Finding Christmas

It doesn’t matter how many times I see the words Merry Christmas, or how many cards I receive or send, or how many lights I see on trees or strung across streets or over buildings – Christmas doesn’t exist for me until it happens in my heart.

And because of this, the whole season has assumed a kind of hallucinatory quality; the other day I saw a bus come barrelling down the Skipton Road towards me with the words Happy Christmas lit up in front where the number and destination ought to be. For a moment I thought perhaps it was a Christmas special but just before it passed me the signboard flashed and changed to its normal display – in time for people at the bus stop to know what it was and where it was going. I wondered how I should be feeling, and whether this should make me feel festive, but all I had was a strange sense of dislocation.

This is the same bus company that a few days ago had a staff member dressed up as Santa Claus giving out mince-pies and gifts to passengers boarding at the bus station, and I’m warmed, really I am, by every gesture that spreads a smile and a bit of happiness and goodwill. But somehow it’s as if there are two Christmases – the one that happens outside, and the one that happens on the inside, and that’s the one has to be lit, ignited, felt.

This asks for a search, something individual and subtle, something special and magical. It has to be a journey of the imagination….

Want to give it a try?

It could start anywhere, but let’s say the journey starts in a crowded Christmas market. I don’t have to describe it – just picture it for yourself. All the sounds, the smells, all the lights and the twinkly stuff. And there in the middle of all this, largely unnoticed by everyone, is a sign saying Christmas Journey, and what looks like the entrance to a sideshow or a tent – but with nothing more than two undecorated Christmas trees blocking the way in. There’s no-one to take your money or try to give you a ticket. It looks – well, puzzling. But different. So you push aside the branches and gently work your way through into the darkness inside…..

Now, what happens next is the part that only you can see. I can’t describe it, because everyone’s journey is different, but as soon as you arrive inside you are on a path – all you have to do is to walk it, and walk slowly, seeing and smelling, feeling and listening. I don’t know exactly what you will see or who or what you may meet……

I can say that there may be snow. For me, there often is – I frequently find myself walking in a pine forest with snow covering the trees and the path ahead, and all I can hear for a while is the sound of my footsteps muffled but audible, that soft creaking sound that footsteps make in snow. And the feel of cold air in my nostrils, and the warmth of my breath. I walk for some time through this forest, with a dark sky overhead and light only from the stars.

Then sometimes the forest gives way to a cold desert hillside, rocky and hard, and the sky overhead opens up into an immense dome of stars, and one of these is brighter than all the rest.

I’ve met creatures of all kinds when I make this journey – rabbits, sheep, camels, once a bear, several times reindeer. I’ve seen and watched other travellers. The road is always different but the destination is always the same.

A rough shed, or outbuilding of some sort – a stable.

There’s a carol called The Children’s Song Of The Nativity that starts by asking ‘How far is it to Bethlehem?’ and the answer – ‘Not very far’. Bethlehem is of course several thousands of miles from where I am in Yorkshire, but it’s also only a very short distance away – as near or as far as my imagination makes it. And this is where I arrive:

How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by a star?

Can we see the little Child?
Is He within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?

May we stroke the creatures there
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
Jesus asleep?

If we touch His tiny hand
Will He awake?
Will He know we’ve come so far
Just for His sake?

Peace, and love of the deepest, most extraordinary kind, the kind that comes out of silence and stillness, love that came from the beginning of time and lasts forever.

I sit down in the straw, and know, and feel in the deepest part of my heart, that this is Christmas.

Softening The Heart With A Rat

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I have a soft toy rat who sits, most of the time, on my bedroom window sill looking out. He’s a good subject to draw and I like using him as a model.

I bought him two Christmases ago at IKEA and he’s remained nameless – I’m not that sentimental – though I can’t help noticing that I think of him as him rather than it. I pick him up at least twice a day whenever I raise or lower the window blinds and without fail, every time I handle him, my heart softens and I find myself caressing him a little, holding his round little body against my chest and stroking his soft fleecy back. I’ve been known to whisper in his ear.

