“Better than birthdays”

 

Even if I think about it very hard, I don’t remember the specifics of birthdays as much as the emotions – clutching excitement, a great feeling of being important and cherished, candles yes, cake yes – images-12but overwhelmingly special.   I have friends older than me now who cannot enjoy birthdays any more. They are just evidence of time passing. Funny cards don’t make them smile and they decry presents as “unnecessary.”   And as you get older, especially if you live alone, and for very often for good reasons – getting enough exercise, eating properly, seeing somebody with whom you can exchange at least greetings and probably chat – life becomes ritualised, even as in this case the ritual of denial.

It took me ages to accept that I was so used to shopping for hordes, that I bought too much and it was a frightful waste.   And then I noticed that I was in danger of “it’s Monday, I must do …” whatever it was.   Why should every Monday be the same?18fde72   So I began to consciously welcome changes to routine.   A warm memory of my mother is when I welcomed her to the flat in which I was living with my first husband, deprecating my efforts to make her comfortable and she hugged me “Forget it. I don’t need all that.” As she got older, her needs became simpler. It was a good lesson.   And some of my friends live a distance away and some have schedules that are very demanding. So what we have come to is rather wonderfully that any day could be your birthday, any settled pattern can be thrown to the four winds.

I don’t see as much of LM who has been my representative and my friend for 20 years as I would like (she should be paid for living) but to her among other things I owe my introduction to Lord Dodo’s loose leaf cookery book, an enormous white hydrangea in a matching basket, the most beautiful flowers for Christmas/New Year/or any other excuse: care packages of salads, soup, bread and anything else that caught her eye, and the steps,cc579b3b-76e7-49bd-9aa5-941566e21264-jpg-_cb317968543_ the solid platform short ladders you need when you can’t stretch easily any more.   Definition of a friendship – when your friend arrives with something useful out of the blue.      You get all those feelings I described of myself as a child.

Pam the Painter came to lunch on Friday and handed me a small china mug with an English bullterrier on it (and it is, as my father would say “a good one” ie the right shape) and a witty comment and I got all wet eyed.   She found it in her parents’ house during monumental clearing out and thought I might like it. I do.

"meet Jimmy Choo"

“meet Jimmy Choo”

On Saturday Percy Snowdrop (a film academic who teaches in the north) came through and I went him to meet him near the British Museum. He has a small carefully chosen collection of drawings and pictures (he started at art school) and he showed me on his tablet his latest acquisition – a signed drawing, a wonderful drawing by Jean Cocteau.  2013_2_l_ange___jean_cocteau_textiles_coussin_1_det_pdf_ht As he is the only person I know who would want such a thing, I don’t know who was more excited.   And I know that he got ploughed over by his editor this year and consigned a book into limbo he had deeply believed in.   Part of my admiration for him is that he loves to teach and I cheer for the self belief that drawing embodied.

I go to the market most Saturdays, I pick up this and that in independent chemists, I do the laundry.   Not this week. I bought a book and a card and I sat and drank tea and ate apricot tart and told stories and heard stories and saw him off to Kings Cross.

When I was a kid, there was a song which began “A very merry unbirthday to you,” which became a family sentiment, if you forgot, were late or away for a birthday.   But I like this version even better.   I don’t give a damn about the years, they are going to come anyway.   I care about contact and thought and pleasure and joy, mine and everybody else’s.   The world is hard, it always was. Welcome to better than birthdays.sparklers-5

monument

I love a milk churn,

though when I looked them up, I discovered that they are antique.  Me too, I suppose.   I remember the milk churns waiting to be collected, at the end of the path from the house, and how sometimes, the driver of the lorry gave me and whoever escorted my child self a lift to the village if he came before the bus.  I thought it was so exciting  to be sitting in the front of a truck.   And I cherished the milk churns because they provided an excuse for the lift.

At about the same age, I learned the magic of the rural bus,

where passengers knew each other and the driver and he stopped at the top of lanes leading down into farms, seemingly without being asked.   Once, many years later coming back from south London to north, the driver of the bus at some ungodly hour in the morning, began talking to me  –  the only person on the bus – and he dropped me not at the nearest stop but at the top of my road.  “This right ?” he grinned.  Memory winded me, I could barely say thank you.

