Saturday, December 21, 2013

in the belly of the year

Put it down to having been born under the sign of Capricorn, but I have a yen for the dead middle of winter. I realize that not all of my compatriots in this sector of the zodiac would agree. Still, for me, something feels right when outdoors is all bleakness, sharpness, skeletal branches, and frigid wind. I get Thomas Hardy's poem "The Darkling Thrush" on some visceral, gut level: a desolate landscape peopled only by a single birdsong's flickering of hope, which is perhaps unfounded and whose origin remains mysterious.

I usually think of the days around Christmas in one of two ways. Sometimes I visualize the calendar as a ring or a circle, one end of which is tilted upwards. Along the top curve lives the flush of the midsummer months, with June 21 (or thereabouts) at its zenith. And on the bottom curve lies the nadir, that dark fortnight that encompasses the holidays. 

Similarly, at other times I think of my experience of the time around the solsticeand this exact phrase often pops into my headas sitting in the belly of the year, almost like I'm Jonah inside the whale's gut, waiting stubbornly yet quietly for daylight and redemption.

The solstice has always been a significant time for humans. December 21 is usually the darkest day of the year, the day when the sun shines the shortest. Its arc across the sky flattens out, so that it's never directly overhead. Perhaps this is why the light in winter seems so paltry, so melancholy, and why it feels like you'll never get warm again.

Still, there are surprises in how people commemorate such a dim time. For instance, many of the festivals that take place during mid-December to mid-January emphasize eating and drinking well. Some cultures slaughter and eat their animals, those extra mouths to feed during the famine months of winter. Moreover, when winter comes, the beer and wine made during the warmer months are usually finally fermented and ready to enjoy. It's the Christian season of Advent, a time of waiting for the fulfillment of things promised but as yet unseen. Or consider this: the moon's arc across the sky, which is complementarily flat and oblique during the summer months, is practically the brightest thing in December. That's why the Farmer's Almanac calls that month's full moon the Long Nights Moon. It sails overhead literally all night long, silvering the dead world and giving it a strange, barren beauty.

For me, the darkness of this time of year is compounded by Rhea's death anniversary, the day after Christmas. December 26 also marks the day my parents married, ironically enough. Thus, like many civilizations before me, I see this time of year in terms of both loss and boon.

The solstice is another of the many anniversaries my family observes throughout the year: seventeen years ago today, a group of residents at Vanderbilt hospital walked into my sister's room and baldly informed her and my parents that she had a fungal infection in her brain and lungs and was not going to recover.

I can imagine that these young doctors were smart, generally compassionate people, probably anxious to get home to their festivities and fireplaces and families. Maybe they had immured themselves to caring about the patients on their oncology rotation because they didn't want to think about what it would be like to wait in a hospital room with their bald, dying loved one at Christmas, hoping for healing and life that will never come. Or, perhaps, what it would be like to be that bald, dying person herself. Rationally, I understand these defense mechanisms. I've been guilty of them myself at times. In all fairness, most of Rhea's caregivers were wonderful examples of sensitivity and competence. Nevertheless, I always think of the group that day as Those Asshole Residents, probably because I wasn't there and I don't have to picture their faces or think of them as real people. I know this is hypocritical and ungenerous. I'm sorry. Today I can't manage more than a few notes of an expectant melody whose conclusion I don't yet know.

All I know to do is wait here in the cold for the light to come back, as we all do. Admire the starkness of the blasted landscape. And, in the meantime, offer you a little something to warm your own insides, as you sit here with me in the gut of winter.

pumpkin-cinnamon cream of wheat

1/3 c. cream of wheat
1 c. milk
1 c. water
pinch of salt
1 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract
2 tbsp. pumpkin butter

Combine cream of wheat, milk, water, and a pinch of salt in a saucepan on the stove. Cook according to package directions. When cream of wheat has thickened to the desired consistency, reduce heat to low and stir in butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and pumpkin butter. Feel free to add more to taste. Heat through. Serve immediately, cupping the warm bowl with both hands.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

november photo-a-day challenge (year 2)

Eighteen months now I've been doing this. It's well and truly part of my daily life now. So, here is the list of prompts for this month:

And here are the photos I took:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

a brilliant disguise

I moved to Louisiana around the new year, just in time for the start of crawfish season. My second week here, D's colleague A and his wife J, natives of the region, invited us to go out for boiled crawfish at a place in town called Louisiana Crawfish Time. They said that this early, the crawfish tended to be younger, sweeter, and smaller than they get later in the spring. Plus, they speculated, it had been a mild winter. The crawfish hadn't had to molt, so their shells would be softer and easier to get into.

When we walked into the restaurant, we were greeted by a cloud of brine- and spice-scented steam. Our server seated us at a table with a rough hole cut into its center. Underneath was a garbage can where we would discard our shells as we ate. I deliberated over the menu and asked questions (A three-pound order sounded like a lot. Was it meant to be shared? Absolutely not.) and finally settled on two pounds of crawfish, a half-pound of shrimp, a boiled whole onion, and an ear of corn. When the large, round tray laden with steaming goodness finally arrived at the table, I asked our seasoned friends how to do it. A said to twist the head from the body, loosen the shell a bit from underneath, and then pull gently to remove the tail meat. If you weren't squeamish about the yellow "fat" in the head (what I've since learned is the hepatopancreas of the critter), you sucked or scooped it out and ate it before pitching it into the garbage pail.

