Halfway Out of the Dark
Things are getting hectic, they always do at this time of year. It’s like being trapped on a merry go round that refuses to slow down. Every time we ask someone to apply the brakes, it only accelerates. Sure, there are festive lights and catchy tunes circling around us, but this close to the event horizon of Christmas Day it all starts to get out of hand. The music deafens us. The motion makes us feel ill. The horses under us start to leer and grin as it all lurches past our control.
There are cards to write, presents to deliver. There’s food to hunt and gather, sometimes against shoppers who are racing against the exact same clock as us to the exact same shelf for the exact same final box of stuffing. The season of goodwill can get pretty nasty down a supermarket aisle.
There are germs to dodge. Parties to attend. Children to wrangle and threaten with toy elves. My point being, we all need a break right now and we’re finally getting close to that moment where we can put our feet up and take a deep, contented breath.
When it comes to Christmas, I’ve always liked the Pagan positioning of the festival. It’s an incredibly human thing to do. Celebrating the halfway point. We’ve got into winter, we’ve put up with the dark and the cold for a while and it’s nearly the end of the year, so why not have a party? It’s something we still appreciate now. Okay, we’ve added a certain dose of Christianity into the mix to keep those pesky Popes happy and we’ve really got into the idea of presents, because we all liked to be a little spoilt sometimes. Still, deep down, we’re still thinking like the pagans. What’s that line from Doctor Who? Halfway out of the dark.
Of course, for a horror writer, Christmas comes with ghosts. Festive lights cast festive shadows and there are plenty of chances to sow a spectre or two into the gloom behind the twinkling colours on the tree. That said, we all have to doff our caps to Mr Charles Dickens at this time of year. He wrote the emotional blockbuster of supernatural stories. There will be no beating ‘A Christmas Carol’. Not really. It’s one of those untouchable cornerstones of my hobby/profession. It changed the lexicon, grabbed us by our hearts from when we were young and it implanted a whole string of modern mythic characters into our heads. Tiny Tim. The Ghost of Christmas Present. The ever forgotten Jacob Marley who, as far as we know, gained nothing for saving the soul of his friend. If I’m getting this right, and I’ve definitely seen more movie and TV versions than read the book, Marley saves Scrooge but is left in damnation and chains himself. Pretty rough, Charlie. Then again, if we want to get into the weeds of pretty rough here, we should talk about Tiny Tim. Yes, granted, good old Scrooge does save the boy’s life, but he in no way makes the child immortal. As you get older, like it or lump it, you have to face the fact that something is waiting in Tiny Tim’s future to put him back in that churchyard.
Blimey, Long, talk about Bleak House.
Then again, it has been a strange year. It’s been a hard year. In places, though, it has been a brilliant year as well. I’ve watched friends and family share some amazing times together. You have to hang onto those when you hit the rough patches. I don’t think any year is ever going to be The Perfect Year. That’s just not the nature of reality. Fiction, yes. In fairy tales and feel good stories, you can have someone reach the plot point ‘Happily Ever After’ and then cling to it like a limpet. Sadly, life rarely offers anyone the chance for some building score, rolling credits and a smiling freeze frame that fades to black.
Although imagine if we do get the see the credits of our life roll by at the moment of our death. That’d be something. I wonder if there’ll be a post credits sting, like Marvel. I mean, technically, Disney does own everything now, right? Is it possible they’ve bought out The Infinite?
2016 felt rough as we were going through it. It left some scars and it took away a huge icons, as well as our faith in each other. We lost David Bowie early on. I don’t know why, but that soured things from the off. Then there were the huge political shifts and the surprising public divides those tectonic changes caused between us. It became a year scored by outrage and disappointment. Even worse, it promised us more this year. Which it has thoroughly delivered.
Last year made us think this year owed us something which, of course, it didn’t. It never does. Actual reality rarely plays that way. We can impose faith or hope on it and, if we’re lucky, that will pay off sometimes. We can think we see our version of Karma some days. Most of the time, though, it will rain when you’re not wearing a coat and the traffic will be bad when you’re in a rush. That’s just the world our ancestors built for us.
Although it’s not all bad. Not really. Not if you think past your problems. No matter how bad your day is, no matter how trying or frustrating it feels, you’re travelling in space. You’re travelling through time. It’s hard to remember, because it has so little bearing on who pays the bills or how far away the weekend is, but it’s true. You are dancing around a star every single day of your life. You were born onto a planet that, against incredible odds, can support life in this vast, spreading phantom spectre of a universe.
