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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

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Christmas stollen.

On a bit of a Dickens kick right now, especially with that marginally famous Christmas book he wrote about the clashing of spirits and humans, light and dark, and plenty and impoverished.

To compare, I’m thinking of last Christmas, when Hurricane Sandy had just taken away possessions, houses, electric, gas, water and a sense of security and left behind a lot of numb. We learned what was a luxury and what wasn’t, and we learned it pretty quick. Since no gas stations had power either, all of us were worried about driving and running out of gas. Instead, those of us who still had homes stayed in them, froze, mourned, and climbed the walls a lot. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it felt like to get gas, finally. I remember driving away feeling like someone had handed me a million dollars. For filling up my gas tank!

It’s not always the big, or cliche, or obvious things that foster a sense of abundance. Here are the Cadillacs in my own dreams.

1) Special foods. You knew I was going here, and I can’t think of a worthier co-pilot than Dickens. His descriptions of holiday foods in Stave Three, mugged up by the Ghost of Christmas Present, are nothing short of glorious. And poignant: his father was jailed for unpaid debts, and he himself was deep into debt, and hungry, when he wrote the book. Those who know hunger describe food in mesmerizing detail, and those who used to be hungry never forget what it feels like. This was Dickens; and here he chooses words that, when spoken aloud, give the reader’s mouth a workout and make it water.* Try it:

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.

It’s also striking, and essential, to note that when Dickens later illustrates the Cratchits’ Christmas meal, he gives just as much heart to writing it as he does the above. They had very little—their pudding was the size of a musket ball and had to feed seven. Do they complain? No—they’re thrilled. And they feel genuinely full, and genuinely grateful, after the meal. His point: Appreciating abundance is about perspective.

Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, meaning half a one; and at Bob Cratchit’s elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle. These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done.

As for me, I have crystallized ginger standing by for gingerbread, Saigon cinnamon for my mom’s sour cream coffee cake, and nearly a dozen Meyer lemons in the fridge about to become lemon curd, a religious conversion if there ever was one. I also bought organic chicken legs for a song this week at Trader Joe’s. Americans have never gone for dark meat the way the rest of the world has, and I’m grateful to get the spoils.

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Meyers.

Since I’m on a happy roll, right now my freezer contains four kinds of flour, my own tomato sauce, my mom’s cranberry bread, my sister’s cuccidati, the remnants of my fruitcake, and three bottles of my homemade Limoncello. I am very wealthy squirrel.

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Cinnamon-chocolate sour cream cake.

2) Quiet. Today my fire alarm started chirping, loudly, indicating it had a low battery. Very no big deal, except for the fact that my ceilings are 9′ high, and even with my stepladder trying to reach it was a bad joke. No ladders in the basement. Plan B had me moving my mid-century dining room table into the hallway, stacking the Chicago Manual of Style, Home Comforts, and Little Women on it, and standing on them. I pulled it down, then became horrified when it kept chirping. Messages to my building manager came to nothing, and by afternoon I was wondering whether sleeping in the car would really be as uncomfortable as it sounded. Then it occurred to me that the chirping might be coming from my CO detector. It was. I yanked out the batteries and promptly took a nap. Wrapped myself in swaddling clothes—okay, a throw blanket from Target—and drank in the abundance of quiet like a hot buttered rum.

3) The beauty in everywhere. This Navajo blessing will sink in, whether you’re inhaling the salt air at the beach or if you’re alone in a park that’s all stark winter gorgeousness. But the crazy thing is it will sink in no matter where you are. It just takes a clear eye and an open heart.

Really—give it a whirl right now, no matter where you’re reading this. Take in the details, the stuff you didn’t notice before, and let yourself fill up.

With beauty before me I walk/With beauty behind me I walk/With beauty above me I walk/With beauty around me I walk.

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I took the below shot awhile back, in a nearby park. The air was very still and cold, and although I was in the middle of such vastness, it wasn’t intimidating; it was comfortable, and filling.

I love this ancient sycamore against the miles beyond it.

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And then there’s another kind of tree, and view. It’s a lot smaller, but it does the job of filling me up pretty well, too.

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*This is a literary device that has a name, and since I’m a couple of decades out of college I can’t remember what it’s called. Please tell me if you know. Yes, I tried Google. It can be overrated.

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Shortbreads baked in small tart pans.

In de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, the fox tells the title character that he loves rites because they make each day different from the others and are fun to anticipate. I would add that they add a blanket of comfort, a personal calm or a bit of humor (as the case may be), to our days. Some of my favorites:

Eating something while reading about it.

I’m a cereal box reader. Reading the back of the Kix box while I’m eating a bowl of it makes it taste even better. A five-sense cereal experience :)*

I love nibbling on my homemade shortbread while reading about English treats. Actually, my 1969 Time-Life cookbook, The Cooking of the British Isles, features chapters on cheeses, game, beef, puddings and more, and has taken me through weeks of mealtime reading.

Adopting a new favorite breakfast treat from time to time.

Right now it’s a version of an Orange Creamy (remember those from the ice cream man?): a navel orange peeled and sectioned and put in a bowl with a couple of dollops of Stonyfield low-fat vanilla yogurt. Gosh, it’s so good.

Observing teatime.

I get (what I call) snacky at 3 or 4 every afternoon, so as those bright folks in England have been doing for centuries, I do something about it. Sometimes I’ll make hot chocolate from an incredible recipe that I keep talking about because it’s that incredible. Yesterday I had a couple of squares of Chocolove with a mug of very cold milk. No tea because I don’t much like it. I like sweets, though. It’s the spirit of teatime that counts.**

Whenever J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter had a run-in with (literally) life-sucking Dementors, a few bites of chocolate was the panacea to help clear his head. I took a page from those hallowed books on the five-year anniversary of 9/11 and made brownies to share with the women I worked with. The Muggle (non-wizarding) world of ours has plenty of Dementors of its own, and they were with us in spades that day. The chocolate really did help.

T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons…

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones reached for the Milk Tray and went out for Bloody Marys when she got stressed…

Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy would eat nothing but tomato sandwiches for lunch…

Charles Dickens’s sympathetic Joe Gargery poured extra gravy on young Pip’s plate every time Pip got chewed out at the dinner table…

Bill Watterson’s Calvin ate Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs every Saturday morning without fail…

What do you eat, and how, and when?

*Not a quote from Jerry Seinfeld. But it could be.

**Yeah, okay, the spirit is usually about chocolate.

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