A non-New Year’s resolution, but something else.

I wrote yesterday about my resolution not to bother with a new year’s resolution. But here’s something I will be bothering with: http://www.oneword365.com. Because of this sheer genius (I love the internet!), I have selected not a random, unachievable goal, or something I should be doing anyway; I have selected one single word by which I will live the next year of my life.

It was a difficult choice. How can one word possibly sum up all that I want to be in the coming year? Competition between words was fierce and there were a lot of top contenders. Sacred: how could I live any sort of life without the knowledge that I live and move and have my being in and through the Creator of the universe? Or what about peace: that ongoing search for the elusive? Light: a year in which I seek always to acknowledge the reality that the darkness in my life never fully overcomes that small bright presence. How about other: stop being such a selfish bitch. Or healing: no one witnessing the mess I became during the beautiful, emotional demands of Christmas singing could deny that healing is something I should desperately be seeking in 2014.

They were all on the shortlist and it was neck-and-neck until the end, but this one pipped them all at the post (am I mixing my racing metaphors, now?). The word I have chosen is: care. The word to guide me through the vicissitudes of 2014 will be care.

I care for others. I value that about myself, although like anyone I get compassion fatigue and there are times when I’m selfish and there are times when I don’t care enough, or when care too much. But I remain overwhelmed by the grace that I’ve been shown on this incredible journey and I want to pay some of it back – or forward, as the case may be. Care for the environment, too, for the world around me: like most of us, I want to tread lightly on our planet, and I could do better, and I could do much worse. It’s something I want to be more mindful of, though.

The real challenge here will be care for my self. Not the boring eating well, exercise, plenty of sleep routine of self-care – although a bit of a wake-up call on that wouldn’t exactly go astray right about now. What I mean, though, is that soul-deep care and nourishment for who I am: treating myself with the same deep and abiding respect with which I view others. Treating myself as worthy of that respect, even in the absence of a guarantee that I’m worth anything at all. And of all the possible new year’s resolutions I could have selected, this one may just be the most difficult.

Living by the value of care ends up encompassing all of those runner-up words anyway. Care involves light, peace, other, healing – as well as the thousand other words that didn’t even make the shortlist. And it certainly involves the idea of sacred – how can I be a creature of the Creator, a small imperfect manifestation of the Divine, and not treat myself well? All things are permeated by the Sacred: surely all beings, therefore are worthy of what care and value I can give them – including me.

That’s the theory, anyway. It’s rather a lot of responsibility for a monosyllable.


Also, tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. I’m blessed enough to be spending the evening with friends, and I don’t plan on being sober enough to drive home. So I’m pretty sure that means I won’t be sober enough to write a blog tomorrow night…


A non-New Year’s resolution

What with one thing and another, I’ve spent a bit of time in waiting rooms recently. In my experience, waiting rooms mean the following: bored and sometimes tetchy people, out-of-date magazines (three-year-old Cleo, anybody?) and daytime television.

Daytime television is infuriatingly compelling: almost impossible to turn away from despite the mute cry of the book, or journal, in my bag. It also tends to be fairly repetitive. Recently – as is the case every year – many of the daytime television programmes have had features on new year’s resolutions. Why we need to make them. How they will make us happy, fulfilled, shiny. Why we break them. How to make them properly (for the record, new year’s resolutions should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-limited – SMART goals. I know this because a, I work with people to set goals for a living, and b, social workers love acronyms).

Now I can make SMART goals with the best of them – most of my plans and the things I hope to achieve would fit neatly into that pro forma – because, much as I disparage nice neat acronyms, it works. And I tend to think that, if something’s important enough to be mapping out a goal around it, then it probably shouldn’t wait for the new year. I need to cut sugar from my diet? Ok, why not start tomorrow? I want to do more writing? There’s an hour or so to go until bedtime, get going. Why do I need to wait until the first of January if something’s important enough to do on the thirtieth of December? Or the thirtieth of April, for that matter.

We talk about a new year as being a new start. A fresh start, a line in the sand. And in many ways it is. A new diary, a new calendar. A new set of numbers to remember every time we write the date. A marker in the expanse of a life that invites us to re-assess, to reflect, to make changes or to celebrate how far we’ve come.

But it’s also not a new start – really, there’s no such thing. Because the first of January follows the thirty-first of December and there’s no such thing as a clean slate. I don’t know that I want there to be, much as I’d dearly love to rub some of the marks and scars away. But there isn’t, and so all we can do is take the opportunity for reflection that the new year offers and try to build on some of the marks we value, and try to make some of the uglier marks more beautiful.

