This is an edited repost from my previous blog ars culinaria. It originally appeared in January 2010 but still captures my feelings about Twelfth Night and midwinter.
The old winter season of merrymaking kicked off on All Saints’ Day in November and lasted straight through to the largest, most extravagant feasts held on January 6th, Twelfth Night. Industrialization ended the extensive celebration of Yuletide, though Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans tried to stamp it out earlier by banning Christmas.
While it lasted, the general order of things was turned on its head: peasants were lords, play was the work of the day, and special foods filled every groaning board. Fallow fields meant little agricultural work had to be done. Masked balls and pantomime plays entertained everyone from the King to the street urchin. Carolers sang at neighbor’s doors with the expectation of food, drink, or coin in return. Bonfires were lit to protect livestock and orchards were wassailed. Loved ones exchanged tokens of appreciation. Those who could gave food and clothing to those less fortunate.
Many of these traditions were held dearly enough to be shifted to other single-day celebrations. The elaborate Twelfth Night cakes and tarts with gold coins baked inside migrated to Christmas. Halloween claimed the masked balls and begging door-to-door. Pantomime survives in Britain. And Epiphany, Twelfth Night’s more religious moniker, is still as an important observation on the Roman Catholic calendar. Special cakes are baked and children receive small gifts in celebration of the Magi’s adoration of Jesus. Epiphany also marks the beginning of Carnival, its own extended party season.
In the rush of our modern lives when some of us work right through Christmas Day, the thought of even a twelve-day holiday, let alone months of celebrating, seems like a ridiculous endeavor. Unlike our agriculturally-minded forebears, we don’t get a whole season of downtime. But I do think there is something to be learned from the history of these extended holidays. They revolved around spending time with family and friends. Whole communities came together to celebrate the rebirth of the sun or the birth of a savior. We may not believe as our forebears did, but we can choose to make all the midwinter celebrations of light our own time of re-centering, recuperating, reconnecting, and reveling.
Thanksgiving is in two days as I write this. I’ve ordered the turkey and braved the grocery. I’ll start cooking tomorrow with a batch of my mom’s cornbread – without the sugar – for her Down South dressing from the 1940s edition of the Good Housekeeping Cookbook. I substitute red, orange, and yellow for the green peppers in the Trinity because in my forties I’ve accepted that I don’t care much for cooked green peppers in my dressing.
I’ve had to come to terms with a few other things as well. November has been difficult. It’s the month of my birth and with a changing climate it is the first month of actual fall like weather here in East Tennessee. I usually feel like a kid on Christmas Eve from October 30th right through Twelfth Night. The last few years, November has been a month of sorrow. In 2014 my mother died a week after I returned from a month in Slovenia. Last November, her sister died while I was in Slovenia. This November, a week after the anniversary of my mother’s death, my husband’s mother died.
My sister shared a comment from a funeral she attended a few years ago about being on the front row at a funeral. When you are at the front, there are no living elders before you. The weight of your own mortality sits with you.
Keifel and I find ourselves in that part of our lives where we and our friends are losing parents. We find ourselves sitting in the front row of funerals or holding the hands of friends who must do the same. It’s a hard place to be. My sister assures me the next phase, when your friends start to leave the world, is equally difficult. I am learning this for myself as well.
I try not to dwell on the morbid, but it is hard not to think on Death when he is spending so much time near the people you love and your creative and spiritual guideposts. The roll call for the number of iconic people who have died in 2016 is too long to list here but Leonard Cohen’s recent death hit me especially hard. I know Death is a constant companion in that we are all walking the same direction but the work of living is to not focus our energy on that fact. Rather it should be a reminder that we have work to do before we rest. Leonard Cohen’s last gift of music to us is a reminder that our work can take us to the very end.
When you are living with Death and his intrusions in a fresh way, it can be difficult to focus on today’s work. Getting up and dressed can be a challenge. We feel a twinge of guilt at the daily joys of life that our loved ones no longer share even if it’s just a perfectly buttered piece of toast. It’s no surprise that I live in my head more than I should but sometimes it helps. There are moments of detachment, away from the weight of the emotions of the body, where I can see the long road and can know, in an intellectual way, that to bury our parents is the natural order of things.
