Daily Decoration: bead star

Christmas tree decoration in the fomr of a five-point star made from clear bugles and seed beads and blue bicones

I bought this little star, and a few others like it, from a member of the regional women’s committee back in the day when I was looking after the regional women’s committee.

Working for a trade union, you meet all sorts of people. It’s one of the really interesting things about the job, and it’s been particularly good for me. If I am less stand-offish, shy, or socially awkward than I was a decade ago, a large part of that’s down to the people I’ve worked with and for, union staff and union members. (And a lot of the rest of it is down to my fellow weirdoes on the internet.)

I’d meant to write more, but I’m feeling woozy and achy after yesterday’s jab, and my thoughts are wandering all over the place. So this short and sweet post will have to do, together, of course, with a solid day’s work tomorrow. Side-effects permitting.

Daily Decoration: augmented

Gold plastic Christmas tree bauble ringed with a strip of diamanté trim. Reflected in the bauble is a woman holding a mobile phone.

Nothing special about this bauble: it’s a bog-standard plastic thing. The diamanté trim, however, has a story of sorts. Originally it was attached to the little clutch bag I bought to go with my going-away outfit. I felt that it was a bit too gaudy for the occasion and removed it. After that it hung around the place doing nothing very useful until it occurred to me that I could add it to a Christmas tree bauble, and did. I think I might have had to snip off a couple of jewels from one end to make it fit properly. If so, I chucked them. Even I’m not that much of a hoarder.

I had my booster vaccination this afternoon. Consequently I am feeling somewhat less sparkly than usual, particularly around the left shoulder. Nevertheless, I trust that I will shortly be augmented with enhanced immunity, and will therefore be able to partake more fully and more confidently in life.

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: German roundels

Three laser-cut plywood Christmas tree decorations, with (left to right) a nativity scene, a church with an onion dome, and an angel kneeling on a shooting star), each in a circle with stars around the edge

These three roundels (I don’t think I can really call them baubles when they’re flat) are part of a set that was a Christmas present from my aunt several years ago. This is the aunt who lives in Germany, near Frankfurt, and in 2007 I spent a couple of months living with her and her family while I was trying to work out what to do with my life.

I don’t remember any of the churches in and around Frankfurt looking much like the one in the middle there. That’s a style that I associate more with Bavaria and Austria. When I was out there I attended a charismatic church led by one of my aunt’s colleagues. It was a bit of an eye-opener after a a childhood in rural Anglicanism and three years at the university chapel. Somebody had a prophetic image for me. I’d never had one of those before, and I didn’t really know what to do about it, though in retrospect I don’t think they were far off.

One of the questions associated with moving to a new place is: where will I go to church? Pretty soon after I came back from Germany, I moved to Guildford. I was miserable for a lot of the time that I lived in Guildford, but the one thing I never regretted was ending up at Holy Trinity for the Advent Carol Service (I’d been aiming for the cathedral, but had drastically misjudged the time it would have taken to walk there). It was just the church I needed: it had an inclusive approach, intelligent preaching, a reassuring stability, and, in its excellent but non-auditioned choir, a way that I could contribute even when my confidence was absolutely shot and I was hanging on by a thread. We kept going there even after we moved to Woking and I was quite a bit saner.

Later, we moved to Cambridge – Chesterton, to be precise. I thought that St Andrew’s was our parish church. In fact, it wasn’t, but it was the church I needed. Not that I immediately realised this. We happened to land on a family service, which was not really our thing. A couple of months later, we hit a sung eucharist and found that there was indeed a choir that we could join. I went to family services quite a bit more when we were settled there, though. I ended up contributing more than I’d expected, too: by the time we moved on, I was a PCC member, leader of the twenties and thirties study group, and occasional reader and intercessor, as well as a choir member.

I mentioned last year that moving house in a pandemic had its advantages. One of those was the fact that church went online, so I could hang on at St Andrew’s for far longer than would have been feasible in other times. I even got involved in leading informal worship (I’d imagine all that’s still on Youtube) and was still doing that up until this summer. In theory, the great onlining could also have meant that I could get a taste of other churches via their Youtube channels, though in fact I didn’t do any particular church shopping that way. When the churches opened up again after the long 2020 closure I started going to Ely Cathedral. I’m still feeling like a complete newbie (pandemic time may have something to do with this) but I’m starting to get to know people and get involved in things.

