Hogmanay 2016

I miss the traditions of my childhood on nights like this. Hogmanay has always made me melancholy, but this is the kind of year when spinning until I’m dizzy and laughing, shoeless, care about hair and makeup long forgotten, at a ceilidh with the people I love would be healing. When we would see the bells in, then the adults would stumble from house to house carrying gifts of whisky, food and coal, children sleepy-eyed and trying hard to stay awake to greet the First Footers.

Then we’d all gather after a long sleep to eat party food – vol-au-vents, bhajis, samosas, cheese, grapes, salad – at our house, laughing and drinking again and nursing sore feet and hangovers, showing off the bruises on our arms from Strip the Willow.

These are the traditions that bind communities together, which start the year off with joy, laughter, giving, and a lot of love. I don’t think that it’s the loss of these traditions which has doomed us, but this is one of those years where it would be comforting.

I’m lucky – I’m with people I love in a warm, safe home, surrounded by cats and waiting for lasagne and wine.  It’s the ideal Hogmanay for my grown up self – no crowds, no rain, no drunken strangers, just warmth and games and love. The melancholy is strong, though, although I think it’ll fade when the games start.

This has been a bruiser of a year. We are all still in a state of shock, I think. We’re still waiting for whatever fix is going to come to save us from our actions, even if we intellectually know that no saviour is coming. We did this to ourselves.  Unfortunately, we also did it to everyone else – people who never had any say in our decisions will pay for them with their lives and futures.

Our grief for the long litany of the dead, while painful, is in many ways a sublimation of our horror at the huge machinations of states and powers.  We can’t grieve for the future of the human race because doing so would mean accepting that there is no hope, so we grieve for the people we see as representative of the future we thought we’d have.

I’m hoping against hope that I’ll see this as laughably hyperbolic next year. I hope so.  It’ll be much easier than today was, reading the following Facebook memory:

Things I’d like to see a little more of in 2016 than we did this year:

1 – Excitement about science, including the boring stuff, and some more discussion about what makes science robust and how retractions and negative results are just as important as shiny new discoveries. I’d like to see the bridge between the scientific and the lay communities started, because right now it’s only made up of journalists looking for the most sensational way to interpret something.

I’d love a scientist to normal person dictionary, which would mostly be made up of ‘scientist: this is quite robust evidence, and while certainty doesn’t exist, we believe we have reached a consensus on the import of this data’, in lay person, means ‘holy fucking shit you guys we have to do something right now or we’re all going to die’.

2 – An appreciation of nuance in debates. There are some things which are black and white, but many ,more which only appear so. I’d very much like to see an understanding that there is a real difference between people who are malicious or wilfully ignorant, and people who are just programmed by the culture which we rage against for programming people.

I’d love to see more empathy for how hard it is to step outside that world view and understand that you have done harm to people – our brains are set up specifically to avoid seeing ourselves as the bad guy, and it requires compassion and patience to overcome that. It’s also really hard to do that while under siege from the entire internet, which just puts you into survival mode instead of learning mode.

I’ve been as guilty of it as everyone else – we can’t say that these things aren’t important when they’re symbols of a culture which is doing real, visceral harm, but we can modify our responses depending on the person we’re angry with. Rather than destroying the lives of ordinary people who make missteps, even egregious ones, because they don’t know any better, maybe we could try to remember all the ways in which we are still ignorant and doing harm, and how much we could all be fighting for each other instead of with each other.

And as part of that, I’d like to see people trying to bring nuance into these discussion instead of saying ‘burn the witch’ not villified as being on the side of the oppressor. For people who say we’re not a hive mind, we certainly like to act like we are. It’s the most human thing in the world to want to feel superior, smarter, better, more moral. It’s harder to try to figure out if a person is bad or just uneducated, if they could be a better person with compassion instead of shame. It’s hard, too, to understand that two people can both be good people even when we disagree on important stuff. It’s getting harder. I’d like to not see that disappear entirely.