That doesn’t make it easier necessarily but it can make it seem less surreal. For me it is a life preserver when the emotions of the body threaten to take me under. That is my grief, or how it functions for me. We all come to that understanding differently, or not. No one else can proscribe our grief or tell us the shape it will take when it comes. Our culture tries by telling us, “Three days and back to work and try not to look so sad.” I know it’s polite to say “passed” instead of “died,” but my grief rails against that euphemistic approach. I need to speak the word to remind me of the reality of an event that is difficult for a human brain to grasp. We are not wired well for the concept of “forever.” Not really.
So, about Thanksgiving and that list of what I am grateful for at this final harvest festival of the year…
Loving family and friends who support us in our grief and celebrate our joys. The soft purr of a cat asleep in your lap. Food prepared by many hands as we sit together to share, aware of the empty seats and grateful for the lives who filled them and shaped our own. Crisp fall mornings with a sparkle of frost on the grass. Art, poetry, music. Today. Now.
God grant me charming words and smooth endings, grant me
a slender birch I can lean against and forget how life can humiliate us,
like a moon and flowers in the straps of a black weekend dress,
grant me trust in the possibility of a common uprising and the cadence
of a blessing, once I break into a jubilant shout. Language
knows no private property. It will be this way and no other,
– Aleš Debeljak (December 25, 1961 – January 28, 2016)
from ” The Castle Avenue with Trees”
My husband and son would be the first to let you know that I am not the placidly calm human I am often mistaken for. I don’t think I have a very good poker face, which makes me think what people take for an even-keeled visage is actually my panic and/or conflict avoidant face of fear. Maybe that’s an accomplishment in itself, being able to come off as together when you are anything but. Jury’s out on that one, for me at least.
For the most part, things in my life are rocking along. Writing is happening (someone else can judge whether it’s good or not). My immediately family is healthy and gainfully employed. And still, there is this existential angst layered over everything. I’ve been worried about the election. It hadn’t occurred to me until maybe two weeks ago, how much of the collective unconscious dread I had absorbed and how much it was effecting my sleep and my wellbeing. I’ll save you the details of the aha moment, mostly because it involved me rage crying about something in the news that was relatively benign compared to so much other stuff that’s been splattered across the various screens I engage with daily.
I voted early and trimmed my consumption as much as I could. I engage fairly frequently with social media for work, so I can’t completely shut it off. NaNoWriMo started and that gave me something else to focus on. To be fair though, writing the second novel of a series is whole new thing and has its own (mostly slay-able) dragons. Things are a little better, but today, Election Day, coupled with my mother-in-law’s failing health has ramped that ambient anxiety back up to 11. I’m fighting it by cranking up the self care to 11.5.
Bowl food for every meal. Really, is there anything more comforting that eating out of a bowl with a spoon? Oatmeal for breakfast, a salad for lunch topped with warm, purple sweet potatoes and spicy peanut sauce, and we’ll see if I get it together for dinner. I do have a pumpkin I need to cook and now that it is actually fall-like and chilly, I’m craving dhal. I plan to make my replicated version of a lemony, yellow lentil dhal Keifel and I ate in Brick Lane on my first trip to London. Writing also features heavily in my self care. No surprise there. I’d like to get back up to the “hitting 50K words on time” line on NaNo. Oh, and a few five minute yoga breaks. (If you don’t know Anna Guest-Jelly and Curvy Yoga, I envy you the joy of discovery.)
And for tonight, I have an adult coloring page of a US map with each state outlined in blue or red depending on the Princeton Consortium prediction for who takes that state. The arts and crafts approach to the election night is strangely soothing. But, I know myself well enough to know I won’t sleep ’til it’s over.
In my class on social media for writers a month ago, I said most social media gurus tell you to avoid anything controversial in your online presence. No sex, religion, or politics, politics being the most inflammatory of those three of late. For the most part, I agree. But, those things all play a pretty big role in our lives. I think there’s a lot on the line with this election. I want to believe that no matter the outcome, we will all figure out how to make it work. I’ll admit I’m more optimistic some days than others. I want to be optimistic today, even if it eventually requires day drinking and leftover Halloween candy to get there.
