The Other Type of Christmas

And then there was the year when Christmas went wrong.

In my part of the world and in my family, Christmas involves a house decorated with bright colours. It’s a time of secrets and excitement as presents are bought or made and then hidden; for the wider family to get together, exchange gifts, play boardgames, eat a lot of very rich food for twenty-four hours followed by leftovers for what feels like twenty-four days. For some of us it might include one or more church services, for others not. It’s a few days of switching off from the normal world, being a little self-indulgent, and having fun. 

It’s nice and cosy. 

I was lucky perhaps to get to my mid teens before I first experienced one where it wasn’t.

That Christmas my parents had decided we’d have Christmas Day at home in South Wales and not visit my paternal grandparents in Reading till Boxing Day. It was possibly because my grandfather, then aged about seventy-two, had been ill with a bad cold and didn’t want visitors or any of the fuss. 

Early on Christmas Eve – a bitter cold day with biting rain – my parents, sister and I went to do last minute Christmas shopping. I watched my parents amble in the direction of the stationery section of Woolworths suspecting that they were going to buy me the calculator I’d asked for and fearing that they’d forget I wanted one with a square-root function to save checking my maths homework against a log table. (If you don’t know what log tables are, you don’t know what you’ve missed.) 

Aged fourteen, the fact that I’d be disappointed if my parents forgot the square root function (which they did) was about the worst thing that I thought could happen in my Christmas world. Then we went home and just as we were settling down to watch TV, the telephone rang. It was my father’s cousin who’d been trying to get through all day, saying that my paternal grandfather had died. She was caring for my grandmother who was distraught at the loss of the man she’d adored for over fifty years.

Why we didn’t go to Reading then and there, I also don’t know. It’s possible my grandmother said not to, it’s possible that my father, who always struggled with knowing how to express emotion or comfort in the right way, was too distraught. I can’t recall. On Christmas Day we went through the motions I guess and ate a meal that tasted of grief. I can’t really recall that either. 

We travelled to Reading the next day. Late afternoon, it started to snow heavily. My grandmother begged us to stay, my father refused. I’m sure he was simply overwhelmed with emotions he didn’t know how to deal with, but it was a downright stupid decision. He drove the hundred and forty two miles home in a blizzard, hoping the car wouldn’t break down (as she was inclined to). He could see virtually nothing. He drove along the motorway in the outside (‘fast’) lane using the central reservation barriers as a guide.

We were half-frozen, because a windscreen wiper kept getting stuck meaning that my mother had to keep winding down the window to give it a shove. On the radio was a play about someone contemplating jumping off a foggy cliff. My sister and I remember it as a sort of dreamlike nightmare of a journey which can never be a funny recollection because of the context.

When we finally did get to our village, Dad couldn’t drive up the steep hairpin bends to our house as they were clogged with snow. We had to go the back way which involved a narrow, twisty lane without much in the way of hedges or fences between us and a steep slope down to the river on one side. They were, in any event, invisible.

No amount of pretty decorations or colourful lights could make up for the misery of that Christmas.

The following Christmas wasn’t a great deal better. My grandmother seemed constantly half-asleep. She died two months later. Although the medical cause was stroke, we were always sure it was actually a broken heart.

Even after rather more years that I care to count, it chokes me up to write this. Several years passed before those shadows receded.

Illogical it is, people will often say ‘how much worse that XYZ happened at Christmas.’ There’s an expectation that everything at Christmastime should be happy and perfect and when it’s not that seems to be a travesty. 

In the grand scheme of things, I know that losing a beloved elderly grandparent to natural causes is not a tragedy, it’s just sad. I haven’t had to endure the kind of horror that people had suffered in the last few weeks – losing loved ones in situations which should never happen. My heart goes out to the bereaved families of the children who were playing on ice, those crushed at a concert, victims of car accidents, violence and of course war. I’m not trying to make a comparison. But that particular Christmas was when I realised for myself that the realities of life do not pause for manmade red letter days.

