Advent Sunday

Advent calendar window, lit from behind, labelled 'First Sunday of Advent', with a picture of Christ in majesty with two skeletons.

I’ve shared a picture of my lovely six-sided Advent calendar in previous years. Advent is a season of varying length, of course, so sometimes, as this year, the traditional ‘starts on 1 December’ calendar is missing a few days. This one, however, has doors for St Andrew (30 November) and each Sunday of Advent, so this year it works perfectly. First Sunday of Advent today. St Andrew tomorrow. Then we’re into December.

I don’t have anything terribly original to add to the myriad observations about how weird this year is, the plethora of jokes about how today is March 274. Nevertheless, I have been thinking a lot about time this year. I revisited Waverly Fitzgerald’s lovely Slow Time and David Steindl-Rast’s Music of Silence. Pottering in my garden, I thought about The Morville Hours. Exploring Ely, I found two new sundials. This evening I listened to The Annunciation by Edwin Muir, and noticed myself noticing all the signifiers of time passing in the second half, noticed my mind leaping to a friend’s setting of The Spacious Firmament On High. Time. Time and space.

And where I am I? What have I learned? Nothing more than to try to be here, and now. I suspect that I’ll be writing a lot about that over the next month.

I love Advent. I’ve been looking forward to it for ages. And yet this morning found me late for church (over YouTube, so nobody knew!), pulling my top on as the processional played, breakfasting on cake. Somehow, Advent has crept up on me. It often does.

Even in normal times, time has never behaved the way I’ve thought it should. I remember the Advent calendar that was a pyramid shape, so that each day it had a little more wax to burn, and the closer it got to Christmas the longer I’d have to wait to blow it out. Not the sort of thing that King Alfred would have used for a candle clock.

So here I am. Here and now. I seem to know less than I ever did, and to be far less bothered by that than I’d ever have expected. I’ll be taking part in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections project again this year, looking back over the last twelve months, looking forward to the next twelve months.

To the pedantic western Christians reading this, Happy New Year! To everyone else, I hope March 274th is treating you well.

The Christmas question

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It’s too early to be thinking about Christmas, I’d gripe. In a normal year. (And my clergy and church worker friends, who would have been thinking about Christmas since August if not before, would roll their eyes.) In a normal year I’d have been making excuses to get out of this term’s workplace choir sessions (because weekly Shakin’ Stevens turns out to intersect really, really badly with my tendency to seasonal depression) since September, and right about now I’d be pondering whether it would be more socially awkward to sign up for the Secret Santa and misread my giftee’s preferences than not to sign up at all. I’d also have worked out which branch of the family I’d be spending the actual day with, booked the leave, and had a look at the trains.

But here we are, and a whole load of people are thinking about Christmas vocally, loudly, and argumentatively. We’ve just had a minor hail shower, so one could even argue that the weather’s getting in on the act.

So here are my thoughts about Christmas under Covid-19 restrictions, how I will (attempt to) deal with it myself, and some ideas which anybody’s welcome to act on or not, as they feel would be most helpful.

Feelings

There are many feelings. I’ve been through disappointment (I’d have loved to host a big Christmas gathering in this, our first year in our new house) and am now somewhere between irritation and boredom.

It is OK to be disappointed. It is OK to be irritated. It is OK to be bored. It is OK to be sad. (If you’re somebody who finds it helpful to think about how there are lots of people in the same boat, it might be worth remembering that millions of people are, well, in the same boat. Not to mention folk of other religions who have had to modify their festival celebrations without nearly so much of a fuss having been made.) It is OK to be secretly relieved! (Personally, I’m rather glad that my parents won’t be spending four hours in a car with each other, debating the merits of an outdated satnav and outdated Ordnance Survey maps all the way from the Isle of Wight to the Fens. And I’ll also miss them.)

Anyway, whatever you’re feeling, there’s probably a good reason for that, and, so long as you don’t use it as an excuse to be obnoxious, that’s fine. Not that you need my permission, obviously.

Traditions

What’s going to be weird this year is that thing we always do – which we can’t do, or shouldn’t do, or won’t do.

And I suppose the question to ask oneself, when considering how or whether to replace that thing, is: what is it about this tradition that is important? Why do we do this? What’s the quality, the essence, of this thing that we always do? And can you replicate that in some other way? To pick a very obvious example: if you always visit your great-aunt on Boxing Day, but this year her care home isn’t allowing visitors, well, can you make it a phone call instead? Do you usually bring her a box of marzipan fruits? Put one in the post to her, and get one for yourself too. It won’t be the same, but perhaps it will have enough of the original essence to work. And see Feelings, above: you’re allowed to feel whatever it is you feel about it not being the same.

