Sunday, 4 January 2015

Epiphany - Virtual vs Reality

Epiphany is nearly upon us. Christmas is over; the New Year is here and with the arrival of January, come the kings, riding out of the dawn-darkness of the land of the rising sun, tracking the star that has hovered ahead of them over the preceding weeks and months. The three kings have always fascinated me - their questing curiosity, their determination and willingness to travel; their strange but wonderful (and aromatic gifts); their search for the truth which takes them far from their comfort zone into the heart of Herod's unpleasantly efficient bureaucracy and out to a small, rural village to find a new-born child; a search for truth which leaves them changed men. St Matthew's Gospel, which is the only source we have for the story of the three kings, sums the episode up in a phrase that makes my spine tingle every time I read it, or hear it. "They returned to their own country by another road." Obvious in one sense, with Herod's heavies breathing down your neck, to pick a road home you didn't travel out by. But subtly significant, in a more metaphorical one too - the kings go home, "changed men" - they have seen and realised something that makes stepping back to how and who they were, impossible after their discovery. The term "Epiphany" means - "revelation"; "discovery"; 'disclosure"; "dawning realisation" - take your pick as to which you prefer. I like it that even the word "Epiphany" itself is slightly mysterious; veiled and elusive somehow; enticing me in a strange way to discover epiphanies in my own life.

I like it too that in the northern hemisphere, Epiphany falls in the dead of winter at the darkest and coldest time of year. It seems entirely appropriate to have a festival centred around disclosure at a time when the whole landscape is laid bare and its contours and character are revealed now that the curtains and drapery of leaves and summer growth have fallen away.

Like a great, old painting which, when cleaned of layers of yellowing, old varnish and the accretions of grime and time, gives up the secrets of its painterly formation to plain view, there is a winter clarity and austere beauty, even in ordinary objects that it's easy to pass by at other times of the year. The graceful shape of dark-armed trees against a winter sunrise; the sharp fur of frost on a fence-post or dead leaf;

the lines of the horizon clearly and boldly defined without the softening of leaves or colour; the intense energy of dark, winter flood-streams swirling between banks that hold only an indolent trickle or sluggish pools in summer.

All these things challenge me to look again; to question assumptions, to be open to the new; to change, myself and to travel into the future "by another road".

I've been thinking about this quite a bit over the last weeks of 2014.

Particularly in relation to how I spend my time. Do you ever tot up and worry about how much time you spend surfing the virtual waves? It seems to me that it's a bit like those lifestyle questions you get asked by your GP periodically. You know the kind of thing: "How many cups of tea or coffee do you drink per day?" or "How many units of alcohol do you consume per week?" And of course when you actually sit down and tot up what the totals are, they often are rather higher than you thought they were. The tea and coffee question always makes me feel  uneasy as I know one is only supposed to drink three cups of caffeine-containing fluid per day but this wouldn't even get me beyond breakfast-time! The actual number of cups of tea I drink daily is at least in double figures. My GP eyes me and, knowing full well that the figure I've given him needs to be augmented by at least the fifty percent that he automatically assumes I've decreased it by before telling him, and probably more, suggests I switch to herb tea instead of Earl Grey. I mumble something non-committal and try to move the conversation into safer waters like the fact that I don't drink coffee at all. He's not fooled for a minute of course, and probably mentally marks my notes as "caffeine-addict".

But never mind tea or coffee-addiction, back to time. And in particular time spent on the Internet. Which I had begun to feel was, in my case, getting disproportionate and over the last weeks of 2014 the need to redress the balance with real life felt increasingly pressing. Which is why I haven't been blogging in December. It's been all too easy for me to fritter away an hour or two (or more), hopping between sites, reading, writing here and there, surfing images and ideas and, up to a point, none of that is bad, on the contrary, it's inspirational, creative and horizon-stretching, all of which I am all for, but the point is "up to a point" and beyond that point I'm not so sure that it's so creative a way to spend time. The virtual can take over from reality as well as emulate it. And that isn't so good, it seems to me. Virtual living instead of real living.

So the New Year finds me taking stock of this particular epiphany as well as the oriental kings' one. 2015 is a watershed year for me in various ways. Not least in that I turn 50 this year. Time to take stock; time to evaluate and think about the time that is still to come and the time that is now gone; time more than ever, I feel, to live for today as well as for tomorrow. Because in the scheme of things, there won't be as many tomorrows as yesterdays.

That isn't a negative or gloomy reflection, I'm finding - on the contrary, it's energising and I've made some decisions that feel positive and uplifting about investing in the "now" - a few adventures beckon and that's exciting. One in particular about investing in a little creative retreat space - not a second home or anything grand, but, well, wait and see! Suffice it to say for now that I am reading this book that H kindly gave me for Christmas with focused interest and new projects are lining up a-plenty for my hook. 

