The cruelest month is December because it gets me completely out of sync with the world. The buzz and festive cheer interfere with my need to hibernate and go quiet; reality splits itself and I get trapped in a parallel universe where Christmas is the exact opposite of merriness. As the same traditions are repeated, the same songs are played, the same conversations are had each year the misery gets worse.
Last Christmas (Christmas 2019 feels so long ago), on top of everything, I was knocked out by a bad cold. Forced to stay at home, I felt sorry for myself at first but soon came to realise what a joy it was to FEEL, FOR MYSELF – to be with my own weakness, exhaustion, and loneliness, and to let it all hurt properly. As I was sitting on the sofa in the living room, I looked around at things as if they were the last things I’d ever see; my last, and therefore my only, friends. In that moment, I didn’t judge them and had no expectations of them. It was like a still life in which every object seemed to be fulfilling its purpose simply by existing and being right there along with other things, as opposed to being somewhere else. There was a harmony and peace in the room, which extended beyond it, wherever my mind decided to wander. Life got quiet, slow and still as I was finally catching up with myself.
This gradual sync with the world released a strange sense of sweetness – a sense of innocent vulnerability and readiness to receive attention and care. It was a feeling I remembered from when I was ill as a child. An illness would always grant me special privileges, attention and kindness from my parents. Weak and without energy, I finally behaved well and didn’t need to be disciplined, which meant less stress on family relationships, and therefore, was almost like a little celebration. As a child I loved these moments of rare harmony when my parents and I agreed on our respective roles – I was obedient and they took care of me. How strange that years later when I’m living such an independent life that the only form of care I could expect in times of illness is from a food delivery service, I still felt the sweetness and the sense of harmony being restored. My initial response was to reject it and denounce it as a sign of infantile regression.
On the last day before Christmas holiday, my office had a Christmas party. I was fine enough to go and even joined others in a club. A bit drunk, I somehow found myself in the arms of a guy. As we were kissing, I felt that sweetness again and almost melted away. He gave me his number. The next morning, despite being hungover, I woke up to that same feeling of sweetness and tenderness again. This time, I didn’t reject it but enjoyed it and tried to make it last as long as possible while searching for anything that would allow me to anchor the feeling in a memory, a story, a physical sensation, with the intention to recreate the experience in the future. After the sweetness wore off, I was left with longing for it. I texted the guy from the previous night but it soon turned out there was no connection between us and there was no sweetness to be expected to come from him. Where did it come from then? Was it new to me or was it something I knew but forgot? And why was it, that even the longing felt good – as if for a moment, I desired something true and the desire itself was true.
There was only one place I could go to search for answers – I decided to go to the club and ask my female guardians about sweetness.
When I entered, everyone was already dancing. I felt quite rested and calm and so I thought that for the first time, I’d skip the purification ritual and go straight to the dance floor and dance myself into ecstasy. But true joy can’t be rushed – it can’t happen without the full journey of life, death and rebirth. Not long after I started dancing, the heaviness of the most pressing thoughts and questions fell upon me. I thought about the tragedy of my biological clock – the fact that I am living with the anticipation of the end of my reproductive powers. I will soon no longer be able to generate life, to bleed in regular cycles. As another year is approaching, I felt even more finite.
“How do I cope with that,” I asked the women as I showed up to be purified. “How can I ever be reborn once his part of me dies? What will happen to me, to this bloody place, when I no longer bleed?”
They remained silent. I wondered if they could understand my fear as they both have many children and even I am like a child to them.
I didn’t want to see Dionysos. He’d been too confusing and I preferred talking to women about my biological clock ticking. But he did show up while I was undergoing ritual deaths.
“Be sweet,” he said.
“You’re just saying what I want to hear, Dionysos.”
“You’re only terrified of sweetness because you think it’s either infantile or meant to be directed at an infant. Why do you think it’s dangerous to release it towards others, including yourself?”
I didn’t say anything.
“You can be sweet with me. You can be anything you need with me,” said Dionysos and smiled. “That’s the beauty of madness. I can take it all – you as a woman, you as a child, you as an old man.”
“But what about me being a mother, Dionysos? What if that sweetness IS meant for a child. If it is, I can’t give it out to anyone else, it belongs to a child.”
He went quiet and thought. I didn’t say anything either but in my head, I was panicking – if the women don’t have the answers, if Dionysos doesn’t know what to say, it’s officially bad.
The women changed the topic and tried to direct my attention towards the ritual:
“Let it all go. You’re afraid to let it go and go deep down. But it’s only when you go to the bottom, when you become nothing, that you can be reborn. The body you have and the joy you can revive through the body are the most important for you. They’re what make you alive. Feel feel feel.”
I had no idea what they were talking about.
“And what about this sweetness, though,” I said impatiently and with slight irritation.
“See, all of us here, we’re just spirits, we don’t have bodies, we can’t be sweet because you can only be sweet through your body. Sweetness and good smell are pleasant. Be sweet and release that sweetness against all odds. We will help you. Keep releasing sweetness – the physical release of love.”
