Daily Decoration: wild bird, wild bells

Christmas tree decoration representing a small pink bird, with tiny metal bells dangling from its feet

This seems to be the closest thing on the Christmas tree to wild bells. And I would like to share wild bells tonight in homage to Tennyson and In Memoriam. Some years I try to read the whole thing on New Year’s Eve; this, too, might be a good year for it, because I’m not boostered yet so we’re not going out.

I’m not quite sure what sort of a bird this is meant to be. I bought it from the fair trade shop in York. Shared Earth, that’s the name of it. Is it a wild bird? Who knows? And those are tiny little bells. They tinkle rather than ring.

It’s been a funny year. It’s felt like an extension of 2020, except that, where 2020 felt like a year to do nothing, in 2021 I felt like I should be doing something but I didn’t know what. 2020 was a year of major personal life events – a house purchase, a new novel – whereas 2021 has all happened at a remove. We cancelled the housewarming party. Some of my friends are out on the town while others are still shielding, and I’m not sure I’ve found the balance. I’ve been living in a walled garden and haven’t even kept up with the pruning. (This sentence is part metaphorical, part literal.) Or so it seems from the rather melancholy mood I inhabit today.

I am not sure that I should be trusting that perception implicitly. When I stop to think, I remember. I have had two coronavirus vaccinations, and the fact that the next one won’t happen until the 4th doesn’t undo that. As of this morning’s lateral flow test, I’ve remained Covid-free. We successfully took possession of a cat. We got a new sofa bed and have had people staying on it. I fell head over heels for a new project in a way that I haven’t done for years. That project’s sitting at 26,000 words, and the other one’s at 56,000 words, and that means that one of them can happen next year. In fact, I wrote loads, and just because I haven’t shared all of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t count. I went to see three films at the cinema, which is three more than I did last year. And I saw live theatre and live music at Ventnor Fringe, and that was fabulous. It isn’t even as if I didn’t have any adventures, because we went to Cornwall, and visited St Michael’s Mount (which I’ve wanted to do forever) and Penzance and Marazion and the Lost Gardens of Heligan (and isn’t that a wonderful name?) and went on an open-topped bus around Land’s End. It’s been a quiet year, but it hasn’t been a non-year.

Ring out, ring out, my mournful rhymes/And ring the fuller minstrel in.

And on the other side of the wall… Well. There’s the gap, I think. I’d like to feel a little less detached this coming year. That detachment is partly an illusion – I’m sitting on the new sofa that friends have already slept on; looking around the room, I see Christmas cards from plenty of people I’ve seen this year; we’ve had wine with neighbours this very evening – but I think there’s something there that’s worth following. The larger heart, the kindlier hand. And yes:

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

In fact, here’s the whole lot – recorded by me and my husband last year. (I’d like to do more singing next year, that’s another thing.) Perhaps they aren’t wild bells, but they’re ringing.

Daily Decoration: deer and cheese

Playmobil crib scene in which Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus have been joined by a deer and a fawn with a basket of cheese

This one is going to take a bit of explaining.

You might or might not be familiar with the Christmas carol Past Three A Clock (and a cold frosty morning…) If you are, apologies for the earworm. If not, here’s a video. The tune and the chorus are traditional. The verses, however, were added on at a later date by G. R. Woodward and, while they’re a lovely bit of poetry, I’m not sure that I’d have put some of them quite in the following order.

Hinds o’er the pearly

dewy lawn early

seek the high stranger

laid in the manger.

(Past three a clock, etc)

Cheese from the dairy

bring they for Mary,

And, not for money,

butter and honey…

I assume that the ‘they’ is meant to refer to the dairy workers, perhaps before they get caught up in the Twelve Days of Christmas, but the way it’s written it does look rather like it’s the hinds.

Which when we copped onto this last year meant two things. Firstly, stealing the deer from the royal ice skating Playmobil scene and ordering some Playmobil cheese for them. And secondly, a bred lik poem:

My name is dere

and wen it dawn

and wen the baby

Saviour born

and all the humans

on ther nees

I join them ther

with stolen chees.

