On Writing—and Baking—in The New Year

"It's not difficultAnyway it's necessary."

— "Writing in the Dark" by Denise Levertov

"I was going to write a poemI made a pie instead it tookabout the same amount of timeof course the pie was a finaldraft a poem would have had somedistance to go days and weeks andmuch crumpled paper"

— "The Poet's Occasional Alternative" by Grace Paley

Aside from December 31, 2006, when I retreated to a hotel room in Madrid with a novel while revelers consumed bottles of cava on the plaza outside, and December 31, 2010, when, at midnight, my then-husband and I found ourselves caught in a torrential rainstorm while visiting his family on the southwest coast of India, I have always been at home on New Year's Eve.

My mother frequently told me that what you do as one year transitions into the next sets the tone for the next 12 months, and because I've always, for as long as I can remember, wanted the year to be full of words, I have spent the last few hours of the last day of December and the first few hours of the first day of January journaling and free writing and revising and reading.

I'm an extroverted introvert: As much as I enjoy company, I also desperately need solitude in equal measure; I like socializing one-on-one or in small groups (and am usually witty and eloquent in such situations) but tend to nod and smile at parties; I find people both intriguing and exhausting. On New Year's Eve, while the world parties, I love being alone and in my head. The darkness, its deep silence, its stillness, is exhilarating.

Over the years, baking, and especially bread making, has become part of my writing process. Stepping away from the computer to autolyse, knead, fold, pre-shape and shape the dough, preheat the oven, and finally bake, is therapeutic and orderly and sensual, and both clears the mind and provides inspiration.

It's no surprise then that making a loaf of bread is now also an essential New Year's Eve ritual. I've baked fougasse and pain d'epi and brioche alongside first drafts and revisions. My grand plan includes timing my bread bake such that the loaf emerges from the oven at the stroke of midnight, although I've only been able to achieve that once: last year, when I made Hokkaido milk bread, a sweet, lofty, feathery loaf and an Asian bakery staple. (Dough can be temperamental, especially in drafty kitchens in the winter.) True to my mother's words, 2019 was full of milk bread: swirled with ube; pull-apart style; very delicately flavored with turmeric, black pepper, ginger, and honey, and topped with pumpkin seeds; and made to look like leopard print. This year, I plan to bake a sourdough boule. I've spent months cultivating a robust starter, and I had some success—finally!—with sourdough on Thanksgiving. I also want to make something spectacular to mark the end of a decade.

My daughter will be eight years old in early January and, for the first time ever, she has insisted on joining me in the kitchen on December 31. (Usually she is in bed before I begin my evening.) "You don't have to spend New Year's Eve alone," she said, and gave me a hug.

I told her about a particularly memorable New Year's Eve, because I wasn't exactly alone: On the last day of 2011, I journaled while breathing through intermittent contractions and mighty kicks. Her estimated due date was January 1, 2012, and I was prepared for her to be born that day. She has heard this story before—an abridged version of her birth story is family lore. What she does not know, and perhaps will not know until she is old enough to read this essay, is that my journal entries from that night are all over the place, as my state of mind was: excited, happy, anxious, sad. She made her entry a few days into the new year, after nearly a week of on-and-off labor. She then reiterated to me that leaping into New Year's Day has always meant a new birthday for her, so this is a special time for her as well.

I'm torn about her insistence to stay up with me. Midnight is a magical, liminal time that I have worked hard to make my own, alone, and I know the writing will be different because of her presence. But I also see a bit of myself in her. She, too, is animated when with her cousins or close friends, but finds a book or a toy and a quiet corner when she is overwhelmed by people, so I'm also eager to model ways to prioritize creative pursuits, make time to mark transitions, and embrace introversion. (Also, a decade from now, she will be an adult, making her way into the world, which gives me pause.)

She has already arranged her crayons and markers on the kitchen table—she wants to draw as well as write—and has asked to make cupcakes in addition to bread. Who knows how the evening will unfold? She might fall asleep before midnight, and I might have my time as I had planned. Regardless, there will be bread (and cupcakes) on the breakfast table on January 1 to mark new traditions, new beginnings.