3 – I’d like to see the long, hard fights acknowledged like the short, popular ones are. There are so many people working away behind the scenes, in so many roles. These are long, thankless, painful, often hopeless struggles for justice and liberation, because most of the really intractable problems can’t be solved by a petition or a hashtag. There’s room for both types of activism, but I’d love to see the people doing the complex, long-term work as reported on as the meme-of-the-day.

4 – I hope we can step back from the abyss. We seem to have found ourselves at a precipice, and I hope that we can include compassion and empathy in our outrage, or we’ll leave ourselves with nowhere to meet the other side in discussion and understanding.

I hope I remember this in my own interactions. I hope I am a better person this time next year than I am right now. I hope I’m happier, and that the world looks brighter. I hope. Still.

If I can look back at this piece with laughter, I’ll be thrilled. But this is the first year my fear for the future has not been purely my mental illness speaking.  It’s hard to control my OCD catastrophism when the world is confirming all my fears. It is hard to look with any hope at the future coming for us all.

So, as the good existentialist I am, I am going to keep going with one of my principles – if nothing matters, everything matters. There is no inherent meaning to the universe, no great plan, no reason for all that is happening to us. So, in the absence of grander plans, every small act of kindness matters. Helping people matters. Being compassionate to people matters. It’s all there is in this dark world. What we do for each other creates the meaning we’re looking for.

Or, from Angel:

Angel: Well, I guess I kinda worked it out. If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters… , then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it.

Kate Lockley: And now you do?

Angel: Not all of it. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because, I don’t think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

Kate Lockley: Yikes. It sounds like you’ve had an epiphany.

Angel: I keep saying that, but nobody’s listening.

So I’m reminiscing about some of my favourite memories from a dark year, and here’s to the small moments of grace, love and kindness we’ll find time for in the year to come. I hope we see another Hogmanay, I hope we fight as hard as we can for the better world we can create, I hope we don’t forget our responsibilities to each other. I hope we remember that we are the only ones who can save ourselves, so we should get to work.

I hope your Hogmanay is joyful and filled with love. I hope your 2017 brings better days. I hope that you find ways to bring better days to others, if you can.

A guid New Year tae ane an a’.

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Night on the beach in Elie, Scotland
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A Christmas Post for Non-Christians

I love Christmas.  Unashamedly, while all the cool people declare how much they hate it and that they’re done with it all, I love it. The decorations, the lights, the process of finding things I think the people I love will rejoice in, the food, the warmth.  But most of all, I love seeing the people I call my family, both biological and chosen. I love getting together, eating and laughing and just sitting with them.

For my whole life, in the various forms of therapy I’ve had, when I’ve been told to conjure up a good place, a place where I feel safe, it has been the Christmas Eves of my childhood. The memories have a sense of peace and contentment that makes something in me let go. The people I love, all in the home I adore, pottering about as people converge from all over. I am aware of how lucky I am that these memories are filled with love.

This post isn’t about my life, though. It isn’t a well-written bit of exhortation to love the people you call family while you can, for time grows short.  Other people have done that much better than me (and I’ll link below).  Instead, it’s a kind of party I’m hosting, that I want to share with you.  I’m an atheist (technically an atheist pagan), and, while I love the carols, I also collect other songs which reach me. So these are the articles and songs which help make Christmas for me. Many of the songs are sad (because Christmas can be hard as well as beautiful), but they’re meaningful nonetheless. These are the elements which, for me, show that Christmas is neither  Christian-only holy day, nor is it just the commercialised festival of capitalism it can be.  It’s spending time with the people you love, eating good food, laughing and lighting away the long dark.

So here goes.

(note – the songs have all been collected on a Youtube playlist, too)

I won’t include notes for all of them, just where I want to (it’s my party!)

First, the articles. This piece by David Wong of Cracked is the single greatest article about Christmas I’ve ever read. I sobbed when I read it the first time. And the second time. And it still makes me teary and weepy. I won’t quote from it because you should just read it. It is beautiful, and religion has nothing to do with it.  The world is dark, and time is short. Rejoice that we get to be here at all.

