December Days 19: tasty

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Terrible photo; very tasty chocolates. It’s the time of year for very tasty chocolates.

I always find this time of year a little difficult: how to balance my need for sleep with my desire to get involved with things and have fun? How to avoid getting burned out and cynical about the whole Christmas thing before we’ve even got to December? How to honour my need for solitude without being a miserable cow? How to acknowledge the fact that the short days and the long to-do list make it very difficult to be cheerful? How to keep a holy Advent without becoming sanctimonious?

There are some things that I always do. I take the first week of Advent off work, to catch up on sleep. I do some kind of observance: I have an Advent calendar and I read an Advent book. And I don’t sing with any group that requires me to start rehearsing Christmas music before mid-November.

(I really do like Advent. It acknowledges the fear and despair that annoyingly seem to be longstanding guests in my head, while refusing to let me stop with them.)

There are some things that I experiment with. This year I’ve given up alcohol, except for a couple of glasses of prosecco before the work disco, because in that moment refusing it would have felt sanctimonious, and declined to participate in Secret Santa (too bloody awkward). But I’ve also sung carols at a Christmas lights switch-on and ridden on gallopers while the organ was playing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (in mid-November, at that), and danced until my knees hurt at the aforementioned disco.

I haven’t got it right yet. I was reluctant to get out of bed this morning. But I have had fun today. I drank lemonade and jumped around with a tambourine and sung along with Wombling Merry Christmas. And I ate a very tasty lunch.

December Reflections 3: orange

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I bought myself a Playmobil Advent calendar this year, because – I’d had it on my wishlist for ages – and things like this didn’t exist when I was eight – and I wouldn’t have had one even if they had – and it was a fiver cheaper than the last time I looked – and I’m thirty-three and I have a job that pays me money and I can buy frivolous things if I feel like it.

And then it came to Advent, and I opened the first two doors, and put the princess together, and the sledge, and immediately felt massively guilty because – I had bought things I don’t need – and where was I going to put it? – and we have a house inspection on Saturday – and what am I, eight? – and little bits of plastic that will get lost and trodden on.

Then I remembered that sitting in my desk tidy there was this little orange-haired Playmobil doll. I found her on the pavement outside the council offices in Woking years ago, with her broken feet and her scraped face, and picked her up and took her home with me. I hadn’t the heart to throw her away, and I wasn’t sure if anyone else would want her, so she’d been sitting in my desk tidy ever since.

I put her on the sledge, and immediately felt better about the whole thing.

This story doesn’t have a moral. It’s just a picture of the way my head works at the moment: a mixture of guilt and whimsy and sentimentality; of playfulness and prudence and extravagance; of self-consciousness and a resolute refusal to give a damn what anyone else thinks anyway. It says as much about me as anything, I suppose.

A compass for 2018

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Happy New Year! Well, a happy new year to those who are celebrating it today, anyway.

Personally I’m all for celebrating the new year as often as possible. I celebrate it on Advent Sunday, along with the rest of the western Church, at Easter, when I generally stop feeling so grim, and at my birthday. I also celebrate it when the number ticks over from 2017 to 2018 and, if necessary, at the start of the academic year in September. But Advent is, for me, the big one. I take the whole month to do it. Ease the new year in gently. Look back, look forward. Light some candles. Sulk about how everyone else seems to be managing to be cheerful and excited.

Usually I observe Advent with some kind of reflective, communal, blogging exercise, but the days of reflective, communal blogging exercises seem to be past. Besides, I don’t seem to be in the mood for asking myself searching questions or nominating the best book or best day of 2017. I want to do something, but it’s not Reverb; so I think I shall just bumble around and do my own thing, picking and choosing exercises from elsewhere on the internet, and not answering any questions if I can help it.

I’m starting with a compass, identifying the qualities I wish to have in my orbit in 2018.

North is COURAGE

North East is TRUST

East is LOVE

South East is INTEGRITY

South is HOPE

South West is PRESENCE

West is JOY

North West is HAVEN

Some of these are concepts that have been important to me for several years. PRESENCE was my word for this year just gone. INTEGRITY came in around 2012, I think, and hasn’t left. COURAGE got me through 2014. HAVEN, on the other hand, is a new one. I’ll probably end up writing about some or all of these at some point over the next couple of weeks.

After writing the qualities in, I put the quarter days at the cardinal points, and the changes of season at the ordinals. (My life has been much better since I decided that summer begins on May Day and August is actually part of autumn.) I also put my three main new years on there. Other than Lady Day/Easter, they’re slightly out of step with the rest of the compass, but they do seem to want to be on there.

Some of the conjunctions between festivals and qualities are striking; some are amusing. PRESENCE coming in at Lammas, just after my birthday, is both. Some I don’t quite see. (HOPE needs to come in at Midsummer, otherwise it’s downhill all the way; but why JOY at Michaelmas?)

Anyway, knowing me I’ll either revisit this every day until next Advent, or forget about it immediately. Or revisit it every day for the next three weeks and then forget about it completely.

Courage to trust; love with integrity;

Hope for presence; joy in the haven.

Haven for joy; present with hope;

Integrity of love; trusting courage.

