This is a long-distance call

I’ve been doing this for ten years now.

Not making the lussekatter; that’s a tradition of longer standing. But writing about the making of the lussekatter every year. About doing the work of the dark of the year, singing the light back into the world while you make the saffron-rich bread. About Santa Lucia Day, how it comes before Solstice so there is more dark to come, and what that means to me. It’s the same every year. It’s different every year. Holidays are like that.

This year in particular I am so glad to have a ritual to fall back on, work that yields to patience and experience and knowledge. The long rise changed my life. This year I made a half-batch, carefully measuring the beaten egg into my tiniest measuring cup, pouring half of it into the dough and half down the drain. (I know. It would have been fine with a whole egg. But I want it the way it’s supposed to taste, not a slightly richer version.) And between the smaller mass of dough and the knowledge gained from years past, it was an easy knead, turning pliable almost as soon as I picked it up.

In addition to Christmas songs, I find myself singing other songs every year, whatever pops into my head. “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “This Year” and whatever else feels appropriate. This year I discovered that what I was singing was Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” with a line I never really thought of before: “These are the days of miracle and wonder, and don’t cry, baby, don’t cry.” The days of miracle and wonder, we find out, are not the same as the days of ease and laughter. The days of miracle and wonder make us weep, and not just for joy. Not even mostly for joy.

Sometimes miracle and wonder come upon us all unawares. But sometimes we have to work for them. We have to work our asses off for them, and cry and despair and feel that we’ve come to the end of the line. And some of us have–I don’t want to pretend that it’s inevitable that we always win out, that we always come through the dark times. Sometimes it is just all too damn much. And the people around us, the people we turn to for help, may have reached their point of “all too damn much” in ways and for reasons that we don’t know or don’t understand.

And it’s so easy to feel distant from everyone we love, to see the distances and not the ways in which we’re close. It’s so easy to feel like we’re struggling alone instead of together. But it’s not true. Or it doesn’t have to be.

And still we try to carve out something beautiful, something fragrant and fine. Something we can give, something that connects us. Something miraculous and wonderful. Even in a year where the dark days have taken turns we never imagined. Especially in that kind of year. I’m struggling to remember which rabbi it was, what the exact wording was, who said that the work of the world is neither ours to complete nor ours to abandon. Not my tradition–but one of my truths. One of my great truths.

It’s time to sing the songs and bake the bread. It’s time to find our way kicking and screaming into miracle and wonder. And it’s time to do the work in the dark time to bring the light back into the world in the days ahead.

Happy Santa Lucia Day.

2006: http://mrissa.livejournal.com/380857.html
2007: http://mrissa.livejournal.com/502825.html and http://mrissa.livejournal.com/503100.html
2008: http://mrissa.livejournal.com/596214.html
2009: http://mrissa.livejournal.com/688906.html
2010: http://mrissa.livejournal.com/751599.html
2011: http://mrissa.livejournal.com/798532.html
2012: http://mrissa.livejournal.com/842565.html
2013: http://www.marissalingen.com/blog/?p=260
2014: http://www.marissalingen.com/blog/?p=659
2015: http://www.marissalingen.com/blog/?p=1141

Early Christmas present: The Elf Who Thought He Was Teddy Roosevelt

Some years I take a notion, and this is one of them.

I like the idea of giving fiction as a present, but I’m not embedded enough in the fanfiction community–or, let us be honest, committed or organized enough–to commit to doing Yuletide. Instead, some years I decide it’s time to give a story away for free for Christmas, to whoever wants to read it. Please don’t copy the text, but spread the link far and wide if you want to. This year Mikulas left Teddy Roosevelt in your shoe. Or rather–

The Elf WHo Thought He Was Teddy Roosevelt

Tea and mythic beasts and mayhem

Last year for Christmas I wrote my mom a story that included all these elements. This year I decided to put it on my website for free to share with all of you. Here it is: How to Wrap a Roc’s Egg. It was inspired by a pair of earrings made by Elise Matthesen, by the work of the great taxonomist and general all-around eccentric Carl Linnaeus, and of course tea. Happy Solstice, merry Christmas, and on through all the rest of the holidays ahead. Enjoy.

“The next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all”

It’s Santa Lucia Day, the same as all the other Santa Lucia Days, different from all the other Santa Lucia Days. That’s how holidays go.