I always do seem to end up at the church I need, even if it’s not immediately obvious why that’s the case. It’s almost as if someone has a better idea than I do…

As for working out what to do with my life: well, it all worked out, but not because of any particular effort or thought on my part, and it took rather longer than two months. I’m hoping to get back to Germany next year.

Hyperlocal travel writing: the path alongside the A10

One of my great comforts this past year has been travel writing: reading it, and visiting in my imagination all the places that I can’t visit in the flesh. But it’s also made me appreciate where I am. And that made me remember that in fact I live in a city that’s a popular tourist spot in ordinary times.

Actually, I don’t believe that’s necessary. No matter where we live, we can approach our streets, gardens, kitchen tables, with a travel writer’s eye (and perhaps an attitude of self-parody, if need be). Take a look at this: Travel and Food Diary: Quarantine Edition.

So, if you’d like to jump in and share your hyperlocal travel writing, please do. (#HyperlocalTravelWriting ought to do it.) We can visit each other virtually, travel the world, see the sights, taste the food, smell the scents, from our computers.

At the same time, it felt a bit like cheating to go straight in with the cathedral and Oliver Cromwell and all the rest of the attractions on my doorstep. They’ll come later, I’m sure. But I thought I’d start with something more ordinary: the path I walk most days.

Pale blue morning sky with moody purple, pink and apricot clouds over twentieth century detached houses, bare winter trees, a shining tarmac path, and dull grass

Start at the north end. Immediately, there’s a choice. Left or right? Left, the path is narrower and the trees are closer. Right, the wider path is split down the middle: red for cycles, grey for pedestrians. They clasp between them a broad green space. There’s probably a dog or two bounding across it: a black labrador, maybe.

Left or right? It doesn’t matter. This wasn’t so much a fork as a spoon, and you started at the very tip of the bowl. If you didn’t dip down to the subway under the main road, drawn by the allure of a takeaway (not, in these times, a film or a swim) at the leisure park, or follow one of the little paths off to the left to find yourself somewhere at the end of a cul-de-sac, you’ll be where the bowl meets the handle. Now the two paths join, split the difference, become a sinuous strip of tarmac self-consciously meandering between the houses on the left and the trees on the right. The cycle track ends, but the cyclists continue: a lad on a paper round, sporty-looking people on mountain bikes, small children wobbling on stabilisers or whizzing off on balance bikes. Scooters, too. Dirt tracks, made by children or dogs, lead off into the trees and emerge again a little further on, for the pleasure of going nowhere in particular.

Beyond the trees, the A10 roars on. Somebody’s going somewhere, even if it isn’t you. South, towards Cambridge and London. North, towards the sea. The birds keep singing regardless. Thrushes, sparrows, pigeons. You might even hear a cockerel.

Now the path dips, loses a couple of metres in height. You notice it, out here in the Fens. The path broadens a little, becomes concrete, passes a small water processing plant, is barred by a gate (easy to walk round, and a particularly good blackberry spot in the autumn), meets the road. Not the main road, but the one that takes the traffic into the city from the north west. The cars (it mostly is cars) coming from the south whose drivers wish to do this veer into the middle lane, slow rapidly, and wait for the southbound lane to be clear. From the north, it’s easier. Meanwhile, the main flow of traffic – cars, white vans, grimy lorries, huge tractors in primary colours, hauling gleaming-bladed implements behind them – keeps on going.

Cross the road, and pause on the other side. Look up the hill. There’s the cathedral, effortlessly imposing. You’d have to climb a bit to get to it, more than you’d think from looking at it from here. You’ll have to climb anyway, following this path.

Again, the planted tree barrier has grown up on the right, recently enough that you can still see the plastic guards around the trunks, long enough ago that some of the trees have swelled enough to push them off. Hazel, silver birch, blackthorn, wild roses, brambles. Even in winter, the rosehips make the hedges bright. The houses are a little further away, but every so often a path branches off to take residents off into the maze that only they have really got their heads around.

