Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

Little Pink Houses/Heaven in Your Hands

April 28, 2017

If you are a Hoosier, you might think that little pink houses only exist in Indiana..or at least Indiana’s very own John Mellencamp would have you believe, through his music, that little pink houses are sprinkled throughout Indiana towns and countrysides.  Yesterday, we made the discovery of the very sweet town of Brucoli and its pink houses.  (Spell check wants me to write Broccoli, so I have to be very cautious when writing out the town name.)  Well, Brucoli has pink houses and much more!

We went to the Brucoli port to enjoy a two-hour boat ride on Piero’s Starfisher 840.  The weather was pleasant, not hot, not too windy…and plenty of sunshine. The harbor, where Piero moors his boat, used to be used by the ancient Greeks.  It is a natural harbor that has been used continuously for thousands of years.  From there, we cruised along the Ionian sea and relaxed.  We saw Turtle Rock and a 6,000 year old prehistoric village.  One cave was a prehistoric three-story high-rise, complete with carved stone steps to reach the upper floors of this natural cave.

After the boat ride, we walked around the town of Brucoli for a bit.  This precious seaside town seems to have a theme.  Part of the charm of the town is that not too much has been done to the houses to make them look perfect.  Instead, they retain their old world charm and all throughout the town, there are murals, poems on the walls, and potted flowers.  When I close my eyes and think of Brucoli, I see the potted geraniums on the iron balconies. I smell the sea air and see the blue fishing boats and fishing nets hanging out to dry.  The people are friendly.  They carry the sun in their hearts.  One woman told me about a restaurant that does not have a name!  The locals call it Il Chiosco (The Kiosk) and it serves only three dishes!  One of the dishes is a seafood pasta dish.  Next time, I will make sure a meal there is a part of this trip with the yoga group. I could have spent all day there.

After the boat ride, we went back to the villa and had a bowl of lentil soup and a big seasonal green salad.

Then off to Vendicari Nature Preserve.  Some members of our group went birding with birding experts Federico and Fabiano and the other half went on an archaeological walk with Alessandro.  Not enough time to go into great detail to say how incredible the nature preserve is and it is hard to say what the highlight of the day was.  I guess if I had to choose yesterday’s highlight, the outdoor yoga session at the tuna processing ruins was over the top fantastic.

We had our Sicilian guides join us for yoga.  They were adorable!  Alessandro had tight jeans on and was frustrated because he could barely stretch and bend in them!  Both Alessandro and Federico had never done yoga before and they did really well.  They both felt peaceful and calm afterwards.  Fabiano had tried yoga twice before and he hurt his back both times so he was afraid to try.  However, he did the session with us, loved it, and asked if there is any way I can set up a studio in Siracusa since that is where he lives.  He wondered why it was that his back did fine this time and I told him he must always warm up properly and do counter-poses after the asana (posture).  All three men, new or fairly new to yoga, spoke to me after the session and said they felt the energy of the earth coursing through their bodies and spirits.  I can’t tell you how nice it was to hear them speak of their experience.

Practicing yoga in Sicily is to experience the fullness of life. 

Practicing yoga in Sicily is to breathe and listen to birdsong.

Yoga outside at Villa Saracena is to stretch and strengthen under beautiful skies and to breathe in fresh fragrant air. 

Doing yoga in Sicily is like holding heaven in your hands.

Photos from yesterday:

Brucoli Pink House

Brucoli Pink House

Brucoli

Brucoli

My artistic brother-in-law photographing the blue walled house

My artistic brother-in-law photographing the blue walled house

Brucoli Port, an ancient Greek Port where Piero moors his boat

Brucoli Port, an ancient Greek Port where Piero moors his boat

On the boat

On the boat

Kim and JD on the boat ride

Kim and JD on the boat ride

John and Nora on the boat

John and Nora on the boat

Ginger and Woody at Vendicari Nature Preserve

Ginger and Woody at Vendicari Nature Preserve

Federico the birder.  The nature preserve has flamingos among many other birds

Federico the birder. The nature preserve has flamingos among many other birds

I went on the archaeological walk with Alessandro.  (Next week I will go birding)  VERY interesting history of the tuna fishing industry of days past, dating from Phoenician times, Greek times, Arab times, to modern times...

I went on the archaeological walk with Alessandro. (Next week I will go birding) VERY interesting history of the tuna fishing industry of days past, dating from Phoenician times, Greek times, Arab times, to modern times…

Vendicari Preserve is very beautiful with fields of poppies, fields of grass, the occasional house like this one, a fort, tuna fishing ruins, the sea, boardwalk, archaeological ruins, birds, and the sea.  We learned about the ancient salt mining practices here and the former thriving production of GARUM, a Roman sought after delicacy in the ancient world.  Garum was a smelly disgusting fermented paste made of fish guts.  It was processed at these fishery points.

Vendicari Preserve is very beautiful with fields of poppies, fields of grass, the occasional house like this one, a fort, tuna fishing ruins, the sea, boardwalk, archaeological ruins, birds, and the sea. We learned about the ancient salt mining practices here and the former thriving production of GARUM, a Roman sought after delicacy in the ancient world. Garum was a smelly disgusting fermented paste made of fish guts. It was processed at these fishery points.

Our yoga spot.  Hopefully I will get some photos others took of us doing yoga here.

Our yoga spot. Hopefully I will get some photos others took of us doing yoga here.

Our fabulous group:

These yogis are practicing yoga twice a day!  What an experience this is!  Wonderful!

These yogis are practicing yoga twice a day! What an experience this is! Wonderful!

