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.

Daily Decoration: Christmas tree

Undecorated, bushy evergreen tree standing in the corner of a room.

This morning the sitting room curtain rail fell down. That made me ten minutes later logging in to work than I could have been, and I was already a quarter of an hour later than I’d meant to be. This evening I logged out and went straight to bed. Now I’m sitting on the sofa in a room with an undecorated tree and a candle burning in the curtainless window. There’s always space for a little more chaos, particularly at this time of year.

I could claim that the tree is deliberately bare, and that wouldn’t be entirely untrue. Tradition in the Jowitt household used to be that there was one grand decorating session on Christmas Eve. And some years it’s been fairly crucial for my sanity to still be hanging on in Advent while everyone around me was three Secret Santas in. But it wouldn’t be entirely true, either, because I think the actual idea was to decorate it yesterday.

But there’s time. There’s time. The truth hidden in the (sacred and secular) admonitions to ‘Get ready!’ is that I’m not really expected to be ready yet.

There’s time. One of the first things I did after I finally logged in this morning was to request holiday for tomorrow. I had time just sitting there: granted, I could carry it over to next year, but why do that, when I’d really appreciate it now? I’ll use it to make mince pies. Or pierniczki. Or write. Or read. Or watch something. Or go for a walk. Or maybe just sleep. And perhaps we’ll decorate the tree – or perhaps we really will leave it for Christmas Eve.

Daily Decoration: shining sun

Carved and gold-painted wooden sun face hanging from an evergreen tree

This magnificent sun is another triumph of Guildford charity shopping days. I thought I’d share it in honour of the solstice.

I haven’t seen much of the sun today. There was a tiny patch of blue sky visible through grey clouds when I went out for my morning walk; the rest of it has just been plain grey. Even sitting in front of the east-facing living room window, where I’ve been working the last week or so, there wasn’t any sun to be seen.

And oh, goodness, dark days are hard. Working from home makes things a bit easier, in that I can just about get away with staying in bed until sunrise (8.06am today, though I was actually up at 7am), but I think it might make the afternoon slump worse. And certainly as soon as the sun goes down I lose all motivation and energy. Which is annoying, when there are things I’d like to do with my life besides work.

I don’t think I quite got the balance right this year. I made some experiments that didn’t really work out. Writing ten thousand words in two days got that particular project moving again, but wiped me out for anything else; and staying on writing duty for an entire month didn’t work at all. Firstly, four writing weeks doesn’t automatically result in twice as much content as two writing weeks. Secondly, I couldn’t really enjoy anything else. I’d have done better to have taken every other day off and gone to the cinema. I went to the cinema on Friday and, even wiped out as I am, I am suddenly a whole lot more enthusiastic about all of it.

It’s all useful data, though. Next year I’m going back to half and half: writing from full moon to new moon, and doing other things from new moon to full moon. (It’s as good a way as splitting things up as any, and the moon phases are in every engagement diary.) As for what the sun does, well, that’s a different question. All I really know is that I need to be more gentle with myself when there isn’t very much of it. But from tomorrow, we get more. And more, and more, and more.

Daily decoration: crib, waiting

Playmobil stable with ox, doves and a mouse

The crib is out. Half the figures aren’t in it yet, of course: all the humans, and the donkey, camel, and sheep, are dispersed around the bookcases, making their way there at their own pace. The angel and the baby Jesus are still in the box.

Speaking of boxes, that’s a rather ignominious thing the stable is standing on. Normally it goes on top of the piano, but given the cat’s predilection for knocking small objects to the floor and chasing them, it seemed safer to have it in a place that’s harder for her to get at: on top of a box on top of a bookcase between the radio and some greetings cards that really ought to have been recycled by now. As it happens, that shoebox also contains instruments, but it’s small, obnoxious things like sleigh bells and the Otamatone.

There is, of course, an obvious point to be made about the placement of the crib. Not in pride of place, under the glare of the purple lamp, but set back, somewhere safer, more hidden. Somewhere you don’t see it, straight away. Somewhere you have to look for it.