Good morning good morning. It’s later than I wanted it to be, but also, I suppose, exactly the right time. The candles are lit, and I’ve got coffee that was magically waiting for me when I went downstairs to make it. I’m still not quite accustomed, I guess, to being with someone who rises earlier than I do.
At 6:30 am it’s still dark outside, but the tree is lit up, and the candles help make small pockets of light in this beautifully-fertile dark time. This is the time of year, right around the winter solstice, when I remember — when I work to remind myself — that all I can ever actually see is right where I am, and the very next step in front of me. For all of my planing and visioning and hoping and waiting, all that’s ever certain is exactly what is, and the possibility of the very next moment. I like the early hours because I can let the dark enfold around me while I release these words, no Klieg lights on them, no inspection, no harsh interrogation. They slip from my fingers through the soft caress of the candlelight and into the quiet morning to be exactly what they are.
Something in me is slowing down. This is a time to rest, to pause, and even to honor what got done this year. I come to the end of the year and check my bank book and call myself a failure. While everyone around me is rushing about to buy their beloveds all of the christmas presents, I’m trying to decide whether I should resurrect the girl I was at 28 and start making candles again to give as gifts. Already, the baking I do every winter season is underway — this year I have it on my list to bake 14 different kinds of treats: red velvet pinwheels, pepparkaker, cinnamon nut brittle, Russian tea cakes, extra spicy double-chocolate cookies, raspberry thumbprints, Meyer lemon shortbread, anise-almond biscotti, multicolor spritz, buckeyes, cardamom nut bars, anise pretzels, kifli, and Hungarian cream cheese cookies with apricot lekvar. We’ll see if I get to them all.
Around the baking, the annual holiday grieving is also upon me. This is meant to be a time of family and celebration and tradition and remembrance, but my most vivid christmas memories from childhood tend to be pretty awful, which impacts how I hold this time of year — or rather, how I can allow it to hold me. In my 20s, I began to recognize the winter solstice as my winter holiday of choice, even as I went home (when that was possible). The oldest winter festivals of the people I am from in eastern and northern Europe centered around the solstice — this honoring of the dark, and welcoming, too, the return of the sun. Solstice, for me, was something deeper than christianity, something deeper than commercialism, something that helped me think about how to tend and trust the needed, quiet dark within myself.
This year I grieve, too, that I have reached this earliest middle age and still I have none of my own holiday traditions or legacies. After she and her son went to pick up a tree for her house, my sweetheart and I unpacked her holiday ornaments so that the three of us could decorate the tree. She told the stories of each one — this one her son made, this one she made, this one was from her mother’s tree, these were from the collection of her beloved friend Franco, this one she and her ex bought when their son was… and so on. I stayed knelt down by the box of ornaments, unwrapping and trying to keep myself from crying until after the decorating was done. I wanted to be right here, in this moment, with them, making new memories that would form the basis for something solid in future years, not grieving what was lost. But I slipped into the grief anyway. Where were my stories? For all of my affinity for Solstice, I have celebrated Christmas every year of my life — and yet, I’ve got no collection of ornaments to bring to this tree, none of my own stories to share. Instead, I enfold myself into someone else’s stories, traditions, family customs. Mine stayed tucked away and lost. Through two marriages, I gathered no history in the form of shapes and colors that get hung on an evergreen tree every late December. How could that be?
But the truth is that I left those stories behind when I left the relationships — I couldn’t bring them forward with me, into a new life, into a new relationship — onto a new tree. If any of those ornaments had come with me from my childhood, the story would have been different — those I would have claimed. But I don’t have those. I am fortunate, I guess, that my parents do. When we go to my father’s house for the holiday next week, we will see the brass angels that my father’s mother had made when my sister and I were born, engraved with our names and the dates of our birth, and we’ll remember. We’ll remember something before. We’ll remember decorating his tree, which only happened before my mother married the man who would sweep us up into his cape and disappear us from the world for awhile. We’ll remember those oldest Christmases that were still fraught but tender and sweet all at the same time.
Slowly, year by year, my sweetheart and I are building our own collection of holiday stories in the form of ornaments, memories we can hang on the tree, those images that act as placeholders for a history we choose to claim publicly and visibly. Building connection and relationship and history can only work like that, can’t it — year by year, minute by minute, standing in the circle of light, looking out at exactly what is, seeing where our feet and hands can go next.
This morning, as I looked over the stacks of tins that hold all the cookies I’ve made so far, something else occurred to me — in this annual cookie-a-thon, I’ve developed my own holiday tradition, something I can carry with me anywhere, and that connects me to the women in my family who shared love through food (butter and sugar, especially). I make my mother’s anise and almond biscotti, my grandma Cross’ peanut brittle, my grandma Sherman’s Russian tea cakes (I can’t actually say whether she made these, but I have strong body memory of eating them at her house, so the association lives in me anyway). I think about the hands of these women in my own hands, I remember their power and grace that existed even when they failed, and I think about how they kept going. For all of her loss and all that I wish she had done differently in her life (and in my own and my sister’s), my mother never gave up, and I am grateful for that.
So today I will listen to more christmas music and weep and bake more cookies and start packing up the gifts I can afford to send: some butter and sugar and flour and history and tradition and hope, darkness and light altogether blended.
Here’s to your heart today, to the stories you carry and the ones you release, the stories you miss and keep searching for. Here’s to the ways you trust your own ability to create tradition that can ground you in connection and community — such risky, necessary, terribly beautiful work. And of course, as always, here’s to your good, good words.