Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Merryish Christmas

Well, another Christmas has come and gone. I guess it's still the "holiday season" since we haven't reached New Years yet, but I'm glad the flurry is winding down.

Last week on Wednesday and Thursday, I helped set up for the Fremont Art Council's "Feast of the Winter Solstice." The feast is a huge community potluck featuring local art, live music, dance performances, and a solstice ritual. It was quite an undertaking to transform an empty warehouse into a beautiful, festive celebration space. Volunteers decorated like crazy, hanging chandeliers, banners, and lanterns, making a tea-room/chill area, painting a Mayan mandala on the floor, setting up a stage and altar, and hanging cedar boughs EVERYWHERE.

When I got there Friday after work, I couldn't believe how lovely and ambient the completed space was. There was a massive amount of food- even taking tiny spoonfuls, I couldn't try everything. (Photos by Matt Freedman)

But while all this was happening, my mind was on my brother and his family over in Spokane. His girlfriend was less than 7 months pregnant, but we had just found out that day that they needed to deliver the baby early due to preeclampsia. It was shocking, to think they were expecting two more months to get ready for their first child, but instead would be parents to a preemie at 7:30 that night. I kept checking for updates, and was so relieved to learn that both the baby and her mom were doing well. (Photo by Keshia Yvette Clements)
Both my brother and his girlfriend seemed so brazenly positive, and sometimes maybe that's all you can do. You love what you love, even when it's not perfect or what you originally envisioned. I found it very comforting that she was born on the Winter Solstice, as if the universe was saying, "It doesn't get any darker than today! There are SIX months of coming light, and you're going to be fine little lady!"

At this time of year there is a lot of hope, optimism, and sense of abundance. We make so much food! We give to local charities! Presents sit piled under the tree! We will make awesome changes in the New Year! Maybe that's why, when things aren't looking so grand, they feel especially painful. Scarcity and inequalities stand out in harsh, harsh contrast. I almost started crying seeing the homeless man asking for spare change on the corner.

That weekend, a lot of old high school friends were back in town for Christmas. I met up for beers with one who recently moved to the east coast. We were reminiscing about high school, and she said how hard it was for her. "I didn't really have any friends coming from a different school... but I guess I hid it well." She talked about eating lunch alone in the library, at the end of a row of stacks. And how being seen by other students was like a mutual confession- they had "caught" you, but they were there too in their loneliness.

After that I headed to a bar in Greenwood to meet a big clan of old friends and acquaintances. I didn't feel like drinking- maybe the trippiness of the reunion was enough mental altering. I wanted to catch up, and was curious how people were doing, but really didn't want to make small talk. I wanted to joke and dance and sing along to the karaoke. It was like being back in the mid-to-late nineties, with people singing Weezer and the Offspring and Alanis Morissette. There were so many memories wrapped up in those melodies. Then a group sang "What's Up?" by 4 Non Blondes, and the whole bar was belting out the chorus.

And so I cry sometimes when I'm lying in bed
Just to get it all out what's in my head
And I, I am feeling, a little peculiar
So I wake in the morning and I step outside
I take a deep breathe and I get real high
And I scream at the top of my lungs
"What's going on?"

Even though that song was a favorite way back in middle school, you're never too old to sing your heart out. I had already had a sore throat and now it was worse. But something had been released. On Monday I worked early, barely able to talk, then went running, then had to run errands. I really didn't want to drive around in the Christmas Eve madness, but I had forgotten to get strawberries and I REALLY wanted to make these little santas. (Photo by Cheyenne Vollrath)
By the time I got home and showered and made a big salad, I was exhausted. But I drove out to Lynnwood and tried the best I could to be festive. My family has a tradition of singing in a circle around the Christmas tree, and the force of tradition is strong. So strong that I couldn't allow myself to NOT sing, despite my seriously pained throat.

On Christmas morning, I had a nice time at my mom's house with my step-dad and brother. It was the smallest Christmas morning I've ever had though. I have 5 siblings, and am used to most of them being there, along with their partners/spouses and kids. This year, by comparison, it felt empty and disjointed. All of us kids are getting older, having more kids, and wanting time with that new nuclear family. So I guess it is just the natural progression of things, but it means traditions are changing. And that's hard, especially at Christmas. I read a great NY Times article called Our Family Christmas, Rescinded about that, though more about the mom changing tradition than the kids. It had some lines that were spot-on:

We want our comforting traditions to stay suspended in sap while our families constantly revise their understanding of us like software that updates automatically. Instead, traditions crumble and nostalgia yields to melancholy, but our identities, to our families, are as fixed and stagnant as fossils behind glass.
Anxious to demonstrate how mature and flexible we’ve become, we return to our birthplaces and we’re cut down to size, encountered as predictable once again. Disappointment and longing well up on a last-minute trip to the shopping mall...

And so I tried my hardest to be flexible and accept change. I sorely missed my sisters but also remembered that it was a blessing to have sisters I loved so much. And I remembered my friend Lindsey's advice from years ago: "Seriously Amber, you don't have to make everything so goddamn symbolic!" On one hand, Christmas is just one lavish day of the year, and any complaints about it sound like First-World problems. On the other hand, it holds place as some sort of family litmus test or functionality microcosm, so anything going wrong feels cataclysmic on a bigger life scale. But I'm taking this Merryish Christmas for just what it is, feasts and tiny beautiful babies and scream-singing and not talking at all and crying and laughing and figuring out how to go up from here next year.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This Little Light of Mine

Hanukkah just ended. It's almost Winter Solstice. Then right after that it's Christmas. This all means shopping and trees on top of cars and references to religions and slews of holiday parties and too many cookies and more stamp designs than usual at the post office. 