And I know that there are other reasons apart from grief why Christmas can be hard going. It can be boring if you aren’t interested but everyone else is, and the whole commercial nonsense is constantly bombarding you. It can be lonely when everyone is in family groups and for whatever reason you’re not, or you don’t want to be or your family life is toxic.

I’ve been lucky with family, but even so I’ve had times when I’ve been sad or lonely; wondering how to make ends meet; wondering if I’d ever have a family of my own to start traditions with; worrying about whether someone would survive the sickness they were suffering.

This is not about my books (I’ll post about that another day). But when I wrote the short stories for The Advent Calendar seven years ago, I wanted to reflect the true experiences of Christmas, even in the less serious stories: the expectations versus the reality. In it there are nativity plays and carol singers and office parties, but also neglected lonely relations, homeless people, and refugees. Nothing, including the refugee situation, has really changed since (including, just to lighten the mood – the possibility of my sister dressing up in a tutu and embarrassing me in public). But I also wanted to reflect that stripping away the nonsense, the commerciality, the hype – there can be the tiniest flicker of hope that things can change.

This can be a hard time of year, it can be a lovely time of year, sometimes it can be a mixture of both. I hope that for you, it is what you want it to be and that you have what you need. But if for any who need support, or who want to give to organisations who help others – please see the links below (these are UK charities – but if you have equivalent links elsewhere please let me know and I’ll add them).

Mind – mental health support

Give Us a Shout

The Samaritans

Young Minds

The Calm Zone

Papyrus UK

St Mungo’s – homelessness and mental health support

Beat Eating Disorders Support

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image https://www.dreamstime.com/print-image127586004

One Step At A Time

Several years ago, my then line manager sent me on an assertiveness course for female managers.

I’d recently just taken on a role which involved liaising with outside agencies. I actually very much enjoyed that part of the job but my need for assertiveness was/is perhaps in other areas. Moreover, I appreciated the intent, as the line manager who’d preceded her had told me I’d never get anywhere because I did everything by conciliation and collaboration. 

(For the record, I was/am quite happy with being conciliatory and collaborative and, to cut a long story short, I proved that particular person wrong a long time ago.)

But anyway, going back to the assertiveness course.

I was nervous and sceptical. I’d be meeting women who worked in the same sort of field as me, though not the same organisation. Some of them had quite scary roles. I anticipated sitting in the corner unable to get a word in (yes it does happen) and coming across as a mousy wallflower. 

But… I met a room full of women who like me, could put on a face of confidence, but for various reasons, didn’t feel confident. It was a week of discovering what made us who we were and learning how to counter the things blocking us.

The many exercises included visualisations. 

I’m a little dubious about visualisation as a means to manifesting change, and the first one on the assertiveness course reinforced this:

‘Imagine you’re behind a closed door.’

Er…

‘You’re in your best dress.’

[Mentally panic as I try to decide what to wear in this imaginary scenario.]

‘Your prettiest party dress.’

Party? Hang on…

‘The door opens… and every single person you know is there…’

Er…

‘And they’re looking up at you, because YOU are the centre of attention. YOU are the belle of the ball. EVERYONE is waiting to see what you’ll say or do next!’

What? Yell ‘Lemme outta here’ while running off like Cinderella? That’s an absolute nightmare scenario 

You can see why I was wary when another visualisation was mooted towards the end of the course.

By this point we’d blue-sky-thought our way through what our personal work aims and objectives were and what we needed to achieve. But we’d also talked about where we got our energy from, what made us happy in our inner selves and touched on what we wanted to achieve outside work. It was at this point that I realised that what I was learning from the course, was not just about assertiveness. It was also that due to work and motherhood etc etc, I had completely neglected my creative side to the detriment of my own joy.

The visualisation started: 

‘Imagine something achievable which has your stamp on it.’

I was supposed to be thinking of the successful conclusion of my project, but the first thing that popped into my head was not work related. It was I want a room of my own.

‘Imagine it as a colour,’ said the facilitator, ‘what would it be?’

