Advent Vespers

I crack open the blinds in the kitchen. It is still dark outside, streetlamps glowing like spaceship landing lights in the fog of a December morning. I shamble around trying to secure a cup of coffee. I plug in the lights on the Christmas tree and sit down at the kitchen table, bleary eyed, restless. The house is quiet, the rest of my family still asleep upstairs. I cautiously take a sip of my still too hot coffee. This is me at home in the world, as much as I ever am. It is Advent, the season of waiting and watching, and so I sit and wait.

Advent is a way of finding my place in the world. It situates me in a story – one of a returning king, of hopeful expectation. It’s a season that’s both linear and cyclical, a spiral through the timeline of my life since childhood, coming around each year with its rituals and repetitions as I grow older, my hair starting to go gray at the temples, the frown lines on my forehead deepening. I will, as I do every year, give disappointing gifts (I am a terrible gift giver), I will eat too many gingerbread chocolate cookies, and a blood toxicology test will reveal an unhealthy volume of mandarin oranges in my diet. I will look back over the year and try and figure out where exactly I am in my story so far.

There are many ways of finding one’s place in the world. Here is Helen Macdonald, in her lovely essay, “Vesper Flights” (found in her essay collection here – one of my favorite books of the year):

Often, during stressful times when I was small – while changing schools, when bullied, or after my parents had argued – I’d lie in bed before I fell asleep and count in my head all the different layers between me and the centre of the Earth: crust, upper mantle, lower mantle, outer core, inner core. Then I’d think upwards in expanding rings of thinning air: troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, exosphere. A few miles beneath me was molten rock, a few miles above limitless dust and vacancy, and there I’d lie with the warm blanket of the troposphere over me and a red cotton duvet cover too, and the smell of tonight’s dinner lingering upstairs, and downstairs the sound of my mother busy at her typewriter. This evening ritual wasn’t a test of how much I could keep in my mind at once, or of how far I could send my imagination. It had something of the power of incantation, but it did not seem a compulsion, and it was not a prayer. No matter how tightly the day’s bad things had gripped me, there was so much up there above me, so much below, so many places and states that were implacable, unreachable, entirely uninterested in human affairs. Listing them one by one built imaginative sanctuary between walls of unknowing knowns.

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“Like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen …”

Have you ever seen a hawk catch a bird in your back garden? I’ve not, but I know it’s happened. I’ve found evidence. Out on the patio flagstones, sometimes, tiny fragments: a little, insect-like songbird leg, with a foot clenched tight where the sinews have pulled it; or – even more gruesomely – a disarticulated beak, a house-sparrow beak top, or bottom, a little conical bead of blushed gunmetal, slightly translucent, with a few faint maxillary feathers adhering to it. But maybe you have: maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, or a blackbird, or a magpie, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you’ve ever seen, like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.

From Helen Macdonald’s (extraordinary) H is for Hawk. I hope to post some more thoughts on the book when I finish.

(Every once in a while I’ll be posting quotes from whatever I happen to be reading at the moment)