 

Sicily for Adriana

April 27, 2017

I thought to post some of my best photos from the past two days.   This post is dedicated to my friend and co-worker from Seattle Athletic Club, Adriana Allison Brown, 34 years old, married to Aaron Brown and mother of two beautiful little girls.  She passed away two days ago on April 25, was hit by a vehicle as she was walking the crosswalk at Lenora and Western (Seattle) on her way to work at the Seattle Athletic Club as a personal fitness trainer.  I thought of Adriana all day these past two days.  She told me recently that she would like to come to Sicily one day.

I am heartbroken.

Adriana was as bright as the Sicilian Sun.

Adriana was as beautiful as the red poppies below.

Adriana “era buona comu lu pani“, a Sicilian expression which literally translates to Adriana “was as good as bread”  (see explanation below).

 

Yes, I got my poppy photo! Red is the dominant color for the poppies I have been seeing.

Yes, I got my poppy photo! Red is the dominant color for the poppies I have been seeing.

Bread (pane). For my dad, a meal without bread was not a meal at all. The highest compliment you can pay a person in old time Sicily was to say, "Era buonu comu lu pani" = He was as good as bread!

Bread (pane). For my dad, a meal without bread was not a meal at all.  Bread is the staff of life. The highest compliment you can pay a person in old time Sicily was to say of that person, “E buonu (buona) comu lu pani” = He/She is as good as bread!

Old tile detail

Old tile detail

Sweetness: potted geraniums

Sweetness: potted geraniums

Simple delicious ingredients for sauce alla Norma.

Simple delicious ingredients for Pasta alla Norma.

Sicilian Cat. Her name was Meow!

Sicilian Cat. His name was Meow!

Oranges kissed by the sun.

Oranges kissed by the sun.

Cheese at the Siracusa Market

Cheese at the Ortigia Market

One of the pupi (traditional puppet). There is a puppet theater in Ortigia.

And ancient pupi (traditional puppet). There is a puppet theater in Ortigia.

La Campagnia (The Sicilian Countryside)

April 25, 2017

We wake up to birdsong and sunshine.  We wake up to our beautiful villa.  We make jokes about staying here forever.  We breathe and take in the smell of orange blossoms, laurel in bloom, fragrant flowers that smell of jasmine.  We wake up to the great big Ionian Sea.  I do the sea a great injustice if I attempt to describe the water as a deep blue.  It is that and more.  The sky is the same.  Both sky and sea take on different colors at different times of the day.  We cannot take enough photos…of the sea, of the smoking mountain, of the great blue sky, of the food, of the sunrises and sunsets, of each other.  It seems nearly impossible to capture it all and it seems not to be enough to simply stand still and take it all in.  But, we do that too: we stand still, breathe in the Sicilian air, draw in the Sicilian sunlight, and open our hearts to this experience.

our villa

our villa

Yesterday we had two beautiful outdoor yoga sessions.  We worked on elongation of the spine and on creating space.  And then we discovered, in our yoga sessions, how lovely the lettini (pool chairs) are.   You will see below how comfortable it is to do our ending meditation with legs up the chair, a form of viparita karani (legs up the wall pose) along the poolside.  Everyone in the yoga group is relaxed, happy, peaceful.

Legs up the chair pose, shavasana Sicilian-style

Legs up the chair pose, shavasana Sicilian-style  (Woody and John!)

Hello Nora!

Hello Nora!

We drove to the countryside, passing the most beautiful green terraced fields, orange and lemon orchards, vineyards, and olive groves. Fields and fields of wildflowers grow brightly in the springtime in Sicily.  We passed cows, sheep, stone houses, and bright red poppies and purple thistles growing amid dainty yellow carpets of flowers I cannot name.

Wild Poppy

Wild Poppy

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Thistles

Thistles

And then a visit to an organic ricotta farm.  Yes, the real deal.  We were greeted by Maria, the ricotta and cheese maker, her sister Giovanna, and Maria’s husband, Nino.  Their walls were filled with photos of their four daughters and their families, of their daughter’s wedding photos.  We watched Maria make the ricotta.  It was amazing!  They cooked so much homemade food for us. We felt like stuffed birds at the end of the visit. They served us their homemade wine, their country bread (and they also had gluten-free and dairy-free to suit some dietary needs in our group), their homemade pasta and sauce, their various cheese made from their ten cows, their prosciutto (yes, we saw the little piglets oinking around), and so much more.

Maria makes the "tuma" for the various cheese.

Maria makes the “tuma” for the various cheese.

The cow's milk is boiling to make ricotta cheese

The cow’s milk is boiling to make ricotta cheese

Ginger helps with the stirring (we later did a "Stir the Ricotta Asana"

Ginger helps with the stirring (we later did a “Stir the Ricotta Asana”

Maria makes all this cheese and it is later sold at local grocery stores to to private clients who come to the house.

Maria makes all this cheese and it is later sold at local grocery stores to to private clients who come to the house.

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Nino

Nino

A Tavola!  The feast.

A Tavola! The feast.

When it came time to leave, Maria and Giovanna packed up bags and bags of food for us to take home.  There were 14 of us at the table, but our farmer hosts had cooked enough for the army of the Roman Empire.  They kept bringing out food.  I made the mistake of not telling my group that the first dish set out on the table was just the appetizer, that there was more to come.  Oops!  Rick delighted in having our group experience Sicilian hospitality, country-style, just as my relatives have done for him time and time again.  We now have enough ricotta to last us a month, though it is meant to be eaten right away.  We will share with our caretakers and driver.

Ricotta Farmers Maria and her husband of 45 years, Nino.

Ricotta Farmers Maria and her husband of 45 years, Nino.