And here’s the funniest Christmas article I’ve ever read, also from Cracked, by Adam Tod Brown. Again, not going to quote it, but it involved the real implications of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

And the greatest scene from Terry Pratchett’s ‘Hogfather’, which is full of amazing scenes, including the fixing of the Little Matchgirl’s story (see my other piece from today):

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”

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The greatest of all non-religious Christmas songs for me: White Wine In The Sun by Tim Minchin.  The first time I heard it I sobbed for a full ten minutes (which was embarrassing, because it was at the end of a gig and I was in a room full of people).  But these lines, for me, evoke exactly the feeling I wrote about up top:
“And you, my baby girl
My jetlagged infant daughter
You’ll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school
And you won’t understand
But you will learn someday
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who’ll make you feel safe in this world
My sweet blue-eyed girl.”


Brilliant lyrics from ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ by Greg Lake:
“I wish you a hopeful christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
Hallelujah! Noel! Be it heaven or hell
The Christmas we get we deserve.”

Here’s the Youtube playlist including all these.

Here is my Spotify Christmas Chill playlist, which is beautiful and includes a lot of songs not listed so far (particularly check out the Christmas Song by Stars, it’s stunning).  It’s not always the happiest of playlists, but these are my favourites.

Here’s my general Christmas playlist, with quite the range of songs.

The Little Matchgirl Redux

Been thinking a lot about The Little Matchgirl last night and this morning. It’s a story I adored when I was little, because the saddest stories were my favourites (the original Little Mermaid was another). It’s one of those strange ones that, when you read it later in life, is genuinely disturbing in its message: that poverty is inevitable. That a tiny, starving, abandoned girl freezing to death as shoppers walked past with presents and food for Christmas was a happy ending.

We’ve talked a lot over the last couple of years about the return to Victorian values, and how frightening it is. Mostly it’s hyperbole to highlight dangerous trends, but this Christmas more than 120,000 children will be in unstable or temporary accommodation in the UK. This Christmas there will be children too afraid of abusive parents to return home, who will not have access to the kinds of safeguards we put in place to stop them starving and freezing to death on the streets. This Christmas, young people sleeping on the streets will have difficulty finding shelter as councils across the country have been slashing beds and financial support for shelters for six years now. But the Little Matchgirl, she didn’t sell enough matches to save herself, so she was lazy or genetically inferior (-Boris). Providing help, warmth, food, safety – that would just incentivise children to run away! It would all have made children *want* to sleep on the streets.

She freed herself from the ‘welfare trap’ by being a story from a time when welfare didn’t exist, and she just died instead. Because that’s what happens. People don’t magically get better or stop being poor because you remove support systems, they just die. They starve, or freeze, or overdose on whatever they took to make the despair disappear for a while. It’s happening now, and we’re the people scurrying past, ignoring the desperate child with only hours to live, watching the shooting star heralding her death and wondering who it’s for.

Pratchett, in his infinite wisdom, rewrote the ending in The Hogfather. Rather than allow a child to die just so everyone else could feel good about not being that poor, an explanation which is monstrously horrific once it’s laid bare, he gave her the best present he could – a future.

Children are freezing and starving right now because we have chosen to let them. It fits our narrative of borders and danger and invasion. We could give them a future, but we choose not to. The danger of understanding the horror at the core of The Little Matchgirl – that the angels arrive to take her away after she dies, instead of taking her somewhere warm and safe before – means that we have to take responsibility.

“Terry Pratchett hasn’t been an escapist writer for quite some time. He’ll amuse you, sure; but he won’t tell you that things are great just the way they are, or that they’re hopeless and there’s nothing you can do. He’ll tell you that you — yes, you — should make them better.
And then he’ll do something even more radical. He’ll make you think you can.” (always credited to an article that no longer exists)