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  • Writer's pictureMathilde Fongen

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

It's that time of year again and this time around I've thought a lot about Christmas and what it means to me. In the parts of the world where Christmas is celebrated, we all have very different relationships to the holidays. Some of us love it, some of us hate it and some of us don't really care about it. Some of us go all out, some of us don't celebrate it and some can't wait for it to be over. There are so many sides to Christmas, both good and bad, spanning from materialism and consumption, to charity and generosity. Envy, love, loneliness, connection, kindness, greed. It's a time that can bring out the worst and the best in us and it's definitely not surprising that it's a complicated time that can take its toll on our mental health.

Knitwear and hot drinks: two of my favourite things in life

So here's me, reflecting on my relationship to Christmas in blog form, as I do most of my reflecting these days. First, I should disclaim that I am a very christmassy person, from a very christmassy family, what with my sister's birthday being at Christmas and all. I'm one of those annoying people who, come December 1st, goes into full festive mode. I love this time of year with the decorations, the treats, the music (yes the music), the giving (and receiving), the cards, the films and all that comes with it. Christmas, to me, is a time for appreciation, and after it comes that golden opportunity for reflection that is New Year's Eve, which I also love. More on that in my next post.

I'm incredibly privileged to have the family I have, allowing for Christmas to be as joyful a time as it is for us. We have countless traditions that have evolved and changed over the years, as our family has evolved and changed and in a way each Christmas is simultaneously the same and totally different. This year will be my second time spent away from my family, and my first time hosting. It'll be just me, my other half and my brother (so I suppose it's not entirely away from family), but it will be different. Tonight, I sit on the last day of my pre-Christmas visit to my parents, grandmother, my sister and her family and I feel incredibly grateful for all of them. Instead of missing out, I've been given a stretched out Christmas, in a way. It's been stressful, cold and dark, but it's also been warm, wonderful, and delicious (thanks mum and dad for the mountain of food!). I've already been involved in the decoration of two Christmas trees and I've been able to spend some quality time with a lot of the people I care most about.

This year, I've attempted to refrain from getting caught up in the madness, with the intention of giving myself a less stressful Yuletide, but despite my efforts I've found myself worrying. Such is the case with general anxiety disorder. And such is the case with Christmas a lot of the time. Have I remembered everyone? Have we sent the cards early enough? Are the presents I’m giving good enough? Have I spent enough? Or too much? Will I manage to see everyone before Christmas? And the ultimate terror of disappointing anyone. With the pressure of being in the festive spirit and the cold, dark days Northern Europe has to offer, it can be a difficult time, and I've definitely felt that this year. It's made me think about why I love this time of year and, to be totally clichéd, what Christmas is all about.

I know others think the same things and ask themselves the same questions I do, as if we care so much that we doubt others see how much we care. But maybe we need to trust that the people we love love us too and know us. They know we care about them and could never be disappointed by what we choose to give them. Or how the motif on the Christmas cards compared to last year's.

I'm incredibly lucky to have the close relationship to my family that I have, and to be surrounded by wonderful friends, both near and far away. Christmas gives us an opportunity and a reminder to tell the people we love that we love them, to remind ourselves of the things we are grateful for and showing our friends and family that we appreciate them. It gives us a chance to appreciate what we have and lend a hand to those who have less. We get to look at ourselves and the people around us and remind ourselves to be generous and kind. In the darkest time of the year, we dress our houses and trees in fairy lights, sing carols and spend time with each other. Especially now that I live quite far away from my family, Christmas becomes an important part of staying close regardless.

It can be a stressful and anxiety inducing time. It can be lonely. The fairy lights can be blinding and the carols deafening, so let's not forget to be kind in the midst of the madness. Let's not forget what truly matters to us in our hunt for perfection. In this post I felt a need to stop and reflect on this hectic time, and I'm not sure of its coherence, but to anyone reading this, I thank you. I see you, I hear you and I wish you a peaceful Christmas.

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  • Writer's pictureMathilde Fongen

Recently, I discovered that when you put yourself through too much, your body will let you know when it's time to slow down. I knew this from before, but I clearly didn't take it to heart, because last Sunday, my body shut down on me and I spent four days in bed. I was exhausted. Looking back at what I've been doing and looking at the month I had ahead of me, there is no question as to why this happened. I've worked far too much, been terrified of saying no to anyone and I've been far too concerned with not compromising on my goals. What this meant is I compromised on myself, to the point of exhaustion.

There wasn't all that much that needed to change for my day to day to become less overwhelming, and what I realise now is that it mainly boils down to my perspective on my own busy-ness and my own stress. I also realise it has to do with a little bit extra here and there amounting to a lot extra here and there and that by chipping away at yourself like I've done in a desperate attempt to please everyone, you risk letting them all down. Including yourself. It's one of the big faults in being human, this need to go against everyone's advice and learn the hard way. Everyone else could see I was overdoing it, but I kept going until I physically couldn't keep going anymore.

Newt Scamander says that worrying only makes you suffer twice and this is true for so many aspects of life. I've been worrying about not doing a good enough job, not being able to keep up with housework, exercise, cooking, writing, music, volunteering. I've been worried about other people's opinion of me, but what I never thought to worry about was myself. Worry can be a necessary thing, if you worry about the things it's actually worth while to worry about.