But I don’t think I’ll be bothered with new year’s resolutions.

Christmas blanks, a bad Christmas, and the promise of a good one.

I think, for a lot of people, that the time after Christmas is a time of blagh. Just, blagh. Not necessarily depression, or fatigue, but that grey, mist-like combination of the two: blagh.

For me, it’s a combination of the fact that my choir is now in recess (choir famine), as well as the fact that this Christmas was so much harder than last. This Christmas involved panic attacks, and mindless flight from the choir stalls, and the terrible solidity of the knowledge that I wouldn’t get through the service of Nine Lessons and Carols, one of the musical highlights of the whole of the Advent and Christmas period. This Christmas involved tears, despairing of the fact that it’s hard at the moment, and the knowledge that I had to face my choir family in my post-panic-attack shame. This Christmas involved the memories and emotions of ten years’ worth of abuse and fear and humiliation and captivity, and the knowledge that I don’t want to remember them.

I was set the task by a counsellor of writing out all of the memories I can remember about Christmas. Not the Christmas times of a blessed childhood and a simple, happy adolescence – those memories flow, gently and peacefully, and make me smile. The memories I need to write are the memories of those Christmas times spent with my ex; and, to my concern (and to my counsellor’s concern: “That’s not a good sign”, she said), there are painfully few. No matter how I try, no matter what narrative or mnemonic techniques I use, I remember almost nothing. If the memories of Christmas as a child and adolescent are flowing and pure, the memories of Christmas as an adult are stagnated and weed-choked.

And I’d be fine with this but for the knowledge that there must be something to remember, that Christmas is a time where abusive alcoholics drink more and was therefore a time fraught with danger for me. And then there’s the knowledge that I probably don’t want to remember. Because even those few recollections that I can get hold of are painful, cause me to feel ill with shame. And I don’t want to remember, but I’m going to have to. Because it’s the act of remembering that disarms the sheer awfulness of these events, these feelings. And that’s only recollections centred around Christmas.

At the moment I can’t sing, and Christmas was hard because I have post-traumatic stress disorder and ten years’ worth of horror to wade through. I trust that next Christmas will be easier than last. I trust that I won’t be dealing with this shit in a year’s time, because I’ve got the courage to face it now. I trust that if I can just persevere, I’ll get through this, and I’ll get through stronger and brighter. I just have to keep going.

And screw you, universe. Screw you, PTSD; screw you, fear. Next Christmas will be damn good. I’ve got a whole year between now and then to make sure of it.

A small epic battle.

“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear”.

So said Ghandi, anyway. And certainly my experience is that it’s true.

Hate is easy. It’s easy to push hate away, to give myself a sharp mental slap for feeling such an unworthy emotion. To tuck it away neatly in the depths of a busy mind. To pretend it doesn’t exist and that it has no power over me, over my actions or my thoughts, over my emotions, over my healing.

Fear’s an entirely different enemy. Insidious, dangerous, gnawing – fear dwells in my stomach, my chest, my mind, my hands, my throat – right where I cannot possibly hope to ignore it. Fear lurks beneath the surface like the knowledge of mouldy food on the bottom of a pile of weeks-old dishes; it screams into my consciousness like the destruction of a cyclone – with no more provocation, sometimes, than an unexpected touch on my shoulder – leaving me shattered and shaking and loathing my own weakness. Leaving me raging against the fact that it’s all so hard when it shouldn’t be. Leaving me desperately tying to hold myself together and frenzied to escape the presence of people, even those people who know and love me and who infuse me with their strength.

Plus it’s exhausting.

Fear is my undoing. It makes no sense – I know, intellectually, that I’m safe. I’ve trusted the people around me with the knowledge of what I’ve been through, with my vulnerability – and they’ve proved, beyond questioning, that they are friends, beyond what I could possibly hope for. I know now that no one will hit me, no one will tear me down with insults or abuse, no one will take forcibly from me what I should never have been forced to give. I am safe. When I walk into the Cathedral, when I sit in the choristers’ vestry, when I’m there as one small chorister among a family of them, I’m entirely safe. Shielded. Secure, defended. At home.

And yet fear stops me singing. Fear keeps me from doing what kept me alive. It’s a physiological response – the shrieking of every over-stretched, raw nerve in my body – that I can’t stop. I wish I could. If it was cognitive, or emotional, I’d be fine, on top of it, in control of it. But somebody forgot to tell my limbic system – that convenient automatic response to danger, that fight-or-flight response that saved my distant ancestors from marauding woolly mammoths – that I’m no longer in danger. That it needs to listen to my rational mind. That it should sit back, open a beer and relax, because it’s no longer needed.

