Monday, April 16, 2012

She keeps calling me out (Guest Post).

A week or so ago, my loving wife called me a Dirt Worshipping Dog Hoarder.  Granted I dragged the family 3 hours south to buy another dog, and yes I have been spending the day, sun up to sun down, outside getting dirty and sunburned for the last couple of weeks, but just like the Gamble Oaks bud out, make leaves and drop them to the forest floor, I have a job to do.

Each and every morning that I have awakened this Spring as my loving wife is headed off to work, I have thought to myself, “I am going to do some serious spring cleaning today…  I am going to pull out the stove and clean out behind it, clean the fridge, take all the sofa cushions covers off and run them through the wash and hang them on the line so that that wonderful spring air can infiltrate them.” Despite my intentions, however, I haven’t done any of these chores. 

We could blame a millions things…. I am lazy or unmotivated.  I have ADHD.  Maybe I am hoarding all the Legos, popcorn pieces, and wooden food that are jammed into my sofa.  I think it is much more direct than all these things.  There are no underlying problems.  It’s Karma.  Every action has a reaction.

The earth is prodding me to tend to her.  With beautiful spring weather, she is not angry like she was last year.  We have had no hot hurricane force winds.  Occasional spring rains have filled the rain barrels and pushed the green tops of garlic above the surface of the earth.   Clouds have been rolling in over the last week, as if it were June, and the hops plants are pretty sure it is that time of year, too.   She is offering me a gift, and I am not going to waste it. She prompts me to cajole spring into this rocky hill top desert soil, to feel her soil in my hands.  She longs for the release of life waiting within her seeds.  She craves for the children to dig in her and bounce around in the water she tenders from 500 feet under the surface upon which these children play.

A happy hops plant.
I have nurtured this native brown, sandy, rocky soil.  My role is simple.   She provides everything I need on this little piece of earth.  If I listen to her, she tells me what to do.  To the rocky sandy soil that packs too hard for tender roots, she asked that I add the natural mulch that has formed over many years under the pine tree forest canopy that surrounds my home.   After I brought her the natural mulch she asked me for decaying leaves.  At first glance out into the Pinion and Juniper forest, decaying leaves seem overtly absent.  If it weren’t for a little shrub often treated as a nuisance, the leaves she craves would not be available. 
While in the Midwest the acorn grows into a mighty Oak, up on this hill the acorn grows into a small shrub called a Gamble Oak.  Under the low hanging branches of Pinion and Juniper forest, the ground-hugging groves of gamble oak grow.  Simply impassable to humans, the coyotes, rats, rabbits, and snakes enjoy a life oft too uncommon to wildlife in most of this country.   Each fall these little shrubs shed their leaves much in the same way that their mighty cousins do Back East.  Over the years the leaves pile up, holding tight to the earth below the ground hugging branches of the gamble oak, tight enough that the hurricane force wind of spring can’t blow them away.  And there they sit year after year nurturing this rocky sandy soil.

Our soil before and after.
As the Gamble Oak provides leaves year after year, I too have a job.  I am coordinator of nutrients, collector and deliverer of water, nurturer of soil and plant, I provide cover when a late frost threatens tender young plants.  Before this Spring I didn’t know how to serve her.  This hill on top of this mountain seemed incapable of growing food.  Until, I listened.  All I had to do was listen. 

I do her bidding, and she thanks me with beautiful weather, sunburns, dirty tired children, ecstatic dogs, glories sunsets, endless vistas, and harvest.

I guess my loving wife was half-right when she called me a Dirt Worshiping Dog Hoarder the other day.  My actions in service to this earth are a form of worship.  I listen and provide for her and she provides for us.

As to the latter half of my loving wife’s conjecture, we only have 4 dogs.  You're not hoarding until you have 5.

Garlic poking up at sunset near the slow watering bottles set in the garlic bed.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The forest lives forever

"This forest eats itself and lives forever." ~Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

The neighbors had their first rattler encounter of the season yesterday. I've seen lizards darting across the rocks over the last couple of weeks and have reminded the kids to be careful while playing in the yard. If the lizards are active, so are the snakes.