There are whole swathes of rocks and gas giants out there that are barren. They’re vacant to the point of haunting, when your thoughts linger on them. All those empty oceans. All those murky, echoing canyons. All those unclimbed mountains. They’re all beyond our little blue sky and you’re okay, because you ended up here. Safe, at least in universal terms. You managed it through no control or choice of your own as well. Through nothing more than genetics, evolution and a dash of something we don’t fully understand yet; so it still feels mystical to us.
I remember Kevin Smith once saying in an interview that everyone you will ever see around you won the first and important race of their lives before they were even born. They’re already winners. When you think of the odds of you being here, it’s dizzying. You made it. You’re the winning combination of genetic materials that survived pregnancy and childbirth, which so many people before you never got to do. Now you’re in a world with water and oxygen and you are travelling through space, your feet kept on the ground by forces generated by the works of huge, physical powerhouses.
If that’s not enough for you, then look closer than the giant theatrical backdrop of the engine room that is science. Look around you. Your life is made of tiny, miraculous wonders. The people you care about, the fact that you can care about them. That unspoken investment you place against them in your heart. Maybe it’s your family, maybe it’s your friends. Your loved ones. Your creative partners. Your children. Your pets. All these connections that you conjured without it ever being a strain or a problem. You found these milestones, these lifeboats, these chapels to whatever feels sacred in your world right now.
Then there are your hobbies. Perhaps you love to paint or solve puzzles. Perhaps you’re a collector, a gamer or a theatre addict. Maybe you feel best making people laugh or perhaps you can play an instrument. Music, itself, is a wonder. Only it’s a wonder we get accustomed to through our lives. We live so close to a vacuum. We’re not that far from a place where sound can’t travel at all but, here, music feels like a religion of its own. The wonder comes from that part of us which stirs when we hear the right combination of notes to elicit a response. It’s that mysterious other heart we carry in us. Not that one that pumps the blood, but the other one. The one that can hurt when we face hardship. The one that can become overwhelmed by happiness as much as sadness.
We get to live in this world for our entire lives and it’s hard to remember that there are wonders around us every single day. Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t mean there won’t be bad days. There will. It’s not a case of fair or unfair. It’s simply nature.
We watched Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade the other week and there was a line in that there which I’d forgotten about that. A line which, whilst undeniably clichéd, feels like it should be put on a flag you fly after every frustrating day.
“You lost today, kid, but it doesn’t mean you have to like it.”
Okay, I’m bound to have got that wrong, but the point stands. We can’t win all the time. I know it sounds trite, but it’s hard to remember when we lose. After all, we’re programmed to win. We won from the moment we started multiplying our cells, before we even knew we were us. We’re striving to win right up until that final loss. We’re never going to celebrate second place like we celebrate first. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for first, though. It also doesn’t mean we have to like it if we don’t get there. We learn and we move on. We try again.
My point is that 2018 won’t offer us everything on a plate. After Christmas, after new year, we’re going to stand moving into a year that is going to bring trouble with it. It’s going to bring a lot of long Mondays and a lot of wet weekends. It’s going to bring us some misery. It can’t help it. It’s a year. 365 days in a row cannot be all perfect, but some of them are going to be damn close. Just keep an eye on the people around you. Your family, your friends. Your co-workers and neighbours. People are going to fall in love. They’re going to raise children or get a kitten. They’re going to succeed and they’re going to smile. Hell, so are you. You’re going to win some of the time and, when you do, you’re going to feel like you just sat on a throne made just for you.
Love those moments, cherish them. Savour them. They don’t last forever. Tiny Tim can’t keep standing and smiling until the end of time. Then, when it is a bad day or a dull day, just look around you and remember that you’re moving through space. You’re spinning around a star. You’re part of a dance that could spin beyond our universe and into parallel versions of yourself. You’re feeling that frustration through a brain that is doing things that scientists, who are using their own brains, still can’t quite understand. We’re woven out of folklore, tradition and genetics. We’re conjured from our parents and changed by our friends. We’re stitched together from the things we’ve learnt to love and the things we discovered we fear. It’s amazing, really. It’s baffling, it’s brilliant and it can be terrifying.
So, have a happy Christmas, all of you. Celebrate what you want in the way that makes you happy. If you thrive with company, then seek it out. If you’re happy alone, then lock the door and make yourself comfortable. Enjoy the chance to rest, take a deep breath and prepare yourself. Next year, health nut or house cat, we’re going to do over 300 laps around our star and we’re going to see all manner of madness, brilliance and disappointment along the way.
Such is life.