Amiet, Bruegel and Christmas

An unprecedentedly mild December set me searching for snowy scenes… in the lull between the twin peaks of festive excess, which are Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The chance to spin my wheels is a rare one; but I have put it to good use: a splendid Lego Millennium Falcon is built for my son, turkey soup has been slurped by all and I have a birthday jigsaw belatedly on the go. 

But the post-Christmas peace will be short lived. Soon I will be pressed into activity and jollity, like the skaters in the younger Bruegel’s “Bird Trap”.

   
And once that is done, it will be back to work, fitting more people into less space in the manner of his father’s “Census at Bethlehem”.

  
So I’m enjoying my rare day of solitude. This expanse of white is by Swiss painter Cuno Amiet. It’s his 1904 “Snowy Landscape” discovered on the ever wonderful DailyArt App

  
The tiny figure looks lost. But on closer inspection he (although it could be a she) seems to have a sense of purpose about them. 

The chance to have a mind as blank as Amiet’s snows is a treat indeed – as is cooking up leftovers and piecing together my New York skyline jigsaw in glorious, if temporary solitude.

Still, returning to Brueghel’s “Bird Trap”, no-one would choose an entirely solitary life… As Aristotle famously said.

  
The thin string to the tiny dark window is a reminder that neither poor nor alone, I’m very lucky to have food, friends and family all around at Christmas.

Don’t count your Christmases

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A chill thought swam into my head as I lay flat and fat in my Christmas bed. Reflecting on eating my bodyweight in festive fayre, a sepia memory came unbidden of Christmas past.

I found myself transported to my own grandparents’ living room transfixed by the annual treat of their fancy striped frosted tumblers coming out of the sideboard. Time for shandies and lemonade and lime.

I remembered my Grandad’s big glasses and big smile and felt a pang of sadness that they’re no longer with us. And then came an urgent calculation of how many more Christmas Days until my daughter leaves home and then turns her back on family Christmas…

This brought the anxious recognition there are a very finite number of Christmases left for me. Ouch – my chest tightened and breath shortened at the very thought.

Christmas is in many ways ‘the most wonderful time of the year’. Despite the excess of preparing, spending, eating and travelling a Great British Christmas has a lot going for it – if you let yourself go a bit.

The kids love it, everyone is that bit more friendly and the rituals and routines are reassuring: a family walk, some fizz, the steaming crescendo of Christmas lunch; then washing up and putting away. It’s all good.

However much hard work goes in – and after our Christmas spread it took me nearly four hours to slowly but surely wash-up and tidy up – they are the most reliably memorable days of young and middle aged lives.

I’ve sometimes rather endured Christmas. But these days I try harder to enjoy them. Every Christmas counts.

Smiling

Against the grain today I put on a smiling face. In so doing I added measurably to the sum of human happiness. So simple, yet sometimes so hard. Why don’t we all do it more?

I can’t take all the credit. I was kickstarted by two people – one I know well, one I don’t. After a shirty start and shouting at each other, my son and I made it to nursery on a cold, grey, damp morning. He was glum, I was in a bit of a rush. As I turned to leave he asked for a cuddle and I knelt down and gave him a big all body hug. We smiled. He was ok, I was ok. The cascade of smiles began. 

I smiled at my daughter in the schoolyard and at the teachers who smiled back. I chose a smiley stripy shirt for work and then whistled Christmas tunes through the drizzle on my bike in. I went to buy a coffee and as I waited the friendly young foreigner behind the counter gave me a winning smile and asked me how I was. It was such a winning smile, I gave him a winning smile back and exchanged jovial small talk about the coming snow and all the customers and servers joined in. We all smiled.

I walked round the corner to work whistling ‘Walking in a winter wonderland’. Once in the office I smiled at the security guards and receptionists and walked past the lifts to the seven flights of stairs I hack up every morning. I decided to whistle ‘Walking in a winter wonderland’ as I climbed the stairs to see if I could a) not be embarrassed or cowed by reproachful looks into glumness and b) get a smile out of the random selection of people I might pass.

Tricky start. First up I bumped into a chap who hasn’t made eye contact with me for 6 weeks since my new organisational strategy consigned his section and personal passion to frozen assets and deep cuts. He’s furious with me, and how ever much I’ve tried he won’t acknowledge me if we pass in the building. The whistling got him though. He looked, I captured his curious and unsuspecting gaze and flashed him a winning smile and a cheery salutation. He couldn’t resist smiling back and finally saying hello.

Next I whistled past another urgent faced, rushing, anxious looking senior colleague. He was equally surprised and switched from frowning to smiling. I passed another person I don’t know who also by the alchemy of Christmas went from neutral to smiling within nine whistled notes ‘Walk-ing in a win-ter won-der-land’. 

By the fourth flight of stairs my whistling was getting a bit uneven as I ran out of breath. By the fifth I gave up. On the sixth I bumped into another colleague and told him what I’d been up to. He was both bemused and amused. But it got him smiling. Onto the seventh flight and into my office and I was full of good cheer. The day started well, I performed well, did some important things and remained cheerful throughout. 

I ended the day with a woman I work with who can be challenging and confrontational. She is also a person of genuine conviction and intelligence. We were on the topic of making an impact and being true to yourself whilst speaking the truth to power. I told her that whilst being far from the finished product myself on this, sometimes a lot hinges on how you decide to ‘be’. If you decide to be high energy you can bring energy, if you decide to be aggressive you can scare people, if you decide to be warm you can attract, if you decide to be cold you can chill. 

We are all affected by how others are ‘being’ too but to some degree we have a choice about how we are. She had been open, supportive, thoughtful and measured when we met in an important meeting earlier in the day. She had got much of what she wanted without confrontation or a furrowed brow. As I said to her, when I was asked, my main memory of her in the meeting was relaxed and open with a smooth forehead, high eyebrows and a smile. We had all warmed to her. Maybe I had helped a little as I gave her a big encouraging smile when she came in the room.

If so, it had all started with a big hug from a small boy and a smile from a complete stranger. Smiling, it’s powerful stuff.