Their adorable dog, Chico (sounds like Kee-Koh and means little something small and dear)

Their adorable dog, Chico (sounds like Kee-Koh and means little something small and dear)

At the end of our visit, Maria tenderly gave me a special mystery gift, all wrapped up in butcher paper.  “Here, Francesca.  This is just for you.  A little something made with love from our farm.  Take this home with you to America.”  Later, at the villa, I unwrapped the mystery gift and saw about a large hunk of prosciutto.  The real thing, crudo prosciutto, made from their own pigs, pigs lovingly raised from piglet-hood, fed on figs.  An extremely valuable chunk of meat, cured so perfectly that it can last 1-2 years.  I know the value because I know.  Of course, I will share with the group.  Even though I don’t eat prosciutto, I can still appreciate what it is.  Our unique ricotta experience was truly remarkable.

Our bus/van

Our bus/van

Sicilian Green Bean Salad

Sicilian Green Bean Salad with Capers (served last night at the villa)

Sicily: Notes to Self

April 23, 2017

Does anyone else wake up at 3am to write a blog in his or her head…and then promptly go back to sleep, later wake up at a decent time and write it down?

Sicily: Notes To Self

  • All of my hard work is worth every second of effort put forth.
  • I must believe in myself ALL OF THE TIME.
  • Some mysteries in my life will never be solved.
  • Yoga has kept me sane. Often, it is the only part of my life that makes sense.
  • The vivid dream I had of my father on my second night in Sicily is more than just a dream.
  • The smell of Sicilian orange blossoms is the most beautiful smell in the world.
  • The Beatles had it right when they said, “Love is the Answer”.
  • I must take some photos of the Sicilian wildflowers in bloom.  The poppies are particularly beautiful.
  • Sicily is a gorgeous sun-kissed, energy-loaded island that merits many more visits during my lifetime.

And some photos with captions taken yesterday and today:

Catania Shop Window

Catania Religious Shop Window

Triton at the Catania Market Fountain

Triton at the Catania Market Fountain

Santa Agata mural in the market in Catania

Santa Agata mural in the market in Catania

 Enormous Pesce Spada (Sword Fish) in the Catania fish market

Enormous Pesce Spada (Sword Fish) in the Catania fish market

Serena enjoys her spaghetti

Spaghetti Girl

Adorable Spaghetti Girl

Adorable Spaghetti Girl (slightly blurred, but I couldn’t resist posting!)

Our wonderful driver, Francesco

Our wonderful driver, Francesco

The Apollo Temple in Ortigia

The Apollo Temple in Ortigia

Sea Nymphs (fountain), Ortigia

Sea Nymphs (fountain), Ortigia

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Yoga this evening at the villa

Yoga this evening at the villa

Mt Etna this evening, taken right after shavasana

Mt Etna this evening, taken right after shavasana

Rain Follows Me

April 21, 2017

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We woke up to birdsong and a great big blue sky.  Our morning here consists of breakfast on the rooftop and Peppa’s beautiful smile and great sense of humor.  Peppa works at this B&B San Placido Inn and prepares breakfast for us in the morning.  She is from Bulgaria, talks a million miles per minute in Italian, and is ever so funny.  Rick is very intrigued by her since he has met very few Bulgarians and is eager to ask her questions and engage her in conversation.  She is extremely friendly and has a lot to say in answer to Rick’s hungry questions. Guess who gets to be the interpreter at 8am?  Ecco la!! So I listen and translate and do my best to catch up with these two eccentric minds whose ideas bounce back and forth as if in a fast-play tennis match.

And Mt Etna this morning from our rooftop breakfast. You could really see the billows of cloud-like eruptions from the mountain. It's really something to see! The wind picked up again and it was rather chilly out today. Well, it was the same temperature as Seattle. I looked. Seattle was 50 degrees and Catania reached a high of 52. People had their coats and hats on. I could see them shivering as they walked by!

And Mt Etna this morning from our rooftop breakfast. Last night’s winds chased the clouds away! You could really see the billows of cloud-like eruptions from the mountain this morning. It’s really something to see! The wind picked up again after breakfast and it was rather chilly the rest of the day. Well, it was the same temperature as Seattle. I looked. Seattle was 50 degrees and Catania reached a high of 52. People had their coats and hats on. I could see them shivering as they walked by!

The B&B has very interesting decor: antique books on Sicily, paintings and old sketchings of Etna in eruption over the years, ships and boat collector items such as rudders, oars, nets, fishing tackle, and this "weaving". I took this photo because this reminded me of my dad. On Palm Sunday, Sicilians take the blessed palms that are handed out during mass and later, at home, they weave crosses and baskets from the crosses. My dad weaved the most beautiful and intricate crosses for us. I never learned how to do it, but it was wonderful to watch him. He told us stories as he wove these for us. We kept them and treated them as precious gifts until the next Palm Sunday came around.

The B&B has a very interesting decor: antique books on Sicily, paintings and old sketchings of Etna in eruption over the years, ships and boat collector items such as rudders, oars, nets, fishing tackle, and this “weaving”, antique cameras and puppets, typewriters and a mishmash of antiques that are fun to look at. I took this photo because this weaving reminded me of my dad. On Palm Sunday, Sicilians take the blessed palms that are handed out during mass and later, at home, they weave crosses and baskets from the crosses. My dad would take the palms we received on Palm Sunday mass and, back at home,  he’d weave the most beautiful and intricate crosses for us. He’d always start out by saying, “Oh, honey…I think I may have forgotten how to make them!”  And then he’d make them.  They were more beautiful every year!  I never learned how to do it, but it was wonderful to watch him. He told us stories as he wove these for us. Stories about his mother and about his paternal grandmother, Mamma Luigia.  We kept the weavings he made for us and treated them as precious gifts until the next Palm Sunday came around.

