Wednesday 27 December 2023

2023: My Year in Photos and Blog Posts

I used to spend hours with my diary each December reviewing the year that was coming to a close. I’d recall favourite moments, examine things that hadn’t gone so well, and summarise my key relationships and friendships. I still write a daily journal, but I’ve not done that kind of end of year review since I posted my 2016 retrospective here on our blog.

For a few years, I shared a “things I’d quite like to do” blog post in January, with a review at the end of the year. If you’re interested, you can check how I got on with the Six Things I’d Quite Like to Do in 2017, the Seven Things I’d Quite Like to Do in 2018, and the Six Things I’d Quite Like to Do in 2019. Any plans I might have had for 2020 were overtaken by events. That December, I shared one photo and one blog post for each month of a year that no one could have predicted. I did the same thing at the end of 2021 and at the end of 2022.

Continuing the tradition, here’s my personal look back at 2023 in photos and blog posts. I hope you enjoy looking through it as much as I did putting it together.


I’ve chosen to start with a photo of my favourite coffee shop, Costa Coffee in Kingston Park. It’s a ten minute walk from where I live, one of my four all-time happy places, and my absolute favourite place to sit and write. I no longer visit seven days a week but I’m here almost every Saturday and Sunday. In the past year I’ve spent more hours in Costa than anywhere apart from home and the office. Many of the staff I’d come to know over the past few years have left now but the cosy, friendly atmosphere remains. The two messages on the wall ring true of this place. We make our coffee to make you smile and Businesses don’t make great coffee. People do.

The blog post I’ve chosen was something of a departure from my usual writing here at Gum on My Shoe. To begin with, it wasn’t a new piece, having been written in 1999 for Middle-earth Reunion, a Tolkien fan group I ran between 1996 and 2005. Seondly, it’s a short story, with no obvious links to our blog’s key themes of mental health and supportive friendships. Without giving too much away, Home Eleven describes me meeting some very interesting people at Newcastle’s Green Festival. I explored the broader relevance of storytelling in We Are All Made of Stories.


This photo was taken at my local Metro train station just after seven in the morning on my commute to work. For the whole of 2023 I’ve been hybrid working: working at home on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, and going in to the office on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s a pattern which suits me well enough. Skies like this are a bonus.

Awareness events such as Time to Talk Day encourage us to open up to family, friends, and colleagues about how we’re feeling, and to be there for others who want to share with us. It’s an important message, but things are often not as simple as that message suggests. In It’s Time to Talk. But What If You Don’t Want To? I addressed a question I’ve encountered at various times: “What if you don’t want to talk about what’s going on for you? What if our friends and loved ones don’t want to talk to us?”


This photo makes me smile every time I see it! My birthday falls in March and it’s become something of a tradition that I celebrate it with my friend and fellow blogger Aimee Wilson. It’s fair to say I was totally spoiled this year! Aimee, your friendship, care, and support are the best gifts of all, but I also loved the pressies, cheesecake, Guinness, and pizza!

Most of the people I talk to about mental health — theirs or mine — are friends, family, or colleagues I’ve known for some time. Sometimes, though, I find myself discussing mental health topics with strangers or people I hardly know at all. In How to Give Mental Health Help and Advice to People You Don’t Know I describe how I approach such situations, because it can be very different from talking about mental health with people you know.


This dapper gentleman was spotted at The Badger pub in Ponteland. Built in the 1700s, The Badger is a short walk from Newcastle Airport and a lovely venue for a spot of lunch. On this occasion I treated myself to mushroom burger with fries. I may never get over the closure of my all-time favourite drinking establishment, STACK Newcastle, but I’ve visited a few local pubs this year. In addition to The Badger, I’ve been to The Snowy Owl, Cramlington; The Falcon’s Nest and The Job Bulman in Gosforth; and The Windsor, which is no more than a five minute walk from home.

I’ve written several open letters in the past, including to my mother, my father, several to Fran, and even one to myself. In April, I shared something slightly different. Ten Things I Want You to Know: An Open Letter from a Supportive Friend isn’t written to any one person in particular. Instead, it’s drawn from a number of friendships, some of which were current at the time, some of which had come to an end. It includes things I’ve said in person, as well as things I wish I had.

