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 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!