Where is my Christmas spirit?

December 21, 2011

It is a few days until Christmas and I’m still not in the festive spirit.  The Swiss put Christmas lights on roofs, windowsills, lampposts and telephone poles so the hype of the season is all around me but psychologically I just can’t get into the zone.  It is probably because this is the first December that I am not taking extended leave to go to South Africa or Canada.  I am working the whole way through and I even have to go into the office on Boxing Day because it is a normal day in Switzerland.

It has started snowing and this is helping my Christmas cheer.  There is something about thick falling snow that makes Christmas feel like Christmas.  I wonder why?  Maybe it’s because all the Christmas trimmings revolve around cold climates.  One of my British friends lived in Johannesburg for many years and said Christmas felt odd in sweltering South Africa.  She said, ‘Father Christmas wears red winter woolies, not a speedo’.

It is odd that snow makes Christmas feel like Christmas because it didn’t snow in Bethlehem.  I know that neither Mary nor Joseph nor any other part of the nativity ate turkey, mince pies or Quality Street sweets or drank mulled wine or decorated a Christmas tree.  Holly, mistletoe, crackers, reindeer and presents have nothing to do with Christianity but then again, for many years now, Christmas has not been about the birth of Jesus.  It is more about shopping, food and family bonding time than it is about the nativity.

Many Christians are bothered that Christmas has gone secular.  These days, it is common to say ‘Happy Xmas’, ‘Happy Holidays’, ‘Compliments of the Season’ and ‘Season’s Greetings’.  The annual office Christmas party has become the ‘year-end function’ and it’s a sign of the times that the spell check on my Microsoft Word can’t understand the word ‘manger’ and suggests I change it to ‘manager’.  It looks as if a giant firework has exploded over our village and left lights on every tree, lamppost, balcony and roof.  But, the real reason for Christmas doesn’t feature in any of them.  The shepherds, the wise men and baby Jesus in the manager are nowhere in sight.

I accept this new normal because I don’t get religious validation from village lighting, TV adverts or shopping centre decorations.  Non-sectarian greetings or decorations do not diminish the power of our religious message.  We Christians just don’t get free advertising anymore which means we have to work harder to be good adverts for our faith.  It puts more responsibility on us to step out of our comfort zones and live out our religion every day, perhaps by being more loving and outward-focused.  This is a better advert for Christianity than a mock up nativity scene in a shopping mall.

One reason why I am not too psyched up for the season is because I no longer believe in Father Christmas.  When I was a kid, December was the highlight of my year.  From the beginning of November onwards, teachers ran with the festive theme like dogs with a bone.  We coloured decorations, designed wrapping paper, made presents, acted in nativity plays, decorated classrooms and sang carols over and over.  This sheep dipping in Christmas worked me up into a frenzy of anticipation.  By Christmas Eve, I was so hyped that I could have easily exploded with excitement in a one quick bang, like a popcorn kernel.

When I was a child, we spent every Christmas at my grandparents’ home in Durban.  Their house had a long narrow corridor that led from the bedrooms to the sitting room.  There was an ornate black gate at the entrance to the lounge and my grandparents padlocked it every night.  On Christmas mornings, my brother Gavin and I jack-in-the-boxed out of bed and pitter-pattered down the corridor.  We stuck our little heads through the gate and gripped the black bars.  Sometimes we climbed up it and clung at the top, like baby orangutans, so we could get a better view.  I felt as if I was locked outside the gates to heaven.  The presents twinkled and beamed back at us and we squealed with ecstasy.  Gavin and I draped ourselves over the bars and we waited what felt like hours for the sun to rise and for the adults to get up.

One Christmas, my unwavering belief in Father Christmas hit a wobble.  It was a tradition in our extended family that every afternoon on Christmas Day, “Father Christmas” popped by.  While we played with our new toys outside, we heard a bell and then he ho-hoed through the garden gate.  I loved it.  I pawed him and bounced around his legs like a hyperactive puppy.  There was no greater joy.

This particular Christmas, when I was about five, I couldn’t find my Dad after Father Christmas arrived.  My mom fobbed off my anxious questions and explained I should let it go because he was ‘on the toilet’.  A bit later, I looked down at Father Christmas’ feet and I noticed that he was wearing my Dad’s shoes.  The truth was too painful and I convinced myself that while my dad was walking to the toilet, he came across a barefoot Father Christmas and offered him his shoes.  ‘Yes’, I rationalized, ‘Yes that’s it.  That makes total and absolute sense’.  I continued believing for another 2 years.

I know that if I decorate the house, then I will feel more Christmassy. Al and I don’t have a tree because, over the years, I realized that taking one down is not as much fun as putting it up.  I bought a Poinsettia instead but it isn’t enough.  Tomorrow I am buying a mini-tree and I have made up my mind that I will be festive, even though I don’t believe in Father Christmas and even though I must work.  After all, it is the season to be jolly.