Teal, I thought, or aqua and silver. It would be like being under the sea. 

‘If it had a mood, what would it be?’

Dreamy, creative, calm.

‘What will you be doing?’

Writing, sewing, painting… 

‘How will success make you feel?’

Content…

‘What’s the first step you need to take?’

Tell my husband that I want the cold, neglected front room redecorated just for me. That’s not expensive – just paint and wallpaper.

‘And the next?’

Move the old desk from upstairs in there. Move a lamp.

‘And the next?’

Save up for a little sofa, but that can wait. It’s doable. It really is doable.

Out of everything I learned on the course, that’s the one thing I never forgot. 

My family is lucky to have two sitting rooms (created by splitting a bigger room in half). I claimed the front one. My husband, very doubtful about the colours (though he loved them afterwards), redecorated and we eventually purchased a sofa in the right shade of blue. For a while, it was my space, even if, at the time I did little actual creating in it.

Then almost immediately the children got older and sort of annexed it as a music room/games room. I learned over the next couple of years to do my writing anywhere and because the space was handy for teenagers to go and chill and get out of my hair, I didn’t really mind. 

Things were looking hopeful for a reconquest when my daughter (the youngest child) went to university. Then courtesy of Covid 19, my graduate son returned to live with us and needed the front room as his own office/studio/sitting room. But finally, he’s moved into his own place, taking desks, game consoles, random bits of audio editing equipment etc away with him and my room is now mine again. 

It’s a re-work in progress, but it’s nearly my calm, under the sea creative place once more and as I was starting the process of getting that room back in order this weekend, I was reminded of that course from all those years ago.

Did I come out of it more assertive? Probably not much. But possibly I came out more self aware, more able to recognise blockers and be brave enough to move them and more conscious that I had a right to be heard. And I definitely came out determined that I had a right to express my creative self.

I don’t really think that visualising something will necessarily make it come true, but I think it can help focus the mind. And the other thing that helps is to break the path to the goal into manageable chunks.

Or, as someone in a meeting I was at once said ‘You can do it. But just don’t try to eat the elephant in the room all at once.’

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Image: https://www.dreamstime.com/silhouette-girl-standing-edge-cliff-looking-sun-rise-sea-waves-sea-landscape-silhouette-girl-standing-image138223072

New Beginnings Everywhere

The sparrows have returned to our garden from wherever they shelter over the winter.

From what started as four sweet little birdies a few years ago, a small army of spadgers now congregates each morning on one of the trees to eye up our house. They’re clearly ready to start roosting again which involves a lot of lewd or violent behaviour right in front of us on the fences and decking; a fresh brood of chicks yelling for food from dawn to dusk every few weeks; general clattering and bickering. What’s not happening on the decking, happens in the eaves of our house, where they periodically pull out the nails which hold the tiles in place (presumably they don’t go with their desired decor) and from which they occasionally get into the loft.

Tomorrow is the start of the Chinese Year of The Water Tiger, and the day after is Candlemas. In some countries, they don’t take their Christmas decorations down till Candlemas Eve, after which the new year really starts and in others (in a throw-back to pre-Christian traditions perhaps), Candlemas involves pancakes (or more accurately crêpes) whose round, golden shape symbolises the return of the sun as spring approaches. (I like this idea – one can never have enough pancakes, crêpes or galettes and I was wondering what to cook for dinner on Wednesday.)

So even though January is ending, there’s always a chance for a new beginning.

Have you ever made a fresh start that started out draining but in the end worked out empowering? Or do you need to make one and it scares you?

As a teenager/young person, I’d expected that writing would be my career, but life didn’t work out that way. Was I disappointed? Yes. Did I ever think I’d pick up that abandoned ambition? No. For a long period, it seemed impossible, and every time my dreams were nearly in my grasp again, something would take them away.

