Tuesday, December 23, 2008

finding our essential traditions

Christmas used to be very hectic around here. What with writing cards and baking cookies and making and buying and hosting and cleaning and cooking..... This was when I was home full time, thinking I had to do it all. Then I went back to work and slowly we started to let go of some things. For one, we will not travel over the holidays as it gives our family one time where we can truly just hang out at home for a few days in a row.

This year, I caught a cold right before the holidays. At first I thought how it ruined my plans to get all these seemingly important tasks accomplished. But now I am actually welcoming how it forces to slow me down. We will only bake one or two batches of cookies this year (having already baked pumpkin bread for everyone my children have contact with in their school). At this point, Christmas or even New Year's cards seem highly unlikely.

As we continue to pare down the holidays every year, the aspects of the holidays that are truly important to our family become clear. There are certain things that have become traditions in our little family:

Advent. Every year we decorate a simple wreath with Beeswax votives and some red bows. We have a little Advent celebration every Sunday, complete with stories and yummy treats. For an hour and often less, we sit together, watch the candles, sing songs and forget about our to do lists.

Winter Solstice. We don't have a big celebration to mark this turning point of the year, but we don't turn on any lights that day. After it gets dark, we light candles and lanterns all over the house. Because there is so little to do without light, we gather in the living room, make a big fire, talk and maybe read a story by candlelight. Then we go to bed early. The children love the connection it gives them to all the people they have heard about in "olden times." I love how deeply we all get to experience the darkness very directly, and how it brings us close together.

The Tree Lighting. Every year we put real candles on our Christmas tree. I grew up with this tradition and insist on it. A few years ago we started a tradition of inviting a small group of people over a couple of days before Christmas for hot cider, cookies and watching the Christmas tree all lit up with candles. It truly is a magical experience. Someone always bursts into song, and soon we've sung all the Christmas carols (and Hanukkah songs) we can remember. After a while the children all run off to play somewhere, while the adults sit around, grateful for a moment's quiet before everyone returns to their own home for last minute Christmas or Hannukah preparations.

Christmas Eve. In my home country of Germany, Christmas is celebrated on the 24th. As a result, our Christmas celebration really begins on this day. Our tradition is to go ice skating for a couple of hours in the early afternoon, then we come home and cook a duck - which the children insist on. We have a nice, early, festive meal, leaving lots of time for last minute gift wrapping and other preparations, and also eating our fair share of cookies and other treats. Then we hang out by the fire and light the Christmas tree again.

All these traditions have become very dear to our family. They bring those special moments of anticipation, of experiencing an inner light, of hope and joy, of moments of stillness, of crafting and preparation.

I wonder what essential traditions your family has for this time of year?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Evergreen garden

There are many things about Waldorf Education that resonate in my heart with a loud "yes". One of the most significant is the event frequently known as the Advent Spiral. It never ceases to amaze me how one can create such meaningful beauty in the simplest of ways. I've always had a thing for labyrinths, and a spiral is a very simple labyrinth. In our school, the windows of the Eurythmy room are darkened, many greens are hung, and a very simple spiral of greens is laid out on the floor. It has a long path into the center, where a single candle is lit on a stump of wood, and a short path out. The spiral is lovingly decorated with all kinds of rock crystals, some wooden animals, and cut out paper stars. The children receive a red apple with a sprig of green and a small candle from their teacher. They walk slowly to the stump, light their candle, and place it on one of the paper stars. When all the children have walked, the room is illuminated by 20 candles.

What makes this simple little ceremony so special is the wonderful accompanyment we enjoy from two master lyre players, the reverence that the teachers hold, and the loving care that has been taken in decorating the room so beautifully. The children's personalities are very much evident. In this group of Children's Gardeners, age 4 through 6, the older children strike out with purpose and confidence, ready to take the responsibility of showing the youngers how it is done. The little children want to hold hands with their parents, are often dreamily lost in the beauty of the crystals and wooden animals, and frequently loose their way in the spiral (the older kids find this hilarious).

I was deeply touched by today's ceremony. For one, I've been coming off a very busy couple of weeks, and simply sitting in a candlelit room fragrant with the smell of pine boughs, listening to beautiful lyre music and holding my youngest on my lap, was a wonderful reminder to breathe in this season of last minute errands and mile long to do lists. On another level though I saw my child, now one of the oldest in her class, show her readiness to leave the world of playsilks and sandcastles behind, ready to cross the bridge into First Grade in less than a year. Not only will I no longer have any truly little ones in the house, but I never could have imagined almost 7 years ago that I would be so fortunate to watch my little special girl overcome such huge challenges and walk in front of me towards the center of the spiral, prepared for life and all that will meet her.