We made a quick trip to the villa to have a meeting with the wonderful owner, Piero, and the caretakers. Very productive time. Then once back in Catania, we saw this unusual shop with gigantic candles made of bees' wax. These candles are about 6-7 feet tall and thicker than my arms. They are used for the bi annual Santa Agata's procession. Her golden statue used to be taken out only once a year, but after she stopped a major lava flow from coming pas the city palace in the 15th C, the faithful of Catania started taking her statue out for huge processions twice a year. The second day to commemorate how she answered the prayers of the faithful to stop the lava flow. By refusing to marry a pagan, St. Agata was tortured. Her rebuked pursuer ordered her breasts to be cut off. She then was burned in a pit. Witnesses say that she

We made a quick trip to the villa to have a meeting with the wonderful owner, Piero, and the caretakers. Very productive time. Then once back in Catania, near our B&B in the heart of the historic district, we saw this unusual shop with gigantic candles made of bees’ wax. These candles are about 6-7 feet tall and thicker than Rick’s arms (slight exaggeration!) ! The faithful buy and use them for the annual Santa Agata’s procession. This third century saint has an interesting (and gruesome) story. Her golden statue, made of gold, used to be taken out only once a year, but after Santa Agata answered the town’s prayers by stopping a major lava flow from coming past the city palace in the 15th Century, the faithful of Catania started taking her statue out for processions twice a year.  The procession in February is the one that goes on for days and has been happening annually for over 1,700 years. St. Agata had made a vow to God to never marry and to devote her life to God. When she refused to marry a man of wealth and power who had fallen in love with her, beautiful St. Agata was tortured by him. Her cruel and rejected pursuer ordered her breasts to be cut off.  She then was burned alive in a pit in the center of the city for all to see. Witnesses say she didn’t burn.  According to witnesses, the flames engulfed her, she died a martyr, but her pure body did not burn.

More on St. Agata’s story below and an interesting website that helps people locate where her statue is during the procession festivities:

“Saint Agatha lived during the 3rd century AD, and yet 1,700 years later the entire city stops for three days to remember a strong girl who said no to a man.”

“She was a teenager from a wealthy family who had decided to devote her life to God. When she refused the advances of a Roman prefect (Sicily was then under the rule of the Roman Empire), he had her tortured in many ways, including severing her breasts. This episode has even inspired a local sweet in the shape of breast, minne di Sant Agata (St. Agatha’s breasts).

The Feast of Saint Agatha is the most important religious festival of Catania, attracting many people from the surrounding areas and tourists – it is estimated that up to a million people line the streets of the city during the three-day festa.

“For a few days, people forget their problems, their differences, their social class and  just focus on venerating Saint Agatha in an incredible mystical atmosphere. Everyone experiences the celebration in different ways, not everyone is a religious devotee, for some it is a photo opportunity.

The three-day festa has a long and busy program. It opens on February 3 with a midday procession of eleven candelore, large candle-shaped structures symbolizing the guilds, and two carriages belonging to the old local Senate with the highest religious and civil authorities of Catania. It ends in the evening in Piazza Duomo, where the St. Agatha Cathedral is located, with a fireworks display.

On the morning of the 4th, a statue of Saint Agatha holding her relics is placed on a 40,000 pound silver fercolo, or carriage, and carried around the city by devotees until it is returned to the Cathedral late at night, or, sometimes, even at dawn.

On the morning of the 5th, Mass is held at the Cathedral. Throughout the day, the reliquary bust of St. Agatha is exposed there. In the afternoon, it is taken for another procession, ending in the early morning of the 6th.

With such a long procession and so many different highlights, as a non-Catanese, how do you know where to go, what to do, what not to miss?

“Actually, this is also a problem for many of the locals. During the days of the festival, devotees wander the streets day and night in search of the saint, asking themselves, “Unni ie’ a’ Santa?”, Where is the saint? This is why to help everyone answer the question and honor St. Agatha, there is a website called Unni ie’ a’ Santa (Where is the saint?).”

A light dinner at DOC, where the kind and proud owner, Giuseppe, tells us that he is in his third month of newness. "Please tell people about me on Trip Advisor." So I did!

A light dinner at DOC, where the kind and proud owner (and English speaking), Giuseppe, tells us that his restaurant DOC (Duomo Of Catania) is in his third month of newness. “Please tell people about me on Trip Advisor.” So I did!

I am ruined for life...a tomato will never taste the same again once I leave sun kissed Sicily

I am ruined for life…a tomato will never taste the same again once I leave sun kissed Sicily

And many Sicilians have laughing eyes and a great sense of humor. We saw this sign outside a wine shop and just had to step in to talk with a young woman and her father. The father only spoke Sicilian and his daughter's English was impeccable. "I'm so glad you got the pun! You know, not everyone understands my humor. Some come in and ask where my buckets for sale are! They take me LITERALLY." Then we talked about the rain. She and her father's hands were ice cold! If you look at a map of Sicily, there is SUN everywhere, except this evening in Catania...where we have rain. It came suddenly. We were eating at DOC (Duomo of Catania) and then suddenly we see rain. In fact, in all of Europe, in all of ITALY, there is one rain spot and it is here in Catania. And it was cold tonight. People are wearing their coats and hats. Vendors materialize from seemingly no where..."Umbrella?" Vendors from Africa, Bangladesh, and other Asian countries trying to sell us umbrellas. We laugh and tell them, "This is nothing. We are from Seattle. This is our NORMAL." And they laugh, even though they have lost a sale or two to is.