But what strikes me the most, and what these three holidays share, is the power of light. Remembering lights that miraculously burned longer than there was fuel for. Remembering that short, dark days will soon get longer. Remembering that a bright star led the way to a divine being in the most mundane setting. No matter what you believe, these holidays remind us of hope and light in the face of struggle and darkness. 

And let's face it, this is the time of year we need to be reassured. Between the cold, the dark, the holiday pressures, and the excessive sugar consumption, I've been feeling a bit out of balance. I'm trying to enjoy the moment and get in the holiday spirit, so I've finally been doing a little more cooking. I had never made challah, but got inspired to make my first loaf when I went to a friend's Hanukkah dinner. I saw their cute baby, and we lit the menorah and they sang songs and we had a delicious meal in good company.
A couple days later, my roommates and I hosted a holiday potluck, the theme: booze-infused food. That's right folks, only foods containing some amount of alcohol. Best potluck idea ever, right? There was pasta with a vodka-spiked veggie tomato sauce; porter-boiled hand-made family-farm sausages; chips with tequila salsa; steak, onion, and brussel sprouts in a red-wine reduction; and lots of desserts. I made these Coconut Ganache Bourbon Balls, and some one else made an incredible Whiskey Chocolate Mousse.

It was actually the first time we've had a joint gathering with friends of all 4 of us roommates. People mixed and mingled, drank and ate, and we all had a great time. But other nights, things don't always go so well. I've wanted to go to Santarchy (organized pub crawl of people in Santa costumes) ever since I first heard about it last year. The day came, and I had no one to go with. Every one was busy or not interested or out of town, so being the independent and willful lady that I am, I decided to go alone. I went to a family dinner, and by the time I got downtown in costume it was toward the end of the event. But Santas were still around, so I went into the designated Pike Brewing Company sure that I would meet people to talk to. 

I stood at the bar waiting to get a beer. And waited. And waited. It would have been fine if I were with friends, but being by yourself when every one else has been drinking since noon, and it's too crowded to get a drink after 15 minutes, just isn't a rockin' good time. Just then, one of my best friends who lives in Austin called. We've been playing phone tag and trying to talk for awhile, so of course I had to answer. I walked over to a stairwell away from the bar where it was a little quieter, and got engrossed in conversation. Life paths. Changing friendships. Love. Money. Passion and purpose and careers. We talked about everything as I sat there alone in that stairwell, dressed as Ms. Claus while groups of drunk Santas stumbled past. Yep, I drove all the way downtown, in costume, to talk on the phone.

At that point I wasn't interested in going back to the bar, so I headed to a friend's Holiday Party. It was a wonderful party as usual, but my heart wasn't really in it. I was tired of trying to do everything alone. I got disparaged for bringing my own beer ("Uh, you really brought store-bought beer to a party with homebrew?" *rolls eyes at me*). There was a solstice ritual by the fire, and I didn't even have it in me to sing along to the song. Not because it wasn't a great song, or great people coming together in a great way in community. But because it just wasn't MY community. The words from a David Whyte poem popped in my head, the last few lines from Sweet Darkness

You must learn one thing:
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
Except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
Confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or any one
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

So I went home. I reflected on the good phone conversation and watched a movie and drank tea and that was just the Saturday night I wanted. I'm accepting the darkness, the introspection, the uncertainties. I'm also looking for my beacons. I'm being as honest as I can. I'm smiling at Christmas lights, the unspoken, collective lifting. I'm trying to shine whatever light of my own that I can manage.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Thankful for Orcas Island

On Friday after Thanksgiving, Matt and I headed out of town. I lived on Orcas Island in the San Juans for a year and a half, but hadn't been there since last year when I did a triathlon. It seemed like the perfect place to go for a mellow, rainy fall weekend. As we drove into the main city of Eastsound, I had to stop to check out Island Hoppin' Brewery. It just recently opened, and is the first and only brewery on the island. We got a sampler of each beer, ranging from Pilsner to Stout. My favorites were the American Wit and Blackcurrant Cider, and apparently sometimes they have a barley wine which I wish I could have tried.
Then we drove to the east side of the island to check in to our cabin at Doe Bay Resort and Retreat. If you've never been to Doe Bay, it's a great spot. Accommodations range from camping to yurts to cabins to a big retreat house. They have outdoor soaking tubs and a sauna in a beautiful wooded setting. The cafe serves original, delicious food with an emphasis on local and organic ingredients. In fact, they have a large garden on-site and grow a lot of their own produce. We enjoyed an amazing dinner of local greens salad, bay scallops in a cider reduction, and barely-crisped oysters in Parmesan broth, all while listening to live music from Bradford Loomis.

On Saturday morning we drove to Moran State park, and Matt dropped me off at Mountain Lake. I ran the 4.5 miles around the lake while he took photos up at Mount Constitution. That is one of my favorite places ever to run- good distance, gentle hills, gorgeous view, and in the off-season there is virtually no one there. I ran passed just one woman. Back at Doe Bay, we had another fabulous meal- brunch of a local oil-poached duck egg with spicy greens over grits, and killer biscuits and gravy.

Then we headed to Eastsound to say hi to a couple old friends, drink coffee, and pick up a few groceries. Even though I've seen this view a million times, I will never stop enjoying the view from the beach downtown.
In late afternoon we hiked up Turtleback to catch the sunset.
That night we cooked dinner with a friend in his cabin in the woods. After wine and great conversation, we returned to Doe Bay for one more evening soak before bed. I wish we could have stayed later on Sunday, but we left early so I could get back to Seattle for some family functions. I was so thankful to be able to get out of the city and onto a beautiful island for a few days, but also thankful to return to home and family.