Thoughts at the Turn of a Decade

I planned to spend the last day of 2019 writing and the evening hanging out with the kids. They’re getting older, and I know that days spent celebrating New Year’s Eve with Mom are few and precious. But then I decided that I wanted to prepare a special meal for the day, which meant that instead I spent much of the afternoon in the kitchen making a cassoulet—as well as a batch of varenyky in advance for Sviat Vechir, Ukrainian Christmas Eve, next week.

So, in between chopping and sautéing, braising and boiling, I kept leaning over to jot down thoughts on the laptop positioned at the end of the counter. Once they were tucked in after midnight, I was able to finish up. Here are my stove-side thoughts for the end of a decade.

2020 is the beginning of the sixth decade I have been alive for; this is the decade when I’ll turn 50. Looking back:

1970s
I was a child, and surrounded by love. The world was scary and wonderful
in the way that fairy tales are wonder-filled. My life was full of star wars
and little houses on the prairie and sorcerers and ghosts.
1980s
I became a teenager and immersed myself in books.
I fretted about the future and dreamed about falling in love,
and I learned invaluable lessons in loneliness.
1990s
I fell in and out of love so many times. I found my voice
and learned how to use it. I found my path and I decided
who I wanted to be when I grew up.
I read everything. I taught. I danced and I wrote
into the early hours of almost every morning.
2000s
I got married, moved back and forth overseas, became a mother.
I learned new lessons in generosity and loneliness.
We traveled to awesome places, touched the past
and planted seeds for future adventures.
Through my children’s eyes, my life was full of star wars
and little houses on the prairie and sorcerers and ghosts.
I wrote new stories, and I tried to figure out who I was in a new context.
2010s
I wrote and parented and wrote and parented and rarely slept.
Thanks largely to the internet, I reached out to find community.
I was welcomed into circles and made new circles.
I tried to figure out how to be a better mother, partner, friend, writer.
I failed sometimes. I fell out and in and out and in love,
and I learned new lessons in loneliness. I got divorced.
I taught. I danced, and I wrote into the early hours.
I watched my kids turn into teenagers, and I see them
trying to figure out their paths and find their circles.
The world is scary and wonderful, but I am reminded
that we can overcome the monsters in the forests
and in the closets and in the mirrors.
(That is the gift and magic of fairy tales.)

So as the decade is ending, there are two things I keep thinking about:

First thing is that it’s important to finish things. Sometimes that means the end of a story or a book; sometimes that means the end of a marriage or a friendship. Not every ending is happy, and many of them hurt, and all of them are work. The work part is important. So is asking for help.

The second thing is that it’s ok to change our minds. The only thing we can know with certainty in the present moment is how we feel right now. We may have felt differently a week ago and we may feel different in a day or a year. That’s ok, because we are all changing. To be human is to try things, to make choices, to change our minds, to try other things. Hopefully we find people to share the journey with us, so that we can learn from one another and love each other along the way.

This feels really important as I watch the kids growing up. I am aware of the pressure they feel all around them. There’s the pressure that schools put on them to figure out their futures, but there’s also the pressures of social media. In this very public reality they live in, where so much of their lives is being broadcast online in photos and in streams of words, they are expected to know and share a lot about who they are.

While this can be a beautiful way to explore identity and find community, if you’re someone who is searching or uncertain, it can feel isolating and paralyzing when everyone else seems to have figured out who they are and whom they love and what they want to do.

With these things in mind, here is my wish for my kids and for everyone as we move into the 2020s.

Don’t be afraid to finish things. Remember, when we finish one thing, we create space for something new. When you are ready, be open to the new things.

When you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. There are people who want to help. If someone asks you for help and you can help, try. This is a lesson in karma right out of the fairy and folk tales.

Try to encounter people and their beliefs with a generosity of spirit. The world is full of new ideas and experiences that will challenge us and sometimes even change us. That’s scary but also wonderful.