Courage/Hope

Love/Joy

Trust/Presence

Integrity/Haven

Courage with love, hope with joy

Trust in integrity, present in the haven

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,

Iā€™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.

Advent

Today is the first day of Advent, and, for me, the first day of the new year. I observe both this new year and the one where the calendar flips over to 2015, and spend the intervening month reflecting on the year past, and looking forward to the next one.

My Advent practice for 2014 includes the following:

The Meaning is in the Waiting (Paula Gooder) – a section a day
A Feast for Advent (Delia Smith, yes, that Delia Smith) – a section a day
– Advent candle (starts, irritatingly, at 1; I have burned the tip of it today, for 30)
– responding to Reverb prompts
– making an O Antiphons calendar (at the moment this consists of 21 purple-painted cardboard circles)
– as much rest as possible
– limiting personal purchases and instead making a daily donation to The Children’s Society
– bringing out one Christmas decoration every day

December is, inevitably, busy, and I’m still not entirely well, so some of these may fall by the wayside as I go through this. That’s normal. I hope, however, to be here almost every day, and deliberately, consciously, with myself every day, too.

I start here: Advent

I have been looking forward to Advent. This feels vaguely heretical, given that Advent itself is meant to be about looking forward. Looking forward to looking forward. Oh well, why not?

Advent starts tomorrow ā€“ tidily, this year, on the first of December, so everyone’s Advent calendar is right, for once. I find this pleasing, because this Advent is a particularly important one. For me, at least.

I moved to Surrey in the late autumn of 2007. The first service I ever attended at Holy Trinity, Guildford, was the Advent Carol Service: the beginning of six years growing in love, faith, confidence and vocal skill. This was the church, and Church, I needed, and I found it on Advent Sunday because I’d lost my sense of direction and couldn’t work out how to get to the cathedral. In fact, I count my time in Guildford from that Advent Sunday; I can’t remember now what the date was that I actually moved, but Advent Sunday is where it began.

My last 101 in 1001 list (now abandoned, but helpful in various ways beyond the scope of the project) began on Advent Sunday 2010. To be fair, this was deliberate, but I think it’s interesting that even back then I was already thinking in terms of Advent being a beginning.

On Monday I begin a new job in a new office. This is a huge step: after nearly four years finding my confidence, my motivation, my feet, I’m moving on, and ā€“ well, I’ll almost certainly address this at some point over the next few weeks, but I seem to have a career now. And so, by pure chance, the first working day of Advent sees me starting a whole new adventure.

An entirely frivolous reason to like Advent: purple is my favourite colour (except for when I prefer red). Also, I’m an alto, and for an alto things don’t get much better than This is the Record of John.

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that my year runs Advent to ā€“ well, the Saturday after Stir Up Sunday, or Christ the King, or whatever you like to call this. I have decided to go with this. New Year’s Eve is always a write-off in my family, because of our devotion to the cult of historical public transport meaning that we all go to bed early. New Year’s Day is spent riding around Winchester on a succession of incredibly chilly buses. Advent Sunday, by contrast, is candles and purple and Gibbons and Mendelssohn and expecting. Advent means more to me than changing the year on the calendar ever has.

This does not really make any difference to anything outside my own head. I’m not going to start wishing people a Happy New Year tomorrow, or anything like that, but I want to say this, now: my new year starts tomorrow.

I’m not ready for it to be the new year. I have three things that terrify me: the Record solo, the new job, and turning right off the AA roundabout when I cycle back from the station on Monday night. I’m not sure I’m ready for any of this.

That is rather the point. I am never ready for anything until I start doing it. Starting my year in December (or, next year, November) gives me a whole extra month to get ready.

My first month of the year is also the last month of the year and I am going to use it as a time of very gentle transition.

In previous years (mostly last year, but to a certain extent before that) I have devoted the week between Christmas and New Year to fairly serious introspection, reflecting on the year gone, and looking forward to the year ahead. Last year I also took part in the Reverb project through most of December. This has worked very well. This year has been unnumbered blessings and I have made enormous progress in all sorts of things. Some of this is no doubt due to other factors, but having set the compass eleven months ago, being able to look back at what I wrote last year, has been very helpful.

This year I’m going to do it again, but I’m going to move the timescale a bit. I will devote the first four weeks of December (in other words, Advent) to this reflection. Reverb 13 prompts have already started appearing. I’m not going to beat myself up if I start slipping: I know already that this is going to be a peculiarly hectic Advent, because: new job, longer commute, long-distance relationship, three works Christmas parties (two of mine, one of his) and all sorts.

On the other hand, this does leave the week after Christmas completely free. At the moment I’m not sure what to do with it. I might use it to catch up with things I fall behind on. I might not. I don’t know. At the moment, that’s as it should be.

Other things for Advent: Haphazard by Starlight. Advent candle. As of yesterday, chocolate Advent calendar from one of my lovely colleagues. The O Antiphons (one of my plans for an unspecified date in the future, When I Have Time, is to make a sort of wall-hanging that will have the O Antiphons unfold over the week before Christmas to gradually spell out ERO CRAS). Freedom for this all to crash and burn and for me not to do any of it if it doesn’t seem right.

But at the moment, I am looking forward to all of it. Alleluia.