Snow and Solstice


 When I was a teenager, my parents and I decided that our celebration of Christian holidays was fairly arbitrary.  Although I was enrolled at an Episcopalian high school at the time (and thus at the height of my religious observation, going to chapel once a week and cathedral services every Friday morning), it wasn't what you might call a doctrinaire education.  My required religious coursework was fulfilled by a class on Eastern Religions, and my friends and I once performed a shortened production of Angels in America for weekly Chapel. 

Since no one else in my family had any firm religious convictions, we hatched a harebrained scheme by which we would arbitrarily celebrate a different religion's holidays every year.  Our first choice was druidism, but we only got through Winter Solstice and Alban Eiler  (two holidays which required remarkably little change from our "Christian" observances, involving a lot of tree-buying and egg-dying) before my mother declared that she was exhausted by celebrating two holidays instead of one: the druid holidays amongst ourselves and the Christian ones with my grandparents, who we were (mistakenly) convinced wouldn't be charmed by our new holiday observances.

So there died our poorly considered roundabout of religious observances.  But several years later we were again struck by a faint twinge of hypocrisy as we went about celebrating the holidays of a religion that we didn't otherwise observe.  We had also begun to feel oppressed by celebrations that mandated gift-giving, rather than allowing it to occur spontaneously.  So we returned to the celebration of Solstice with a few guidelines for ourselves:
  1. All decorations would be organic in nature and non-religious in content.  I type this while sitting by our Solstice tree, which is decorated only with white lights, tiny lacquered apples and red mushrooms, glass icicles, feathered birds, and minute straw baskets filled with cranberries.  In a previous year's celebration, only additional ornaments that fit within the theme of "bells" were allowed.  I have to say, the effect is considerably lovelier than it ever was in our less restrained Christmas celebrations - perhaps because we put more thought into our decorations and their motifs now.
  2. No Christmas carols.  This one is rather hard for me.  Usually I cheat slightly and listen to The Messiah a few weeks before Solstice/Christmas.  D and I have a continuing (over the course of the last decade) argument about carols.  He prefers the godawful (that's right, its my blog, and I said it) modern carols.  The worst he ever introduced me to was called (I believe)  "Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey."  My taste leans more towards medieval carols, or anything pre-war.  The more hymnal carols.   Songs that evoke the world of historical romance for me.  "The Holly and the Ivy."  "Good King Wenceslas."  Am I the only person on earth who still enjoys that last one?  D has taken to calling me "Good King Wencelsnout"  by way of vengeance.
  3. No gift-giving.  In my family, if you see something that makes you think of someone, you give it to them, regardless of time or occasion.  This way, if you receive a gift, you know it is the result of genuine thoughtfulness, and you are always pleasantly surprised by it.  This gift ban functions well primarily because I was already an adult when we instituted it, beyond any sense of glee or disappointment with regards to Christmas gifts, and past any need for lessons in the pleasures of giving and duties of receiving.
  4. The party itself.  Each year we hold a Solstice party, inviting neighbors, family, and old friends from all over the nation.  The only rule of Solstice is that you must wear the one thing that you  don't normally have an opportunity to wear, and wish you did.  The result is a panoply of full length cloaks, velvet smoking jackets, woad tattoos, and ball gowns.  My grandmother always used to come in an intricately embroidered Palestinian dress; my grandfather in a traditional Swiss wool coat.  This year my friend JF arrived wearing an Italian naval cape, and his husband RK the bespoke suit he was married in over Thanksgiving.  This year I had nothing to wear but the backless, plunging-necklined ancient Greek dress that I wore last year, so I spiced it up with the addition of a "familiar": a proud little bird, plucked from the Solstice decorations,  who clung to my collar and wrapped its tail feathers around my throat like a necklace.
This year, the Winter Solstice fell on a Monday, so we decided to hold our celebrations on the day before, to enable as many friends as possible to come.  The Solstice gods (who also happen to be the weather gods) didn't care for our meddling with the solar calendar.