Before the pandemic, say three or four years ago, I watched the female driver of a big red double decker bus handle the heavy vehicle to safety while some twit speeding and probably half cut briefly endangered himself and everybody else.  It was my bus, I got on and said thank you. When I got off I asked the driver, whom I saw to be Middle Eastern with a headdress but not veiled, if she was all right ?  She stared at me.  I repeated.  “Did you see … ?” she asked .  “Yes” I said “ I did and you did beautifully but that’s not what I am asking.  I am asking, are you all right ?”   And she did that lovely gesture I had only seen in a film, putting her hand to her heart, and bringing it, lightly clenched, to her lips to kiss.

We saw each other occasionally, we waved and beamed.  Once she passed me walking and gave two cheeky little toots.  Last week she drove up to the bus stand where I was waiting and stopped the bus – admittedly, it was empty – got out of her cabin, got out of the bus and stood before me, demanding “Are you all right ?”

   I began to laugh, and said I was, and I hoped she was too and her family , we stared at each other for a second and then embraced and wished each other a better year.   She got back in the cab and I thought of milk churns.   Unforgotten.

As are the witnesses, though they grow old and frail. 

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

And I am only ever what I call a plastic Jew, a name I coined, not offered in insult or diminution but because they claimed me, people I didn’t know, met in shops,  at work, in the street ,in the US and the UK,  and it meant so much to me.  Because I looked like the real thing.  “We are so proud of you” said a woman I didn’t know from a hole in the ground, embracing me.  “You’re one of ours.” More accurately I am what the Nazis called a mischling, of mixed Jewish and other races – the predominant other being Rom (thus also a didikoi –  of mixed gypsy and other races).    Only two people in my whole life claimed me as a Jewish daughter and it remains a jewel in my memory.

I remember the painful insight of a film called Almonds and Raisins about the Yiddish theatre which bloomed briefly before being superseded by the bigger audiences of cinema. In a flash I understood how foreign these people were, how other …  how what I found interesting, others found threatening.  They weren’t the only foreigners or the only others but you know how you understand something uncomfortably, because a harsh light shines smack on it, if only for a few seconds ?    I was shaken to be unable to deny the understanding of hate.  So I remember the Slavs and the trade unionists, the Baptists and the gays, everybody who got in the way of the steamrollers of the Third Reich.  My father’s mother’s name was Julie Rosenbaum and no monument works better than memory – even a milk churn.

oh those monkeys …

When I was a child, you were called a monkey

if you were mischievous, a little bit cheeky in a nice way. You were not allowed to make a habit of it.  Being a monkey was an occasional thing. Nowadays, monkeys would probably bring an action for defamation.  I never thought about the monkeys (not my favourite creatures) though in the Chinese zodiac, I am a monkey. 

You have probably heard of The Three Wise Monkeys – Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil and See No Evil. 

According to my search engine, this is a Japanese image and Ghandi refers to a fourth monkey.   I can’t be the only person who is silently screaming for mercy from saturation media coverage of  Prime Minister Boris Johnson (I’d say he was Speak No Evil), tennis champion Novak Djokovic (Hear No Evil) and the Royal Family’s Prince Andrew (See No Evil).  What those three have in common is a large dose of victim mentality – always somebody else’s fault.

The British Prime Minister doesn’t speak well. 

*

That turkey hubble-bubble, incomplete sentences, wah-wah is a good example of how not to communicate with anybody you don’t want to communicate with, ie most of us, obviously lesser mortals. It sounds as though you’re saying something but you’re not really.  All sorts of poor devils speak for him in matters great and small and they have one thing in common – when he perceives that what they have said and done hasn’t left him reflected in the sought after light of glory, if he can’t pass the buck, they are expendable.   Pippa Pig, eat your heart out.  It’s all somebody else’s fault, not a word of accusation, just –

out.