Daily Decoration: iridescent plastic hummingbird

Iridescent plastic ornament representing a hummingbird, hanging from an evergreen tree

I bought this one from the British Library. I think it was in 2019, but it might have been a year or so earlier. There were four or five others like it which went to various family households, as is tradition.

I bought it because I liked it. (I do sometimes feel a bit odd about imposing my own very specific taste on my nearest and dearest, but I tell myself that they don’t have to display these things if they don’t want to. Usually they seem to.) I bought it because there was something about the depth of the colours and the gleam of the surface and the grace of the shape that appealed to me. There wasn’t any particular meaning; as far as I’m aware, none of us have any particular feelings about hummingbirds. I just liked it.

I think it’s now fair to say that my last book hasn’t done as well as I’d hoped. Sales haven’t been great; it has yet to be shortlisted for anything; reviews have been favourable but very sparse. One might use the word flop. There are various reasons for this. One big one was the SNAFU that was getting the damn thing out in ebook format, which eventually resulted in my pulling all my paperbacks from Amazon. Another, probably equally big, was the timing. Eight months into a pandemic, people were not terribly interested in reading about institutional inertia and a slow slide into depression. And much of the core, queer Christian, audience was distracted by Living in Love and Faith.

I still think it’s good. I still think it’s the best one so far. I think I managed to say something important. And most of the time I manage not to care what anyone else thinks. But it was a lot of hard work. It was very personal – more personal than I’d thought, going in – and it meant spending time in depressing places.

But it’s done. And it’s been something of a relief this year to find myself writing things just because I want to. Silly things. Frivolous things. Next door to fanfic, really. Yes, fine, in one I find myself gently making the same marriage: maybe won’t fix everything? point, and in the other I find myself looking at the inadequacies of yet another political system, so it’s business as usual. And next door to fanfic they might be, but since I’m still having to fill in characters, history, and geography on a blank sheet, they aren’t any less work.

I’m putting that work in. These are going to be good. They may or may not end up saying anything important. I’m alternating between having a huge amount of fun and tearing my hair out – over the thriller plot, over how to resolve the other one, over how clever is too clever and how many Easter eggs is too many. And once you’re this far into a book it doesn’t really matter why you started it: finishing it is going to be hard work. It’s going to be a lovely thing once it’s finished, though.

If you want to give The Real World a go regardless, it’s currently half price at Smashwords.

Daily Decoration: Santa Ballycumber

Christmas tree decoration made of a square of translucent plastic upon which is a picture of a red book with arms and legs, wearing a Santa hat

I didn’t say where I got yesterday’s ornament. It was, like today’s, a present from a BookCrosser.

This book usually appears in yellow, and hatless. His name is Ballycumber, and he is the BookCrossing logo.

I joined BookCrossing about a decade ago now, with the intention of moving some books out of the house. This worked, in that I got some books out of the house. It backfired somewhat, in that a whole lot more books came in. More to the point, it was an awful lot of fun. I joined in bookrings and bookrays, bookboxes, swaps and sweepstakes. This decoration came in an ornament swap. Yesterday’s was a thank-you for taking part in the Twelve Days of Christmas exchange.

I haven’t been so involved in BookCrossing lately. Part of that’s been the rising cost of postage. Part of it’s just been general pandemic incoherence. Things slip. I let things drift. I’d quite like to pull some of them back next year. And perhaps get involved in some new things, too.

Daily Decoration: a swan a-swimming (not on the seventh day)

A flat wooden Christmas tree decoration with a swan and the figure 7 in gold on a green background

Today is not the seventh day of Christmas. But this is the only Twelve Days of Christmas ornament I have, and today I have seen a very large number of geese. Not a-laying, but a lot more than six of them. Two hundred, at least. I thought for a long time that they were swans, until four or five of them flew overhead, and the sound was wrong – honking, not the whirring noise that swans’ wings make – and the beaks were wrong. So the day’s wrong and the numbers are wrong and the birds are wrong, and none of them were either a-swimming or a-laying.