And many Sicilians have laughing eyes and a great sense of humor. We saw this sign outside a wine shop and just had to step in to talk with the owners of the shop, a young woman and her father. The father only spoke Italian and his daughter’s English was impeccable. “I’m so glad you got the pun! You know, not everyone understands my humor. Some come in and ask where the buckets for sale are! They take me LITERALLY.” Then we talked about the rain. She and her father’s hands were ice cold! If you look at a map of Sicily, there is SUN everywhere, except this evening in Catania…where we have rain. It came suddenly. We were eating at DOC (Duomo of Catania) and then suddenly we see rain. In fact, in all of Europe, in all of ITALY, there is one rain spot and it is here in Catania!  Rain seems to have followed me from Seattle.  And it was cold tonight. People are wearing their coats and hats. Clever vendors materialize from seemingly nowhere…”Umbrella?” Vendors from Africa, Bangladesh, and other Asian countries trying to sell us umbrellas. We laugh and tell them, “This is nothing. We are from Seattle. This is our NORMAL.” And they laugh heartily, even though they have just lost a sale.

Rain on our "Sun-Kissed-No-More-Terrace" this evening

Rain on our “Sun-Kissed-No-More-Terrace” this evening

Evening sunset

Evening sunset from the terrace

 

Winter at Green Lake

January 28, 2017

I didn’t get a mid winter break this year!  Maybe this is why I am officially tired of winter.  If only winter could be as short as this blog post.  It’s been one cold winter.  On January 17, Green Lake was completely frozen over.  That was the first time I have seen Green Lake freeze over.  The last time the lake froze was in 1972, long before I ever lived in Seattle.

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Today, however, felt balmy as the temperature reached 53 degrees. The lake is no longer frozen.  Buffleheads were frolicking in the water.  I saw a ruby-throated hummingbird land on a bare branch. Winter blooming sarcacocca filled the air with an intoxicating scent.  Skate boarders and in-line skaters sped along the trail. The day felt warm compared to the low temperatures we have had in the mornings and it seemed everyone was out walking.

Here are just a few photos taken today.  I feel so lucky to look out over the lake every morning when I wake up.

Horizontal view of winter trees and Green Lkae

Horizontal view of winter trees and Green Lake

Bare Trees and Winter Sky

Bare Trees and Winter Sky

Christmas Growing Up: Indiana 1960s

December 27, 2016

When I was growing up in Indiana in the 1960s, Christmas meant time off school, time to play in the snow and make a snowman. I always received Perfect Attendance Awards in school, mostly because I was healthy, but also because, even if I had a tummy ache, my mom ignored my complaints and sent me off to catch the bus. Unfortunately, as soon as Christmas vacation came around, I usually got sick and spent the first day or two in bed with the flu.

Christmas time meant a family drive to Chicago to see the Christmas decorations in the shop windows along the Magnificent Mile, a one-mile stretch of shops on North Michigan Avenue between Oak Street and the Chicago River. I loved my Dad fiercely as he fearlessly drove alongside big trucks and thick traffic to get us safely into the heart of the big city. We splurged on paid parking, but we saved on meals: mom packed her homemade impinialata (olive onion bread) and had prepared plenty of hardboiled eggs. In our family, there was no driving adventure without at least a dozen hardboiled eggs in tow. (Years later, the first time Rick went on a road trip with my family, when offered a second hard boiled egg, he asked me, “What’s with the eggs?”) In the big city, bundled up as I was, my little feet always got painfully cold and my dad had to give me horseback rides up on his shoulders! The Christmas decorations looked especially beautiful from up high.

Christmas meant having the whole family together. It meant dad coming home early from work at the Indiana Toll Road on Christmas Eve. He entered the house, bringing in snowflakes and a gust of freezing wind, holding a gigantic basket filled with jam, cured meats, mustards, nuts, various types of cheese, crackers, fresh pears, dried fruits, and deluxe chocolates. He proudly handed the basket over to us as we unwrapped it and inspected its rich contents. He won a gift basket year after year for being one of Indiana Toll Road’s best and hardest working employees.

We loved Christmas because it meant my dad had a few days off work and we got to spend every waking moment in his lovely company, all of us! We played his favorite opera and Sicilian folk music records on the turntable. He told us stories of the old country, he sang for us, and he smiled his beautiful contagious smile as he and mom made homemade sausage. The sausage meat mix was ground pork, flavored with salt, cracked pepper, oregano, aniseed, and red pepper flakes. I begged for bits of raw seasoned meat before it made its way into the sausage casings via the hand-crank machine. Again and again, mom and dad patiently swatted my little hands away. Those were the happiest of times.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at St. Stephen’s was packed with other large Catholic families. Some families were so big, they took up a whole pew. My family -seven of us always arriving late- took the back row. Why were we late? Because mom always had one more chore to do, one more dish to prepare, one more item to put away, one more daughter to dress, one more door to lock. Dad waited patiently in the car. He sat rubbing his gloved frigid hands together and kept the engine running, the car warming up, the windows frost-free.

No one saw our new outfits at Midnight Mass. We kept our heavy coats on during mass because it was so cold. I felt like an Italian-American Eskimo, but at least I could snuggle deep into my coat and doze on and off, unnoticed, during the long late-night mass. The priest, rather than celebrating the many people attending midnight mass, scolded those who only showed up for the holiday masses. I counted the seconds for mass to end. Mom stood at her full height, which was not very tall at all, proud of her well-dressed, bundled up daughters and her handsome husband, proud of the fact that my family never missed a single Sunday mass throughout the year. We were not the ones being scolded. Dad had a smirk on his face as he remembered Midnight Mass of his boyhood at Santo Rocco back in Grotte, where he, the cute blond prankster, tied all the widows’ black shawls together so when they made to leave, their shawls fell off their shoulders in one big tangle! What a commotion! He dared repeat his prank every year and no one ever figured out who the prankster was!