One of the things I love most about us is that we’re open and honest with each other. We talk about pretty much anything and everything. There are some things, though, that maybe I’ve never told you. Things I’d like you to know. Maybe you already do. You’re a smart cookie! I want to tell you, nevertheless, because sometimes it’s good to hear things, even when we know them already.

The letter closes with the most important thing of all, my gratitude. Because no matter what happens in my friendships, no matter whether we’re still friends or not, I am and will always be grateful for the people who have graced my life.


During the first part of the year I found myself paying attention to my appearance. I still wore — and wear — my BOYS GET SAD TOO hoodies and my collection of mental health t-shirts, but I wanted a new look. After some deliberation I treated myself to four new t-shirts, three of which are shown here. The first two reflect my passion for writing and blogging. The third, celebrating the band RØRY, is the first music-related merchandise I’ve ever owned. I also bought a t-shirt by German band AnnenMayKantereit (not shown).

It might seem silly or even a bit sad that the purchase of four new t-shirts features in my highlights of the year, but it represented more than a few additions to my wardrobe. It was, and is, more about exploring what and who I am, and which aspects of myself I wish to project. Mental health remains an incredibly important part of my life, but it’s not the only thing I’m interested in or that motivates me. (Just the other day I was complimented on my flower-design BGST hoodie, which led to a nice little conversation about the brand and what it stands for. Thank you, Bethan, you made my day!)

I’d not heard of RØRY or AnnenMayKantereit until this year, but both affected me deeply in different ways. My blog post RØRY and AMK: Two Brilliant Bands Living Rent-Free in My Head discusses the bands, their music, and my responses to it.


This photo was taken at Kirkharle Courtyard, birthplace of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Britain’s most celebrated landscape gardener. Over the years I’ve grown to love the place. The serpentine lake was installed in 2010 following Capability Brown’s original design. The lakeside walk affords plenty of opportunity to think, to not think, and simply to be. The courtyard hosts a number of speciality shops, and a café that’s well worth a visit.

The blog post I’ve chosen is How Are You, Really? Eight Things I’ve Learned About Suicidality and Self-Harm. It’s a piece I’d wanted to write for some time, reflecting the importance of the topic and its prevalence. As I wrote, “[w]hether you realise it or not, whether they mention it to you or not, you know someone who lives with thoughts like these. That may or may not be an easy realisation, but it’s true.”


The photo I’ve selected is one of many I took on a week-long vacation in the English Lake District. It shows the view along the River Brathay from the lounge of River House, Ambleside. It was the only time away from home I’ve spent this year, and provided a wonderfully peaceful escape from my usual routine. I revisited several places I love, including the boat ride from Ambleside to Bowness, the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, and the Wateredge Inn on the banks of Windermere, another of my all-time happy places.

I shared two related posts in July. The Currency of Friendship was inspired by Fran telling me she felt friendship was her only currency; the only thing she had to offer to others. It led to me exploring the idea of friendship and relationships as exchange. (“Whatever their nature, relationships are transactional. You offer something and I offer something in return.”) I pondered what “currencies” I value in my relationships, and indeed what I bring to the party, as it were. What is my currency of friendship?

My questions were answered by my friend Aimee Wilson in a guest post titled All The Currency I See in Martin Through Our Friendship. It would be immodest to quote from it here, but Aimee’s testament to our friendship reminds me that no matter the doubts I often have about myself, my abilities, and indeed my qualities as a friend, I am valued and loved. Thank you, Aimee.


I mentioned earlier how I spent part of this year seeking a new look. This came to fruition in August when I visited an optician for the first time in many years. I explored the background to my visit and what it meant to me in To See and Be Seen: My Visit to Grey St. Opticians.

The crucial thing is to see clearly again. [...] But choosing new frames is also important. That bit’s down to me and it’s the part I’m most nervous about. I’ve never been cool or stylish, or even had much of an idea what those words mean. My new glasses will be a statement of who-I-am-now that I’ll be living with for the next few years. I want to get it right. I’m hoping the folk at Grey St. can give me some advice and suggestions.

