The most wonderful time of the year?

For years, I’ve struggled with the holidays–mostly privately, but sometimes out loud.

I’ve tried a variety of stances toward this season:

  • Fully embrace it (let’s do everything and will ourselves to have a big ol’ Merry Christmas dammit!)
  • Acknowledge its difficulties (admit out loud that I don’t like it, hoping that such admission will allow me to be OK with it)
  • Discount it (holidays are just a day; they don’t really matter unless I let them)
  • Simplify it (choose a few things to do that I sincerely enjoy and let a bunch of other stuff go)
  • Rail against it (it’s wasteful, it’s too commercialized, it hurts people dammit!)
  • Just get through it (do what I have to, with little expectation of joy)

None of  them really worked–if “working” means mostly feeling the presence of joy/love/contentment/(insert good feeling of choice) and the absence of resentment/sorrow/anxiety/(insert bad feeling of choice).

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Snapshot from a getting through it day.

There are lots of reasons any of us might dislike this season: our religious/spiritual beliefs are not in alignment with the majority’s; we’re dealing with loss; we’re having a hard time economically; we’re managing a personal challenge of some sort; we don’t really have enough time/energy to do regular life, much less holiday life; we find the typical behaviors and excesses of the season distressing (e.g., see any footage of Black Friday shoppers).

All of these  have been true for me. All still are. However, although nothing has changed externally for me, this year I find myself assuming a new stance:  Surrender.

I say “find myself” because surrender is not something I can will myself to do, even when I want to. It’s most often a gift that comes after a period of extended struggle. It comes after I’ve realized that I truly am powerless over whatever it is I’m struggling with.

My grandmother, the sun around which one side of my extended family orbited, died 7 years ago. That same year, the end of my marriage began. You might think my difficulty with the holidays began there–I have certainly thought that–but I can see now that they’ve been a challenge for me all of my adult life, even when my grandma was still alive, even before my children’s world crashed and holidays with them splintered.

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Yep, that is a strained smile, and it’s not because of that sweater. (It was the late 90s, OK? icon smile The most wonderful time of the year? )

Once my family began to change in the ways that all families always do, and holidays stopped being what they’d always been, it seemed I spent as much of them mourning the past than I did celebrating the present.

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Cousins, circa 1988. We used to spend every Christmas day together, but it’s been many years since that was our norm.

This past Thanksgiving, though, I got to share that holiday with the corps of people who now matter most to me in this world: my kids, Cane and Ella, my parents, and my brother.

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And we can’t forget the dogs!

It was the first time I’d had all of them together on a holiday, ever. And it was the first time since I was a kid that I didn’t spend some large part of a culturally special day missing someone. Oh, there were moments of missing. There are people I miss terribly, all the time. I’ve come to know I always will.

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Sitting on one grandma’s lap, wearing the very chic pantsuit made by my other grandma, and showing off Bob, a favorite Christmas present that year.

But somehow–maybe because of all that’s transpired over the last 7 years–the presence of the people I could be with carried more weight than the memories of those I couldn’t. I was just so happy to have everyone I’m able to love right now all together in one space, healthy and happy and here.

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The only person in this photo I still get to celebrate with is my brother.

As the weekend unfolded, I realized that the stories I’ve been telling myself for years–

  • That the holidays don’t have to matter, they are just a day
  • That the holidays shouldn’t matter, they’ve become excessive and gross and distorted
  • That I can choose to ignore them, that I don’t have to be affected by all the hoopla–

are just flat-out wrong.

They do matter. Here in our corner of North America, Christmas permeates just about everything. I can’t go through a day in December without seeing it or hearing it. I can’t escape it or pretend that it isn’t happening or that most of the people I interact with aren’t participating in it. They matter because when no one around me is doing business as usual, I can’t do business as usual, either.

The holidays matter because, when all the stars line up and we get to be with the people we love and no one is in crisis, they are pretty damn wonderful. And we need times of damn wonderful in our lives.

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Is there anything more wonderful than a holiday with a happy toddler? I think not.

They matter because, in the years when the stars aren’t lining up (and we all have those years, sooner or later), the holidays can be damn hard, no matter what stance we might take to try softening them.

Surrendering to this truth is what the holiday season is about for me this year.

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2009. A moment from our second post-divorce Christmas.

Surrendering to the season doesn’t mean that all the struggling is done, but that the nature of the struggle has shifted.

It means accepting that the coming weeks will–like all the weeks of the year–be a time of both sorrow and joy, contentment and anxiety, gratitude and resentment.

It means accepting that the holidays of my past–when my family (both immediate and extended) was intact–aren’t coming back, and that part of the holidays will always be missing and longing for what’s passed.

It means accepting that I have little control over how I or any of those I love will feel in this season–that the external choices we make about how to celebrate (or not) may have little impact on our internal realities.

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Would be embarrassed to tell you how much time, energy, and money went into making this a happy, magical moment. (Um, fail.)

As I’ve thought about this gift of surrender, and what the holidays are and mean, my thoughts have gone again and again to so many people I know who are living through them this year for the first time after losing something deeply precious–a person, a place, a dream.

I wish I could tell them that struggling makes it worse. That they don’t have to fight the holidays or be angry with them or make deals with themselves or their God to try to make this season OK. But I think of myself over the past 7 years, and I know that I probably couldn’t have done them any other way. I mean, I could have–but I think I was doing what I needed to do, whether I was being manic, sad, angry, or numb.

The one thing I know about grief is that the only way to get through it is, well, to get through it, and that’s a path paved with stones of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. The more I consider it, the more I think there are years for all of us in which the holidays are not supposed to be OK. Years in which they simply can’t be OK (in the way we want them to be).

More and more, it seems fitting to me that this holiday of all holidays comes in the darkest time of the year, a time when we turn inward and wait for the return of light and growth.

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Maybe they give us all what we need–a chance to celebrate, for those of us fortunate to be in a good place, and a chance to mourn, for those of us who aren’t. Maybe the reason our most meaning-laden holidays come at the darkest time of the year is the opposite of horrible design. Maybe we need it to be this way so that we can see and feel more clearly, without a lot of lush beauty to distract us from ourselves and the inner paths we need to travel.

As we’ve lived through the weeks between Thanksgiving and today, as the hours of darkness have grown steadily longer and the time left until the winter solstice has grown shorter, I’ve found myself returning to words I wrote as a young woman contemplating the likely possibility that I might never have children of my own:

Reclaiming Hope

It is not about looking
on the bright side.

It is about facing
the dark side straight on

and finding the light
shining through it.

Although I knew so much less then than I do now about the topography of grief, these words still ring true for me.

If this is not a year of joyful celebration for you, I wish for you the ability to carve a space apart from all the things we use to chase the dark away–the tinsel, the bows, the food, the parties, all the glittery noise. I wish for you the strength to fully enter the dark; I wish for you a space in which to sit with it and look it straight on.

That’s the only route I’ve ever found to the kind of true peace this season is supposed to be all about.

And, my dear friends, if you find yourself raging or crying or doing crazy, crazy things in your quest for peace and joy, I want to say this: you go ahead and do whatever you need to do. And give yourself and everyone around you the gift of some grace. Let’s assume we are all doing our best.

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 Poem credit: from The Play of Dark and Light, ©2002, Bellowing Ark Press.