December seems to be a month crammed with responsibility and obligation, assignments and commitments causing us to accelerate as we approach year end. This runs contrary to instinct, which would have us slow down, recline into the depths of the year and let ourselves ape nature in coming to rest like the dried-out teasel heads on the road verges and wane like the spent bracken in the ditches. The resting growth will return, come Spring, and we too at year end need to drop the pace, wilt a little, regroup. It makes no sense to me that, in a month that most lends itself to stillness, we accumulate additional duties, place a weight of tasks on our shoulders, and add more than usual to the action as we hurry around spinning plates. This is the month that begs me to flick on a lamp, fill a hot water bottle, make tea and be quiet. Not that I am rejecting all of the pleasures that come hand in hand with the run up to Christmas, I just wish there were fewer of them, for – as we all find out one way or another – there can be too much of a good thing. I feel like I have had eleven months of talking and writing, thinking and reasoning, planning and executing, wrapping and posting, booking and paying, reading and watching, cooking and eating, sneezing and aching, sleeping and waking, laughing and moaning, complaining and rejoicing, dancing and hobbling, washing and ironing… and you’ll have a thousand other ‘doing’ verbs appropriate to your own year … and I am tired. Are you with me? Maybe you don’t have much of a choice, but there must be a few tasks in the Santa-sized sack of December-doing from which you could disengage.
I first learned about go-slow December from P., my boss when I worked in Dublin in 2002. A man caught up with doing, P. never stopped thinking about work, sent emails in the middle of the night (before I knew of such a thing), and was manically ‘on’ all of the time. Then, in early December – I remember it quite clearly because it was so out of character – he told us, ‘it’s been a busy year; time now to take it easy – no more new projects until the new year. Relax and tidy up the loose ends.’ And he was as good as his word. We didn’t stop, but there was definite easing up on the pace that did everyone good. P. had, for a short time, been a priest, he had been to Maynooth College with John O’Donohue, talked about him, was influenced by him, and although I don’t know this for sure, I feel that P.’s pre-Christmas slow-down was influenced by his seminary training, his attitude towards advent, and perhaps the time he had spent with O’Donohue. During the working day P. was rarely still – ‘walk and talk’, was what he used to say to me, so eager was he to multi-task – yet I will forever remember and appreciate how he imposed stillness upon us in December. Here is what John O’Donohue wrote about it: ‘Stillness is vital to the world of the soul. If as you age you become more still, you will discover that stillness can be a great companion. The fragments of your life will have time to unify, and the places where your soul-shelter is wounded or broken will have time to knit and heal. You will be able to return to yourself. In this stillness, you will engage your soul. Many people miss out on themselves completely as they journey through life. They know others, they know places, they know skills, they know their work, but tragically, they do not know themselves at all.’
At a time of year when the darkness closes in and we are most drawn to quiet reflection and stillness and going inwards, there is a direct conflict with the backdrop of loud, booming, inescapable consumerism, stealthily effective in brainwashing us into believing we need to get and gain more ‘stuff’ for which we have no need. All this doing is grinding and exhausting. Whatever you think you have to do this month, reduce it by half and sit still. Go easy on yourself. Light a candle, lie on the sofa, or take a walk up the hill. But burn the to-do list. I dare you.
The Moor, by RS Thomas
It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.