This aspect was so important that I put considerable thought into how I presented at my initial appointment. I chose my LIFE IS SHORT BLOG MORE t-shirt because it expressed an important aspect of who I am. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, as I covered in that first blog post and a follow-up piece when I went back to collect my new glasses. On that occasion I wore my beloved Scottish tweed jacket and my AMK t-shirt. The photo I’ve chosen was taken minutes after leaving Grey St Opticians. Four months later I’m still delighted with the look, and how well I can see! Many thanks to Nic, Becks, and Fran for all your help, and for taking such good care of me.


Earlier in the year I wrote about how I tend to live vicariously through my friends’ adventures and experiences. There was a fun example of this in September when my friend Louise travelled abroad on holiday. She was delighted when I offered to follow her flight in real-time. The image I’ve chosen is a screenshot from the Flightradar24 app as her plane approached Palma de Mallorca airport in Mallorca, Spain.

It was Louise’s month because she also got a mention in my blog post Six Times I Felt Proud This Week, in which I shared occasions I’d felt pride in myself or in other people. Way to go, Lou!


The photo I’ve chosen is one of hundreds I’ve taken over the years of this specific view close to where I live. I began doing so to share the moment with Fran as I set out into my day. In time, it became a valued part of our connection; something we both looked forward to. This all changed in May 2021, when one tree — our tree, as Fran and I had come to think of it — was cut down with no warning and for no apparent reason. Had it still been standing, it would fill the centre of the photo I’ve shared here. Fran and I felt the loss deeply. I gathered together all the photos I’d taken, intending to do something creative with them by way of a tribute when the time felt right.

Sadly, it felt right in October this year, following the senseless — and illegal — felling of the famous tree at Sycamore Gap beside Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. I’d never visited the site, but I knew it well through the work of other photographers and artists. It achieved International attention in 1991 when it featured in the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The culprit or culprits have yet to be brought to justice, but the desecration of such an iconic tree led me to explore my response to the destruction of our tree in a post I titled Of Fellings and Feelings: An Exploration of Loss and Renewal. As I wrote there, “I’m still learning about the gap that was left when the tree close to my home was felled,” but it gave me the chance to share a few of the many photographs I’d taken of it over the years.

I’ll briefly mention another article I published during October. Communicate or Hide? The Creative Dilemma was inspired by a quotation by Donald Woods Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” It allowed me to examine my reasons for writing, topics I’m at ease writing about, and those I’ve previously chosen not to explore, or have actively hidden from others — and in some cases myself. It’s a topic that strikes at the essence of my identity as a writer. As I wrote in that article, I do no one any good, myself included, by hiding away the dark bits, or hiding from them.


When it comes to writing with honesty and integrity, there’s no one I respect more than my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. I was proud and happy to attend the publication party for Aimee’s latest book, You’re NOT Disordered: The Ultimate Wellbeing Guide for Bloggers, for which I wrote the foreword. Great or small it’s a delight to celebrate friends’ achievements, and this was a big one. Well done, Aimee!

This year marked my having achieved thirty years continuous service at my place of work. It didn’t seem all that much of an achievement to me, more a case of never having sought alternative employment in all that time. It led me to examine how I feel at this stage in my life in a post titled Getting a Living, Forgetting to Live: A Few Thoughts on My 30 Years Service. As I wrote there, “[t]hese thirty years passed almost without me noticing. I doubt I’ll be graced with another thirty. Twenty, maybe. What do I want to achieve? How do I want to live?”


This photo was taken at 6:30 am one Wednesday morning as I made my way to work. As I mentioned earlier, all year I’ve worked two days a week in the office, and three days from home. There are indications this may change next year, possibly reversing the pattern so it’s three days in the office and two working from home. I’m not keen, but it won’t be a problem if it happens. Views like this definitely make the early starts worthwhile.

The blog post I’ve chosen to highlight is Present and Correct: How to Do the Right Thing at the Right Time. It was inspired by a conversation with Fran about when’s the right time to open Christmas presents. More generally, it’s about recognising that we all have our ideas about when things should happen.

So, whether it’s opening Christmas presents, spending time with a friend, or taking a significant life decision, being conscious of our needs helps us make the most of the current moment. It’s arguably the greatest gift of all.

And that, my friends, is why they call it the present.

