Last Sunday in Budapest was cold and wet. We put on layers and went off to shop for food for the next few days — tomatoes and avocados, crusty dark bread and cheese.
Coming back, the leaves in the park were soggy, the little play area was empty, the woman we usually saw throwing balls for her two small dogs was absent. But we noticed a tall building with windows the whole height of the floors in the top apartments, chatting about what amazing views they must give. Scanning the buildings, another apartment had two elegant arch windows, one butting against the other, letting out onto a stone balcony with an art deco carving of a face above it.
Over and over in beautiful places, and often also in places that look ordinary or even if we keep our eyes at street level or fixed on the ground, we see so much more by looking up.
In Budapest, the detailing of buildings from the late 1800s through the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods is everywhere to be seen in exquisite or poignant detail. Sometimes its breath-taking beauty. At other times it’s a reminder of the devastation of buildings shelled during the Uprising of 1956 and still bearing the scars.
We see more if we look up. And in seeing, we are more challenged and more moved by the place we’re in. We become more present. The same is true in Paris, where we ended our trip before returning to London for a family birthday celebration, or in Nottingham, where a friend once pointed out what could be seen as we walked, bringing the place to life. The same is true of a walk in a forest where we notice the life of the trees as well as the ground if we also look up.
In one of the stories of this season from Advent to Epiphany, this was also true for the Magi. They had to look up, they had to pay attention to the night sky, before they set off on such an improbable and bold pilgrimage. It doesn’t matter whether it happened quite like this or even at all; it’s a powerful story and so it brims with truth rather than facts.
What can you see ahead?
This Sunday will be the first in Advent as well as the first day of Chanukah. And if you are someone who opens an Advent calendar in December the first door opens tomorrow (if you’re reading on November 30).
It’s a season that is about anticipation. And it’s a season that encompasses important themes for any writer — patience, expectation and hope of change run through it.
This is how the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an anti-Nazi campaigner and pacifist, executed just two weeks before the concentration camp he was held in was liberated, puts it:
The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.
In a frenetic world, we often look forward not so much to great things as to more work, more pressure to buy more stuff that we’ll put in a cupboard and forget about or more trying to please too many people at once. December, when our bodies and creativity might want to go with the seasonal rhythm of germinating new growth deep within, can be a whirlwind of anxiety and stress;
- have you ordered the Christmas food in time?
- are all the cards written and sent?
- are all the gifts bought and are they the right ones?
- who might you have forgotten?
- are all the presents wrapped?
- when is the best time to put up the tree and decorations?
- do you have the right outfit for that party you don’t even want to go to?
- is anyone going to invite me to a party or anything seasonal?
- do we have enough wine/snacks/fruit/delete as appropriate for guests?
- are all the rooms ready for guests?
- are you ready?
This is not to say you should throw your hands in the air and cancel all of it this year. But some of the pressure can feel a long way from living in the present moment, from cultivating patience, expectation, hope and joy. And whether we love throwing ourselves into all of it or are longing for it all to change, or something in between, we can all benefit from looking up. We could all use the opportunity to have a December that isn’t reactive and yanked around by fear of missing out. We could all use the chance to give our time in this season to what matters to us most.
Getting mired in the details can leave us breathless and forgetful of why we were doing all of this in in the first place. It’s all too easy with big cultural holidays that have cleverly mixed profound story, family love and rampant consumerism to feel trapped on the roller coaster of ‘this is how it has to be’. And this keeps us looking down or, worse, feeling out of control, dizzy and as though we can never deliver the ‘perfect’ gift/experience/meal …
If you can see nothing but drudgery or anxiety in your December ahead, stop and reconsider.
What do you want to see ahead of you? For December and for the New Year? What would make it happen, or begin to happen. What small shifts can you make to start the change that you see ahead? (It doesn’t have to be all at once, the season can be overwhelming enough without adding to it).
Who will you share the wonder with?
The Magi set out together. If everyone else in the world thought they were mad, chasing a star across countries, at least they had each other. When you look up, when you see stars ahead instead of dirty dishes to wash or a stack of cards to write to people you haven’t had a real conversation with for years, who can you share the vision with?
Some of us are incredibly lucky to have supportive partners, amazing family members, incredible friends. Those of us with this amazing fortune should give those wonderful people attention.
Some of us may live with others who don’t ‘get’ this need to see the world differently, through the eyes of truthful story and life-enhancing myth. Or we may be alone.
When we look up to exclaim in wonder at all what we see ahead, or when we assert that there is something greater to come, it’s good to hear an answering voice, or at least to have a sense that we’re not the only person on the path.
A couple of weeks ago I had so many emails from people who were feeling overwhelmed and that they couldn’t make time for their creativity, their writing, their passion, that I started to write a course for Advent and couldn’t stop. It’s one way of having another to share the path with and you can find the course (for a tiny contribution) here.
How will you keep the vision?
But whether you choose to sign up for a course or set your own journaling quests for December or meet regularly with someone who, like you, can see that star out there, this December, look up.
Block out some time every day this month and the few days of January, as a gift to yourself this winter season, and use it to nurture your vision of what you can see ahead. Add to each day some small act of self-compassion. It might be lighting a candle each day of Advent or an extra-long bubble bath; perhaps reading a chapter of a book after journaling or going outside last thing each night to look up at the stars…
Call to find the still point of your story
Why such a huge reduction? Because I want transformational relationships in which we contribute different things and together become more than the sum of our parts. I want to give more value than a cost figure can conjure, not because it’s Purple Tuesday or Turquoise over-spending-on-stuff-that-doesn’t-sell day, but because the world needs writing and it needs generosity and abundance.