Back in 2005, my youngest child was due to start school. I was working three days per week and despite being a team-leader, had almost secured an agreement to continue that working pattern after September. Finally, I was going to have two whole days to myself to start writing! I didn’t really know what I’d write – I had a few ideas, but nothing concrete. Then… my husband became seriously unhappy at work and the chance to move into another role in Dorset rather than travel back and forth to London from Gloucestershire presented itself. He’d always wanted to go back to the south coast where he’d been a student and the job was right up his street. I quite fancied an adventure. I said ‘yes, let’s go’.

Initially however, I found the transition much harder than I’d expected. I hadn’t realised how much I’d miss my support network and how hard it would be to make a new one. I hadn’t realised quite how hard it would be to establish myself in a new role and gain respect (especially since the one I’d been given – just after a merger of two parts of my organisation – was unpopular) while still working part-time and not knowing anyone at all. And to make things worse, I couldn’t keep my proposed working pattern. I had to rush between school and work, being at work, and then as chief child carer rush the children to and from various after school activities. Any hopes of time to myself were knocked firmly on the head. 

This was a very low point in my personal plot. I wrote something about trying to explain to the post office about forwarding mail while we were selling one house, buying another, and renting an interim one. It was read aloud on Terry Wogan’s breakfast show. But that was it. Otherwise, I kept writing ‘humorous’ emails to old friends, one of whom got in touch as she thought I was losing what few marbles I had. At some point, I wrote down in the third person a story encompassing what I was going through and how it made me feel. It was cathartic, but only a few people have ever read it.

But… it was a while before I realised that from a creative point of view some things had changed for the better and that this had given me a new starting point.

With the move, I’d also left behind some of the things that were hindering me – other people’s views on what I should write in particular. And I’d learned a lot about the world and myself since I was a teenager/young adult. A kind of freedom from what other people thought made me begin again.

Around 2010, I started some stories, planned out some novels. One lunch break, I wrote down a paragraph from a possible Roman murder mystery. My dad (still living in Wales) and I started a little contest between ourselves writing silly stories. When he died in 2012, an old school friend with whom I’d lost touch turned up at his funeral. She was the kindred spirit from the school year below, with whom I made up stories and acted them out, who had the same mad imagination, who had also been a little ‘odd’. 

‘Are you still writing?’ she said. 

‘Not really,’ I said.

It turned out she hadn’t stopped. As we rekindled our friendship, she encouraged me to start again and ultimately enter a local writing competition in 2015 in which I was short listed. After that, I joined a local writers’ group.

And one evening on the way home from work, I heard someone talking about self-publishing on the radio, and I bought his book and thought ‘I could do this’. 

Then I discovered a Facebook writing group. I had no idea these existed but and after a while I worked up the courage to join and share little bits of writing.

This was now 2015, ten years after that traumatic move. What happened next was a like popping the cork on a bottle. All that pent up, frustrated creativity came pouring out. I pretty much wrote Kindling and The Advent Calendar in the space of two months while also doing Nanowrimo. Now I admit, that that particular Nanowrimo novel is still in a cyber drawer, but the following year, I published the two collections of short stories and the year after that The Cluttering Discombobulator and the year after that the Roman murder mystery paragraph I’d written in my lunch hour came out as Murder Britannica.

And it wasn’t only having the courage to write which made the difference, it was also making writer friends through the writing group and online. Friends who encouraged me, and in many cases became more than ‘virtual’ and in the case of two of them, became co-writers and very close friends indeed. Liz Hedgecock asked me to co-write The Caster & Fleet Series and Val Portelli suggested we pull some of our short stories together into an Weird & Peculiar Tales.

What does the future hold? In the immediate sense, the publication of the third Margaret Demeray book later this year I hope and maybe a longer sequel to The Good Wife. And after that on maybe not too distant a date, I’m hoping the writing shed will come into its own and I won’t be distracted by a demanding day job, but who knows… 

After all – since it’s National Story Telling Week, if you click on the link below, you’ll hear me on YouTube, somewhat hesitantly reading ‘The Familiar’, one of the first stories I wrote for ‘Kindling’. It may be a little sad as a story, but it too is ultimately about a new start. Would I have believed I’d do anything like this in 2005? Not in a million years.