You don’t have to figure it all out at once. Be kind to yourself and patient with yourself. Give yourself permission to change your mind: about a major, a job, a career, a person, an idea, a place, and most of all, yourself. Being authentic means being honest about who you are and how you feel in a given moment, this includes recognizing the need to change something in your life.

I was nearly 16, the same age my oldest daughter is right now, when we moved from the 1980s to the 1990s. I can’t imagine navigating young adulthood today. Their generation is aware of the world and its global challenges in a way that we were not. They also have tools we only dreamed of.

I keep coming back to fairy tales. I’d like to think that together we can overcome the monsters… in the forests and in the closets and in the mirrors. Maybe we can see the end of some systems and patterns that have hurt people and the planet for too long. Maybe the 2020s will be the decade when we create the space for something better.

Happy New Year. xxo

Ukrainian Christmas Blessings

Much like Greeks, Russians, and other Slavic people, many Ukrainians (Orthodox and Catholic alike) celebrate Ukrainian Christmas today, according to the old “Julian” Calendar.
WILLIAM KURELEK, Ukrainian Christmas Eve (1973)

We have always celebrated both Christmases in our family.  “American” Christmas was the festive holiday for Christmas movies, carols, and Santa Claus. We would watch the skies for signs of Santa while driving home from my Uncle Mike and Aunt Sophia’s, and my sister Nadya and I often fell asleep in the car before we even got home.

Ukrainian Christmas was the more sacred winter holiday for us, connecting us to family but also to our ancestors. Sviat Vechir (Holy Night) dinner on Christmas Eve night was at the heart of the holiday, and we would go to Baba Dudycz’s house with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. Baba had her tree decorated, and around the house hung several of Baba’s pavuky (more on the pavuk can be found here). The small house was filled with family, and it always smelled amazing–frying onions, baked bread, borshch, mushroom gravy, the sweet kutia. My cousins and I amused one another with stories and games as we waited,occasionally entertained by adults who took turns interacting with us or watching television with Dido in the front room.

After seeing the first star in the sky, we said a prayer and often sang a Ukrainian carol, then feasted on the traditional dishes. I knew that Baba and my aunts were working in the kitchen, but I never really appreciated how much work it was until I prepared the dishes myself many many, years later. Baba and Dido Dudycz would beam as the meal began, so proud of their big, beautiful family; so happy to be sharing this treasured night.

There would always be a place set for our Beloved Dead, for our ancestors. The night felt like magic to me. I truly felt like our family from Ukraine would come to visit while we sat there, and I wondered which spirits from Baba and Dido’s lives back home made their way across the big ocean to visit with them, and with us.

There was never a doubt that some of them would come, that they could not be deterred by time or distance, because they were family; and where there is love, there is the most powerful of connections. If anyone could make a feast to entice the ancestors from “home,” it would be Baba.

Looking back, I realize that Sviat Vechir, even more than other rituals and holidays, formed my ideas about our relationships with our Beloved Dead; because even though I had not yet experienced a personal loss, I knew that after people died, they were not gone and forgotten. Like any relationship, we would have to work to nourish and maintain it. It was our job to remember and to honor them.

Many of my fondest memories are from the many years of Sviata Vecheria meals squeezed into that dining room around those long tables. This is also where I developed the idea that sharing a meal with loved ones is a sacred experience, and preparing food with intention is one of the greatest ways of showing love–because you could feel the love, taste the love in every bite of Baba’s cooking.

Baba 1987

Today the family has grown larger and spread out across the state, and even if we were able to all gather together (which is rare these days), there would be many faces missing from around that table. We’ve lost too many of our loved ones, and there is a hole in our hearts that is full of memories but still aches for them. But when my sister and I gather at my parents’ house, and my cousins gather with my aunts and uncles–the same traditional dishes are made with love, the prayers are said and carols may be sung, memories are shared, and our family who have died are with us. I have no doubt that Baba and Dido make every stop to see all of their family.

