitchen utensils and an oven, you can make your own homemade crayons that will keep your kids colouring (and smiling!) through the holidays. 

To make your own crayons, you will need:

pieces of old crayons, in multiple colours
an old cutting board and sharp knife
an old muffin tin or baking mold in a shape of your choosing

Preheat oven to 200 F. 
Using an old knife and a cutting board (if you don't have an old one, you can cover your good cutting board in parchment paper to protect it), cut crayons into quarter-inch pieces.
Place crayon pieces in muffin tin cups or molds.  (Crayon pieces should make a layer at least one inch deep.)  You can make solid colour crayons, or mix different wax pieces to create fun, multicoloured ones. 

Place tins or molds in preheated oven and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until wax pieces have completely melted.  (You'll want to keep an eye on them.)
Remove tins or molds from oven and let crayons cool.  Pop crayons out of molds and give them to your favourite little ones.  (If you're lucky, maybe the kids will draw you a beautiful picture to thank you!)

I used gingerbread boy molds to make these Christmas crayons, and while Noah and Will don't usually get too excited about crayons anymore, they both wanted some of these festive little guys to draw with.  You can make crayons in any shape for any time of year -- homemade crayons make great gift-toppers, loot bag fillers, or special surprises tucked away in kids' mailboxes.

Wishing you a bright and beautiful week before Christmas!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The real joys of Christmas

Despite the fact that no part of me wanted to enter through the store doors this time of year, I popped into Walmart today after my yoga class to pick up a few things we needed around the house.  As I expected, the aisles were a dangerous labyrinth of carts and people, half of them frantic and running, and the other half seemingly lost as they wandered aimlessly, preventing others from getting by.  I managed to get out of the store within fifteen minutes and only almost got run over once, but I was glad to return to the relative calm of my own home afterwards.  (And let me reassure you that I'm not trying to be smug about the zen-like state of my home during the holiday season with that last comment -- it was only calm because I was the only one here.  If you had been around this evening when the four of us were home, and Will was wailing over nothing in the family room while Noah simultaneously (accidentally) shattered a glass all over the kitchen floor, and then I lost it, you'd know that our house can be just as crazy a place as Walmart at Christmastime!)

I know firsthand how easy it is to get caught up in a hectic, emotional state this time of year.  We feel we NEED to get all the right gifts, make all the right foods, decorate our house in just the right way, fit in all the right activities, and generally produce a Christmas that is Kodak moment-worthy.  (Broken glass all over the kitchen floor somehow doesn't fit with that picture, I'm thinking.)  In all of our complicated holiday rushing about, it's also very easy to forget that the most beautiful and true joys of Christmas are often the simplest things, things that don't require a trip to Walmart or a Martha Stewart-esque flair for perfection (and that won't be ruined by a broken glass or two!).

Real joy is sharing steaming mugs of hot cocoa with your family around the kitchen table after an afternoon of sledding or skating or road hockey together.  It's reliving favourite old family stories with your parents and siblings and other relatives, laughing together and fondly remembering those dear souls who are now only with you in spirit.  It's opening the mailbox and being greeted by the wonderful smell of anisette wafting through the box of homemade genettis that your grandma so thoughtfully sent you, and suddenly being brought back to the happy Christmas Eves of your youth spent at her kitchen table.  It's taking a few moments late at night with your spouse to look at your beautiful sleeping children, their faces softly lit by the Christmas lights from the hallway, and to marvel together at how you ever got so lucky to have them.  It's giving gifts of the heart, by sharing part of yourself with those who really need their spirits lifted this time of year.

When I think back to the Christmases of my childhood, I don't remember very clearly what I received as gifts, and I know that Christmas was never "perfect" (because I'm sure despite all of my parents' efforts, my brothers and I probably wailed over nothing and broke a few glasses, too).  What I do remember with great fondness, though, is the feeling of being warm, and safe, and content at Christmas, feelings that came from being surrounded by a family I love and who showed me in the most meaningful ways that they love me, too.  Whenever I start to feel frantic about getting ready for Christmas, I try to remember what I hope my boys will remember about their childhood Christmases when they grow up, and suddenly all of the other stuff seems less important.

