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The Loneliness of Convenience

We all know that the best part about Christmas is the food, right? Sure, spending time with family, sure, all the presents, sure, celebrating the Saviour of the world, but really I’m here for the food coma and I don’t think I’m alone.

It is somehow more acceptable to eat all the time in December. I mean, I’ve had chocolate for breakfast every day this month. Absolutely no regrets. To be honest, I don’t know why we don’t implement 365-day advent calendars. Speaking of chocolate – a few days ago I was struck in the middle of the night by an uncontrollable, all-consuming urge to make a chocolate mug cake. These urges attack me frequently and I have no shame in saying I succumb to them almost all the time. Anyone who knows me will tell you I make chocolate mug cakes on an (un)surprisingly regular basis, but in December it’s just better, because it’s dark and misty outside, and the promise of hot, spongey chocolate sliding down my throat is the only comfort I can immediately foresee.

If you have never made a mug cake before, I implore you to question all of your life choices. You clearly had an upsetting childhood, or are on some personal mission to sabotage your own happiness. Please seek help from a friend or a counsellor immediately. If you have made one before, you will understand me. They are perfect because they take five minutes to make, and usually you will have everything you need right there in your kitchen even, if you’re anything like me, if the idea of a weekly food shop is about as distant an adult utopian concept as having an actual drinks cabinet, or SKY TV.

Cocoa powder, flour, sugar, an egg, milk and some vegetable oil, mix them all together, shove them in the best invention to come out of the 1970s since ABBA (the microwave, not orange-and-brown tiled bathrooms), and there you have it. Immediate deliciousness.

On this fateful Advent night, however, I fell victim to my own confidence. Of course I can make a mug cake at midnight, I thought ignorantly, throwing flour and cocoa powder into my favourite Shrek-themed mug, I have all the ingredients!

Alas, as I opened the cupboard, the cupboard which we affectionately refer to as the cupboard of doom because it’s in the corner, hard to reach, and hasn’t been tidy since before either of us moved in, to my horror there was no castor sugar. That’s ok, I thought, panicking slightly, I’ll just use regular sugar. Granulated sugar. Sugar for tea. It’ll be fine. We must have regular sugar.

I fear that by now, dear reader, you have anticipated the disaster that befell me that unfortunate night. To cut a long story short, in which I literally WhatsApped my sleeping housemate to check that there wasn’t a magical sugar stockpile in an undisclosed location, I had to use her vegan, fun-free, not-like-sugar-in-any-way glucose powder which was buried at the back of the cupboard of doom for obvious reasons, and it was the saddest, most flavourless mug-cake I had ever made. If you are someone who thinks that anything labelled ‘sugar-free’ will taste just as nice as its ‘with sugar’ counterpart, I can tell you right now that we will have little in common.

Now arguably, I could have gone to the shop to buy some real sugar. This is London after all. The Co-op is definitely open at midnight on a Thursday evening. However, I was in my pyjamas, and it was cold and dark, and the Co-op is ten minutes away, and even I saw the unhealthy desperate madness in making that choice purely for a chocolate craving.

As I sat there, munching very slowly through the most disappointing midnight snack there ever was, I kept thinking about that phrase that American neighbours say to each other in the movies, “if you ever need a cup of sugar, you know where to come”. If I was in America, I thought, I could have had an acceptable mug cake, because I could have crossed my hall and asked my neighbour for a cup of sugar. That idea of kinship, friendliness with those you share such intimate proximity with, is very appealing and is somewhat lost in this city.

Granted, knocking on the opposite flat’s door at midnight with a mad craving for chocolate cake and a demand for sugar probably isn’t a very neighbourly thing to do. But just think, what if I did actually know next-door well enough to text them and ask if they were awake? And let’s be honest, even if it had been 6 o’clock in the evening, I still wouldn’t have knocked on their door. I would have gone to the Co-op instead, because living in London means you can be entirely self-sufficient. There’s always a shop nearby, or public transport to get you home, or anything you could possibly want or need. It’s one of my favourite things about London, and I’m always baffled when I go back to my parents’ house and we can’t nip to Tesco at 5 o’clock on Sunday.

However, maybe all that convenience, all that immediacy, the now now now culture of our day to day lives, means that we don’t rely on people anymore. There’s no need to get to know our neighbours, because unlike in the old days, when if you were in trouble you needed actual people nearby to help you out, we don’t have to ask for anything. We can live totally independently from one another. How true is it that the only interaction we have with our neighbours is when they’ve signed for one of our Christmas presents from Amazon for us when we were out?

We all know that scientific studies have shown us to be social beings. We are far more likely to become depressed if we are isolated. Friendship, companionship, in all its forms, is what sustains us and nourishes us. I am reminded of John 15:12-13 ‘My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’

As we endeavour to build communities and families and homes in this great city of ours, I wonder where we can bring light and friendship. Christmas is a time for family for those lucky enough to have one, but it is also a time of desperate isolation for many people. Are there people in our lives who are lonely? Can we reach out? It might just be a question of walking across the hall to the next flat, or walking up to someone on Sunday who seems to be on their own. Do you know anyone who has nowhere to go for Christmas?

And in the end, perhaps we should all try and get to know our neighbours better, just in case of a sugar-related emergency.

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