I understood what they were saying about the importance of the body and the embodiment of joy, but I was getting frustrated as they were not answering my questions, so I put it to them yet again and even more directly:
“What about motherhood? Tell me, what should I do? I am confused, I feel like I should have a plan, I should take control, but I don’t know how. Should I have my eggs frozen?”
“No, no.” They responded without any hesitation. “Don’t let any of this cold industrial technical capitalist stuff go through you. Only love. Let only love go through you. When you do that, it will materialize.”
The answer took me by surprise and I was scared to be direct and ask if they meant that love will materialise in child. How could they know that anyway?
I decided to stop talking and focus on dying. I followed the music and let all these worries go, trying to free myself from them and become nothing, like the women said. And all of a sudden, I felt that sweetness again and I felt more and more of it and I knew that it was the most pleasant thing I’ve felt in a long time. The meaning of what the women had been saying became clear to me: the sweetness was the greatest affirmation of my humanity, the most precious human alchemy that I could give to the spirits and gods. The gods don’t want my suffering, they don’t want to smell the odour of my body exhausted from work. They want to smell life, the tireless optimistic “yes” to life – in flesh and blood. The “yes” that comes out of profound vulnerability and innocence that we’re born with and the basic faith and hope that keep us alive when we’re completely dependent on the care of others. “I have no control, yes, I want your care.”
Still in trance, I kept releasing more and more sweetness, excess of sweetness – first coming from everywhere in the body but then concentrating towards my belly. The intensity of the sensation started materializing and until it was too much to contain and it went out as a baby. The baby was sweetness itself, its tiny body smelled so sweet and for a short moment everyone in the club was celebrating.
Then I started falling deep into darkness again and even though I was scared, I no longer resisted and kept falling and falling, completely empty and without any control, until the familiar sweetness lifted me up again, up into ecstasy. A voice told me not to worry about this darkness and the whole Christmas misery – falling down is the best way of getting up again.
After the ritual ended, Dionysos and I danced together. He was doing his usual silly moves to cheer me up and didn’t look worried at all. He likes to feel needed, I thought, and he knows how to get to me even when I’m not in the mood to see him.
“Stay mad,” he whispered in my ear with a cheeky smile on his face as if he was telling me something he wasn’t supposed to, “but give it a bit of sweetness – that way, you’ll be true as well as happy and you’ll have a great new year!”
And then, Christmas came and I lost the feeling of sweetness. All I could do was to think about it – capture it with my thought, my brain and my reason.
Christmas was exhausting as always. I was too stressed and busy to go to the club to discuss this thing about sweetness a bit further. I delayed making my new years resolutions until I got a chance to go to the club and consult this properly. I basically missed the deadline – on New Year’s Eve, I felt sad because I wasn’t quite ready, I didn’t have a plan. This lasted for a few days. On January 2nd, I even forgot to go to work, so unprepared was I. On the first Saturday of the new year, I finally went.
The club was decorated to celebrate the New Year. There was music, dancing and overall festive atmosphere. Feeling too tired to dance, I went straight to a little shrine where the women perform their purification rituals on me. With so much on my mind, I started asking questions and begged for advice on my resolutions. Should my resolution be to find what sweetness meant?
There were no answers. In fact, there wasn’t going to be much talking on this day. The women laid me down on the ground, put a black snake on my chest and covered their faces with colourful masks. The snake was curled up with its little head sticking out. Scared of it, I couldn’t relax. I was worried that the snake might kill me. The fear for my life prevented me from embracing the ritual death. I tried to let go and every time I did, the snake stuck its head out further and further towards my crutch and then curled up again. When I finally gave in and died, the snake slithered away and got lost on the floor of the club among the dancing crowd.
A mysterious woman in a mask emerged out of the crowd. I’d seen her before – she appears when the purification ritual doesn’t seem to work. I think she’s some kind of a high priestess, if not the highest. She wears a silver mask on her head, a silver armour covering her torso and silver thigh-high boots on heels. The rest of her body – her crutch and white thighs – are naked and reveal her young body. The way she dances is camp, not serious at all, mostly consisting of striking different poses with her legs. In her left hand she carries a large silver sceptre with bells on top, which she uses as a spinning pole as well as a bell stick. She’s humorous and terrifying, vulnerable and fierce – all at the same time.
As she danced, the snake came back and obedient like dog slithered up her legs, her chest and around her neck where it changed colour from black to red and looked like a boa.
“You have to be strong,” the woman said.
“What about sweetness,” I asked?
“You have to be strong,” she repeated.
I was confused and disappointed. Is that it? Is that my resolution for 2020? To be strong?
The music was slow and tragic and I died again and again and again. I let go of the desire for sweetness, the fear of the snake, the need to prepare for the new year. I needed to focus on strength.
Then the sound of the saxophone lifted me up and, accompanied by my guardians, I joined the masked woman in dance. The guardians and I lifted up our dresses and belly-danced ourselves into a trans. I knew Dionysos was somewhere around, Hemingway too – observing the sacred female madness, they didn’t dare join or say anything.
At the end of the dance, as I came round purified, for the first time in a few day so Christmas misery, I felt sweetness again.
I don’t have a resolution but I have assigned myself a koan for 2020: What needs to come first, sweetness or strength?