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David Bennett just published a lovely image on his photography blog that had my heart softening in just the same way; he says

Here they are – three soft toys in a window.Though I saw them from across the road as I was passing and they were three small blobs in an upstairs window, I felt my heart soften – funny creatures that we humans are.

Funny creatures that we humans are. It’s true, we are. What is it about a soft rat or a teddy bear that has this effect on us?

We’re not responding to them as if they were the animals they represent (I don’t dislike rats but I wouldn’t feel quite the same sensation of love if I picked up a real one). As a child I didn’t have many soft toys (I do still have the small button-eyed bear I had from my earliest years, perhaps more of him in another post); growing up we weren’t short of real animals to stroke and play with, so perhaps the need for something cuddly wasn’t so noticeable – but really it’s not about that. There’s a friendship and a kind of love that can spring up between a human and a teddy bear, or a rat, or a soft-whatever, even though we know that in truth it’s a one-sided affair. These are creatures that are undemanding and reliable, but also vulnerable; they depend on us for everything – they can’t even move about on their own and for this at least, they need us.

We need to love, and these soft things melt our hearts.
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Unexpected

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Taking a shortcut round the back of a department store my mother encountered a barn owl. This is not usual in Lowestoft. Returning her gaze as she stopped to look at it, the owl continued to look into her eyes whilst allowing her to stroke its head and back, and they exchanged a long moment of looking.

I’ve mentioned before that my mother is fond of saying angels come in all shapes and sizes. We all know they don’t necessarily have wings, but this one did, and was covered with downy feathers of unimaginable softness.

Angels are always unexpected.

Love, and Never a Word Spoken

One afternoon not long ago I fell in love with an emu. It was at the annual fair, where the showground always has displays of animals – mostly horses and cattle – but sometimes some more exotic creatures.

In the centre of the animal enclosure was this enormous bird, corralled in a pen with no label or sign-board to say what it was or give any information about it whatsoever, and I gazed at it in wonder. Taking photographs simply wasn’t enough – I took out a notebook and started to draw, and became totally engrossed.

It was huge – a great feathery mound on massive, powerful legs which for most of the time were folded underneath it, supporting its extraordinary bulk like two perfectly positioned brackets, and the more I looked the more I found there was no part of it that didn’t fascinate me; the tail feathers were amazing, almost like fern fronds as they emerge from the growing plant, all crimped and crinkly, and its feet – I held my breath in awe when it finally rose to its full height and came over to inspect me, and I could see the huge scaly toes tipped with horny claws, and the soft squashy pads of the heel of the feet that looked as if they could run very fast over any terrain, and do horrible things if used as a means of defence.

The thing about drawing, rather than just looking at something or taking photographs is that after a while your awareness of everything else drops away; standing in that busy showground I could have been completely alone with that bird, in the middle of nowhere. And then something else happens; you’re drawing something, and you begin to feel that somehow the boundary between where you end and it begins is somehow blurred, and there’s no longer a profound distinction between the two of you. Which is when I realise I have fallen in love……

We live in a culture dominated by words, and learn and inform ourselves constantly by reading, talking, and thinking verbally – in fact so much so that we believe we can only understand something, or know something, or learn about it, by using words. This is so utterly untrue, that when you get used to the idea of letting go of verbal thought and instead start to understand in a non-verbal way, you realise how narrow and restricting it is to think all the time in words.

Of course drawing isn’t the only way to step aside from thought and immerse yourself totally in something so that you are in a different world of understanding. I know people who do it by gardening, and others who play an instrument, or listen to music, or walk in the woods, or play with their children. There must be hundreds of ways. Every day in the park, I watch people walking their dogs who are finding this kind of connection, and there have been cats, and dogs, and horses, and even guinea-pigs who have given me immediate entry into joyful, wordless love – there’s no other word for it. Thankfully I know that for me, drawing is always a reliable doorway into the non-verbal part of my mind, and I need this doorway – to get into this other way of thinking, of being in the moment.