festivals

Winter solstice

solstice-winter I welcomed the sunrise on the morning after the winter solstice in the solitude of my still-sleeping house. The first cup of tea of the day was beside me on the window-sill, making miniature mist on the cold glass.

Slowly the long, long night - the longest night of the year - burned away into grey dawn. The first light pierced the antique glass above our front door, now pink, now gold, and soon the whole room swam with morning. Upstairs, my family began to stir, and the day began.

My winter coat, draped over a chair to dry, still smelled of damp earth and woodsmoke from the previous night's solstice bonfire (a bonfire which, thanks to a week of rain, had taken a lot more coaxing to ignite and somewhat lacked the primal oomph of last year's fire, but was nevertheless beautiful and brilliant in the end).

On the solstice night there had been a tiny break in the clouds as we waited for the bonfire to catch alight and, seeing it, Ralph had yelled "The moon! I want to touch the moon!" We showed the children the Southern Cross, and the two Pointers that show the way, and, glowing steadily directly above the moon, we found Venus. Ancient fires and rocks, all of us, spinning and hurtling through millennia, marking the dark days. And the light ones too.

As the morning's temperature crept into double digits, I ventured into my frost-melty garden to dig and plant and prune, and to think some alone thoughts about winter and hibernation and stillness, and about all the quiet rest and rejuvenation that happens underground, for life to burst forth life in spring.

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In which we visit Australia’s only booktown and purchase a fake pearl necklace, some plastic toys, and no books

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Book Town, defn: "A Book Town is a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Book Towns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty." International Organisation of Book Towns (IOB)

When gold was first discovered in Victoria, it was discovered in the pretty little village we now know as Clunes. Today, Clunes is home to 1600 people... and at least 15 bookstores. It is the only officially recognised "booktown" in the southern hemisphere, and one of only 17 in the world.

Once a year, this already very-literary town spills its books out into the streets, and literature completely takes over the town, for the Clunes Booktown Festival. I'm not kidding. You walk into the local hairdressing salon, complete with old-fashioned hair-dryers on the wall, and the rest of the salon is filled with books, wall to wall. Nearby at an antique store, furniture and curios have been moved out of the way to make room for more books. And inside the local cafes? You guessed it, more books. There are books on tables in the street, in market-stalls that line the middle of the road, out the front of the museum, in the post office, and spilling out of residents' garages.

Actors perform Shakespeare on a makeshift stage made out of a ring of hay-bales, children learn the antique art of book-binding, and storytellers and author-talks and book-signings continue throughout the day. The air is filled with the delicious smoke of a hundred food stalls and cafes and bakeries and coffee carts, and all the dogs look happy and the children even happier. It is bustling but not impossibly crowded, and essentially it is my idea of heaven.

When we visited Clunes on the weekend, the rain held off but made mist around the surrounding hills. The streets were wide and the gold-rush era architecture absolutely stunning, with original painted signage still on many of the shop windows and walls. I ate a pulled-pork-and-coleslaw filled roll at the Bread and Circus Provedore that I would recommend to anyone.

The only fly in my personal book-browsing, book-buying ointment turned out to be my "parent" status, since it would appear that hunting for books amidst piles of other books for hours on end is not something that the average toddler likes to do. Even when you give them spending money and say "go for it." Who knew? But since I happen to believe that being a parent is the best thing ever, even better than shopping for books, I'm not about to change that status any time soon.

So we went to the Clunes Booktown Festival and bought a double-string of fake pearls (Scout), a Peppa Pig activity-book with plastic duck toys (Ralph), delicious lunches for four, chocolate ice-cream (Scout), a chocolate milk-shake (Ralph)... and no books.

Yep, not one. But we're going back next year!

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Aaaargh! Heathcliff!

kate-10 copy This is actually happening! In Melbourne! And I can't even begin to tell you how happy it makes me.

What is "this," you ask? Why, only a gigantic, public group-dance to Kate Bush's classic Wuthering Heights, that's what. There is so much silly joy right here, it's palpable. These screen-shots are from the first dance, in Brighton in the UK, in 2013 (watch it here - I laughed out loud).

Since then, ladies and lads in red dresses and bad wigs have been dancing to Wuthering Heights all over the world and finally, finally this event is coming to Melbourne, on 15 July. There's an event page on Facebook if you want to follow along.

Flash mobs are so 2000s.