We are just finishing our second full year of living in the mountains east of Albuquerque, and our experience here has completely changed my perception of land, ownership, and responsibility.

Last year was the year of the fire. The winds were fierce and the monsoons were late. As the wind lashed against my windows, first dust, and then smoke, filled my lungs. My sweet little ridge suddenly felt like a tenderbox almost begging for ignition. We had our evacuation plans in place, our important documents and bags packed, and we had decided on a plan for our land after the fire that seemed almost inevitable. The view from our deck went from a beautiful 180 degree panoramic landscape to a constant reminder that massive fires were on the horizon. I mean that literally, on the horizon, we watched the Las Conchas fire burn for the entire month of July, as we scanned the surrounding landscape with a suspicious eye, and called in two fires that we spotted nearby. Finally, the rains came, and slowly our risk of fire subsided. Las Conchas fire was extinguished, and our panoramic view grew lush with green prairie grass and abundant wildflowers.
Los Conchas Fire - July 2011
Mr. Drama watching monsoons roll in - July 2011
Yet, we are constantly reminded of the fragility of our relationship to the land and its inhabitants. Almost every decision we make about our home is dependent on that fragile relationship. We must consider our choices seriously when we are living with real concern about the scarcity of water, wildfire, and wildlife. Whether we can make the trip to work depends on the condition of our unmaintained dirt road. How and where we grow food depends on our water resources and our relationship to bears, rodents, and other hungry critters who share this land with us.
Driving down our lane - Spring 2011
Only once have I journeyed to the furthest corners of the property we purchased two years ago. I decided to walk up our hillside to better understand the land. What I came to understand was that this land in no way belongs to me. It is wild. I had to crawl along on my belly at certain points just to make it through the thicket of briars, cactus, and limbs. As I crawled along at a snails pace, I stopped every three feet or so, searching the next three feet with my eyes and ears for a sign of a rattlesnake. By the time I made it back to the house, I was bleeding, tired, and more than a little shaken. The very idea that I “own” this land is laughable. I signed papers stating that it is mine, but I do not control this land. It has been here forever, and it will continue to be here forever after I am gone. The rattlesnakes and woodrats have a better claim to this land than I do. Even fire would have more claim to this land than I. As I inch along on my belly, fire could consume the whole of the property in less time than it would take me to traverse it. When I assumed ‘ownership’ what I really assumed was responsibility. Responsibility to the land, the minerals, the wildlife, and the plants. How could I ask anything from this land other than it continue to do what it has done for eternity, constantly changing and evolving from an ocean floor to a volcano to a mountain ridge?
Rio Grande Gorge

New Mexico is so very different than the Midwest. In the Midwest, natural and human history is covered over by soil, houses, and lush greenscapes. If you want to know what happened even a decade ago, you will have to know just where to look, and then dig deep. In New Mexico, all that history is brimming at the surface, with an honesty sometimes too shocking to comprehend. Here, the Earth has been laid bare. It is as if the sun and the earth are having a love affair, which we can witness in this fragile landscape. Mountain peaks stretch achingly toward the sky in unlikely ways, while the sun beats down steadily and powerfully on all that lays between itself and the earth. Those who venture to live on the surface must be strong, rugged, and constantly in flux. Anything that fails to meet these criteria is likely to be baked, burned, or blown away. How could we ever possess a piece of this land in any way that mattered? We are constantly reminded that we exist in an infinitesimal moment in the history of this place.  To be a speck in this landscape is humbling and awe-inspiring.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

From Resignation to Anger

The murder of Treyvon Martin has hurt every one of us in some way. Maybe we don’t all experience the depth of that pain today, but it has hurt each of us and it will continue to do so.

This murder was a symptom of the underlying condition of racism our society lives with every single day. Overt, subconscious, or institutional, racism is a disease that affects every part of the way our society functions.

I’m white. My sons are white. My husband is white. My brothers, father, and cousins are white. I will never know what it’s like to train my children to live under the constant fear of unprovoked violence from community members or authority figures. That is a tiny sliver of the unearned privilege my sons have to look forward to in this country.

I have heard, watched, and listened to many reports and perspectives on the Treyvon Martin case.  However, I was most deeply impacted by one written by Michel Martin titled “Treyvon Martin Was Afraid, Too.”