The best comment I have heard about Novak Djokovic is that, like a lot of high powered, busy people – he relied on somebody else to get the papers in order and say the right things, secure in his belief that he is so important and talented that, should there be a wrinkle, it would be ignored.  The person expounding this point of view to me said “And he forgot: it’s his name on the form.  He can’t blame anybody else – it is his name.”  His mother’s comment in a press conference where she referred to her son “being tortured, like Jesus Christ” was frankly ill judged.   The President of Serbia feels that, if the champion were from a bigger and more important country, his visa would never have been cancelled.

  Poor little Serbia.  It all went on so long, I began to wonder if this was Djokovic’s PR machine because he got coverage he could never afford.  And the Australians didn’t handle it well –  but they have made a legal decision. 

 And then there is See No Evil (Prince Andrew) who didn’t see anything because he didn’t see why he should have to look, much less ask question or make decisions contrary to his initial wishes. 

Although playtime with a convicted paedophile is a bit much, you get the same sort of avoidance much lower down the scale – the child with cuts and bruises that nobody wants to have to notice, a woman’s black eye or broken wrist, or a man withdrawn and tense to breaking point – but nobody asks, because nobody wants to know.   His point of view, it seems, is that a Royal Prince should be able to have a good time, at somebody else’s unlimited expense, without having to think about it, as in “I know nothing”.   A retired Royal servant says he was ever thus.  And even if he had better advisors, he won’t take advice.   The word “entitled” comes to mind and you can just see that porky hand waving unwanted advice away

…   Particularly unwanted if it isn’t what he wants to hear.    

These are not happy men, any of them but I will forbear to bore you with pop psychology.   What is interesting is that dozens of other men have been through the same kind of emotional confusion, uncertainty and dissatisfaction and handled it quite differently.    Human beings are fascinating. 

Boris Johnson wanted power and then got clobbered by a pandemic which made his interpretation of the highest office in the land a good deal less fun and successful than he had depended on it being.

Novak Djokovic learned he is better on the court.

And Prince Andrew will learn the high price of paying for your pleasure.

*nice poem, shame about the spelling (as in conjunctions)

facing it

In the pause between bouts of unseasonable weather Tim wrote that he had seen dead leaves falling

and swirling “like brown snow,” dead leaves blown like souls on their journey, the rest of the life cycle irrelevant.  The Americans call autumn “fall” though I was rather more preoccupied with a tumble down tricky stairs.  This morning I met a woman walking with a stick, we have grinned before, and I asked what happened. She fell at work and damaged her spinal cord, is several months into rehabilitation and will have to have to surgery. Merciful heaven.

No concussion but this has slowed me and I have seen the physio.  Nothing like a small injury for bring you face to face with how much we take our bodies for granted.  And other things too…   When something has been there a while, we tend to think it will go on being there and are taken aback when it isn’t any more.

London’s West End is currently in upheaval,

boards up, builders busy and whole streets silenced.   It won’t all be bad news, I know.  Business people take a view, sell up, hang on to the money and wait to see.  But for someone wandering through, the changes are enormous and it’s oddly post blast.

I read further coverage of the administration of a famous tailoring establishment, a couple of hundred years old, which in partnership with two other equally well known concerns, had recognised changing times and changing styles as not being in their favour, and tried to adapt. But they were advised to use Chinese money

to bridge the gap and have been left 2 years later, high and dry.  The investors will be covered by their national law and skilled workmen from this business will be out on their ear.  In response to yet more writing on the “street” edition of plastic surgery – and where it falls short – I can’t help but wonder if some of those wonderful tailors couldn’t retrain with sterilised thread:

I am sure they’d do better work.   And a forty year skilled worker in one of the surviving businesses in Burlington Arcade says their rent is now £250,000 – well that won’t last long, with falling footfall.

And I am surprised that with all the introspection nobody has yet written to theorise about the connections between the mixed messages of this time – on the one hand against plastic in the sea (and every other waterway – phosphorous in the River Wye)

but endless  rubbish in the street: trumpets for  everything natural and pure  from  juice to jumpers but cutprice procedures with  God knows what in your face, your buttocks and anywhere else that will make a few bob. And what that means and why ?  Shortage of food is imminent, if not from growing, from harvesting and transport and I am all for saving flowers and plants, insects and wildlife but farmers deserve our support.  Again, the endless playing over WWII has not taught us its key domestic messages – one of which was

grow more food, harnessed to nature rather than pulling against it.