During what can be a very hectic holiday season, I wish you and your family many moments of real and peaceful Christmas joy.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Chocolate hazelnut snowballs

Around our house, a cherished holiday tradition has always been the making and sharing of sweet treats with family and friends.   Though what we make has evolved over the past few years due to both food sensitivities and a desire to eat better (even at Christmastime), the sentiments behind the tradition -- a feeling of togetherness and the simple enjoyment of special foods we've made with our own hands -- remain unchanged.

These no-bake chocolate hazelnut snowballs have become a new favourite in our house during the holiday season.  The idea originally came from a recipe for nut butter balls by Jeanne Marie Martin in The All Natural Allergy Cookbook, and over the past few Christmases I've made several changes to it.  This year's version is my best yet!

Chocolate Hazelnut Snowballs

1 500g jar of natural hazelnut butter
1/2 cup of honey
1/2 cup of cocoa powder
1/2 cup of finely chopped raw hazelnuts
unsweetened shredded coconut (for coating)

In a bowl, mix together the hazelnut butter, honey, cocoa powder, and chopped hazelnuts until well combined.  Chill mixture in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Roll the mixture into bite-sized balls, then roll each ball in coconut to cover.  Chill snowballs before serving, and store any leftovers in the refrigerator.  (Makes approximately 45 snowballs.)

These chocolatey, nutty treats are simple to make, free of gluten, dairy, eggs, and refined sugar, and  really delicious!  Served in festive mini-cupcake papers, they make a really pretty addition to any holiday sweet tray.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I woke up this morning to the sight of a beautiful white blanket of snow draped delicately over the branches of the trees in our yard.  Every winter, when this first real snow falls, I feel uplifted, hopeful, inspired.  The glistening snowflakes fill the void in the landscape left by the departed leaves and flowers and seem rich with the promise of something new.  I love how the first snow suddenly makes the world seem filled with light.

I had an experience this weekend that left me similarly heartened, when I went to cheer on Noah and his school team at the First Lego League Tournament at the University of Waterloo.  For the past three months, this wonderful group of grade 5 and 6 students (and their devoted teachers, coaches, and mentors) have been working diligently and cooperatively to come up with an innovative solution to a food safety issue of their choosing, and to design, build, and program a Lego robot that is able to perform certain tasks.  Noah's team researched the problem of listeria contamination on canteloupes, and proposed a plan to use an emulsifed oil of oregano solution during canteloupe irrigation to prevent the growth of harmful microbes.  They spent many hours of their lunch breaks, after school, and on weekends working and reworking their Lego robot and practising their very creative presentation.  As we parents watched them perform at the competition (where they were judged not only for their ideas, their project, and their competence in the robot games, but also for core values like working cooperatively and encouraging others), we were all filled with pride for these remarkable young people who conducted themselves so maturely and demonstrated such good teamwork and sportsmanship.

The competition site was bustling with 26 different teams and their supporters, and it was impossible not to be awed by the energy contained within the building's walls.  To see so many young people committed to working together to learn new things and to solve real world issues was impressive, to say the least. In a time when young people in general are often criticized for being unmotivated, entitled, inactive, or rude, these students demonstrated that there is great promise for the future.  One day they will grow up and use their drive, their concern, their enthusiasm, and their excellent ideas to make a real difference in the world around them. 

A very thrilled Noah and his team placed third overall in the Lego tournament, and they will be travelling to the provincial competition in Oshawa, Ontario in January.  I look forward to having another opportunity to cheer for him and his team, and to be in the company of so many other amazing young people who, like the snow this morning, make the world seem that much brighter.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A bookworm's breakfast -- holiday edition

It's December (!) and the snow is gently falling outside, a detail that has made it feel just right to be preparing for the holidays.  This week the Christmas decorations all came out of storage and we've been having fun making the house look, sound, and feel festive.  One of the boys' favourite boxes is the one filled with Christmas books, stories that we've been reading together each winter holiday season since they were little.  Will was home from school sick one afternoon this week, and he and I spent it cozily sharing some of these best-loved Christmas tales after their year-long hiatus in the basement closet.  It turned what could have been a miserable afternoon into a very pleasant one!

