December Reflections 31: my word for 2021

a compass rose stamped in red ink with the words
handwritten around it, with LOVE at North and then proceeding in a clockwise direction, in black ink

Why use one word when eight will do? Less flippantly, it’s been my custom for the last few years now to set a compass for the coming twelve months. This year I’ve been layering the hours onto that eight-pointed cycle, too, so it looks rather like this (the hyperlinks go to the Angel of the Hour, which I’ve been using this year to give structure to my working day):









There are some there I’ve used before – love, courage, clarity – and some new ones – heritage was a bit of a surprise, and souplesse comes from cycling commentary, where it means something like flexibility, style, smoothness. I think I’ll need to feel my way into both of those.

It probably deserves to have a space of its own, and not be mixed up with my takeaway order and what I did at work that day, but actually I rather like it that way. Because that’s the point of it: all time is holy; this dark into light, light into dark, cycle is the structure that underlies life as I experience it.

December Reflections 30: thank you for…

square of blue-painted cardboard with a compass rose, labyrinth, stylised shell, and the names of the monastic hours and the quarter and cross-quarter days added in metallic paint

… time and space.

Thank you for the protection and privilege of being able to work from home.

Thank you for the opportunity to settle gently into our new home. Thank you for the business of settling in, as a distraction from the culture shock outside.

Thank you for the neighbours we’ve sort of met.

Thank you for the time to get another book done and out in the world.

Thank you for the time to reread Agatha Christie novels and watch skiing and generally do nothing of importance at all.

Thank you for the gift of three hours every working day.

Thank you for the garden, and books, and books in the garden.

Thank you for here. Thank you for now.

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 28: an intention for 2021

iecut plywood Christmas tree decoration in the shape of a circle with stars and a shooting star. Blue and green fairy lights can be seen through the gaps

In the immortal words of Rick from Casablanca, ‘I never make plans that far ahead’. Actually, that’s not entirely true. But I’m conscious today, as I have been for the last few days, that setting myself any kind of commitment or expectation feels unnecessary, uncalled for. Unfair on my future self who’ll have to act on it.

Today, I just don’t want to. And that feels like something to pay attention to.

Oh, I have a growing list of things I want to do When It’s Safe To Do So: ‘go to the cinema and watch more films’ and ‘take actual skating lessons’. Will that be in 2021? I hope so, but I’m not going to pin a year to it. I have plenty of vague thoughts about ‘more piano practice’ and ‘showing up to morning prayer’ and ‘finishing the next book, maybe in time for Christmas’, and other things like that. But the thing about things like that is that I’ve been adding more and more of those. It feels like time to stop. I expect the ones I really want to do something with, I’ll do something with.

So, as things stand, with three days left of 2020, my only commitment for 2021, is to make space. And that feels like plenty.

December Reflections 27: 2020 taught me…

blue sky, with a waxing gibbous moon large but faint in a gap between trees

Didn’t we do this just a few days ago? No, not quite. Well, has anything changed between then and now?

Yes. An eleventh hour Brexit deal. A lousy one, admittedly, but so much better than the alternative. And, it turns out, for me, better than the eleven months of things being more or less the same as they’d always been but knowing they were about to come to a screeching and painful halt. Well, you’ve been through this year, too. You know about that grim, resigned, fatalist waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop, wondering how and whether what’s going to happen next can turn out to be anything other than awful, wanting things to be different, goodness knows, but maybe not given how awful they might end up being…

2020 has taught me about change.

I wrote earlier this month about my self of eleven years ago and her inability, or stubborn refusal, to imagine that things might possibly get any better than they were. I’ve been thinking about the landscapes I’ve lived in, the way they’re shaped by time and tide, of how human intervention can only hold back so much of that process. It took me a little while to make the link with Goldengrove unleaving: a lot of this year’s depressive funk seems to have come from the realisation of my own mortality. Today I’ve been given occasion to remember my sixteen year old self, how resistant she was to change, how insistent on holding everything she could (precious little) in place, while all the while everything went on changing around her. This year I’ve felt just as helpless; it’s just been on a bigger scale.

