Winter lends itself, more than any other time of year I think, to the welcome sort of solitude and melancholy that fills me up with meditative calm. It can feel bleak and beautiful at the same time, as long as I’m not in a particularly dark place emotionally. The kind of cold and emptiness that sear the lungs and sting the eyes can sometimes set the soul on fire with inspiration and, concomitantly, a sort of scraped-clean elation.
Change of Season
Between the rain spells, when the sun is glinting onto rose and road
The youthful smells of spring are hinting that ahead the broken code
Winter left in seed and scion will reveal its inner life,
Where what had appeared as dying wakes again with newness rife.
Open eyes and open windows! Let indoors the fresh new air,
Breathing in what melts the snows and pushes out all winter’s cares.
So renew the self and senses and embrace the growth and light
Breaking down all old defenses, setting earth again aright.
Well, now you have.
It’s been a busy autumn chez Sparks. No excuses: in the flurry, I flat-out forgot to put up my food post on Tuesday. Sigh. I didn’t stop being food-obsessed, just being on schedule. So here we go, better late than never. I would give you a big silly grin, but yeah, my mouth is full again.
What I meant to say on that long-ago-seeming-day-which-was-Tuesday, was that I do like this time of year in particular for its masses of officially sanctioned excuses for partying. There are of course the big national and international celebrations of things spanning from Halloween/All Saints/Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the various New Years; in my family, five out of the six of us have winter birthdays as well. It’s not that my family and I are in any way averse to celebrating with a good meal, a party, or any other excuse for eating and drinking good stuff at the drop of a hat, but it’s extra nice when nobody else questions the need for such an occasion either.
My parents upped the ante this winter by both entering the glorious ranks of octogenarian excellence, so since my three sisters and I don’t all live close to them anymore, we’d long since all agreed it made sense to look toward next summer (2015) for a family get-together to mark their ascensions to this great new height. All the same, nobody in our clan has any respect for leaving an excuse for a party just lying there unused. So Sisters 1 and 3, who do live near Mom and Dad in Seattle, helped them plan a big party on Mom’s birthday weekend so that our parents could have their local siblings, nieces and nephews, and a few special friends together. I made up the digital invitations, since I could do that from my remote location, and because I’ve long done such design tidbits for family events as a way to be involved when I couldn’t otherwise be on hand to participate. But our Seattle sisters did the yeoman’s work on the whole thing.
We kids did up the ante a little, though. Sister 4 and her husband sent an email to the other three of us a couple of months ago, announcing that they had bought plane tickets to fly over from Norway for the November party and surprise Mom and Dad. We sisters were surprised, too! My husband, with three concerts and more rehearsals to conduct on either immediate side of the party date, couldn’t get away, but with a batch of saved air miles, I could, so I planned to fly up from Texas and join in the fun. Once all of our tickets were bought and the wheels set in motion, the real challenge was not only to see if there were any small things 4 and I could do from our bases of operation but to see if we and our partners could keep a secret for seven or eight weeks, a dubious probability at the best of times with our talkative bunch.
We did. We let one of Mom’s sisters in on the secret so that she could help get our parents in the right place at the right time when the day arrived, and my spouse’s parents knew, because they were invited too, but despite a couple of close calls, nobody slipped up irrevocably. Part of the larger plan, once we’d decided to add in this surprise element, was that there would be an immediate-family-only lunch on Mom’s actual birthday at Sister 3’s house. Dad, Mom, Auntie and Uncle, and sisters 1 and 3 were to have a nice, low-key luncheon date to mark the day and wrap up any last-minute details for the bigger open house party the next day.
Sister 4 and her husband and I flew into Seattle on Thursday the 6th. It was wonderful to have a reunion of the four sisters, our first in at least a couple of years, and to convene a few other members of the immediate family—3’s husband and one son, with the other son flying in from college on Friday—that night and to laugh up our collective sleeves over our plot. In keeping with the family tradition of combining food with fun, this first evening was spent at 3’s house, slurping bowls of a beautiful, creamy winter sweet potato, kale, pasta, and sausage soup (based on Martha Stewart’s recipe) while taste-testing a couple of good single-malts the Norwegian contingent had picked up on a duty-free spree en route.
