Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In the Deep Midwinter


(Image by Thomas Nast, 19th C.)

We've made it to the Winter Solstice and I for one am grateful for that. I'm feeling some pretty deep kinship with the ancient Romans who celebrated the festival of Saturnalia to mark the return of the undefeated sun after the longest night of the year. It was a time for feasting, carnival, and the temporary inversion of social order. Slaves would jokingly order around their masters and gambling was allowed in public. It was the biggest Roman festival and many of the traditions were rolled into what eventually became Christmas a number of centuries after the death of Christ. Mostly the festival was about hope and the slow emergence from darkness. Knowing that the darkest night is now behind me I feel a relief that I assume the feasting Romans also felt at Saturnalia. I can feel now that we are moving towards spring, out of the cold, damp, dark, and dreary winter and that as the days grow longer there is hope for warmth and new life.

And so if I had to pinpoint the "true" meaning of Christmas I would say that it has at its core the notion of hope and a spark of magic--that life magic that allows new growth to spring from the frozen ground and sustain us for another year. For Christians Jesus is the embodiment of this hope, the God in human form who represents our deliverance from darkness and the promise of eternal life. My fertility Goddess of years past isn't so different from this after all, representing as she did the continuity of humanity and the power of birth. So whether you turn to Biblical tales or the signs and symbols of the natural world, the metaphor is the same: rebirth, renewal, and emergence from the killing cold and darkness of winter. It seems to me, then, that no matter what we call this mid-winter festival we are fundamentally celebrating the same thing: hope for light in forms both literal and figurative; hope for the returning sun, for love's bright sparks, for goodness, grace, and peace.

I wish you all a joyous and warm holiday season!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nasal Irrigation (!)

I have been a Neti Pot resister. No matter what Oprah said about them, no matter how many ringing endorsements I got from family and friends, Neti Pots just seemed like a horrible idea. I like to believe that I'm a free thinker and so when Oprah told the masses to buy small genie lamps with which they could flood their sinus passages with warm saline to decrease congestion and promote better breathing I, reasonably, said "that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!" It just doesn't seem like pouring water with baking soda and salt into one nostril and praying to god it will come out the other like it's supposed to rather than simply filling your lungs and drowning you is a good idea in any way. I'm rather prone to colds and ever since the Neti Pot craze began people have encountered me in my congested misery and proclaimed, "you should really try a Neti Pot." And every time I would respond "That's insane, I'm not going to pour hot water up my nose. I know what it's like to accidentally inhale water when you're swimming and it sucks. I'm not doing in on purpose!" But over time I have been worn down. So when I got my annual Christmas cold this past week and TWO people suggested the Neti Pot I finally cracked and bought one with 50 packets of solution at the London Drugs.
"Fine," I told M. as I stood in my bathroom surrounded by Neti paraphernalia, "I'll try it, but you'll have to supervise me and get ready to call 911 in case I drown. Do you know how to do mouth to mouth?" I demanded. To M.'s credit, he did indeed supervise the entire operation and didn't even laugh at me. And so I found myself hanging over the bathroom sink with my head tilted to the side like an inquisitive puppy, with the Neti Pot spout firmly inserted into my top nostril. I suspected that I was about to do myself serious harm and was a bit astonished when the salt water that I was pouring up my nose actually came out the other side. It was like a magic trick or something. Except not a very exciting one or one that many people would elect to see. I emptied the Neti pot into my sinuses and am happy to announce that drowning did not ensue. However, it wasn't the panacea that I was promised. My congestion wasn't really helped at all and I came away from the whole thing feeling a bit disappointed and somewhat saltier than before.
Thinking maybe it would take a few more tries to work I Neti Potted twice a day for two days while I was home sick with my nasty cold. Now I don't want to jump to any rash conclusions here, and Neti Pots might still be overly hyped quackery, but after one day of using the Neti pot my cold symptoms improved dramatically, and after two days my cold was nearly gone. I frequently get colds that linger for a week or more but this time my body seems to be doing an excellent job of expelling the virus and getting back to normal quickly. I will not say that this is definitely the work of the Neti Pot, but I can't say that it was unrelated either. I guess, and I say this grudgingly, it certainly didn't hurt and next time I get a cold I may try the Neti Pot at the earliest symptoms of illness to see if it helps stave off a full blown cold.
Ultimately I'm just glad there aren't any pictures of me engaging in my Neti Pot related activities. Such photographs could have been used for horrific instances of blackmail. But on the bright side I'm on the mend and am hoping to remain healthy through Christmas. If I have to use a Neti Pot to do that I'm willing to subject myself to the shame and humiliation and teasing from my mother, who is still a Neti Pot hold-out though certainly not a stranger to bizarre naturopathic remedies in times of desperation (ahem...banana on the forehead to cure a headache...). Anyway, if you're over at my place and go to make tea, don't use the purple plastic pot. You've been warned.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Home for the Holidays

