It’s been a strange set of times recently.
There’s me undergoing a huge life change. First outside the home job in 6 years, up at 5 a.m., back between 6.45 and 7.30 p.m., depending on the traffic or the invisible bus paradox, or the sudden cancelling of the exact train I was waiting for phenomenon. A job where I’m around people all day (from relative solitude), to speaking to people all day (ditto), and then travelling for up to 4 hours a day (which is sometimes rather annoying, and would be very bad if I felt ill; but it’s very good for being alone [ish], and reading). I am in a world full of small details, and procedures. On the one hand this is comforting, I like to have processes around me to follow. On the other hand, not being able to plainly speak my mind on solutions, outcomes etc…that is more…I am NOT going to say ‘challenging’, because (a) I hate what’s been done to that word, and (b) that does, in the new definition of that word, describe some of my customers, so I’ve ring-fenced (hee hee more jargon) that word for this purpose now. No, not being able to cut through the vagueness and obtuseness of what I am saying sometimes makes me irritated: saying how something actually *is*, regardless of whether this will be liked, is a quicker, cleaner way of dealing with things. Sometimes. But not to be done. Till I learn a more Sanza (see Game of Thrones, the books people, not the TV series) way of speaking, I will have to throttle my directness and carry on saying what’s needful, but feels a bit unclear.
When I get home, I catch up on the news. The world has gone, it would appear, madder than usual in a bad way. I can’t decide how much of that is down to reporting habits, fear mongering and the way the establishment wishes us to be perceiving whole groups of people and countries, for their own ends (i.e if we’re scared enough of them, we’ll stand by and let the government/s do whatever they want to those people and countries, usually for reasons other than those stated, for mineral or oil resources, for trade) – and how much is simply what’s happening. I observe a dimming and a blurring going on between the bare facts (as much as they can be gathered) of what occurs when things happen, and then a bias, editorialising opinion-making reporting of these events. So often I see opinions passed off as facts. I see primary and secondary sources conflated. I see things taken for granted that aren’t at all, things to be taken for granted. I see that saying to myself ‘follow the money’ when I watch ANY news story still bears more fruit when finding motivation for slant and attempts to brainwash the viewing public to a gut-feeling point of view that seems so simple and common-sensical but evades even the barest deeper analysis. Things are rarely black and white. They are really annoyingly gradiated between grey, black, white, fog.
Increasingly, bearing the insanity that is being portrayed to us in mind, I look to what I genuinely see around me. People just wanting to get on and live their lives. True, they don’t want to be interfered with much, specially by people they don’t know, or ‘figures of authority’, but at the same time – most people I meet and see behave decently. They help when someone slips in the street. They run after someone to give a dropped purse or wallet back. If someone doesn’t have enough money to pay for something in a supermarket queue, and is fumbling with change and looking horribly embarrassed, your average person quietly gives over some money if they have it, with soft spoken words, trying to mitigate the horror of being helped by a stranger, “no no, don’t worry – you’d do the same for me…you could be my nan/my sister/my daughter…” etc. This idea of chaos beating on the walls (the literal walls if some people had their way) around us, I don’t see it in our lives, not the way it’s painted. I see a lot of quiet poverty, degrees of poverty, degrees of desperation, degrees of very difficult compromise. But I don’t see humans as the worst kind of ruthless animals. I don’t see yet, that Dawn of the Dead (the original, please - and that link there is an interesting article, go see) is true.
Saying that: I have felt a bit bombarded by consumerism this year. Maybe it’s because I have been massively taken up, first with jobhunting, and then with doing this huge learning curve of a job. The long commute. The job has swallowed me whole, I’m not yet properly rebalanced. Home is a mirage where I sleep worriedly, dreaming about callers and things they may say that I don’t yet know the answers to. I wake up wondering how close to 5 a.m. it is. But Christmas appeared to start in September, didn’t it? That’s when I first heard carols in the shops. And shortly after, the decorations began. Then there was the whole imported ‘Black Friday’ thing the other week. I was sitting in any old shopping centre in workplace area, having some quiet (ha ha) time away from the phones with my lunchtime sandwich, listening to announcements about DEALS, and registering that foot traffic was way up on usual for the time of day. People pushing past one another, looking focussed, harassed and rather grumpy – not happy, I’d say, about DEALS, with many many bags. I’m completely skint till my first paypacket, so I wasn’t taking part. Did most of my Christmas shopping earlier, in anticipation of future skintness. But every day, the carols seemed to get louder and more intense.
