HAVE A CUP OF CHEER

It’s the most…paradoxical time of the year?  Or perhaps the time of year when our paradoxes are made most plain for us to see & pick apart: our relentless consumerism despite clear evidence that it does not bring us happiness, our insistence on family togetherness even though families are fraught territory for most, our messaging about love, peace, and joy painted like a veneer over the stress, obligation, and resentment nearly everyone seems to feel during the month of December.

I’ve been examining these contradictions inside my own lived experience over the past few weeks; I have, for as long as I can remember, loved this time of year.  I don’t love what our late-stage-capitalist culture has done with it, of course, but there is still plenty at the core from which I can derive meaning.  Ritual is my jam, and I also have an affinity for the reflective looking back and meaning-making that comes with the end of the calendar year, however arbitrary that distinction.  This year, everything feels fresh; even the old traditions are happening in a new place, which creates a dynamic I’m enjoying. Certain things are up for grabs, which means we can set a new precedent and workshop our holiday traditions a bit.  

I take great joy in pulling out the Spotify playlist I only let myself listen to for a few weeks out of the year, in driving around with my family to look at lights, in pre-making & aging the eggnog we’ll serve while we trim our tree, and, perhaps most exciting of all, in planning and executing my holiday baking projects.

So, because I used to write a food blog and I still really enjoy feeding people as a way of demonstrating love and affection, I thought I’d share some of the recipes I’m planning to use this year, as well as old favorites, in case you’re still making your own lists.  And please, share with me what your “must make” holiday baked goods are, or the new things you’re trying – I love talking cookies and treats!

NEW THIS YEAR:

Coffee-hazelnut crescents from Domenica Cooks – there are two coffee lovers in my house (Mom & Jill), and while I’m not a big coffee drinker, I do like the flavor in desserts.  I will probably make the suggested switch to almonds for this cookie because, real talk, hazelnuts are expensive and I’m already planning to use them in two other cookie recipes.

Indian-spiced cashews from Genius Kitchen – okay, so technically I’ve made these once before, but I’m bringing them back for the holidays because they were such a hit last time.  They are super-simple to make and I like having something savory to add to the mix of sweet things. FWIW, I use Penzey’s “The New Curry” curry powder.

Peppermint marshmallows from Bravetart – I swear by any & every Stella Parks recipe I’ve ever tried, and the holidays seem like the perfect time to tackle a more-elaborate-than-usual recipe like homemade marshmallows.  Shiv is a marshmallow fan, so I think it will be fun for her to see how they’re made. We’ll gift some for her teachers, along with jars of this hot chocolate mix from Smitten Kitchen.

OLD FAVORITES:

Chocolate-dipped orange shortbread cookies – this one’s on the old blog, in a post that also rounds up a bunch of other cookie recipes, should you be interested.  Jill & Shiv are both big fans of the orange-dark chocolate combo, hence the origins of this one.

Chocolate-hazelnut meringues – this is an Alice Medrich recipe, and as she is the Cookie Queen, it’s no surprise that I’ve made this one several years running.  I’m also fond of this recipe because meringues keep a good, long time, making them a good candidate for mailing out.

Rugelach from Lottie & Doof – rugelach are the best of all holiday cookies; come at me with your disagreements.  This recipe from my friend Tim’s site is messy and labor-intensive and worth every bit of the work. I’ve made it several years running, and I don’t think I’ll stop anytime soon.  The recipe yields a LOT of rugelach, which means you can eat a bunch yourself and give a bunch as gifts, making everyone happy.

THIRTY-SIX

I turned thirty-six a week ago today.  It was a beautiful day that included Shiv singing “Happy Birthday to You” at the top of her lungs, my mom’s incomparable samosas, a visit to a winery with my two best ladies, Jill’s fried shrimp which is so good it’s spoiled me from eating it at restaurants, lots of laughter, one of those perfect Arizona sunsets, and, most powerfully, the chance to see a dear friend face-to-face following a scary accident from which she shouldn’t have survived but miraculously did.  

 

Anyone who’s spent significant and unanticipated time inside of a hospital knows that the experience changes you forever, no matter how fully the patient in question may recover.  It’s like trying to reassemble one of Shiv’s Lego kits after playing with it: the pieces clearly fit inside the original packaging before, but somehow once taken out, you can’t get them back in the quite same way.  Hospitals are pretty terrible places, but they’re quite good at eviscerating any previously-held notions of what actually matters. My time with Jill in the chemo ward, with my dad in ICU, alongside two of my closest friends as they cared for their mothers— pushed me to expand both my capabilities and my desires in ways that fundamentally altered my outlook on life.

