There’s no better benchmark of our own life-evolution than the Christmas into New Year period – perhaps because we can so easily compare it with our life-stock of remarkably similar circumstances, collected over many years and played through with almost ritual-like precision, year after year. Perhaps its also because we come into more contact than usual with those we have known the longest and get to measure ourselves against how they still expect us to be…noticing, suddenly, that we have deviated from that stereotype in a way that takes us aback almost as much as it does them. Whatever the catalyst, its a natural time for auditing where we are at and noticing subtle (or even incredibly overt and quite startling) changes in our lifestyle since just twelve months before.
If I had to describe where I am at with Christmas in briefest terms, I would say that I have spent the last couple of years paring it down to where I questioned the point of it all and then building it back up again by allowing those aspects of it that I could feel were genuinely important to me (and that I would truly miss if they were gone forever) to reassert themselves; ditching the rest. The result has been a refreshingly shorter event this year, compared to most of the years of my life (I hardly gave Christmas a thought until it was virtually on top of me) and an occasion that has been more to do with familial love and celebrating quality time together than gift-giving and consuming things. I’ve also appreciated the seasonal foibles of December much more than ever before – even some of the rainiest and the gloomiest days – and we’ve witnessed some truly great sunsets!
This Christmas, beyond any other, I’ve been mindful of all the ways that I simply don’t subscribe to typical-cultural-Christmas (lets call it TCC since its bound to crop up again) and am prepared to swim against the tide, without apology. It was brought home to me just how different we are yesterday when visitors asked whether we had had any Christmas pudding or Christmas cake this year (nope), or any of the usual giant family-sized boxes of confectionery (nope), did we have any flavoured or fizzy drinks (nope, just water or tea). I have no problem with other people enjoying sugary-carby-foods but I have come to own that I really don’t (enjoying neither the sickly-sweet taste, nor the up-then-crash effect on my energy levels) and whereas, a couple of years ago, I would have eaten it all anyway, because its the Christmas norm and because hard-core advertising makes you feel like you really want it (and once you start eating it, you don’t seem to be able to stop), that stuff simply doesn’t get to me now, nothing can make it enticing to me and the rest of the family feel the same so we don’t buy it. In fact, we don’t indulge in any of the high-indulgence eating that has become the seasonal trend and our Christmas diet is hardly any different to what we eat at any other time – which is always great food – and no crazy stock-piling like we are expecting a natural disaster to bring down the supply chain!
This is only the tip of the food-evolution iceberg in a family that doesn’t conform with most people’s idea of a typical diet in any case since we don’t eat turkey, ham hock or smoked salmon at Christmas either. Being my third vegetarian Christmas, this is hardly new to us but still makes us a minority, culturally speaking, and this is never more apparent than when the supermarkets are full to bursting with ‘typical’ Christmas food. What is new is the sheer relish, ownership and confidence in the vegetarian way of eating that has become mine in 2014; I ‘rock’ the kitchen as a veggie cook, playing with ingredients and never loving food and flavour more than I do now, with a diverse range of meal ideas at my fingertips and a colourful and creative approach to experimenting with a healthy yet boundary-pushing range of ingredients. Our Christmas fare, this year, has been almost entirely organic, cooked from scratch, varied, light, delicious and satisfying with virtually no waste (scrumptious fresh soups and oven bakes have tidied up any remains from the fridge) and none of the post-Christmas ‘where did that spare tyre come from’ – my waistline looks the same, if not slightly trimmer, than it did a month ago, which is worth shouting about so I will.
If that sounds like me letting out a whoop of excitement its because, I suddenly appreciate, the theme of 2014 has been that there’s no apologising for veggie eating anymore, no more feeling like a weirdo or an awkward person at parties – I speak up where efforts to meet my preference are ‘less than’ when I’m out in restaurants and, without needing or wanting to convert anybody, I wear that preference proudly, knowledgeably and enthusiastically, celebrating the transformation in my health (and my peace-of-mind) that it has brought about with anyone who is interested in hearing a happy story. I will be writing more on all this in another post fairly soon.
Another big difference this Christmas: we stocked-up on the usual amount of wine and beer beforehand, thinking we may get through more of it than in an average fortnight (and really thought we might) but, now we are at the end of Christmas, find we have most of it still left in the cupboard. If there has to be a reason, its because we only drink when we genuinely want to these days…and drink far less quantity when we do…a trend that has been running for months now, as a result of which our consumption has reduced massively overall. No longer running some sort of tradition that ‘its the weekend so we must open wine’ or ‘its Wednesday so we cant’, the fact is that when there are absolutely no rules to adhere to, all compulsion goes out of the window and the most likely things to determine the opening of a bottle of red are because it would go particularly well with the food I am preparing or because we are in the mood for a mellow moment or a celebration.