By the time I took Fluffhead to the Whitgift Centre in Croydon, I was feeling, and it sounds stupid, yes I know it does, attacked by Christmas being pushed at me as shopping and a feeling of forced jollity. Adverts about family get togethers, huge boards advertising Sky movies, where sad things happened before families got together at the end and smiled while wearing green and red and surrounded by sparkling oh so sparkling and tinkly silver and gold things. There were live carol singers, one week from a church outreach, another time from a homelessness project. That was nice, hearing real voices sing. But they fought against the taped and piped voices. The mixing of genres. ‘Santa Baby’ fought against ‘Good Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ against ‘Do They Know Its Christmas Time At All…’ Everything was shining at me, everything so loud. Try a chocolate, try a mincepie, get your Sky package for Christmas! This all MUST have been here in previous years, perhaps it’s simply that I’m very tired all the time at the moment – but I have never felt more Bah Humbug.
It’s not that ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ is getting lost. Of course it IS, in the sense that it’s a Christian religious festival, I’m not Christian, I don’t go along with the idea, it belongs to them, not me. It is lost in the sense that their Jesus didn’t pop down to remind us to not miss Black Friday and get our Sky package. So yes, that’s a bit of a travesty. But it’s perfectly possible to borrow lightly from the Christian festival, and come out with a pleasing secular idea of Christmas involving emphasis on giving things to people cos it makes you feel happy to do so. Giving things to charities and those who have less (ditto, don’t pretend to be selfless; think of it as enlightened self-interest instead – there by the grace of whichever god go I etc). Decorating because it’s fun to make a fuss of certain days – and it’s nice to celebrate red and gold and green and silver and make things sparkle. It’s nice to have friends and family over if you like and see them and maybe cook them dinner if you’d like to. (Notice how lovely and ‘if you like’ that all was. Ahhhh, if only.) It’s nice and fun and good for us to be grateful for what we have, what we’ve been given, and to try and see the goodness in people. Nice to see the wonder of the world and each other.
I think both the Christian Christmas and the secular Christmas are being a bit bombarded by the COME AND BUY STUFF AND EAT FAR TOO MUCH AND BE WITH YOUR WONDERFUL FAMILY THAT YOU *ADORE* messages. You KNOW something is wrong when you start thinking the misery of an Eastenders Christmas Day episode is both more naturalistic and preferable than the saccharine and manipulative images you’re being forcefed are! I really will do muchos shopping earlier than ever next year, and online. It’s just not fun shopping (or just being out) when everyone is all stressed out and spending too much and grumpy and harassed, and all the children are really tiresome from waiting in line for 2 hours to get a present from Santa’s Grotto. (Fluffhead did really well, actually. He was only naughty twice, and most of the time was highly amused to watch some people dressed as reindeer on stilts wafting about. WHY were they??? And a man in a bear costume collecting for a charity in a bucket, whose head was obviously on slightly wrong, so that he couldn’t see any of the children milling around before and below him tugging on him and waving at him, and was just wandering up and down, looking, even though I couldn’t see his face, dejected. It was in the shoulders.)
I think it may have jinxed me, writing that post all those years back about how I loved Christmas when everyone around me didn’t much. (See here – it is wonderfully enthusiastic.) Since then, I have not had one Christmas that hasn’t been a bit odd. Mum’s car accident that year (where she sat in terrible pain through Christmas dinner because the paramedics had missed the fact she had a broken collarbone, and then she was very sick after dinner, and eventually we ended up in Casualty). This year, Stanley’s father has died not very long ago, so we appear to be still doing Christmas, though its chances of being anything other than strange, dour and gloomy are slight, as any forced occasion is. That’s the really weird thing about Christmas – the way people seem to think they MUST do it in some way shape or form, even when it’s not appropriate for them at that particular time, because of its connotations of jollity and familial closeness. My mother has been trying to have an alone Christmas ever since my dad died in 2008. She just wants to rest and be quiet on that day and not have the pressure of everything unless she *chooses* it. But every year it’s either been her here, because Stanley or I have been sick, or Fluffhead is too; or she’s had to go to her brother’s (a noisy extended family thing, several children). Stanley and I are doing Christmas because of Fluffhead – if you do it lightly, its very fun for the little ones (he and I used to do our own kid Christmas brilliantly, as 2 overgrown children together).