When I read this article, I felt like I was in one of those time-warp movie montages in which the character is transported to a different place and time. I was smack-dab in the middle of downtown Cincinnati in Fall 2001. I stood looking out the window of my third floor office adjacent to the Hamilton County Courthouse as police officers surrounded the courthouse. I watched those officers pull on their Kevlar vests and don their full riot gear as I hit “refresh” on my keyboard and read that Officer Steven Roach had just been acquitted of any crime related to the death of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed African-American man whom Roach had shot in the back as he ran away from the Officer. As many of my readers will know, in April 2001, this sparked the largest “race riots” (aka civil unrest) in the U.S. since Rodney King’s beating in 1992. As I watched that Fall, the police had come out in full force to prevent any such civil disobedience in the wake of the verdict.

I was 21-years-old as I stood looking out that window. Weeks before, my only occupation had been to stroll safely among the 150-year-old buildings of an upper-middle-class mostly-white college, nicknamed “J Crew U.” 

That day, only 50 miles from that campus, I remembered my frustration the Spring of the civil unrest, looking at other faces that looked exactly like my own, as we all decried the prejudices of our society.

As I watched the scene unfolding at the courthouse, I pondered my vow to leave that security to embark on a deeper understanding of these problems before returning to bemoan and intellectualize them from the safety of a classroom.

I carefully considered each of those personal choices as I watched the police strap on semi-automatic weapons near the end of my shift, and I thought of my mile long journey to the parking lot where my car awaited me. At that moment, the weight of that choice hit me. But something else hit me, too -- the fact that I had a choice.

That day, I made it safely back to my car. No police officer questioned or followed me as I put my head down and briskly walked the distance. They were there to protect me. And I knew that.  I got in my car, turned on the radio, hit the freeway, and made it back to the safety of my tree-lined crime-free campus within the hour. And the next day, I went back to the city, and in the evening I returned to the safety of my home. Day after day, week after week.

As I chugged along working toward justice in a deeply socially-fractured city, things were tougher than I had ever known them. I remember a letter to a friend, in which I wrote of craving the talents of the chameleon, the ability to change colors to best suit my surroundings, for it seemed that I was trying to bridge an impossible gap. How could I get cops and community members to trust one another, when neither group entirely trusted me?

I remember a day, shortly after the acquittal, when I saw an angry African-American man coming out of the family court building as I waited for the crosswalk light to change. I noticed him and turned away. He was shouting and waving his arms, and as he passed me, he bent down, with his lips to my ear, and shouted, “FUCK WHITE PEOPLE!” As his spit and rage washed over me, I kept my head down, and honestly, I still felt safe. There were lots of other people around, and though I said nothing, my first thought was, “You have every right to be pissed off!”

But I never acknowledged my own complicity in that rage. It wasn’t until I read the article titled, “Trayvon Martin Was Afraid, Too,” that I really understood how my feeling of security and acceptance in the face of overt threat was mortally intertwined with the threat and fear that Timothy Thomas and Trayvon Martin experienced as they were chased down and killed by so-called “law enforcers” simply for being young, Black men.

It does not matter that my desire for social justice brought me to the place, that courthouse, that street corner on that day. In a moment when the entire city was on a razors-edge, I could allow all of that rage to wash over, around, and through me because it was not mine to hold. It was his, and at that moment, I allowed it to be his alone. I was not pissed off with him. I just felt distanced and saddened. I felt guilt but never did I feel the anger that I should have felt.

When I worked as a victim advocate, I was forever telling women that anger could be construed as a positive emotion. When we feel angry, we feel energetic. Anger is a catalyst to change. The key to unlocking the positive elements of anger is to make that change a positive one.

Regardless of the shade of our complexion, every one of us has the reason and the responsibility to get angry when one of our young community members is senselessly killed because of misplaced fear. When we use that energy to demand that the individual killer is brought to justice, we have our voices heard, but what if we take those energies even further? What if we look at the reasons for the misplaced fear that led to the killing in the first place? What if we think of all the young men whose lives could be saved if we made changes to the systems that led to these killings? What if we used our energy to make positive changes, rather than focusing on retaliation against those who have already caused harm? If utilized and concentrated, our anger could be turned from a destructive force to a transformative one. More than any single prosecution or firing, fundamental change to how we view one another is the greatest honor we could bestow on Trayvon, and other victimized young men, in the wake of this tragedy.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

So, I decided to go into menopause the other day . . .

