Monthly Archives: December 2009

Winter Inspiration

Solitary Crow ...
My progress
Over snowy fields
-- Senna
To celebrate New Year's
We feast
Newly-opened eyes on
Snowy Fujiama
-- Sokan

Photos from the season of going inward — when not playing outside. Click on any photo to enlarge.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman

More are available on the Slow Family Online Facebook Page.


Mill Valley’s Life-Size Gingerbread House

I came upon this whimsical house, nestled in the forested Cascade Canyon section of Mill Valley, right behind the library. It’s so sweet and imaginative, and captures the playful aspect of the season. Plus, its setting couldn’t be more perfect.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman

Great Marin Holiday Light Displays, Part 2

Holiday light displays seem contagious among neighborhoods — I truly think this occurs more from the spread of cheer than a ruthless electrical competition. Really, who can resist a bit of joy when encountering twinkling lights, moving characters, and various expressions of cheer and calm? Marinwood, in Marin County, CA, is one such decorated neighborhood and has apparently been for more than a generation. We drove around there last week, taking in all the fun lights and decorations gracing the various homes. We visited our old favorites, which, as always, stood out.

The Lights of the Valley web site has directions and hours for these houses, plus tons of photos and directions for houses all over Northern California. Do yourself a favor and visit.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fantastic Rombeiro House in Novato, which you can actually go in!

Mize’s Mickey Mouse House, 417 Blackstone Drive, Marinwood

This super-fun house has been going for 33 years. In addition to all the lights and characters decorating the outside, a two-car garage is windowed off and filled to the brim with all manner of Disney toys and characters, in Christmas dress and settings. Particularly prominent is Mickey Mouse, down to the house’s mouse-ear-shaped shrubbery. It is all quite a delight, a fantasy toyland. Smiling visitors of all ages just try to take it all in.

The Nisja Bear House, 383 Quietwood Drive, Marinwood

This delightful house also features diorama displays, but its real crown is the elaborate model railroad that runs through the front yard. Whimsical pieces seem to be added on every year. This year, we had the pleasure of talking to Roy Nisja, who explained how he started decorating the house and building the railroad 29 years ago, when his son was small. His son and family live nearby, but they all continue to build the train each year on Quietwood.

Nisja showed us the camera he rigged so that when he does take breaks and go back inside the house he can still be certain both Eastbound and Westbound trains are running. Chuckling, he pointed out the new lighted landing strip he added on his roof for Santa. People, aged from children to seniors, in Santa hats and warm coats, came up his walk to marvel at the trains, bears, and other snow creatures and characters and wonder which had been added this year.

The Statham Christmas House, 12 Adobestone Court, Marinwood

Luckily, we did talk to Roy Nisja, because he told us about a traditional, wonderful decorated house that we didn’t know about and that had been resurrected after 12 dark years. The Statham House was a 40-year Marinwood tradition until Charles “Dooley” Statham decided to call it quits for health reasons year ago. Sadly, he died this fall, and his family decided to resurrect the house one more time in his honor. It’s an amazing sight to come upon, walking up the hill from Blackstone. (The Court, a little cul-de-sac, is blocked to cars.)

It’s completely magical, with large wooden cut-outs and wonderful lights. We got there close to 11 p.m. (!) Crowds had still been milling about the other houses, but lights were beginning to rather dramatically click off and dim. We did get to see the house in its glory, including some lighted displays of vintage toys in large windows, and hope to again before it’s gone for good in a few days.

The Marin Mommies web site has directions and hours, as well as some more nice material about Statham and the house.

Still to come: A sweet “gingerbread” house in Mill Valley.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman

Great Marin Holiday Light Displays, Part 1

This year it feels like the holiday season is rushing away a little too quickly. Christmas may be over, but the winter season has just started. If you, like me, love seeing houses lit up against cold nights; the conviviality of friends and good food; the cheery decorations, pine smells, and warm greetings, you are in luck because our people, the ones who decorate to the hilt and then hang around their houses night after night to talk to strangers of all generations and absorb their joy, tend to leave their decorations up as long as possible and linger in the season’s cheer.

In my neck of the woods, there is a house that is stunningly decorated, and — most incredibly — welcomes people, inside and out. Novato, CA’s Rombeiro family begins decorating on Labor Day each year and doesn’t start dismantling their creation until Kings’ Day, January 6th.

Here’s hoping your neighborhood affords you fun light displays. It’s always stirring to see such unique and joyful creativity on display and to see so many people, in groups large and small, experiencing simple awe and warm community.

