I have a certain affection for the word midwinter. It has always helped me to verbalize this period that comes after Christmas when we are in post-celebratory mode, and the world has become a much quieter, introverted version of the one we left behind in December. As it turns out, the term midwinter is actually synonymous with the winter solstice, so it seems as though my thinking may have been a little bit off, at least in terms of timing. Maybe not in terms of sentiment, though, if we consider the opening lines of In the Bleak Midwinter, a Christmas poem written in 1872 by Christina Rossetti and set to music by Gustav Holst:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
The remainder of the song is quite religious, but the first few lyrics speak to the feeling that I’m trying to capture. There is an inescapable coldness and a certain unyielding quality to these early January days that cause us to fold inward and become more introspective. In this quiet place, we begin to measure ourselves against various standards of worth. Some of these standards belong to society, but some are our own, and at times, we may find ourselves uncertain as to which method of measurement should actually apply. It is at this moment, when we feel this bleak midwinter in our souls, if you allow me to make a reference to one of the greatest lines in literature, that the New Year’s Resolution is born. It begins with the question, “What can I do in this upcoming year to make my life more worthy?”
If we ask this question, and we don’t find a ready answer, a tiny tapping begins inside us, and we listen, wondering and waiting, until we realize that what we’re hearing is the sound of fear. As human beings, especially now, our sense of what we are, or the part of us that is measured in terms of how the world sees us, has become irrefragably bound to our sense of who we are, or the part of us that only we know best. Without one, we cannot find the other, and that terrifies us. As author James Baldwin writes in his non-fiction work, Nothing Personal, “It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without, than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant.” Baldwin was, of course, writing at a time of overwhelming racism and bigotry in America. As evidenced by some of the events of the past few years, we have not moved as far from that place as we might have believed. We continue to divide along so many lines, just as we continue to create new labels, and although there are rays of hope in the openness and acceptance of our younger generation, it remains to be seen as to whether we really can move forward as a nation that is, in any way, united.
One of the keys to achieving unity as a collective may be found in this notion of finding unity within ourselves first. Baldwin continues: “…this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents – the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self – and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.” There is no doubt in my mind that Baldwin was specifically referring to the deep ugliness that comprises the very core of racism. There are individuals to whom his reference still applies, but there are many of us who fall somewhere else along a broad spectrum of self awareness. There are so many questions we need to ask ourselves, but none of them need to be written out here. We all know what they are. At a bare minimum, we can begin by inviting our provisional selves to step aside for a moment and allow us to take a long, hard look at the part of us that wants to remain unseen.
Here in our own personal darkness, we encounter the undiscoverable self. What happens when we come face to face and attempt to measure its worth? Do we look and recoil because we see something that is not reflective of who we want to be? Or does just the opposite occur? Does the undiscoverable self measure our worth? Does it recoil from us because we have become trapped in the snare of presenting the world with images, rather than reality? I’d like to believe that James Baldwin would allow me to say that somewhere between the provisional self and the undiscoverable self lies the true self, the one we aspire to be in our best moments, and the one that is manifested when we try to unify the two. Our modern version of his terror lies in not being able to do exactly that. But this is where we find our resolution: here, in this bleak midwinter place, we can discover the honest work that needs to be done. We can resolve to bridge the gap between what we think we are and what we know we are, thus creating the individual unity that becomes the foundational structure of the collective whole. Only then do our lives become worthy.
For today’s cocktail, I decided to do a very simple riff on a basic gin martini. By altering the measurements and making the drink equal in parts, I’m attempting to illustrate the balance we need within ourselves. As you might imagine, the cocktail could slide on a scale, with the gin sitting first chair in one version, and the Génépy taking lead in another. There is only one place that feels unified. Additionally, I loved both the flavor and the symbolism of the Génépy itself. It is an herbal liqueur, made from many alpine plants in the tradition of the Chartreuses, with the most prominent flavor coming from a particular variety of artemesia, commonly known as wormwood. Its flavor is reminiscent of licorice, but milder and more floral. Artemesia represents the idea of absence in the language of flowers. If unity is absent, then there is very little hope that we can ever move forward. I expressed a lemon peel over the drink to symbolize the need for awakening, and I garnished with a small fennel frond. Fennel asks the question, “Of what are you worthy?” Cheers everyone. I wish you a happy, contemplative Friday.
Midwinter in Our Souls
2 ounces of your favorite gin
2 ounces Dolin Génépy des Alpes
Long, long stir over ice.
Single strain into a martini glass.
Express a lemon peel over the drink, but discard it.
Garnish with a small fennel frond.