We had a major success at the weekend. We managed to put up the Christmas tree with barely any fighting, I didn't end up crying on the sofa, there was no storming upstairs and past Christmases were only mentioned twice in a growling whisper.
Granted it's now 5 days later and I'm still surrounded by bags of unpacked lights and decorations, but the tree is up!
I love Christmas, I'm horribly Christmassy, but still I haven't been able to face going out into the garden to put the lights up, or decorate the house, or even the baby fir trees I bought a month ago which are sitting bare-ass naked on the windowsills.
It feels like an ache, to imagine doing these things, like I'm anticipating the pain of a cross-country run in the middle of February. I'm Putting It Off, hoping for a sudden rush of courage so I can gather it all up and do the rest of the decorating.
At the same time, those people who live in a more normal world are out there spending their own bodyweight buying presents and still complaining about how short of time they are. Their houses are decorated so far past anything I could achieve.
I was transfixed the other day by a snow-twig centrepiece and shiny, glitter candles in one house. In another, my student looked up to catch me staring, open-mouthed at her ceramic Santa and I had to make something up to stop her worrying. (In fact, I had just imagined the creepy Christmas poem I posted here, so it wasn't a wasted strange moment).
All this grandery and I'm sharing the sofa with an aged cat and a giant bag of unplugged lights.
And still, I go on and think, tomorrow I will do it, tomorrow it will be time to get up and face Christmas, this thing that I love which is still difficult and strange, as if I never met it before and didn't know what to say.
It's an aspie irony that even those things I love most can still be hard to do, simply because they mean Change. I could kick myself sometimes.
I might do what I did last year. I waited til it was dark and went out into the garden to string up the lights. I couldn't see what I was doing and got whipped in the face a few times by stinging branches, but it meant I could light the lights and watch them sway in the dark as I arranged them, blown in the wind, moving as if there were no trees around them.
It was awkward and wet and I kept slipping and getting stuck in the bushes and I loved it. Hanging the lights to change my garden and face Christmas became an adventure with tiny stars gathering all around me in the night.
It was magical, in the end, and it didn't matter that I was wet or had fallen or that my face was covered with rain - all magical adventures are uncomfortable, ask Bilbo - I was there, alone in the dark and surrounded by the lights of Christmas.
I guess I have my answer and can finally make room on the sofa. Tonight, in the dark, with my hair tied down so I don't become one with the bush again, I will go out and string the lights. And, one by one, they will blink into life and become Christmas for me.
And how brave I will be.
My stepfather died a couple of weeks ago. We hadn't seen each other for years and had a tumultuous relationship while he was married to my mother, then came to a meeting of minds when I was in my 20s. Since then he moved on, I moved on and we fully drifted. But still, a part of my life left this earth, taking with him his bad dad jokes as well as rows, clumsy step-parent conversations and someone who stuck up for me when I was bullied.
I felt like a fraud of a step-daughter when my sister told me he had died. He was my step-dad but she became my sister, an absolute rock in stormy waters. When she told me my first thought was for her, how devastated she must be. I was numb, so I assumed I didn't care enough to be upset.
That day I stayed in, and did nothing, and berated myself for doing nothing and staying in when I was fine. I didn't tell anyone he had died.
That evening I sat in a darkened living room and thought I must turn on the light. I turned it on then needed to leave, so took the dog for a walk with my younger son. I didn't mention anything to him (they hadn't met since RT was a very young boy and he didn't remember him).
I came home and did nothing, then went to bed. The next day, I didn't tell anyone.
I did more, suddenly rejuvenated into action and found myself buzzing round the house doing anything but nothing. Then went to work and tried to talk to little children and big children and, for some reason, kept thinking back to when I was a child. I didn't tell anyone.
I was still hyper the next day and the next, unable to settle or think but quite industrious. I kept getting a headache though, a migraine starting in my jaw and making me sit, sometimes, and rest a finger on the edge of my temple, looking down at the floor and thinking nothing.
Met up with my sister the next day and we talked about the mechanics of when someone leaves, of how she might be, what she might do, of how his wife was and a little of what she planned for the future.
Afterwards I was struck with how practical, technical the conversation had been and that I hadn't reached out a hand, or invited her to talk about more heartfelt matters and that I was a bad sister. I texted her to tell her I was sorry I had let her down, that I really did care, that she had my love. I was berated very softly for suggesting I had done anything wrong.
Why is it easier by text? Why didn't I react to her like other people? Even in the middle of our lunch an acquaintance came up and offered condolences to her and I remember thinking, this is what people do, is it what I should do?
I still didn't tell anyone he had died.
It's not that I was avoiding it so he would still be alive, or avoiding the love and compassion of my friends - which I know was there if I needed it. I still felt like a fraud, still numb, still-
By then I wasn't sleeping, the headaches having been replaced by a foggy mind which seemed to stifle out any small flame of lively inspiration. And like a fog my life seemed shrouded, the places I could usually see far were hidden, mysterious; I wandered in them, touching things around me to place myself and know where I was.
I dreamt at the end of the week and it was back then, in the bright, ultra-vibrant colours of when we are small enough to think we can keep up that level of shading forever. And there he was, after all, just as he had been when we fought in the mornings, sulked in the afternoons, then went out with the pony and talked about strangely fascinating subjects that didn't come up with other people.