Post of the Year

This has been a year in which I’ve thought a lot about who I am, how I present to others, and what my purpose in life might be. Spending a little money on new t-shirts — and rather a lot of money on new glasses — was an important part of that journey. Not the money as such, although it’s nice to treat oneself now and again, but the way these things have allowed me to explore new ways of expressing my identity. This photo of me wearing my LIFE IS SHORT BLOG MORE t-shirt was taken at Starbucks in Newcastle International Airport, and is my favourite selfie of the year. I hope to carry that confidence and sense of who I am forward into 2024.

Realising I’ve spent the past thirty years in the same employ led me to ponder what I’ve done with my life and still want to achieve. In doing so I chanced on the Absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus, with its emphasis on finding personal meaning and purpose in the absence of any outside references. In One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy: Encounters With the Absurd Man I described how and why I identify so closely with Camus on this. I also publically affirmed my lack of religious or spiritual belief for the first time. It’s an important article from my point of view, and one which takes me a few steps further on the path to writing — and living — authentically. For that reason, I’ve chosen it as my keynote blog post of the year. I feel it’s something I will be returning to again.

I’d like to close by saying a huge thank you to all our readers, and to everyone who has contributed, helped, or supported us and our blog in the past year. Fran and I are immensely grateful to you all.

Here’s to 2024, whatever it may bring.


All photos by Martin Baker.


Wednesday 20 December 2023

Time Management for the Stationery Lover (One More Filofax for the Road)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

In a recent blog post I discussed how people have different ideas about the most appropriate time to do things. This led me to ponder how people keep track of time. Specifically, how I keep track of what’s going on in my life and the things that have happened to me. As we approach the close of the year, I thought it would be interesting to review some of the time management methods I’ve employed over the course of my lifetime. This post was further inspired by me buying — and almost immediately regretting buying — yet another Filofax planner. More on that later!

Personal Diary

Regular readers will know that I’ve kept a daily diary since I was fourteen years old. My diaries represent the definitive account of my life as I experienced it. They have captured, and continue to capture, the most significant details — events, emotions, thoughts, and relationships — as I’ve moved through my life, one day at a time. Excepting a few years in the eighties when I’d occasionally tip in sketches and drawings, there are no photos, clippings, or other embellishments. Just my words, handwritten in black ink.

They proved an invaluable resource when Fran and I were writing our book. We included numerous excerpts to illustrate what I was thinking and feeling at different times in our journey as friends. I rarely look through old diaries nowadays, however. I archive each volume as it’s completed, and hardly ever take them up again. I sometimes wonder why I continue to write a diary at all if I never look back over what I’ve written. I don’t have an answer, other than to say I continue writing my journal because doing so is part of me, and how I process what’s happening in my life. I’m unsure who I’d be if I no longer committed my thoughts and feelings to paper. As I expressed it recently in relation to my writing generally, “if I’m honest, I write because I’m scared to stop.”

My diaries contain what I’ve done and how I felt about it at the time, but there’s no high-level perspective and no summary of highlights. Being hand-written, it’s also not easily searchable. Over the years I’ve developed various strategies to provide these alternate views. In different ways, they help me navigate to a particular date or event. From there, should I wish to, I can pull the relevant volume of my diary and revisit how I was feeling on that day. These strategies include my Traveler’s Notebook, online calendar, to do lists, online notes, timelines, and photos. Let’s take a look at these in more detail.

Traveler’s Notebook

As I wrote a few years ago in Every Day Essentials for the Successful Blogger, I own two Traveler’s Journals. I love how easy it is to swap out individual inserts, folders, and other accessories. I started out using my Standard Traveler’s Notebook for work notes and for drafting blog posts, but I’ve not used it in quite a while. My smaller Passport Traveler’s Notebook serves as a memory journal, and is very much still in use. I keepsake days out, holidays, and other special occasions. I decorate the pages with washi tape, stickers and stamps, and photos printed on my little HP Sprocket printer. I carry it with me pretty much everywhere I go. It’s my go-to if I want to reminisce about a special event, or check the date so I can look it up elsewhere. There’s a wonderful online community of people who use and love Traveler’s notebooks, and creative journaling in general. Apparently, there’s a word for us: papyrophiliacs, literally those who love paper!