One of the least negotiable elements of a Jowitt Christmas is the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College on Christmas Eve. The Queen is optional; Doctor Who is dependent on whether we have a working television; the communicant members of the household may or may not be awake enough to go to Midnight Mass; but you’d better believe that at 3pm on Christmas Eve Radio 4 will be playing. We will sing along with the congregational carols (some of us will attempt the descants); we will have grumpy choral opinions about the choir-only carols; we will listen out for our favourite passages (upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude whom no man can number; the weaned child shall put its hand into the cockatrice’s den); we will argue about the correct pronunciation of cockatrice.

When I was a child, we’d decorate the tree (fighting over who got to put up which baubles) while my father lit a fire and my mother iced the cake. Now we all live in different houses, it’s become rather looser. I doubt, for example, that my brother could get Radio 4 when he was working in a ski resort in the French Alps. But it’s still an important part of the festivities. In 2017 my husband and I got up at 5am and queued outside King’s for the tickets to be there live. In 2018 we listened to the broadcast and then went straight on to sing the exact same service at our parish church. Other than that, it tends to be my father and I texting each other ‘Bound!’ when the choir sings Adam lay ybounden. This is a reference to a long-dead dog. Hey, it’s a tradition.

And honestly, a lot of what’s important about that is that we always do it. We: me, my parents, whichever brothers happen to be around. Always: every Christmas. It’s about that shared experience, doing the same thing at the same time. It isn’t so much about the Christmas story, which comes across better to me at live church (more on that further down).

What’s that going to be like this year? I suppose it’s down to King’s and Auntie Beeb. I’m sure there’ll be something in that 3pm slot, whether it’s a smaller, physically distanced choir, or a recording from a previous year, but let’s imagine there isn’t. What might we do instead? Off the top of my head:

  • find a previous year’s service on YouTube, send the link around, and agree to watch that at 3pm
  • conduct our own service (it’s all in the back of the first volume of Carols for Choirs)
  • put on a CD/record/playlist of carols
  • listen to what was being broadcast on the radio instead

By next year, that would probably have become a tradition in its own right. And circumstances that are less than ideal can spawn their own, more optimistic, traditions. For example:

The year my parents separated, there were suddenly two houses and two Christmas trees. And only one of me.

That Christmas was grim, but one thing was worth doing, and has stuck: I bought two identical tree ornaments, one for each of my parent’s Christmas trees. I couldn’t be in two places at once, but I could at least show that I wished I could be.

Over the years, I’ve expanded the practice, and now send tree decorations to both of my parents, the two of my brothers who have moved out, and my in-laws, as well as keeping one for our own tree – so even when I can’t be with someone for Christmas, there can be something of me there.

Sometimes I’ve made decorations. Sometimes I’ve bought several identical ones. Sometimes I’ve got a set and split it up. Glass angels, laser-cut wooden dragons from Ljubljana, crystal stars, iridescent hummingbirds… This year I’ve been threading gorgeous faceted glass beads onto thick silver-plated wire and bending it into abstract spirals. This tradition, born of one of the most painful experiences of my life, has become one of the preparations that I most enjoy.

Cardboard box containing Christmas tree decorations made from faceted glass beads and silver wire.

Enjoyment

I talked about relief, further up the page. And if it’s a relief not to be going home, not to be having the blazing rows over Brexit or your sister’s wedding or why you don’t have children, then make the most of it. This could be the year you break the tradition. You don’t actually have to do things just because you’ve always done them. If you’d actually prefer Christmas at home, Christmas on your own, Christmas with your bubble, then why not go for it? Work out what you want to do, and do that.

Looking out

Christmas is traditionally a time for attempting to make things a little brighter for people one doesn’t know. Here is a seriously incomplete list of ways in which someone who had the time and/or funds might do that, even (particularly!) in such a year as this.

  • Make a donation to your local foodbank. It can’t have escaped many people’s notice that there’s a real problem in this country with poverty, and poverty-related hunger. There are going to be a lot of people this year for whom Christmas is not going to be fun at all. (I have a standing order set up, but I also throw the occasional pack of fun-sized Mars bars into the collection basket at Sainsbury’s, because poverty is miserable enough without being wall-to-wall lentils.)
  • One idea I’ve seen is the ‘reverse Advent calendar’ – put one item aside every day to give to the foodbank. The only problem with this is that, if you want someone who have nice things at Christmas, you need to get it to them in advance, so maybe do it through November instead of Advent.
  • Make a donation to another appropriate charity. Safe Passage, for example.
  • Find out what’s going on near you and who needs help. Is there a befriending service? A Covid mutual aid group? A local newspaper, Facebook group, or community noticeboard should give you some pointers.
  • Here’s an initiative for getting Christmas presents to children and teenagers in mental health units.
  • You’re expecting me to encourage you to fill a shoebox with toys for an underprivileged child. I’m not going to do that. Here’s why. And here’s an alternative if you still want to.

