Daily Decoration: the magi

Playmobil figures representing the three kings plus camel surveying a scene dominated by a cardboard shoebox

So here we are. I feel more kinship with the Magi than with anybody else in the nativity set: you spend a long, long time getting anywhere, and you go to the wrong place, and then you finally get there and you’re only just in time, everyone else has packed up and gone home, and you get maybe a day before you get put back in your box and put away. And then you do the whole thing again next year. (I wrote a poem about that a few years ago.)

I was thinking this evening about the gifts that the Magi bring: the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the primary school nativity plays I participated in they were represented by cardboard boxes covered in shiny paper. It doesn’t go very far in conveying the weight and gleam of gold, the heavy scent of myrrh or frankincense; it doesn’t do much more than the plastic containers the Playmobil figures are carrying.

This Advent I – along with much of the rest of the Church of England, no doubt – read Music of Eternity, a curated and adapted collection of writing by Evelyn Underhill, the twentieth century mystic. I found it, by turns, thought-provoking, gently challenging, and really quite difficult, and at some point it managed to press some buttons which then stayed pressed all the way through Christmas. I’m not sure it was even the fault of the book; it just managed to convey to me the impression that there is a right way and there is a wrong way, and you, not doing it the right way, are doing it the wrong way. And that took me back to all the churches that have not been the right church for me, but which managed to convey me that I was doing it wrong. Whatever it was.

Evelyn Underhill talks a lot about being self-oblivious and, while I know in my head what she was getting at, me attempting to be self-oblivious summons a persona who really shouldn’t be running the show. (The key word here is, of course, attempting, but this was the kind of response that I observed myself having.) She ran it from when I was about fourteen up until my late twenties, and it was very tiring being her. She was always trying to fit in, she was always trying to be right. She was trying to please, she was trying to protect, but the only way she knew how to protect was to suppress (herself and others) and she did as much damaging suppressing as she would have done by leaving people unprotected. And she ran on weapons grade, grudging, effort. She was trying. She really was trying. She was very trying.

One of the most humbling and delightful discoveries of the last decade has been that God isn’t at all interested in her. God is interested in me. And other people have seen through her to me, and liked me. One of the things that I discovered when I stopped putting all my energy into being her was that other people also had trouble with not being XYZ enough, whatever XYZ was for them, and actually admitting to being human and having trouble with stuff was a far better way to make friends than whatever it was I’d been trying before.

The trouble is that when this persona gets hold of an idea like being self-oblivious as something that is desirable to be, and sees the current-me, who has a much better idea of who she is, well, there’s trouble. Because I can’t be doing with her yelling you’re doing it wrong!!!! at me all the time, I haven’t been doing much at all. And probably I should have a conversation with her and see if she wouldn’t rather be off-duty with a pile of comics and a glass of lemonade, because she shouldn’t have had to be on duty all those years, that wasn’t fair, but I’ve only just recognised her modus operandi.

Anyway, she quietened down this evening, maybe just because I went to church. Epiphany. We got there. Just in time. (Metaphorically, that is. Literally I had five minutes to spare.) And I thought about how tactile, how sensory, the gifts of the Magi were. How very material the Incarnation is. That, while I can conceive of a reality that is so real that compared to it flesh and blood is plastic and gold and myrrh are cardboard boxes, I can only get there through this reality. The way in for me is through who I am and through what is there.

Daily Decoration: bead star

Christmas tree decoration in the fomr of a five-point star made from clear bugles and seed beads and blue bicones

I bought this little star, and a few others like it, from a member of the regional women’s committee back in the day when I was looking after the regional women’s committee.

Working for a trade union, you meet all sorts of people. It’s one of the really interesting things about the job, and it’s been particularly good for me. If I am less stand-offish, shy, or socially awkward than I was a decade ago, a large part of that’s down to the people I’ve worked with and for, union staff and union members. (And a lot of the rest of it is down to my fellow weirdoes on the internet.)

I’d meant to write more, but I’m feeling woozy and achy after yesterday’s jab, and my thoughts are wandering all over the place. So this short and sweet post will have to do, together, of course, with a solid day’s work tomorrow. Side-effects permitting.

Daily Decoration: augmented

Gold plastic Christmas tree bauble ringed with a strip of diamanté trim. Reflected in the bauble is a woman holding a mobile phone.