After mass, we came back home and opened gifts under the artificial silver Christmas tree that we, as a family, had proudly assembled and decorated with tinsel and mom’s ancient Christmas ornaments from Grotte, Sicily. The ornaments were hand-painted, made of delicate glass. How carefully we handled them, knowing they were mom’s treasures. She’d certainly kill us if we broke one.

The other treasure was the nativity set my family had brought over from Sicily. On the days leading up to Christmas and for days after the holiday, I loved to say goodnight to baby Jesus before going to bed. I could stare at the tiny figures for a long time and study the faces of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the three kings, the sheep and the cows. The figures of the nativity cast a spell over me. Their faces held magic, a mystery that was too profound for me, a mere child, to understand. The nativity set, I knew, represented the rock that held my family in a steadfast knot of faith.

After midnight mass, we were each handed a wrapped gift from under the tree, while an electric light-gadget facing the silver decorated tree went round and round, magically casting colors and turning the silver tree and tinsel into a spectrum of red, blue, green, gold, and orange.

When I was little, my big sisters told me that Santa was a hoax and that the gifts from Santa actually came from mom and dad. I cried because what they told me was dreadful. How could they have come up with such a cruel story? I told my mom what I had heard. My mom sternly told me that if I continued to believe in Santa, I’d keep getting gifts from him, but that if I chose to believe that he did not exist, Santa would then stop bringing me gifts. It didn’t take genius-brains to figure out what I was supposed to do. I continued to receive gifts from Santa until I was 12.

I received dolls and toys until I lost interest in them. Most of the dolls came from Aunt Lily. Aunt Lily did not have children, so she splurged when it came to gift giving for her brother’s children. She was my godmother and adored me! She brought gifts for all my sisters, but I thought my gifts from her were always super special. I secretly believed she loved me more than anyone else in the world. When I lost interest in dolls, I started receiving practical gifts: underwear, socks, a winter coat, boots, a sweater, scarf, hat, mittens, flannel pajamas, slippers, and long underwear. We children received clothing items to keep us warm during long Indiana winters.

Mom cooked and baked for days before Christmas. We children were given the difficult jobs, like cutting onions and peeling garlic. Can’t believe I am divulging this embarrassing detail, but she made us girls wear hairnets in the kitchen! Serious eating began for my family on December 24 and continued for the next 24 hours. On Christmas day, Mom put a sea of fold-up tables together in the basement and then came the tablecloths, one tablecloth overlapping another. Out came her finest plates, the best glassware, and polished silverware. The concept of potluck did not exist in my family. If my mom was hosting Christmas, she made the entire meal. My dad’s sisters came over and helped with the finishing touches.

The gathering was no fewer than 20 people. We began with a pasta dish, usually lasagna or spaghetti with meatballs, followed by Italian Sausage with roasted peppers and onions. There was always a potato salad with hard-boiled eggs, a baked ham, salad, homemade bread, olives, and dad’s homemade wine. The meal went on and on. I will never forget those Christmas meals!

We ate with gusto and we all drank wine, including the children. Everyone talked and laughed at the same time. The noise level kept going up. My boy cousins could really tuck the food away into their bellies. Watching them eat pleased my mom to no end! The adults and the children all sat at the same table and we all interacted with one another.

At some point, eventually, my mom and the other adult ladies would clear the table, quickly do the dishes, and pull out the baked cookies! Someone started a pot of coffee. Even though I was allowed to drink wine, I was not allowed to drink coffee. A well-kept secret was that Aunt Lily let me drink coffee when I spent the night at her house. I kept my word to Aunt Lily and I never told my mother. I loved how the coffee made my heart pound! I always loved the smell of coffee. It smelled of comfort, warmth, of happiness. It smelled of home. My home.

And out came the desserts! Mom’s Sicilian Fig Cookies were the best. Mom called them cucciddrati. I think she made them from memory because I never found her recipe for them (recipes are below, just before the photos). The best part of cucciddrati is that they are topped with a frosting made of butter, confectioner’s sugar, and milk, and topped with colorful nonpareil sprinkles. Mom also made Anisette Cookies. Nonna Licata used to send a box of baked cookies for Christmas. The treasure in Nonna’s box sent to us from Grotte was the cobaita, a pure-goodness-almond-brittle that my grandmother made with sun-roasted almonds from her orchard. They tasted of Sicily!

Mom also made Sesame Seed Cookies, which are called giugiuleni in Sicilian. These hard cookies were delicious dipped in coffee. When in my mother’s house, I dipped them in milk. At Aunt Lily’s house, I dipped them in coffee!

Don’t forget we lived in Indiana, so a bit of the Midwest came into the dessert scene. Alongside the almond cobaita, the dried fig filled cucciddrati, and the sesame studded giugiuleni, mom presented her freshly made Hoosier delicacies such as potato chip cookies, or jello embedded with either cottage cheese or miniature marshmallows.

And NUTS! Christmas was not Christmas without a huge bag of roasted nuts. By the end of the evening, there were piles of nutshells on the table. My dad would crack nuts for me because I didn’t have the strength to crack a single nut. I couldn’t even crack open my favorite almonds and hazelnuts! As my dad cracked the nuts for me, he’d tell his stories!

