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: shining sun

Carved and gold-painted wooden sun face hanging from an evergreen tree

This magnificent sun is another triumph of Guildford charity shopping days. I thought I’d share it in honour of the solstice.

I haven’t seen much of the sun today. There was a tiny patch of blue sky visible through grey clouds when I went out for my morning walk; the rest of it has just been plain grey. Even sitting in front of the east-facing living room window, where I’ve been working the last week or so, there wasn’t any sun to be seen.

And oh, goodness, dark days are hard. Working from home makes things a bit easier, in that I can just about get away with staying in bed until sunrise (8.06am today, though I was actually up at 7am), but I think it might make the afternoon slump worse. And certainly as soon as the sun goes down I lose all motivation and energy. Which is annoying, when there are things I’d like to do with my life besides work.

I don’t think I quite got the balance right this year. I made some experiments that didn’t really work out. Writing ten thousand words in two days got that particular project moving again, but wiped me out for anything else; and staying on writing duty for an entire month didn’t work at all. Firstly, four writing weeks doesn’t automatically result in twice as much content as two writing weeks. Secondly, I couldn’t really enjoy anything else. I’d have done better to have taken every other day off and gone to the cinema. I went to the cinema on Friday and, even wiped out as I am, I am suddenly a whole lot more enthusiastic about all of it.

It’s all useful data, though. Next year I’m going back to half and half: writing from full moon to new moon, and doing other things from new moon to full moon. (It’s as good a way as splitting things up as any, and the moon phases are in every engagement diary.) As for what the sun does, well, that’s a different question. All I really know is that I need to be more gentle with myself when there isn’t very much of it. But from tomorrow, we get more. And more, and more, and more.

Daily Decoration: Advent candle

A red candle marked with gold figures up to 24. It has burned down as far as the figure 19. In the foreground, a cardboard angel holds a banner saying FEAR NOT.

‘Ah,’ said Tony, ‘it’s the candle.’

‘Mm?’

‘Something in my brain said, ah, that’s Christmas. It’s the smell of the candle.’

He has a point. For those of us who spent a lot of time in churches in our childhood, candles smell of Christmas all by themselves; there’s no need to add pine or cinnamon and put it in a fancy jar. Although I’m not sure how he hasn’t noticed it before, because, as you see, I’ve been burning this one all through Advent. And in fact it isn’t Christmas yet.

We buy each other chocolate Advent calendars, but I get the candle for myself. I have a fairly well-defined set of preferences. Not white – which usually, as this year, means red. Not conical (I made that mistake one year and regretted it as the time to burn through each number increased daily). Not too hideous. This one’s pretty good, though it could have done with some blank space at the bottom. As things stand, I’m going to have to take it out of its bottle before I get down to 24 and put it in some sand or something. I’d rather not risk cracking the glass.

The bottle is something of a hero of antiquity. It dates from my student years – 2006, to be precise. It says so on the side, courtesy of an Exeter University Methodist and Anglican Society glass painting evening. 2006 was the year I graduated. This year’s Freshers were born the year that I was a Fresher.

This September we went down to the West Country: took the sleeper to Penzance and worked our way back up again on a selection of trains and buses. Excellent fun (I particularly recommend taking the open-topped bus around Land’s End). We stopped off at Exeter and went to Evensong at the university chapel, eighteen years (give or take) after we first met there. A lot has changed – the choir, for a start, is a lot more competent and a lot tidier than we ever were; the room where I painted that bottle has been taken out of use, except for storage – but I had a very strong sense that the important things were still the same.

The glorious ceiling. The high clear windows. Radcliffe responses and Greater love hath no man.

Or, perhaps, the same but more so. The singing better, the choir robed, the new scholars inducted with a formal blessing. The implicit inclusion of queer Anglicans made explicit.

A sense of a beginning.

Daily Decoration: lights outside

Metal railings with blue-white fairy lights twined around them and cascading down them. In the background a candle is burning in a window

One of the joys of late summer commuting – on my commute, at least – is the fabulous display of sunflowers in the allotments just north of Royston station. They’re glorious, so bright and cheerful and yellow.

The people of Royston don’t grow sunflowers for me. I don’t think I know anybody in Royston, so how should they even know I exist? All the same, they lift my spirits.

Other people’s lights do much the same thing for me. It’s a dank and gloomy time of year, and I’m not sure when I last saw the sun. I am feeling equally dank and gloomy. Perhaps other people are, too. Certainly other people have put up lights, and they are very cheering.

Across the street there are nets of red and blue and green lights in the windows of one house; starbursts in the trees of the garden of another; a pyramid of warm white lights in a third. As of an hour and a half ago, when my husband put them up, we have a shower of blue-white lights along our fence. Who’s going to see them? I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter.

Daily Decoration: bi pride bauble

A bauble covered in sequins arranged in stripes of pink, purple and blue

Continuing with the ‘pins and polystyrene’ theme from yesterday, here’s a bauble that my friend Anne made for me in the colours of the bi pride flag. Anne is a great enabler (she’d probably say the same of me) and she’s shared, encouraged me, or both, in many of the most enjoyable and ambitious projects of my adult life. We walked to Santiago de Compostela together. She was one of my bridesmaids. She sensitivity-read my second novel. I got her started on sewing and now she does absolutely exquisite embroidery. She’s very good at getting me to get over myself and sing stuff. We played Animal Crossing long before it was cool. She got me into Doctor Who. She’s unapologetically enthusiastic about all kinds of things. And it’s very good to have a friend who’ll make you a bauble in the colours of your pride flag.

