Meditation on Peppernuts

    It was time, definitely. There are those who begin their Christmas planning in July, their shopping in early October, and their baking in early November. Not I. Thanks to many years of teaching—and other reasons, of which more later—my family knew that Christmas didn’t begin in our house until exams were graded or urgency demanded it, whichever came first. The habit still lingers. But last week, as of this writing, it was time to begin baking.

Among my people, and in my immediate family, peppernuts are essential. Peppernuts (aka pfeffernüsse {German} or päpanät {Low German} or pebernodden {Danish}, etc.) are tiny, crisp, spicy – and addictive; eating only one is impossible. They’re wonderfully dunk-able in tea or coffee and perfect for keeping small children occupied in church.

photo of teapot, mug, oranges and bowl of peppernuts
Peppernuts and oranges and tea – all you need for Christmas entertaining, according to Doris Longacre, editor of More with Less Cookbook

 Making peppernuts is both labor-intensive and child-friendly. The dough itself is simple enough; its special character derives from added spices, which are variously decreed by traditional family recipes. It’s once the dough is mixed that children can be invited to roll the soft dough into thin snakes—hey, it’s like playing with playdough! After being solidly frozen, the dough-snakes are thinly sliced, and each small round placed on cookie sheets.  More fun for children. Then wait for the smell of warm spices all through the house.

 No longer having any young children around to conscript for help, I began alone, braced for inevitable memories. First, though, the pleasure of the work. Oh, I’ve heard about efforts (probably by men) to adapt a sausage machine into a dough slicer so that the work could be done more quickly. As if work is, by definition, onerous. But if I offer up the tactile pleasures of cookie dough to the god of efficiency, to what shall I give that “redeemed” time? To other work that I might likewise construe as onerous?

photo of recipe book, baking pan, snakes of dough, and the bowl with dough.
I’m still using the recipe I got from my mother-in-law almost 50 years ago, but now I’ve made it gluten- and egg-free. It still works.

 On the contrary, I would rather enter the task and make it beautiful, something of which I had already learned when I happened across Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindful distinction between “washing the dishes to get them done” and “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’m not a complete Luddite; arthritic hands make me glad for a hand mixer, although I still miss the satisfaction of creaming butter using a wooden spoon. I’m just grateful that I can still roll out the dough, make even slices, and line them up on the cookie sheet, precisely the right distance apart.

 Then there’s the bits of raw cookie dough from the ends of snakes (I say fie on those who would rob me of that delight with talk of unsafe food practices), a taste of many Christmases past. And, yes, here come the memories, all of them, like a series of snapshots, from “tolerable—even warm and fuzzy” to “unbearable.”  

 Am I really the only one who anticipates Christmas with dread and joy? The season is so hyped, so elongated (it begins already with the snuffing out of Hallowe’en jack-o-lanterns and even appears, in places, in July), so stuffed with stories of plentitude and sentimentality that it raises anticipation to ridiculous levels, and provokes in me a curmudgeonly wish that Christmas be outlawed.

Then those who dwell purposefully within the sacred narrative could celebrate in secret, pondering what it means that divinity has been embodied in fallible humanity, while the rest of the population could find some other pretext for an orgy of buying more stuff and putting up more decorations. The advertising-fuelled expectations of Martha Stewart-style fabulous dinners and parties could then be held separate from the spiritual longing for redemption from pointlessness and violence and heartache.

Sure, the carols—or rather the Christmas-themed songs—do sometimes acknowledge that someone might not come home for Christmas, or that money might be too scarce for gift-giving. That’s but a token gesture for those whose families are too dysfunctional to gather over a turkey (if there is one) without some kind of bad ending. Or for those who mourn losses too painful to celebrate anything. And I don’t even want to imagine what this season of jolly commercial goodwill means in the midst of a war zone or in refugee camps or in slums.

 It’s not popular to speak of such stories at Christmastime. Try changing the conversation to world conflicts or poverty when someone in a store asks yet again, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Always I want to retort, “What do you mean by ready? Who is ever ready for the drastic upending that it would take to bring about ‘peace and good will to all’?” Indeed, what would we do if glory did reveal itself to our harried minds?

 Even as I take the first pan of peppernuts out of the oven, browned to perfection, I know that railing about Christmas demands will not solve either the vexing problems of the world or more particular family stresses. Nevertheless, I will make peppernuts—every year—and share them, with the family, with friends. I will make other favorite cookies, and, if it’s my turn to host, will cook the turkey and all the other dishes that surround it on the carefully set table with its lit candles.

a table set with good china, wine glasses, candles and decorations
Not our usual family setting, which is definitely more than four – this was, as I recall, a meeting of friends.

 We will also bring such gifts as the family has agreed upon, whether it be an in-house exchange or a charitable donation on behalf of the family. There will be pleasure in the doing and the making and the buying, if I choose to be mindful and to acknowledge the sources of my anxiety over all over all of the above. Familiar rituals give birth also to good memories. Neither ritual nor memories of whatever sort should be ignored.

 From the very first Christmas I can remember—during which I watched it all from my sick bed—to other Christmases, including one in which funeral flowers became the living-room decorations and no cookies at all were baked, I can choose to welcome the beautiful even as I learn to accept the reality of messy human experiences. Just as we revel in the diamonds of hoarfrost in the midst of bitter cold, finding warmth where possible, and giving thanks.

It’s all of a piece, isn’t it? Memories and fresh peppernuts.  

photo of teapot, napkin, full coffee mug, and bowl of peppernuts.

The Audacity of Hope

 “Signs and wonders are always doubted, and perhaps they are meant to be. In the absence of certainty, faith is more than mere opinion; it is hope.”

