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.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Worth Keeping in Your Pockets: November 2015

The first significant snowfall of the season happened here over the weekend. Pretty white flakes swirled gently in the cold November air, creating a magical glow in a sky that should have been dark in the late evening hours. The first snow evokes the same rush of sentiments in me every single winter: sudden joy, hope, childlike wonder at the beauty of the tiny crystalline forms as they fashion a cozy white blanket over the trees. Based on the enchanting snowy photos that so many of my friends shared online that night and the following day, it seems many of us are touched somehow by the loveliness of a scene that feels fresh and new no matter how many times in our lives we witness it.

Once the cold, wintery weather settles in for the long haul and the novelty of the first snowfall wears off, we might be looking for ways to prolong the feelings of lightheartedness that those initial flakes stir up in us. The months ahead are a good time for spreading cheer in our homes, our communities, and elsewhere in the world through little gestures of sharing. Today, in a November edition of Worth Keeping in Your Pockets, I'd like to share with you some happy items and activities that might help make winter feel more welcoming.

Natural scents for your home: I love to have a house that smells inviting in the winter, as if someone has been baking all afternoon. Sometimes I actually do bake to create that effect, but when I'm not planning on popping cookies into the oven, I like to use a little bit of scent to sweeten stale house air. I am very sensitive to synthetic fragrances (most scented candles and plug-in air fresheners give me awful headaches and feelings of nausea), so I was pleased to discover this room diffuser that allows me to use whatever pure essential oils I like. I just add a few drops of oil to the little pad, plug in the diffuser, and enjoy the subtle scent as it wafts through the house. My favourite combination of oils so far has been tangerine mixed with cinnamon -- the boys always ask me what I'm baking when they smell it.  :)

Stuart McLean story collections on CD: Our family has long been fans of Stuart McLean's CBC Radio program The Vinyl Cafe; we love listening to him tell humorous and poignant stories each week in his familiar, engaging voice. Matt and I have been to see his live Christmas show a couple of times and it is always such a beautiful evening of narrative and music. Sadly, Stuart McLean has had to cancel the rest of his Christmas tour this year for health reasons, but it's still possible to bring his warm, lively storytelling into our own family room over the winter through various compilations of his work on CD. We have the Christmas collection shown above and we look forward to enjoying it together every year. There are also other great collections available at Chapters. (Matt keeps The Auto Pack in his car to keep him entertained when he's doing a lot of driving for work.) While we're listening this holiday season, we'll be sending Stuart our best wishes for good health in the new year.

A special knitting project: If you like to spend some of your long winter evenings knitting, or if you know someone who does, perhaps you'll be interested in helping the Canadian military. They're looking for volunteers to knit the national gift of peace: sweet little dolls that soldiers and health care workers will give to the many Syrian refugee children who are expected to settle in Canada over the coming months. For many years, the gestures of love woven into the handmade Izzy Dolls have brought comfort to children in countries torn apart by war or natural disasters. You can find all of the information you need to participate in this meaningful project here.

Thornbury Bakery bread: We've recently discovered a most delicious gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free bread, made fresh at the Thornbury Bakery from wholesome ingredients and delivered to several health food stores in our area. The loaves of bread, the buns, and the baguettes are so much like wheat-based artisanal breads that it's hard to believe they're gluten-free and vegan. Will is thrilled to have buns with such good flavour and texture packed in his lunches now, and the baguettes are wonderful warmed and sliced to accompany a steaming bowl of chili or soup on a frosty evening. You can find more information about Thornbury Bakery products, and a list of stores that sell them, here.

Magnetic messages: We've had a set of large magnetic alphabet letters on our fridge ever since the boys were very small. Initially they were for Noah and Will to explore sounds and learn how words are formed, but as the boys grew older and became avid readers and writers, we all started using the letters to leave messages and jokes for one another to find, so the letters' appeal has lasted much longer than I initially thought it would! Almost everyone who comes to our house, children and adults alike, ends up writing something on our fridge with the letters, or with the magnetic poetry set that we've recently added. This kind of word play is great fun for all ages, and I'm often touched by the insights I find shared in that little corner of our kitchen. (My mom and dad have this magnetic Scrabble set on their fridge, and we all love to play with it, too!)