I simply love these moments that make me stop and catch my breath, and realize how very very blessed my life is.

Monday, December 8, 2008

holiday wishes

I am just stopping by quickly to wish all my Muslim friends a happy Eid. While I was home alone this morning, I came across this blog which chronicles one man's experience of this year's Hajj. I found his writing both instructive and moving. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

catching up

Well, and how was your Thanksgiving all those many days ago? It appears that in spite of my best efforts time has in fact moved forward! I spent the last week doing double duty in my own classroom and in someone else's. I don't recommend taking on preparing additional curricula on a regular basis, because it really interferes with things like family and eating and sleeping.

Having said all that, it was a great experience. I was asked by one of our class teachers to spend two mornings in Main Lesson with her class of 17, and I am glad I did. This is a challenging group of children, and I remember thinking that if I can teach them anything, I need not worry about my teaching skills. I do think I succeeded in my attempts. I found this group of kids really needed me to be firm and strong, but also flexible. They need to be seen as the individuals they are, and truly one has to work with each individual child to remind them of their best abilities. They taught me a lot about successful class teaching. I am so greatful to them! I also managed to pull off my first ever blackboard drawing, and it was actually quite nice.

I also recently joined a study group. We are reading Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom. I have been wanting to read this for some time, but felt I could really benefit from the insights of others on this work. The primary method we are using in our study is that we read a number of paragraphs and try to summarize them in one or two sentences. I have found this approach to be extremely helpful because it helps me gain more clarity in my thinking when I prepare myself, and I get everyone else's input each week on all I have read.

Only two more weeks until winter break. I am so pulled towards home right now, with Advent and all the baking and crafting and singing with loved ones that entails. Unfortunately I have to write reports before any of that can happen, so I will likely be quiet for a while.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Often I am not aware just how many of my feelings, views and reactions are a matter of choice. Today I have chosen:
- to take a nap instead of continuing to feel overwhelmed by all that I need to do;
- to laugh at Elf's knock-knock jokes for probably the 100th time;
- to spend time reading Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom;
- to accept that I probably won't get all of it this time;
- to forego an unhealthy food choice and have tea instead;
- to clean up other people's messes without grumbling;
- to let the Wizard be in charge of Thanksgiving - it's better for everyone this way;
- to spend a few minutes with the children without thinking about my to do list;
- to stop on my way to the basement to scratch my dog's ears;
- to remember my friend J. by trying hard to bring more kindness into my life.

I hope you had a lovely weekend with lots of goodness to choose from!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

a counting game

I introduced a new game with my 8th graders yesterday. It is always hard to know whether a game will be a hit or a flop, so I was surprised by the enthusiasm with which they received this very simple activity.

The instructions are very simple: the students are to count a range of numbers, say from 1 -20, 100 and up or whatever you choose (I am also planning to use letters of the alphabet, simple German verb conjugations etc.). Instead of having an order of which student goes when, they are to say the number out when it feels like it's their turn. The only rule is that if two students speak at the same time, they have to start over.

As I was watching the 8th grade, I saw just how deeply this game meets the children. For one, it is a rhythmical activity which helps them relax into class. They also have to get very still, listening to each other. This prepares them extremely well for the rest of class. Finally, the children love a challenge, and this game sets the tone for trying to do better all the time, an element that I have found can be challenging for some of the students.

So this one was a winner which we will be playing regularly.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Balancing Act

I just spent the weekend cleaning the house with help from the Wizard. It feels so much more like home this way. During the week we are all so busy that things just tend to end up all over the place, which makes me sad. I always thought that my house would be cozy and inviting, but all too often it's chaotic and messy.

I used to be a full time homeschooling mom, and my house looked a lot cleaner. Now, with me back at work and both children in school, we're away so much and I've had to adjust my expectations. This is becoming a theme. I think in general we humans are not very good at predicting the unintended consequences of our decisions, the costs of the cost benefit equation. It never occurred to me that going back to school for my teacher certification would mean less time with my family on the weekends. I had no idea that going back to work would mean less time with my children. Maybe I'm just not very smart that way, but I see this inability to predict consequences elsewhere as well, such as meetings at school. It's remarkable, really, given that we are all people who strive to live our lives consciously. I wonder how and at what point experiences guides us in this way?