 (Mary Doria Russell in Children of God)

Hope is, by definition, tenuous. It is not certainty, not even probability. It is a clinging to the barely possible, in the face of more likely, undesirable possibilities. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson insisted, “That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune—without the words, / And never stops at all.” Hope is illogical and necessary, in equal measure. “Faith, hope, and love,” declared St. Paul, are the bedrock of theology. Also of sociology and psychology.

Also of stories. Whether the stories are fiction or history or memoir or true in some other sense, we listen with longing for wisdom and for a resolution that will satisfy. For this reason, modern fiction and drama often frustrates because of its seeming hopelessness, its bleak endings. I would argue, though, that hope is visible in the stoic courage of those who endure suffering without seeing an end. The little thing with feathers still “sings sweetest in the gale.”

One of literature’s frequent symbols of hope is the birth of a child. One tiny being suggests possibilities where none existed before. At the most elemental level, a baby means that the parents are fertile—the clan will not die out, there will be another harvest, the tribe can thrive under better leadership. Ancient myths are replete with miraculous stories of birth. Anything is then possible; all things are possible.

Yet nothing is guaranteed. The hope-full Advent story includes swords and later on, a cross. Even a cursory survey of literature offers sufficient examples of what T.S. Eliot calls the “hope for the wrong thing” (East Coker). When hope forgets humility and love turns into demand, the promised little one can only disappoint.  

In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster’s classic British novel on social class, a rich capitalist family, a cultured, artistic, intelligent family, and a struggling low-class family with little in common encounter one another through tentative friendships, and brief romances, only to fall into misunderstandings and antagonism. It all seems hopeless, until an illegitimate son is conceived out of a brief passion between the lower class young man and the younger daughter of the cultural elite. Despite that intimation of hope, though, the poor baby seems the child of an artificial marrying of intellectual concepts, not actual people.    

Similarly, in two Canadian novels, Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese and Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House, literally illegitimate children are made to embody hope for resolution of age-old conflicts. In Wild Geese, the conflict is between a pioneer patriarch’s cold, selfish drive to possess and control both property and family, and his daughter’s earthy vitality, sensuality, and rebellious drive for freedom. It is a gender-driven conflict that pits materialism against nature itself, and nature, through the now-pregnant daughter, wins, if one can overlook the swashbuckling, impulsive father of the child who may or may not be able to provide adequately for his new partner and child.

In As For Me and My House, set in the 1930s, the situation is even bleaker. The narrator/protagonist and her husband, who have moved through several dustbowl towns, giving inadequate ministerial care to survivors of repeated crop failures, are both failed artists: he’s a painter and she’s a pianist. Neither had sufficient courage to match their artistic ambition and instead stumbled into a marriage and a half-sham performance as preacher and preacher’s wife. Everything around them and in them is infertile; they have no child (to the acute disappointment of them both) and their gardens die. The baby at the end is born of a brief liaison between the minister and a young parishioner (who conveniently dies in childbirth). The minister’s wife, who knows of the affair, insists that they adopt the baby and then move away into the big city to begin a new life with a new career. Such an adoption and such a marriage have but a snowball’s chance in hell of thriving, but there is no doubt that Ross is using an ancient symbol of hope, possibly ironically.

Indeed, the hope seems the hope for the wrong thing. The poor babies are asked to bring peace to ancient oppositions and to do so without an adequate foundation of love.      

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, also offer us babies as carriers of hope, but the tone is different. These novels are speculative fiction, located on earth and on Rakhat, a distant planet with two sentient species. The Jesuits’ first exploratory mission ends in seeming disaster, both for the planet and for the protagonist, whose faith, once close to sainthood, is utterly destroyed. Two babies play a crucial role. The first is born among refugees from an inter-species war of survival. The only human child on Rakhat, Isaac is fatherless and autistic; his mother, Sophia, sees no hope for this strange child among alien species. Yet he is gifted and creates an unearthly, uniquely beautiful piece of music based on the DNA sequences of humans, Runa, and Jana’ata. All three species recognize, in Isaac’s music, an example of God’s grace made manifest in the midst of on-going tragedy. Audacious as it may seem, hope remains.  

Back on earth again, at the end of the second novel, the weary ex-priest has gone, on the Day of the Dead, to weep alone at the tomb of the woman he had once hoped to marry. He has, he thinks, lost everyone he has ever loved. A young woman with a baby approaches, addressing him as “Padre.” He looks in amazement at her features, startlingly familiar, and sees a daughter he did not know he had begotten just before he was forcibly taken back to Rakhat. In submission to this new manifestation of grace, he opens his damaged arms to receive little Tommaso, his grandchild. Not all doubt has been resolved—it never will be—but love has become possible again. Nothing else is asked of this little one, just love.    

I end with a personal story. When I finally became pregnant with our oldest child, my parents had probably given up hope that we would ever give them grandchildren. At the time, my mother had entered another long period of depression. Even the brief return home of my older brother from Africa failed to rouse her from inner pain. My pregnancy was merely another cause for anxious fretting. 

My mother holding our infant son

Yet among my family treasures is a photo of my mother holding our son for the first time. Her smile recalls the beauty of her youth, when she was full of hope for the future. Our baby brought her back out of the darkness, admittedly not for very long. Life rarely works that simply. Yet those few months of newfound joy were a gift, and still are.

As T. S. Eliot warned, hope can be the “hope of the wrong thing,” just as love can be “the love of the wrong thing.” Even our worthiest expectations can be hubristic wishful thinking, just as Jesus’ birth, in an occupied country to an oppressed people, raised hopes of immediate political deliverance that were later nailed to the cross. This is not to say that we should not hope, for without hope, life—and love—cannot be sustained,  

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.  (T.S. Eliot)

Originally published in Prairie Messenger, December 13, 2017.