Clocks and Calendars

My diary and journals allow me to record and recall my time and memories, but when it comes to managing the present and planning future activities I turn to the multi-timezone clock and calendars on my phone and tablet. Fran and I live three thousand miles and three hundred minutes apart. After a dozen years of friendship, I rarely need to think about the five hour difference between us. I instinctively think in UK and US Eastern times simultaneously. It’s nonetheless helpful to have both clocks to hand. This is especially true when daylight saving adjustments complicate things, or if Fran travels out of state or abroad. I’ve used various clock apps over the years. Currently, I’m using Universal Clock Widget 2021 by Aaadbic. This simple app allows me to display not only Fran’s time on the East Coast, but also other friends’ times.

I’m a big fan of the Google suite of cloud applications. I use Gmail as my main e-mail client. Our book was written on Google Docs. Our blog is hosted on Google’s Blogger platform. Google Drive is my primary cloud storage, with Microsoft’s Onedrive as backup. I use Keep as my main note-taking app. It’s natural, then, that I should use Google Calendar as my main calendar application. One of the first things Fran and I did was set up a shared calendar. This helped a lot with our book tasks and activities. More generally, it helps to keep us aware of each other’s plans so we can schedule our calls more easily. I’ve shared calendars with other friends in the past too, and found them very useful. That said, I’m not a huge fan of the Google Calendar app itself. I use aCalendar by Tapir Apps GmbH on my Android phone and tablet to manage my Google calendar appointments.

To Do Lists

Although Google Calendar and aCalendar include task functionality, I prefer to use a separate to do list application. I’ve tried many over the years. My favourite is Trello. Fran and I used it extensively in planning the writing, editing, and publication of our book. It’s highly customisable and flexible, but these days I find I have less need of its extensive functionality. I’ve taken to using a single tick box document in Google Keep as my to do list. I keep this displayed in a widget on my phone homescreen. I use it to track my current and upcoming blog posts, as well as domestic tasks like paying bills. Keep’s simplicity is a bonus here, as it keeps me focused on the tasks in hand. For anything more complex or complicated, I would use Trello.

Google Keep

I mentioned using Google Keep for to do lists, but that’s not my main use for this grossly underestimated app. It’s my go to for note taking of any kind, and where every blog post I write begins its life. I have a “scrapbook” document for jotting down spontaneous notes and ideas. I tidy this down on an ongoing basis, but there are entries I don’t wish to lose and I’ve archived my scrapbooks a few times in the past. They serve as informal memory journals, charting thoughts and ideas which may or may not have made it into my diary or been recorded elsewhere. I rarely hit the word limit on individual notes, and there is no limit on the number of notes you can have. Keep is also searchable. This makes it a good starting point if I want to retrieve specific memories quickly.


My diary and blogging aside, I document my life in the many photographs I take. Older digital photos are archived on an external hard drive with DVD backup. Photos taken since the start of 2016 are organised by year on my phone with cloud backup. It’s often the first place I look if I want to check when a specific event happened, or what I was doing around a particular time.

Social Media Posts

Social media provides another valuable index to the events of my life. I wish Facebook had better search options, but I love the Memories stream which reminds me of things I posted or was doing on this day in years gone by. As with photo albums on my phone, I use Facebook albums to home in on images I’ve shared. I post less frequently to Instagram but the photos I share there tend to be ones that are especially significant to me. In that sense, Instagram serves as a digital memory journal.


I use Facebook Messenger to chat with friends all over the world. Its text search means it can be very useful in recalling events and discussions. I use it a lot to recall conversations relevant to whatever I’m blogging about at the time, or to inform my personal reflections in my diary. My chat history with Fran was incredibly important when we were writing our book. I downloaded our conversations in full — we used Skype at that time — and we quoted extensively from them in the book.

Friendship Timelines

The above techniques focus on recording — in words, images, or social media posts — what was happening at a particular point in time. That’s invaluable but doesn’t provide a high level perspective. With this in mind, some years ago I began a timeline to track the ups and downs of one particular friendship. Marking the frequency of our get-togethers, calls, and other significant events helped me see the friendship in broader terms, and respond with more understanding as things changed over time. I’ve used the same approach with other friendships since.