On the morning of the party, our Washington, DC neighborhood looked like this:

Two full feet of snow.  Now bear in mind that the weather I have seen since moving to Nova Scotia in August has been relatively mild.  The worst I have seen (apart from the hurricane that hit me during my first weekend in Halifax) is a few sprinklings of flakes.  After classes ended at the beginning of December, I headed to Los Angeles, my head full of sunshine and beaches, and it preceded to rain on me unceasingly for a whole week.  I had never seen it rain in Southern California in my five years of traveling there.  Now, after giving my exam back in Halifax (which I found cold and clear on my return), I have headed south to Washington and been pummeled by a blizzard that locals are calling the "snowpocalypse."

There is a certain bloodymindedness to the weather I have been encountering all over the continent.  A certain reluctance to conform to stereotype, you might say. 

These photos give you a sense of what Washington looked like, come Solstice-time.

Here, by contrast, is what it looked like inside our house:

And the slightly unfocused Dutch still life of the Solstice party that evening:

Many of our guests were housebound by the storm.  But a number of hardy souls, and most of our intrepid neighbors, braved the two feet of snow to sip sangria and eat sturgeon with us, so we rollicked in the face of the blizzard.

We usually have guests do readings of favorite wintry literature in the middle of the party.  This year I even composed a piece of my own (I'll post that next - it is the first thing I have written of a lyrical bent in at least a decade), but because of the snow our usual cadre of readers couldn't make it.  So, alas, no readings this year.  I'll leave you with the piece I traditionally close our Solstice readings with, a poem by the 13th century Persian mystic, Rumi:

My worst habit is I get so tired of winter
I become a torture to those I'm with.

If you're not here, nothing grows.
I lack clarity.  My words
tangle and knot up.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

When water gets caught up in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean.  There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can't hope.

The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.

Look as long as you can at the friend you love,
no matter whether that friend is moving away from you
or coming back to you.

What the books don't know yet...

I have just started my first ever Iris Murdoch novel, Jackson's Dilemma, reputedly a rather weak place to enter her body of work.  It has a distinctively Masterpiece Theatre-ish premise (a sort of "Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie on a bored country house weekend" plot) about a member of the landed gentry who finds himself (How did this happen? He isn't quite sure.) in love and about to marry a young Canadian woman.  I gather that something will disrupt the wedding plans, and a certain amount of Jeevesish (or Puckish, or - dare I say - Arielish?) manipulation on the part of an employee named Jackson will be required to bring everyone back into amorous harmony.

I am still just in the opening pages of the novel, but I have already come upon this rather sympathetic description of Penndean, the country house itself (which I always suspect is the main character in the Masterpiece Theatre genre):

Benet was alone in the library.  In the library there was silence, as of a huge motionless presence.  The books, many of them, were Uncle Tim's books, they had been in their places since Benet was young.  Many of the books still glowed, faded a fainter red, a fainter blue, the gold of their titles dusted away, emanating a comforting noiseless breath.  Most of Benet's books were still in London. (Why still?  Were they planning a sortie to take over the library at Penndean?)  Benet's uncle had died leaving Benet so suddenly in absolute possession, here where from childhood he had lived more as a guest or a pilgrim, a seeker for healing [....]  The books did not know yet, but they would find out that Tim had gone, really gone away forever. (7-8)
 It causes me some anxiety to think about what will happen to my books when I die. (I say this to you from the mortality-conscious age of 29.)  Will the library be broken up?  How will anyone know - really know - what kind of a person I am if my books aren't there, all together, to testify to the two or three thousand facets of my character they represent? 

Et in Los Angeles ego

The semester came to an end this week, with only the final exam left before us, so my week's activities were largely taken up by a marathon of grading (and at least one sleepless night scaling Mt. Grademore) and then the long trip from my new home in Nova Scotia to my partner's home in Los Angeles.  Yes, I believe we may be the only people in the world leading a dual existence in Southern California and Halifax, NS.  As my partner said when I took this job, "The one down side is that it is as far away from LA as you can possibly get while remaining on the same continent." "Ah no!" I replied, "I'm sure there are some universities in Newfoundland...."

