Week-end: and year-end

Morning sun and bare trees seen through a glassless window

The good

I’ve enjoyed these first seven days of Christmas. We’ve seen lots of family, and a few friends, and I’ve been alternating between cooking, reading, and doing absolutely nothing. Now we’re back home with the cat.

And I think I’m getting my brain back.

The mixed

I could do with fretting less when we’re both away from home. I’m better now that we have a cat – because that means that we have someone coming in to feed her, and surely if the house burned down they would let us know – but I’d really like to be not quite so on edge until that first check-in.

The difficult and perplexing

Had to see some of the family from a distance, as they were struck down with the lurgy.

What’s working

Letting other people do things. Though I still need to work on this.

Reading

Wintering (Katherine May). I bought this because a lot of people on the DecemberReflections Instagram hashtag named it as their book of the year. I have to say that there wasn’t a whole lot in there that felt revolutionary to me: the central idea, that some periods in one’s life are just bloody difficult and to deal with them one needs to take a step back, is one that I first encountered in Lesley Garner’s Everything I’ve Ever Done That Worked back when I was a student, not to mention something that has been brought home to me by experience this year. And the concept of living in season is something that’s explored in far greater depth in Waverly Fitzgerald’s Slow Time. I was unimpressed by the uncritical repetition of the factoid about Hallowe’en being ‘when the veil between the worlds grows thin’ (anyone who follows @Cavalorn on Twitter will know that this is an idea that dates back no further than the twentieth century) and was consequently preprared to distrust anything else May wrote about wintry festivals; fortunately she didn’t, much. However, there were some lovely bits of observational writing, and I’m glad to have read it even if I didn’t get my mind blown. And I have Winters In The World (Eleanor Parker) to read next, and I have much higher hopes of that.

Agatha Christie: a very elusive woman (Lucy Worsley) was a Christmas present: very readable. I found the constant use of the first name (Agatha this, Agatha that) rather uncomfortable, although since Worsley’s point was very much that Agatha Christie was a complex mixture of personalities, not all of them called Agatha Christie, I can see why the choice was made.

Watching/listening to

The Neujahrskonzert on BBC4 is on in the background while I write this.

Cooking

Simultaneous soups, one vegan and one from the remains of the Christmas chicken.

Eating

What haven’t I been eating? Turkey, I suppose. I have not eaten any turkey this Christmas. I have eaten many other things. Roast lamb. Macarons. Smashed avocado and poached egg on sourdough toast. Fishfinger sandwiches with chips. Vegetable curry. Shepherd’s pie. Chocolate cake. Many types of cheese. Stollen fudge (just seems to be standard fudge with dried fruit in so far as I can tell).

Playing

Two different railway-building games: TransAmerica and Ticket To Ride. I lost spectacularly in TransAmerica and won Ticket to Ride by three points.

Noticing

A huge Newfoundland dog – first peering under a gate, and then out for a walk with its owner. Various birds of prey I couldn’t identify (I am rubbish at birds of prey; they were probably all very common). The lovely sign on the A421 that points to Toseland Yelling Graveley.

Appreciating

My green corduroy trousers. People helping me with things and/or doing them so I didn’t have to.

Acquisitions

I did pretty well in the sales in Milton Keynes. Brushed cotton pyjamas. A nice floaty top. Starry pants. And – in the rather incongruous charity shop – a gorgeous blue dress that might do for my brother’s wedding.

Hankering

Several things in LionessElise’s sale. But I don’t need any of them.

Line of the week

From Wintering:

Encountering the extremes of cold drew us both into that most clich├ęd space, The Moment, forcibly pulling our minds away from ruminating on the past or future, or tilling over an endless to-do list.

This coming week

Lots of thank you letters to write. News to share. Bank holiday. Back to work.

Anything you’d like to share from this week? Any hopes for next week? Share them here! And I hope 2023 brings you many good things.

December Reflections 24 (stillness) and 25 (today is…), and Week-end

Grey sea and grey sky fading into each other at the horizon
Discarded wrapping paper

The good

I am more or less over my cold and was able to sing most of the Christmas carols as I would have wished.

The mixed

Christmas with the family, the first time we’ve made it since Covid happened. It’s been good. Tag-team organised chaos. Missing Pa. Ended up in charge of two major meals. Slightly overreached myself with the Wigilia and had a cry midway through making the pierogi (need to get better at coopting minions, particularly when it’s just a case of following a recipe in a book).

The difficult and perplexing

Being ill has meant I haven’t been to nearly as much church as I normally would, and having melted brain and general fatigue has meant I haven’t been able to do as much in-depth Advent study as I usually would, and really all I could do was turn up at midnight mass and hope it was doing its thing somewhere deep under the surface.

What’s working

The shower! At least, better than it was before. I think I must have knocked the temperature control at some point.

Reading

I finished Bright Smoke, Cold Fire. Holy cliffhanger, Batman! I suppose I’ll have to read the next one now, but I disapprove. Picked up The Master and Margarita again; I continue to find it rather heavy-going. Started Sisters of the Forgiving Stars. And also Letters from Tove [Jansson], which I can see I’m going to enjoy immensely.

Watching

I finished the first season of Detectorists and enjoyed it. Quite a lot of skiing. And we watched a programme featuring Susan Calman taking a Christmas cruise down the Danube, which provided me with an opportunity to try to recognise bits of Vienna and Bratislava.

Cooking

Almost an entire Wigilia (Polish Christmas Eve) meal, modified to account for two vegans and one vegetarian. I was particularly pleased with how the pierogi (three flavours – mushroom, sauerkraut, and potato, onion and ‘cheese’) turned out, even if it would have been better to make it in advance.

The barscz came out of a Tetrapak and the uszkas came out of a bag. I made a sauerkraut salad and a cucumber and ‘yoghurt’ salad, and got Tony to do a tomato one. Lidl ready to pan-fry sea bass for the carnivores. Stuffed tomatoes for everyone else. And I had made the cake ahead of time.

Ended up mostly in charge of Christmas lunch, too, until I got the timings out by half an hour and gave up with a howl of despair. There were plenty of other adults to take over.

Eating

See above.

In the garden

Finally got around to unloading compost from the Hotbin.

Noticing

Arundel looking impossibly fairy-tale in the declining winter sun.

Appreciating

Family. Friends, not least the online ones. And the hovercraft coming back into service just as we got to Portsmouth, cutting an hour off the journey.

Acquisitions

Other than Christmas presents, a lot of sewing thread.

Line of the week

From the verse of O Little Town that’s only in the New English Hymnal:

Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.

This coming week

More seasonal shenanigans.

If you’ve been celebrating Christmas today, I hope it’s been a very happy one. Otherwise, I wish you a nice peaceful day and hope it all doesn’t get too annoying.

Anything you’d like to share from this week? Any hopes for next week? Share them here!

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: 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: 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.