I hope that what will emerge will provide a small space of recreative possibility by means of which I can travel, not by a different route exactly, as the same route in a different way, which perhaps amounts to the same thing. Not quite, may be, but near enough. I'll post some proper pics once it moves from virtual pipe-dream to hard and fast reality. Some time in the early summer, I hope.

This feels like a big step for me as it does involve some significant financial outlay. I am a banker's daughter and although bankers' reputations in recent years have tended to indicate a tendency to profligacy rather than frugality, I was brought up to save and husband money carefully and thriftily. To be spendthrift was a cardinal sin at home and neither my sister nor I were allowed to be, either with money or any other resource. It was a good training although at times frustrating when we wanted to spend our birthday or Christmas money and it disappeared instead into the joyless vaults of our Post Office savings accounts. It has meant that as an adult, regular saving, however meagre the amounts might be, and often they've been tiny, is second nature to me and it has stood me in good stead when money has been pretty tight from time to time. Correspondingly, spending money on any significant level can make me feel guilty. But while saving for future rainy days will always be in my blood and I am not intending to blow my life's savings at the drop of a hat, I am coming to realise that there is a balance to be struck. "There are no pockets in shrouds", after all, as the old Jewish proverb puts it.

All in all, at the beginning of this New Year, I am in the process of a rebalancing act - balancing  epiphany with practice; virtual with reality; unchangeable circumstance with choice and possibility. That will colour things here a bit in terms of frequency of posts, I think. And you may get more pics and fewer words. No bad thing, you might say! It will also, I suspect, reduce my wider involvement in the blogosphere which I shall miss but there just are only so many hours in the day.

I hope you don't mind my little ramble of reflection but I wanted to explain that I haven't just disappeared down a mouse-hole to those of you who are kind enough to read here. Thank you so much for your reading, for your comments, for your friendship - virtual and real - and for your inspiration - I send you a virtual hug across the fibre optics and wish you all a very happy New Year and some happy epiphanies that will keep you healthy, happy and the you that you are intended and in your heart long to be.

And, as a little Epiphany thank you gift to you all - a virtual thank you that can become real in your own kitchen - here is my recipe for Epiphany buns for you. They are, if you like the idea, symbolic food - they contain spices and fruits as reminders of the wise men's wealth and gifts of frankincense and myrrh. At their centre is the gold - a gilded disc of marzipan buried for safe-keeping in the spiced and fragrant dough and the rolled up form of the buns represents the circuitous route home that they took.

But you don't have to bother about the symbolism, if it isn't your thing - they are just gorgeous light and sticky buns with echoes of Christmas. They are in a different tempo from classic Christmas cake or mince pies though - not so heavy or intense - perfect for a dark, damp post-Christmas January afternoon with a large mug of (non-herbal!) tea. I make these in my bread-maker which makes everything easy but you can of course make them by hand - you may want to cut the liquid back a bit if you are making them by hand to make the dough easier to handle.

What you need:

1 tsp fast action dried yeast
500g strong white flour
1 tsp salt
3 tsp mixed spice
zest of 1 orange
100g unsalted butter, cubed
2 tbsps dried skimmed milk powder
1 tbsp treacle
2 tbsp brandy
1 egg whisked with enough water to make, along with the brandy, about 350 ml of liquid altogether

75g raisins
75g sultanas
75g glacé cherries, rinsed in hot water, drained and halved

c 225g marzipan (preferably homemade) at room temperature

1 egg whisked with 1 tbsp milk to glaze before baking
4 tbsps demerara sugar boiled until frothy and syrupy with 2 tbsps water to glaze the buns while they are still hot from the oven

What you do:
Put the yeast, flour, salt, mixed spice, orange zest, butter, milk powder, treacle, brandy, egg and water into the bread-maker bucket and switch it to its "white raisin dough" setting, adding the sultanas, raisins and cherries to the raisin dispenser, if your bread-maker has one. If it doesn't, put the fruit in a bowl and add it when the "raisin beep" goes. On no account add all the fruit to begin with or it gets mashed up in the first part of the kneading cycle and don't miss the raisin beep either because adding the fruit half an hour too late doesn't go well either and leaves the fruit in unincorporated clumps. Nasty!

Let the bread-maker do its thing and then preheat the oven to 190 - 200 C depending on your oven. (My oven is quite hot and a fan one and I find 190 C is good.) Tip the soft dough gently out onto a floured work surface and press out with your hands to a rectangular shape about 35 cm by 20 cm.

Roll out your marzipan to a sausage that will stretch the length of your dough rectangle. Place it along the long edge nearest to you and roll up the dough around the marzipan.

Line a couple of baking sheets with non-stick baking parchment.