Nothing special about this bauble: it’s a bog-standard plastic thing. The diamanté trim, however, has a story of sorts. Originally it was attached to the little clutch bag I bought to go with my going-away outfit. I felt that it was a bit too gaudy for the occasion and removed it. After that it hung around the place doing nothing very useful until it occurred to me that I could add it to a Christmas tree bauble, and did. I think I might have had to snip off a couple of jewels from one end to make it fit properly. If so, I chucked them. Even I’m not that much of a hoarder.

I had my booster vaccination this afternoon. Consequently I am feeling somewhat less sparkly than usual, particularly around the left shoulder. Nevertheless, I trust that I will shortly be augmented with enhanced immunity, and will therefore be able to partake more fully and more confidently in life.

Daily Decoration: dire tinplate squirrel

Christmas tree decoration representing a squirrel sitting in a red boot

Things are getting a bit desperate here. I had to get this squirrel out of the box and hang it on the tree today. It didn’t go up on Christmas Eve because I don’t actually like it very much. But I think I’ll just about manage to find a decoration for each of the last few days of Christmas.

Today has been the last day before I start work again and, after weeks of dense grey cloud alternating with heavy rain, it’s been beautiful. I went out for my first bike ride of the year in the morning (who needs hills when you have Fenland winds?) and this afternoon Tony and I spent a cheerful hour and a half pruning the most awkward of the apple trees and destraggling the wisteria and the vine that grow over the pergola.

Hence the squirrel. We have a couple of visiting grey squirrels who scamper along the fences and steal from the birdfeeders. Today I saw one of them squatting on the pergola, nibbling away at something, I couldn’t see what.

Having spent a significant part of my life on the Isle of Wight, I’m honour bound to disapprove of grey squirrels, invasive species that they are. Particularly when they start stealing from the birdfeeders. On the mainland, however, I have to admit that I quite enjoy watching them. It’s particularly amusing when the Slinky that we installed on the birdfeeder pole does its job and stops them climbing up it from the ground (the squirrel’s own weight stretches the spring and deposits it gently back on the floor), though they’re quite capable of reaching their goal from any of the nearby trees and bushes.

As for the birds, we get sparrows and starlings, great tits (I think), blue tits (I’m almost sure), robins, blackbirds, goldfinches (occasionally), collared doves and wood pigeons, and once, very excitingly, a green woodpecker. Although since it was neither pecking wood nor looking particularly green I had to ask the internet for confirmation. I’ve heard what I think was a hedgehog and have seen what was definitely a hedgehog – twice. The second time was in daylight, though, which is a bit worrying. I put some cat food out for it. The cat food disappeared, but that might just have been cats.

Anyway, it’s been very pleasant to spend some time outdoors today, and I intend to do more of that this year. Perhaps in three months or so I’ll take a deckchair out, and a book.

Daily Decoration: cumulative icicles

The top portion of a Christmas tree, hung with decorations made from beads threaded on wire and representing icicles

There’s nothing particularly special about these icicles. There are six of them. They always go around the top branches of the tree: their length fills in the gap and they pick up the lights and sparkle pleasingly. They’re made from plastic beads threaded on wire, and they were yet another charity shop find in the penniless Guildford days. The beginning of the collection, if you like. That’s rather appropriate, given the way real icicles form: a drop freezing, another drop running over it and freezing onto it, over and over until it’s an elegant spike. It’s rather appropriate given the way that these were obviously made: a bead after a bead after a bead.

2021 was very much a year to be got through one day at a time. While 2020 is, in my head, a timeless, expansive, almost gentle, stretch of enforced freedom, 2021 seemed to call for gritted teeth and the continual effort of putting one foot in front of the other in front of the other in front of the other…

Early on in the year, someone I follow on the internet mentioned that they were aiming to add one sentence to their work in progress every day. I liked the sound of this. As mentioned elsewhere, I have more than one work in progress, and I thought this seemed like a good way of keeping faith with all of them. It has been. I’ve written short stories, fanfic, an essay, one sentence at a time. I’ve written twenty-six thousand words of one novel. I can’t remember the starting wordcount on the other one, but I do know it’s longer than it was. One sentence, one sentence, one sentence. Maybe two if they seem to come as a pair. Maybe more. Even when I didn’t know what I was doing at all, there’s been something to add. A line of description. A line of dialogue. After a while the thing gathers enough momentum to unspool itself into whole paragraphs, chapters, and I can sit down with it for a couple of hours and finish it off. Or else it runs down again, and once again I add another sentence. Just one today. Just one more tomorrow. Open the document. Add a sentence. Save the document. Close the document.