It's going to be an interesting holiday. M.'s parents are joining my family at our home in Ontario for Christmas and that means a huge celebration as well as nervousness surrounding the merging of our families. It doesn't matter how wonderful each individual in a family is--the joint family holiday is going to have some awkward moments. I accept this, but it makes me reminisce about Christmases past and the various odd moments that have cropped up and eventually become fond memories and family traditions.

My mother has a tiny village of houses that she decorates for the holidays. Come Christmas she puts them on a blanket of snow, adds pine trees to the streets, and (the kicker) puts the tiniest Christmas lights you've ever seen on the houses. This takes her HOURS. It takes more time to decorate those itty bitty houses than it would to do a National Lampoon's Christmas decoration job on your actual house. It always looks beautiful when it's done but my mother tends to look as if she's gone through the wringer after the stress induced by manipulating lights a millimetre or two wide. Baileys and a Celtic Christmas album are the panacea for all holiday woes though and are the traditional chasers for the tiny light event.

And it must have been a Bailey's chaser or something similar that got my dad singing Go Tell it on the Mountain...at the top of his lungs...at the end of Christmas mass one year as we were all walking out of the church.

And let's not forget the year that, as a teenager, I wanted to rebel against the "Jesus is the reason for the season" thing and made my mother put a handcrafted, polymer clay, pagan fertility goddess on our Christmas tree. I have to give her kudos for actually doing it. She even listened to my rant about how Jesus was in fact NOT the reason for the season and that the Christians just took over older, pagan, midwinter festivals and put their own slant on it. She did make me put the goddess at the back of the tree where it wouldn't be immediately visible to visitors who might be offended by its stylized, but naked and very well endowed figure.

My brother and I have always practised mild forms of holiday irreverence. As children my mom used to get extraordinarily frustrated that we kept rearranging the family nativity scene. We had a propensity for putting Jesus on the roof and sheep in the manger. It goes without saying that we were huge fans of the Mr. Bean Christmas special where Mr. Bean starts playing with a department store nativity scene and Mary gets attacked by a T-Rex followed by Jesus being air lifted out of the stable by helicopter. Oh, and let's not forget the random robot attack on the wise-men!

But when we aren't hanging the gilt fertility goddess on the tree or replacing Joseph in the stable with camels we have really lovely, warm, and decidedly normal traditions like singing carols, listening to Stuart McLean Christmas stories, and fighting on Christmas eve over Baba's amazing home made perogies. Okay, maybe that last one isn't so normal. But there is always candle-light and music and the Christmas tree with its thousands of lights because mom never thinks there's quite enough and now with Christmas only two weeks away and my plane ticket home tucked into my day planner I can feel the anticipation and excitement mounting. I'm looking forward to giving M's family the opportunity to see where I've come from, with the raucous laughter so loud that I have actually considered putting ear plugs in at some Christmas dinners, to the endless discussion of the food, to carols, board games, and subversive manger rearrangement. Bring on the holidays, bring on the Baileys, the Scotch, the scores of cabbage rolls, the dog pretending to be a vacuum cleaner and picking up all the dropped cookies. Bring on the music, the Trans Siberian Orchestra, the spontaneous gatherings in the kitchen as we hover around the turkey and pick the skin off it before it can be brought out to the table. I think this is shaping up to be a very Merry Christmas indeed.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Fiddle Affair

I didn't mean to buy a new fiddle. It was an accident of fate and a product of undeniable love-at-first-sight. It was serendipity and I was helpless to resist and now a new fiddle is resting in its case at home awaiting my arrival when it will give voice to my own inner whisperings.

