Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Surving Christmas [Part III]

Still alive, still sane and finally as a family we all get to plob out and have what we call at "duvet day" (stay in bed late, don't get dressed, do noting of great importance, watch a lot of [new Christmas] DVDs and trash TV, talk about everything and anything but work and household business, play with the kids, chill out - you know the sort of day, however infrequently you get a chance to take it). A good "duvet day" is needed in the middle of the Christmas madness, if only to get your energy levels up to cope with New Year.

Christmas day was actually a good rest for us in reality - after the military level planning delivered a more than decent Christmas lunch, and the present opening went chaotically but enjoyably. I just caught the Christmas Doctor Who special, and that was about all the TV I saw all day! Otherwise my evening was spent stripping the turkey carcass and getting the bones in the stock pot to the strains of Kate Bush's "The Ninth Wave" - arguably the best thing she ever did, and one of my favourite Chrissie pressies this year (that and the Beatles "Love").

On Boxing Day we decamped up to North East London to the annual family get together at my wife's Uncle's extensive Manse (the only one of two houses in the family big enough for most of us to get together). That involves the small kids going mad with each other upstairs, the twenty somethings sitting around boozing and nattering in the front room, and us oldies sleeping off the large lunch of cold cuts in the snug. It is actually a good time to catch up and see people that we only get together a few times a year, and it is such a huge family that we do not all get a chance to meet up very often - we'll miss the next major family gathering as that is at the same time as our next baby is due to be born.

It was also a poignant get together, as last year's Boxing Day meet up was the last time that my wife's grandmother was with us all - she died very suddenly and unexpectedly in her bed on New Year's Day. As the clan matriarch, her absence is very keenly felt by all of us. This year there were only three generations of the family together - for the last five, we had seen four generations all together.

Not only have we survived Christmas this year, we have enjoyed it, reconnected with far scattered family, and remembered at the heart of it the story of God becoming a vulnerable child. Whatever the cultural battles over Christmas are (and I think they are largely based on a romanticised notion of a past that never was - Christmas has always been at least half a pagan festival), it remains an important time in our culture, whatever one's religious convictions. And it should never distract from the core message of Jesus' teaching and life.

There is nothing in the Bible telling us to celebrate a festival called Christmas (which is why some Christan sects dispense with it altogether), and indeed, we only get two, somewhat contradictory accounts of Jesus birth in two of the four gospels (Mark glosses over Jesus' origins altogether - while John goes for a mystical interpretation, which is very powerful, and I think deeply profound). The precise details of Jesus' birth are less significant than the impact of His life and teaching, yet it is the minutiae that get focussed upon. Jesus had a phrase for this - straining at gnats and swallowing camels. And who said Jesus never had a sense of humour?

So now it's the run up to New Year, and all the quasi spiritual themes about "new starts" and "resolutions" that usually entails. One, strangely profound moment in the Christmas Doctor Who (not a programme in which I normally find profundity) was the Doctor showing Donna the origins of the earth as all the debris of solar system coalesced to form the planets, and pointing out that the thing that humans do is create order out of chaos with our calendars and our festivals. We make meaning where there appears to be none - that is why we are so close to God in our nature.

New Year, like Christmas may be a bit arbitrary, but it gives us a focal point to collectively reflect on the year that was, and look forward to the year that is to come. We can do that individually and as families at point in the year of course - birthdays, remembrances of family deaths, wedding anniversaries, the third Tuesday in May, whatever is personally relevant or takes our fancy. But a shared, collective time of reflection is good for us as a nation and individually. We very often forget these collective acts and their importance to society.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Surviving the Run-up to Christmas [Part II]

So, made it to and from the fair town of Southampton (infamous across the Pond for being the city that that rejected the Pilgrim Fathers) to catch up with family and exchange presents. It was good to catch up, especially with my sister, of whom I see far too little. Odd how we take such relationships for granted.

My darling wife managed to use the opportunity of my absence, and the absence of earlier mentioned madcap midgets (who were abducted by grandparents in an act of uncharacteristic spontaneous mercy) to get all the pressies wrapped, and actually have a sit down with Nigella Lawson (not in person, you understand - although having both domestic goddesses under one roof would fulfill a particular fantasy of mine - but let's not go there right now!)

My daughter has been getting very upset about the lack of presents under the tree for her, and was therefore very excited to come home from said grandparents to find a several carrier bags and a large crate of wrapped presents. She has just spent the morning putting them under her tree, while her brother plays on the computer next to me on his favourite Underground Ernie game [this did prompt a couple of minutes back a five minute whinge from daughter, as she wanted her brother to help her with a three hundred piece jigsaw - I seem to spend my mornings being shouted at by children!]. My wife is enjoying the lie in she always promises me at weekends, but that my body and my children conspire never to give me. But that does give me the chance to wrap up her presents with the kids!

