Today is Epiphany, and the Christmas holiday is in its dying days. As in most years, I find myself regularly pausing in front of our Christmas tree, drinking in every magical detail. The way the lights twinkle, reflecting from the ornaments and haloing the rich dark green needles in a soft glow. I do the same with everything else Christmas-related, lingering over the last pieces of gingerbread house, savouring a cup of mulled wine, stopping to listen to every word of my favourite Christmas song. I know that, in a few days, it will all be just a memory.
It’s a melancholy feeling I know well, and it belongs to ‘the last days before’: before boarding a plane at the end of a holiday, before moving jobs or houses, before saying goodbye to family. It’s been heightened by corona. By the constant feeling that I might be experiencing ‘the last days before’ without even knowing it. The last days before the schools close, before homeworking becomes mandatory, before we go into lockdown. The last restaurant meal, the last cinema visit, the last lunch with colleagues. Every day thus acquires the quality of potentially being ‘the last’. At the same time, the future is uncertain. ‘The last’ is, under normal circumstances, usually softened by the perspective of ‘the next’. The next special occasion, the next holiday, the next family visit. Without that future hope to cling to, the sadness of ‘the last’ crashes down on me with full force.
It’s no bad thing to learn to appreciate moments while you have them. It’s recommended by ancient aphorisms, trendy lifestyle gurus, courses on how to be happy. It’s one of the key silver linings I’ve taken from corona, learning to pay more active attention to happy moments. I try to be fully aware of them, to experience them with every sense, and then store them up for later.
In trying to wring every last drop out of the moment, however, there’s a danger of destroying it. It’s exactly the reason why many of us often experience miserable Christmases, as we overload the season with expectations, setting ourselves up for inevitable disappointment. The same phenomenon haunts my family weekend visits, which are stressful in a way that weekends never were when we all lived together, precisely because we desperately want to make the limited time count.
The same sense of ‘last’ that drives me to appreciate happy moments can ruin them. I am still on Christmas holiday, the decorations are still brightening up the house, yet there is a risk that I will spend these last few precious days feeling sad that they will soon be gone, thereby failing to enjoy them while they’re here.
The final weeks of my mother’s life, when she was in a hospice, were weeks of quiet family happiness. Simply being together, chatting about nothing in particular. Afterwards, I regretted not having made them more meaningful. I wished I had carried on deep emotional discussions with my mother while she was still here, finding out answers to all those questions about her that I am now left with. Yet if I had done that, if I had tried to make every moment count, wouldn’t the weight of what was to come have been unbearable? Perhaps, paradoxically, our family made the most out of those days by not trying to make every moment count.
One of my favourite things about Christmas is the scents in the air. The delicate spiciness of Christmas tree branches, gingerbread, mulled wine. The odd thing about such fragrances is that, if you try too hard to breathe them in, they vanish. Seize the day too hard, and it shatters in your hand. A strange sort of Orwellian doublethink seems to be required, to simultaneously grasp the moment tight and yet be willing to let it go, in the trust that more moments will come, somewhere, sometime.
Now, there’s a good challenge for me for 2022.