This reduction in our consumption of alcohol also feels like a measure of a kind-of mood stability that has become our new norm, we notice; and with the absence of that old emotional see-saw, there is no element of ‘drowning sorrows’ to be found in our drinking-habits these days. A bottle isn’t reached for at the end of a ‘bad day’ because we seldom experience such a thing; not because we never have a rough day (let’s be realistic) but because circumstances are assessed and dealt with differently to how they used to be and we ‘get’ the bigger picture so much better, so much more quickly, than we once did, without all the drama; riding the brief moment of circumstance in more constructive ways, not by drowning it in drink.
We’ve also noticed, with some considerable appreciation, how much better we feel when we wake from a really good, clear-headed night’s sleep at the weekend – and doing early-morning yoga adds even more appreciation to the lack of sluggishness an absence of alcohol in the system affords you on waking. There was once a time (not so long ago) when I could barely remember a weekend morning when I hadn’t had a drink the night before but those days seem to have gone now. I’m still passionate about wine, still enjoy a beer – yes – but its an entirely different relationship that I have with these pleasures now and I feel so much better for it.
Yoga – now there’s a thing to add to the year-list and who would have thought we would turn into the yoga family in 2014, but we have. It started with my husband, who joined a class eight months ago and is now off to the intermediate~advanced session before I’ve even opened my eyes on a Saturday morning plus at least one other session per week after work. Next it was me who set myself up with a private coach and a daily routine that I practice in our newly created zen zone and then, over the Christmas hols, our daughter has joined in most mornings so we are all at it, converts through and through. A year ago, my loathing of ‘exercise routines’ was a life-long rut I thought I would never get out of but the benefits of yoga – and the fact it really does make me feel so much better inside my own body – has really spoken for itself. Quite simply, yoga has become part of the fabric of life to the point I can’t really imagine it not being there now and, seeing as it feels so great, its the very least I can do for myself in the spirit of self-love that is the underpin of my ever-improving health.
If yoga is a brand new thread that I choose to have in that life-fabric then other threads have, just as consciously and decisively, been tugged out of it during 2014 for the fact they were no longer embellishing it…things I never liked doing in the first place so why not get rid of them and be done with it? Apparently this is quite a radical spin, if some of my recent conversations with people are to be believed as there still seems to be so much resignation to circumstances that are entirely dispensable or open to modification yet which people still allow themselves to feel so tied to and stuck with. Why heartily complain (as people do) that you loathe doing something but then perpetuate it…whatever it is…I have to ask; yet, just a year ago, I was still prone to ‘putting up’ with such things myself and it was something in the air of 2014 that finally loosened that one up for me.
A big one to get rid of was the ritual of shopping – any kind of shopping that I found to be a chore and an interruption and a taker-up-of-time – and, whilst in my head I could almost have continued to tolerate it as an inevitability of life, my body wasn’t having any of it and was sending me ever louder messages that it had had quite enough of standing around breathing in air-conditioner dust, trawling around vast shopping malls for hours looking for that elusive thing or pushing trolleys around brightly lit rooms whilst being bombarded with relentless marketing ploys and the very worst of human behaviour.
As a result, I’ve now arranged my domestic life so that my shopping comes to me and its so easy to do – and makes everything so much more organised and budget-conscious – that I’m left wondering why its not more universal. As far as Christmas was concerned this year, I didn’t go anywhere near a shopping mall, an out-of-town superstore or a supermarket; it was all done online or through small independent shops, farms and makers-of-goods that I enjoy popping into – radical, huh? For some people, the thought of navigating the Christmas period without enduring the crowds, the miles of parking queues that back-up the motorways, the push and shove and the sheer, relentless chaos of it all is unimaginable; yet I hear them all bewail how stressful they find it, as though its unavoidable and something they must grit their teeth and get through. Nope, I am living proof that it can be dispensed with completely and utterly; there was no piped shopping mall Christmas music directed at me this year and I feel all the better for it. The fact that we have – all – become such conscious consumers in this family has really helped and Christmas has never been less about hoarding stuff we didn’t really need.
On the topic of piped music, there are some particularly grating aspects of TCC that I find I have now pushed to arms length and successfully (joyfully) held there for almost the entire season to the point I hardly notice them at all any more. One of these is the TCC ‘official playlist’ of Christmas music (you know the one I mean), the kind of stuff that seems to follow you everywhere, like a soundtrack to your life from late October onwards, and which can start to feel like a mind-worm burrowing into your head with its arsenal of tediously catchy lyrics and fake sleigh bells that are all geared up to move in and take up residency. I have now avoided this by, as above, not generally going into the kind of shops that pipe such music out of their sound-systems and by not turning on the radio…ever! Anyone in our household who has returned home ‘infected’ with a dose of this has been met by a chorus of “Noooo!” from the rest of us as soon the first few syllables of “Sleigh-bells ring…” or “Last Christmas…” leaves their mouth and its been a source of much hilarity to work as a family unit, keeping this aspect of TCC at bay for once. This isn’t as “bah humbug” as it sounds – I love music with a passion and we do a great deal of singing in our house (more this year than ever before) but I want to be able to choose what gets to car-park inside my head!