Walking of necessity slowly, I saw a tall slender woman I should think in her early fifties, with the sun behind her and the most gorgeous hair – thick, lustrous, grey/gold, God and man hand in hand. I exclaimed “Your hair is lovely.”   She stopped “Say again.”  I repeated.  “Oh how wonderful” she said.  “I really needed to hear that, I have cancer, I am going to lose it all .”

I begged her pardon, I said how tactless of me ..” You couldn’t know” she said.  “And it is great to hear.”  I asked “Where was the cancer?”   “Everywhere” she said “Stage Four.”  I said I was sorry.  “Don’t be” she said smiling.  “They have done everything they could… that’s life ..”  I said,” I light candles in my house every night, tonight they are for you.”   And we parted smiling. 

potentiation

Three lots of self realisation (and Liz Truss) in one newspaper

– Manifesting by Roxie Nafousi, James Smith Not a Life Coach/Not a Diet  Book – neatly crossed through as No Myths/No Fads/No Nonsense, Giles Coren writing that should he divorce, he would take nothing, too much stuff anyway, especially after Christmas …  so this is the reinvention of New Year’s resolutions with social media packaging to help the medicine go down.  Glory.  Am I glad I’m past all this.  Am I a victim of Santafest ?  Not me.  Did I take every opportunity offered to me ?  No – but I took most of them.  Did I believe in myself ?  Sure, but it took time.  Oh how I distrust “one size fits all”. 

It’s like Jean’s one piece undergarment with crotch poppers in dinnerladies.   I remember trying one on and laughing so hard in the old Dickins and Jones, I caused a disturbance.  I was still laughing when I left.

  Sounds great – but only if it fits and, call me Quasimodo, it didn’t fit me.  More like a spatchcocked frog.  One size does not fit all.

Somewhere in the dim and distant past, I learned two thirds of a Chinese proverb ie “many paths to the top of the mountain”, the concluding third says “but the view is always the same.”   Never got that far, always a work in progress, “many paths” has guided my life. 

People do things differently – different things at different times, for different reasons and in different ways.  Sometimes the result is as expected, other times it is very unexpected but I don’t want to model myself on somebody else.  I doubt if you do.  I want to be me.   Finding out who I was took years and long after you get your feet on the right road, you still falter occasionally or have an odd moment of bewilderment when you just don’t know.

Part of the reason for the title is because I was once called a potentiator, encouraging people to realise themselves.  There were common principles and ideas but everybody was different.

  It will be a truly sad day when they are not.   Sometimes you can’t grow a person.  There’s some sort of block, like a tree across the road.  You don’t spend enough time together, you don’t know them well enough.  There is aIways a story and, for whatever reason, you don’t get to hear it – so I settle for doing the best I can with what I’ve got – the bit I know.

The husband of a pretty fair-haired woman up the road has just died.  Not only does she feel understandably awful, she can’t verbalise it.  We met twice and she told me how bad she felt but she couldn’t be more specific and I didn’t see that Q&A on a street corner was necessarily kind or useful.  But last week we met and she said glumly “They want me to go to counselling.” 

This is not the time for me to launch into what, where, who, how, counselling versus psychotherapy so I said “Well, at least that’s about you.”  She looked at me.  “The door shuts” I went on “ and it’s between you and the counsellor.  So you can talk about anger and pain and confusion and that bloody woman across the road …  It’s your time.”   She said as if it had never occurred to her” I suppose it is.”  “Very useful” I said .  “When my father died I fell apart and private work with somebody skilled was the beginning of sense in the world.”

O f course I am over simplifying.  I hope to heaven she gets somebody who knows what they are doing.  But we have to start somewhere.  She has to know that far from being the victim in this, she is the subject.  Her turn.  She can emerge from this dissatisfied and give it another go with somebody different and get further with herself.  The decision is hers.   She isn’t a malfunctioning neurotic.  She is a woman in pain.   And pain comes from a lot of places.  And the resolution of pain so that you begin to see yourself comes from a lot of different places too.