At the weekend, I remembered his laugh. I could have described his laugh to you before this (it was a truly embarrassing dad laugh), but at the weekend I heard it, a caught moment in the middle of another busy, confusing, fog-filled day.
I didn't tell anyone about him.
And then another set of activities, distractions, utter focus on normal life and everything in it as if filling the dishwasher and walking the dog can ultimately take the place of deep, wondering reflection on a life lived and briefly shared.
I got lost in the car, forgot what I needed, mixed up facts and dates and names and kept coming back to what a fraud I was.
And remembered my sister's wedding, and his ex-wives and his brother who we visited when we were young and who had warm milk on cornflakes. There was the weekend with the cub scouts that we took with him, me and my sister the only girls in a youth hostel packed full of smelly, noisy boys. It rained the whole weekend and I remembered him trudging us all across the sodden grass to see the standing stones. I even remembered the whitewashed walls of the hostel, the big, thin-legged spiders there and the baked beans.
I thought about how hard it is that we have to get old and lose all our choices and wondered if he would have known me if I visited.
And even though I didn't feel upset, everything was so hard, as bad as trying to find those standing stones in the pouring rain, surrounded by yelling, happy boys who didn't care about the weather. And him holding the map, trying to see it through the rain and me wishing I was anywhere else but here.
Time passed so slowly, as if I had two timelines running alongside each other and I was living both. One kept getting the better of the other so that this life, this bland, fog-filled landscape, gave way to sharp shafts of winter sunlight that made me squint, or hot days spent in a garden that goes on forever.
I still haven't told anyone.
Today, for some reason, I cried and felt lonely, the room felt bigger, the world, I need the world to stay right away today.
There's winter sunshine today though, outside the window, and the trees are bare, the frost just melting from the path. Days like this I'd be dragged out on walks and left behind, glaring at the bouncing rucksack ahead of me, wishing I was somewhere else, alone.
I'm still in the two timelines but they seem to be merging. Perhaps that's why I'm crying in this one. I guess I'm frightened of what might happen once they come together. How can I face the past when there is no road back to it?
I think I need to tell someone today.
Little you at the doctor's office, ready to have your injection, or medicine or to be prodded, and you're told to be brave - always brave - or told after that you were very brave. It sticks eventually and you try to be brave when things scare you.
My little student said to me the other day that she was so afraid, she had to go into hospital and she was just too scared to have the injection. Her chest heaved as she tried to hold it all in. So I told her how the injection would feel, that it might hurt a little but was really, really quick and how it had to be done. I said, 'Don't I always tell you the truth?' (We've had conversations about fear before) and she agreed I did. I told her it was normal to be afraid but it had to be done and then it would be all finished. I realise now that I didn't tell her to be brave.
It doesn't have to be needles, or the dentist, or going past the dog down the road or into your friend's house for tea, or school, or any of the simple, everyday events which make you anxious. Very big events, tiny events, even tinier worries which prove groundless - many have fear running ahead of them.
Getting so many things wrong, you either learn to manage the fear or carry on as if it doesn't exist. It does, of course, just whispering in the background until, suddenly, you hear it clear and close and fear gets the better of you.
Still, though, be brave, aren't you brave? Haven't you been brave today? You were a brave scared person today, doing what worried you so much, you should be proud of yourself!
You can be proud of yourself and still afraid at the same time, which really isn't fair.
I've been trying to be a big brave girl lately. Unfortunately, real life is knocking and I have to answer, so I need to be strong and brave and go forward with a sturdy heart, etc etc etc.
Every day I put one foot in front of the other and build on my plan to make everything okay, and I do it over and over because it should be all right, I can make it happen.
And every day I wonder if I can, if today I'll waver and the load will be too heavy. I know this is stress, anxiety, pressure, a real grown up life that so many people face.
Then, yesterday I realised that looking at it like this is another voice telling me to be a big brave girl. My own voice, which makes it worse.
I was driving home in the dark, feeling tired and so past the stress level that I'd come out the other side and thought the street lights were blinking at me.
I made my way along the dark road and looked fearfully at the next junction, in case a car might come out. And the thought popped into my head, 'I'm afraid.'
Momentarily I thought I was afraid of a car coming out of the dark junction, but then I realised I had admitted an important truth to myself: the stress I was feeling was a symptom, not the root cause of how I felt. Fear was the beginning of it and the truth of it too.
I was afraid, I am afraid, I'm facing trials in my life which are real and need my full attention. And you know what? It's right to be afraid. Why wouldn't I be? Why shouldn't I?
Why should I have to be a big brave girl and feel like this is the truth, when the reason any of us needs to be brave is because there is something to fear?
Admitting I felt afraid lifted a weight from me, it gave me permission to be honest with myself and understand that, for all I might want to be brave, there are times when I am also going to be scared.
Denying fear is counter-productive because it tends to let other feelings and behaviours come through instead. Stress reactions are always going to run higher if you haven't admitted to your conscious self that you are afraid - you feel the fear running underneath as a background emotion, making your mind and body think it is in imminent danger from an unknown threat. Far better to admit the fear, see it there, staring at you, lurking in the room, waiting as you leave, watching as you step and know it for what it is.
I am afraid: and now I can go on and do what I have to do with complete honesty.
Last night I slept well for the first time in weeks; today I went through the day without the weight of anxiety and stress.
I am afraid, and also looking to the future. I am afraid because I'm allowed to be, and can be unafraid too.
There is really no need to be a big brave girl after all.