Today, I needed to write this post as a reminder and a promise to myself. Last week was a strange one, but it was also an invaluable one. Overall, I now see it was a good one. In a sense I lost myself and found myself again and it was wonderful feeling like myself after losing that for a little while. I now know to prioritise and that in order to achieve the things I want to achieve, I actually need to take care of myself in the process.

It's December now, a busy time for us all, and the time for reflecting, resolutions and goal setting are around the corner. Looking back at last years' list of goals, I haven't achieved all I set out to, but I've achieved so much that I wasn't expecting, as is the nature of things. Goals are not carved in stone. They can be changed and need to be changed as life unfolds and it's okay to let go of the strict timeline we put in place, for no apparent reason. I'm not giving up on these goals, but I'm moving them around and adjusting them to fit what my life looks like now.

To anyone reading this, I hope some of it makes sense. I also hope, in this busy time of Christmas and end of the year, that you remember to take care of yourself. There's no compromising on self care, because as limitless as we can feel, our bodies know where that limit is. And for the things we don't get done now, I'll attempt to translate my favourite Norwegian folk singer: "You will be given a day tomorrow, with crayons and blank sheets of paper."

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  • Writer's pictureMathilde Fongen

I was having lunch on my own one day, at a restaurant in Exeter half a decade ago. There was a woman with a small suitcase waiting for a table and I was sitting close to where she stood, at a table meant for two. I hadn't ordered yet. I thought about it for a little while, before suggesting she join me. As it happened a table for one opened up as I spoke, but she opted to sit with me anyway. Two strangers, a woman visiting her son, a doctor now, she told me, and a girl visiting her boyfriend, who was at work, I told her. We ordered, chatted, ate and shared a glimpse of each other's lives. Then the bill came, we each payed for what we had, and went our separate ways. I don't even know her name.

Earlier this year, I sat on a train from Aberdeen to Edinburgh, a frequent journey for me these days, and at one of the stops, one of those stations that's really just a platform, an elderly woman boarded and sat down opposite me. I always reserve a table seat, so I can at least attempt to get some writing done on a decent work space. Something about her body language gave an immediate impression of openness, and I wasn't focusing much anyway, so I put away my laptop, left my phone in my pocket and sipped my coffee, attempting to display the same openness. For the next hour or two or how ever long it was, this lady and I shared the most wonderful conversation. She spoke about her life, her loss, her grief, her joy and I told her about mine. Then Edinburgh approached, much too soon, and she smiled and waved from the train as it slid away and I stood at the platform waving back. Part of me still wishes I could contact her somehow. Part of me just savours that fleeting encounter.

Then there was the strange man at the tram stop in Oslo who saw the guitar on my back and said "Music. Music is a good thing to do." at a point in my life where I was doubting just that. The magic in his words is here lost in translation, and perhaps in time, but to me they always echo whenever that doubt returns to my mind.

Strangers have always fascinated me. They hold a power over us that is so different to that of the people we are close to. Those people are the ones who can truly hurt us. They are the ones who can make us truly happy, but strangers can change us in a way that is subtle, gentle even. Strangers can also be brutal, violent and hurtful, but I've found beauty, more often than not, in the tiny part of themselves strangers leave with us in the brief moments they share with us.

To me there is no greater privilege than when someone decides to share their story with me. Maybe it's a writer thing, or maybe it's a human thing, that surge of joy I feel knowing someone feels they can share however big a part of their history, of who they are, with me in however brief or long a moment. There are so many conversations I've had that I've wished didn't have to end, but then it's closing time for the café, last call at the bar, or life finds some other way to intervene, and the moment has to pass. These are the conversations that have turned strangers into friends.

I think it is a writer thing, this fascination with other people's stories, and I think that's why I love cemeteries so much. Here's this beautiful park, with monuments, big and small, raised for people I will never know by people who loved them. Walking past dates and names, wondering what their lives were like. Who did they love? Who did they lose? What did they hope for? What made them smile? Or cry? Or laugh? Did they laugh at their own jokes, like I've been known to do?

Another of my favourite pastimes is people watching, an ever so slightly more alive variant to walking through grave yards. The same questions arise and I find myself making up stories for the people I see. I really am too nosy for my own good. I'm also obsessed with the ordinary, and what is more ordinary than strangers? These people we pass by day to day without even thinking about it. And of course we can't think about it, because thinking about each and every person you pass, especially when you live in a city, would drive you out of your mind. But from time to time, I thoroughly enjoy considering these passersby. Could we have been childhood friends if things had been different? Could you have been my teacher or a friend of my parents? Did I judge you too soon when I first saw you? What opportunities have I missed from judging you too soon? How wonderful it is that your smile made me smile that day when I didn't feel like smiling. I think only strangers have that power on days like that.

We learn from a young age to be wary of strangers, and that may be sage advice, but today, I wanted to consider the beauty of them and the joy conversations with strangers have given me. What they've taught me. The magic of something that is brief and temporary, yet powerful. So thank you, fleeting lunch friend, lady on the train, man at the tram stop, woman who complimented me on my glasses the other week. Thank you to anyone who ever shared a part of your story with me. And thank you to my dear friends, who were strangers once, but found your way into my life through these cherished conversations.

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