I have lost that terrible sense of foreboding

Tue, Dec 18, 2012, 00:00

Two years ago I was in the study of Shandonagh House, a large 19th-century homestead near Mullingar, writing my diary. It was Sunday, December 12th and snow covered the fields outside. The General was in the kitchen making wreaths for Fox’s fruit and vegetable shop – one of his crazy attempts to raise extra money for Christmas. He got €4 for each wreath but it took him two weeks to make five. That afternoon he came to my study in frustration and said, “I’ve decided to give up.”

I said, “I told you there was no money in those wreaths.”

He said, “No, I don’t mean the wreaths: I mean life. There’s no point in going on. The world is going to end in another two years, according to Mayan legend, so we might as well give up now.”

Then he headed off into the snow.

“Where are you going?” I wondered.

“To visit the ex-wife. I heard she is having a few girls around for a pyjama party this evening. They’ll lie around in cuddly clothes for hours drinking wine and watching The X Factor.”

“Not quite the best evening to call on her,” I suggested.

“Exactly,” he grinned and he drove into the blizzard like a man who might gleefully end the world if he got the opportunity.

At the open fire I too had a sense of foreboding, as if Christmas might bring something dreadful down the chimney. My financial situation was getting worse and the pipes looked like they might burst.

And things did indeed go bad. There was stuff out there in the as-yet-unrealised cosmos which was coming for me like an axe comes to the root of a tree, though it wasn’t Christmas that felled me; it was sickness.

This year I am in Leitrim, stoking a turf fire. There is even less money in my bank account, and the health is still fragile, but at least I have lost that terrible sense of foreboding that haunted me for so long.

I lost my hat as well last week in a supermarket. It dropped into the basket with my sausages and when I went through the check-out and got outside I realised my head was bare.

“Alas, my little hat,” I cried, and I ran back like a child might run, as if that €2 hat would make a difference to my life.

I returned to the check-out and looked at the queue of worried animals lined up with hundreds of pounds worth of food, drink and cat food in their trolleys and it dawned on me that their lives were exactly the same as mine. We are all struggling to protect little “me” from the ravages of the recession, and we bleat like lost pixies in an icy wind struggling to hold on to their little hats.

Christmas is the time when we really hurt inside. We still long for the promise of heavenly peace. We may have stopped practising religion in recent years but the myth lingers that in the darkest night we will be born again in a happier land.

And it’s a terrible thing to lose faith, to fall out of hope and find oneself in the grim wasteland of real life where no myth transforms the twilight of human decline.

So I ask myself: what will I have after December 21st if the world doesn’t end and I am left in the dark solstice with nothing to believe in? One evening last week I took time out to sit with that question. I assured myself it was okay not to believe anything, not to think anything and perhaps not even to feel anything. I didn’t have a Christmas tree. I hadn’t even bothered to take the crib down from the attic. I just sat numb in the fading light.

But gradually something changed. I began to enjoy my eyes as I looked out, and to enjoy my ears as I listened, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of relief just to breathe in and breathe out, and to be alive and healthy.

I know I am different from the person I was two years ago, when the General was making wreaths in the kitchen. I got sick, and I lost my hat on bank shares.

But sickness changed me. Because it was the things I clung to that made me sick. And maybe sickness forced me to let go. And just knowing that feels like a kind of birth.

* Michael Harding’s next column will appear on Saturday, December 22nd

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