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UPDATE: I just learned that this will be a world-wide simultaneous event. Eek! 

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Make this: surprise slide-up cards

1 Boo! Recently I made these little slide-up cards, after watching one of those "how-to" tutorials on YouTube that make simple things so much more confusing than they should be and assume you are the proud owner of an entire cupboard full of obscure craft supplies, when you could actually make do with a piece of cardboard and some sticky-tape.

Mine were Halloween-themed but if you want to make them too, they would suit pretty much any occasion or holiday: little hearts popping up to say "I love you," fireworks popping up to say "Happy New Year," flowers or confetti or - you get the point - to say "happy birthday," and so on.

Following is my pared-back tutorial, with a few moments of "full disclosure" on things I did wrong or could have done better, so you can learn from my mistakes.

The basic mechanics of these kinds of slide-up cards involve plastic wrapped around a rectangular piece of cardboard (or more accurately, an "H" shape, to stop the plastic from sliding off). You stick a second piece of cardboard with your picture or message on one side, and a third piece of cardboard with the "pull here" instructions on the other side. When you pull down on one piece of cardboard, the plastic slides around, pushing the other piece of cardboard up. Make sense?

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ΔΔ What you'll need:

* One or two sheets of thin cardboard, or some thick (eg water-colour) paper * Scissors * Sticky-tape or glue * A pencil, or something to measure your cards (you could use a ruler and/or one of those grid maps, OR you could do what I did, and trace around your mobile 'phone) * Thin plastic (full disclosure: being the non-craft-supplies-cupboard type person that I am, I didn't happen to have any thin plastic available, so I just cut up the plastic covers from some greeting cards - do you know what I mean? - and they would have worked really well except for the folds in the plastic that caused the "slide up" bit to catch)

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ΔΔ While you can make these cards all out of the same cardboard, I used a few different types, just to make my cards interesting. I used the beige cardboard you see pictured because it was handy, to make the H-shaped mechanics of the card. I used water-colour paper for the slide-up monster or ghost, and for the "pull here" tab at the other end, because I thought the colours would show up better on white than beige and I didn't happen to have any white cardboard handy. I used old pages of Frankie magazine to make the "envelope" of the card, because they're pretty. You could of course use plain cardboard for the envelope, which would leave a whole lot of space to create your own design or the first part of the message.

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ΔΔ Step 1 (top left): cut out a piece of cardboard in an "H" shape, then cut out two rectangles, slightly smaller. I traced around my iPhone to get the rough sizes of my two smaller rectangles (which make up the monster and the "pull here" tab), then just went a bit bigger to get the H shape. You can see the pencil-work where I traced around the iPhone then made it a big bigger. This is part of the inside of the card so don't worry about pencil marks.

Step 1b (because clearly this is actually two steps but I forgot to take a photograph of the H before I'd already stuck the plastic on)... Now cut out a strip of plastic long enough to wrap all the way around the short bit of the H, then wrap it around and stick it together. Make sure it's not too tight, because this is what will be used to slide your picture up and down so it needs to move easily. (Full disclosure: as I mentioned, the creases in the re-purposed gift-card wrapping I used meant that in some cards, the plastic would get stuck and wouldn't slide smoothly. Also, I used sticky-tape to secure the plastic because I didn't think glue would be reliable, but the tape also created some problems with the smooth sliding of the pulley. So the one thing I would do very differently next time would be to find some better - crease-free - plastic at the newsagency, and possibly some good glue)

ΔΔ Step 2 (top right): take your two smaller (in my case iPhone-sized) pieces of cardboard, and place them to the plastic on the H to see how they fit. You may need to trim them further. Now would be a good time to draw your slide-up message or illustration (in my case the monster), because it gets tricky to draw or paint after the card is made.

ΔΔ Step 3 (bottom right): place your "pull here" card on top of the H, lining it up with the bottom of the H-card. Then tape it to the plastic at the top. Turn the H over, and line up your picture (monster) card, face down, so that the top of it is flush with the top of the H-card. Tape it to the plastic at the bottom. Turn the H back over and test it at this point. Give the "pull here" tab a tug, and see if your picture slides up. Don't worry if they flop everywhere, the envelope will hold everything in place.

ΔΔ Step 4 (bottom left): cut out another piece of cardboard or paper. Measure it to be slightly bigger than the H, then double it sideways. I used pages from Frankie magazine for this. Fold the cardboard or paper in half, then stick the H to the right-hand side of the card (on the inside, of course). Make sure when you tape it that you secure the H on both sides, but don't stick down any of the moving parts.