Daily Decoration: Christmas card bauble

Bauble covered in overlapping cardboard scales in shades of gold, deep blue and pale pink

I made this bauble. That is, I punched out hundreds of little leaf shapes from the previous year’s Christmas cards and pinned them onto a polystyrene ball and stuck an eyepin into the top of the ball and threaded string through the eyepin.

There is surely enough polystyrene in the world already. The punch is not what it once was. And three Christmas cards saved from the bin isn’t really going to make much of a difference.

Meanwhile, if I were going to pay myself minimum wage for making this it would be well into double digits of pounds.

It’s a failure in pretty much every dimension – except for one. It is pretty. No, two. I enjoyed doing it.

I think there’s something worth finding in the pleasure of making something, or growing something, or writing something. This year I’ve been writing to please myself. Nothing worthy. Nothing that’s going to make my fortune. Just what I want to write, because I want to write it. Maybe I’ll say more about that another day. And maybe I won’t.

Daily Decoration: red glass frog

Small frog made of red glass, with a hanging loop of blue wire wrapped around its waist

This little glass frog dates from my temping days. 2008, probably. I was working at the hospital, and most weeks there’d be an interesting stall in the main corridor, selling various fripperies. Make-up. Russian dolls. Little glass trinkets.

2008 was a miserable year. There were two major bereavements. I had no idea what I was meant to be doing with my life. And there really wasn’t much money to spare. Things were certainly tight enough that I felt guilty about buying things I didn’t strictly need. Like glass frogs. Having read back through some of my diaries from that time, and horrified myself in the process, I think I was probably quite severely depressed.

Two good things happened, however. I joined the choir at Holy Trinity, Guildford. And – in a lucid moment when we’d got out of Guildford for a weekend and got some perspective – I asked my boyfriend to marry me.

He said yes, and of course that resulted in all the excitement and stress of planning a wedding, which I’m not sure I’d do ever again even if I hadn’t developed reservations about the entire institution in the meantime. (However, it worked out for us, so that question hasn’t arisen.) It also resulted in our being given a little book of marriage preparation, addressing various topics like families and money and sex and children. And dreams. Hopes for the future, that sort of dream.

I could not deal with that section at all. I did not have any dreams. I could not imagine what my future might be. I didn’t know what I wanted, or, if I did, I certainly couldn’t say it.

So we left it.

Well, that’s over a decade ago now, and I’ve spent a lot of that decade getting my head into a much better place. I have begun to get my head around the idea that it might be OK for me to want things.

Early last year my vocation walked out on me, the way it had in 2007, except this time it stopped to say goodbye. And I asked:

So what do you want me to do?

Answer came there none. So I just got on with things, the way I did in 2008 but feeling much better about all of it, because this time we’d parted on much better terms.

A couple of months ago, looking at the gospel for the coming Sunday, somewhere in the teens after Trinity, it hit me. The story was Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, sitting at the side of the road, yelling for Jesus to help him.

Who asks him:

What do you want me to do for you?

And I realised then that the reason I wasn’t getting an answer to that question was that this question was being asked of me. I’d been looking at things completely the wrong way round. I’d done the obedience thing. I’d followed it all the way to the end of the road. Now I needed to take responsibility, to ask for what I want. To know what I want.

I said:

I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

Because at that moment I really didn’t know.

Do I know what I want? I think I do – now. I’m still finding it very difficult to get my head around the idea. There are two possible bad outcomes, of course. What if I want it and I don’t get it? And what if I want it and I get it and it turns out to be awful and it’s all my fault?

But of course it would be even more tragic if I never let myself want it and never even tried. Wouldn’t it?

I’m beginning to see the first glimmerings of it, to understand that what I want might in fact be a clue to what’s wanted of me, that my desires and wishes might be a more reliable guide than I’ve previously thought. Well, that’s something for this next year.

Which is all a long way away from a little glass frog. What do you do with a little glass frog? Eventually I wrapped some wire around it and turned it – together with a couple of its colleagues – into a Christmas tree decoration. Why not?

Daily Decoration: in-tray trees

Two tiny felt cut-outs, one cream and one dark green, in the shape of Christmas trees, standing in a transparent plastic tray

These little felt trees live in the in-tray on my desk at the office. My fabulous ex-colleague Hazel gave them to me several years ago, and they’ve been there ever since. I’m not sure that I really count them as decorations, since they’re there all the time, but they seem rather poignant today.

Given recent developments, it’s quite possible that I won’t see any of my colleagues in the flesh again before Christmas, and, much as I’m usually reluctant to get deep into Office Christmas (I simply cannot be that cheerful for that long) this isn’t a normal year. Actually it’s all a bit sad – almost more so than last year, when all of us were online all the time.

I missed the last great shutdown because I was busy moving house at the time: my week’s leave folded seamlessly into Lockdown I. Today I thought briefly about taking these trees home. I don’t think it would really make any difference, though.

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.