As the cold weather arrives and the snow swirls all around your home, what sorts of things help keep you feeling warm and cheerful? I'd love to hear about them.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A warm embrace

Last summer when we were spending time at our friends' cottage on St. Joseph Island, we all became attached to a particular throw that was draped across the couch there. The blanket was thick and as soft as you can imagine, with faux fur on one side and a generous plush on the other. We nicknamed the blanket "Big Iris", because lying under it was like being curled up near our enormous, silky, friendly cat who is never far from anyone's side at home. We would often find the boys tucked under Big Iris as they read in the mornings, and in the evenings when the air was chilly, all four of us would huddle under its welcome warmth while we talked and laughed together.

While I was shopping recently for decorative items for our basement redo project, I came across a Big Iris look-alike blanket and knew we had to have it for our rec room. I brought it home, took the tags off, washed it and fluffed it up beautifully in the dryer, and laid it across the back of the newly assembled sectional one afternoon this week. I then waited happily to witness the boys' reactions when they discovered we had a Big Iris of our own.

It wasn't the boys who found Big Iris first, though; it was the real Iris. I think she is in love.

We'll be making room for one more under Big Iris in the evenings now.

It feels this week as though the whole world could do with being wrapped in the embrace of a warm blanket. Let's all remember that small acts of love can bring great comfort.  xo 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Etsy: Happy Holiday Gift Ideas

The leaves have all fallen from the trees around us now, leaving empty spaces where not long ago there were brilliant splashes of crimson and gold. Looking out at the deserted landscape, it would be easy to feel a November sort of melancholy. A few days ago, though, I caught sight of a beautiful red cardinal perched in the bare branches of the tree right outside our kitchen window, his bright feathers adding a welcome splash of colour to the morning. It was the first time I had seen this winged friend in months, and I was reminded of how each season brings its own little joys to our lives. It's important to keep our hearts open to receiving them.

One of the things I love about this time of year is choosing special Christmas gifts for family and friends. I start early to give myself lots of time to find little treasures that I hope will make each person happy. Time and time again I find myself turning to Etsy, the wonderful online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods, to do much of my holiday shopping. It makes finding unique gifts fun and easy (and I don't have to go to a crowded mall to do it!)

Today I'm sharing a collection of lovely gift giving ideas I've found as I've been browsing Etsy lately. Perhaps you'll find something here that would be just right for a special person you know.

For the woman with a generous heart:

Hand Knit Red Cable Scarf from Knits by Nat

Leather Tote Bag from Go Forth Goods

All Natural Body Care Gift Set from Wild Raven Soap

For the guy who doesn't need another tie:

UnCase for iPhone from Zero Five Design

Rosewood Watch from tmbrwood

Duck Canvas Dopp Kit by Shotgun Paul

For the trend savvy tween or teen:

Handcrafted Bamboo Skateboard from Habitat Imprint

For the sweetest little member of the family:

Sock Monkey Toy from Amber Vroom

Natural Wood Bowling Set from Apple n Amos

Striped Bathrobe from Eco Emi

For the friend who loves small surprises:

Panda Cookie Dunk Mug from Lenny Mud

Hand Stamped Vintage Spoon from Milk and Honey Luxuries

Heart Hand Warmers from WormeWoole

All Natural Peppermint Bark Candle from The Tiny Collection

There are so many more wonderful handcrafted items from around the world to discover on Etsy. Take a peek at the thoughtfully curated editors' picks in the Etsy Holiday Gift Guide to make it even easier to find the perfect something for everyone on your list. May you find much to smile about this November!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Cashew Butter Brownies (gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free)

One evening later this week I'll be attending a book club meeting with a group of friends. (We're reading Elizabeth Hay's His Whole Life, a book so beautifully written that I'm reading it a second time this week just to savour the images and feelings it evokes.) Our once-a-month meetings are as much about friendship and food as they are about discussing literature; everyone brings along an appetizer or sweet treat to share and we always spend an enjoyable few hours catching up with each other.

While thinking about what food to bring for this month's meeting, I remembered an old favourite brownie recipe I used to make years ago from the Better Homes and Gardens' New Baking Book. Those rich brownies, topped with chocolate chips, toffee bits, and nuts, were a definite crowd-pleaser, and I was curious to see if I could create a new version of them that was free of gluten, dairy and eggs. My curiosity paid off: the dark chocolate cashew butter brownies that came out of my oven today were every bit as scrumptious as the ones I remembered loving long ago. I'm happy to be able to share this classic treat with Will now, too!