This year, we’ve been sitting in this strange stasis, waiting. Waiting and hoping, waiting and dreading. I’ve hardly been travelling hopefully, but goodness knows I haven’t wanted to arrive, either. I haven’t wanted to know the news. And yet, when I’ve looked, it’s been awful, but not universally awful.

Will I remember this, next time I get stuck? Probably not, going on past form. Will I ever learn how to let myself imagine that things might change for the better? I fear that I might not. And yet it’s been the signs of change that have been the most comfort to me.

December Reflections 26: slippers

pair of feet wearing black socks and red leather slippers with pointed toes, decorated with sequins, seed beads, and gold thread

I am not a great one for slippers. I generally go barefoot, assuming it’s warm enough; slippers are more a way to save my socks when it’s not. I’ve tended to find fluffy moccasins too sweaty (it came as something of a revelation when I tried wearing them with socks and found them deliciously cosy). The ones shown here – purchased, as best I can remember, at a car boot sale in Exeter some time in the early 2000s – are spectacular; they’re also a little too small for me, so that the ends of my heels hang off the back, and the soles are a little slippery on tiles. Nevertheless. I don’t think I’m ever going to find the perfect pair of slippers for me, so I’m going to enjoy the imperfect ones.

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 23: new recipe

the crumbling end of a fruited bread

There was marzipan left over after icing the Christmas cake, so, for the first time in my life, I made stollen. I used Delia Smith’s recipe, ignoring a couple of the fussier fruit ingredients. I stretched the dough further than it strictly needed to go, and it didn’t rise properly, but it’s really quite tasty. I’ve been eating it for breakfast ever since. (I’m the only one who likes marzipan, so…)

I was looking back at something I wrote earlier in the year in which I claimed that lockdown had, if anything, made me more adventurous in my cooking. From this distance all I can remember is fritters made from tinned sweetcorn. Which weren’t bad, I admit, but if I tried any other new recipes in the first half of the year I couldn’t tell you what they were.

Then things started fruiting. I dealt with a lot of the harvest using methods and recipes that live in my head (freezing; crumbles; freezing; chutneys…), but pickled plums were a new one on me. They turn out to be delicious: sweet-sour, with a delicate, almost floral, flavour underlying the vinegar.

After we’d been in this house for a few months the oven developed an irritating habit of blowing its fuse at unpredictable intervals. It went when I was cooking chocolate puddings; when I was preserving pears; when Tony was cooking sausages; other times I now forget. We weren’t completely deprived of oven in between visits from the electrician and the Samsung specialist (they disagreed what needed to be done to fix it), since our microwave also has an oven function, but it did make me a bit wary of baking. I made a courgette cake in it, but that’s about as far as it went.

Eventually the Samsung specialist tracked down the problem, replaced the offending component, and fixed the oven. (This is probably not a wise thing to type two days before Christmas, but there we go.) Since then I’ve made mince pies. (Shortcrust pastry, which is another thing I don’t need to look up, and mincemeat from a very elderly jar.) And stollen.

December Reflections 22: sparkling

 a plant with pointed oval leaves, with raindrops clinging to them, very green under a bright light

Sparkling. Sparkling wine (no, only the non-alcoholic stuff). Sparkling water (no, can’t stand it). Sparkling conversation (not tonight, I’m too tired). Sparkling wit (see above).

The lights our neighbours have in their tree? No, those twinkle rather than sparkle. Same for the stars, not that you can see them tonight. Candles glow. Our Christmas tree isn’t decorated yet. I suppose I could show you any one of several pairs of earrings, including the ones I’m wearing now (miniature stockings, with a sparkly trim). But what would I say about them?

Sparkling. Sparkling implies movement. It implies that something is reflecting light without necessarily producing it. And this feels rather reassuring. I am not called upon to produce something from nothing, merely to reflect back what is already coming my way. Nor do I have to move all that much. No sustained effort, just going with the flow.

Raindrops on green leaves, a barely perceptible breeze, a bright light in the darkness. That’s the closest to sparkling I can get tonight.