And until it works that out for itself, fear will continue to be my enemy. And between me and fear – I honestly don’t know who I’m putting my money on to win.

Away in a manger

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed –
the God of the world lays his vulnerable head.
The stars in the bright sky he flung into space
now shine their cool light on God’s sleeping face.

The cattle nearby with their warm stable smell,
watching the Light whom no darkness can quell.
The baby sleeps on in that box full of hay,
while outside night gives way to the chill light of day.

His mother will ponder these things in her heart,
as the sages their cryptic dark wisdom impart:
this baby in frightening fragility,
the darkness of suffering and death he will see.

And God in the world, as he sleeps on the hay,
foretells the bright dawning of holy new day.
The stars in the bright sky he flung into space,
now shine their cool light on God’s sleeping face.

A stupid plan, really (no offence).

I wrote yesterday about the figure of Mary as we see her in the gospels, ready to say yes to the task of bringing the Christ-child into the world despite the risks she faced – including the terrifying indignity of a drawn-out and painful execution (like mother, like son, really), or the slow, soul-breaking, body-starving humiliation of ostracism and destitution. It struck me, as I thought about all these risks, that the Creator of the universe took an awfully big risk. So much could have gone so wrong.

There are so many ways in which that child might not have been born, in which the quiet intrusion of the Source of life into our world might have been thwarted. Imagine if Joseph had called for her execution, or even done as he’d originally planned and just sent her home slyly to her family. How long would her condition have remained a secret, before she was dishonoured and cast out, a young girl, pregnant and condemned, eking out an existence as a beggar or a prostitute. The chances of carrying a pregnancy to term in those conditions are so negligible as to be laughable. Not great planning, really, on the part of the Creator of all.

And then, even once that hurdle is overcome, think about all the other risks: a poor couple, alone and far from home in an occupied country, camping among the filth and warmth of animals, exhausted after their long journey, trying to deliver a baby. With fleas and lice and germs and animal shit – to say nothing of the common-or-garden-variety complications and risks of childbirth in the privations and poverty of first-century Palestine. Honestly, it’s a wonder that both mother and baby weren’t both swept away by infection or a ruptured placenta or the trauma of a breech birth or any one of a hundred things that could have gone wrong.

Again with, not really very good planning from the Force which sculpted the millions of interwoven complexities which make up our world. Nice one, God. Way to go.

And yet, somehow, it worked. Somehow the Word was made flesh: the Source of compassion, the Ground of our being, was made manifest in the darkness of a fallen world – and the darkness did not overcome it. Somehow, both mother and baby survived, the child grew to maturity, and the miracle of the incarnation was complete –

And the story will continue…

A passive portrayal and a slightly different reality – probably.

One of my most beloved Christmas decorations is a nativity scene, a childhood treasure that I’ve kept, against some fairly significant odds, into adulthood. All the characters are there: the shepherds, the wise men, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, all neat and well-dressed and clean, with their light hair and European colouring. Terribly culturally inaccurate, of course, but much loved for all that.

Sometimes though, I look at the blonde-haired, blue-robed fairness of the figure of Mary and wonder. She’s meek, serene: kneeling before the figure of the Christ-child with Joseph standing protectively over her, the picture of gentle, passive womanhood.

And yet, the Mary of the gospels is anything but passive. The Mary of the gospels has backbone. Not only does she have the intellect and audacity to question the angel who brings the news of her impending motherhood (“But how can that be, since I am a virgin?”), she also has the absolute courage to say yes.

And it did take real courage. An unwed mother in first-century Palestine wasn’t just facing the indignity of nasty muttering and rumour-mongering: we’re talking complete ostracism. And without a husband, without a family or a community to support her, ostracism meant destitution. It meant homelessness. Literally, eventually it meant death. And this was one of the better case-scenarios for an unwed mother: she also faced the very real possibility of execution.

And yet, when the angel asked her to bear a child – out of wedlock, with no guarantee that the man to whom she had been promised wouldn’t cast her out to the slender mercies of poverty and abandonment – she said yes. It was participation in community that kept anybody – especially a woman – alive, and that community valued conformity and honour above all as criteria for membership – and yet Mary had the courage and tenacity to step outside of that with – presumably – the full knowledge of all that this choice entailed, of the price that she might pay.

Meek and mild womanhood kneeling passively on the stable floor? I don’t think so, somehow: my hunch is that the Mary of my nativity scene is slightly inaccurate.

I still love my nativity scene though.