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ΔΔ Step 5: Fold the card over to close it, and seal it up with sticky-tape or glue, again making sure you don't go near any moving parts. Cut out a little square or semi-circle to reveal your "pull here" tab.

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ΔΔ You're done! I used the blank space above "pull here" to include a spooky little Halloween quote (see the picture at the top). You could add a secret message here, if you wanted to.

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Storms and sunshine

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At around 5.30 on Saturday morning the storms rolled into Melbourne and crashed and flashed and by all tokens made a bit of a fuss. An angry wind bent the new trees in our new garden this way and that and then both ways at once, sending droplets flying sideways as rain the size of grapes began to tumble. I watched it from my window, pyjama-clad, hands wrapped around a mug of too-hot-to-drink tea, and it was glorious.

By the time my cup was empty, sunshine was making rainbows out of the leaves on the fledgling hydrangea. I vacuumed the downstairs part of the house before everyone woke up, then stepped into the shower and washed my hair. When I came out, wrapped in a towel, I was greeted by an almighty clap of thunder. Soon, the rain began tumbling…

Melbourne did this all day, rolling in the thunder and rain and then rolling them back out again, to be replaced by steaming sunshine. Thankfully, by the time I stepped outside at five in the afternoon with a three-year-old Belle from Beauty and the Beast and an almost two-year-old Fireman Sam minus the fire helmet that he refused to wear, each with jack-o-lantern buckets in their hands and in the company of old friends and new, the sun had finally won the day.

We blinked and squinted in the sudden light, and put up our hands to shield our eyes from the white glare of the giant Halloween spiderwebs that laced half the houses in our street. There weren't as many as last year, it has to be said, nor were the crowds of miniature humans in adorable costumes as thick. Maybe because Halloween fell on a weekend this year, everyone had better things to do? It didn't matter to Scout and Ralph, tramping the streets shod respectively in pink plastic high-heels and blue gumboots, and calling out "trick or treat!" (and also "twick-a-twee!") at each new door, while I waited with the other parents on the footpath and prompted "Don't forget to say thank you!"

When we grew tired and the children's buckets grew heavy with loot, we ambled and stomped back to our place, where there were dips and fruit and four different kinds of cheeses waiting in the garden, alongside juice and water for the kids and various alcoholic options for the grown-ups, plus a cubby house and a bubble machine with flat batteries. Scout hurt her finger and cried inconsolably until her little friend Izzy came to the rescue, first playing doctor and then nurse. Izzy sat down and Scout rested her head in her lap and cried and then laughed while Izzy patted and sometimes cuddled her and not long after that, the Nurofen kicked in and she leapt up to play again.

All afternoon and well into the night the doorbell kept ringing. Each time, Mr B would race the length of the house to hand out lollies and chocolate to more and still-more spooks and monsters and Disney princesses and medieval knights and vampires and dinosaurs and ninja turtles and fairies and ballerinas and at least one walking, talking pumpkin. Later that night, Mr B complained mournfully, "My feet hurt!"

Night settled. The jack-o-lantern I had carved the night before, which was more accurately an owl-o-lantern because I had purchased the second-last pumpkin in all of Barkly Square and it was rather non-traditional in shape so a tall owl made more sense than a wide grin… The jack-owl-o-lantern I had carved the night before began to glow, and the doorbell kept ringing, and we ordered pizza for those who stayed on in the garden, and there weren't even that many mozzies.

Later I sat on the floor of the children's room and read them a story, two hours past their normal bedtime, and minus a bath. Scout sat on my lap and leaned heavily against me, playing with my hair. Ralph eschewed his usual place on my other knee and instead simply lay down on the floor, face down, snuggled against my leg, and sucked his thumb. I rubbed his back and kissed Scout's flushed and sugar-sticky cheek as I read, and my heart felt just about ready to burst.

These are the days. These minutes and moments tumbled about with storms and sunshine, real and metaphorical, that I want to remember. My children, my friends, my community. I will cherish them and hold on to them and I hope I will never, never forget.

