December Reflections 9: shadows

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I’ve remarked before how having a camera in my hand makes me pay more attention to everything. I’ve been on the lookout for good shadows over the last couple of days. And the thing that I’ve noticed particularly is that the best ones come when the sun is particularly strong. Inside the house, where there are multiple light sources (overhead lamp, desk lamp, candle) there are shadows all over the place, but outside you don’t get any shadows to speak of unless the sun’s out. And it’s the rich, golden, slantwise sun that makes the really good ones.

My youngest brother has been staying with us, doing a bit of work experience at my office. It’s prompted me to think a bit about the way that I live my life, to remember that early mornings and long journeys aren’t necessarily the way things have to be. I don’t see anything much changing in the next few years. But it’s been good for me to remember that things look different in different lights.

December Reflections 7: home

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Home. It’s a touchy subject for me at the moment – both the concept as a whole, and also the way it currently exists in my life. We have a house inspection tomorrow, and I’m on edge. Part of it’s the whine of the vacuum cleaner, and the way that I keep seeing cobwebs, and dead leaves, and things that I should have washed up. Part of it’s just the knowledge that there’s going to be somebody in my house and there’s nothing I can do about it.

And all the time I’m very aware of how lucky I am compared to others – having a steady job, having a landlady who’s very – pardon the pun – accommodating, having a roof over my head at all. Sometimes, hoping for anything more than that feels flat-out greedy. Sometimes, I’m furious that I haven’t sorted it out yet. In the meantime, I’ve got a place to sit down with a cup of tea.

December Reflections 6: best book of 2018

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It’s been another year of ‘reading what I happen to feel like reading‘, an approach which I recommend. Ceasing to feel guilty about the books that I have or haven’t read has been one of the best decisions of my life. Before I set off on my InterRail trip, I asked people to recommend me books that they had enjoyed, and then loaded up my e-reader with the results. I also downloaded a lot of free stuff from Project Gutenberg. More recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading books with particularly convincing imaginary locations, for my Reader’s Gazetteer series.

I’m amused to note that my top three this year have strong f/f themes, which in some ways is very representative of my reading habits, and in other ways leaves a lot out. But there we go.

I’ve already written about Heather Rose Jones’ Alpennia series, and why I enjoy it so much. In fact, I have read the three main books twice within the space of this year, a habit which I thought had gone the way of long school holidays. I’ll repeat what I said before –

If I’d written a wishlist of all the tropes and themes that I most enjoy reading, and handed my specifications over to an author, I couldn’t have liked the result better than I like this. The series contains nights at the opera, women in breeches, swashbuckling, politics both national and ecclesiastical, relationships between women, and a sensitive portrayal of religious experience. And a fictional state somewhere in Europe. –

– and add that I’m very grateful to the person who recommended it based on my enthusiasm for The Prisoner of Zenda.

The King of a Rainy Country (Brigid Brophy) is a book that I’ve had on the bookcase for ages (I was almost certainly drawn to the Virago green spine in a charity shop) and hadn’t got around to reading. It turns out to be a wistful, regretful, funny novel with moments of sheer beauty, in which a young woman drags the young man she isn’t really in a relationship with around Italy in search of the girl she had a (reciprocated) crush on at school.

But I think my favourite book of 2018 was Passing Strange by Ellen Klages. It was one of the ‘InterRail recommendations’ acquisitions – in fact, one friend recommended it, and another chipped in to say how much they had liked it. This was a short book based in San Francisco in 1940, with a convincing evocation of the lesbian scene, and magic applied with a very light hand. I loved it.

My least favourite book, incidentally, was The Way We Live Now, in which I hated everybody except the American adventuress, and was horrified by the anti-semitism. I only kept reading to see who was going to end up marrying whom.

December Reflections 5: five things about me

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  1. I read a lot, and I own a lot of books that I’ve never read.
  2. I don’t drive, and am perfectly content with that state of affairs.
  3. I enjoy using clothes and accessories to explore and express my identity.
  4. I am easily brought down by pessimism, and find it useful to set up good things for the future.
  5. I like travelling. I don’t go far off the beaten track, but I follow it at my own pace, and on my own, or with only one or two companions.

December Reflections 4: best decision in 2018

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I spent much of the summer and autumn of 2018 wondering, Now what? I’d been on my epic adventure. I’d launched my new book. Now what? I was ready for the next big thing, but the big things were just too big, and they hovered infuriatingly just out of reach. (They still are, though I’m gathering boxes to stand on.)

At a church ‘praying with art’ event, I happened to mention that I was in the middle of a transition, and that I didn’t really know what it was. I’d been looking at The Visitation by Sebastiano del Piombo, and been very struck by the way that the two women’s faces and Mary’s right arm make a heart shape, and by all the bustling going on in the background. It’s a painting about transitions. Now what?

A couple of months later, the curate suggested that I might be interested in Cursillo. I heard ‘Casio’, like the calculators; when she spelt it out to me and explained that it was Spanish, it immediately felt like a good thing. Three days of talks and discussion groups, with the Eucharist every day. As I looked into it more, and discovered that much of the imagery came from pilgrimage, it felt like a good thing that might fit into the same place as the Camino de Santiago. I got my form filled in and returned with, for me, unprecedented speed.

The weekend is difficult to describe. (There’s a perception that one isn’t meant to describe it, which I think could be a little off-putting; certainly I appreciated having been given an outline of the way it works, and told ‘not to expect a retreat’.) It was what I was expecting, but it was more than what I was expecting. I knew that there would be talks and discussion groups; I knew that I would have to work quite hard to find myself spaces of time where I could be alone and quiet; I did not know that there would be rainbows and butterflies and a pervasive sense of joy.

I think that what it did for me was to bring out all my awkward bits, and bless them. I have a lot of awkward bits. (Probably most people do.) Most of them came up in discussion. My queerness, and my brain (both my insistence on using it, and when it refuses to work), and my extensive experience of burnout, and my unfashionable opinions on marriage. It has often been lonely being me, being Christian. I’ve had to work a lot of things out on my own. So I spent Friday and Saturday thinking that I’d heard it all before, and Sunday crying, because I’d been heard. On Saturday night I really wanted a hug, and on Sunday I got dozens. I felt as if I’d been taken apart and cleaned and put back together again.

It was only a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still working through everything that came up. (And quite often that’s meant “ignoring everything that came up, while I catch up on sleep”.) But it’s been good for me, and I think it will go on being so.

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.