On the 7th, Mom’s birthday, we got lunch ready and in the oven and fridge and then spent a little while nervously skulking past curtained windows to escape any unexpectedly early arrivals’ discovery, and as the parental entourage at last approached, three of us ducked into the back bedroom, where we giggled like little kids and perched on the bed to avoid making the creaky hardwood floor give away our presence. Auntie got Mom settled into her favorite armchair so we wouldn’t have to explain her absence at the next day’s party as the result of an aneurism, and we finally strolled out to say Hello to our startled parents. Their faces remained in virtually the same blankly surprised expressions for a fairly lengthy, attenuated moment.
Lunch broke that spell. We feasted on marvelously simple steak, lemon-dill oven-roasted salmon, salt-baked potatoes, green salad with a fresh blend of herbs and creamy lemony dressing, green beans, and buttered peasant bread. Classic, delicious, and with a handful of their kids on hand to help, an easy way to feed our parents well on a meaningful day. We worked a bit more on the details of Saturday’s open house event, but 1 and 3 had covered all bases so thoroughly that we were all able to make an early evening of it and rest up for the main event.
Sister 3 had found a wonderful venue, a community center run by the parks service in a beautifully renovated vintage power station right next door to the church where our dad had grown up. All five of Mom’s siblings and Dad’s only sib, his brother, and all of their partners, were on tap to come. So did some of the sibs’ kids, and even a handful of grandkids joined the gang; with the friends who came, we totaled just over fifty in attendance. We saw many relatives we’d not seen in years, many of them as surprised as our parents at seeing us there like long-distance apparitions. I think I can safely say that the party was everything Mom had wanted, that Dad was also happy, and that we all felt pretty chuffed at pulling off a great success, especially at not blowing the surprise.
But again, food was central to the grandness of the day, and once more, that was thanks to the wise planning and [literally] tasteful choices made by our Seattle sisters. The buffet spread’s main dish stars were ginger beef and sweet walnut prawns from our favorite local Chinese restaurant, accompanied by a wide range of finger foods and sweets, many of them bought ready-made from various shops and stores. We had just about enough food on hand to feed 250 guests. So we kept up that family tradition, too. And we all left the tables full and fulfilled.
Who knows what we’ll get up to next summer. Only sure that it will include much eating and drinking. And probably lots of childish giggling and telling secrets, which I think are a mighty nice lagniappe for the whole meal, whatever it is.
Eternal life has always been the masters’ magnificent goal; no wonder that great magister and alchemist Osteodaimon was also determined to solve this elusive mystery himself, to plumb the Stygian depths of knowledge collected by the most piercing minds and intrepid souls ever to walk this dangerous earth. He began with years of reading, apprenticeship, exploration, privation, and experimentation. What Osteodaimon learned most quickly was that the process of becoming immortal was in fact incremental; it was a long series of tiny steps and grand leaps, of fallings-backward and soaring upward, all of which took him through both his long and arduous life of study and also a few strange periods of stasis, in which, all told, he began this mystical transformation of his into one truly able to transcend death. Many and terrifying were the missteps and passages, rites and elixirs, incantations, and the heart-shaking, wrenching feats of bravery and agility required of his profound intellect and the ever-disintegrating body that sought answers from that abyss.
One winter’s night, when he had traversed the grueling routes both between his birth and the ninety-two cycles of the seasons that already marked him as uniquely time-defying by his ancient era’s reckoning, and between the smoothly un-furrowed innocence of youth and his avidly acquired brilliance, he recognized in the ice crystals forming along his lashes the last increment required to complete his journey. Carrying the tinctures and potions that would preserve his last bits of mental and physical strength for the ritual, he set forth in the falling snow and moonlight to go farther into the frozen wilderness than he, or anyone, had ever plunged before. He began to notice as he went forward that the slower he moved, the faster the vastness of ice seemed to recede before him, until it was clear that his pace of progress was directly opposed by the increasingly swift passage of time. He knew that his own final breath was hardly a hairbreadth ahead of him, racing both toward him and away, and that only by letting the speed of it catch up with the glacial slowness he himself was approaching, at exactly the right juncture, and by taking the last dram of his precious medicine at exactly the same instant, could he affect the perfect circumstances for his final transformation.
Osteodaimon finally marked the spot. He lay down on the bottomless swath of blue-black ice, took the last draught of his alchemical magic into his gaunt grey mouth, and stopped. He became fused to the ice there instantly, his eyes made into a pair of wide, dull mirrors for the relentless moon and faded stars of perpetual polar night.