But we aren’t feeling it this year. And that’s alright. That will happen sometimes. I shall stick with wonder at the natural world, and loving the green and red and gold and silver. Not as dictated to me by others, but just because they really are beautiful.
Image from: www.lovethispic.com
I am definitely off-balance at the moment though. I’ll show you what I mean. An incident from a couple of weeks ago. You know when you feel you’ve made a connection with people, and you’re wrong? That feeling? Embarrassment, isolation, not exactly loneliness, but out of placeness?
There’s these Eastern European young men I see in Costa every morning at the station. They get there either before me or very shortly after me. Very young, early 20s. Something very isolated about them too, just as there is about most Eastern European people I see, as if they are still partially elsewhere. I don’t know if that’s because they wish they were elsewhere, or can’t forget good or bad things that happened elsewhere, or if we haven’t made them feel very welcome, or likely, a combination of all three. They are always glued to each other talking in their own language, these two, separated from the rest of us, who are not talking all in the one language. It must be nice, for privacy, to have another language, like being in another room without having to be. I feel a sort of siege mentality from them sometimes.
I had occasion to speak to them one day a while back, I dropped something or they did or someone minded someone’s stuff while someone got more coffee or went to the bathroom. They were all smiles and helpfulness; a real difference in their faces. Lovely to see. Their reserve vanished on speaking to them.
Anyway. They are too clean and well dressed to be construction workers. Too casual and loose for office workers. No bags with books and folders, so not students. I wonder what they do, now they have piqued my interest by being so friendly suddenly.
On the first day I was here at the coffeeshop after the minding or borrowing (which was it?), I smiled and nodded at them, and there began the daily smiling and nodding. They usually left before me, so we always had the smiling and nodding on the goodbyes, as I sit by the exit so they come past me to leave. Nothing more than that. They don’t look for me, but when they do see me, they smile and wave, before becoming a mysterious and foreign speaking unit again.
As a person new to the area, new to my job and this entire section of my life, these small and apparently meaningless encounters MEAN something to me. Same people everyday on the train platform; these men in Costa; the woman on the bus going home in the evening who recognised me: they make the start of routine, of familiarity. Small patches of warmth in an uncertain and cooled newness.
So this morning, I stood in the queue for my coffee with the younger of the two men. The one I think of as more mischievous and quick with his movements. The other strikes me as more solid and dependable. (Oh, first impressions – wouldn’t it be so funny if I was completely wrong?!)
He said hi.
I said “Hi!” back. Bright smile.
“How are you?” He says politely, eyes (I should have been warned) far away.
I make an extreme tired face. He looks a little bit bored, but understanding, and mimes it back.
“My shift is changing, so I won’t be seeing you guys after next week.” I add.
He looks like I just said far too many words. An expression passes over his face and I can’t decide if it’s pure boredom that that woman in the coffeeshop is speaking to him, or whether I just spoke so fast that I went further than his ability to process English. I gibberished, maybe.
However, he’s still looking at me, so I try again, and repeat it a bit slower, with the chaser, “so I’ll be here much earlier, catching an earlier train; gone earlier.”
I really don’t know what I was expecting here. A falling to the ground in abject sorrow with weeping and wailing, that they won’t be able to say hi to me in the morning. That we’ll never be able to go beyond saying ‘hi’, to actually being acquaintances, progress to small talk. I had a fond (and no doubt highly dubious) imagining that we’d eventually small talk ourselves to where they were from, and they’d teach me small throwaway phrases in that lovely language they speak so earnestly. That I could ask them what they do here, and there would be no more mystery. That they might laugh with me about how if it’s very windy or very rainy, I will get lots of calls about nothing but weather related damage all day, so that I feel like a barometer now when I’m out, keeping one eye always on the weather. Oh the indignance of fallen trees. Or if it snows, there will be 100 righteous demands for residential road gritting. The little silly things that make up conversations. The beginnings of connections with fellow humans. Just a warm smile and slight, if thoroughly shallow, understanding of another’s life and current experience. All stuff that’s fascinating to me.
Anyway. So he looks like I said too many words again. Not exactly irritated, but tired and surprised. I say the thing about the earlier train.
I think I wanted him to say, like a polite old style English person would (see – cultural difference, that’s a hole easily fallen into): “oh no, shame, it’s been nice seeing you every day – hope all goes well for you, good luck, and bye!” – something like that?! And I would ask where the beautiful accents come from, just to satisfy my endless curiosity.