So I’d like to encourage you at this new time of new beginnings, whether you’re a writer or not. If you’re stuck, or don’t think ‘it’ will ever happen (whatever ‘it’ is) please don’t give up. The time might not be ‘now’ but when it comes, it’ll be the right time somehow and ‘it’ will be the richer for it. And also, whether you think of yourself as a writer or not and things are bogging you down – consider finding a creative outlet. You don’t need to share the outcome, but writing, drawing, sewing, crafting, photography cooking… all of them are massive boosts to mental health – a way of expressing things it’s hard to say out loud.

Go for it – it’s never too late for a new beginning.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Credit for image of cats.

Reactions

This time last year, existing in a limbo between a breast cancer diagnosis and a lumpectomy, I decided to deep-clean my kitchen cupboards.

This is not normal behaviour. Writers will tell you that they’ll frequently do anything rather than put pen to paper and I’m no different. But in my case procrastination doesn’t usually involve extreme housework.

The limbo however, wasn’t simply about time, it was about mental state. Reeling from my mother nearly dying five months earlier and from the impact of coronavirus, my own cancer diagnosis pushed my mind a little closer towards the fairyland than it normally is. Mondays to Fridays weren’t so bad. I was never furloughed, so my day job – never entirely sane in the best of circumstances – kept my brain occupied during the week. But at weekends, I found that only cooking and cleaning stopped my anxiety from spiralling.

I felt slightly unhinged.

British English has many expressions for being not quite right: ‘she has a screw loose’, ‘she’s losing her marbles’, ‘she’s off her trolley’.

I suppose they make a sort of sense.

Doors off their hinges, machines with loose screws or missing ball-bearings, trams coming off their rails won’t work and might collapse at the slightest push.

Distracting myself with things that I had to concentrate on but which didn’t involve really thinking, was my way of not pushing and therefore not collapsing.

However on that day, not really thinking wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

Instead of using the shop-bought chemical sprays, I decided to make a ‘natural’ cleanser using bicarbonate of soda and vinegar. I looked up directions on the internet (which can never be wrong – right?) and found a ‘recipe’ for a solution good enough to clean a car engine. My kitchen wasn’t that bad I hasten to add, but I decided to follow the instructions anyway.

Now while science was not my strong point at school, I’m not entirely clueless. I understand about reactions. It’s fundamental to cookery, which is a science in itself and which I’m good at. I also made enough volcanos using bicarb and vinegar with my children when they were small to know what to expect when you combine them. I even have a boiled fruit cake recipe which has a fascinating and satisfying moment of eruption as the bicarb is added (see below). So I should have known better than to follow instructions which said ‘simply put the ingredients in a clean bottle and put the lid on’.

DO NOT TRY THIS 😳

It may be as well that the bottle I used was plastic and it’s definitely as well that I stepped back otherwise I might have been blinded.

Within two seconds, the chemical reaction within forced froth out under the bottle cap. One more second and the bottom of the bottle split with a loud bang. Milliseconds after that, the cap flew off and foam exploded everywhere, chiefly upwards, to some extent into all four corners of our reasonably sized kitchen-diner but largely over me.

My husband walked into the kitchen to find me wiping froth off my face and out of my hair as if I’d been in a custard pie fight and asked unnecessarily ‘Has something happened?’.

This failed experiment ought to have made me re-engage my brain but I carried on in a similar vein for a little longer, two weekends later accidentally emptying an entire bottle of paprika (which had its own loose lid) all over the floor and nearly crying about something which was probably out of date and cost less than £2 to replace.

It wasn’t until after the operation and I was back at work trying to normalise myself, that a colleague arranged a video meeting ostensibly to talk about our increasingly frustrating project but then saying ‘forget all this, you’re not ok are you?’

And after a pause, I said ‘No. I’m not.’

An hour later, I came off the call, wiped my eyes, emailed my line-manager, rang the doctor and dug out the information which the breast cancer nurses had given me with a local helpline on. I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and mild depression.