 

I am not someone who ascribes a lot of meaning or significance to age as a number; when you have been told your whole life that you are “mature for your age” and then marry someone nineteen years your elder, you tend to get pretty annoyed with people who think that numerical age is a surefire indicator of, well, anything.  But this birthday did feel significant, in a way that surprised me.

 

When I was a kid, I had certain achievement-oriented goals for my future self; namely, I wanted to publish a book and become a parent. I’ve wanted these things for as long as I can remember, wanted them deep in my bones. And now, here I am, and both are real: my amazing Shiv, and a book coming out in February.  

 

It would be logical to assume that I might now feel lost, untethered from a set of expectations and plans for my future, unsure of what I might base my identity on going forward.  But instead, I feel free, liberated from my own self-imposed limitations. I never imagined life at thirty-six; I had no idea what else I might want, what else I might do, once I achieved the milestones I wanted so badly, the milestones I thought would bring meaning to my life.  

 

The truth is that my sense of meaning has little to do with what I’ve produced or any titles I can claim: how easily I sometimes forget, and how much I hate that it’s often hospitals that force me to remember. The work of being present on this planet, of living out my core values—love, integrity, & generosity—as consistently as I can, of honoring my commitment to being in relationship and being in reality: those are the things I can still hold onto when I find myself sitting next to the hospital bed of someone I love, or in a hospital bed myself, as we all inevitably will someday be.  

 

What a gift, this life, these thirty-six-and-counting years.

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”

-Joan Didion

 

Shiv and I flew into Houston on Saturday, a quick trip, a stealth one.  Shiv visited friends and I helped Jill work on our old house, cleaning a LOT of tile grout in order to get the house ready to put on the market.  On Tuesday, the three of us flew back to Phoenix, and as soon as the mountains came into view, I distinctly felt that we were home.

 

Strange but true, Houston is now a Place I Used To Live, the setting for a chapter of my life that stretches nearly as long as the time I spent in Memphis, the Place Where I Grew Up.  I know that this sense of delineated geographic and chronological territory is not at all unique to me, that plenty of people move all over the country and the world, and much more frequently than I have, but this shift is a novelty to me.  I’ve been so focused on the beginnings that this move has created that I forgot to look for the endings inherently tangled up in it.

 

For the past four years, I used Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” as part of the nonfiction unit I taught in my creative writing class for seniors.  The piece (if you haven’t read it, it’s worth your time) describes Didion’s arrival in New York City as a wide-eyed twenty-year-old, her subsequent enchantment with the city and the life she built for herself, and finally, manages to capture the experience of falling out of love both with New York and with the person she had become while living there.

 

It was usually around this time of year that we’d approach the essay, me reading it aloud in class to help students immerse themselves in Didion’s language, and also to evoke the tone of reflection that always struck a chord with my eighteen-year-old students, right on the precipice of a great life change of their own, but uncertain as to what shape that change might take.  Which friendships would last?  Who would they become in their new environments?  What would they choose when the majority of their choices were no longer dictated for them?

 

These are questions I’ve been asking myself recently, observing how what I want and what I’m interested in have shifted with my environment.  It’s fascinating data, expanding my sense of who I am and oftentimes surprising me with the results.  Our surroundings necessarily impact how we show up, pulling us into new adventures, like the hike that Jill and I went on this morning, on a trail quite literally five minutes from our house.  And our communities call us into being inside of relationships and the histories those relationships contain—which is why, comforting as it is to be known somewhere, to have a dozen or more years of history to lean on with those around you, it’s also tremendously freeing to start from scratch.  I am a different person than I was at twenty-four, when I started my last job; I have far more experience and far less to prove.

 

Turns out that much of what I had decided was the “norm” in my previous life was a standard of my own creation, one that I built in good faith but grew to feel stuck inside of.  Both my calendar and my mind are much clearer these days, and I am grateful for the chance to create a new sense of myself.

BABY’S FIRST CHAPTER BOOK

My love of Harry Potter goes way back; I am an OG fan.  I read the books as they came out (the first book was released the fall of my freshman year of high school), saw the movies in the theater as they came out (the first movie was released the fall of my freshman year of college), and I don’t think I will ever forget taking my copy of Book Seven out of its FedEx box, climbing onto the couch in our Pearland house, and reading the entire thing in one sitting, exactly one day shy of one year since my father had died.