Still it continues, an artificial path winding through artificial bumps and mounds, little bridges crossing little drains. Chunky plastic benches are provided at decent intervals. This is a path for people. Keep on climbing, and you come to a wide, open green. Look at the houses, spot which ones have been made to the same pattern as each other. Watch the dogs joyfully chasing balls. There might even be someone with a kite. Some new trees were planted this winter, filling in some more of the space between the path and the road: try to picture what it’ll look like when they’ve grown up. At the top end, there’s another little bridge, and then you’re back on this same climbing, tarmac path, tucked between the houses and the road, except now the road is quite a way beneath you.

At the top of the hill the path gives onto a square of houses with an impressive playground and a majestic horse chestnut tree, older than anything around it. Keep on past it.

If it’s been dry, or very cold, or if you’re not too worried about your shoes, you might as well leave the path and climb up to the top of the little mound which really is as high as you can get. Look down on the road, look west across the fen, look at the morning sky. Follow the hedge line or walk the ridge, sloping down southwards. Or you can keep on along the path, which has its own rewards: huge variegated ivy leaves; snowdrops and crocuses, or, later, cherry blossom; or later still, the orange balls of buddleia globosa, thick with bees; a bush full of opinionated sparrows; a copper beech hedge; a bright-beaked blackbird.

And then you’re at another road. Look left, and there’s the cathedral again; right, the roundabout to sort the Ely traffic from the northbound traffic from the southbound traffic from the westbound traffic and the traffic that wants the filling station or the Travelodge. And straight ahead, a tranquil field, ploughed or green, and another lone chestnut tree, its branches sweeping downwards, hazy in the morning light.

December Reflections 29: hope for the world

page marked with a grid, with three drawings in pencil and coloured pencil of people's faces in profile

Well, there’s the vaccine, obviously. Vaccines, plural. (Insert the usual bus joke here – but the ‘waiting ages’ part isn’t quite true this time, is it? Goes to show what can be done when the will and the funding can be found.) I for one am tentatively beginning to think of 2021 as being a little less of a blank than 2020, though of course I’ll be a long way down the list.

I seem to be shelving ‘hopes’ in the same place as ‘intentions‘: today, I just don’t have the energy for anything specific. (Though maybe we’re going to acquire a cat.) This prompt is looking more generally, though, and I’m going to go as general as you can get: humanity.

And by

hope for the world: humanity

I mean both

I hope that all over the world people will come to appreciate their kinship with all their fellow human beings, and will act accordingly

and also

I believe that any hope there is for this lovely, vulnerable, world, and for all its peoples, lies in our recognising and claiming our humanity, and in bearing the responsibility that we all have for our fellow human beings and for the world we live in

Whatever that looks like.

December Reflections 25: love is…

waxing gibbous moon seen just below the edge of a wooden porch, which has blue and green fairy lights twined around the beam

I have been writing, on and off, for the last three years at least, about what love is and what love looks like, and this year it’s looked very odd indeed. Staying away from people. (I’ve heard all the introvert jokes, and made quite a lot of them.) I spoke to most of my family earlier: they were eating Christmas dinner outside, in the teeth of a bracing sea breeze off the English Channel. Meanwhile, I continue to lurk in the Fens like Hereward the Wake.

Love doesn’t always look the way we expect it to. I think this is something I learn over and over – but how much more so this year?

December Reflections 24: one year ago

reproduction of a 1610 map of Buckinghamshire

One year ago, I was somewhere in Bedfordshire, or Buckinghamshire, or possibly Hertfordshire, visiting in-laws and in-laws’ in-laws. I’d taken the train straight up there from London, and I think we all hopped straight into the car and went to pick up my stepmother-in-law’s brother and then all went to see her brother. There was a lot of travelling that afternoon, anyway. No planes (I haven’t flown since 2007), but trains and automobiles, by all means.

This year, not so much.