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Halloween inspiration board (friendly ghosts and purring cats)

LUNA I know, I know, but I really love Halloween. On my street, it is such a community event. Crowds of small children, dressed to the nines in the most adorable costumes, carry their little jack ‘o lantern buckets along the footpath. The braver, older ones traipse up to front doors and knock with hope in their hearts, while the smaller, more timid ones stand and shuffle their feet and wait to see what happens next…

We don’t really trick-or-treat on my street, we just treat. There’s an unspoken rule that if a house has decorations out the front or if the front door is open, it’s ok to knock. Otherwise, the kids just pass on by.

By the time Halloween rolls around it’s daylight saving in these here parts, so it’s almost like a giant summer street party. We meet neighbours we’ve passed at the shops and never spoken to before. Our children shyly make new friends. Often, trick-or-treating ends in impromptu barbecues and picnics and drinks all along the grassy island that divides our street. Honestly, Halloween is the best.

I’m completely comfortable with cherry-picking the things I like about Halloween, and ditching the things I don’t. I don’t like horror, I don’t like gore. I like my ghosts friendly and my black cats purring, you know? And I’m ok with that.

And so, bearing that in mind, here’s what I’ve pinned to my (imaginary) Halloween inspiration board, so far.

* I really wish somebody would invite me to a tortured artist Halloween party (who would you go as?)

* These marshmallow spider’s web cupcake toppings look more tasty than spooky

* Still on the subject of cupcakes (why not!), these printable monster cupcake holders are adorable

* Edible glow-in-the-dark secret messages! Ok, ok, these ones are on cupcakes TOO, but you could also put them on biscuits. Or something.

* A big handful of All Hallows Eve confetti

* And finally, this luna lamp is just about the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It's part of a crowd funding campaign that's on right now, so act fast if you want to get your hands on one

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The darkest night

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The darkest night has passed. The winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Our ancestors lit bonfires on the winter solstice, the bright light and heat of the flames symbolising the turning of the sun back towards their homes, warming and brightening and lengthening the days.

When they lit the winter solstice bonfire on the weekend, the kids and I were there to watch it. Rugged up in their puffy coats, wooly hats pulled down over their ears, they watched in wonder as the first flames caught, licked the edges of the bonfire, then raced up in a whoosh that sent golden sparks straight up into the clear night sky.

Ralph, in my arms, breathed "Wowwww."

The children's chubby, round cheeks glowed like tiny suns in the reflected light of the winter fire. I sipped mulled wine from a paper cup. Ralph turned his gaze up, up, up. "Bye bye stars!" he called out, as bonfire smoke dimmed the Milky Way, and the crowd cheered.

It was a simple family evening, a solstice bonfire hosted by the Children's Farm at Collingwood. Hot chocolate and doughnuts, a giant lantern parade, fire twirlers, wandering minstrels, about ten billion picnic rugs, and next-to no parking. It felt fun and festive and just the way these things should, but there was a moment, as the beat of the drums sped to a crescendo, and the fire-twirlers bent to the cold, black pyre and their flames flickered, and caught, and began to grow...

...There was a moment when time seemed to compress and the centuries merged and our 21st century bonfire held a 1st century portent. I could almost feel the earth grinding on its journey around the sun, pivoting our faces toward the coming season's warmth as the fire began to eat shadows and bathe the crowd in light...

Then Ralph said "More chips?" and the spell was broken. We were back in our own century, on a cold winter's night in June. I began to be very aware of the burning pain in my left arm from holding such a substantial little man for such a long time. Scout started casting about in the dark for a cup of water, which was only going to end badly and wetly for our fellow solstice-celebrators, so we packed up the picnic rug and decided to head to home.

But we had our moment, winter and I. I won't forget it.

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Make this, naturally: blue & botanical Easter Eggs

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Here's a lovely, last-minute tutorial for dying Easter eggs a stunning blue, and creating pretty, stencilled patterns out of leaves and flowers. Do you want to give it a go? There's still time!

The idea for this project came from my friend Pascale, who does it every year with her children. When they were little, she said, they would gasp with wonder at the patterns created on the eggs. Even now, as almost-grown-up teenagers, they still ask to make these decorative eggs every Easter, hunting through the garden for the "perfect" flower or leaf to create their stencil.

Pascale told me she would use egg dye to create a rainbow array of stenciled eggs, but I couldn't find any in our local shops and from past experience I hadn't had a lot of luck using food dyes. Instead, I found a tutorial for making a brilliant blue dye out of red cabbage, and it turned out to be incredibly easy.