Wellbeing Logs

In 2013 when Fran was traveling in Europe, and again for a period in 2020 when she was out of town, I tracked my health, wellbeing, and self-care routine. It helped keep me on track but I didn’t keep up with it for more than six months or so on either occasion. It’s something I might take up again in the new year.

Blog Posts

I pour a lot of myself into my writing and find it both interesting and instructive to look back over topics I’ve covered in the past. The nature of my blog posts has changed a good deal over the ten years since Fran and I began Gum on My Shoe in August 2013. That’s something I might explore that in a future post. For now I’ll just note that I explore my life, experiences, and issues more now than in the early days of our blog. I’d go so far as to say it’s become my primary vehicle for self-examination, overtaking even my personal diary. Certain articles have come to serve as waypoints, marking key moments in my personal journey. Of these, I’d pick out the following in particular.


Being a Man: Exploring My Gender Identity for International Men’s Day

Return to Down: How My Baseline Mood Has Slipped from Positive to Low

I Can See Clearly: Celebrating My New Glasses from Grey St. Opticians

Big Boys Cry Too: Challenging Toxic Masculinity for International Men’s Day

One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy: Encounters With the Absurd Man

Others are useful as indexes to my experiences and life events. These include the review posts I’ve written for 2020, 2021, and 2022. Look out for the review post for 2023 in the next week or so.

One More Filofax (for the Road)

I’ve focused on techniques I’ve found helpful, but I can’t close without mentioning one that never quite has, despite me wanting it to very much. I refer, of course, to the Filofax personal planner. My first was part of my induction pack when I began working for the UK civil service I.T. Services Agency thirty years ago. It was royal blue with the ITSA logo on the front. I don’t remember how much I used it at the time, or for what, but it caught my imagination. I never quite got over the allure of opening and closing those six little metal rings to add, remove, and rearrange the pages, dividers, pockets, and the like. I still have it, somewhere.

I may have bought another Filofax which didn’t get used — I wasn’t overly enamoured of the colour of the ITSA one — but the next personal planner I remember buying was an A5 zip cover planner sold by WH Smith. I used it for a while, then set it aside because it didn’t quite fit my needs. At some point I donated it to charity. That’s something I bitterly regret because, in my head at least, it was the perfect planner for me. Around ten years ago I saw a black personal size Filofax Domino planner on offer at Staples in Newcastle and bought it without hesitation. Surely, this time, it would be just what I was after. Needless to say, it wasn’t. I liked the planner itself but I simply couldn’t find enough uses for it.

Fast forward to last December, when in a renewed fit of papyrophilia and having mislaid my personal size Domino — somewhere — I bought an A5 Domino with calendar inserts in various formats, dividers, plastic pockets, and extra note paper. I began using it to take notes on various projects, including reworking a novella I wrote years ago. I like the Domino covers, with their elastic closure, but the one I received was slightly damaged on the inside. I didn’t return it for a replacement, but the damage played on me and I was never completely happy using it.

So this year, as Christmas approached, I caught the bug again and ordered myself a black A5 Metropol Zip Filofax planner. I hoped to recapture the satisfaction of the WH Smith zip planner I gave away, but I was sorely disappointed. I knew it was PU (artificial) leather, which is fine, but it’s very shiny and feels horribly tacky. So here I am, again, with yet another planner I’m unlikely to use.

Maybe I’ll go back to the A5 Domino. Maybe I’ll try and track down a second-hand WH Smith planner, only to discover it’s not as great as I remember it being. Maybe, out there somewhere, is the perfect planner for me. In the meantime, I’ll keep on keeping on, living and documenting and managing my life as I go.

Over to You

In this post I’ve described some of the ways I keep track of the events, emotions, and happenings of my life. How do you manage your time? What works for you? Are you a Filofax person? Do you journal at all? I’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Kevin Ku at Unsplash


Wednesday 13 December 2023

Present and Correct: How to Do the Right Thing at the Right Time

Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.

— Attributed to Alice Morse Earle

This piece was inspired by a conversation with Fran about when’s the right time to open Christmas presents. I sent Fran’s gifts early this year, and she wanted to open them as soon as they arrived. We had a fun time on our video call that evening, each in our matching Santa hats. It was November 27. The fact that I was okay with this shows how much I’ve grown since we first became friends in 2011. In those early years, it was important to me that we open our gifts together at the same time, ideally on Christmas Eve.

