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.

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