Monthly Archives: November 2017

Taking Things Slowly

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make things just right and perhaps there’s even more of that pressure in these days of Instagram and Facebook, where everything looks so wonderful. Not many people are posting pictures of the messes in their lives, after all. It’s pretty easy to feel a bit inadequate and a bit left behind, too.

I’ve felt this a lot lately. In just the past few days, since Thanksgiving, Instagram and indeed the world all around me has exploded into Christmas lights and trees. And though I love Christmas, I don’t feel at all ready for it. And I’ve even felt a bit this weekend like it’s passing me by. Already.

All right then. Let’s sit back a moment, and take time to pause. One obvious thing that hits me, when I really think about it, is it’s not even December yet. This already makes me feel more at ease. Advent, the time of preparation before Christmas, won’t even begin until next Sunday, the Third of December.

Here at our little old house in Lake Worth, there is still Indian corn hanging on the door and pumpkins on the porch. Next Friday, when December begins, we will open the first window of our Advent calendar, and we will begin burning our daily Advent candle. Over the weekend, Seth will make an Advent wreath and on Sunday, we will light the first candle: purple. The Sunday after, two purple candles. The Sunday after that, two purples and a rose candle. The Sunday after that, which will also be Christmas Eve, all four candles will be lit: three purples and one rose. All this time, we will slowly be shifting toward Christmas: cleaning home and hearth, baking, lighting candles in the windows. By mid December we’ll get our tree and begin illuminating our home, just as the darkest night approaches. It is a slow and gradual process here, marked with doing things with care. It is a process that brings us peace in an otherwise hectic time. We call it the Slow Christmas Movement.

If things feel far too fast for you, too, we invite you to join us. It also means celebrating Christmas for its full Twelve Days beginning only after Christmas Day itself has passed. This is not for everyone, for it will put you in a place decidedly outside the dominant commercial Christmas culture. But it will bring you, I think, as it brings us, a Christmas season (and an Advent season, too) that feels calmer, less rushed, more peaceful, and if Christmas is about peace on earth, goodwill toward all… then maybe this––tapping into the ancient traditions of the holiday––is where it begins.

I don’t often encourage you to buy things, but the Convivio Book of Days Catalog places a big focus on Advent. We sell the traditional glittery German Advent calendars I remember from my childhood, and we sell daily Advent candles that are made by hand in England. We’re also running a special this year on the traditional purple and rose candles for Advent, and the metal ring to burn them in. The link above will take you to our homepage, where you can shop Advent and Christmas and all of our lines. Oh hey! Spend $50 or more and we’ll pay the shipping on domestic orders (there’s a flat shipping fee of $8.50 if you spend less than $50). We ship US Priority Mail, so you should have your order in plenty of time for the start of Advent if you order in the next couple of days. If you’re ordering for a destination outside the US, you’ll be charged a $30 shipping charge, but we’ll calculate your actual shipping charge and we won’t charge your card until we contact you with that information to let you know what it will be (N.B.: usually it’s considerably less).

I’ll leave you with one last thing today, a musical gift. I talk a lot about Jane Siberry and her indirect influence on my writing, my creative endeavors, even my approach to work and my daily life. My introduction to her was on MTV’s “120 Minutes,” late on a Sunday night in 1987, with the video for a song called “Ingrid and the Footman.” I bought the record. The song that really sealed the deal for me, though, in terms of Ms. Siberry’s genius, was at the end of the record: a song that ran over 11 minutes long called “The Bird in the Gravel.” I think of this song every late autumn, just about this time. Jane made a short film for the song back then, one of her first adventures into the medium. A song that’s 11 minutes long forces you to take it slow. Between that, and the barren trees, and the quality of the sunlight… well, I don’t know if Jane Siberry made this film in late November, but it feels like it to me. If you have 11 minutes to spare, and I hope you do, “The Bird in the Gravel” is my gift, through Jane, to you today.

Wishing you peace.
John

 

Today’s image is a still from “The Bird in the Gravel” by Jane Siberry, 1987.

Counting our Blessings

I took only two photographs at Thanksgiving dinner last year and this is one of them: Mom and Dad, at the table, in their usual seats, with two of Mom’s homemade pies: cocoanut custard and pumpkin. Ours will be a quiet celebration this year, our first without Dad. It’ll be Mom and my sister and Seth and me. There may have been more than the five of us last year; I really don’t recall. The year before that, we were all in Illinois, seated at a table for 17. Thanksgiving is like this––you never know year to year what it might be like.

Even though it is just the four of us, Mom and Marietta, my sister, have been cooking up a storm and they’ll be roasting a turkey that is just shy of 20 pounds. We don’t know how to cook small in my family. There will be leftovers and plenty of them.

We gather and we will certainly remember those who are not with us, but we will gather and appreciate that we are there for each other. For us, it’s been a year mixed with good and bad, a year that helps us truly appreciate our blessings. And so we give thanks for them and for each other. And I give thanks for you, too, for being with me on this journey each year around the sun, for reading every now and then and for letting me know that you do. I can’t thank you enough. From my family to yours: Happy Thanksgiving.