I guess I’m attached to the idea of there being a proper time to do things. I buy and wrap gifts in plenty of time — not least because many will be mailed to various locations in the UK and beyond — but the tree and other decorations should go up no earlier than the middle of December. I stock up in advance on festive fayre — mince pies, Christmas cake, chutneys, crackers, crisps (chips) and such — but it’s not to be consumed until a week or so before the big day.

If you’re a regular reader you’ll have noted my use of “should” in the previous paragraph. You’re no doubt thinking “Hmmm... I thought you don’t believe in shoulds!” You’re right, of course. Should implies some shared scale of rightness or propriety. In this case, I have only my personal sense of tradition, and the feeling that celebrations are enhanced by not starting them too early or continuing them too long. Realising that this is personal rather than absolute or universal is what I meant when I said I’d grown. It’s okay that other people feel differently.

My ideas about when things should be done are as valid — no less and no more — as Fran’s or anyone else’s. I like to open presents as close to Christmas Day as possible, but if Fran wants to open hers as soon as they arrive, that’s cool. I send cards in the first week of December, but if my friend wants to mail hers out in the middle of November, that’s good too. (Thank you, Jessie! Yours was the first Christmas card I received this year, and all the more special for that!)

It’s not just Christmas. I celebrate my birthday itself with family, and enjoy a get-together with friends as close to the day as possible. Fran marks her birthday by filling the month in which she was born with things she wants to do, either on her own or with friends. Neither approach is right or wrong. We’re free to mark our birthdays in the ways we wish.

Maybe this all seems obvious, and hardly worth mentioning, let alone discussing at length. I find it interesting, nonetheless. I think it highlights the fact that people have different approaches to the passage of time, and how to mark that passage in ways that are meaningful. I’ve written before about how to reach wise decisions, but deciding when is no less important.

  • When to send the Christmas cards
  • When to put up the decorations
  • When to eat that first mince pie
  • When to open your presents

These decisions may seem trivial, but each time (pun intended) we make one, we’re putting a little flag in the timeline of our life. Being aware of our time-based decisions and how we make them can help when we have larger flags to place.

  • When to look for a new job
  • When to send that letter
  • When to ask that question
  • When to end a relationship or start a new one

Being present and correct — or correctly present — is important. It reminds me that not everyone experiences time the way I do, or marks key moments in their lives the ways I’d choose to. I’ve mentioned Fran’s month-long approach to celebrating her birthdays. My friend Aimee celebrates Christmas in a similar way. She starts early (compared to me), visiting Christmas markets and making other festive trips in the weeks beforehand, and posting a new piece to her blog I’m NOT Disordered every day from December 1 until Christmas Day. Preparing those Blogmas posts is a commitment that starts weeks if not months ahead of time. I can’t imagine devoting so much time and effort myself, but I know how much it means to Aimee and how large a part it plays in her experience of Christmas. I love that she includes me in her celebrations, and we get to enjoy the season in ways that meets her expectations and mine.

That’s what it’s about; being aware of ourselves and our needs in the moment, and respectful of the needs of other people. Just the other day, Fran joined me on our usual video call. I was looking forward to a good catch-up, but she was too exhausted to talk. Instead, she asked if we could have some quiet time together while she rested. I was happy to agree. As I’ve written before, sharing quiet moments like this can deepen your friendship. Half an hour later, Fran felt sufficiently refreshed to ask how my day had gone and share a little of her own. It was a lovely example of how paying attention and making the right decision at the right time can enrich our experience.

There’s a connection here to my recent post about Albert Camus and his philosophy of the Absurd as exemplified in The Myth of Sisyphus.

The lesson we can take from Sisyphus — at least as Camus’ presents him — is to become fully aware of the present moment and find happiness there. Find meaning there.

So, whether it’s opening Christmas presents, spending time with a friend, or taking a significant life decision, being conscious of our needs helps us make the most of the current moment. It’s arguably the greatest gift of all. And that, my friends, is why they call it the present.


Photo by Icons8 Team at Unsplash