But it was great. You can’t argue with a field of two hundred waterfowl, and besides, I was out on a decent walk, an hour out, an hour back, and that’s something I haven’t done as much as I’d like this year. I’ve done a lot of quick morning walks – twenty-five minutes out, twenty-five minutes back – but not much new territory. I think part of that’s a hangover from last year. I got out of the habit of walking to places in lockdown, when the pubs were shut and the trains were for essential travel only, and so any walk had to be short and circular.

Today’s walk wasn’t a new one. Coveney and back again: I’ve done that plenty of times, on foot and on my bike. But it was time and space to think about the adventures I might yet take. It’s tricky, obviously, with the Continent shutting down every few months. Maybe 2022 is the year we go down the Rhine. And I have this idea of cycling from Ghent to Aachen. And I’m less interested than I used to be in crossing one route after another off a list. That means going to places because I want to go to them – but knowing what I want to do can still be a challenge sometimes. It needs to be a bit more specific than ‘somewhere new’.

More than anything, I think, it needs a change in mindset. Adventure happens when I’m adventurous. And in the meantime, perhaps, I can be preparing. Getting my road bike serviced. Looking at maps. Going a little bit further, a little bit longer. Expanding my comfort zone a bit at a time. And in the meantime, there are hundreds of geese if I only walk half an hour from my front door.

Daily Decoration: portraits of unknown ladies

Two decorations representing Tudor ladies, one in purple and one in white, hanging on a Christmas tree

I don’t know who these ladies are. They might be two of Henry VIII’s wives; they look rather Tudor, with their stand-up collars and what might be meant to be French hoods. It doesn’t matter. The galleries are full of portraits of unknown ladies; why shouldn’t I have a couple on my Christmas tree, too?

The reason that I don’t know who they are is that I bought them in Oxfam, so they had no labels. They came together with the King of Hearts. Or it might have been the Knave of Hearts. I can’t remember. I bought them last year, in Ely Oxfam. But how could I have bought them last year? All the shops were shut last year. Or I didn’t go to any shops last year. Then maybe it was the year before. Did we go to Oxfam when we were househunting? No. It was last year. I know that really.

It’s just that my mind wants to shuffle all occasions involving shops out of 2020. It’s already refusing to believe that I was only in the office on one day between 13 March 2020 and 16 August 2021: four months of the London commute have overwritten all of that. Give it a couple of years and I’ll be convinced I bought these ladies in 2021, and I’ll be reading back through this blog and learn that no, this year they came out of the Christmas box, and surprise myself.

That used to happen a lot before pandemic times; it’s even more the case now, with so many points of reference disappeared or eroded. I’m glad I got a lot down on paper or pixels, whether in public here or in private elsewhere on the internet or offline; it’s been good to be able to check my internal memory against my external memory, to see where I’ve stretched out one nice week into a glorious month, where I’ve moved an event from April to August, where I was massively excited about something I’ve since forgotten, or the first signs of what turned out to be the next major enthusiasm.

Sometimes I read something and think it could have been written by a different person, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s right there in my own handwriting. Sometimes I discover a revelation written down that I’d swear I’d only just had, but no, apparently this is something I’ve discovered before, and thought was important enough to record. Sometimes it’s plain reassuring, to see that I’ve been here before and found a way out again. That I’ve been here before several times and get better at finding my way out every time. I’m glad I record things.

Mind you, if I didn’t, would I ever know how wrong I can be about my own life?

Daily Decoration: a tiny crib scene

Copper/bronze tinted plastic ornament representing Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus under a Gothic arch

This is the oldest ornament that I can show you, the one that’s been in my life the longest. Oh, back in the family Christmas boxes you might find a paper roundel decorated with gummed coloured shapes by me, or the white apples we always fought each other to put on the tree, but this is the earliest one that belonged to me and only me.