As a household, we don’t really watch television anymore either, which has been a natural evolution over the last year or so, with me leading the way during 2013 (when I switched to viewing just the occasional film – and even more occasional iPlayer program – on my iPad, which had the effect of making me think a lot more about what I chose to watch), followed by my husband who only turns on the telly for the occasional rugby match. As the finale (and who would have seen this coming) my teenage daughter went from near addict to declaring telly to be a load of rubbish at the start of last year when she stopped watching it altogether (and, like me, she now prefers to pick and choose the kind of media she views, which is largely videos on the internet). This became such an established thing that we were able to cancel our Sky subscription at the end of the summer (an exercise that was worth doing just to hear the incredulity and total lack of comprehension at the end of the phone when we told them why) and, eventually, managed to deflect the sales department that was so desperately intent upon cold-calling us in an attempt to woo us back.
Getting rid the of television as the focal point of our living space turned out to be a game changer and, I suspect, has been a lynchpin to some of the most dramatic changes in group behaviour that have occurred this last year, one of which is that we are a family that is completely devoid of high-drama; we are just so chilled! The most typical thing that my daughter shouts at me through her bedroom door (and she does this, often) is ‘I love you’ as I pass by and we all talk and engage with each other more than ever before. You don’t really appreciate all the subtle ways that tv mentality eats into your viewpoint of life, your stamina and your awareness of what’s going on in ‘real time’ until its taken away and the occasional, accidental, encounter with television for me, now, can feel shockingly abrasive. I also find we are far better off without our daily dose of the ‘news’ delivered on a spinning tv plate that never runs out of something negative to feed us – there are other ways of keeping abreast of what’s going on in the world and its also good to question ‘do I really need to know all this’ rather than indiscriminately taking it all on to your own shoulders when there’s nothing you can do about it (and, face it, we are far more use to everyone else around us if we are able to maintain our own centre rather than spiralling off into constant gloom and overwhelm). The panic-stations mentality of tv culture is something we could all do with a lot less of.
Going back to Christmas, an avoidance of the most groansome and, lets face it, ruthless aspects of TCC comes as a free gift with the package of a life that has all-but eradicated television since tv adverts are the most relentless source of the cringiest and most ulterior-motivated kinds of Christmas reference, telling us what the season is all supposed to be about, starting weeks before anyone wants to hear any of it, carried along into our group psyche by all of the most repetitious advertising campaigns as they build up a head of steam; plus there’s been no ‘Top 100 Christmas songs’ or ‘100 best Christmas gadgets’ (etc!) programs, no Morecombe and Wise or thirty-year-old sitcom reruns and no M&S adverts telling us what the perfect Christmas should look like in our house. In short, we have completely ducked out of having Christmas ‘served’ to us by the devisers of television scheduling and their advertising moguls and it is – I can promise you – marvelously liberating; like spending Christmas in a log cabin high up in the mountains, breathing freshest mountain air enjoying a view, without even having to leave home!
It made me smile, earlier, when I couldn’t find my jumper to go on a dog walk…and found it scrunched up and not-so-artistically draped over the kitchen door where I left it to drip-dry after all the mud and the rain yesterday. Since I left it there, we’ve had a houseful of guests and, in the old days, I would have run myself ragged tidying up and plumping cushions before their arrival; nothing would have been out of place, certainly no bedraggled garments hanging up in the kitchen doorway. Not anymore; people take us as they find us and I don’t even notice all those things that I used to imagine visitors would see and find fault with and so I find, in hindsight, all the major work I used to put into situations like this (especially at Christmas!) was quite obsolete, easily dispensed with and that life is all the richer for its absence. Whereas, in years past, I remember cringing as I served up vegetarian fare to visiting family-members at Christmas, this time it was offered proudly and with no apology and they loved it all, going back for seconds and thirds with none of the typical wise-cracks of old (“so where’s the meat?” or “nice starter, what’s for the main course?”) – an ample reminder that people tend to meet you where you are at and, when you truly believe in what you are putting out there, they are far more likely to believe in it with you!
