Last night, I spent a quiet New Years Eve alone. And I loved it.
Ive been to fabulous parties at the top of tall buildings. Ive been to small gatherings with only a dozen friends. I spent all my formative new years with my parents and brother, willing ourselves to stay up late enough to count down the seconds to midnight, then cheer and clink glasses. When my parents had parties with adults, Andy and I would have onion dip (made with sour cream and that beef onion mix from a packet) and root beer (so we could pretend it was beer). Wed raise our Ruffles, coated in thick onion dip, then knock them together and say, Chip dip hooray! That was about as exciting as it ever was.
To tell you the truth, Ive always rather disliked New Years. Too many expectations, of meaningful kisses at midnight and bubbling-champagne life. Too many resolutions, with unrealistic goals bound to be moribund two weeks later. And too many drunken people driving haphazardly down the roads.
Thats why I love my recent tradition best.
For the past five years, Ive been down in Ashland, Oregon, with my oldest friend, Sharon. Her dad lives there, high in the hills, in a lovely home. Ive known them all since the early 80s, so theres no possibility of tension or expectations. For most of the days, we just lounge around on the couches in front of the fire, Sharon and I, reading for hours, sipping tea, and watching snow fall outside the window. Ah, thats the life. Sharons father, whom I still call Mr. —- , even after all these years, owns more books than anyone I know. Every single room, including the kitchen, has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. If I ever run out of something to read in that house, I will have run out of livng.
But the vibrant highlight of the weekend is the neighborhood New Years Eve party. Sharons father sends out invitations, weeks in advance, to everyone he knows in Ashland. Members of the Secular Humanist club. Fellow Toastmasters. People he knows from the senior citizen learning center. His martini club. And everyone from the surrounding blocks. Every year, we all wonder who will show up, and especially, what food they will bring. The new-age author with the glowing skin and bright-white hair is a lovely woman, but she often brings leftovers from other parties, including the year she brought eight shriveled chicken wings on an enormous plate. The classical guitarist and Mandarin translator brings his shy wife, who barely speaks any English. Poor woman — she just cant cook. Within an hour of the party starting, nearly every plate of spectacular nosh is picked clean, except for the one holding her wilted, tasteless food. Theres the jocular next-door neighbor, a perennial favorite, who lilts stories in a mock-Irish accent and talks behind his hands with Sharon and me about everyone else around us. The house fills with senior citizens who have long ago thrown away any notions of being anyone other than themselves. Sharon and I are generally the youngest ones there by thirty years. And they all stay up late, way past midnight, celebrating on two glasses of champagne, while Sharon and I stand there yawning, wishing we could go to bed.
I love them.
I missed them this year.
This year, flights to Ashland were prohibitively expensive. I kept waiting for the prices to retreat, but they didnt. And Ive been working on a project that simply must be done soon, and I really couldnt afford the five days away from that, either. So, I made the hard decision. I stayed at home instead.
Sharon will forgive me. Eventually.
Since I made the decision not to go at the last moment –staving off the inevitable– everyone in Seattle assumed Id be gone. I could have gone to a dozen parties, or spent a quiet night on the island with my brother and sister-in-law, and my nephew. That was tempting too. But I realized I relished the chance to be alone, wonderfully alone. There havent been too many chances for it, lately. Usually, with teaching and my wonderful cadre of friends, Im surrounded by people. I may live alone, but Im rarely alone.
But I love my alone time.
New Years really calls for some quiet contemplation.
After one pm, I was in the house to stay. Rain splashed down hard in all the puddles outside. I had all the food I needed. The house was clean, for once, so no need to feel guilty I wasnt working on it. For hours, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Working all those muscles made me feel alive. I watched more episodes of Arrested Developmentwhich has become my new dvd obsession. (Havent seen it? Come on!) Sharon and I talked on the phone several times through the day, even during the party. (Yes, she has forgiven me.) And I sat hours of meditation, a chance to dive in more deeply than I have in months.
I came up to the surface of me feeling calm.
And of course, I cooked. Four or five dishes, some for a feast I made myself for dinner. A three-course meal by myself. It always makes me sad when I hear single people saying they cant cook for only one, that theyre saving up their recipes for the days when theyre finally married. Not me. I wouldnt mind being with someone — in fact, Id welcome him, if hes the right man — but Im not putting my life on hold until he happens to walk up to my door. Theres just too much good food to experience, to chew slowly and smile. So I treated myself to a feast.
Around midnight, I was reading, with a little music on. What was I reading? Lifes Journeys According to Mister Rogers. Dont laugh. I mean it. Do you remember him? Not the Eddie Murphy imitation of him, or the jaded view of him, but the man himself? He was marvelous. Now, I know its not cool for an adult woman to admit that she loves Mister Rogers, but neither is spending New Years Eve alone. Ive long ago let go of cool. Instead, I just love him, his patience and kindness and humility.
And then I read this quote:
For a long time, Ive wondered why I felt like bowing when people showed their appreciation for the work that Ive been privileged to do. Its been a kind of natural response to a feeling of great gratitude. What Ive come to understand is that we who bow are probably — whether we know it or not –acknowledging the presence of the sacred. Were bowing to the sacred in our neighbor.
You see, I believe that appreciation is a holy thing — that when we look for whats best in a person we happen to be with at the moment…in loving and appreciating our neighbor, were participating in something sacred. As I bow, I always feel like saying, Thank you, thank you, thank you.
And so, yes, there I was, on New Years Eve, crying happy tears of gratitude at a Mister Rogers quote. I realized I didnt need to be in Ashland, or at a fabulous party, or anywhere else but in my own home, by myself, to ring in this new year the right away. I was here.
And being here, on this website, with all of you reading, has been one of the gifts for which I am most grateful this past year. I hope the recipes bring you joyful mouthfuls, the photographs some sensory pleasure, and the stories at least a little occasional laughter. I just cant believe my luck.
I hope that every one of you reading has a year full of laughter, surprises that enrich your life, and people to love, fully. And of course, meal after marvelous, memorable meal.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
One of the dishes I made last night was some Hoppin John for New Years Day. This Southern dish of black-eyed peas and rice, simmered with ham hocks, is meant to bring good luck and prosperity for the coming year. Id never made it before, so I have no idea if it tastes authentic to someone raised on this, year after year. But it sure made a fine breakfast this morning. Yes, for breakfast. Why not start the day with luck and prosperity?
We could all use some of that, particularly those of us in this country who often dont have enough money for food. Lets do what we can to make their meals more memorable too.
two small smoked ham hocks
one pound dried black-eyed peas
two medium onions
five cloves garlic, peeled
two bay leaves
one cup long-grain rice (I used jasmine)
one can diced tomatoes
one jalapeno pepper, diced fine, seeds removed
one medium red bell pepper, diced
one medium green bell pepper, diced
three ribs celery, chopped
two teaspooon Creole seasoning
one teaspoon dried cumin
four stalks fresh thyme
one teaspoon salt
green onions, sliced
Put the ham hocks, black-eyed peas, one of the onions (cut in half), the garlic, and bay leaves in a large Dutch oven or stockpot, with six cups of water. Bring it all to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and let it simmer until the beans are tender. This will probably be about two hours.
When the beans are tender, and the entire mixture smells deeply of smoked ham goodness, add three more cups of water and stir. Bring this to a boil again, then add the rice into the pot. Put on the cover and simmer it all until the rice is growing tender, about ten minutes.
Add the minced vegetables and peppers into the pot. Cook for a further eight to ten minutes, until the rice is entirely tender.
Top with sliced green onions and hot sauce. Try some gluten-free cornbread on the side.
Serves eight to ten.