At my visit to the NIH in December, the doctors recommended a three-month “medication vacation.” I would go off all my medications for three months and see what happened. The first month, I felt terrific! My rash was fairly mild, and I had hope that I may in fact be coming out of this state of cyclical rash on my own. Except for a couple of mornings waking up with an alarmingly swollen throat and tongue, I was managing pretty well without medications.

During this time, I also realized that I really, really hate antihistamines. I mean really. In the doses required to affect my symptoms, they make me groggy and grumpy and bloated. Those issues were side effects, not symptoms. This kind of discernment was one of the goals of the NIH-recommended (non) treatment plan. 

The second month, things were not so smooth. I was itchier. I wasn’t able to sleep. I was exhausted. Though I didn’t make it through the month without meds, I only took them as needed rather than as a preventative measure.

The third month (this one) has been rough. Taking antihistamines “as needed” hasn’t been working. I really need the round-the-clock antihistamine use that I have realized makes me miserable in a whole different way than constant intense itching.

A couple weeks ago, I had a routine scheduled appointment with my local allergist/immunologist, who, last November, performed the skin prick test that confirmed my progesterone allergy. At that time, he administered an Epi-pen due to this systemic reaction.

I chose not to take antihistamines the night before the appointment, and by the time I went to see him that afternoon, my entire back was covered in the usual awful rash. My eyes were red, my face was red and swollen, and my chest was flushed. Everywhere he touched, my skin was hot and inflamed. After the physical exam, he told me the NIH doctors were wrong and recommended more aggressive treatment.

A few days later, I received an email from my Endocrinologist asking if I was ready to begin Lupron. I have had really mixed feelings about this option for a while, but after this period of controlled chaos in my body and realizing that a treatment of regular antihistamines is a double-edged sword, I was ready to do something different. Whether it turned out to be good or bad, I needed different.

Basically, over a period of weeks, Lupron stops your body from producing any reproductive hormones. No estrogen. No progesterone. No testosterone. Nada. Essentially, a woman’s body goes into chemically-induced menopause for the duration of the treatment, with all the side effects of menopause plus the ones of a heavy-duty synthetic chemical surging through her veins.

Lupron is given by injection. In my case, it will be a once-monthly shot. We’ll do it for three months and re-evaluate. If my rash is gone, we’ll try “add-back” therapy, using synthetic estrogen to ameliorate many of the Lupron side effects, but this comes with its own set of problems.

This treatment is completely experimental. As far as I know, it isn’t even in the literature, which isn’t very surprising with only 50 reported cases and 0 major studies. My team of doctors came up with this idea, which the horribly disrespectful Endocrinologist at NIH called “clever,” as she cast doubt on the very existence of my condition. This could be an effective treatment or at least give them a clearer understanding of my condition. No one can tell me what to expect because no one has done this before.

So, I did it. On Tuesday, I received my first injection. Whether this is better or worse, it will no doubt be different. I haven’t noticed any changes yet. I’m still itchy and reliant upon antihistamines. I haven’t started weeping during commercials or fanning myself frantically in the midst of a hot flash. Yet, I feel like I’ve turned a curve. Or, more accurately, jumped blindly off a cliff. I may land safely with my health intact and new wisdom to share, or I may plummet to depths heretofore unimagined. I won’t know until I get there. The important thing for me right now is that I chose to take that first blind step knowingly and willingly. No one chased or pushed me to take this plunge. This was a choice I made from a place of strength, not fear.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lessons from Strangers

I spent the better part of yesterday complaining. At 3 AM, I complained about being awakened to clean up the dog poop on the rug because I was 30 seconds too late to let my dog out the door. At 3:30 AM, I complained when aforementioned dog poop clogged my toilet, and a plunger did not rectify the problem. At 6AM, I complained because my puppy peed in my bathroom, and then whimpered to be let outside.  At 7 AM, I complained when my hubby snuggled with my kids instead of building a fire and making them breakfast. At 8 AM, I complained about my windshield being covered in a sheet of ice and snow, wipers trapped, even though The Hubby had started warming the van up 15 minutes beforehand. From 8:20 until 9:40 AM, I complained about the stopped line of cars that caused me to be an hour late for an important appointment. 