Cashew Butter Brownies

one 500g jar of natural cashew butter
2 tbsp ground chia seeds mixed with 6 tbsp water (stir and let stand for a minute to form a gel)
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup blanched almond flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/4 tsp sea salt

1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup unsweetened large flake coconut
1/4 cup chopped dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 325 F.  Line a 9 by 13 inch baking pan with two pieces of parchment paper, one placed over the other in opposite directions.

Add the cashew butter, chia seed mixture, maple syrup, and vanilla to a large mixing bowl and beat these ingredients with an electric mixer until they are well combined.

In a smaller bowl, combine the almond flour, cocoa powder, and sea salt. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the cashew butter mixture, beating with the electric mixer after each addition, until you have a uniform batter.

Spread the batter into the prepared baking pan, using the back of a spoon to smooth it out evenly. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts, coconut flakes, and dark chocolate bits on top of the batter. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes.

Let the brownies cool completely. Lift the edges of the parchment paper to remove the cooled brownies from the pan, place them on a large cutting board, and cut them into squares using a sharp knife. Serve and make everyone happy. (These brownies go perfectly with a cold glass of homemade almond milk!)

I'm looking forward to sharing these decadent brownies with my friends later this week. I think I'm going to have to bake a second batch before the book club meeting, though -- these ones sure won't last long at our house!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The truth about basement renovations

We are in the process of renovating our basement. As has been the case with all of the major home improvement projects Matt and I have undertaken together, I've been alternating these past few weeks between giddy euphoria over how nice I imagine everything will look when it's all finished, and utter despair over the chaos that this project has created in our house in the interim. You know how things have to get worse before they get better during the renovation process? Let's just say I'm not very tolerant when it comes to the "worse" part. For anyone contemplating a basement redecorating project of their own, here are a few truths I've discovered that you may want to consider before diving in.

  • You will need to become a master of the real-life version of Tetris, so that you can strategically stuff every single piece of furniture and anything else that lives in your basement into the one small room that is not being redone. (In our case, this was the bathroom. Anyone care to join us for a foosball game in the loo?)
  • When your very energetic son discovers the empty basement, he will be thrilled that you have so generously provided him with a new, wide-open gym for playing sports and practising his break dance skills. You will have to break his little heart with the news that eventually there will be furniture going back in there.
  • Your neighbours will eagerly show up in your garage with shopping carts and big blue bags, thinking that an IKEA store has finally opened up in your area. They will not be impressed when you turn them away because the boxes stacked up high there are all yours, waiting to be carried inside and assembled.
  • Your husband will disappear. (It's very likely that he will be lost somewhere among the IKEA boxes.)
  • Cats have a redecorating agenda of their own. Yours will bolt down into the basement when no one is looking, brush up against the wet paint on the walls, and then roll all over the floors in other parts of the house to spread the paint around nicely.
  • You will cry over spilled milk. Literally. Someone will spill a glass of milk at dinner when you are at the worst point of the renovation process, and you will cry and launch into a 45 minute rant about how your whole life is a disaster. And then you will go to bed, to spare your poor family from any more renovation-induced drama.
  • Everything will take much, much longer than you anticipate. (On the plus side, by the time you finish changing the last light fixture and installing the last closet handle, the energetic son who wanted an empty basement gym will have moved out to go to university, and you won't have to feel bad about filling it with the finally assembled IKEA furniture.)
If all of this is scaring you off, take heart. When basement renovations start making you crazy, you can do what we did this past weekend and leave town. (Seriously, we did. We enjoyed a great little family getaway with my mom and dad in Frankenmuth and Birch Run on Sunday and Monday, and we've returned home with renewed energy to tackle the last stages of our project.)

We've moved past the most challenging parts of the process here now, I think. The painting is done, the flooring is in, and the baseboards have all been reinstalled. We have two lovely new pantries in the basement hallway that make me happy every time I look at the rows of food and overflow kitchen items so neatly organized inside them. Most of the stuff has been cleared out of the bathroom (though the foosball table still remains), and I am starting to believe that the basement may actually one day look as nice as I first imagined it would.

If you need me over the next while, I'll be in the basement with an allen key and an encyclopedic set of instruction manuals. I'll be back (much) later....