What you'll need:

* Hard-boiled eggs * 1/2 red cabbage * White vinegar * Table salt * An old pair of pantyhose

This project works best on white eggs. If you can't find any, here is a super easy tutorial for whitening eggs, using only white vinegar. If you're going to do this (I did and it worked really well), make sure you hard-boil the eggs before whitening them - it will make them a lot less delicate when you come to rub the colour off.

Step 1: Make your dye

1. Roughly chop up half a red cabbage into pieces about the size of your fist. Toss them into a large saucepan, then pour in two litres of water, and bring it to the boil. Reduce to a simmer, and let it bubble away for half an hour.

2. Strain the now-purple water into a heat-proof bowl, and discard the cabbage. To the water, add four tablespoons of salt and four tablespoons of white vinegar, then stir it around until the salt dissolves.

Step 2: Prepare your eggs

1. While you're making your dye, hard-boil your eggs (and whiten them as per above, if needed)

2. Take a walk around your garden, or along your street. Look for small leaves and flowers in pretty patterns that catch your eye, and gather a little collection to take back inside

3. Cut off pieces of the old pantyhose, about 10 centimetres long each. Tie a knot in one end.

4. Now take one of your leaves or flowers and press them against one of the eggs. Put the egg and plant into the piece of pantyhose, and pull it tight before tying a knot at the other end (see below). Repeat this step for as many stenciled eggs as you hope to make

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Step 3: Wait for the magic to happen

1. Gently submerge your pantyhose-egg in the bowl of dye. You might want to mix things up by submerging some non-stenciled eggs, too, so you have a variety of plain and patterned eggs when you're done

(Pro tip: if your eggs are bit old and you find they're floating, pour the dye into a taller, more narrow vessel - I used a large vase - then once the eggs are all in the dye, lower a piece of cloth over the top. I used a Chux wipe. As the cloth soaks up the dye, it submerges, pushing the eggs down with it without marking or scratching them the way a more solid weight would do)

2. Leave the eggs in the dye for as long as you like. About an hour will give you a lovely, pale, blue. Several hours or overnight will turn them indigo

3. When you take the eggs out, gently cut them out of the pantyhose, and lift away the plant. It should reveal a beautiful, stenciled pattern

4. Place the eggs on a wire cake-rack to dry completely, before using them for your Easter decorations

Two final words of advice:

1. After about 24 hours, the dyed eggs turn from blue to more of a turquoise or aqua. They're still beautiful, but bear this in mind if you're being all strategic with your colour scheme

2. Ideally you'll want to do this project on a warm day with the windows open: our house really stank of cabbage!

Happy Easter dear friends, if this is something you celebrate. What are your plans? We're off to visit family in Bendigo, then helping to host an Easter egg hunt in our local park, followed by a roast lunch for 13 friends in our home, and then a day off on Monday to recover. See you on Tuesday!

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You make my heart sing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I feel a bit sheepish admitting this in public, but Mr B is a huge country and western music fan. I know! Right?! Anyway he is, and I might not love his music but I do love Mr B. So I decided to write some tongue-in-cheek snippets of lyrics from three of his favourites (Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley) onto these heart biscuits, then packed him off to work this morning with a very pink box of Valentine’s Day biscuits under his arm.

What I wrote:

“know when to hold ‘em” (uhuh Kenny) “love me tender” (thanks, Elvis) “all decked up like a cowgirl’s dream” (ah, Dolly: Mr B in cowboy boots? The mind boggles!) “don’t take your love to town” (this is good advice Kenny) “I will always love you” (awww, Dolly!)

Actually the point of this post is to give a bit of a shout-out to the Melbourne-based company that made the biscuits, Blank Goods. Not because they’ve sponsored me or anything (they haven’t) but because they made it SO EASY to personalise this lovely gift. I ordered the biscuits online and in less than a week they arrived, beautifully iced and amazingly unbroken, along with a food pen (!!) with which to write my messages, and all the pretty packaging accoutrements you see in these pictures.

I think food pens might change my life.

Anyway, happy Valentine’s Day for tomorrow, all you lovers. And you too, beautiful strangers.

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Happy Australia Day

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I know, I know, it’s controversial. It’s also a day off together as a family and we get precious little of those so we're making the most of it. To whit: I am eating lamingtons (n.b. the spell checker tried THREE TIMES to change that word to laminations). I’ll be back tomorrow with a really easy project to make your snail mail more interesting.

 

Image credit: Shelley Brunt, licensed under Creative Commons

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