When I teach A Midsummer Night’s Dream to my 8th graders every spring, I introduce them to the patterns of Shakespeare’s pastoral plays–young people (usually spellbound by a forbidden romance) flee the city, the aristocracy, the confines of a domineering family or an inflexible society that interferes with the organic human pursuit of happiness. In the “wood” they find resolution, perhaps a cunning plot to cleverly circumvent authority or, in the case of Midsummer, simple fairy magic. I imagined myself a bit like the protagonist in my own pastoral play this week. As we drove–racing along our own suburban parkways and then through the bustling nexus of the city and the George Washington and the Cross Bronx–it felt like fleeing, away, away from the oppressiveness of our lives here and everything that stings and chokes. There was a moment, somewhere in rural western Jersey, when the sun started to illuminate a low corner of the sky on the deep blue horizon of twilight that I felt everything sigh, my lungs open, my brow unfurrow, my jaw relax. Wending around the seductive curves of Appalachian mountains, passing over deep gorges and half-frozen brooks and dark rocks glistening with ice, carving through valleys flanked by colossal walls of wind-weathered bedrock and through a countryside dappled by quaint farm houses with porch swings and shutters and smoking chimneys: it was a feast of pastoral splendor so delightfully otherworldly. Eventually a white haze of fresh and falling snow cloaked the landscape, dusting massive evergreens and tipping the bare branches of birch trees, their crooked white fingers stretching skyward from densely wooded hillsides against layer upon layer of blue silhouetted hills. It was the cover of a Christmas card. It was a Bob Ross painting. It was exactly why I love roadtrips so much. And it did feel like the holidays, a private one, a sweetness shared in that intimate, sheltered space inside our Suburu with a napping dog in the backseat who came up to give the occasional wet-nosed kiss and plush head-nuzzle amid the quiet hush of the open road, broken only by the sounds of lilting harmonica and Dylan strumming his guitar and crooning about the girl from the North Country. And then there was the banter, the storytelling, the reminiscing that made my spirit feel a little light again–my sweet husband, medicine to my soul.
So this is the bookend post to “Skipping Christmas.” Of course we didn’t successfully dodge the holiday without a little creative maneuvering. Between my mother’s homeless freeloader status (by the grace of my goodwill) plus their joint failure to show up for Thanksgiving, neither my mom nor my brother were in any position to complain about our choice to forgo the entire occasion–gifts, tree, celebrations, and all. My in-laws, however, cunningly rescheduled Christmas Eve for Saturday (after we’d already revealed our plans to leave town on Tuesday…well played) and I had to devise a new strategy: be sick and send B solo to keep the “Bonzadiza” (my mother-in-law) happy. I booked an appointment for a massage, ran myself ragged at work all week, proceeded to actually get sick, went for the massage anyway (glorious!), and called the house just after dinner to send my love and wish everyone a Merry-Merry with all the authenticity of my congestion and coughing and froggy voice. On Monday she came over to help me make gnocchi and tomato sauce to bring to Pennsylvania, and in a way, it was like having our own little Christmas moment without all the pressure and stigma of the big family holiday itself–the perfume of garlic in olive oil and two cups of fresh-brewed coffee, hands in flour, the slow and loving labor of hand-rolling each pampered little dumpling, Pandora in the background, happy dog underfoot. She is everything my own mother isn’t. After that it was a flurry of packing and making lists as we left well before dawn on Tuesday morning for Pittsburgh to spend Christmas with our friends.
And that also turned out to be the perfect thing. Even in small ways like the the fact that the house was not decked out in Christmas stuff aside from a modest tree in the “formal living room,” where we didn’t spend much time, and one stray stocking hanging from the mantle. There was no big gift-opening event to make us feel out of place. For the most part it was just the four of us cooking one incredible, sensual, decadent, rustic feast after another. Oh, the food…a lavish prime rib roast with a beautifully bright chimichurri sauce, bouillabaisse piled with fresh shellfish and perfectly pillowy gnocchi brought from home, apple upside-down cake, butternut squash bake with cranberries and nutmeg, a Dijon kale salad with toasted almond slivers and shredded Brussels sprouts, cauliflower au gratin, and my favorite quiche to make with it’s flaky phyllo crust and caramelized shallots, gorgonzola and acorn squash. Obviously, today, I never want to eat again, just jog until I purge all the butter from my arteries, but I am usually happiest in the kitchen, and half the fun of this trip was the hours spent around the stove with Ally, our dear friend, who attacks life with the spirit and enthusiasm of a small child, drinking great wine and joking and crafting the next edible indulgence. And it was just so comfortable to be there with them, her husband, a psychiatrist and possibly the smartest man alive, though you wouldn’t know it from his quiet and unassuming demeanor; his parents, two sweet and generous hosts full of fun stories from lives fully lived in New York and all over, including their native India.
It’s possible that this is the filtered Facebook version of the past few days since their toddler son was also there, and at one point the neighbors came over to visit with their year-old granddaughter and her teenage mother (still in high school!), and all that was really hard at times–the proud grandparents, the family snuggling on the couch, our parallel preoccupation with our dog and how that makes me feel…sad and pathetic and barren. It’s possible that I’m choosing to remember this whole thing selectively because I just couldn’t stand the tone this blog was taking as we progressed from our encouraging August cycle through the challenging dregs of winter’s approach with its elevated work stress and family crises and holiday disappointments. As it stands, I am priming for the 3rd and final round in a few weeks out in Denver. I am still as afraid as ever of what this could all mean for our future while the debut of MTV’s Generation Cryo seems to be dragging those specters from the closet where I’ve tried to keep them locked while my plate was overflowing with other demands. Right now I’m just trying to savor because, even with its painful moments, it was the best Christmas I could have hoped for this year. In this life we have to work with what we’ve got.