The Lights of the Valley web site is a fantastic resource for holiday light displays all around Northern California.

Rombeiro House, 34 Devonshire Drive, Novato

The granddaddy of Marin County’s decorated houses, The Rombeiro House has been a family tradition for us since our daughter was small, and for the Rombeiros for 18 years. I know of nothing else like it. “Labor of Love” only scratches the surface of the intense effort that Ed Rombeiro and his family put out every year.

The Rombeiros greet everyone who comes to their house, every night from early December to January 6. And they welcome them inside their home, where people walk, sometimes in slow-moving lines, from room to decorated room.

The family sacrifices living quarters and sleeping quarters. Nearly every surface is covered with charming displays of animatronic and wonderfully themed snowmen, elves, santas, angels, penguins, bears, wise men, reindeer, and toys.

There’s even a whole room that is transformed into a model train tableau.

It is said that the Rombeiros use more than 100,000 lights and that 39,000 people come through the home to experience its magic each year. (There’s a collection box outside to help the family with their electric bill.) We usually get a hello, a goodbye, or both from Ed Rombeiro, who told us that the tradition of extensive holiday decorations (perhaps not this extensive) originated in his family’s native country the Azores. The Rombeiro House web site has directions and hours. It is open through January 6th.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman

12 Days of Green Holiday Gifts: Books for Adults

The Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother’s Memoir, by Katrina Kenison, is a refreshingly honest book in which Kenison re-counts finding herself, at roughly middle age, as her children grow older and gain independence, and the author’s family transitions from an urban to a more rural, and slower, lifestyle. The book’s intimate (but not overly revealing) anecdotes and observations unfold in a way that creates the feeling that one is reading letters from a good friend.

Liza Dalby’s East Wind Melts the Ice: A Memoir Through the Seasons is an extremely special book that I find myself dipping into throughout the year. Dalby, who has spent a great deal of time in Japan and is the author of Geisha and other books, as well as a passionate gardener, weaves together observations about various topics — gardening and the natural world, poetry, eastern and western cultures, gender identity, life with small children — and she does so by structuring the book according to the 72 seasonal units of the ancient Chinese almanac. Each piece is beautiful in itself and delightful to read, as well as often quite insightful, funny or deep. Perhaps, as with the Kenison book, the best memoirs (and this is one, although it’s so quirky and brightly observed that “memoir” doesn’t quite do it justice) make you yearn to be the author’s friend or over-the-fence neighbor, or at least sit down for some tea.

Earth to Table: Seasonal Recipes from an Organic Farm, by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann, stands out among this year’s crop of farm-to-table cookbooks. This is a stunningly photographed book that focuses on eating locally and in tune with the seasons. The recipes feel as fresh as the food pictured. Crump is a Canadian Slow Food pioneer and chef, and Schormann is a pastry chef, and the resulting book is enriched with their experiences in restaurants and in organic farming.

Every project in Betz White and John Gruen’s Sewing Green: 25 Projects Made With Repurposed and Organic Materials is adorable, colorful, and fun, and contains simple step-by-step instructions that a novice fabric crafter can follow. Best is the inspiration that comes from seeing all these ideas for repurposing and recreating with materials you may already have on hand or could easily locate. The book also contains a very thorough resource list. It’s a guaranteed winner for someone who’s interested in fabric crafting, especially one on the hunt for easy, do-able ideas.

You could do no wrong with any title by Rachel Carson, the pioneering environmental writer whose work managed to infuse the modern environmental movement, as well as educate and inspire wonder about all aspects of the natural world.  Her 1951 classic, The Sea Around Us, is a fine place to introduce a reader to Carson, or to simply experience her lustrous prose as she describes the awe-inspiring, continually mysterious world of the oceans, their history, their habitat, and the special place where water and land meet. The new edition contains added material by marine biologists about the deterioration of the oceans and their life, as well as some prescriptive ideas for its greater care.

My criteria for a green holiday gift? Items meet all or most of the following: Promotes nature play or care of the earth, Uses all or mostly natural ingredients, Fosters hours of open-ended creative play,  Doesn’t use extraneous plastic or other wrapping, Doesn’t break the bank to buy it.

12 Days of Green Holiday Gifts: Books for Children

While, for many, Winter’s major celebrations have come and gone, others are still celebrating — in ways lavish or cozy – whether by giving and receiving gifts on the 12 days that have just begun, or by simply relaxing together with a little time off from work and school.