If you are going to read these latest versions in the lucrative self help market and take from them what works for you, fine.  You aren’t Roxie, James, Giles or Liz and you may live to be grateful for it.   

a week missed

When we next meet, it will be a new year.

And because you know  how strongly I feel about anticipation,

I forebear to promise it will be good or bad or how it will be.

Just know that I wish you well, annalog will be back next week and

The Christmas Rose has bloomed in the garden.

really

Somewhere along the line, somebody said “Don’t confuse fiction with reality.”

It sounded wonderfully clearcut, something you could be sure of.  But it is not as simple as it sounds.  There is open and shut reality.  Did you drop the teapot  ?  Yes or no.  There lie the broken pieces: how did they get there ? 

And then there is all the other stuff … was the teapot cracked ? did you slip because you were trying to save the old cat from disturbance by the new dog, the baby from putting his hand on the hot stove ?   Did you really hear a noise, turn and slip, dropping the teapot

….  If the teapot is broken, does it matter how it became broken ?  Perhaps you will not admit that you threw it at the floor in temper.  

Instead of making life clear and simple for me (fat chance), reality and its multiples shade between something real and something imagined, to something totally imagined, to something unreal but chosen and played through as a reality, inevitably coloured by what is remembered. Endlessly fascinating. 

It’s a week to one of the two biggest festivals in the Christian Church and Christianity is about to become a minority religion.  Of course this finding emerges from research which is the philosophical equivalent of Play Doh

ie you can bend it to any shape you like.  Do we really hope that by lining up a full set of symbols (tree and lights, trimming, tinsel, food plus and drink plus plus, presents, extravagance – blame the Victorians) we will enter the spirit of the story of the Baby in the Manger ? Does it matter ?  Is it just a blowout and a couple of days off, “the kids like it”, expensive certainly but complete with comforting mythology about Santa Claus and the Snowman ?

Christmas is about memory

– how it was when you were a child, what was done at home, how far behind you left that or how closely you adhere to it.  Christmas is about herding together – in family units, crowds to shop, to see lights and trees and fireworks, safety in numbers, the crowd at the match or the press at the bar.  And it is widely inferred that, somehow, if you aren’t part of all that, you have missed out.  But that isn’t a reality, it is a perception, a way of looking at having a break and a nice time. 

This year, the reality is fear.  Not fear of Covid though it is an unpleasant bug.  But the fear of catching what you can’t see

and how that will affect all those other things which would draw you temporarily but none the less powerfully into community of some kind.   My son has Covid.  I have just seen a neighbour off to be tested – he thinks he has Covid.   I have spent Christmas alone before.  I do not see it as a failure.  It happens.  The fiction is “lots of friends” and the reality is the half dozen max. who play quite different roles in your life and worth more than jewels.       

And the reality is what you hear in the sleepiness and silence.  Different kinds of silence, different kinds of sleep.  It’s been horrible shopping this year because so many of the small individualised places are threatened or gone.  The largely unnoticed floods in London in the late summer have wiped out the kind of places I love and cherish and buy things in.  What might happen has made many of us wary.    

Like everything else in the world, Christmas is personal.  If you were brought up to numbers  in celebration , for holiday or hobbies, then that is what you’ll miss.   Or you’re unwilling to miss it and you’ll take the risk with or without precautions. I was brought up to take it as it comes, with respect, whether the few or the many.

My reality includes warmth, food, shelter above me, door to lock, telephone, cards, one or two new books and another year of cherished friendship, casual meetings, and annalog readers, that small cherished public, I bless you every one – for yourselves and for keeping me to what I call my “homework” – weekly writing – and your response to it.      

Green field and mail cloud under a summer sky

      

three smiles in anticipation

There is good anticipation

like looking forward to meeting again or going on holiday, some kind of a longed for date, your exam results (if they work out), something new (kitchen/coat/grandchild) – when you look forward to being pleased – and are pretty crushed if you’re not.  And there is bad anticipation

when looking forward to something already arranged gives you everything from palpitations to collywobbles and you work yourself into a state.  Almost without exception, no matter how terrifying, disappointing, unsettling the thing is when it comes to pass – it will be easier to bear than thinking about it coming ie anticipation.  And your anticipation is all your own, nobody else’s.

