Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot?

Every year I used to try and send a Christmas card to everyone I had ever known; all those auld acquaintances I had shared a certain period of my life with – school / university / playgroups / drama company / various periods of angst or struggle or marriage / far flung relatives / work colleagues / fellow volunteers … And even when I’d moved on to pastures new and the next phase of life, there was always that annual greetings card, that attempt to keep the spark alive, to somehow try and keep up with the comings and goings of increasingly divergent lives.

I do have a few friendships whose thread has persisted – you know who you are! But mainly of course it’s the family ties that survive the ebbing and flowing of the years – the ties that bind, so to speak. For the rest, I gave up trying to keep up with the Christmas cards quite a few years ago – there comes a point when it really is time to let go, mainly of the person you used to be, and thus liberate yourself. Anyway, we’ve got the internet now haven’t we? A different way of communicating.

Funny thing is, writing this blog – ostensibly all about the past, the history of my family – is NOT about clinging to that past. It’s much more about looking at it as clearly and honestly as possible and figuring out what I feel about it now, understanding how it has made me who I am today and embracing that person. Not in a way of harking back to the past, but of celebrating it as part of the fabric of the present, the here and now.

In a similar spirit, I don’t write New Year resolutions any more – I’ve finally realised that I’m really only setting myself up for failure by the end of January! Much better to start afresh EVERY day of the year, to move forward without regret and without beating oneself up for one’s many faults and failings. I try to say to myself – if you COULD have done it better you WOULD have, but you did the best you could at the time. I’m with President Obama when he said that rather than make resolutions it’s better each day to do a little better than the day before. That’ll do me!

However, one can’t escape a bit of the spirit of out with the old, in with the new. I’ve been clearing out my kitchen cupboards in preparation for the New Year, something, you’d think, that you do regularly anyway. Well! I was somewhat shocked to discover quite a few packets of dry goods (flour, pulses, etc) that were not just years but actually DECADES out of date! The worst offender was a jar of gravy powder from the year 2000! I mean, I’ve moved house at least three times since then! But I know that’s probably part of the problem – when you’ve had as many moves as I’ve had over the years, sometimes you’re just boxing up an old life and carting it somewhere else without having the chance to really consider what your new life in a new place is going to be. And what it should consist of, possessions-wise. Especially if it’s the wind of circumstance that has forced the relocation. I always felt when I moved house that I was leaving a little bit of myself behind and would feel rather lost in the new place until I’d found ways of settling in and reclaiming those lost bits so that they could be expressed, albeit in a different way. Or perhaps just letting them fade away into the past.

One thing I always used to take with me on these moves was a current knitting project.  I think I knitted from about 5 years old and I’ve always loved the process of making things by hand, stitch by stitch, though I have to confess that I eventually fell out of the habit and haven’t made anything for years. However, I still feel very inspired by beautiful patterns and designs which are posted on Facebook and I save them even though I never actually undertake the projects. Why do I do that? Maybe I’m just not ready to give up the idea of myself as a knitter.  It was a deeply ingrained part of me for at least half of my life if not more, and even though it’s years since I knitted or crocheted anything, maybe 2018 might be the year when I start up again. So I want to keep that little light of inspiration alive, just for the time being.

We go into reflective mode as the New Year approaches, don’t we? Radio and television bombard us with retrospective musings on the year just gone by and speculation on the year ahead. It’s a fun game, and very entertaining. So I’m not averse to a bit of light-hearted retrospection myself while I prepare to celebrate Hogmanay and “the bells” with, this year, daughter Sarah visiting from New York.

It’s time to tak’ a cup o kindness and look back fondly on the friends of yesteryear. Friends who are no longer a part of my everyday concerns, or even still with us in this life, but who retain a place in my heart and who, I suspect, if I could meet them tomorrow, would slip as easily into those familiar moulds as if it had been only moments since we last met rather than more years than I care to remember. So, Gemma, Marie, Iris, Gloria, Colette, Mary, Barbara, Shuggie, Robert, John, Marian, Stevie, Sue, Kathy, Harry, Mrs Duffy, John, Cathy, Frances, Bob, Gerry, Father Ken, Brother Jim, Pat, Betty, Pam, Beryl, Dot, Nancy, and so many more – I salute you, and I wish for 2018 to bring you and yours only unbounded peace and joy.

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Christmas Blues and the Ghosts of Christmas Past.

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Actually, this title is a bit misleading as there is NO NEED for Christmas to get you down – all you have to do is avoid the crowds, the shops and the demands for the latest must-have toy or gadget! Were Christmases less commercial in my childhood? Perhaps they were, or maybe we were just a bit poorer in the fifties. I suppose we all have a tendency to look back and imagine things were better and simpler “then”. Maybe it’s just that WE were simpler. I remember that when my own children were very little we didn’t put up the Christmas tree until after they’d gone to bed on Christmas Eve and they’d wake up in the morning to find that Christmas had magically arrived and Santa had been.