I thought I'd post some of the titles we especially enjoy for anyone who is looking for some Christmas books to share with their own young ones.  While Noah and Will are both beyond picture books, at Christmastime, it doesn't seem to matter; everyone in the family loves the fond memories, the laughter, and the warm hearts that these stories evoke.

Olivia helps with Christmas by Ian Falconer

This very entertaining depiction of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will have Olivia fans both roaring with laughter and easily relating to familiar traditions and feelings associated with the holidays.  Olivia's attempts to be helpful (which Ian Falconer illustrates with great humour) may not turn out perfectly, but she and her family share a wonderful Christmas together nonetheless.

Maisy's Snowy Christmas Eve by Lucy Cousins

Lucy Cousins writes a simple, sweet story of friends gathering to enjoy Christmas Eve together.  When Eddie the Elephant doesn't show up at Maisy's house as planned, the friends all work together to make sure everyone gets to join in the Christmas carolling.  Bright, cheerful illustrations make this a very visually appealing book for little ones.

Bear Stays Up for Christmas by Karma Wilson

Bear is tired and wants to sleep soundly through Christmas as bears are accustomed to doing, but his woodland friends have other plans.  With their encouragement, Bear stays up for Christmas and happily shares in the joys of this special time of year.  Wilson's warm, engaging, rhyming text combined with Jane Chapman's beautiful illustrations make this a lovely book that truly captures the spirit of the season.

Olive, the Other Reindeer by J. Otto Seibold

Olive is a dog... or so she once thought.  After hearing the Rudolph song on the radio one Christmas, however, Olive decides that she is actually a reindeer!  Children will cheer for Olive as she helps out Santa and his team on Christmas Eve using her unique skills, showing that even a little dog can make a big impact. 

Merry Christmas, Curious George by Margret and H.A. Rey

Curious George's adventures have captivated children for years, and his Christmas escapades in this book are also sure to delight!  When George accidentally takes a detour from the Christmas tree farm he is visiting with his friend (the man with the yellow hat), his curiosity gets him into some trouble at a children's hospital.  Sometimes a mischievous monkey is just what sick children need at Christmas, though! 

One Snowy Night by M. Christina Butler

A little hedgehog is woken from his winter's sleep and notices a present dropping from the sky.  It is a fuzzy, warm, red hat (which little hands can actually feel on the book's pages), but no matter how hard he tries, the hedgehog cannot get the hat to fit comfortably.  So begins the journey of the hat, from one creature to another, as the book progresses.  Where the hat ends up by the story's conclusion will make readers feel warm and fuzzy inside, too!

Mr. Snow by Roger Hargreaves

As he does in all of his Mr. Men and Little Miss books, Roger Hargreaves combines an engaging, conversational text with simple but appealing illustrations to draw his young readers in, this time to Santa's Christmas Eve dilemma.  Santa is stuck in the snow and doesn't know how he will get all of his presents delivered... until he finds a snowman some children have made and uses a little magic!  By the end of the story, little readers may start seeing their own homemade snowmen through different eyes....

The Polar Express by Chris van Allsburg

This is a gorgeous holiday book, both in word and in illustration, one that emphasizes the magic of the season for anyone who believes in it.  A boy's marvelous experience on the Polar Express train to the North Pole late one Christmas Eve ensures that he will never forget how to see Christmas as children do -- with wonder at all of its joy and sweetness.

The holidays are a perfect time for snuggling up with the family by a warm fire and enjoying the company of good books.  If you'd like to, please share your family's favourite holiday tales in the comments section below -- it's always so nice to hear about other families' traditions, too!