Once whatever it is begins to happen, your mood changes.  You are now on the road.  Whatever it is, is going to happen. That’s why the modern thing or not returning the promised call, whether it is to do with the delivery of wine or a three month wait for one specialist to liaise (his idea) with two or three others, is worse than rude, it’s unkind. 

Because you can’t say “Damn the delivery!” and go out and leave the wine on the step – it will almost certainly be pinched.  And you can’t tell the specialist how disappointed and upset you are, suspended without his offered opinion, because you can’t speak to him and his assistant doesn’t return the call.

Anticipating Christmas is not on my list of things to do, any year for the last long time, and this year I find the oversell and glitterballs excessive in the worst and most irrelevant way.  There are troops massing on a border in the European mainland.  The Chinese are pushing forward to different bits adjacent to their landmass.  Hundreds of animals (winged and creeping included)

are being wiped out.  People are without homes here, there and everywhere, in the American continent by reason variously of Covid, opioids, and savagely errant weather.   That rich rich country is poor about its poor.

Back in Blighty, we are in an economic morass, facing the simultaneous disintegration of the government in power, its system  and several massive institutions.  Why would a wreath on the door fix this – or fairylights, flickering or plain ?  And so often it seems that the wreath is to distract from uncovered mess and soaked garbage, while the Big Sell this year is more than ever based on what you’ve got to have, much of which will be dumped in the same way in due course.   How I wish common sense was compulsory.  

Last week I saw a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel about a wolverine,

filmed on the Russian/Finnish border. Solitary, savage, naturally programmed to do what she does, she isn’t beautiful though the body is miracle of natural development with tiny pretty ears, paws with built in snowshoes and a bite that would frighten a hyena.  As the film ended, I found I was smiling.  I smiled at the moon as I closed the shutters.  It smiled back.   

Then I looked at Win’s name (NHN) in my address book and wondered, because she has had a long and miserable haul – her father’s illness and death, her brother’s cancer, she hit the bottle and was then threatened with the loss of her beloved flat. You can’t impose jolly.  She wasn’t up to much last year and I wondered.   Bought a very pretty card and wondered who it was for ?  Came home to an envelope on the mat with a letter – brother better, she dried out, sale of father’s house brought them both security, old flat safe in her name, love and wishes. 

I rang her to tell her about the card I had bought.  And walked about smiling after we had spoken. 

We have a grand old grocer’s nearby which you only go into for one or two things because the prices are eye watering.     I buy excellent Italian biscuits there, one for breakfast, but last week I bought a pack of ginger biscuits dipped in dark chocolate from the supermarket – saved £4.  And they are luxuriously good.  Smile guaranteed every morning…

Oh listen …  the faintest jingle …………………….

 

company

I’ve lost two friends

through the pandemic years, one a married woman with a husband and two sons she loves and extended family – I think just consumed with the business of survival.  I am sure I miss her more than she misses me.  The second was a single woman my own age whom I knew for ten years, who was one day so disagreeable to me that I snapped “You are a wonderful human being” and hung up.  The break had been coming, I had been trying ignore it and there it was.

Friendship comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes

and I am purist about it.  If we don’t meet, it is a well disposed relationship but we are not, in my opinion, friends.  I like to see the whites of your eyes multiple times, spend time, assess, look at the body language, listen to the speech patterns and learn the history admitted and discovered.    There are degrees of intimacy involved, up to and including nothing of any import, just comfort.  Some you feel instantly disposed to and you always will be.  Some start like that but it doesn’t last.  Some you outgrow.  The things that bind you to others change: paths diverge and it’s never the same.  Some last for years and then it just doesn’t work anymore.  Worse still trying to fix it finishes it.  I once bought a sweater rather than listen to a friend tell me how wonderful Boris Johnson was in the street.  We are still friends – she doesn’t know I evaded her – but politics and money are off the table.  As Joe E Brown

says at the end of Some Like It Hot “Nobody’s perfect.”