So, yes surviving Christmas. Not doing too bad so far, but today is the day that we do the major logistical planning that is Christmas lunch, so anything could happen! Timetables, oven temperatures, preparation tables, you name it, there's a list and set of instructions that will be pinned to the kitchen cupboards so that I can get dinner on the table, on schedule, and properly cooked tomorrow. I am king of the Sunday roasts, and can instinctively judge timings and temperatures for everything pretty well, but with Christmas lunch, it is distinctly more timing and temperature critical, and nothing is left to judgment or instinct [or chance]. This is military level planning!

The enjoyable bit of today is taking the kids to the Sunday afternoon crib service and the much later, taking myself to midnight mass. These are the reminders of what all this logistical planning, and running to and fro, shopping, agonizing and general hard work is about. These trappings are part of the social customs that help us stay connected to one another - they go back to pre-Christian Rome and Celtic Britain - lights, feasting, special foods, presents. All mid-winter celebrations to in essence break to gloom of the coldest, dingiest part of the year in the northern hemisphere.

But the other side of coin - the remembrance that the Lord of Creation came into the poverty and muck of a stable birth to a teenage girl, pregnant outside of marriage (and nearly "put aside" by her husband to be in quiet disgrace), in an occupied land where ethnic and religious persecution were the norm, after a journey at the behest of a corrupt leader seeking to boost his tax revenue from already hard pressed peasants. It was into these inauspicious circumstances that Jesus was born - not a romantic nativity scene of Victorian Christmases or modern piety. It was this child who grew up as an artisan in a small village (still in a region that is the scene of ethnic and religious tensions to this day), then in adulthood spent three years preaching and teaching around the remote, largely ignored region of Galilee before finally being arrested by the religious authorities for threatening their status and power. He was eventually put to death by the secular, occupying forces of the Roman empire. Oddly enough, it is the instrument of torture and execution on which he died, a symbol of Rome's brutal control of it's subject peoples, which has become a globally recognised symbol of the Christian faith, and not any of the symbols related to Christmas (stars, mangers, etc, etc.).

Not much of a foundation for a faith you might think- Richard Dawkins and others would tell us so, but the idea that God got involved in all this rubbish we have to live with, from work and taxes to political oppression and persecution lifts our everyday muck and poverty and hardship to the level of something sacred- because He went through it with us. Even something as mundane as pregnancy, childbirth and childhood are lifted to being something holy. It also reminds us that injustice and suffering are something that matter to God, and not issues to be swept under the carpet.

That is something worth celebrating. That and what Jesus' death actually means - Christmas only becomes complete at Easter.

Joyeux Noel touts les Mondes

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Surviving the Run-up to Christmas [Part I]

Well, my kids were actually well behaved, and we survived the neighbour's party with no blood on the carpet (although there was spillage of red lemonade - although the carpet was already so old and worn that you would hardly notice the difference, but I still feel guilty about it ).

So, here I am with two days to go until Christmas. My inestimable wife has done miracles on the Christmas shopping front (in addition to making presents!), while I have actually got all my shopping done (God bless the Internet). With a manic last couple of months at work keeping me busy and away from home for upwards of twelve hours a day and leaving my like a zombie when I get home, my dear wife laid low by late stage pregnancy, two small hyperactive and mischievous midgets and bronchitis, it is a small miracle that we have got this far alive.

My next struggle is to to do the present run to my sister and cousin in Southampton. With the fog and likely traffic chaos, that does not look to be great fun. To be honest, I could do without going, but we have reached a compromise, and the kids will stay at home with my wife, and I'll go on my own - traffic and weather permitting.

I case you missed it, most of the British Isles has been under a very, very heavy blanket of fog for pretty much all of the last four days, throwing airports, road and public transport into even greater chaos than usual. Oh, and the drivers one of the main train companies are threatening strike action. Christmas would not be Christmas in Britain without travel chaos - it is what we do best.

Needless to say, this is one of the major reasons we never, ever go away for Christmas - that and two travel sick midgets, and the stress of organising going away. And that we have family and friends on our doorstep, so "going away" just means a ten minute walk round the corner, or a five minute drive. Only the Southampton present run has entered the Christmas calendar as a long distance event.

Now don't get me wrong. I love my sister and get on with my cousin and her family pretty well, but the thought of hauling arse all the way across the south of England and back in one day to exchange Christmas presents a few days before the festivities is not my idea of a fun excursion, with most of the rest of the Southeasts' 23 million souls trying to do the same on an already overstretched and overcrowded transport infrastructure.

But unless we keep up these little, ritual points of contact, the bonds that hold families (and friends) together begin to weaken. People take offense, or just forget about us, and next year, we are likely to get left off the list of cards and invitations (not necessarily maliciously). And so it goes.

Everyone moans about Christmas, the commercialization, the hassle ,etc. But we all still do it, every single year. Why? Because it is a basic human instinct - we need these little present giving rituals to keep us knitted to one another. Christmas has many meanings, but one of them, however stressful and annoying at one level, is keeping far flung families and groups of friends who have drifted apart geographically from drifting apart socially. We go through all this hassle because, at the end of the day, just letting someone know you have thought about them and care about them, and giving them the opportunity to do the same, actually means more than all the aggro that goes with organising all of this.