Church

Well, we got through Easter. Easter was before we had proper internet access, so in this house we got through Easter livestreaming a Zoom service via mobile phone tethering, so Christmas ought to be a doddle.

Seriously, though. Nobody seems to know what church services will look like come Christmas, but I think it’s fair to say that they probably won’t look any less weird than they do now. At the moment, in the Church of England, people in church have to wear masks through the service (unless they’re leading, singing, or reading), the congregation isn’t allowed to sing, and numbers are limited – which might mean that, come the big turnout of Christmas, services may have to be ticketed.

If your typical Christmas includes attendance at a church service (crib service, carol service, Midnight Mass, whatever) and you haven’t been to a service since the pandemic hit, you might want to try one in the next few weeks to get the initial weirdness out of the way.

Your church may have something on its website to explain the arrangements. They may also be streaming services. Anyway, it’s extremely unlikely to be the same as normal, and you’re probably better working out how it’s going to be different, and how you feel about that, well before Christmas.

Advent

My plan for this year is to lean hard on Advent. Possibly harder than I usually do. As I hinted at the top of this post, I don’t deal terribly well with the festive pre-Christmas season, and I just don’t have the energy to celebrate all the way from mid-November. I get sick of the parties and the music and the constant expectation that I be cheerful and sociable all the time. So this is one of the aspects of normal Christmas that I’m rather relieved to escape this year.

In a normal year, I lean hard on Advent. To quote something I wrote last year,

Advent suits my mood. The readings are apocalyptic, saved from despair by the hope that something better is coming, is on the way even now, if I can only keep hanging on until I see it. The music is alternately spare and intense. I shut myself in the study each evening and take time to be where I really am. Advent comes a day at a time, a door on the calendar, a centimetre on the candle. A square inch of sweetness, which is about all I can manage while others around me are already on the mince pies and gingerbread liqueur.

Advent leaves space for me to rant and rage and demand why everything is awful. Advent lets me admit that things are awful. Advent acknowledges the hole in my life. It doesn’t demand false cheer. And very often I find that, little by little, it makes room in my life for something that is genuinely joyful, whenever that comes.

And if that was true last year, how much more so this year?

Come and grump with me! Tell me what I’ve forgotten, or about new practices or traditions you’re inventing this year. Comments are open.

Meanwhile, in the real world…

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Do you remember how, back at the beginning of lockdown, various obnoxious productivity types were telling us all that if we didn’t come out of it with a new skill or a novel then we were all pathetic failures? I haven’t heard so much from them recently. That may have something to do with my spending less time on Twitter. Or the obnoxious types may have discovered that in fact it’s not so easy to get things done with a global crisis going on outside, and have shut up.

As it happens, I’ve learned a few new skills – painting walls, making curtains, changing taps – but they’ve had more to do with having just moved house than with enforced leisure. I’ve continued to work full time, so, apart from the commute (which I’ve gleefully replaced with an additional daily hour in bed) I haven’t had much in the way of enforced leisure. Anyway, I went into lockdown with a novel, or, at least, 93,000 words of one, so it would be a bit of a cheat to claim that it had anything to do with coronavirus. If anything, I was hoping to make it shorter. As it is, I’ve now got 94,661 words. They’re better, though. They’re quite a lot better.

They’re good enough for me to say, tentatively, that this book’s going to come out this year.

I’m aiming for a release date in November. Of course, this means that I need to have everything done in September, which means that I’ve only got a couple of months to get things done. But that feels achievable, now, in a way that it didn’t at the beginning of the year.

Meanwhile, my existing books will remain free to download from Lulu until the end of this month. After that they’ll go back to full price. Consider this fair warning, and, if you haven’t grabbed them already, you can find them here:

Stay at Home book tag

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Joanna Victoria tagged me for this meme (yes, in internet years I’m ancient, I cut my HTML teeth on LiveJournal, I call it a meme), which began with Princess of Paperback on Youtube, a couple of days ago.

Lying in bed – a book you read in one day

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I only picked this up to check something for my next Reader’s Gazetteer post (it’ll be coming up under P for Paggleham) and then bang! that was the rest of Sunday afternoon gone. Nobody would tell someone to begin the Lord Peter Wimsey series with Busman’s Honeymoon, but it was the first one that I picked up, having run out of Agatha Christie, in my mid teens. Hadn’t a clue what was going on for most of it, but I loved it.