I don’t think I am sentimental about friendship.  If you share opinions and interests, even just a few and are willing to spend time to talk – you have a friendship.  No input ? Benign goodwill maybe but the big flexor muscles of friendship are missing.

Other than books and occasional things on tv, I have been borne up through two years of pandemic by telephone calls from friends.  And sometimes not.  Howard came to dinner (dinner/hot, supper/cold – yes, Wal) last week, occasioning flat panic.  I hadn’t cooked anything substantive for yonks, had something promising to start with in the freezer and caught part of a Nigel Slater cookery programme by chance which gave me a steer on seasoning.

Though an hour before Howard arrived I was as twitchy as a horse’s rump under attack by a horsefly. 

But from the moment this frequently difficult man arrived, we began to talk.  His presentation of gifts began “We don’t have nice shops so I just bought everything that looked promising.  Throw the chocolates in the fridge, do you like grapes – these looked nice, here’s the cheese and where’s the bottle opener ?” And we never looked back.    The food worked, the wine was wonderful and your correspondent got what my father used to call “nicely” and fell asleep in a chair

after he left.

I love Christmas but I don’t expect it to make up for all we have lost.   The last few weeks of getting to Christmas I have always found very challenging because, although if you’re catering several of you, you need that time for preparation, present buying, gift wrapping etc., there is also a sense of wishing that time past so you could get to The Main Event.  If I got one thing out of the pandemic apart from something resembling fingernails, it was a real sense that I could live one day at a time

and I was much happier doing so.

It’s not easy, maybe impossible, if you are on any kind of schedule but if you are not, you can really put your energies into your life as it unfolds.    There was the man at the Salvation Army who told me, yes, they’d be in the square with buckets, as usual.  “Good” I said. “Much more to do with Christmas than overdecorated windows …”  “God love you, girl” he said.  And two young women from Saudi stopped me in the street to say ”We want to look like you when we grow up !”  No parcels under the tree were ever more appreciated. 

“The Gift of the Magi by O.Henry”

 

what is it all about ?

Christmas was brought down to earth early in my life by lack of money and death

in the family on Christmas Day.  Nowadays we don’t use the “p” word (poverty) because we are all poor compared to somebody and your poverty isn’t mine.  When I try to recall what was expected of me and the family as a general rule, public holidays no exception, it was do your best and have a nice time.  And we did and we did.

The robust characters of my parents made for level pegging.  She didn’t “do it all” and he did more than I knew.  I had some ridiculously luxurious years

when I was married to Supergoy, truly lovely (I was just as spendthrift) and generous beyond the dreams of avarice.  But after the divorce, I made a journey into what I really believed, wanted and didn’t want, and it has served me well. 

This year – because of Covid and the looming shadow of Brexit – Christmas is being talked about as something we “need” (annalog/want and need).  And if we can’t go to the city markets across Europe (spend spend spend) they must come to us.  Which is how I came upon the street where I shop half closed off with vast scaffolding vans, lots of stewards and endless black containers of sound equipment: a small number of gift and clothing stalls, a beefed up number of food stalls

and the pretensions of a pre-Christmas fair drowned in soggy rock.  Gotta be merry.  I baled.

Outside the Tesco where I planned to meet a friend, there was a sudden eddy of people surrounding a tiny fragile little girl

who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak, who had got separated from her parents.   Somebody found another Oriental family (I had seen them on the bus -parents, child and two uncles with their adored French bulldog) but they couldn’t help.  There was a man on a mobile – is it too much to hope that security has a loudspeaker in a shopping mall ? – and a visibly upset fluent English speaking Eritrean (I asked) shop assistant who wanted above all to comfort the clearly shocked child  “How can this happen?  You don’t lose a child, it’s the second time in a week.  At least the little boy could speak to me, this child cannot say a word.  If you do this to your children, you shouldn’t have children…”

I was reminded of the wisdom of the tribes who teach “one child to walk, one child to carry” and no more, already too much for some in a supermarket.  When the parents turned up with the other child in a buggy, I’d like to think that their closed deadpan faces were a way of trying to rebut the concern and anger of those round them but they were not particularly keen to soothe the little girl who had passed what I suspect were the longest 20 minutes in her short life.