These small seasonal anecdotes are just a reminder of all the many ways that, in 2014, I gave up living my life for anyone else but me and, since I did that, its as though an old pressure screw that was always subtly turning in the background of life has finally relented. Who put that screw there if it wasn’t me, trying so hard to live up to cultural expectations…but now its gone, things are so very much more about enjoyment, and that feels seriously radical when its not what you are used to. If I don’t want to go somewhere I say ‘no thank you’, if it doesn’t feel right I say so, if I need some me time I take it. It all sounds so very easy and straightforward, obvious even, yet the option to be like this is kept something of a cultural secret and most people (even those who give the importance of personal liberty a great deal of lip-service) actually live as though tied to a tree by an imaginary rope.
The choice of how to spend Christmas is, by and large, trivial (and extremely subjective – I’m not suggesting my way is the ‘right’ way) and so I am using these anecdotes as examples of a whole new attitude to life that permeates all aspects of my decision making now, in both my private and my work life, and over matters both large and minuscule – going with the gut, and honouring myself, in each situation. Looking back, I know this wasn’t my comfortable norm just over a year ago and it can feel like such a guilty thing, at the start, as you begin to listen to what you really want to do and take steps to allow your preferences to turn into reality, making them a priority; but, take it from me, its such an evolutionary step and leads to so many other great things. Having embraced this way of being more fully, in 2014, than ever before, I can report that it feels like stepping into myself completely (at last) whilst freeing myself from the chains of so many hang-ups about what other people might think, only to watch all that nonsense dissolve away as the illusion that it always was (since those fears are only ever kept alive by the belief that we have in them).
Christmas, it seems, hasn’t gone away or become ‘less than’ for us (as I thought it might be on the brink of doing, about a year or so ago); only, like everything else, it has been freshly reinvented. There’s no denying that there has been a real magic in the air for us this Christmas…my daughter just commented on it and we are all in agreement that its been our best-ever one, so its not just me. Yet its been less to do with partying or ‘getting stuff’ or people pleasing or tradition keeping or living it large or telly watching or having to see loads of people (or any of the other core tenets of TCC) than ever before; in fact, its all been far subtler and harder to pin-down in words than that and feels like a tributary of that same body of magic that has become the tangible river-flow of life in general, these days. As a family, we are all noticing it and, hard as it is to put into words, its heartening to hear other family members at least try to articulate how great everything is actually feeling. We have reached a new place of love and respect and friendship and support that makes our home a genuinely wonderful place to be. We have a lot of fun, we interact a lot, we talk endlessly and enthusiastically and we can also be together in a room without saying anything at all and still feel the connection we share. There’s an absence of all the high-drama, deep misunderstanding and teenage angst that is apparently ‘normal’ family life as depicted in all the tv programs that none of us choose to watch anymore. We are each acutely aware of being on a personal journey that is unfolding beautifully, just as it is, and there is a great deal of gratitude for so many seemingly small and ordinary things.
As we start to drift back into the flow of our individuated lives this week, we all realise what an incredibly blessed time we have shared together this Christmas, which only goes to highlight the same connection that we continually share across all of the other times too. This is a feeling that, we know, extends out from our core to all of the other people on this planet and what we have enjoyed in concentration for two weeks, as we allowed ourselves to become centred in our own lives, has only helped to reaffirm that. Perhaps that deep, thoughtful centredness – which helps us to radiate something great out into the world – is what Christmas is really all about.
That feeling of there being a deep and purposeful flow to life, as the undercurrent to everything, is something that became particularly real for me during 2014; its a flow that I participate in and yet one which, if I surrender to it (that is, not always demanding to have all the answers in advance), guarantees to take me wherever I am meant to go and there is such bliss and peace-of-mind to be found in knowing that and so dropping the need to orchestrate and party-plan life to the point of endless distraction. Creating plenty of space – freeing myself of all the things I don’t choose to be there, taking up room in my life – is like oiling the wheels of that flow. Uncluttered by all the stuff I no longer choose, the daily experience of life – just as it is – has become far richer and more vivid and I’m aware of experiencing it much more fully than ever, somehow. Even the process of writing about it (just as much as I photograph and paint from the rich hoard of my experience) seems to enrich the act of experiencing life, taking it to much deeper levels for me, so that there is, primarily, a self-serving core to even that. In other words, I have come to realise (and to own fully, without apology) that I write and create, first and foremost, for myself – knowing, also, that this is where my best inspiration lies – and if anyone else happens to get something out of what results then that’s great, but there’s no longer a prime element of doing it for others, to seek an audience or to drag attention back to myself to fill a hole in who I think I am. Rather, what I create is an aspect of me radiating out to the world; take it or leave it as I’m just busy enjoying being me, either way. This is new and this is liberating and to get this, finally, was a sparkling gift that landed in my lap during 2014; one I will be taking with me into the new year, feeling profoundly grateful and newly unfettered; content to have it show me (at its own pace) where it leads to next.