It was given to me by one of the residents in the care home in Malvern where my great aunt Silvia spent the last several years of her life. I don’t remember the name of the lady who gave it to me (note to parents: no, it wasn’t Miss Plain), or what she looked like, and I’ve no idea why she wanted to do that (it wasn’t anywhere near Christmas, I don’t think), beyond, I suppose, the fact that she thought I might like it.

I did. For a long time I didn’t think of it as a Christmas ornament; it sat on a shelf with all the resin hedgehogs and snowstorms that you accumulated if you were a small girl in the nineties. It’s suffered a little over the years. I think that once upon a time there might have been a hanging loop on top. Joseph came loose and had to be glued down again, and now Mary has come off and there isn’t quite room to put her back where she should be. And baby Jesus’s straw is ever so dusty and I’m not sure I can clean it.

None of that matters. What I see when I look at it is the kindness.

And so I’m thinking today about all those tiny kindnesses, the sort that might be forgotten, or half-remembered, whether by the giver or the receiver, the sort of which you could fit thousands and thousands into a lifetime.

If you’re celebrating today, a very merry Christmas to you. If not, I hope you’re enjoying a nice peaceful Saturday.

Daily Decoration: paper stars

Bushy green branch with garland of paper stars draped across it

I learned how to make stars like this from someone at school. I suspect many people did. You cut a long thin strip of paper, tie an overhand knot at one end and, very carefully, flatten it into a pentagon. Then you wind the tail of the paper around it again and again, and when you get to the end you tuck the end under the last but one layer. Then you pinch a fold into each of the five sides, so that it puffs up into a star.

(And then, if you’re doing what I was doing eleven or twelve years ago, you repeat that over and over and then string the results together on red thread.)

These were just scrap paper. One of the stars is unwinding; it says Wednesday on the back. I don’t recognise the handwriting. Goodness knows what was important about that Wednesday all those years ago; it certainly isn’t now. And it clearly wasn’t important for long then, either, or I wouldn’t have cut it up. Although this could make rather a nice mystery plot: a low-stakes Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey, for example.

I used to write my university essays on scrap paper, on the backs of posters and service sheets. These days I work straight on the computer, or else use narrow-ruled exercise books. If I print things out it’s onto that greyish recycled paper, which doesn’t make for a nice bright star. Besides, I print double-sided. When it’s done with it gets shredded and goes into the compost. Still, I’m sure that if I wanted to make some more stars I’d find plenty of bright white paper somewhere…

We interrupt this blog series to bring you a small Christmassy treat

Christmas tree decoration representing a shooting star

There’s a little Stancester snippet in the IReadIndies A Very Sapphic Christmas anthology. If you were wondering how things went between Speak Its Name and The Real World, this fills in a little bit of the gap. It also addresses the perennial question: why do we do Christingles, anyway? It’s one of nineteen stories and excerpts by authors from the IReadIndies collective, and you can download the whole thing here.

I’ll also be making it available to newsletter subscribers as a standalone in the new year (read: when I’ve had a chance to find a nice photo to make a cover). If you’re not already subscribing to my newsletter, you can sign up here.

Meanwhile, the books themselves are both in the Smashwords End of Year sale. Speak Its Name is free and The Real World is half price. Find them here.

I’ll be back later with today’s decoration, whatever that ends up being. In the meantime – enjoy!

Daily Decoration: the Holy Parakeets

Playmobil tree with two parrots and a toucan perched on the branches, in front of a Playmobil Nativity stable.

More Playmobil – and possibly not the last I’ll share, either. These birds are an unofficial addition to the crib scene. They were a present from Anne a few years ago. Because she likes birds. And because Tony likes bad puns, possibly. (I mean, he does. I just don’t know whether the Holy Parakeet one was in play from the start.) I don’t know. Do we need a reason?

As is probably obvious, I don’t have anything terribly clever to say today. I seem to have used up most of my brain doing edits on a short story, and that’s perhaps more than I’d hoped. I had said to the editors that I was aiming to get it back to them before Christmas, but I thought that was optimistic at the time. Now it’s done – and so am I.

But that’s fine. We’re nearly, nearly there.