After the gargantuan meal, the adults played card games. Sounds of coins, banter, laughter still fills my ears. It feels like yesterday when I watched the adults become as playful as we children were. Sometimes we all formed a circle or a train and did Sicilian folk dancing. We’d move the tables so mom and dad could dance the tarantella. They were so light on their feet. Sometimes we children played “chase” and if you got caught, you nearly got tickled to death. The adults told jokes not meant for children’s ears. We were sent off to play, but we hid nearby and listened. We had a hard time understanding the play on words and the various puns in their slurred fast-clipped wine-dipped Sicilian dialect. The jokes went over our heads.

My mom would tell her animated played-out funny stories for all of us to hear. Every year, her bawdy stories grew more embellished, more dramatic, more comical!  She told her entertaining stories about flatulence happening at the most inopportune moments.  One of her stories, which took place at the Italian-American picnic grounds, was about an unfortunate elderly Sicilian immigrant lady, about to sit on a toilet seat, surprising a bird that was taking a dip in the very toilet she was about to sit on.  Mom also had a pocketful of stories about the many colorful characters back in Grotte.  Her stories filled every corner of our humble home with resounding laughter. Every Christmas, our house became a palace, complete with a banquet hall, a ballroom, and a court jester!

My Christmases as an adult are now quiet, the way I have grown to love them. This year, Rick and I spent three exquisite days at La Push, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula. The weather treated us well. We enjoyed cold crisp frost-and-sun-filled days, took long walks, enjoyed each others’ company, caught up on sleep, read books, watched the sunrises and sunsets, and savored life as it is today. I find I do not yearn for the Christmases of my childhood, but every Christmas I do say a silent prayer of thanks to my parents and my aunties for giving me the gift of Christmas memories I will carry in my heart for as long as I live.

And below are photos from our fabulous Christmas this year at La Push, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula.

Haystacks in the sea

Haystacks in the sea

Looks unreal. Color untouched, clear skies, cold day at La Push

Looks unreal. Color untouched, clear skies, cold day at La Push

My Winter Long Shadow against the frosted grass

My Winter Long Shadow against the frosted grass

Rays of sunlight spill into the forest trail on our hike

Rays of sunlight spill into the forest trail on our hike

Another long shadow selfie: shadow against unblemished sand

Another long shadow selfie: shadow against unblemished sand

Long Shadows Across Grass (color untouched, just as I saw it!)

Long Shadows Across Grass (color untouched, just as I saw it!)

The author of this blog (Fran) and Rick

Selfie: The author of this blog (Fran) and Rick at La Push

Ice Puddle I

Ice Puddle I

Ice Puddle II

Ice Puddle II

Eye: Quileute Nation Totem Detail

Eye: Quileute Nation Totem Detail

Mist and Sea

Mist and Sea

Pink Sand makes for beautiful art

Pink Sand makes for beautiful art

Rich Red Drift Wood Against Sand

Rich Red Drift Wood Against Sand (unbelievable naturally occurring colors!)

Reminds me of my family's "steadfast knot of faith".

Kelp Strand: Reminds me of my family’s “steadfast knot of faith”.

The road leading to La Push

The frosted curvy road leading to La Push

Sunset at La Push

Sunset at La Push

The Best Season

December 12, 2016

In the memoir, Poser: My Life in 23 Poses, author Claire Dederer talks about how my yoga classes often have a theme related to the seasons.  Claire was my yoga student for years, and wrote a book about her life and, in part, about me/my teaching, so she would know the truth about my interest in the seasons and how we are affected by seasonal changes. Spring fills us with hope!  We are more energetic in the summer.  Kids do much of their growing spurts in the summer.  We tend to shed more hair in autumn.  My mother used to say in Sicilian, “Cadano li castagni”, which translates to “chestnuts are falling” because my chestnut-colored shedding hair was everywhere. We need more rest in the winter.  We crave light foods in the summer such as seasonal fruits and vegetables.  In the winter, we crave warm soups and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and root vegetables.

Below is a poem I shared yesterday during the two yoga workshops I taught in Seattle.  The poem has to do with the seasons (!) and is followed by photos, shot throughout the years, representing the four seasons.  I took all of the photos with one exception: Rick took the tulip against the blue sky.  The author of the poem is Wu-men Huikai.  He was a Chinese Zen master who lived from 1183-1260.  He wrote poems about enlightenment and called his poetry “sacred poetry”.  He also wrote social, political, and anti-war poems.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

“Ten Thousand Flowers in Spring” by Wu-Men

SPRING

Nothing like a tulip to say SPRING

Nothing like a tulip to say SPRING (Ocean Shores)

Fawns

Fawns (Ocean Shores)

Simone's poppy

Simone’s poppy (Simone’s garden)

Fragrant late spring rose

Fragrant late spring rose (Simone’s garden)

SUMMER

Summer Dahlia

Summer Dahlia (Carl’s garden in Stehekin)

Flower Power of Summer

Flower Power of Summer (Stehekin Garden)

Lilies in the Sun

Lilies in the Sun (Kelley’s garden)

AUTUMN

Color of Autumn

Color of Autumn (Fremont, Seattle)

Fire walking

Fire walking (Wallingford, Seattle)

Autumn Boots

Autumn Boots (Wallingford, Seattle)

A long stretch of Autumn

A long stretch of Autumn (Capitol Hill, Seattle)

WINTER

Jack Frost painted this fern.

Jack Frost painted this fern. (La Push, Washington)

Frosted vegetation

Frosted vegetation (La Push, Washington)

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Autumn Haiku Encore

December 9, 2016

As Seattle stands tall, bundled up against freezing temperatures and braced for the current snowfall,  I write this year’s final Autumn Haiku Encore.

