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We have tested and tasted too much, lover –
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
Advent – Patrick Kavanagh
We are used to seeing the shops taking down Halloween decorations on Halloween itself and putting up Christmas decorations, which will be taken down on Christmas Eve to make way for New Year sales. It is easy to fall into the mistake of letting shopkeepers and advertisers keep our seasons for us and forget to watch the year’s turn for ourselves, especially if we live in a city.
But no ideas person in a brightly lit office will try to market Advent.
Advent has been forgotten, neglected and ignored for years. I really like this time of year. There is nothing really to celebrate, except our continued existence.
It is a time to take stock. We submit our taxes and see how we are doing. We look back at past ideas, good and bad and see what we can put by against the future.
We go to parent/teacher meetings. The kids have settled in by now and we hear how they are doing. The teachers take the measure of the children and the parents, in the middle of the feedback session, are taking stock of the teacher.
We start thinking about presents, which are another measure of where we are. Sophie wants a mobile phone instead of a doll because she is the only one in the class without one and Tommy is asking for 200 cigarettes and a bottle of vodka. Last year he got a football and for once Granddad will not want some golf equipment as his playing days have ended.
I like to go into the garden, away from lights and screens. Gardeners have a kind of multiple vision. It is the opposite of mindfulness. When we look at a patch of ground we remember how it was in spring, summer and autumn. We appraise it in the present and work on it with an eye to the future. We plant bulbs and take cuttings, trusting that we will be there to see them grow. We rake leaves and save them, thinking of the leaf litter that will nourish the plants in a couple of years and tune in to the sleeping landscape. No gym with screens and piped music can compare.
In my office we give the anti-flu injections and see the list of vaccinations given in the past. We see how the year has changed the recipients. Sometimes it seems as if nothing has changed, like life is going on in a slow and sleepy way. Then we see those who have had a hard year, who are lucky to be alive and those who will probably not be around this time next year.
The nights draw in. We leave the office in the dark. We drive to meetings, in lecture rooms and hotels. The hospitals are full. The emergency departments are packed. It seems nothing has changed from last year, nobody in control has learned anything and it is like groundhog day as you try to manage your cases and apologise for the state of the country, as if it was your fault.
You try to live in the present, to appreciate a dry evening, to hold off Christmas for a little while so it does not become too jaded, despite the ads on the telly and the music in the shops. It is a time for something deeper, for the last few leaves on a tree lit by silver light, for starlings to gather in darkening skies, for redwings piping overhead in the darkness as they fly in from Scandinavia. It is a time for early fires and rugby matches, a time to go off the drink for a while and watch the recently retired sports stars on the chat shows reflect on their lives (which you can read about in their autobiography now available in all good bookshops).
The ancient tradition in Advent was to remember the souls who have gone on before us. This year we were reminded of the millions who died in the First World War. “Lest we forget” was the phrase of the time. We remember the past to be mindful in the present of the dangers of the future. We think. We plan. We retreat. We rest. The only way through the winter is through it. Midwinter will come and go and the bulbs will flower and the days will get longer. But now is the time for a little bit of hibernation and reflection and peace.