I’ve been back in Knoxville over a year. That year mark is usually where I start to feel like I live somewhere, a new space, a new place. The transition here has been different than my last few moves which were all just to new rentals in Nashville. Moving back to Knoxville is as close as I will ever get to moving home again.
I grew up in Kingston on Watts Bar Lake. It’s about 40 miles from my childhood home to the coffee shop I am sitting in right now typing this. My father had a printing business. He mostly made those Day-Glo pricing labels on bread or soda, rolls and rolls of bright orange and green circles screaming “99¢” or “Buy 1 Get 1 Free.” On Sunday, a couple boxes would get packed up and loaded into the old Toyota Landcruiser and Dad would drive them to Kern’s bakery in Knoxville. It was a special treat for my little brother or me, sometimes both of us, to get to ride along. The Knoxville of my childhood consisted of the 17th Street exit, having my teeth loosened from the Landcruiser’s poor suspension, and the yeasty haze of industrial bread baking.
In high school, Knoxville was “the city,” the place where the cool kids were and underaged girls could weasel their way into Planet Earth in the Old City to see the Judybats or John Wesley Harding. It was a place to meet college guys and hang out all day in record or book stores. If we were really broke, it was a place to just walk up and down the Strip in our proto-goth clothes trying to look like we weren’t high school kids from the sticks. It was where my college-aged boyfriend lived in student housing and I got that first glimpse of a place where a weirdo could find her sistren and brethren.
When I had my son, Knoxville was a place to escape Kingston where I’d moved back to lick my single-mother wounds. It’s where I worked. I commuted every day with a bag cell phone in my car because my parents were worried about getting in touch with me while they watched my baby. I got into grad school and continued the commute. I am convinced grad school is meant to crush a person. Trying it with a toddler and a 80-mile round trip every day didn’t do anything to dissuade me from my opinion. I still reveled in it. There were smart people, talented writers, and challenging things to read. There was cheap falafel and a crush. There were late nights with beers while my son slept soundly in a crib under my parents’ watch.
Knoxville was where I found a job after leaving my ex-husband and moving home from the west coast with my tail between my legs. It was a cool job in the Old City not far from where Planet Earth used to be. It was new friends and then my very first apartment that I paid for by myself. It was walks to the river across Cherokee Blvd. and to Sequoyah Elementary to drop my son off for school in the mornings. It was tea and the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’ve eaten on one of the saddest days of my life at my friend Janet’s house less than a block away. It was falling in love with someone across an ocean through the wonders of technology. It was a struggle to pay that rent and put groceries in that kitchen.
A dozen years later, Knoxville is renting an almost hundred year old house in a part of town I’d never set foot in, in all those previous Knoxvilles, with that man I fell so hard far. It’s getting my legs back under me and a finished novel that I hope at least ten people will want to read. It’s a great job that utilizes my eclectic skill set. It’s my son moving “home” to go back to school. It’s reconnecting to threads that where still here to be found when I returned. It’s beautiful old friends and wonderful new ones. It’s a coffee shop that I rent by the cup to write in a place that doesn’t distract me with all the things I should be doing at home. And it is so many ghosts.
It was more prevalent when I first moved back. I would be somewhere I had spent time at before, Tomato Head on Market Square or the FedEx on Cumberland Ave. and I would anticipate seeing someone from one of those previous archeological layers of my life in Knoxville. Many of them have moved on to new adventures, especially the folks from the grad school years. There’s more than a handful who are dead.
I keep telling myself it’s being in my mid-forties. I have four decades of life behind me and all the memory that entails. I still catch myself turning corners expecting a building or a business that isn’t there. I’ve run into a few people from those deeper layers. The frisson of the encounter reminds me of how much time has passed since I last spoke with them. I’ll hear a snippet of song and I am transported to moments so keen in my senses I can smell the clove cigarettes and taste the cheap beer or feel the pinprick of hiraeth, best translated from the Welsh as a longing for a place that no longer exists or may never have.
I’ve had a year to settle into a new rhythm and make peace with the real and imagined ghosts of my other Knoxvilles and my previous selves. Making peace with them is the wrong term. I am happy to be home, or as close as I will get. A different family lives in that house I grew up in. There are more wistful smiles than spectres in this newly forming layer and there are far more people I think of fondly when driving by an old haunt than moments I’d truly like to forget.