It's a new year whenever.
We are still in the thick of holiday season here in San Juan. It doesn’t feel right to end the year just yet when Three Kings’ Day is coming on Thursday and there are still gifts wrapped under our tree. My grandma, who grew up in Brooklyn, called this day the Epiphany (so my mom tells me); that’s why we weren’t supposed to take down the tree until January 6.
Because for me, the New Year will come when I turn in my book manuscript, or maybe it will come with Ash Wednesday on March 2, I’m not in the headspace of January resolutions or intentions or hopes. I’m in the slog of getting back to work when I haven’t quite finished the biggest project of my life, despite all my timelines and to-do lists.
I wanted to write about excess today—a defense. January, whether we’re ready for it or not, comes with a lot of messaging about now being the time to become fitter, better, happier. Some people try Veganuary, when they go vegan; others do Dry January, trying on sobriety. I haven’t eaten meat in a decade and I’m not going to part with my martinis for any length of time, and so I wanted to figure out a way to endorse celebration, indulgence. I am no Bacchus, though, regardless of how I wish myself to be, however I imagine the most fun version of myself as the one who’s spraying the Champagne. I love luxury; I seek abundance—but my definitions of these have a natural restraint, one that mirrors who I actually am.
My desire to write about excess during what is in some cultures a moment of cutting back was part of a childish contrarian streak. In all my years in Catholic school, I never gave up anything for Lent. I don’t know why I thought I could play with God like that, but my adolescent logic was that I had nothing to give up, nothing I could sacrifice, and that was for whatever reason the focal point of our theological instruction: Figure out something to sacrifice, when, at that age, every joy in my life felt so essential, like it was keeping me alive on its own. Little attention was given to why, and so it felt like more arbitrary punishment from adults I did not respect.
The actual meaning of Lent is that after the twelfth day of Christmas, known as El Día de los Reyes Magos or Three Kings’ Day or the Epiphany, parties continue, ending on the day before Ash Wednesday—a staid little event called Mardi Gras. It’s indulgence, indulgence, indulgence until we are supposed to mirror Jesus fasting in the desert with some kind of sacrifice, to culminate in Easter. If my teachers explained it to me like this, I might have wanted to participate. I might have understood the symbolic purpose.
Despite being treated like a menace for banal insubordinations like reading Trainspotting during class or being generally sloppy and disorganized, I was a kid and I could not come up with any part of my life that was a vice. Would I give up my few CDs, a collection I was always scheming to grow? I hated being pushed to try, the same way I resented sitting face to face with a priest in confession, exaggerating whatever white lie I’d told, whatever slight cruelty I’d perpetrated. I refused to be led to believe that what seemed to me just life was an endless string of sins (ideas I was getting from all the music and books, undoubtedly). And so, I wasn’t.
My contrarianism only went so far, though, as I was terrified of revealing myself to be an addict, which was prevalent on one side of my family. Rather than seek out drugs or alcohol as an older teenager, I did a lot of stupid and weird things completely sober. All of my regrets, my mistakes are pure and unadulterated. My friends and I drew fat Xs on our hands in a gesture toward straightedge identity. I drank a lot of java chip Frappuccinos, though—I could have given those up for Lent. But by then, I’d made it part of my personality: I don’t give things up, which was a way of saying that I already assumed there were so many things I’d never try, that I feared.
In my mid-twenties, I did give up meat, though I don’t know if that’s quite the right phrasing. “Give up” suggests sacrifice, and it hasn’t been one, regardless of how dully other people perceive this decision. I made that choice after months of privately toying with it, having vegan days and vegetarian weeks. I made the announcement on my birthday, upon showing everyone the vegan and gluten-free cake I’d ordered for the party. (That I’m so controlling about cake could be considered a vice, now that I consider it.) Now during Lent, I’m already doing the Friday meat fasting every day. I’m doing it all year, and I’m doing it out of love, not as penance.
I’m thinking about Lent and vice because of the messaging that comes with a New Year, January seemingly being a secular type of Lent. It’s sold as a time for weight loss, for sobriety, for exercise, for renewed attempts at forming good, productive habits. It’s very puritanical to me, in a way that in adulthood I finally understand that Lent is not. January becomes about making yourself anew—not a break in celebration, but a detox, under the assumption that indulgence is always excessive, gross, not a natural part of the cycle of life.
I believe in getting on with things, making adjustments as they reveal their necessity. There’s a Nada Surf lyric that goes, “Every day is New Year’s Eve / every night is the last night.” Every day is a chance to start anew if things aren’t feeling quite right. I think this is a better way of thinking about life, or at least it has been for me. The messaging around the New Year feels bullying to me, stifling and cruel. There’s nothing wrong with using this moment for a fresh start, but there’s something wrong with the push that we all really need a fresh start, or that what we all really need is less of something. Maybe some people need more: a push toward taking up more space, allowing themselves some luxury, giving in to a need for leisure, letting go of notions of perfection. I loved reading Rachel Connolly on using this time as a way to make an honest intention, such as hers last year to eat more Chinese food.
I didn’t really start drinking until my late twenties, and I was still afraid of unlocking addiction in myself. I would take weeks off of imbibing here and there just to make sure I wasn’t developing a dependence. Drinking was thrilling then because it allowed me to shed the anxiety I’d had for so long, the fear that I was only held together by my own willpower: I was able to dance, finally. Now, I try not to worry about myself; I try to enjoy.
I’ve long wanted the words “live, baby, live” tattooed on my fingers, another lyric, from the INXS song “New Sensation”—a reminder not to let anxiety and fear rule my life the way they did when I was young. I might even finally give something up for Lent this year, in honor of feeling that my life is now always well-lived, that I could survive a sacrifice. Vice and atonement will take their turns; after Mardi Gras comes Ash Wednesday. There’s a Bible passage about that—I learned it from a pop song.
This Friday’s “From the Kitchen” for paid subscribers will feature the chocolate olive oil cake with spiced tahini frosting that I made for my wedding. There will be one traditional American buttercream, and one sweetened with dates and agave. Next Friday, a white bean soup.
The podcast will be returning soon in its new and improved form, but my book is due next Monday, so I’m waiting until I have more of my wits about me to get that ball rolling again. It will be freely available.
In the meantime, a short playlist based on themes in this essay:
While I was off for the holidays but mainly writing, an interview I did with cookbook author Julia Turshen came out, all about baking.
My Bitch piece from their Fall/Winter issue about sugar is now online.
Book work, for which I’ll publish a reading list eventually, but I’m also dipping back into My Struggle Book 4 to finish it and to feel human.
Za’atar man’oushe by Reem Assil (recipe found via Ruth Reichl) with charred harissa eggplant, hummus, kale salad. The man’oushe is very easy and also easily the best flatbread I’ve ever made! I turned my oven up as hot as it gets and put a sheet pan in as it heated, then threw in the dough and flipped when it puffed—if you can’t yet easily flip the flatbread, it’s not yet ready.