December Reflections 9: best day of 2016

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On my birthday I found a labyrinth in the shape of a diplodocus.

It was a great birthday anyway. I was staying with my family on the Isle of Wight. We visited my favourite second-hand bookshop. There was a picnic on the beach, with stuffed vine leaves and huge chocolate cookies, and my youngest brother bought everyone ice creams. I opened my birthday presents on the beach, and one of them was a book about the labyrinths in the London Underground.

Then we walked up from the beach to look for lizards at La Falaise car park. We found a lizard, and then, a little further up the cliff, we found a lizard of another sort. I’d had fossils and spirals on the brain all year – and what’s a labyrinth but a very particular sort of spiral? And moreover, because of the way that one follows the path of a labyrinth into the centre, and then follows it back out again, it’s a very appropriate thing for a birthday. You can let the last year go on the way in, and welcome the next one on the way out.

Later, my oldest brother treated us to tapas; and we rounded off the day with pink lychee liqueur. It was a fabulous birthday.

Portals

A few years ago, back when I first started celebrating the new year at the beginning of Advent, somebody asked me if I was going to move all my December rituals back, as well.

I said no. The whole point was to acknowledge transition as a gradual process. The world doesn’t suddenly change at the moment the sun sets on the last day of Ordinary Time, any more than it suddenly changes at the stroke of midnight between December and January. I’m always changing, and so is the world around me, and this time of year, when it feels as if everything is dead and nothing is changing, is a particularly good time to take stock, to see what has changed over the past twelve months (give or take). Change is gradual, and so, therefore, is my new year. It’s not so much a step into the unknown as it is a step forward into what I can see, trusting that what I can’t yet see will make itself known.

Less like this:

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And more like this:

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Looking (for photographs, and not)

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I took my camera out for a walk today. It’s been a bright, chilly day, with golden light and long shadows, and frost on the ground that the sun hadn’t reached. There is less colour now than there was a week ago; the leaves have fallen, and yet – there are red berries in the hedgerows; the sky is a cool turquoise, and the river throws it richer and deeper, and the bare branches are somehow a vivid green. The low sun flatters it all, intensifies it.

People worry a lot about Instagram and Twitter, and what we’re missing, and whether we don’t see things properly when we’re looking through a viewfinder, and sometimes I think they have a point. But more often, I find that looking for a photograph just makes me look, full stop. Looking for beauty helps me find beauty; and often, I forget.

This year, I will take more photographs. I will look for more photographs. Even, perhaps, when I’m not carrying a camera.

A square of chocolate and a quiet hour

I’ve had my attention drawn to another Advent calendar that runs all the way through Advent: Advent Calendar for Depressed People. I’m liking the look of it so far. And through that I found this: #FuckThisShit: an Advent devotional

It’s no secret that I find this end of the year difficult. My mental state is dependent on the hours of daylight. I begin to notice in September. October is awful, always. Then the clocks go back, and dawn comes before my alarm clock goes off, and suddenly I can function again. The inevitable is delayed for two or three weeks… until here it is. Mornings are impossible again. And people are expecting me to be cheerful because It’s nearly Christmaaaaaas!

I cannot be cheerful for an entire month. This is why I take Advent so seriously.

Advent makes room for my inevitable grumpiness, fatigue, disorganisation, lack of motivation. A square of chocolate and a quiet hour, and perhaps that’s all I can manage. Opening the doors, turning the pages: because these are small things, I make time for them. The candles burn down, one, two, three, four, and somehow there’s always just enough left of the first one when the time comes for them all to be lighted. Advent provides me with a solid structure at the very time of year I most need one. Day after day (and they get shorter and shorter) it guides me through, and somehow, when I ought to be the least spiritual and responsive to beauty, I find the time; I stop; I look; and there it is.

Advent is not meant to be wall-to-wall cheeriness. It’s a combination of solemnity and awe, anticipation and terror; wanting everything to be over, and knowing that we’re a very long way away from that; having a keen sense of my own unpreparedness, and knowing that my preparedness isn’t entirely relevant, after all.

Empty space

I’m not ready for Advent this year.

I wasn’t ready for Advent last year, either. That’s part of the point of it. Wachet auf. Wake up!

(I’ve heard Wachet Auf twice today, and sung Lo! he comes with clouds descending twice, too. It’s definitely Advent. Ready or not, here it comes.)

It’s early, of course. It’s as early as it can be: Christmas falls on a Sunday, so Advent stretches out for the full four weeks. The calendars (except this one), the candles, the prompt blogs, the poetry anthologies all start on the first of December, and here we are with four days of November left to fill.

In fact, I’m not even sure about the prompt blogs. Kat McNally has shut up shop. Project Reverb seems to have gone AWOL. I think I will join in December Reflections, but I find myself wanting to work with prompts for writing rather than photography. I like to look back over the year that has been, and forward to the year that’s coming.

What am I going to do?

What am I going to do?

I’ve got the end of a box of chocolates in my drawer. I have a shelf full of poetry books. I have plenty of candles, even if they don’t have numbers on.

I wrote this week, in another place,

I’d like to get better at doing nothing, feel more comfortable with empty space.

Perhaps these four days – well, three, now, really – are an opportunity.

Not many people can say that

More of a story over Paris, this one. I'll tell you, one day.

More of a story over Paris, this one. I’ll tell you, one day.

I have had a character named after me in a short story about Captain Von Trapp invading Paris in a submarine. It’s part of a delightful series called Stories Under Paris: an ambitious project to write a story for each one of the hundreds of Métro stations. The result so far is a collection of whimsical, joyous fantasies; my favourite (again, so far) is The Story of the Un-Drowned Princess for Château d’Eau. Although of course I’m always going to have a soft spot now for Léon Gambetta and the Battle of the Métro, for Midshipman Jowitt’s sake.

Midshipman Jowitt exists because I supported the author on Patreon, which, if you haven’t already heard of it, is a sort of crowd-funding site to support artists. Like other crowd-funders like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, the creator can choose to set perks according to the level of funding the individual supporter chooses to pay. And one of the rewards at the level I chose to support was to get a character named after me, though I have to admit that this had very little to do with my decision to become a patron. That was more because I love the whole concept of Stories Under Paris and am keen to see it continue for all three hundred and something stations.  And if all this is sounding fearfully extravagant, well, I could easily spend more on a magazine, for writing I enjoyed less.

I have to admit to having some reservations about Patreon – not least, the way that it’s going to turn into a pyramid scheme for artists if only artists use it – but I can also see its potential, to provide a sustainable income for full-time writers, composers, etc, or to cover the costs of a hobby. Whatever, being a supporter has worked out pretty well for me.