I have the fragrant saffron bun to bite into this morning. This year I opened a package of dried blueberries early in the week, and they were perfect, huge and not at all sticky, not like the ones I’ve been getting, the tiny clumpy ones. They were like cutting open a fish in a fairy tale and finding gold coins. I looked at them and thought, “These are too good for granola,” and I shut the package and ate tiny clumpy ones in my granola the rest of the week so that the lussekatter could have the gift blueberries. To make my life a little easier. To leave a trail for myself in the long grey not-cold-enough nights.

Some years the dark time of your own heart doesn’t synch up with the dark time of the calendar. Some years you get through the dark of your own personal year early and have sort of got a handle by the autumnal equinox–not that everything is amazing, but that you know what you need to do next. You are coping with what there is. The darkness of your heart can wait around for later, and for now you can do the stuff there is to do and appreciate the stuff there is to appreciate. Other people around you have their own bad stuff you can’t talk about. Your bad stuff is still there. But some years you find a little bit of a groove. You find a little bit of light, just as the world loses it.

The lussekatter are important those years, too. Because there’s always darkness at some scale–you can see it, you don’t need me to tell you where. Your family, your city, your country, the world–it’s a messed up world. There’s always darkness to kick away at, always light to bring back to someone. It’s the work of the world, it’s what we do. So I sang the songs–gently–to remind the dough what day it is. I kneaded gently, I sang softly, and the blueberries were there because I had left them for myself, my bread crumbs, my white stones. And this year the bread is still for me, but maybe a bit more for some other people. And that’s a good way too.

Happy Santa Lucia Day.

2006 2007 part one 2007 part two 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014

Merry merry tired and many stories

The thing about coming back tired from vacation into the making of holiday cheer is that there are all sorts of things that are almost but not quite slipping my mind. Entirely possible that there are all sorts of things that are completely slipping my mind, too, but I can’t remember what they are just now. I was so tired this morning that I had to stick my head back under the shower once I’d gotten out, because I couldn’t remember whether I had rinsed my hair or not, and it seemed like probably I should make sure.

Of course, I was trying to remember something like five different plot points on two stories that had come up while I was in the shower, so you can see where something like “did you perform the basic functions for which you were there” might have fallen off the bottom of the list.

Which reminds me–and thank heavens something does, because see above–that I’ve been talking on Twitter to Matthew Bennardo about working on multiple projects at once. He was feeling alone because most of the people he was asking claimed to work on only one story at once. And no, that is not me, really not, really no. I have dozens of stories in different stages of completion. I would worry about this if I didn’t write so dang many stories of different types and lengths anyway, but clearly I’m finishing stuff. Clearly I’m selling stuff. So what we call this is process, not problem.

Before I left for Montreal, Kameron Hurley had a blog post (somewhere…oh, look, here it is) called “Why I Finish All My Shit.” And I read it, and I thought, “huh, no, glad it works for you, but no.” Because yes, you have to finish stuff to learn how to finish stuff–both in the sense of completion and in the sense of making endings work. Absolutely. But there is a very strong sunk cost element here. If I get 200 or 2000 or 20000 words into a story and realize that it is just not working, forcing myself to finish its non-working self rather than writing some better story is what we call a colossal waste of time. And unless something is under contract, if one story is working and another is stalled out, for me there’s no particular reason to sit and stare at the stalled out story when I can be productive on the story that’s working.

(I’ve talked in the past about working out of sequence on longer projects–longer short stories as well as novels–and this is part of why. It works on a chapter-by-chapter basis for me, too. Why should I stare at Chapter 3 going, “Guhhhhh worrrrrrds,” when I could be humming merrily away writing Chapter 16? Yes, Chapter 3 will eventually get written, and for some people it really does have to happen chronologically. I am not one of those people.)

Look, here’s the thing. I have a chronic illness. I have chronic vertigo, and it stinks, and the meds that (sort of) work for it also stink. But one of the things it does is make me aware of limited opportunities. Of giving myself the best chance to succeed, to get things done, to even enjoy myself along the way. For some writers, sitting down and writing one story, start to finish, chronologically, and only writing another one when the first is revised and sent out, is the way to do that. That’s great for them. But it’s not my process, and it may not be your process, and that’s okay too.

If there’s one writing rule I would like to see enshrined for beginning writers everywhere, always, it’s this:

It’s okay if you don’t do it like anyone else, as long as you do it well.

