Mono no aware

We’re going to take a philosophical turn today. It may seem odd to start a series on Christmas activities with a meditation on impermanence but stick with me. In my usual, circuitous way, we’re heading somewhere.

I visited Japan a few years ago and encountered an interesting idea: mono no aware.

As I understand it, the direct translation is ‘the pathos of things’.

It’s a sadness and appreciation for the transient nature of life. It encapsulates the poignant beauty found in the impermanent, fleeting, or changing aspects of the world. 

Think cherry blossom in spring, which evokes a mixture of joy for the present and melancholy for the inevitable end.

In psychology, they have a name for it: anticipated nostalgia.

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Perhaps my favourite translation is:

Nostalgia for something that is not yet lost

It sums up how I feel when I watch my children grow.

I know I can take a photograph or record a video but somehow it won’t capture the moment, how it feels to be with them at this magical age.

All I can do is take a moment to look at them and wonder.

What has all this got to do with Holiday Hooray, our Christmas newsletter mini-series?

Setting aside events in Bethlehem a few years back, isn’t Christmas all about play, toys and fun?

Yes, but it also symbolises the magic of childhood. The lights, the carols, the dark, the snow, family time around the kitchen table doing crafts. 

Above all, it stands for time spent together, for slowing down and enjoying each other’s company.

But you can’t slow time, you can’t preserve this special moment. All you can do is notice it and appreciate it.

And that’s not possible if your child is on a screen and you’re hiding in the kitchen on a laptop (like me!).

You need to be together. 

Holiday Hooray is about being in the same room together, enjoying the craic, even if you’re engaged in different activities. You might be on your laptop or cooking a meal but you are listening to the same carol, enjoying the same decorations, sharing the spirit.

Family fun isn’t forever. This might be the last year your child wants to do crafts with you. My eldest has reached that point. Right at the moment I see his childhood slipping away I want to sit down with him, to enjoy his company, to have uncomplicated conversations, to marvel at him, but it’s too late. His mind is on his next school, seeing his friends, walking to the shops by himself

I can’t make him come to the kitchen table but over the years I have given him a gift that will last a lifetime – a love of making, of craft, of taking care and appreciating beauty in all things.

That’s what this mini-series is all about.

Mono no aware, 100 Toys style

By slowing down, as well as learning to appreciate the moment and cherishing your child as she is, not for what she might become, you naturally give her your full attention. She feels noticed and valued. There’s no need to act up, to misbehave to get attention. You have shown her that she is enough as she is. She will self-regulate, calm down and settle into the activities. She will feel secure enough to relax and let go, to learn and to take creative risks.

All she really wants is to be with you.

Of course, you can’t explain mono no aware to a preschooler. But you can do something even better – help her to notice it for herself.

Try this:

Did you ever see the Hockney exhibition, A Bigger Picture, at the Royal Academy? In this ​accompanying documentary​we see him painting the Yorkshire countryside of his childhood, returning throughout the year to document the changing seasons. It’s a long video but I’ve set it to start at the point where we see the finished works in chronological order.

Could you do something like this with your child?

Could you paint a picture of your garden, or the view from your window?

It’s probably best to cheat by pre-mixing appropriate colours. If you break out your basic eight-colour poster paint set, each picture will look like the one before. The same brown, the same red. Instead, mix some autumnal reds, browns and oranges for now, some wintery greys and whites for January, sap green for spring and deep green for summer.

What will your child notice? What will she choose to represent?

These kinds of activities encourage us to slow down, to be more mindful and appreciative. Interestingly, they also help us to remember. When you pass something by without taking the time to look, it is soon forgotten. But take a moment to engage with it, to really see it, and you will commit it to memory.

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Jeremiah in the Dark Woods by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

I love this story. It’s about a boy who takes a journey through the Dark Woods. Along the way, he meets various characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes, including Little Red Riding Hood, the Mad Hatter and the Three Bears. As you have probably guessed, the wood is a place where different storylines intersect. And it’s very funny.

At one point, our hero meets a mournful dinosaur.

“Oh for the good old days, them good old days as is gone forever…”

And Jeremiah thinks to himself, ‘Aren’t these the good old days? I always thought they were.’

The present moment is all we ever have. This might be as good as it gets. The tumult, the mess and the tears. These might be the good old days.

Enjoy them while you can.