As before, you will see a haiku poem followed by a photo/photos inspired by the haiku.  The haiku and photos appear in the order I received them.  The first one below is the Basho haiku Kevin received:

The smell of sake,

and the waves,

and the wine-cup

-Basho

Kevin put his photos into a collage

Kevin made this collage using his photos

Who was this sake-loving, nature-observing, student-of-humanity poet Basho?  Basho lived from 1644-1694.  He was born near Kyoto to a samurai family.  He abandoned the samurai warrior status he was born into in order to become a poet.  Over time, he was regarded as one of the greatest poets of Japan. As a poet he is credited with elevating haiku to a highly refined art form.

Once he became a poet, Basho left Kyoto for Edo (Tokyo) and became a haiku master (Sosho).  His name was not always Basho.  He was born as Matsuo Munefusa.  Over the years, he wandered all over Japan in search of imagery and composed poetry based on what he observed.  He also practiced meditation.  He was unconcerned with money matters, but was able to establish a small cottage in Fukagawa, Edo (Tokyo) due to a generous monetary gift from an admirer of his art.  At his cottage, Basho was gifted a banana tree, which he planted in his garden.  The banana tree, called basho-an in Japanese, became his favorite tree and he decided to name himself after it.

JD received the following haiku written by Issa, a poet and Buddhist monk, and was able to find a great old pine tree to go with it:

It has aged indeed

The pine tree that I planted

Now autumn’s ending

-Issa

300 year old pine tree

300 year old pine tree  “Of course this is a picture of the 300 year old pine from the Hama-Rikyu Onshi-Teien waterfront garden in Tokyo.  Alas, Tokyo had no real signs of Autumn, much less Autumn ending…

Here’s another angle, and a sign that tells about it being planted 300 years ago. Perhaps the Shogun who had it planted stood here many years later, at the end of Autumn, and reflected on this haiku...

“Here’s another angle, and a sign that tells about it being planted 300 years ago. Perhaps the Shogun who had it planted stood here many years later, at the end of Autumn, and reflected on this haiku…”

The sign in the above photo says, “The pine is named “300-year Pine” because it was planted in 1709, about 300 years ago, when the sixth shogun, Ienobu greatly repaired the garden.  Its majestic form, praising the great work, is reminiscent of the old days.  It is one of the largest black pines in Tokyo.”

And I watched Kim as she searched for her frog!  Luckily, Kim found two photos to go with her haiku:

The Old Pond-
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.

-Basho

,,,

“The pond at Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion”

and below, the frog friend who lives in the garden at the Kimono Dressing house

“The frog friend who lives in the garden at the Kimono Dressing house”

A note from Kim: “What I really wanted to submit was super difficult to photograph. It’s more of a mind picture and it is metaphorical. We all experienced it, many more than once. It is the image of the gaijin (foreigner) wearing the bathroom slippers OUTSIDE of the bathroom. That never failed to make a splash and produce the “sound of water”!

Wendy found a unique way to represent the following haiku by Basho via her photo below.

It is deep autumn

My neighbor

How does he live, I wonder

-Basho

deer

Wendy wrote the following: “From my photo attempts to represent one of Basho’s last written haikus (translated as ‘Deep Autumn” or “Deepening Autumn”), I chose this (above) photo from Miyajima Island.

I don’t think Basho was thinking about deer when he wrote this haiku, but I imagine that he hoped that readers would look broadly outward while finding personal connections in his words.”

Below: Wendy’s photo of the autumn foliage.  This photo is not enhanced in any way.  The colors are just as we saw them!img_1609

Long Dark Nights of Winter

December 6, 2016

Winter Solstice comes early to Little Renaissance.  Every year, we celebrate a Hatha Yoga Winter Solstice Retreat on the first weekend of December at Little Renaissance.   We celebrate early before the busy-ness of the holiday season takes hold.

Winter Solstice is a time of quiet firelight, a time to nurture dreams.  The dark clear nights reveal the bright stars.  Late at night, I can sit quietly in the hot tub and see shooting stars trailing across the  sky.  I celebrate the shortest day and the longest night of the year with a wonderful group of yogis.  We anticipate the rebirth of the sun and contemplate our own spiritual rebirth.  We see this time of year as a turning point and a time of year to renew energy.

I look out the window and see the garden boxes through sheets of rain.  The garden boxes look spent from having produced so generously all summer long.  Gratefully, the soil lies resting, patiently waiting for the warmer and brighter days of spring.   The resting soil of the cold winter days and nights reminds me that the future holds promise, always.  Come spring, seeds will germinate and take root.  Likewise, I believe the future will manifest our visions and dreams.

For now, while we wait for the rebirth of the sun, we stand still.  Winter Solstice is a time of repose, a time to light the wood stove, stoke up the heat, soak in the hot tub, sit quietly surrounded by lit candles, delve into a good novel, and dream.

Below are photos from our past weekend’s Winter Solstice Yoga Retreat.  This group of yogis has been coming to Ocean Shores biannually for 10 years running!

The dunes leading to the Pacific Ocean beach

The dunes leading to the Pacific Ocean beach

Carol and Skye walking past driftwood

Ready for winter winds: Carol and Skye walking past driftwood

Pretty driftwood log

Pretty driftwood log

Vast Ocean Beach

Vast Ocean Beach  (Skye and Dan)

Remnants of an old boardwalk

Remnants of an old dock

Group Shot I

Group Shot I

Group Shot II

Group Shot II

A Forest Takes Root in the House

A Forest Takes Root in the House

Collage I put together from Skye's photos

Collage I put together from Skye’s photos

Second collage I put together using Skye's photos

Second collage I put together using Skye’s photos


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