Better late than never

The last of the lussekatter are just out of the oven now, and it’s noon. When I woke up, I could smell yeast and saffron all the way from upstairs, but not because they were baking, because the yeast was good yeast and the dough had risen overnight.

A friend of mine was in the hospital this week quite unexpectedly, and she came home yesterday and was well enough to visit finally. And there was enough Mris to stir up the lussekatter dough and visit my friend or to make the lussekatter all the way through and make sure they were ready the minute I woke up on Santa Lucia Day. But not both, and well. Here we are, and I could still smell them when I woke up, promising: don’t worry, we’re still here, you didn’t miss it. There’s still time.

It’s never too late to kick at the darkness, to do your part to beat back at it until the sun returns. It’s grey and wet here, too warm for December but not in a way that does anyone any good. Mark has had to go out of town too much this fall, and he was glum having to get up so early, and I didn’t have a saffron bun to cheer him; I’ll have to save one out for his return.

But Tim brought the guitar upstairs so that we could sing “This Year” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “In the Dark” in the kitchen while the lussekatter baked. And this year I have homemade orange curd to put on them, because part of figuring out gluten-free baking for our loved ones this year is extra egg yolks. From limitation, abundance. Orange will go well with saffron and blueberry. Not in the way we expected, but we find our way around to good, even in the dark days.

2006 2007 part one 2007 part two 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012

Home and House

I am home from Montreal and digging out from under the mountain of things that will pile up when you take a vacation. It was lovely, it was grand, and now it is lovely and grand to be home. And oh, so much stuff. So much stuff. Presents to wrap, more presents to buy and wrap. Stories to revise, more stories to write. The laundry is starting to feel a bit under control, although I know that this is an illusion, as the laundry hamper is almost full again. There are several things that want cooking, and more that want backing, and…well, most of you know what day it is, Saturday.

While I’m doing all this stuff, the magic of publishing brings you things I worked on much earlier. I have a new story up on BCS today, A House of Gold and Steel. Go, read, enjoy.

Cookie Day Two: The Re-Cookenating

I had a list. We ignored the list. We burned the list to the ground.

You see, Mom and Grandma and I: we are experienced in the ways of Cookie Day. But having already done one, we had a lot of our usual tricks kind of…handled. One of the ways that you keep three experienced bakers working all day with only one oven is to make things on the stove. Well, we’d already made two kinds of fudge and caramels. That was on Gluten-Free Cookie Day. But! We are versatile! We are fierce! We are determined! So onwards. Onwards to glory and lots and lots of treats.

We made: pepparkakor, brun brod, pretzel hugs, strawberry shortbreads, blueberry shortbreads, pecan penuche, hazelnut toffee, blueberry meringues (bluemeringues! they are boomerang shaped!), and strawberry jam filled amaretti (pink, to distinguish them from the raspberry jam or frosting filled lavender ones on Sunday). We would have also made lemon curd, but I ran out of butter and have to run out to the KwikTrip today to get butter for that and the yams. (Because I am I going to brave a grocery store the day before Thanksgiving when the gas station sells perfectly cromulent butter? Hahaha I am not.)

Note: some of the linked recipes are old recipes in which I reference using oleo. I don’t really bake with oleo any more unless I’m baking for someone who needs non-dairy treats. You can; most of those recipes were passed down from relatives who grew up with butter rationing if they weren’t still on the farm. But I pretty much always bake with butter.

The amaretti are the great discovery of this year. They’re really not hard if you’re comfortable with a pastry bag (which includes being comfortable with a Ziploc with the end snipped off), and we totally didn’t do the thing she talks about with switching the racks of the oven, and it worked fine–my cookie sheets are large, so we can only bake a sheet at a time because they block air flow from each other. But fifteen minutes in the middle of a 300 degree oven, no fooling around, they do exactly what they’re supposed to do, they’re an easy gluten-free dairy-free cookie, go team.

You notice that some of the things yesterday were still gluten-free, even though the gluten-free focused Cookie Day was Sunday. Here’s the thing. There is so much out there that’s good that doesn’t have to have gluten in it in the first place. Penuche, toffee, meringues. These things are just–they’re just treats. They’re just goodies. They aren’t funny-smelling pseudo-treats. Life as part of a family that contains allergies can be rich and festive and joyful. And it should.