Newfoundland is one of the discoveries I have made about pronunciation since arriving in Canada (by listening to how others pronounce things, since Canadians have been far too polite to correct my errors).  As it turns out, the common and tortured American pronunciation [NEW-fund-lend] is utterly untethered from the truth, which is rather more like [New-fund-LAND].  Similarly, for years I have been pronouncing the country's much-forgotten capital as [OTT-a-wa], when in fact it has a much subtler form that I still struggle to master: [OTT-a-WA].  Montreal, it turns out, is pronounced by Anglophone Canadians [MUN-tree-all].  And my favorite: the local town of Antigonish seems to be spoken as [ANN-a-go-NISH].

Don't even get me started on how fascinating and subtle the Canadian use of "eh?" is.

At any rate,  et in Los Angeles ego.

Since books (both used and new) are terribly expensive in Canada, I have taken to ordering them online and having them delivered either to my partner's house or to my parents', according to a complex calculus that involves variables like "how silly, and thus not to be witnessed by my parents, are the books I have ordered," "how many books can accrete at my unbookish partner's house before he begins to scold me irately for buying more books than I could ever conceivably read," and "how many books can I physically cram into my suitcase on my next trip back from this location."

The result of this careful calculus of book ordering is that my arrival in LA was greeted by a wonderful stack of graphic novels, romances, and YA books.  Faced with such an embarrassment of riches, I did what I always do: I started to read all the books at once.  Greedy.

So right now I am midway through (and desperately enjoying) a number of books.  Among them, these:

  • Suzanne Collins's Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games, which dealt so brilliantly with the intersection between colonialism, young love, and the anxious performance of selfhood that is the hallmark of our age of reality television.  The love triangle here is so skillfully balanced that I am actually dismayed by the idea of reading on and seeing it resolved.  That is holding me back a bit in my enjoyment of the book, although I hasten to add that it is a testament to the deftness of Collins's characterization.  There are a few stumbles in the prose, moments which seem too explicitly in their symbolism or wooden in their exposition, which I am dismayed to see since I am so enamored of the larger skill of this series.  For instance, this one from page 23, when the sinister president of their oppressive colonial system says to our heroine: "Your stylist turned out to be prophetic in his wardrobe choice.  Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem."  Too. Too. Much.  Still, this is one of the most anticipated books of the winter for me, so I am putting a lot of pressure on it, and it hasn't disappointed.

  • The latest volume in the Dungeon series, a brilliant and dazzlingly ambitious project conceived by French graphic novelists Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim.  Dungeon is a loving parody of a swashbuckling genre of adventure and fantasy, and it is a vast world of wryly drawn characters, most of whom begin their lives as romantic, heroic idealists and end them somewhere on the spectrum of sinisterness between heartlessly cruel capitalists and soullessly villainous tyrants.  We know how so many of the characters develop, even though the project is still in its relative infancy after a few dozen volumes, because the main series is being composed simultaneously in three sections: The Early Years (which deal with the capers of a lad who fancies himself a Robin Hood, and goes by the name "The Nightshirt"), Zenith (in which "The Nightshirt" has grown up to become the keeper of a highly popular Dungeon, to which heroes flock and pay to be killed by various monsters, and a young Duck named Herbert who works in the Dungeon acquires a Sword of Destiny that refuses to be used until he has proven himself worthy), and Twilight (in which Herbert displays a mature evil on the scale of Voldemort and Sauron, and Armageddon has come to the world).  [It is a sign of the intricacy of this series that in the French volumes, the titles of all works in each section rhyme with all the other volumes in that section.]  So Sfar, Trondheim, and their collaborators are composing a series based on an incredibly complex world of characters and places, and they are composing it from three different points in the world's chronology simultaneously.  Every plot point they develop in one section has to take into account the implications for the plots that have already been written in both the past and future.  It is delightfully smart, and awe-inspiringly vast as a project.  This latest volume is the second in The Early Years, and is ominously titled Innocence Lost.  D (whose potential irritation over the huge pile of books accumulating  on his doorstep I appeased by tossing him this volume to read, as one feeds a guard-dog a steak before burgling his home) tells me it is largely about sexually transmitted diseases.  How intriguing.  But he also tells me it is his least favorite volume in the series so far.  Oh dear.  I will let you know when I have finished it.
And now, back to my book pile.