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At this time of the year, there’s always a strong element of nostalgia intermingled in the celebrations, isn’t there? We recall how things used to be, and those who are no longer with us. So there is often just a hint of sadness in the mix, which makes it all the more precious I suppose. I’ve been looking back through my – somewhat random – collection of family photos and memorabilia in order to connect with those far off ghosts of the past and to get an inkling of the origins of my family Christmas.

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1931 – I’ve written before about my grandmother – and namesake – Beatrice, who died of TB in 1932. She spent the Christmas of 1931, which of course turned out to be her last, in a sanitorium far from home. We have letters from that time to “Dear Mamma”, which give a flavour of Christmas at home without Mamma for John, Mary and Donald (my Dad, Auntie Mary and Uncle Donald), aged 10, 9 and 6. In John’s letter dated 25 December, he hopes that Mamma “likes the Gramophone that dada took up to you”. I like to imagine Beatrice and her fellow inmates and staff gathered round said gramophone to enjoy the hits of the day – Stardust, Minnie the Moocher and this one, Goodnight Sweetheart by Al Bowlly, which was also a hit that year for several other crooners including a certain promising young baritone named Bing Crosby.

Perhaps you’d like to listen as you read the childrens’ letters. First Mary.

And John. I notice that he says they didn’t decorate the room other than putting up holly and mistletoe. Probably that was Mamma’s job…

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1945 – Here we have a menu from wartime. I think that the No. 120 Maintenance Unit might have been in North Africa at the time, somewhere in the desert. No doubt my Dad and his mates enjoyed their traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings – a taste of home and another big turkey.

If they’d had a gramophone in the Mess, they could have listened to Bing Crosby dreaming of a White Christmas or the Vaughn Monroe orchestra with Let it Snow.

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1959 – These are Christmas cards sent to us individually by our Great Aunt Ettie, who was a nun in Dundee and went by the name of Sister Mary Evangelist. There were four of us girls by this time and the family still lived in Govan. Christmas hit that year? Little Drummer Boy by the Beverley Sisters.

I don’t know what, if any, were the childhood Christmas traditions followed by my Mum’s family in Ireland – if you remember, I’ve not been able to track down any photographs of the young Nellie – though I’m certain it would have involved a ceilidh or two and plenty of poteen. So maybe the excitement of us unpacking our knobbly stockings at the end of our beds came from our Dad’s bank of memories (though I never got an actual onion in my stocking!), as did the paperchain decorations which were always carefully folded up and put away, ready for the next year. Another thing that would be brought out was a small candle holder where the heat from the candles made four little cherubs spin round and a bell ring. I loved it so much that years later I bought one of my own and enjoyed the annual ritual of unwrapping it from its tissue paper and setting it up year after year until it literally fell apart. cherub candles

We like to imagine that we are following well established traditions when we celebrate Christmas with our own familiar family rituals. But of course these traditions are constantly shifting because our families are always growing or shrinking, as does the whole notion of what is the “norm”. The very idea of a celebration of the winter solstice goes back to Neolithic times, and people still gather at Stonehenge to this day to mark both the shortest and longest days of the year. These are customs that stretch back into the mists of history, creating a convenient festival ready made for the church to eventually come along and weave in the idea of the baby Jesus. Did you know that Jesus may not even have been born in December? But if it’s a myth, it’s a wonderful myth, and whether we are rejoicing in the incarnation of God on earth, or simply the love of family and friends, its a fitting way for us to mark the deep midwinter and the far off hope of the spring to come.

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When I was young – even when my family were young – there was not such a vast over-abundance of stuff in the shops or the possibility of choosing from a seemingly endless array of consumer goods from every corner of the world. I remember, some time in the 1960’s, finding out that some of my friends put out not a stocking, but a pillowcase for Santa to fill. Of course part of me envied this, with my knobbly stocking plus one modest present, but mostly, my frugal wee soul felt appalled at this display of overindulgence. I suppose that even as a child I felt a sort of loyalty and defensiveness towards my parents: towards John and Nellie who worked so hard for their family and, I felt, deserved our appreciation and gratitude. I’ve probably never really got over this nervousness of excess in any form.

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But the best Christmas memories aren’t about the presents, are they? In fact I can hardly recall what presents I’ve received or given over the years. I do remember the childrens’ nativity plays; the home made crib (pictured at the top of this page); the toddlers who played with the box rather than the toy inside; the trips out to see the Christmas lights; Christmas carols at Midnight Mass; the year when Santa’s little elves left beautifully wrapped tiny gifts for me and Peter; or the one where the children dressed up as the characters from The Snowman (including the Christmas tree!) and performed the entire story with music and actions….

And of course there were the Christmases when we ventured away from home in order to enjoy a family get-together. This picture is from 1989 when we all managed to gather at Jane’s flat in Glasgow and capture this image of Mum – Granny Ellen – surrounded by ALL of her existing grandchildren (only Magnus, now 21, is missing from the group as he wouldn’t be born for another 7 years).

