Happy Old Year and the Little Painted House


At what point do you stop saying Happy Christmas and start saying Happy New Year? I’m never quite sure. After all, the Twelve Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day so perhaps we shouldn’t say Happy New Year until 5th January, when incidentally, you’re  supposed to take down your decorations and NOT BEFORE (but who does that? Honestly. We’re practically feeding them to the cat by the 2nd.) I was thinking this on the way out today when I saw someone I know, and ended up shouting “Happy Chr-ew Year!” which sounded impressively nautical to me. Except that this person is not in the sea-going profession. I pulled my hat down and scuttled into an alleyway, pretending I was a confused person ( which I sort of am half the time).20151204_214653.jpgWhen people ask about my Christmas, I never quite know what to say, because there can be a kind of code to these things, can’t there? Apart from the obligatory “Lovely thank you…”, you could basically select from the following: – Nice and quiet (a bit boring ), Lots of fun and games (Never got to read my book), Wonderful to see the grand-kids (But thank goodness they don’t live with us). The other question I always love is, “So what did you do?” One day I swear I’m going to say, “Marked my Science books, skinny dipped in the Thames, then painted the back bedroom.” Of course it’s still worth asking because there’s always a mild frisson of excitement when someone says, “Went swimming” or “Climbed Snowdon” or  “Had roast halibut”. But let’s be honest, the real question is, “I know you opened presents, had or didn’t have stockings, did or didn’t go to church and ate turkey, but WHICH ORDER DID YOU DO THEM IN??” Why are we bothered? What does it matter? Is it merely the desire for a fascinating glimpse into others’ lives?  Or are we trying to measure up to some Christmas ideal we’re actually not sure about. As if the peace and quiet/fun and games/grand-children will at some point become a perfect experience, without the tiniest hitch, as long as we do it all in the right order.

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Bucks Fizz while cooking – the only way to do it…

And now for the New Year, full of things that have never been. Always a mixed blessing, with some stuff from the past year I’d rather forget, plenty I should have dealt with better, and a few I’d love to live again. But they’re gone, finit, bitirdi…How to welcome the new while making peace with the old?

My favourite present this Christmas so far, is a little painted house bought by my daughter. It’s tall and narrow and covered with tiny windows. I’ve put it half way along the passage that leads from the front to the back of our house and I keep walking past, and loving it. An odd choice for a favourite perhaps, when compared to money and perfume and books, which I also love by the way. But the house is special, because at the back, there’s space for a candle and when you light it and turn it round, it looks magical. With the blind up and the night behind. Like a beacon. A strip of stone leaking light into darkness.

If we’re not careful we spend so much time feeling afraid. The past reproaches, the future threatens. The present can be ruined by both. If you have faith (and you probably do if you’ve visited the blog before), you’ll believe there’s a heartbeat at the core of the universe,  a Light punching holes in darkness and, in the distance, a city on a hill. There’s something comforting about pinpricks of light – the 2015 memories you cherish, the moments that lifted you at Christmas, the things you’re looking forward to. They are more precious when viewed alongside the darker things. I could turn the light on, put the blind down – I would see better if there was no darkness at all. But this way, the light from the little house makes my way unique, and beautiful.

So Happy Old Year. Peace and strength to you as you look back, and look forward, and look up. Towards the Light.

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There are so Many Ways to Die!


The older I get, the more people I meet and the more often I go on London trains and have direct, unintentional access to The London Evening Standard, the more I realise that there are so many ways to die. (Sorry to begin your New Year like this, but it’s just true).  You can get a disease, you can ski off a mountain, you can die in a gas explosion while you sleep in your bed. You can get mauled by a stag while on holiday in Scotland. If none of these get you, then high cholesterol might. Or blood pressure or a stroke. You can die if you don’t drink enough water of if you drink too much. Or if you eat too much red meat. You can die from eating the wrong things or eating too much of the right things. Frankly, it does my head in.

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Then, to cap it all, you hear reports of people “dying peacefully in their beds”. The people who tell you this – newsreaders or relatives or friends – nod their heads and spread their hands with relief, as if it is a good thing. What? You say goodnight to your husband or your dog or valued other, you clean your teeth and fetch water and put your jim-jams on. Then you do all those other routine jobs – feed the cat, put the bins out, make sandwiches – that indicate you fully expect your life to carry on the next day as it always has. And boom! You’re dead. How can that be a good thing? Of course what they really mean, is that compared to all those other nasties, it’s a better way to go. Well, maybe…

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To be honest I know I’m a minster’s wife and all, but I’m a bit iffy about illness and death. It’s not something I like to think about much. In fact when anyone is telling us about a distant relative or friend of theirs who has developed some kind of unpleasant condition, while I am genuinely upset for them, saying things like, “Oh poor thing! How dreadful!” my brain’s going tick, tick, tick and I’m thinking, “How would you know you had that?” It dismays me that there are so many awful things you could get that I’ve never even thought of worrying about.

My husband, cheery little soul that he is, often says that the only certain thing in life is death. He says this quite matter of factly, even with a certain amount of relish, as if his being right about it gives him huge satisfaction. It does nothing for me.

But this does; the other day I met an inspiring woman. She was beautiful, with glossy hair and dark eyes. She talked animatedly about her daughter who is friends with my daughter and about the joint birthday party she wants to host for them. She goes to a local church, she’s excited about the new minister and the Mums and Toddlers group, she invited me round for coffee. Nothing remarkable about any of this, except that this woman has MS. For two years she could hardly talk or swallow. She is much better now but she still can’t sit for long periods of time and finds it challenging to go out. She requires the help of a daily carer. I’m sure she has her moments, but she came across as overwhelmingly positive and kind, and forward-looking about life.