 

Needless to say, it feels significant to be reading the books with Shiv.  I worked so hard not to project any expectation onto Shiv, not wanting to pressure or push, knowing that it could very well turn out that my kid just wouldn’t be “into” Harry Potter the way I was—so when Shiv asked, one month ago, if we could start reading the books together, it was all I could do to keep my shit together.  We promptly began reading Book One aloud, one chapter a night (sometimes two, when Shiv managed to wheedle me into continuing), and we are six chapters away from finishing Book Two.  After finishing Book One, we got Vietnamese take-out and watched the movie at Auntie Coco’s house; we plan to do the same for each ensuing film.

 

Everyone who knows me knows that I care about ritual; it works for me.  Ritual keeps me grounded, helps pull me out of my head and back into the world.  Religious ritual, specifically, reminds me of the bigger picture, of the seasonality of life and the cyclical nature of the universe.  For everything there is a season.  Impermanence is inevitable.  Remember that you are dust, and that to dust you shall return.

 

Like most sacred texts, the Harry Potter books have nuggets of wisdom placed right alongside deeply problematic tropes and tendencies (female competence propping up male mediocrity, rampant fat-phobic language, a notable lack of non-white characters with anything more than bit parts).  But to treat the reading of these chapters every night as a ritual creates the opportunity to discuss the deeply real and difficult themes the series tackles: theodicy, abuse of power, dehumanization of the other, and how to respond to evil, among others.

 

A few weeks ago, at our yoga studio, a grandmother mentioned that she was reading Harry Potter with her grandson, who is a full two years older than Shiv, and expressed her doubts about its appropriateness.  “Yeah,” remarked the parent of another child, “that series gets dark really fast.”

 

I wanted to, but refrained from saying, “You know, the world gets dark really fast, too.”  This is a frustration that I have with a lot of the parenting that takes place inside of privilege; sometimes it seems as if the less danger children are actually in, the more protective their parents seem to be.  Jill and I have known from the start that we will not be able to shelter Shiv from the truth of a society that stacks the deck unfairly based on all kinds of things, including skin color.  Which is why Shiv has known about racism and slavery and segregation since age 3; we have consciously chosen not to anesthetize the world, tempting as it may be.  Sure, it feels shitty to admit to your kid that the world is unfair and full of as many terrible things as it is beautiful ones; but that’s the truth as I see it, and to prepare Shiv otherwise, would be to prepare Shiv for a world that doesn’t actually exist.

 

As an English teacher, I believe that books can push us to think about the kind of people we want to be, to hone in on what we believe and whether or not our actions line up with those beliefs.  Which is why my family will continue our little Harry Potter ritual, giving my British accent a work-out, marching into chapters that will inevitably trigger tears and tough questions, watching films that do, indeed, grow dark and scary, and doing our best as a family to call evil by its name and to choose how we will respond when we see it.

STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES

For a long time, I thought of myself as a person who valued order, routine, and predictability; “I’m pretty risk-averse,” I would tell people when the topic came up.  Individuals who knew me well often looked at me puzzled—does a risk-averse person self-publish a book or date their professor or adopt a child?—but that was how I related to myself, a narrative formed in childhood that lost its accuracy at some point during my teenage years.  One of the many things that this move has forced me to do is reconsider this story that I have told for so long, and to examine why I’ve been unable, or unwilling, to let it go before now.

 

Narratives are powerful, and like any powerful thing, they can be dangerous.  When we fail to update our stories about ourselves, we wind up living inside of limitations that are entirely self-imposed; when we fail to update our stories about others, we can—as individuals and groups of individuals—do terrible damage.

 

Such has been a piece of the conversation in my classroom the past few weeks, as my sophomores and I read Feeding the Ghosts, a hauntingly beautiful book of historical fiction that imagines the voyage of The Zong, a slave ship infamous for its captain’s decision to throw sick slaves overboard in order to maximize profits.  It is, as I’m sure you can imagine, an incredibly difficult text to read and reckon with: questions about dehumanization, power, prejudice, and the nature of humanity have filled my days.  There are no easy answers—one of my personal and pedagogical core beliefs—which is part of what makes the examination worth the while.

 

I am interested in asking my students (and also myself) to look at and consider the material on multiple levels, hence the conversations about how narratives can influence and determine everything from our self-understandings to our institutional structures.  It may seem a stretch, but I do believe these things are connected; if we push ourselves to be more reflective and in reality about the narratives at work inside our own lives, we are better prepared to take responsibility for the narratives we participate in as family members, employees, citizens, and adherents to a particular dogma.  And Lord knows we could use a little bit of that in the world right now.