You get the point – it was one of those days, and I chose to wallow in the unpleasantness that I found at every turn.

Driving around Albuquerque, grumbling like The Grinch, I found myself impeded by another accident. This one was a two-car collision, in which the first car was an older model with streamers and soaped windows announcing “JUST MARRIED!”

As I sat there with little else to do, except rap my fingers impatiently against the steering wheel, I looked over at the bus stop and saw a man with his arm around his partner. They were snuggled together and smiling while waiting for the bus to arrive. I have sat at lots of bus stops, often while thinking, “The bus is late.” “I’m cold.” “I’m hot.” “I have a bazillion things I should be doing, and this is not one of them.” But not these folks. They were cuddled up and genuinely enjoying this moment when they had nowhere else they could be. They were there, waiting for the bus, and that moment was being valued for exactly what it was.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not always such a grouch. This day would probably have seemed much less cataclysmic if it had not begun with misplaced fecal matter at 3AM, but by the time I sat watching this couple, the dog poop was history, and I hadn’t let it go. In my state of mind, I expected the worst, and I got it.  I had a brief glimpse of my errant perspective as I looked at the perfectly pleasant people waiting, just as I was waiting. Instead of feeling frustrated by the wait, they found a way to enjoy it. I turned up my music and enjoyed that moment, too.
 However, that was only a momentary change in my perspective. I was still expecting the worst, and I continued to get it. I returned home from my errands to find The Hubby hobbling around in the driveway after injuring his back. Cowboy smashed Sergeant Princess’s fingers in a door. There were tears and blood, and everyone was unhappy.

The family had a few more errands to run (including an emergency chiropractic visit). As we drove up and down the mountain, we noticed a woman in tattered shorts, an ancient coat, and oversized shoes, carrying a thin blanket in her arms and a canvas shopping bag on her back. She was trudging through snow and slush on her way up the mountain. At 2:30, we wondered what she was doing. At 3:30, she was only a mile further up the road, and we wondered where she could possibly be going. At 5:30, the sun was setting, and she was just on the outskirts of civilization, facing 20 miles of open high desert terrain, snow, and sub-freezing temperatures.

At that point, we stopped and asked if she’d like a ride. She said she would. We invited her to sit in the front passenger seat, but she offered to ride in the cargo area. I insisted that she sit in the front. We asked where she was going, and she replied, “North.” We drove her to the outskirts of the next town, where she asked that we drop her off. She was pleased to see that she only had a mile to go toward town, and that the walk would be downhill, but she had planned to camp outdoors and didn’t want to go into town until morning.

About halfway through the trip, though, she turned around to look at all our little chattering children, and quietly and exasperatedly muttered, “Man, what a life!”

I’m sure we made no lasting impact on her, but she certainly gave me the gift of perspective. She had nothing but the clothes on her back, and the prospect of a cold night on hard ground, but she would not trade it for another, nor would she accept the few dollars my husband offered. She was happy with what she had, even if some would say she had nothing.

It made me reflect on my day – Why did I get up with my dogs in the wee hours? One is dying of bone cancer, and the puppy survived a coyote attack the day before. I am healthy enough to take care of these animals when they need me.

Why was I stuck in traffic twice? Because there was one very serious accident with life threatening injures, and one minor accident involving a newlywed couple who likely could not afford unexpected car repairs. I was stopped in traffic, but if I had not been delayed by frozen windshield wipers or building fires, perhaps I would have been involved in that serious accident instead.

Why was my afternoon turned upside down? Because The Hubby, who had snuggled with my children, warmed my car for me, and is desperately trying to get my greenhouse completed, mildly injured his back while working to improve our family’s home. Sergeant Princess and Cowboy were playing happily together in a warm home when she hurt her finger, but you know what? My children are happy, playful, and above all, healthy.

