I help my 2 year old daughter find the right number day on her Gruffalo advent calendar: no 8. I get the edge of it to poke up, ready for her to lift. She scrunches forwards, using her whole body to perform a tiny movement of her fingers. Inside she finds a squirrel in the snow. Meanwhile I am more struck by the words on the inside of the folding out bit of card that accompany the snowy image: “17 days to go,” I read out loud. To my daughter the number is a game. My son, aged 6, understands it and thinks it is a loooooong time to wait. I think of all the things I have to do between now and then and it seems crazily short. It strikes me as one of the biggest changes, from childhood into adulthood – our relationship to time, our experience of how it moves through us and we through it, how deeply the structures of the clock and the calendar press into us.
As I write this I am sitting in the dark of the children’s bedroom. Carols are playing on my computer – my son’s choice of bedtime music. If, for a moment now, I can take up a little more of my children’s sense of time and set aside the December to-do lists, then Christmas could feel profoundly helpful. It is a marker – human-made but not like my ical. It’s more like a weir in the flow of time – a temporary obstruction that both pauses and intensifies the current of the days. Useful because of this, because inevitably every year I think about “this time last year…”
This time last year I was writing a blog a day as part of the Mothers Who Make crowd-funding campaign, having just heard that we had got our Arts Council funding and needed to match it. The point of ‘this time last year…’ is to see how much has changed. Here I am, in the same place, at that weir again, and yet everything is different. Sometimes I have made myself write down everything that is different. Sometimes instead of the ‘to-do’ list it is useful to write the ‘have done’ list. It is almost always surprising. The list this year is long, or at least the items on it are hefty: completed crowd-funding, recruited a new MWM producer, opened 11 new hubs, branded MWM, built a website, went on Woman’s Hour, completed our first round of artist commissions. Amazing, glad tidings of joy – so why am I not gladder?
I don’t think it is simply a lifelong habit of focussing on the negative, on the undone and to be done, rather than the done. I think it is to do with many things and here a different kind of list opens up in me – the things unsaid, or half said, quietly acknowledged: there is still the taste from our commissioned artist event, which moved me to tears because I loved the work but which was shared with a tiny audience and I felt it deserved so much more. There is the fear I feel underneath everything of the warming weather and the wondering about what the world will be like this time next year and the year after that, and after that, and on while my children grow. There is the commitment I have made to live with my mother, and accompany her through the last chapter of her life, and the way she gets tired some days now and goes to bed at half past eight, even before the children. There is the way that the work I do for MWM, and the more I do of it, reveals how much more needs to be done on a deep, wide level in the world. I think of Jenni Murray talking about MWM as if it were a nice and privileged enterprise, a hobby for middle class mums whose husbands can support them to do some creative work on the side, against the far-reaching conversation I feel is really at the heart of the movement, about motherhood and care and how we bear and raise our children and ourselves in this aching world.
And then there is Christmas itself, which has always been a bittersweet festival for me, like the orange peel I associate with it that we used to dry on the top of the woodstove. There is the dark and the cold, and the hard bright star, and then the baby, and the mother in the midst of it all who often looks tired and sad. To this day, when I no longer call myself a Catholic, carols make me cry. Something about the incredible hope mixed with longing, the high dream - the piles of presents, glittery lights and the bands of angels, and then the lowly story, the travellers in the snow without a room to sleep in. My son asked me why so many carols are slightly sad and I didn’t know what to say – maybe for the same reason I often feel sad on my birthday, I said, because of how much has happened, and how much I hope might happen and sometimes being really hopeful can be quite close to being really sad. Not the excited hopeful of Christmas morning, but the long slow hopeful that understands the arc of time, not 17 days to go but 17 years, and then even 70 years, and holding up that much hope for that long can feel almost unbearable and enough to make anyone weep.
And now, just past midnight, I will slip back into the ical version of time, and prepare to get up at 7am because school has to happen and there will be another window to open and it will say ’16 days left to go’ which is good, because I have not done my shopping yet.
Here then is my question for you, can you stop for a moment as the Christmas countdown happens to ask yourself this: what is your list of ‘have dones’ this year? What are your tidings of joy? What are your sadnesses? And what are your hopes?