Truth be told, I’m not all that social. It’s odd, since my actual job title is “Hospitality Coordinator,” a job for which I am completely without portfolio – my background in literature and law suggests something rather more Jarndyce and Jarndyce than Julie, Your Cruise Director. I dodge phone calls and invitations, ducking them as if they were fire-tipped arrows. I am often glad that I went wherever I went, but the dread is crippling. In some weird agoraphobia variant, I fear being buttonholed by a bore, made to act out The Twelve Days of Christmas or just jangled to death by the repetitive intrusion of other peoples’ noise and chatter and energy. At this time of year, when events are thick on the ground at work and there are concerts, and holiday parties and family gatherings lurking around every corner, I find myself drawing into a tight, gray ball to think mutinous thoughts. I will wear all black to the Christmas party, I will sit in the back of the auditorium so I can leave quickly and quietly, I will extricate myself from the Never-ending Story by claiming that my phone buzzed and it’s probably my brother making his annual call from the research station in Antarctica, so I’d better take it.
Last night I attended the annual gingerbread house decorating party given by a friend who (I kid you not) personally makes and assembles 20+ gingerbread houses so that a group of women can sit in her beautiful house and decorate them using the bags of royal icing “glue” she provides. I was excited about the party because I am so very fond of the hostess, and because many of the guests are women I adore and rarely get to see now that we are past the era of monitoring elementary playgrounds, parties and field trips. I was, however, worried. I was a serious, hardcore crafter back in the day, and presented with a blank artistic slate and an audience I feel that old pressure to make the best, most perfect, clever, ___________ imaginable. I am as covertly competitive as I am society-averse, and these two, equally unattractive crotchets move to the forefront of my psyche when partying and creating are combined.
I made a plan for the gingerbread party; I actually, deliberately decided that I would turn my gingerbread house into a duplicate of The Temple of Diana at Ephesus. It would be fairly simple to do while I chatted, because it mostly involved columns and very orderly, repeating motifs. You know how those Greeks were. I imagined using peppermint sticks or licorice whips for the columns, a white Necco Wafer for the moon, and some configuration of hacked up gummy thingies and pretzel sticks to create a frieze of deer over the portico. In my own, pathological way, I was ready to par-tay down with a little gingerbread and classical architecture.
The best laid plans, as you may have heard, are often compromised by the combination of too much roof overhang and really entertaining friends. I tried to turn my adorable little brown cottage into an austere temple, but I kept breaking the red and white striped, rolled wafer cookies when I tried to make them fit against the sides of the house, and then I couldn’t find any gummies in any color that approximated deer, and there were no tiny pretzel sticks. On top of all of that, I found myself sitting with three women who I enjoyed so much that I didn’t care if I “won” at the night’s crafting project. One was an old friend who always delights me with her compassion and intelligence, one was a co-worker who is charming and hilarious, and the third was a new friend, a microbiology professor from Spain by way of Harvard, who actually told me I was “spicy.”
I was so absorbed by our conversation, which flowed effortlessly from obtaining patents to temper tantrums to Wiccan ethics that I began mindlessly to spackle candy onto my little house in a very ordinary way. From the corner of my eye, I could see that an old mommy friend, a woman who creates beautiful quilts, was breaking up Necco wafers and affixing the pieces with visible frosting masonry to approximate a fairly realistic flagstone effect. Tiny currents of information ran through my brain: hers is better and no matter what you do, you’ll never top it, and the reason you can’t find what you want is that it’s CHRISTMAS and everything is red and green and not deer-colored, and if you get up and go to the table where all the supplies are in the other room you’re going to miss part of this really interesting conversation with these amazing women.
And in the end, when I ran out of candy to make my little house look really nice, I didn’t get up and go into the other room to gather more supplies. I had somehow managed to steal the entire container of little alphabet pretzels, and as the conversation turned to encouraging young women to go into science, I finished my masterpiece. It was not festive (although the front’s a little better) it was not even in the top 80% of craftiness among the guests, but I was absolutely okay with that. I was happy, I was having fun, nothing bad had happened, everything good had happened, and that, I think, is how a party guest is supposed to feel. My little house is not a particularly appropriate symbol of Christmas (unless one lives with Tim Burton) but I think maybe it will remind me of the joy I can feel when I stop worrying, planning, calculating and dodging. I think I’m going to need some shellac and a big bell jar.