Meeting her was like being given an unexpected gift on a grey post-Christmas day. It gave me a burst of energy even stronger than the one given by all the other wonderful, able bodied family and friends peopling my Christmas. Why? Because she reminded me of something I often forget; we have one life and it’s now…

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One of the dictionary definitions of the word, life, is “vitality, vigour, energy”, the soul of what it is to be alive. The longer I’m here, the more people I meet and the more I read inspiring books like Dr Seuss and the bible, the more I realise there are so many ways to live. And by that, I mean, really live, not just take up space in the world. Here are a few: –

Smile at a stranger, give something away, bake a cake for a mate. Learn to sing in tune. Buy a sad person chocolate, or flowers, or one of those crazy little cup-cakes with eyes on.

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Say something nice when everyone’s having a moan. Encourage a child. Notice how the rain makes street light kinder. And your house inviting.

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Do something unselfish for the people who love you, more often and more obviously. For Brits this is awkward. But do it anyway. No one knows the size of their L.Q. (longevity quotient). Or anyone else’s. Be nice to an enemy. It will make you feel better about both of you.

Finally, don’t be so hard on yourself. God isn’t, and how would you feel if something you wrote or made entitled itself, “A piece of worthless junk”? God, who put you on this earth for a time such as this, has good that only you can bring to things, in small ways and quiet, because you know about them. Like the woman I met the other day who brought a dead day to life…

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There are so many ways to die. But there are more ways to live.

It’s a New Year. Let’s live…

 

 

Christmas Hunters of the World, Unite…


A best mate bought me a tea towel. It was red and white and tied with checked ribbon and tinsel. She’d made a card too, which was decorated with a square of material and gold stars. It may end up being my best present. On a day of driving rain and gridlocked roads, she came here to give it to me on a bike festooned with holly and Christmas lights. My mate is one of the busiest people I know. She has three sons, a demanding job, and an aged father. She also volunteers at a prison and always has a houseful of people who need feeding or cheering up. After visiting me she was cycling to Isleworth to buy Christmas pants (underpants for American readers). Don’t ask. It’s a long story. Just know that my mate is a legend.

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I did my present shopping late on Saturday, the shortest day of the year, in Kingston in the rain with 3 or 4 other people who weren’t interested in the Strictly final.  It was a good move. I kept glancing sideways and nodding my bobble hat at them with a conspiratorial “You too, huh?” to cement our unspoken dislike of sequins and tight trousers. We had this bond. We were strong, independent non-glitter-ballers content to live in our own skins. We did not need Anton du Beke. While the country was Strictly-bound, we were going out to buy Christmas so we could wrap it up and put it under the tree. (Of course, really, we’re just less organised than Strictly people.)

It was late in the day and quiet for a pre-Christmas Saturday. The atmosphere was festive. There were lights and the smell of gingerbread and by the churchyard, a leathery man selling chestnuts. There was also a Christmas market, music, stalls strung with tiny lights. People didn’t seem in the kind of manic hurry you’d have expected either. They strolled and looked in windows and sipped lattes in the rain, or shouted into mobiles.

“What size feet yer got?”

“Do figs give Gran the runs?”

“Who’s winning on Strictly?”

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Apart from the Hari Krishna man, who surely could have sung carols, just this once, instead of that humming thing that was distinctly unChristmassy, the place was magical. It made me feel part of this vast throng of world-wide Christmas hunters battling through rain and wind, or drought if in Africa, to find the magic and buy it and get it home as soon as possible, so we can all parcel it up, put it under the tree, pour the bubbly and live the Christmas dream.

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But here’s the thing – quite a few friends and neighbours are having a rubbish Christmas this year and won’t even be trying to buy the magic. There’s no point when you’re alone or someone you love is ill or your hope for the New Year is tired and old before you even get there. I remember such a Christmas – it’s like looking through the window at everyone else, all smart and dancey under the glitter ball while you’re outside in the rain with slippers on. It suddenly hits you – in a nose against the wall kind of way – that you actually don’t need atmosphere with a tree and turkey or even presents. These things are just a distraction from what really matters…

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And God, who did the first Christmas, and knows its secrets, just gives us a baby. Which is, you know nice and all – babies melt the hardest hearts – but I’d well, prefer a miracle for my friends across the road, and for that person at church, and for my mate having chemo again. Which might well happen, I know. But in the meantime he invites us again to take a risk, on a baby…

When I get home, it’s windy and raining hard, there’s no one in and it’s so dark, I can’t even see to put the key in the lock – I am, ahem, a little visually challenged at the best of times. So I’m juggling my bags and stabbing the key at the door and getting wet hair and trying not to say bad words in my head, when a bloke walks past and lights a cigarette. A tiny pinprick of light but that’s all you need when it’s completely dark. It’s enough for me to jab wildly at the lock and feel the satisfying click of an opening door.

And in the house, it’s all panting and quiet, and dry and warm with good words like, “Thank goodness!” and “Home!” and “Put the kettle on” and the wind and the rain are all faint and distant and the bags make puddles on the floor. And when the light is on, through the lounge door, there are the wooden figures of the nativity scene – Mary with her chipped nose and the shepherd with his broken stick and the others, the same every year.

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So I wearily pull the presents out of the bags and wipe them down and tick them off on lists, and I’m thinking of the tea towel and the Christmas pants and that God, who knows we have short memories, meant it to be simple – a promise, a baby, some shepherds and angels.

And every year I’m invited to choose – to hunt for magic or open the hands, to a baby. Chipped and broken, I’ll take a risk again on the baby; that tiny pinprick of light in the depths of winter.

But that’s all you need, when it’s completely dark…

And because of this, I can confidently wish all my kind and faithful blog readers, known and unknown, a Happy Christmas and a New Year filled with pinpricks of hope. And friends with tea towels.

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