I was born on December 31st, but that’s not why I like December because New Year’s Eve isn’t the best time to have a birthday. (It sucks, actually.) What I like about December is the light. The quick-fading afternoon sunset, dyeing the horizon in fiery orange. The velvety purple and blue shadows of dusk. The silver stars of Orion looming in the night sky. I also look forward to a twenty-six-year-old holiday tradition my husband and I started back in our grad school days: baking and frosting X-rated sugar cookies (the snowman with the big boner is a favorite) late in the evening, followed by other sweet indulgences. Which is all fitting because December is the Lord of Misrule’s domain, a time of magic and possibility, dreams and desires…and plenty of dessert.
But one December several years ago, even the enchantment of the light or a bite of horny snowman cookie couldn’t chase back the gloom of a family crisis. My mother had died an agonizing death from a diabetes drug and my family’s thwarted effort to seek justice left me wary of the fictions in our legal system and in life. My own failed attempts to tell our story to a broader public left me doubting my own supposed “way with words.” I decided to take a break from all writing. It was a necessary step for me to heal perhaps, but at the time I wondered if I would ever write again.
With no deadlines or ideas for new stories swirling through my head I wasn’t quite sure how I would fill the vacant December days. I wanted to do something, though, something frivolous and indulgent. I would make a gingerbread house. Not the simple, six-piece chalets I’d baked for my kids to decorate in past years, but a grand Victorian mansion that would send Martha Stewart on a two-week insomnia jag as she struggled vainly to do me one better. So I cranked up the carols and started tracing out the patterns based on a design from Steven Stellingwerf’s The Gingerbread Book (sadly no longer in print). I estimated the blueprints would take an hour or so and I could start my baking therapy that afternoon. Two days and twenty pattern pieces later, I was getting the sense that my construction project might turn out to be all too similar to a real-life contracting job.
It got worse. The instructions called for me to stir up a double recipe of dough fragrant with molasses, cinnamon, and ginger. Four batches and a few more days later, my entire dining room table was covered with miniature chocolate-brown walls, roofs, chimneys and shutters. My fingers were blistered and my arms sore, but the real work had only begun. Each piece needed to be glued with a mortar of egg white and confectioner’s sugar then patiently held together until the new section hardened enough to stand on its own. Six batches of mortar were followed by six more of decorative icing to add the necessary “gingerbread” flourishes. It was an orgy of beating and whipping to make the most enthusiastic BDSM aficionado wilt with exhaustion.
By then I’d abandoned any plan or expectation and gave myself over to the meditative rhythms of sifting, stirring, and slathering. My body swayed as I piped zigzag designs in snow white frosting on the tiny eaves. I hummed cheerfully as I transformed upended sugar cones into conifers with swirls of green icing. In the end my Victorian mansion had too many off-center shutters and listing candy cane porch posts to threaten Martha’s supremacy as the dominatrix of edible architecture, but the sense of satisfaction I felt as I stood back and admired my “Holiday Inn” resembled rather uncannily a state of post-orgasmic bliss
And that’s when the real thrills began.
I’d like to take a moment to pause and remind you of the kinds of responses you get when you share the draft of a story with your writing group, virtual or fleshly, or worse still a well-meaning friend who asks to see what you’ve been writing. All but the most trustworthy paragons who truly respect your sensibility will try to improve your piece with hatchet-strokes of criticism. They’ll call the plot predictable, the protagonist wimpy, the sex too shocking or vanilla (a common complaint for my stories although you can’t do better for your taste buds than high-quality vanilla extract, especially Mexican for cookies and Tahitian for custards). They’ll tell you your experiment with second-person narrative fell flat, they hate your favorite funny image of the hero’s cock as a cannon poised over a Civil War battlefield, and the story would be much better if you rewrote it exactly the way they’d have done it if it had been their idea. Don’t even get me started on editors’ cryptic critiques and agents’ hackneyed brush-offs.
As you might have guessed by now, I was used to having my artistic children mauled by heartless critics, and so I was hesitant to expose my fledgling gingerbread mansion to the public gaze. Since it took up half the dining room table, however, I didn’t have much choice.
I’m delighted to report that the reviews, dear reader, were as glowing as a house decked with Christmas lights. Everyone loved my little country hotel, man and woman, young and old. Their jaws gaped in wonder, they sighed with enchantment, their hands twitched desirously in anticipation of the eating orgy that would mark my masterpiece’s inevitable January demolition. No one made snide mention of the crooked shutters. Not a soul suggested I should have used the #24 decorating tube instead of #30. There were no indignant protests that gingerbread is too coarse and spicy—vulgar even—and if I were a serious artist I would restrict myself to socially acceptable sugar cookie dough.
As the days passed and the delicious praise continued, a holiday miracle of sorts did occur. Without the cloudy distractions of careless judgment, I saw the real meaning of what I’d accomplished. I’d actually created an entire mansion with nothing but my dedication and imagination, plus a few pounds of flour and sugar and spice. And while I was happy that others were enchanted, what mattered most was that it gave me great pleasure, too.
The following week I sat down to write a story. It was about a widow who overcomes a long mourning by seducing a younger man with a special cookie recipe. When I first I sat down to face the blank screen after my six-month bout of writer’s block, I was a little worried I’d be rusty. To my surprise, the words came fast and easy as if I’d already done my warm-up lap. Only later did it hit me that I was actually writing my second story. My Victorian mansion had been the first, nourishing my soul and then my body with December’s magic transformation of darkness into light.
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor