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.