Instead, he just continues to look completely nonplussed, a hassled barista gives him his coffee, and he nods at me in a brusque way with eyes averted, and goes off to his table.
I feel confused. (Which is not exactly an uncommon state of affairs for me.)
Obviously I completely misjudged either his English, or his interest in any talking at all. I hope he didn’t think I was flirting?
I’m an inveterate talker to people. I’m usually pretty good at reading bog off signals too. In the world of scary new job, where everyone is nice but I am waiting to fall flat on my face (and I will, because the training is huge and extensive but rushed and there’s not been enough consolidation time) – tiny scrappets of smiles and warmth were helping.
I realise I definitely did misjudge something, and all my usual waiting feelings of my out of placeness rise up. I take my own coffee and deliberately go and sit down somewhere where I can’t see them and have my back to where they are.
Better they just go back to nodding and so do I. I read my kindle. When they leave, before me, as they always do, the solid more dependable one makes a point of saying ‘hi’ and ‘how are you’, but now I am hearing it sounding just like polite boys taught to not be rude by someone when small. Just something you say (and something people never seem to want the actual answer to, which always perplexes me). I have developed the habit of just smiling when people ask me that, then asking them back, or complimenting them on something (never hard to find something nice to say about a jacket or hair or pendant or just looking well). It’s like a hurdle you have to get past, before you can have an actual conversation with people.
Its times like this, me thinking like this, that I miss Fry most. His total unabashed social awkwardness mixed with a testosteroney ‘oh fuck it’ disposition. He would have understood my reaction to this small and stupid exchange, my misreading of the situation, feeble attempts to make a tenuous connection. And he would have shrugged at the end, at my sadness at the misunderstanding. He would have said something to make me laugh.
In this new world, I keep hallucinating Stanley and Fry around the place. When I’m in the shopping centre at lunchtime eating my pack lunch – on the one hand blessedly alone; on the other isolated and cut off in an invisible bubble, I see them out of the corner of my eye, going past, coming or going. As if they just went for coffee and will be back in a minute.
I hold the images of them close. Pretend it’s so and they are here. I feel the warmth of Fluffhead on my lap having the ‘dressing hug’ he always stops in the middle of dressing to have, one of the best hugs of the day. He’s not there, but I feel it.
It’s because I’m so tired I am feeling like this, and out of kilter this way; attaching vast significance to small incidents, small feelings. Always the same. Remember the tiredness factor.
Finish the coffee. Off to work. Do my best, try to help the people. Be kind, be polite, be present. And feel the invisible hugs.
See? I’m not quite right at the moment and have to bear it in mind and be slow, be calm and be careful.
I had a wonderful time yesterday afternoon with Rosa, my closest Green Party friend, writing a small analysis of COP21 for the Sutton members newsletter. There, I felt competent and calm. We worked beautifully as a team, suggesting phraseology and where to put each point so it all flowed clearly and usefully. She finds me funny, laughs at my silly jokes. She’s ill, but exudes so much joy and energy (even when she can’t hold up her own head because she’s so tired) that whenever I leave I feel buoyed up and more able to take life as it comes, and see the happiness all over the place, the waiting of smiles. There’s a Spirit of Christmas. And people like that are All Year.
I know many people who do their best in this totally confusing world with its contradictory messages. Time Traveller, writing now her third book, always seeking answers, always questioning. Alias True, with his willingness to overthink with me to a place of calm and plateau, where we look down and see events and the world for the lessons they all are. They’re just the two who pop to mind immediately. I think the world is a better place than we are told, despite all the nastiness definitely going on. Much to hope for, much to believe in and work toward.
Strange and interesting times, for sure. Hold fast, hold steady, be kind. Be calm. Out of the corner of my eye, Fluffy Cat who has been clawing the smallest tree in the garden, jumps three feet up in the air, which is quite miraculous seeing as she’s immensely huge, and then leaps sideways with a bit of a screech and dives into the hedge – gone. Ehem. Yes. Be calm. Do not follow the Ways of This Cat. Or you will need much Brushing, Later.
Have a lovely Christmas, and a Peaceful New Year.
 Yes yes yes, don’t get me started on the pagan stuff came before the Christmas stuff and it’s all the same. Yes, I know that. For the purposes of this comment, I’m speaking as a person living in a nominally Christian country, where there’s been some strong arming of the ‘spirit of Christmas’. Back to the main point.