In recent years, Christmas has become a time I inwardly brace myself against, a readymade groove of ritual worn out by market forces, dulling the senses and the spirit. I expected this year to be no different, and I sadly harked back to the Christmases of my childhood, to the darkened Christmas vigil as children acted out the nativity of the Light to come, to the air of wondering what was on the other side of that locked door...
I left my presents until the last minute, with good reason: even if you start a week in advance, you're still going to end up getting something at the last minute; this way you save yourself a week. I begin by meditating good and long and hard, hoping against hope that this year will be as painless as possible, before meeting up with my other two brothers to begin the hunt.
And guess what - it was painless. Almost enjoyable, actually. We just had a good chat, pooled some ideas, and set off with at least a rough idea of where we were going. We ended up around the Capel St area, where many of Dublin's camping and hardware stores have conglomerated. And lo and behold, presents just seem to pop up out of nowhere. A pair of waterproof gloves for my sister, for riding out horses in the cold winter mornings; we had found the perfect gloves in the wrong size in one shop, and then noticed them in the right size as we were just about to leave the next shop. My brother, a budding photographer, had blown up and framed many of his pictures as presents. Shoes for my dad, noted for being fussy; the perfect pair announce themselves just as we walk into the shop. Near the end it gets a bit tiring; I take a quick snooze in a department store cafe as my brother orders me a smoothie.
Next day was Christmas Eve; we had moved our usual Sunday night meditation to the morning so everyone could get home to their families in time. Ours is a very young meditation centre, and it was not so long ago that our meditations would be rather curtailed around this time due to lack of either numbers or space. On my first year as Sri Chinmoy's student, I found refuge over the winter in the more established meditation centre of Graz, in Austria (where my brother Colm is currently spending his Christmas) rather than face into the spiritual desert. The thought of those times makes me even more grateful for our new city-centre location, where meditations can continue unimpeded over the holiday season.
My family home is located only an hour from Dublin. The rest of the family have gone to visit my grandfather up in Cavan, I would also be going if I'd caught the bus home in time. They tell me the new broadband connection and router is fully installed at home, it sounds too good to be true after all the trouble we've had, but it is. My mother and brother are playing with Google Earth, trying to pick out where we live.
I decide to catch evening Mass, perhaps in remembrance of those childhood vigils; it's not like that any more, though. The church is full when we get there, but my mother motions me upstairs; the benefits of having an inside woman in the choir! I'm not so much interested in singing, just listening. O Holy Night is my favourite, my spirit soars with the chorus.
Christmas morning is quite leisurely; I stop my dad's porridge from boiling over, put on some of my own, and help put out the horses. Neighbours come and go, exchanging Christmas cheer; our community is surprisingly close-knit for one located so close to Dublin. I remember one time my father and a couple of neighbours wanted to buy some nearby land; the auctioneer said he had never seen land so amicably split up between buyers. Everything is running late this Christmas; the dinner, the presents, and oh yes, my run! I hurry to get out so it won't get dark whilst I am out there. I do the same four-and-a-half mile loop I have been doing ever since I started running, and at a good clip too; as I pass I can see families seated for Christmas dinner through the curtains. I arrive home to find our own dinner about to start. Lashings of turkey and ham everywhere, however to her credit my mother has managed a very edible nutloaf for yours truly.
We're all a little too full for dessert, so on to the presents! I get a suspiciously large present from my brother on behalf of all my siblings, and I immediately suspect some Russian-doll intriguery going on. Sure enough, one roll of wrapping reveals a box containing a much smaller package, which i try to tease open...I pull out a small bicycle fashioned out of wire and tinfoil; I am informed my brother spent hours on it last night. Upon hearing of the bad state of my bike, my brothers and sister had decided to get me a new one! However, I inform them that my present bike is now in the repair shop at great expense, so they cheerfully agree to look after that instead. From my parents and Colm, I get another pile of clothes to add to the pile I bought a couple of weeks ago. Ambarish and Mangala, the Dublin Centre leaders, won't recognise me when they return from their vacation in February; they've been trying unsuccessfully to get me to buy new clothes for ages, to the extent that every year I can predict my birthday present from them! Everyone seems delighted with their presents; my father is playing like a little boy with the automatic tape measure we got him (in addition to the shoes) and the torch Colm got him like a little boy.
This year, the TV seems to have lost a lot of its allure; I think my laptop definitely helps in this regard! I get tremendous inner joy from creating spiritual content on my computer, and accessing the spiritual content that's already there on the internet. It's mystifying to me to be honest; it should be completely mental work, but it isn't, there is something about it that feeds my soul. When I do pop in to the sitting-room, it always seems to be to catch the last ten or twenty minutes of films (yes, just like books, John-Paul!) and then back to doing what I was doing.
I do make one notable exception: sitting down with my dad to watch a programme about Micheal O Muircheartaigh, the legendary radio commentator on our two main national sports, Gaelic football and hurling; through Micheal and his predecessor Michael O'Hehir, the dying art of the seanchaí, or storyteller, found an unlikely outlet in sports commentary. Oftentimes if we were watching the matches on TV we would turn the volume down and turn the radio on instead to let Micheal's eloquence add life to the happenings on our screens. The programme itself was both a testament to Micheal's nature as a true gentleman, but also an unwitting look at a changing Ireland as seen by someone with feet both in the past and present; I enjoyed it very much.
Stephen's day is time for my yearly tour of the countryside - my running route of about 16 or 17 miles which is more of an excuse to sightsee and revisit old acquaintance-places than anything else. I stop by a nearby ferme ornée ('arcadian' farms that were laid out in the 18th century aiming to create a pastoral paradise) replete with architectural follies , and later on a local well dedicated to St Brigid , before arriving in the town where I went to secondary school.
Passing by all my old haunts, I go back into country roads, and come across an old village pump whose handle I pump to see it it is working. It hasn't, but the person whose house the pump is in front of has seen me and invites me inside for water; a grand general chat ensues about everything and anything. Much refreshed, I continue on my way, and enjoy a beautiful stretch downhill towards a village that I could see nestled Austrian-style in a valley from a couple of miles away. I am beginning to tire a little now, but I remember a question one of the runners in the 3100 Mile Self-Transcendence race had put to Sri Chinmoy, about the inner attitude one should have while running: Sri Chinmoy suggested to imagine being a child running in the heart-garden. For some reason, I had always assumed that particular nugget of wisdom applied only to ultrarunners, but put into practice now it turns the run into a continuous enjoyment of the present moment.
So all in all 'twasn't a bad Christmas - there was a bad dose of oversleeping which will be the subject of a future blog entry, but it certainly wasn't the spiritual asphyxiation that my friend was predicting.
- Micheal O Muircheartaigh is famous for his turns of phrase in the heat of the moment during a match - you can see a selection here on Wikiquote... I have to say this selection is too full of punctuation and full-stops to capture the true essence of the man in full flow, but what can you do... Here's my personal absolute favourite; I was about to add it to Wikiquote when I realised I was only 80% sure of the identity of the footballer in question, so here we'll just call him Shane Magee, sure that's a grand footballing name. Anyway, in the match, Shane Magee is just after colliding with the goalpost after a botched scoring attempt and now lies prone on the ground receiving treatment... "Now, while Shane Magee is still on the ground, I'll just read out this letter I have here in my possession, it's adressed to the great Kerry footballing legend, Jack O'Shea, winner of a record eight All-Irelands between 1975 and 1986 - 'Dear Jack, I watch all your matches, and when I grow up I'm going to be a great footballer just like you. Yours, Shane Magee, age 8.' Now Shane Magee is being helped to his feet...."