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No pain, no gain

December 6, 2011

My 10 years as an accountant have dried up my creative juices.  That is why I write this blog.  It is my oasis in a creative desert.  It is my special thing, my outlet, my channel to express myself.  I don’t even care if nobody reads it.  I do it to remind myself that I still have a brain even if it rolls around in my head like an orange in an empty shoebox.

I know it’s my fault that I chose a job that puts my creativity on ice during the day.  Often I ask myself what made me choose a number-crunching career that I find dull and unfulfilling.  I think that when I was 18, green and wet behind the ears, the career guidance counselors I approached, the celebrity life coaches I listened to and the bestselling self-help books I read gave me flawed advice.

They told me to choose a job based on my strengths, which are those tasks that give a feeling of ‘flow’ and are so engaging that one loses track of time.  At that stage of my life, I didn’t have any strengths and I was more of a jack of all trades but master of none.  I didn’t know what ‘flow’ tasks were because nothing made me lose track of time, except for reading a book or watching ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ on TV.  They said the best career would lie in the activities that make me feel confident and in control.  I thought that if I was good at something, it should feel easy.  I believed that if an activity felt like a struggle or gave me any discomfort, it was best to avoid it as a career.  Accounting seemed straightforward, logical and clear-cut so I thought it had to be my destiny.

I have written for this blog for about 2 years and during this time, I have realized what I misunderstood when I was choosing my profession.

I find writing difficult.  On a few occasions, I can churn out a post in a steady daze, scarcely aware of my own breath but most times it requires the same effort as dragging a dead horse along the beach.  I rarely feel ‘flow’ and I am not confident – I think most things I write are pretty crap.  Nevertheless I love writing.  I find the struggle of it to be deeply rewarding.  Dragging that horse sucks every drop of my mental energy but afterwards, when I let it go, I sit back panting and think, ‘That was hard but I pushed myself and it feels invigorating!’

For a job to be truly satisfying, I believe it must tap into our creativity by being an outlet for personal expression, intuition and initiative even if it is only in a small way.  Career counselors do not understand the nature of creativity.  You can’t be creative and still always be confident and in control.  Eugene Peterson said, ‘Creativity is difficult.  When you are being creative, you are living by faith.  You don’t know what is next because the created, by definition, is what has never been before.  So you are living at the edge of something in which you are not very confident.  You might fail:  In fact, you almost certainly will fail a good part of the time.  All the creative people I know throw away most of the stuff they do.’

The creative process, especially for writers, fascinates me.  If every genuinely talented writer had taken the career path that felt safe and easy, there would be no Bill Bryson, no George Orwell, no Ernest Hemingway, no Elizabeth Gilbert, no Malcolm Gladwell etc.  Every artist I have researched fluctuated between periods of mild self-doubt and crushing insecurity.  Few of them felt consistent ‘flow’.

Bill Bryson said in an interview that all his books have been a nightmare to write.  George Orwell wrote, ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.’  Malcolm Gladwell says he sweats over every piece he writes.  He said, ‘I don’t sit down and it just flows out.  The first 8 drafts are terrible.  What has changed over the years is not that the level of struggle has changed but that the struggle has become fun’. 

Ernest Hemingway said, ‘It often took me a full morning to write one paragraph’ and, ‘After a book, I am emotionally exhausted.  I write one page of masterpiece for every 91 pages of shit.’

Rebecca Skloot who wrote ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’, said, ‘I love writing once I have first draft; before that it hurts.’ Nicholas Sparks is the author of ‘The Notebook’ and he said, ‘I do hundreds of re-writes.  I polish and repolish at least 200 times’.

Elizabeth Gilbert said this about writing her book called ‘Eat, Pray Love’, ‘I had a strong mantra of ‘this sucks’ ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything’.  Stephen King wrote, ‘What I worry about and what I think about constantly on some level is I wish I was better.  I wish I had a little more talent, a little more originality.  I wish I were better.’

Alastair and I love the TV programme called ‘Brothers & Sisters’.  In the first few seasons, the writing was crisp, tight and witty.  I stumbled upon an interview with two of the writers who said that the first time they heard the scripts out loud was at the table read and this was nerve-wracking.   A writer called Brian said, ‘I literally wanted to get sick at the table read.’ The other writer added, ‘I think I blacked out, I don’t even remember.’  Just because something is difficult and makes you doubt yourself, it doesn’t mean you are not good at it and it doesn’t mean that the activity is not worthwhile.

If I had to give advice to someone choosing a career now, I would tell them this: If you don’t know what to do with your life, don’t assume that personality tests and career counselors have the answers that you don’t.

I have learned that you are most likely to be fulfilled if your work has some outlets for personal expression. Taking the easy, straightforward path is not necessarily the right road.  Being confident and in control while doing an activity does not mean you will enjoy doing it for the rest of your life.  In fact, if you are so confident about your strengths and abilities at the beginning of the road, you may end up bored at the end of it.

Sometimes the greatest achievements and the deepest satisfaction come from taking the road less travelled.   No pain, no gain.