Either way, there is hardly a better time to enjoy a book, the most beloved of which provide beauty and provoke thought in a measure that far surpasses their price. I’ve uncovered a few wonderful books for children that share a message of stewardship and of slowing down. In my next blog post, I’ll do the same for adults.

All in a Day, by Cynthia Rylant and Nikki McClure, is a very sweet and beautiful book that illustrates some of the simple things that can be done in a day – planting a seed, gazing at the sky. With pleasing rhymes and gentle and lovely two-color cut out illustrations, the message becomes clear, though never heavy-handed: A day is a gift, full of possibility, companionship and simple beauty. This is a book to be read again and again.

The message is somewhat similar in One Morning in Maine, by Robert McCloskey, an older sweet favorite that follows a girl, her father, and her little sister for a day of boating and clamming on Maine’s shore, only to lose a tooth and have the day go a little differently, but no less adventurously, than planned. It’s a lovely, gentle book (as are McCloskey’s other titles) that’s full of wonder, both of the natural world and in the relationships that pepper a family’s life.

The setting in Jason Chin’s new book, Redwoods, is the U.S.’s west coast, where a boy emerges from a city subway into an ancient, and awe-inspiring redwood forest. Chin offers an adventure story and a lot off information, along with great watercolor illustrations that capture the misty beauty and intensity of these giant trees.

A lot of older children are appropriately concerned about the environment and wondering how they can contribute toward making things better. Heroes of the Environment: True Stories of People Who Help Protect Our Planet,
by Harriet Rohmer, offers a dozen inspiring tales about real people, of all ages, who decided to truly make a difference in their world. They include a teenage girl who acted to remove an industrial pollutant from the Ohio River and a teenage boy who helped his state recycle electronic waste and keep it out of the landfill. Photos and illustrations help carry the stories, which let readers know that they can each have an impact.

Two very lovely and colorful tried-and-true books help children understand the cycle of nature in the garden: Lois Ehlert’s Planting a Rainbow and Ruth Heller’s The Reason for a Flower. Both are brightly illustrated, and simply and wonderfully show nature’s variety and the way each aspect of the ecosystem helps one another.

Aunt Ippy’s Museum of Junk, by Rodney Alan Greenblat, features the highly original Aunt Ippy, an early recycler and highly creative individual who never met an object she couldn’t make something useful and fun from. This is a delightful book, brimming with wonder, resourcefulness and an offbeat style of cheer that speaks to the free spirit in a lot of kids.

Marilyn Singer’s On The Same Day in March: A Tour of the World’s Weather takes readers on a round-the-world tour at a time of year when dramatic and contrasting weather events are occurring. Bold illustrations and simple prose help explain how and why different types of weather occur on the same day, and also help make the planet feel a little more familiar and connected.

Happy exploring through books!

My criteria for a green holiday gift? Items meet all or most of the following: Promotes nature play or care of the earth, Uses all or mostly natural ingredients, Fosters hours of open-ended creative play,  Doesn’t use extraneous plastic or other wrapping, Doesn’t break the bank to buy it.

Photo by Susan Sachs Lipman

A Solstice Bonfire: Welcome Winter!

I just got back from a big Solstice bonfire in a rural field. There were goats I could barely see bleeting in the background, and I watched as a little girl toasted her first marshmallow over the fire and laughed with unbridled joy.

Into the fire went our wishes and hopes for 2010 or, conversely, the quality, activity or thought we wished to leave permanently behind. Scrawled on paper, the unwanted characteristics caught fire — edges first, and then entire sheets, until they were flaming, at times floating, pieces of ephemera.

The wind shifted, the fire smoked. It lit up the faces of people I had met earlier in the warm house, over Jambalaya and a fantastic, wintery Squash and Mushroom Soup. There had been lots of great talk and dancing, people of all ages. One woman continued to burn personal papers from a long-term task, just ended today. She methodically lifted envelopes out of a shopping bag and into the fire. I saw tax returns, the Blue Cross logo — highly earthly reminders of the present — as she continued her own ritual, her own moving on, just as the Ancients had done when they gathered to lurch (sometimes frightened) from past to future, to warm themselves together in Winter and greet the recurring miracle of returning light.

Above us, the Pleiades shifted in their faint group. People sought out the Big Dipper, which was especially low on the horizon. A perfect crescent moon, angled like a cradle as if on a stage set, rose and hung orange in the inky sky. When we reluctantly left, our host invited us back to see the baby goats that would arrive on this same spot in the spring.

Photo: Jon Sullivan,