Nella (Not Her Name) who used to live upstairs invited me to lunch.  She is a 25 year old Italian architect in training, just moved in to a riverside apartment with two other Italian girls.  I had lent her a couple of books on Middle Eastern food by Claudia Roden about which she was enthusiastic and we all liked it.  When her third flatmate arrived home, she came laden with the makings of the evening meal.  All we did was eat and talk in benign warmth.  It really felt like a foretaste of Christmas, sheltered from the cold outside.

My Christmas Is very down to earth, heaven is not in my atlas.  People who do things for others, who share with the isolated.  Can the plastic pine cones and know that there is nothing you or Jamie Oliver can do to a sprout that will endear it to my son and since he likes every other vegetable, I don’t understand the imposition.   The endless reiteration of things for the sake of it is just that.

Sometimes you have to reinvent, allow something new into the mix.  For without meaning there is no Christmas – hence the title.  

people and print

Why don’t you

write a book about it ?  is one of those things I am asked from time to time and the truthful answer is, I long ago admitted to myself that I am only so much of a writer. I really need speech and interaction.  I don’t miss a thing she said, the friend I fell out with a year ago, but I miss the voice.  I am not proud of admitting that but so help me, it’s true.

For example, the other night out of the dark up loomed the tall figure of the art teacher next door, a doll of a girl and I asked where she was off to.  Going to see the boyfriend.  The same boyfriend ?  She grinned, yes. 

She arrived on my doorstep a couple of months ago and said “You look like a person who might have a potato masher, do you and if you do may we borrow it ? “ Delighted to be asked I went for the  utensil and she said “Come and meet my boyfriend.  We’re making a shepherd’s pie

for comfort food.”  So I met him, handshake, grin, a human , hooray,  wished them luck with the cooking and she returned the  masher in due course.

So the other night we stood and laughed and talked (I hate chatted and this exchange was as good as a weekend in the country).  Then I sent her on her way having made sure she had a scarf – it was chilly – turned back into the house and realised – oh greasy fingerprints of age across the screen of communication – that for the moment

I couldn’t remember her name.  It came back but I briefly felt 127.

It’s no secret I love books.  When macular degeneration was diagnosed, my daily prayer became  “Please God take me before you take my eyes.”    Spare me the blandishments, I fear what I am not capable of. 

Some of my earliest books await (I hope) my granddaughter’s enthusiasm.  If not, hooray for Oxfam. If I could drive, I’d love to fill a truck with used books

and take them to children in Africa.  Mind you, you don’t have to go that far,  All too many schools are short of books and I shall never forget the girl I taught English telling me of her school ”We don’t have books.”   What an impoverishment.  Not just what’s in them but how they feel.  

Talking to my son about my Christmas book list the other day, I said (as I have for years) paperbacks preferred – and he asked “ Do you really ?  I prefer the feel of hardbacks – “   I said I like the feel of them but not the price and  paperbacks are  connected to being in the US 50 years ago when the covers were a breakthrough and I never looked back.  I don’t remember much of Mishima but I remember the cover of the first book of his I read.  Snowdrop is in the final stages of a book on Diana Dors with a terrific cover.  Don’t judge a book by its cover ?  A striking cover really helps.  

Fascinating to read a review of My Body by Emily Ratajowski and get a feeling of that modern estrangement between what someone looks like and what he/she/it might be, how a person might be interpreted by context (even erroneously), what clothes might mean and what they don’t, how you can overcome that and how you cannot.  Sometimes what you look like lies across the path of communication like a tree trunk.  Another book about how I have suffered and been humiliated while earning heaven knows how many million dollars – so that’s all right then – to be washed in money. 

And still so much to learn ….  As if humiliation is always a learning curve ?  Books are cruel in what they intend to reveal and what is discovered unintentionally.   That is true of conversation too – even conversation by email or in the letters I used to read long ago.

But in conversational exchange there are all sorts of bits of information – what we call non verbal communication – going on in and around speech – the sound of the voice, the way the head is held,  where the eyes look and where they shift to, what the hands do, what the body does  – rich rich – the diet of my life.  Can I have both please, books and bodies ?