Tidings of comfort and … pause

Thanks to Bob Gutowski for use of this image via Creative Commons
Thanks to Bob Gutowski for use of this image via Creative Commons

Shortly after I had my first child, someone bought me flowers. Let’s say they were irises.

For more than a week I shuffled past those flowers, bleary and joyous and confused. We had made a person. With eyes and ears and hair; who had hands that would grasp at cups and spoons and pens and screwdrivers. Who stared and yawned and stretched and farted.

One day I came in the front door and saw that the flowers had died. They weren’t just a bit droopy, or crispy around the edges; they were completely (pardon the pun) cactus. They must have been like that for some time. Yet in my mind, until moments earlier, they’d been fresh-smelling parcels of purple. Clearly, I’d been distracted. And my mind had filled in the details for me.

Of course at the time, it was no big deal. I chucked the flowers out, and got on with things. But they’ve been on my mind recently, and I think it’s because of December.

Now I know how this sounds, but I don’t much like this time of year. I get stressed about buying presents, I avoid decorating the tree, I resist caring about what we eat for dinner. I’m happy for others to enjoy it: to pop the Christmas crackers and read out the silly jokes, work their way through a month of advent chocolate, spend days and weeks covered in salt and sand. I’ll work to facilitate that; I see the value of it. But personally—it makes me tired.

December is a pushing-up point; a moment of enforced pause. We work away all through the year, hitting (or missing) work deadlines, inching our way through the school terms, chasing our tails to keep the house in some reasonably clean state (or perhaps that’s just me?). The news sails past—boats capsize, bombs go off and people get smashed-up in their sedans on the way to work. Maybe someone you know gets married, or your brother buys a house, your neighbour makes it to the other side of the cancer treatment. And then—wham—it’s almost next year, and what does it all mean?

We wake up each morning assuming (quite reasonably, for the most part) that today is a regular day; that nothing catastrophic will happen; that dinner will be as we planned it and we’ll bicker, as usual, about whose turn it is to do the dishes. That’s what allows us (the lucky ones) to enjoy the wonderful, safe, ordinariness of existence. We have access to healthcare, education, nutrition. We can lock our doors behind us at night. But we know that bad things happen. People do terrible things. People get hurt, they go without. Life isn’t fair.

Coming up to December (especially if I’m going to have to listen to songs about peace and hope and joy), I want all of this to make sense. But it doesn’t. I hear and see and read about awful things happening, and I don’t do enough about it. Sometimes I don’t even want to know about it. I want to be safe in my kitchen with the sun streaming in and some nice classical music on the radio.

So, wait, am I saying that everything will be better if I pay more attention to flowers? Well, no. But those irises are a useful reminder that I look at out at the world from inside my own head—that reality is moving on, whether I notice or not. On the one hand, that’s a reassuring thought. I’m not in control of everything. I can’t be. On the other hand, it’s unsettling. Who wants to think about how easily things could change, how fragile we all are? Let’s just push that thought down hard, right?

Well, maybe that vulnerability is the bit I’ve been missing. If I’m feeling at all celebratory this December, it can’t be only about those new shoes I want, the opportunity to eat pudding and pavlova, or the list of achievements I can (or can’t) rattle off over the dinner table. It’s about accepting fragility, and celebrating the daily ways we overcome it. Or even, the ways that we don’t.

There’s no rule that says I have to be jolly at this time of year. Only, maybe, present. Happy enough about all the snacking and talking and general existing that’s going on. And remembering, when I can, to look around. And notice.