Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

Shortening days, lengthening reflections — and Settling Up

by Chris on 15th December 2018

Just a week to go until the shortest day and winter’s beginning. Somehow, though the year stumbles on for another ten days, for me, it’s the winter solstice that marks its finale.

I’m no pagan. In a fragile world, I cling onto my Christian faith, against the odds. For all the fairy lights that bedeck the cityscape at my door, the magic of Christmas is still captured most by Advent.

Isaiah 9:2: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’

And yet, for all its gloom, it’s the dying light that sees off, for good or ill, the outgoing year. And makes room for the hope of the next.

Yes, there’s a weariness to scuttling away from the house in the blackness of early mornings, only to return long after twilight. If the sun appears at all, we often miss it.

But there’s something irresistible about the stripped back bareness of this time too. Despite its brittle appearance, it offers the possibility of renewal. We cannot begin again without it.

As Eliot reminds us in Little Gidding: ‘To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.’

The end starts as November draws to a close and the last of autumn’s golden frill falls to the ground. What was alive and verdant a few months ago rustles underfoot. The light thins and the landscape narrows.

But for all the cover of darkness, there is nowhere left to hide. The year has been and gone — its deeds been and done. Promises kept and broken.

Whatever hopes and fears we carried 12 months ago have been fulfilled or dashed. More often than not it’s the soggy the middle ground we’ve trodden. And we count our blessings.

Better, we raise a glass of good cheer to a birth or a marriage — the start of something. Maybe more material stuff, a new job or home. Worse, the unimaginable has happened. A sudden, unexpected death. And we’re left counting the cost of irretrievable loss.

Even in these unprecedented days, it’s the domesticity of life that concerns most of us most.

Whatever. The shortening days give way to lengthening reflections. It can be maudlin but it doesn’t have to be. Whether you believe in the great light that’s approaching or not, a fresh start beckons. You can cast off the year’s scorecard and start again.

Spring is still a world away. It will be quite a while before buds burgeon. January offers a month of Mondays, first. And February, despite its relative brevity can be a trudge. But it’s the dying back of winter in all its completeness that offers the possibility of renewal at all.

I won’t miss 2018. For all the abundant joy of last year, not least the late call to marriage I never imagined in the callowness of youth, this one’s been less than prepossessing. The worst of it is a trivial detail in our hell in a handcart world, but it matters to me. I stopped running. Within weeks of one of the best races of my life. The contrast was cruel.

Whether I will again, the missing cartilage in my left knee has reminded me that our endeavours are finite. Because we are. Yet there’s (nearly) always something. And the compensation is that I find myself writing a book.

I was writing it when the year began but then it was scarcely more than an idea. Now, exhilaratingly, it’s a thing. To be completed, and there’s quite a lot to do. But I’ve said it out loud so it’ll have to be done.

Coincidentally, as I ruminate on the year, the book looks back further. Fifty-eight years further — and counting. It’s called Settling Up.

It’s a memoir in form, a collection of stories from a life, not the story of a life. So it spares the reader much of the humdrum that comes with autobiography. And my life has had plenty of that.

In its reckoning, it’s an assortment of edited highlights. A pick ’n’ mix. Its uniqueness is modest. It’s my story and no one else’s. It has an extensive cast of characters but it’s my truth, not theirs.

It can’t, in any case, be the story of a life. I’m hurtling towards late middle age — time really does quicken — but I’m not done yet. I’m not, to quote the indefatigable Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End. But, perhaps, somewhere towards the beginning of it.

There is another phase first. But I need to settle up with the past before I can embrace the rest of the future. And as a writer — an identity I decided, falteringly, to own in 2018 — I have to tell my story first.

I need to know how I got here. And that knowledge will make it possible to tell other stories.

Eliot again: ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

In just a week, the shortening days will start to lengthen again, imperceptibly at first. We’ll see the year’s fag end out before we start to notice.

And as we do, we’ll shed our long reflections and tentatively cast our minds forward. In the ubiquity of uncertainty that makes our world, that feels like a bit of a challenge. We’ll face it nonetheless.

It’s too early for resolutions and I don’t do them anyway. But Settling Up is coming. Saying so is my way of making sure it gets written. It’ll be in the book, I say to friends. Well, get it finished then, they retort.

That’s good. In 2019 I’ll need a bit of impatience to spur me on. What luck to have it at all — that’s my takeaway from 2018. And for a glass half empty optimist, it’s not a bad one.

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