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In latter years while Mum was still with us, me and my sisters used to congregate at some point at “Number 8” with our families where we would cram into the front room to have a grand exchange of presents (I’d learned by this time how to actually enjoy this cornucopia of goodies). Mum would have made her usual marvellous pot of soup and would preside over the proceedings, smiling benignly at everyone from her cosy armchair. As I say, I don’t really remember the gifts, but I do remember the fun, chaos and warmth of those special times.

Nowadays, as a granny myself, I rejoice in being able to share Christmas with my lovely children and grandchildren. I’ve found plenty of ways of keeping things simple and meaningful, despite the commercial “bah humbug” that assails us from every direction, and I’m happy to say that as far as this family is concerned, the magic is alive and well and safe in the hands of the next generation. And to all my readers, I can do no better than sign off with these words of Dickens’ Tiny Tim: “A merry Christmas to us all, God bless us every one”

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This year, Maggie and Jamie took the boys all the way to Lapland to visit Santa in person.

The Big Bang

A year and a half ago I was lucky enough to spend a week in New York with my daughter Sarah, who teaches Middle School in the East Village. We had a whale of a time, thanks mainly to Sarah’s meticulous planning – in fact if she ever decided to stop being a teacher she’d make a marvellous tour organiser! Here’s a wee taste…

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One out of many highlights was our visit to the Museum of Natural History at Central Park, where they had a display called the Cosmic Pathway which graphically illustrates the current scientific consensus about the origins of our Universe. The concept is that you start at the Big Bang at the top of a 360 foot spiral walkway and then walk down the spiral and follow the 13.8 billion year story of the formation and development of the universe, each step measured in millions of years. The relative blink of an eye that is the human era is depicted at the end of the pathway as the thickness of a single human hair.

Sarah and I were entranced by this display, and struggled to get our heads around the mind-blowing ideas being explained. Firstly the sheer enormity of the cosmic story, populated by the formation and evolution of stars and galaxies, and concepts such as nuclear fusion, black holes, dark matter and quasars. Not to mention the observational methods that have been developed in the last 100 years that have enabled scientists to present us with a fascinating view of our origins and show us phenomena like a background glow of microwaves. It seems that the spectrum of this cosmic microwave background identifies it as the fading remnant of the Big Bang.

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The thing I take away from all this is firstly how very beautiful and awesome the cosmos is. The second is that although we are but tiny specks in that cosmos, we are nevertheless as much part of it as the trees and the stars – in fact we ARE the trees and the stars. We have all come from the same impossibly distant event (act of creation?) – a miniscule “singularity” of infinite density and heat which must have contained the potential for all matter and energy which then unfolded into the still expanding Universe we know today. Would it be messing with your head if I also mentioned the existence of a Big Bounce theory which supposes that over the eons the Universe could be in a cycle of expanding and then contracting down to the singularity when the whole process will begin again.

I don’t really mind what the rights and wrongs are, I just find it perennially fascinating to speculate in this way on the nature of creation. Even just the fact that humanity feels such a need to make sense of the world/universe is enthralling in itself. Here we are, this tiny speck of consciousness with big beguiling ideas about how we came to be here and where we are going. It’s not just religion, our quest is also expressed in philosophy, science, politics, literature, film, you name it, not to mention late night discussions into the wee small hours. It seems wonderful to me that we even bother – I mean the universe has been getting on just fine without us for close on 14 billion years, and yet we have the temerity to imagine that what we think even matters, and that we would strive to live well, be happy and to make a difference in the world. That seems the biggest miracle of all!

There’s a Science Fiction story by Arthur C Clarke called the Nine Billion Names of God. In it, a community of Tibetan Monks believe that it is man’s purpose to compile a list containing all the possible names of the Almighty, and they have been working on the task for the last three centuries, each generation taking over from the last. Initially, they expect it to take about fifteen thousand years to complete the task, until they hit upon the idea of acquiring a “Mark V Automatic Sequence Computer” (this story was written in 1953). The computer, along with two – sceptical – engineers, duly arrives and proceeds to churn out the entire list in a mere three months. The sceptical engineers make their way down the mountain just as the computer is finishing its run, and they wonder what will happen once the monks realise the futility of the task. The answer comes in the quietly chilling last sentence of the story. Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

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Here’s a link to the whole story if you’d like to read it for yourself – I recommend it!

https://urbigenous.net/library/nine_billion_names_of_god.html

I like to conjecture that we can actually sense the interconnectedness of matter and energy. Have you ever walked into a place that made you shiver, or where you instantly felt happy or full of dread? We all have things that bring joy to our hearts, don’t we? Moments that make us want to breath deep of an ocean breeze, or a baby in our arms; to touch and caress a beloved person. Or feel the sun warming our skin, or watch a wonderful golden sunset from the top of the Empire State Building…

Some places have a reputation for being haunted.  I’ve heard theories that even the very bricks and rocks that surround us can pick up vibrations from living things, which we are capable of sensing in some way. And why should we not? We are made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe – why shouldn’t our molecules and atoms resonate in tune with the music of the stars?

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