We are odd creatures. But at least that is one reason why Christmas persists, even as Western Culture at least has largely forgotten the spiritual narrative that underlies it. But that is for another day, and for other, more vehement blogs of those on the frontline of the Culture Wars, a conflict I see little point in fighting (at lest not the way it is usually fought).

If I survive today's excursion, I will be back again to explore surviving other sides of the run up to Christmas in my family.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Grey Day Friday

Or indeed, Gray Day - depending on which side of the pond you sit.

Today's more interesting challenges include: assessing new offices for my organisation to move to; getting home in time this evening to have a meal with the family, release my wife to go to a concert rehearsal, and taking the children to a neighbours' Christmas party.

Bear in mind, these are the same to children who gave my poor wife the run around yesterday while I was working late until about 9.00 p.m. (better than a colleague who got locked in the building overnight and had to sleep here!!). The routine goes like this - mid afternoon, both back from school/pre-school. Son decides that he wants a snack, mother gets it for him - it's a banana. Now some bananas he can peel, others he needs a hand with (don't we all at times). This one was of the latter variety - but despite agreeing to his mother peeling it, he proceeded to have a tantrum, asking her to unpeel it and give it back to him whole to do himself. Thus far, thus good. My daughter then decides she is in a right mood, and decides to fly off on one about some lost toy or broken bit of dressing up paraphernalia. There are now two children yelling at their mother, who locks herself in the study to MSN me about all this, while I am trying to prepare for a busy meeting. We all end up stressed and tense.

These two darling children (whom I love very much) are now so tired and on edge (as are we all) that tonight may turn in to WWIII at the neighbours, who already think we are the loudest, most reprehensible family on the street (which is probably no exaggeration, but not by much).

If I never post another blog entry, it will be because my children or the neighbours, or my wife have murdered me.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Day Thou Gavest Lord Has Ended, and I am sorry, but I seem to have misplaced it!

Well, here I am having survived being Santa, the gaggle of parents videoing everything their kids did at the nativity, a day of re-writing job descriptions, creating a calendar with family photos for my wife's parents' Christmas present, and in between feeding and watering the kids. A fairly average day, but I am cream crackered and need to go to bed very, very soon.

So, glass of wine in one hand, and bar of chocolate in the other (plus my wife's phone, as she has just called down to me that she'd forgotten it and being seven months pregnant had no wish to traverse our stairwell more than is vital), plus the laundry basket (same reason), I am heading away up the stairs to cloud cookoo land.

Then up at five tomorrow for a 1.5 hour commute, a day writing more job descriptions, and then a meeting planning our organisational publications strategy for the coming year that will grind on inexorably and depressingly until around 9 p.m. at which point I shall make the 1.5 hour return journey, collapse in to bed again and go through the whole rigmarole again the next day.

Why? Oddly enough because I actually love my work and the people I work for and with. Insane, maybe, but I'd rather be doing something I love and that serves a greater end than fattening the wallets of a some already too rich share holders. Hey ho, but then I am just as sad old forty something idealist.

Bon soir, et hon y soit qui mal y pense.

Apologia pro Absentia

One big problem with blogs is that you need to have something to write. The other is that you need to have the time to write them. I am never short of things to write (I do it almost daily for a living, and get me started and I can waffle for hours on the things that move me). Time is another matter.

It is said that we live in a resource rich, time poor culture here in the West. The other twist I have heard from some African colleagues is that "God gave the Africans the time, and the Europeans the watch". Either way, it seem bizzare that having so much in the way of technology to save us time, we contrive to do so much more that we actually have less time than ever.

Anyway, that is not the point of this blog. Others have written more eloquently on this matter, and my simple minded ponderings add nothing to the blogsphere on the subject. But it does challenge me that keeping a realistic diary of all that I do is harder than it seems. Two aborted tries so far, let's see how the third goes.

Today is big fun day for my family - my son's first pre-school nativity play (he's a shepherd, but seems less than excited about the enterprise, but then he is only three), my annual guest turn as Father Christmas at the parent and Toddler group run by my wife (and her last Parent & Toddler group before the birth of our third child), and at the same time I am working from home redrawing all the job descriptions and person specifications and job descriptions for my organisation. And I have just had to write two articles/editorials for our quarterly magazine and newsletter. As my wife is so exhausted from Christmas preparations, I am also probably doing tea tonight - and will Google up a good corned beef has recipe for tea later this morning.

So why am I blogging rather than working? Displacement behavior pure and simple - helps me relax the brain for a few minutes before diving back in. But it is fun being able to mix work, domestic life and this "third place" all together at once.

And while I am at it - work life balance - what a stupid idea? Is not work a part of life? Is my work life not real life? And do I not work even when I am not at work (housework, gardening, shopping, household maintenance, etc.)? Surely it is more about getting all the different facets of life in balance. That is probably the one thing all our technologies can do most to disrupt if used unwisely, and the most to improve if used well. Can someone please tell me how to do the latter?

Enough, allez, salut maintennant!