The violin and I were introduced at a music store by another fiddler. M. and I were looking at books of fiddle music and we wanted to try out some tunes before we purchased one to make sure we liked the chords and the melodies. This meant using one of the store violins. A fiddler working at the store was interested in my opinion of a violin they had on consignment so he pulled it down for me to play. I played a tune on it but wasn't impressed. It had a nasally voice and thin projection. I said as much and was surprised to find a $5000 price tag on the instrument! It was a 150 year old violin so the price probably had much to do with its antique value but I still couldn't believe someone would pay that much for it. The salesman then brought me another violin and seemed to be brimming with energy about it.

"Try this one," he said and I think there was a vague crackle of electricity as it changed hands. I played "Neil Gow's Lament" and then held the violin away from me in astonishment. I felt as if it had just spoken directly to my soul. It had a warm, dark tone with a wide projection and I felt as if I had found something I had been searching for for a very long time. (M. need not worry about my new love of course, because everyone knows that the heart has space for both human and instrumental soul mates). The fact is that I've been playing violins in every single music store I've entered for the past three years in an attempt to find the perfect instrument (that was within my somewhat modest budget!). I had never found something that I liked more than the violin I bought in Scotland awhile back but I always found there was something lacking in that fiddle. It was rich and bold but had a certain harshness in it that was a point of conflict between us. I guess I always knew that the relationship wouldn't last and though I was happy for the moment I was always looking for the one that would sweep my off my feet and truly understand me. And so I found myself in a local music store holding "The One." M. nervously turned over the price tag and we found that it was significantly cheaper than the $5000 instrument I had played earlier. It wasn't a small sum, but not a prohibitive one either.

I didn't want to make a rash decision, but I felt quite strongly that I couldn't leave the store that day without the violin. But I made a stop home to think about it and bring my own fiddle into the store for a direct comparison. The huge guitar lined room of the music shop might make any instrument sing with an illusion of brilliance and I wanted to be sure I wasn't being tricked by a curvy wooden Siren. All the way home my heart was pounding, my face was flushed...you know how it is with new love, with new infatuation. But I wasn't in it for a one night stand. I wanted to be sure that this was a violin I could be with for the long term. Seeing as I would be forced out of economic considerations to divorce the old fiddle and sell it like so much chattel I wanted to be certain that I wasn't making a mistake.

Back in the store I was able to do a comparison and while the difference wasn't quite as great as I had thought it would be, it was still significant. The new violin spoke my language in a way the old one never had. I held it to me possessively knowing that there was no going back now. I had heard it sing. It had captured my imagination. And I would not go home without it. My Visa paid the price and then "Congratulations" were distributed by the staff who had helped me, over a 4 hour period, decide on my new purchase.

And so I must announce that things with the Scottish Violin are over. I'm sad in a way, as one is when a long relationship must come to an end. Even though things weren't perfect between us we still had some good times. We played together in the traditional sessions of Scotland and Ireland. We travelled from Scotland, to my home in Ontario, to my new home in Vancouver. We had gigs in a few different bands and won over M. with a well played version of "The Drunken Landlady" on our very first date. We had a history, but it was time to move on and when the right fiddle walked into my life I knew that it was time to switch allegiances. I hope that my old violin will go to a good home where it will find love in the arms of another. In the meantime it lays quietly waiting for its next chance to speak.

I felt that the new fiddle needed a name. She is distinctly female (and since violin love is gender inclusive, as we all know, M. need not worry!) and since she was crafted in Romania I thought she would like a name from her home. I have called her Ligia which is a Romanian name meaning "beautiful voice." I couldn't think of anything more fitting than that! And so I am a little poorer in cash but a bit richer in artistic expression. I have no regrets.