I’m fortunate that my employer has a robust mental health policies and very fortunate in my line-manager who couldn’t have been more supportive. I was allowed to work part-time for a few weeks while I underwent radiotherapy, had some counselling and slowly put my hinges back on, screwed down the screws, found the marbles and got the tram back on the tracks.

It’s hard to know whether the way I felt was to do with the cancer or because it had been discovered during a pandemic or was caused by the pandemic itself. I had friends and family willing to listen but I was worried about burdening them with my troubles when the whole thing was traumatising them too. Talking to them about normal things instead was a lifeline and I couldn’t have managed without them.

But as the counsellor said, the combination of emotional ingredients in my life had created a perfect storm, and I needed to talk to a total stranger whose feelings I didn’t need to worry about, to get my thoughts into perspective.

And what brought things under some sort of control was actually the beginning of the process: taking that first step by admitting ‘I am not ok.’ 

If you recognise any of this – please please do the same. (Helpline links below.)

Now, while I have my first post surgery mammogram coming up, I’m feeling positive. Things aren’t combining in the same way to cause the same kind of reaction. And while the chief lasting effect of last year’s extreme anxiety seems to include struggling to make a plot make sense in a first draft when I’m writing, I am ok.

A year later, there is still a patch on the ceiling of my kitchen which is whiter than the rest. Until it’s redone, I shall periodically look up and remember the moment when the lid came off.

And I can laugh about it, imagining my paternal grandfather (a laboratory chemist) wondering what happened to his genes and my paternal grandmother (who didn’t understand science but was a wonderful cook) knowing exactly what happened to hers.

And in honour of that, alongside the pictures from last year, here’s a picture of the aforementioned boiled fruit cake which I made this afternoon. I dug out the recipe after 40 years and cooked it to see if it was as fun and as nice as I recalled. (It was.) It’s not my gran’s recipe, but it’s a much better – or at least safer – use of bicarbonate of soda than an explosive cleaning solution. (Video of what happens when you add the bicarbonate of soda and also the recipe below the photographs if you’re interested.)

Here I am adding the bicarbonate of soda to the boiled fruit cake mixture while it’s still hot. Don’t panic – this is exactly what is supposed to happen!

Mrs T’s Boiled Fruit Cake

(Around 1981, the original recipe was given to me in ounces but metric and also cup/stick conversions are below – however I have only cooked it in imperial! – I hadn’t cooked this for years so wasn’t sure how it would turn out. The mixture seemed quite stiff when I put it into the cake tin but it rose well and is surprisingly light while still rich. I think it would go nicely with cream.)

INGREDIENTS

10 fluid ounces milk

4 ounces butter or margarine

6 ounces sugar (I used demerara)

10 ounces dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

10-12 ounces self-raising flour (I found 10 plenty)

1 egg

METHOD

  1. Place milk, butter, sugar, fruit and mixed spice in a saucepan and boil for 10 minutes (stir occasionally to stop it from catching on the bottom of the pan).
  2. Remove from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda while the mixture is still hot.
  3. Leave to cool. (I put it in a bowl to speed this up.)
  4. When the fruit mixture cold, add flour and egg.
  5. Place in a lined cake tin and cook for 1½ hours in a moderate oven (175℃/350℉/gas mark 4)

METRIC CONVERSION (I haven’t tested this but it should be right)

285 ml milk

113 g butter or margarine

170 g sugar (I used Demerara)

284 g dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

284-340 g self-raising flour (I found 284g plenty)

1 egg

CUP/STICK CONVERSION (I haven’t tested this either)

1¼ cups milk

1 stick butter or margarine

¾ cup sugar 

1½ cups dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

2¾ – 1⅓ cups self-raising flour

1 egg

Words and photographs copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Here are some UK helpline links. If you have links from other countries which could help your fellow compatriot, let me know and I’ll add them.

https://www.mind.org.uk

https://breastcancernow.org