When he returned to himself and forced his eyes to focus again, his vision was oddly fragmented, and he sensed that he had drifted from his last stopping place far more than he had imagined he would have done. But the new place, also moonlit and cold, was pleasant enough, and he knew that soon his vision would clear and the slight buzzing in his ears would pass as he regained his strength. His sense of physical power, indeed, astonished him immediately as it returned; it was not only as though he were young again but as though he had new and exhilarating powers that would easily surpass those of his remembered early years, when he had labored so mightily in his pursuit of conquering death. This new Osteodaimon was a super-being to be reckoned with, and he took off at great speed to see what he could now accomplish in this next passage of his life.
It startled him how quickly he was able to go from place to place, how he seemed now to see things from so many new perspectives and rarely wearied of dashing about, looking, stopping to sup cold water or wine, or have a little food when he chose, but endlessly pursuing the delights of his renewed life. We cannot be sure, for history has failed to record all of the details perfectly, but it may be that it was only a matter of days, or at most weeks, before he realized that he could no longer read.
This proved a surprising disappointment that he would attempt to address soon enough. Not quite soon enough, perhaps, that he was ever able to learn the story of how, in A.D. 1867, a small group of botanists on the steppe discovered a perfectly preserved man encased in ice at the edge of a receding glacier. How the intrepid scientists chiseled their magnificent find out of his tomb in a manageable block and labored to drag it back to their fledgling university by sledge and wagon and train. How they built an ice-house museum room for the express purpose of preserving and examining this amazingly lifelike ancient man. How, one awful night in 1871, the city and that little-known museum in it were consumed by fire. How the ice-entombed mystery man had been spared cremation himself only because the conflagration had taken so long to melt his ice block that he remained weirdly, wonderfully intact, his eyes dully mirroring the moon once again.
Surely Osteodaimon could not have learned how to read again even in time to make sense of the tale that followed, of the chaos after the city’s destruction that prevented anyone from having further sightings of this miraculous time-traveler that had so clearly been the earthly form of the great magister and alchemist himself. Even if he had
been able to read again, there would be no document to explain that his ultimate disappearance meant neither that he had finally ceased to exist nor that his old ideas of perpetual life being possible were entirely incorrect, for in the days and weeks immediately following the Great Fire, there was far more concern for removal of dangerous debris and rescue of injured and homeless known victims than for tidying up the remnants of an obscure museum. Had there been a witness to record it, there might have been something that Osteodaimon could hope to learn to read, something telling him that his thawed remains had rotted in the post-apocalyptic drear of an abandoned building, showing no more activity than the usual decay and natural recycling would show.
He might also, of course—had he been able to read it—thought that perhaps the early philosophers and proto-scientists were not entirely wrong but only slightly misdirected in their belief in spontaneous generation. For he would have found in the documentation of the ice-man’s progress that feeding on his mortal remains had been the usual generation or two of avid creatures that led to his emergence, eventually, as revivified carbon in the form of a blowfly. Once alive, always alive, but not, perhaps in precisely the way he had long imagined it.
There’s a sweetness in the morning when the sun has yet to rise
And the blooms lie, still unopened, under sleeping butterflies;
When the stars still wink and glimmer, while the frogs yet softly sing—
There’s a graciousness at midday when, amid the racing streams,
All arise and put in motion yesterday’s profoundest dreams;
When the past its chains has loosened on the race of all alive,
There’s a calm amid the evening when the birds come to the trees’
Respite from the day of flying, echoed by our evening ease;
When the cares of noon have lessened as the dusk swept into place—
There’s a beauty to the nighttime, glorious and peaceful bliss,
Treasured for the kind renewal of the souls that rest in this
Cradling darkness and this languor, in this place of mending rest
I would take these hours’ presents as my guide through seasons long,
Through a lifelong path that’s pleasant as a choir’s finest song;
I would be a seasoned traveler, happy above everything,
If my song could last forever,
There are plenty of good reasons to love winter eating. Every season has its particular pleasures and what appeals and tastes best varies with the weather, activities particular to the time of year, and winter–whatever challenges the season may present in terms of work and play–is rich in favorites too. What I tend to love in winter is mostly the kind of food and drink that spells comfort in colder weather: roasted, fried, grilled, hearty, spicy and/or deep flavored comfort is particularly welcome at my table.
Though he may well have sprung from the roots of ancient earthbound deities, the Green Man remains alive and well and, at this season, inhabits garden and woodland alike, filling sun and shadow with his mischievous magicks. And this presence is a very welcome thing indeed. Few things can compare with the appearance of those tender sprouts, however miniscule and vulnerable, that bring new signs of life to the winter’s loamy floor, unfurl their banners on the tiniest twig of the smallest shrub. The mere sight of one small tip of leaf can bring an upsurge of life to the dormant veins of even a hardened person who’s waited through the dark and chill for newness to arrive.