Using a knife dipped in the flour bag before each cut, cut slices approximately 1.5 - 2 cm thick of the rolled up dough and place with the cut side facing upwards onto the baking sheets. I get about 15 slices from these quantities.

Glaze the buns before they go in the oven with the egg and milk mixture and then bake for about 15 minutes until nicely risen and golden.

While they are cooking, bubble up your brown sugar glaze in a small pan, stirring to make sure the sugar dissolves.

When the buns are baked, remove them from the oven and transfer them, still on their paper to wire racks and brush immediately with the hot brown sugar glaze. (The paper will catch all the sticky drips.) Allow to cool before tucking in - if you can!

E x


  1. Dear Mrs T
    Your new creative space sounds fascinating and I hope it becomes exactly what you need. It's easy to lose hours on the www - we all do it - but the balance between enjoying the time spent there and actually creating things or doing things in the real world is a tricky one, I think. A New Year seems to provide the perfect opportunity to decide how we would like to spend our precious time, doesn't it?
    I hope you have a lovely 2015.
    Best wishes

  2. Dear Mrs T I agree with you about too much virtual time we can waste unintentionally. I have lots of crafty projects
    waiting for me. So like the three kings I will make some wise choices! Enjoy 2015!

  3. PS I will be making the buns in the morning. Might hide the marzipan inside the dough.

  4. Parts of this I could have written myself. We bought our own recreational possibilities in Jan 2013 - our VW 1971 Campervan called Jessie. It has certainly shaken up our horizons, and last summer we spent the 6 week school hols all over the place! I would definitely recommend it - and hope that your new horizons are as much fun as ours have been - ps I have that book too! Very inspirational Dx

  5. Balance is important, I think the older I get the more I appreciate the need for balance, fun/work, save/spend are some of the most likely to get out of whack! The things that suck our time away are some of the most insidious as they disguise themselves as 'research' or 'news'! I know what you are talking about! Find and keep your balance, we will still be here waiting to share your journey. I love the photos and the words that go with them - "sharp fur of frost" is so evocative! Just love it! Take care of yourself!

  6. I, too, have had to disappear this fall/winter as real life swallowed up my time (some good, some bad). I'm finding it tricky to balance as well. Too often these past months I've allowed myself to "wallow" in other people's creativity, etc. and then been too tired to pursue the good in my own life. I look forward to any pointers that you share from your own quest:) I have very little time left before I cross the half-century mark myself, and that does lead to some re-evaluation.

  7. A very interesting post. I'll be sorry not to be able to read your blog so often but I fully understand what you mean. I keep saying to myself, since turning 50, that there's no way I have as many years ahead of me as I have behind me. And if I manage to reach my three score years and ten then I don't (all things considered) have an awful lot of time left! That sounds morbid, I suppose, but I'm just being realistic. So I want to spend whatever time is left wisely - not forgetting that it could end at any time never mind when I reach 70, 80 or whatever.

  8. A very thought provoking post Elizabeth; one to ponder on a long walk perhaps. It's a fine balance between the real and virtual world - each inspires the other but it's very easy to waste a great deal of time on the blogosphere. Quality is always better than quantity and better a few well chosen posts than endless drivel on a daily basis or every hour on social media. Honestly, who has the time for all that? Looking forward to following your adventures, along whichever road you take, during 2015. Happy New Year. Anne x

  9. Dear Elizabeth,

    Thank you for the recipe, I'm excited to try making it. I wish you well in your endeavors.

    Love, Oyee

  10. I know what you mean about the time thing! Your post is so beautifully written and thought through. Just the sort of thing that I wish that I could work out and write myself as it is exactly how I feel at times, but cannot put into words. I hope that your journey down a different road is a good one and that it brings all good things to you in 2015 and takes you to some lovely places along the way. xx

  11. Ah je comprends tout à fait ! Il faut trouver l'équilibre ! J'espère que tu vas trouver le tien bin sûr ! Merci en tout cas, pour la recette et ces superbes photos. Au passage, je te souhaite une très heureuse et chaleureuse année 2015 !! A bientôt, Amitiés, géraldine

  12. It matters not how many times you post, for each one is a treasure. I often go back and re read various of your writings. They are thought and provoke commentary, but sadly, I believe one just needs to talk over writings face to face and comments do not give that type of opportunity.

    This was a beautiful piece of prose. And those bread slices look delicious. Marzipan inside, I would never have guessed that to be such a delicious accompaniment.

  13. Well, it can turn up being 50 is just the right thing, a careless age, solar, confident (despite everyday cares and anxieties); I feel much better now that I am 53 than at 33, so anxious for what others could think of me! ... so, hugs, hugs, hugs to you and a kiss from Rimini- Italy.


Thank you so much for taking the time to visit me at Mrs TT's and comment. I love to read what you write.