John

 

Roots and Wine and Poppies: Hollantide

Confession: I was once a November curmudgeon. It was not all that long ago, either. I loved September, October, and December, but November? November to me was best described by another guy who was not fond of November, Thomas Hood, whose fame comes from a poem titled “No!”

No sun––no moon!
No morn––no noon––
No dawn––
No sky––no earthly view––
No distance looking blue––
No road––no street––no “t’other side the way”––
No end to any Row––
No indications where the Crescents go––

Etcetera etcetera until the end: No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees, / No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, / November!

But it is good to sit back every now and again, reassess, and to reconsider our opinions. I’ve done that with many things over the years, like rhubarb, and I am still on the fence about rhubarb, to be honest. But I’ve also reconsidered my opinion about November in recent years and discovered that I’ve come to really love November. Haden, the Convivio Shop Cat, loves November, too, and that is part of my shift in perspective. In the print shop and at the front door in November, the sun streams in through the glass windows like nobody’s business, and she basks in the rays until she gets drunk on the stuff. That alone brings me so much happiness. And, as I’ve grown older and perhaps wiser, I’ve come to realize that some of my favorite days of the year are actually part of celebrations that span several days. I, like many of you, have always loved Halloween and its accompanying apparent magic. It took a lot of years for me to understand that Halloween ushered in All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which includes the beautiful ceremony of Dia de Muertos. And it was many years more before I understood that these days of the year when we especially remember our beloved dead continue well into November. This is Hollantide––a corruption of Hallowtide: the time of the sacred, the time of the holy. And tomorrow, the Eleventh of November, brings Martinmas, their conclusion, ending this annual time of remembrance.

St. Martin of Tours, who we celebrate on Martinmas, was a veteran (and we’ll talk of veterans later, for it is also Veterans Day) of the Roman army in the fourth century who opted to take up Christian pacifism and is known best for helping a poor, drunken man on a cold winter’s day by tearing his own cloak in two so that the poor fellow could have something to keep him warm. St. Martin has since become a patron saint of tailors (and, for better or worse, of vineyard keepers and winemakers and drunkards).

What makes Martinmas the bookend to Halloween? The connection may have something to do with the Celtic New Year––Samhain––which, over the centuries, evolved into our Halloween. Samhain marks, as well, in traditional reckoning of time, the transition to winter. With all of these November days since Samhain, since Halloween, our thoughts have gone deeper below the earth, just as the natural world also shifts its energy below the earth. Winter leads us there. Persephone leads us there. The trees take us there: The leaves have flown, all growth now is below, in the roots. This makes for stronger growth above ground come spring and summer: balance. As above, so below. Oh and guess what? November 11 is the old style date of Samhain. And here we are, then, at Martinmas.

It is, as well, Veteran’s Day, when we honor in the United States all who have served in the military. We used to call it Armistice Day, for it originally marked the signing of the armistice that ended the Great War, which is what we used to call World War I before World War II came to be. The armistice that brought peace after years of senseless fighting was signed in 1918 on Martinmas, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

So much associated with this day. One more thing: Martinmas is, traditionally, the time to taste the new wine, a fact certainly related to St. Martin’s patronage of winemakers and vineyard keepers. Each year’s Beaujolais Nouveau wines of France, always young wines, are typically released on or around Martinmas, and the day is often accompanied by a good meal featuring roast goose or turkey and chestnuts––typical harvest celebration foods––and, in Italy, Biscotti di San Martino: biscotti that are so hard, the only way to eat them, really, is to first dunk them in wine. My grandparents, all of them immigrants to the US from Italy, all made wine. My father was glad to get married and leave the winemaking that went on in his family home behind… but he married my mother, and her family made wine each autumn, too. The barrels that had to be cleaned out with water and chains, the crates of Zinfandel grapes that had to be washed and crushed… it was hard work, and I wish I could have been part of it. Winemaking is knowledge that has passed by the wayside in my family, drifted away. But certainly San Martino was important to all of my grandparents and to their wine. Grandpa made the wine, but Grandma made the cutto from the same must, the same grape juice, boiled down on the kitchen stove, reduced to a thick syrup, so specific to her region of Italy, used in desserts specific, too, to autumn and winter, some of which are full of meaning, too, as we remember those who have passed.

The winemaking, the slow all-day cooking of the syrup, the remembrance: all of these are related, returning us to Hollantide. We eat, we drink, we keep the bridges open. Our thoughts below the earth, yet above, too: you may see poppies this day, for Armistice Day, for remembrance, poppies that come out of another famous poem for November, this one by John McCrae: In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row . . . . We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie / in Flanders fields. We remember our veterans, we remember our winemakers, we remember all who have come and gone before us in these autumnal days as we continue to turn thoughts and actions inward with winter’s approach. These are rich traditions, tangible through tastes and aromas. And this, too, is why I now love November.

 

Image: I’ve used this photo before for Martinmas, but I can’t help using it again. I love the fact that every single person is raising a glass. The photo was taken, probably by my dad, at my sister Marietta’s christening dinner in Brooklyn in February, 1953. The folks in the picture are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents. The wine, no doubt, was my grandfather’s own vintage, and he is right there in the foreground, exuberant as he always was. Salute!

 

 

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