So when I put portions of every dish on the ancestor plate, I serve them before myself, and I whisper the names of the loved ones we have lost. The room, although not as full as Baba’s house, gets a little cozier, a little more full, and I know that they have come. Because we do get small miracles and moments of grace in this lifetime. I can feel them still beaming and loving us–because love is the most powerful of connections, and what is remembered, lives.

Veselyh Sviat. Христос народився! Merry Christmas.

The Sticky Subject of Kutia a.k.a. Ukrainian “Porridge”

This morning Neil Gaiman was in a NY cab and tweeted about his Ukrainian cab driver, who picked up Neil because he was a man and “if 1st fare is a woman is bad luck all day.”

I replied by explaining that this tradition is likely related to the Ukrainian superstition that a man should be the first one to enter a house (or even call a house) on New Year’s Day. I also shared the tradition of throwing kutia (porridge) onto the ceiling on Christmas Eve. If it sticks, it means good luck for the household, and the more kernels that stick, the greater the luck.

After tweeting:

What I have learned this morning: 1) Ukrainian Taxi drivers are superstitious 2) Ukrainians throw porridge at the ceiling for luck.

Neil apparently received quite a few tweets from Ukrainians in Ukraine who had not heard of this tradition. Some had not heard of the porridge.

After a few tweets redirected my way (thanks, Neil 😉 ), I decided to quickly write this post with a few highlights.

  • The Ukrainian “porridge” to which I was referring is kutia. Some people describe it is as a flummery. Neither is quite right, but they’re close.
  • Kutia is an ancient dish that was once eaten at the solstice and is now the first of the twelve dishes to be eaten on Christmas Eve dinner (called Sviata Vecheria)
  • A nice essay about the variation in Sviat Vechir traditions can be found here, by Orysia Tracz, who has written extensively about Ukrainian traditions.
  • There are several recipes online, and as many variations as there are for Irish oatmeal. Everyone has their own particular way of making it. Google “kutia recipe” for some ideas.
  • The basic recipe we use is to first sort & rinse the bulgur wheat, soak it overnight (6-8 hours), boil it for an hour or so (depends on how long you soaked it and how firm you like it), then rinse again. Add poppyseeds, raisins, crushed walnuts, and honey to taste. In my opinion, the key is in the honey. (Ukrainians have been beekeepers for generations, and Ukrainian honey was prized. Here’s a link for more information from Medyana Rosa.)
  • There is a tradition of throwing the kutia up to the ceiling on Sviat Vechir. My grandparents did this when my father was young, and it continued into my childhood. Our Ukrainian friends and family did this and exchanged stories about it.

The things that I find fascinating about this exchange is that many Ukrainians in Ukraine have not heard of the traditions, while Ukrainians in Diaspora (Canada, US, Australia, Argentina) have likely heard of it from parents or grandparents, even if they don’t still celebrate in the traditional ways.

A few weeks ago I was part of Zlukacamp, a conference with Ukrainian students studying in the US, and the subject of traditions came up. When I was growing up, I was taught (from my parents, grandparents, Ukrainian dancing and school, church) that because Ukraine was not free, it was up to us to learn the language, study the history and traditions, and keep them alive.

My grandparents came from Ukraine (via Germany and the Displaced Persons Camps) in the 1940s. The Ukraine I learned about was very much the Ukraine of the 1930s and 40s, the language of that time, the traditions of that time.

Now Ukraine is an Independent country, but some things have been lost, and other things have changed over time. Like any country and people, they have grown a great deal in the last several decades.

So I’m not really surprised that the tradition is lost, but I’m happy to have been able to share it with some people on Twitter, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to learn about it as a child, to celebrate it as an adult, and even to write about it in my novel, The Silence of Trees (kutia and Sviat Vechir are a part of the story).

I look forward to someday seeing Ukraine of the 21st century, and I hope to be able to share with them and others some of the treasures from an older Ukraine, a Ukraine rich in folklore, fairy tales, and folk arts.