Well, when in Rome, as they say. A few minutes later, I looked up from my peeling, eating, and sucking to find D, A, and J smiling bemusedly at me, my Zatarain's-stained fingernails, and my already half-empty tray.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

an unreliable narrator

Trust the tale, not the teller.     
                   - D. H. Lawrence

There's something you should know about me: I am miserable at bullshit. Both giving and receiving. Mine is no kind of poker face. And I'll believe anything.

One day when I was in college, my mother gave me a ride to campus. We were listening to a CD of the Impressions' greatest hits, and I spontaneously exclaimed, "Their music is so uplifting! It always makes me feel inspired." Mom looked serious and said soberly, "In reality, some very depressed people. Alcoholics."

My face fell. "Really?"

"No," she said with a smirk, as she glanced at me sideways.

Because that is how this little song-and-dance goes. Deceiving me is easy and also, apparently, funny as hell. Just ask my friends and family. At one point during a trip to D.C., my mother told me that our country's first president was buried under the Washington Monument, and when I cried afterwards in embarrassment, she felt bad because she never meant to be cruel. The fibs are always pointless, harmless things she doesn't really think I'll believe, anyway, and she doesn't let me sit in ignorance for more than a couple of seconds before revealing the trick. I think part of the fun is hearing me bellow, "Damn it!" as I do most of the time when I find out I've been had.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

red cabbage salad

So! I'm working on several different posts. Who knows which one will be finished first, or when. In the meantime, I offer a little something to whet your appetite, plus a summer-reading recommendation.

When it gets hot outside, all I want are crunchy, leafy, generally vegetal things. Corn. Tomatoes. Basil. Chives. Lettuce. Zucchini. Half the time, D calls me a rabbit because of my inordinate love for a vegetable plate. (Other times he calls me a hobo because of my inordinate love for sardines.) The truth is, I suspect I would be right at home, crunching on illicit produce all day long in Mr. McGregor's garden.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

april photo-a-day challenge (year 2)

And so begins my second year doing the photo-a-day challenge!

Here are my photos from the month:

Monday, April 1, 2013

to do it justice

For as long as I can remember, I've felt an obligation to testify, in the most basic sense of the word: to make a statement based on personal knowledge or belief : to bear witness. When I was a little girl, I wrote poems about the things that happened in my small world—seasons, teachers I admired, friends and relatives who died, holidays. As a second grader, I composed a letter to my Aunt Sherry telling her about how my friend had gone to the doctor and found out her breast was growing. "And I found out I had the same thing!" I explained, as if the breast bud were a tumor or an infection. This was no coincidence; for weeks I'd noticed that I could no longer lean my chest against the dash of my mom's van without wincing, which I saw as a sure sign that something malignant was growing inside my body. Then, as now, I always assumed that it was only a matter of time before I contracted the terminal disease that was coming to me. When I got my first period, even as an eleven-year-old, my first thought ran like this: Of course. Cancer. Even though the secret ate me up, it still took a full 36 hours before I could tell my mom. I don't know why. I think I believed I was really dying this time, and I felt ashamed, because I knew I must have done something terrible to deserve it.

march photo-a-day challenge

It's my one year photo-a-day anniversary! Here are the month's themes:

And here are my photos:

Friday, March 1, 2013

february photo-a-day challenge

My eleventh month of photo-a-day-ing. Here are the challenges:

And here are my photos from the month:

Thursday, January 31, 2013

january photo-a-day challenge

Happy New Year! Here is the challenge list for January:

And here are my photos from this past month:

Saturday, January 12, 2013

a crack in everything

I was not always the enthusiastic, vocal advocate of Metamucil that I am now. Years ago, the things I liked to eat were largely also the dishes most likely to stop you up. That changed when I was in my twenties.

It was the summer of 1997, six months after my sister had died. We were at the KOA in Flagstaff, Arizona. I had been beset with recurrent butt problems for over a year at that point. Because of a lack of fiber in my diet, I suffered from something technically called a "fissure," which is a small muscle tear that is difficult to recover from once it originally happens because—no way to put this delicately—the sphincter tends to spasm continually and involuntarily, causing it to bleed and preventing the muscle from healing. That June, my parents had loaded my brother and me and my spasming anus into our rigged-up conversion van (which my mom had nicknamed Vincent, as in "Van Go") and traveled out west. I went willingly, but Jeff, who had a very active social life that had just cranked up for the summer, dragged his heels. By the time we got to Arizona, Mom and Dad were desperate to wean my eighteen-year-old brother from his cigarettes, so, as I wrote in my journal, "they kept plying him with beers instead," to keep him in a good mood. One afternoon, Jeff and I sat at the picnic table at our campsite in the blessed cool of northern Arizona, drinking Coronas and playing gin rummy. I lost to him several times in a row and finally muttered to no one in particular, "Damn it! I don't know my ass from a hole in the ground today." Without missing a beat or looking up from reshuffling the deck, Jeff deadpanned, "Yours is the one with the tear in it."

Tuesday, January 1, 2013