I decided that I wanted to read more poetry. I have loads of poetry books but the imagined sunny afternoons with a glass of white wine and an hour to dip in didn’t materialise nearly often enough. I started to work my way along the bookcase. The next book along. One poem. Tomorrow, the book after that. Today, Amy Clampitt. Yesterday, Kate Spencer. Tomorrow, Omar Khayyam (translated by Edward Fitzgerald) and the day after, Mary Oliver.

Last year one of my brothers gave me a book called My Year In Small Drawings. I can’t really draw but with a space that’s maybe two inches by three inches it doesn’t really matter. Yesterday I drew a man using a laptop from a stock photo. Today I will draw a picture of a picture. I still can’t really draw but that stops being important.

Duolingo. I can tell you that the boy is eating an apple in Polish, Italian, Spanish, French, and German. (Il ragazzo mangia una mela.) I can tell the cat that she is a cat. (She might not know. It’s best to be sure. Jestesz kotem.) Well, I had an A level in French already (le chat mange une pomme) so that doesn’t really count, but as far as the rest of them go I’m building on, at most, a couple of terms of formal learning plus a couple of months in the country in question. Well, there’s a pandemic on, but I can sort out my verb endings while I make my coffee (le chat ne mange pas des pommes; le chat préfère la nourriture sèche).

Teaching myself the piano. A twenty minute timer, and Michael Aaron’s Adult Piano Method. I have yet to master Home On The Range, but I’m getting there faster than I would if I were doing nothing.

Filling in my diary. I use an ordinary engagement diary, A5, week to view, and it’s part scrapbook, part commonplace book, part record of days. That way I can look back and see when was the last time I gathered the compost and when was the last time my right eye did its funny loss of vision thing and when it was I started reading the book I’ve just finished. And I can write down the quotation I want to remember, and I can stick in the pretty oddment that would otherwise be floating around my desk forever.

It hasn’t been every day. Of course it hasn’t. At present everything to the right of middle C is blocked off by the Christmas tree. Some days I’m too tired to write. Some days it is raining and I do not wish to go out to draw strangers using their phones. Some days I forget to read a poem. The diary tends to get updated all at once in front of whatever’s on Eurosport on a Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t matter. If I miss a day, if I miss a week, a month – no guilt. Any day is a good day to do it again.

A poem.

A phrase.

A drawing.

A sentence.

A drop.

Daily Decoration: blue velvet star

Christmas tree decoration in the shape of a five-pointed star, made from blue velvet and embroidered with beads and copper thread

I thought I’d carry this series on until Epiphany. I’m sure I can think of something to say about five more items.

Today’s ornament is this blue velvet star. This came from Oxfam – new. It’s rather fine, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. I love this sort of rich decoration, the sumptuousness of it, particularly at this time of year. I like it in the same sort of way that I like cherry vodka and dark chocolate and going to the theatre and the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna. I wouldn’t want very much of it, and I wouldn’t want it all the time, but once in a while it’s marvellous.

In November, alerted by David at Licence To Queer, I went to see the Noël Coward: Art and Style exhibition at the Guildhall in London. It was excellent – wonderful clothes, fascinating detail about the theatre – but really, my main takeaway was the following:

it is perfectly possible to be a wildly successful polymath while spending most of one’s life in a dressing gown

There was at least one of his dressing gowns on display, as well as some modern ones inspired by Coward’s style. And – which was perhaps equally inspiring – a picture of him sitting up in bed, working, in what looked like a very fancy apartment but was actually a room in the boarding house his mother ran.

This is very much about image, of course, the swan gliding across the surface of the water while paddling furiously underneath. All the dressing gowns in the world can’t replace hard work and talent. (Though I should say that for the next two weeks I intend to read and watch and listen rather than write.) But at the same time, you don’t need to be miserable while doing that hard work. You don’t need to have wall to wall luxury. But if you’re wearing a nice dressing gown, you’re taking your luxury with you.

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.