One can always choose a path of dissatisfaction, regardless of one’s blessings. One can also choose a path of joy, regardless of one’s misfortunes. It is a choice that we have the opportunity to make during every moment of our lives. I am thankful that I was reminded of this yesterday by strangers unaware of their impact on my day.

Lessons from strangers are not like candy from strangers. Take them, enjoy them, thank the giver, and cherish them for life.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Around the House: A Change of Seasons

The winter really seemed to zip right by this year, probably because we spent a few weeks traveling and missed much of the winter on the mountain. Though we very much enjoyed our travels, I’m still a bit sad that I missed the winter wonder of the Sandias.  The winters in New Mexico are shorter than the long dreary Midwest winters of my childhood. It really seems (at least to me) that New Mexico winters trend right along with the lunar winter solstice, with the weeks leading up to and following the solstice really being the peak of the winter. As the days get longer and the sun gets warmer, the snow slowly melts away, and the dry weather returns.

New Mexico February is a real treat with warm, sunny days and chilly nights. It’s almost easy to forget that the harsh spring winds are just around the corner. Spring is more prohibitive to outdoor pursuits than winter, with the family trapped inside by breath-seizing winds and eye-burning dust.  I spent the better part of last spring struggling in vain to keep the desert outside my doors, perpetually sweeping sand off the floors and windows, and delicately removing the fine red dust from all of my electronics. Our printer was the only casualty last year, but now we’re gearing up for another round.

Chicken boots
We’re also gearing up for our first season of gardening in our new home. Our last garden was in the drained wetlands of East Central Illinois, where I spent the better part of my time trying to keep the swamp out of my basement. Our “compost method” consisted of dumping our vegetable scraps between the rows of our garden and letting the consistent rain and plentiful earthworms work their magic. Gardening was rather effortless, and we reaped unearned rewards.  This experience will be quite different, and we are looking forward to the challenge. Today, I decided to put on my chicken boots and take another quick photo tour around the house.

Our composting partners -- Shark and the ladies
After our recent travels, we began a composting venture assisted by our chickens. We created a compost heap inside their run. Instead of turning the compost, we simply place all our compostables down there – things the chickens want to eat and things they don’t. They dig through the mess to find the good bits, simultaneously turning the soil and leaving their contributions, too. Their nitrogen-rich manure makes a terrific addition to the turned, rich soil.

A hen doing her part to turn the soil.   

Path from chicken run to garden
We have selected an area on the Northface of the hillside as our permanent garden plot, where the snow insulates and protects the soil all winter, and the rainwater flows vigorously during monsoons. Though I’m not sure we’ll use it this year, we are tending the soil in several tiers cascading down the hillside for future gardening. For that time between the last snowfall and the start of monsoons, when precipitation is nil, we will be installing water catchment under the deck.

Garden Plot 
The steep climb back to the house

Site of future greenhouse
The big project of this season will be the greenhouse. I am very excited that the Hubby has developed plans to build a greenhouse (for around $300) to be attached to the home on the south side of our bedroom. This means that next winter, I should never be without tomatoes, chard, or fresh herbs, accessed without leaving the warmth of my home. And the kicker? Our bedroom is the coldest room in the house (mainly the result of the orientation in relation to the dominant winds and location over the un-insulated garage). The heat from the attached south-facing greenhouse should provide ample heat and moisture during the cold, dry winter.

Greenhouse plans
We will most likely do the rest of our gardening this season in coldframes along the exterior walls of our house. Without the necessary water catchment, the larger project of the tiered gardens is prohibitive unless we drained our well, which we cannot do as stewards of our environment.

All in all, we are very excited to begin this new step toward independence from the corporate influences over our food sources. It doesn’t get much more locavore than eggs and chicken from the backyard and herbs and veggies from the front yard.