Snacking – a book that is a ‘guilty pleasure’ read

I’m with Joanne Harris here – there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure read.

(I’m always tempted to name a book by one of those dreary Great White Middle-Aged Men novelists in this category, but nobody would believe me.)

I don’t think that snacking is a guilty pleasure, either.

Netflix – a series that you want to start

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(Apologies, by the way, for the way that my ebook reader makes book covers look so dull. I’ve done my best with a German tablecloth here.)

Working my way through fictional lands for the Reader’s Gazetteer, I’ve noticed that my focus has been very Eurocentric. I was intrigued, therefore, to come across a series set in, or featuring characters from, a fictional African country named Thesolo. I’m not a great reader of romances, but the Reluctant Royals series by Alyssa Cole does look intriguing.

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And, while I’ve read a lot by L. M. Montgomery, I haven’t read her ‘Pat’ series, despite having had a copy from someone on BookCrossing years ago.

This one would also work for the next prompt:

Deep clean – a book that has been on your TBR for ages

*hollow laughter*

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I thought that this looked absolutely delightful, and bought it, and have never got round to reading it. As the name suggests, Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal is a diary by a young girl from the period in the nineteenth century when the Alps were just becoming a desirable holiday destination.

Animal Crossing – a book you bought recently because of the hype

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Well, there’s certainly been a lot of hype around The Flat Share – which is a fun take on the old Cox and Box ‘two people share a living space but never meet’ story – though I probably wouldn’t have bought it as soon as I did had it not been a pick for one of my book clubs.

But I’ve been playing Animal Crossing on and off since university – more or less as long as I’ve been on the internet, in fact – we played it in the same way some other student households watched Teletubbies.

So instead I’m going for a ‘childhood classic I only got round to in adulthood’:

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There were plenty of school stories in the house when we were growing up, but we missed Antonia Forest’s Marlows series. I think I probably appreciate them more now than I would have then: ‘school story’ is only half the story, and the eclectic, often experimental, mix of genres, and the bleak verging on cynical worldview, would probably have put me off when I was younger.

(I haven’t been on Animal Crossing since early December, by the way, and my village will be full of weeds and my house will be full of cockroaches. And my hair will be a mess.)

Productivity – a book you learned from or had an impact on you

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I’d heard of Bird by Bird a while ago, but had been putting off reading it as I feared it was going to be twee and wholesome, and I have to be in a very specific mood to put up with being exhorted to let me creativity flower or whatever.

Now I’m actually reading it I find it’s not like that at all: it’s deliciously bracing and down to earth. Some of the lessons in there I’ve already worked out by trial and error. Some of them I hadn’t got round to putting into words. Either way, though, I’m enjoying Anne Lamott’s company, and will be looking out for her books that aren’t about writing, too.

Facetime – a book you were given

I cannot bring myself to write ‘gifted’ as a verb. Sorry.

Anyway, nobody’s tried to give us any books since we moved, which is probably a good thing, but I did win a BookCrossing sweepstake:

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Self-care – what is one thing you have done recently to look after yourself?

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I’ve been setting my alarm for 7.15am (when I go back to commuting to London it’ll be over an hour earlier than that, but let’s not think about that) so that I can get in a walk before breakfast and morning prayer. And I’ve been trying to spend as much time as possible in the garden, slowing down, paying attention, doing very little.

Bonus – an upcoming release you are looking forward to

I am, as always, out of the loop on what’s new, and massively behind on reading what’s recent. But I do have my eye on Joanne Harris’ Ten Things About Writing.

 

My new ‘self-isolation reading club’ badge is from _erisapple_. I never tag other people, but if you like the look of this then consider yourself tagged.

A brief update (and free books)

Hello friends! I hope you’re keeping well. It’s a funny old time – though I think perhaps it feels less strange for me as we moved house two weeks ago, so the general chaos of curtain rails and cardboard boxes has drowned out the background, global, disquiet. And we still don’t have broadband at the new place so I haven’t been online much.

However, I have seen that many institutions, artists, musicians and writers, have put their work online for free, to go at least a little way towards brightening the gloom or passing a few dull hours. And I thought I’d do likewise. The ebook versions of both of my novels can now be downloaded for free from Lulu. The price reduction should eventually filter through to the other online bookshops.

If you’re trying to come to terms with the sudden absence of sport from your life, try A Spoke In The Wheel. If your church, university, or both, has moved online and you’re missing the politics (erm…) you might prefer Speak Its Name. Feel free to download both if you like! I’m in the fortunate position of being in salaried work that I can do from home, so I won’t be disadvantaged by people reading my books for free. And, once I’ve got fed up with putting up picture hooks and painting walls, I’ll finish the next book, and you’ll be able to buy that one.