Cookie Day One: Sans Gluten et Sans Reproche

My godson Rob was diagnosed with celiac this spring, and while we haven’t made all the changes we would if it was someone in my household, there has been a lot more paying attention to what has wheat and barley and the like, what doesn’t, what does but can be made to work without it. Also, we have been saying for years that my goddaughter Lillian is almost old enough (and definitely enthusiastic enough about baking) to be included in Cookie Day. This year, the two things combined: we had Lillian spend the night and then spend all day having Gluten-Free Cookie Day.

Here is what we made.

First, in our pajamas, we made fully glutenated waffles for breakfast. Because Lillian hasn’t been diagnosed with celiac, and sometimes having the gluteny things you like when you’re not sharing them with your big brother is a good plan.

Then we got ready for the day and finished putting out the Christmas decorations (usually wayyyy too early, but I’m going to be in Montreal, so I needed to get it done if it was ever going to happen) and waited for my folks and my grandma. And then the reinforcements got here and we really got going.

We made: chocolate fudge with hazelnuts; double-layer chocolate/peanut butter fudge; caramels; strawberry shortbread with gluten-free flour*; chocolate-dipped apricots; chocolate mixed nut clusters; amaretti (tinted lavender–Lillian’s choice), some sandwiched with frosting and some with raspberry jam; Nutella cookies; and chocolate chip peanut butter cookies. We didn’t get to the blueberry meringues, so I’ll do those tomorrow before we really get going on the gluten-y cookies, and there was a teeeeeensy mishap when we were boiling the apple cider down for apple cider caramels, so that got scratched for the day.

And in the process, we taught Lillian about when you whip a lot of air into egg whites to make them fluffy, how to use a pastry blender to do exactly the opposite, how to use a pastry bag to pipe dough out, how to make frosting from scratch, and many other topics in the worlds of baking, chemistry, finance, and more.

All in all, a lovely day. More of it coming tomorrow.

*This was our only use of a gluten-free flour product. All the other cookies and treats were recipes that are just naturally made without flour. I know that some of the wheat substitute flours can taste pretty good for people who need them, especially with a strong flavoring like strawberry covering up the fact that they don’t taste quite the same, and they’re a good resource to have. But when I’m not working around another dietary restriction like nuts, dairy, or eggs, I prefer to make recipes that were gluten-free to begin with, rather than adjusting things to become gluten-free. Several of the above were also dairy-free, though, so ask if you’re interested.

Now don’t say I never give you anything nice.

1. Yesterday my friend Ginger Weil and I both had stories in the new issue of Apex. Mine is called The New Girl and is in the same universe as some other stories you’ve seen from me–most recently “The Salt Path,” also in Apex. Ginger’s is The Stagman’s Song and happens to be her professional fiction debut. Go, read, enjoy. (There’s also the rest of Apex I haven’t gotten to yet.)

2. Today I have a story in Nature, Boundary Waters. There is also a guest blog post from me on the Nature blog about it. So if you don’t have time to read “The New Girl” and “The Stagman’s Song,” “Boundary Waters” is much shorter but one hopes also a good read. (My two pieces go thematically together more than I expected, since I didn’t write them together and couldn’t plan that they would be published together. Very different settings and so on. See what you think.)

3. Speaking of my stories, there’s still time left in the Not Our Kind Kickstarter. It’s more than 60% funded, and there are new backer rewards that are worth checking out.

4. Not at all speaking of my stories, Tim is having his holiday print sale early this year. Lots of excellent new work in that as well as old favorites, and an easy way to see the existing photo gallery behind that link if you’ve been trying to remember what it was you wanted.

5. I have been doing a new craft project or art project or something. I have been making things. And the problem is, I am surprising people with these things for Christmas, so I cannot say what they are. I am even surprising Mark, so when he isn’t traveling for work, my materials get bundled away into my office closet. I am really not good at not talking about this kind of project, and it’s driving me a bit bazoo to not be able to talk about what I’m figuring out from first principles and what I’m learning from other people’s successes. A few of you are getting this on email. The people I would most want to say it to, though, are my mom and Stella and Sherry, and they are the people who most need surprising. It keeps coming up naturally in conversation and making me go, “Nnnng!” There was even a Terry Pratchett joke I couldn’t make yesterday. It is so unfair, and we’re nowhere near Christmas yet. (On the other hand, we are near enough to Christmas that I do need to keep working steadily on these items when Mark is out of town!) I finished Kev’s yesterday, and it’s lovely, it’s–

Not a pony. It is not a pony. Nobody is getting a pony.

That’s all I have to say about that.