I’ll continue to update the blog as we make changes and learn new things about high desert horticulture, which will inevitably shape the way we feed our family of five for (almost) free.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Our "China-free" Christmas

This year, the Hubby and I decided to have a “China-free” Christmas, meaning that our family wouldn't give any gifts made in China. Ideally, we would have preferred an all American-made Christmas, but that is nearly impossible! We also had a few other challenging parameters to manage.  I was honestly a bit nervous about whether we could find “China-free” Christmas presents that:

1.)   The kids wouldn’t feel were odd, boring, or lacking in that “wow” factor.
2.)   We could afford.
3.)   We could feasibly transport to and from the Midwest by plane.

I am glad to report that it was by far the best Christmas we have ever had with the kids.  I was so excited when Mr. Drama proclaimed in a hushed voice, “Santa really is real,” after he opened all his presents. He even contemplated the idea that perhaps Dumbledore, not Santa, had delivered the presents to his grandparents’ home, since there were so many one-of-a-kind, magical, Harry Potter-inspired wizarding items.

It was a unique and amazing time.  Here are some of the things we learned during this process, in case anyone else would like to do the same next year.

1.)   Etsy and other sites featuring handmade gifts are a terrific source for unique gifts!
The kids received recycled crayons molded into lego figures, lego bricks, and hearts; various Harry Potter items, including magic wands sent via owl post, candies from Honey Dukes, a Gryffindor scarf, and potions; a tutu and a few other items from (a shopping site featuring handmade baby and children’s items and other natural family items).

Next year, I’d like to visit some local craft fairs to buy from local artisans. I just couldn’t seem to sneak away from the kids for a day of shopping this year, so quick online shopping ventures with one finger hovering over the “close” button became my preferred method of purchase.

Keep in mind: If you plan to order handmade gifts online, be sure to start shopping early. A few of our items didn’t arrive until after the first of the year. Luckily, Santa let the kids know in his letter that he would be leaving a few items at our house. When we got back from our trip on January 5, our housesitter let us know that Santa had left a few things under the tree. Can you believe he never heard a sound on Christmas Eve? :-D

2.)   K’nex and Little Tykes are among the few major toymakers that still produce items in the USA.  However, not all their items are made here, so you have to read the fine print carefully. We purchased a Little Tykes sand and water table, and as I was assembling it, I discovered that many of the components were made in China, even though the table was made here. They list this item as being USA-Made on the website, so beware! It is still much easier to shop for these items online, since retailers don’t carry their entire stock, and it is unlikely that you would find the full “USA-made” selection at any one retail store.

3.)   We went to the mall for a couple of hours. It was a nightmare. I found myself wandering half-panicked through stores turning over every item, searching for something NOT made in China. I honestly would have bought just about anything if it were made here. We spent two hours there and walked away with two puzzles. Definitely not worth the trip, the gas, the crowds, or the time.

4.)   After our disastrous trip to the mall, we stopped at the thrift store, and it was a blast! We had decided to exempt second-hand items that were made elsewhere (even China) because our dollars would not be going to corporate interests but would instead be funding local businesses and charities like Goodwill Industries. We first stopped in the books and toys aisle, where we found lots of books in perfect condition and a helmet to go along with the American-made skateboard that Cowboy received as his “big” gift this year. 

We also found a parachute like this one. We then picked up some fabulous new purses, shoes, and scarves for Sergeant Princess AND had enough time and money left over to buy her lots of sparkly, dangly bracelets from the jewelry counter. Altogether, I think we spent less than $50 and walked away with an amazing array of unique gifts that I would’ve never considered or could’ve ever afforded at the mall.

Since he had to make two stops for our kids, Santa understandably came a day early to the grandparents’ house in Ohio.  The kids were really surprised to awake on Christmas Eve to find that Santa had already arrived. They were even more surprised to find so many unexpected treasures – things that weren’t in any of the catalogs or toy wishlists sent out by Target and the like. Items that none of their friends would have, and items specifically chosen for them with a keen eye to their particular interests. Scanning around all the unpackaged, hand wrapped, unique gifts, Mr. Drama’s belief in Santa was reaffirmed. It was not unwrapping the “must-have toy” of the season that wowed them, but the care, consideration, and authenticity of the giving that made this Christmas especially joyful for our children. The joy for the Hubby and I came from the expressions of delight upon their faces. I truly could not ask for a better gift.

I hope everyone else had an equally merry Christmas this year. Happy New Year to you all!