How Merry is Yours so Far?


I’ve been struggling with semantic honesty lately. Don’t know why, but I’ve found myself analysing what we say and imagining what would happen if we took each other at our word. For an English person this could be social suicide because so much of what we say is cultural, not literal, as in, I really should be going, Oh, must you? (Thought you’d never leave…) or Good Christmas? Lovely thanks! Really quiet…(It was actually quite boring).

When my children were small, an American friend pointed out that I was setting myself up for angst by asking my children, Shall we clean our teeth? instead of her direct, Go and clean your teeth! After all, I had no intention of cleaning mine and the question set up the – quite likely – scenario of the children refusing and me chasing them until they caved in (must warn my son’s fiancee). But change is harder than you think and it felt wrong to be so straight. Why? Will Brits just do anything to avoid directness?

There’s a joke in our house that my husband will never say yes or no. Darling, are you in tonight? As far as I know. Dad, is your computer on? It certainly seems to be. Sometimes we even amuse ourselves by conspiring to get him to say the definitive words and it’s hilarious how adept he is at avoiding them. Has he been forever scarred by his past, working for a) a local authority, and b) a private company, as a surveyor? British builders are famed for scratching their heads and mentioning best case scenarios but avoiding definitive dates.

Dad, are you carving the turkey yet? I certainly seem to be...

Dad, are you carving the turkey yet? I certainly seem to be…

In our house on Christmas Day when we see someone for the first time we say Happy Christmas! in a heartfelt and congratulatory way, as in, It’s Christmas Day and this is the first time I’ve seen you and so I greet you with festive joy!  I hasten to add that we don’t say Good Morning to each other formally on normal days but then we get up earlier and 2 out of 3 of us are so groggy and depressed that it actually is morning, that a cursory grunt is the best you can expect.

Have a lovely Christmas! we all hooted to each other on leaving work. Give someone the Christmas they’re dreaming of…says the John Lewis advert. Have yourself a merry little Christmas…croons Frank Sinatra immortalising the words of Judy Garland in the film Meet Me in St Louis. (Interestingly, the lyrics, written by Hugh Martin, were changed as they were considered too depressing.) Despite the advertising and the hype and the fact that we all know we’re spinning this impossible tale of perfection and romance, we still do it, but I wonder what we actually mean when we say these things?

There's a fire and a cat and Christmas colours - all will be well...

There’s a fire and a cat and Christmas colours – all will be well…

Well, just so we’re clear, judging from the things that are making my Christmas merry so far, this is how you can be more precise when wishing me a happy time next year (so we both know where we are) and there’s semantic integrity: –

1. May your mother-in-law, who’s had a stroke, say as clear as anything “I really should be helping!”

2. May you find brioche in the shape of a Christmas tree.

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3. Hope there’s great festive listening on Radio 4 for you while cooking.

4. Hope someone buys your minister husband a musical tie for his Christmas preach.

5. Hope no one gets ill or vomits.

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6. Wishing your cat joyful hiding in bags.

7. When unearthing Christmas decs, may you find something pretty a friend made.

8. Hope your advent lights work.

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9. Hoping you get fun labels (A family thing due to the boredom of writing labels. E.g. You are Matthew, We are your parents, It is Christmas, Be Happy… Love Mum and Dad)

10. May there be sunshine.

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Every year we remind ourselves it won’t be perfect. People will get sick, there’ll be blocked drains or arguments or duplicate presents. But a tiny part of us, buried deep down like a vein, still hopes it will be. And God, who does Christmas every year and knows what works, just smiles and gives us a baby, hidden small between festive ties and brioche. But he’s there and sometimes, when you say the word s-l-o-w-l-y you can hear him. In the ancient magic of that word which is maybe more than just festive sibilance – C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.

And, in fact, there’s been semantic integrity all along. I just forget to notice it.

Thanks a lot to those who regularly read this blog.

Hope you’ve had a good Christmas and wishing you a Happy New Year, whatever these things may mean, for you…

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What’s making yours merry?

 

 

 

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Shoes and Other Taboos


When I was a little girl, my dad used to line up all the family’s shoes on a Sunday night and clean them. So I had never cleaned a shoe in my life. In fact I didn’t even know where the shoe cleaning stuff was kept or where to buy it. My father just produced it, with a flourish, a tiny box crammed with tins and brushes, and having covered the kitchen table with newspaper, he’d lovingly work polish into leather. Then I went off to university and from there to my first teaching job. I was so happy when my husband proposed because, apart from having secured an actual man who liked me, I was really looking forward to having clean shoes again. The problem was, in the house where my husband grew up, a different person cleaned the shoes – him.  And he was really looking forward to having a break from all the shoe cleaning stress of his youth. I was dismayed to find he didn’t even possess a shoe cleaning kit. But it was too late – I’d married him.

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My husband is a very nice man. He is kind to children and animals. He is patient. In nearly thirty years I have never seen him lose his temper. My husband works in an office at the end of the garden built by a company called Green Retreats (Is this product placement?) It’s not green though, it’s brown and it’s certainly not a retreat. Inside that office my husband writes sermons, composes emails, liaises with outside organisations, draws up rotas, plans meetings and does a million other things. He is the hardest worker I know. I have also never met anyone with greater integrity. All this in one slab of manhood. (I am honestly not angling for a jewellery-related anniversary present. Though I’m willing to accept one. Gracious, as always)

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When I married this man, I’d read a book. It was called, “How to have a Perfectly Happy Marriage” or something like that and so I thought, naturally, that we would. Since we’d read the book and everything. So it came as a surprise to me that, although I’d married this near-perfect man, that there were things about our marriage that weren’t perfect. And most of it, unsurprisingly – since this is the basis of most problems in any relationship – boiled down in some way to communication.

According to the University of Kent, effective spoken communication requires being able to express your ideas and views clearly, confidently and concisely in speech, tailoring your content and style to the audience and promoting free-flowing communication. That’s all very well, I’m thinking, until you add in variables like a malfunctioning computer or a long hot day at work or corns. These things tend to influence the way you communicate so that instead of being concise and appropriate you just want to roar at everyone. Of course you can’t, because they wouldn’t like you, so you have to save it all up for when you get home and then you roar at your loved ones instead. Sadly we can do that because although they may not like it, they will usually keep loving us, whatever.

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Then there are those things that you gradually stop talking about – the old chestnuts that come up again and again and send you round in circles until you’re dizzy with frustration and fatigue. Because nothing seems to change, at least not for long. Because human nature cannot be changed, at least by us.  And life, with its tendency to throw things at you out of the blue, if you are not careful, can squeeze the joy out of everything… How is it that sometimes the simple act of talking, the thing that draws two people together in the first place, can be the hardest thing to do? Maybe it’s the shape of what we say conjuring up things from the past, things that the speaker may or may not know about, that pull the familiar triggers of guilt, blame and anger. We are not free to react solely in the present, invaded as we are by past hurts and future fears. And so after a while, if we’re not careful, something inside us curls up and hides. It’s then that the most damage can be done if we remain silent. Because, as my mother used to say, what goes in must come out. One day it will explode. And the fall-out could be huge.

So, even though it’s always painful, we’ll keep talking about the shoes…

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My story, The Evenness of Things, now for sale as an Amazon Kindle e-book, is about the effects of long term silence on a relationship. In the story, a woman buys a house without telling her husband, a  misguided attempt to deal with a tragedy from the past which now threatens to overwhelm her completely. But Daisy believes that the house will save her…

The story is about the unpredictable impact of grief on faith and relationships, the need for retreat, and how life itself can show us how to cope, “if we let it, if we listen.”