It occurred to me earlier just how much travelling there is in the Gospel accounts of the nativity. Mary, going to the hill country to visit Elizabeth. Mary and Joseph, travelling to Bethlehem. Or from Bethlehem to Egypt. The Magi, travelling from the east, via Jerusalem. Even the shepherds go even unto Bethlehem to see this thing that is come to pass. The Gospels disagree about who travels where, but they both agree there’s a lot of travelling. Matthew and Luke, both knowing that Bethlehem is important, both knowing they’ve got to get everybody there somehow, but not sure whether to start them off there and move them to Nazareth later or throw in a census to get them out of Nazareth. I sympathise.

As my Playmobil crib figures hop from bookshelf to bookshelf, traversing the length of the sitting room, I don’t seem to be going very much further myself. This evening I’m travelling vicariously with NORAD Santa. In a normal year I’d be clocking up over a hundred miles every weekday. That all ground to a halt in the middle of March. Actually, I hadn’t done so badly. Work had sent me to Manchester, and then I managed a dash to Bristol for what must have been one of the last full-scale weddings. I’d gone north. I’d gone west. South would come later.

I’m sad not to be seeing people. My in-laws are in tier 4 now; we’ll be in it ourselves from Boxing Day; and such of my family as wasn’t in tier 4 will be moving from tier 1 to tier 3. This isn’t such a wrench as it has been for some people, as we’ve done Christmas on our own before. And goodness knows I’m well off compared to the poor hauliers waiting at Dover. It’s more the not knowing when I will see people again.

Which is not to say that I haven’t found value in staying still, or in traversing the same short distance over and over again. I wrote, some time in the first lockdown,

this time is reminding me very much of my childhood: all the household is at home all the time; there are columbines and copper beech and swelling fruit in the garden; I can hear a cock crowing. Encountering civilisation is a bit of a palaver. I spend most of my time barefoot. Going on holiday is a very remote possibility and will be the Isle of Wight if it ever does happen. People who I love very much are a long way away from where I am, and there’s no prospect of seeing them soon.

I did make it to the Isle of Wight; my middle brother drove up with his fiancée and picked me up. And the journey was the way they always used to be: leaving very early in the chill of a clear summer morning that’s going to be hot later, heading south through long shadows.

Until we got to the ferry terminal, where they were still advertising the Isle of Wight Festival which was never going to happen this year, and there was another brother in the queue…

Soon, soon, we’ll be able to do all that again. And it’s worth waiting for.

December Reflections 17: things I missed

plastic tumbler with blue design representing the various things that go on at Ventnor Fringe Festival

I did make it to Ventnor, and was very glad to do so, but of course the Fringe was cancelled. I was able to see my family, but I missed the buzz and the music and the hanging around at the Book Bus drinking Belgian beer until it was time to go and watch something strange or brilliant or completely whack. There were a lot of holes in the calendar this year: Ventnor Fringe; our housewarming party; the Discworld convention; the national Ultreya. Whole months went by without my looking at the calendar at all.

I missed the things I’d promised myself I’d do more of – live theatre, yes (I saw two operas in two weeks back in February, though I wasn’t intending to maintain that ratio), but ice skating, too, cinema (we live five minutes from a cinema now!), taking trains to places on the Continent. I missed the things I took for granted: a pint at the pub, being able to sing in church.

I’ve said a few times that I’m quite prepared to continue being an antisocial cow for as long as it takes, and that’s true. But there are things I’m missing a lot, and I shall be very glad to do them again when it’s safe.

December Reflections 14: mask selfie!

person with face almost obscured by - from the top - a black trilby hat, a pair of sunglasses, and a face mask with a pattern of black and white piano keys. Also wearing a bright purple coat

I’ve had an extensive collection of hats for a long time. Masks, not so much. And I have to say that I enjoy wearing masks considerably less than I do hats. But here we all are.

I’m lucky in that, working from home, I mostly don’t have to – it’s just trips to the shops, or church, or (as here) the post office. I’m also lucky in that I can see without my glasses if I really need to, so I do have options if I can’t keep the fogging under control.

And it’s quite fun to be an international woman of mystery. I’m sure you’ll all be pleased to know that, after months of meticulous preparation, I was able to make the drop well before zero hour.