Did the long freeze of January kill that little sapling that I found? No, here’s the faint, alluring swelling of a bud, the blushing edge of a leaflet, soon to open wide in exuberant yellow-green shouts of Spring. Has the ice of the short days and long, long nights wholly buried and killed my favorite herb, both branch and root? No, I see a hairline stripe of promising verdure in the bony bark of its woody little stem. Life is a bold, determined act, and with its brazen call brings out the denizens of Earth, first the bud and then the bloom, one small broken seed shooting out a multitude of growing things at the conjuring wave of the Green Man’s hand. Like him, I cannot help but grin when the world begins again to wake in leafy laughter.
There is, of course, one overriding, excellent reason that Ireland should celebrate the remembrance of her patron saint with a vivid display of everything-green. Ireland is the Emerald Isle. I’m not Irish, but I suppose I can pretend to a certain level of affinity on the strength of two excellent reasons of my own, the first being that my Viking ancestors (if any of my Norse forebears were actually so intrepid and aggressive) had a pretty good chance of crossing paths somewhere along the line with their counterparts in the British Isles, Norwegians having gone on various exploratory and marauding forays in that direction. My patronymic (Wold), after all, sounds suspiciously more Anglo than Nordic to me, no matter how many in Norway do share the name.
The second and far kindlier tie I feel to Ireland is because I was born in the Emerald City (Seattle’s nickname) in the Evergreen State (Washington’s), surrounded by every known flavor of green and a few yet undiscovered, and I think it was anything but coincidental that on my one visit to Ireland thus far I felt remarkably at home even in the middle of the winter, when the chill and snow still couldn’t entirely subdue the exquisite greenness of the land. It may not have hurt this sense of connection that some of the locals on that trip asked me what part of Ireland I came from, given that my accent apparently wasn’t heard by them as being wildly different from some in the UK. In any event, as green and growing things resonate so deeply in my heart and soul, I can’t help but celebrate the beauty of Green while millions are wearing, spending, planting and drinking it, and otherwise rejoicing in the character seen as protector of the great green land of Eire on this most Irish of days.Here in this Emerald Land
Because there is no sapling in the earth
But that springs out when water wakes its seed
And sunlight calls it up in urgent need,
I think the rain and sun of equal worth–
Yet all the riches of a blooming world
No greater shine than that most humble weed
Whose leaf invites the passing deer to feed
Because its banners, sweetly green, unfurled–
No flower can surpass, exotic bloom
Outdo green’s living beauty or exceed
Its life-affirming sweetness when we heed
The subtler potency of its perfume–
And so I bow my head, ecstatic–sing
I lived most of my life in northern climes. My childhood and many subsequent years spent in the Seattle area naturally color my view of nature and my connections with it, so even though I’ve spent the last four years putting roots down into Texan soil my inner imagery of the season of growth is of sprouts and blooms native to alpine, temperate, rainforest and coastal territory. I appreciate and admire the vast and varied beauties of this wildly different terrain that is my new home, and my heart still resonates joyfully when it comes to those northwest marvels of green and gorgeous living things as well. I don’t think I’ll have to tell you which region inspired these two poems.
The drawings, though, could be a bit more nearly universal. Dandelions, in particular–I can’t think of many places I’ve visited so far that didn’t have a substantial contingent of that sunny little weed blossom. I hardly ever see their smiling faces without thinking of the adorable little enthusiast next door who peered over our fence and, seeing my mother pulling dandelions–and perhaps interpreting this as her enthusiasm for cultivating their charms–piped up to boast enthusiastically (much to her own mother’s chagrin): ‘we’ve got a MILLION of ’em!’ In Return
Willingly as daffodils stretch out of the earth
At the first invitation of the sun,
So I come from the dark when my winter ends,
Turn my face up to the blessing sky,
And sigh at the promise of the spearing green
Arising by my feet, even if the icicles
Have not yet
Melted wholly away.
Amid the muffling drifts of downy snow
That draw the pearly winter sky down low
To kiss the earth once more in early spring
Are sparkling spears of palest glimmering
Green newness, first to show upon the white
And break the slope of frosted winter light
Uncurling soon to show the youthful face
Of spring’s renewal in this sleeping place
If still surrounded by the icy pale
Wild woolliness bedecking hill and vale—
The snow, though mighty, cannot fully stanch
The burst of springtime’s sparkling avalanche