A Christmas Story

Two days ago I published a little piece here about a trip I’m on right now, and then I deleted it almost immediately. It didn’t feel true.* 

It is true that I am (and have been) in London, on a trip that looks pretty fabulous on paper. 

It is also true that I have been mostly unhappy on this trip, despite all the gifts and privileges that, combined, should have made this the most wonderful time of my year. Instead, I have mostly been lonely or angry or sad. And most of the time I’ve been those things, I’ve also been upset with myself for not being able to be joyful about what I have rather than sad or angry about what I do not. 

Today, Christmas, all of those feelings intensified. I was so blue I wanted to do nothing but descend into a black hole of Netflix binging, but I made myself go out for a walk instead. I stomped around Regent’s Park, wishing I could just go home, frustrated with myself for not being able to change my attitude or outlook or approach to the time on this trip, disliking myself for not being the kind of person who would be thrilled to be here. I felt exactly like the kind of person I don’t want to be:  someone who dwells on the negative, someone who is unappreciative, someone who wallows in their misery–which only made me feel even worse than I already was.

I really wanted myself to just snap out of it.

“You feel what you feel,” a character on some show I’ve watched too much of in the past week said to another, “It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.” Meaning:  You don’t choose your feelings, so don’t judge yourself for them. Her words popped into my head as I plodded up Primrose Hill, stopping me short.

No, I thought, she’s right; we don’t choose our feelings. They just are. 

Still, there are plenty of voices telling us that we can choose how to respond to them, and that if we choose the right responses we won’t suffer. 

I’m just going to flat out say that I think that’s harmful, bullshit thinking right there. I’ve learned that I can’t will my feelings away or simply choose different ones–believe me, I’ve tried–and suggestions in “inspirational” memes that we can feel almost aggressively hostile. People with depression don’t choose their feelings. People grieving or living with trauma don’t choose their feelings. Those feelings just are. It’s hard enough to deal with those difficulties; we don’t have to intensify them by blaming ourselves for feeling badly about them.

Which got me thinking about what we can actually choose when we’re feeling shitty, and I realized that I was already doing one of those things:  Physical activity. That is something we can will ourselves to do, and it was something I was doing even though I didn’t want to. 

Hey, I thought, maybe I’m not just a weak-willed, dour, negative person after all. 

As thoughts of blame and judgement cleared, I found myself thinking also about what I know about trauma and grief, and it occurred to me that sad and angry and lonely might actually be exactly what I need to be feeling (fabulous trip be damned), and that they might be walloping me right now precisely because it is the first time I have been able to take a real breath since (maybe?) March. Maybe I have been unable to summon the motivation to do much on this trip because nothing is what I need to be doing. 

I’d like to tell you that something equivalent to clouds parting and sun breaking through happened, but it didn’t. I just felt a little less shitty.

It didn’t make my Christmas great, but it made it alright. I had a day that was mostly OK, with a few moments of true joy and light. I sure had bigger hopes than that for Christmas in London with one of my favorite people, and I’m feeling embarrassed that when people ask me how I’m loving it I can’t honestly tell them that I am, but I’m going to put today in the victory column. A win doesn’t always look the way we think it should.

And I’m offering this story–plain as it is, but true–in case it might help anyone else who is struggling with something today. Consider it my Christmas gift to you. 

*Updated 12/27: I made it public again. It’s not that it was untrue. It just wasn’t the whole truth. And sometimes we need to let things sit a bit before knowing if what we wrote is truth.

21 thoughts on “A Christmas Story

  1. Mary says:

    I’m right there with you sister. Thanks for giving us the permission to feel what we feel. Crazy at my age that I need permission but there you are.

    • Rita says:

      I can’t believe all the things I seem to need at this age that I thought I’d be long past needing. Thanks for your words–they are much appreciated.

  2. Stephenie says:

    OH Rita. This rang so familiar for me. This summer my daughters and I travelled across the country home to our Maritime Island, where I grew up and where I have always felt most happy and loved and accepted, surrounded by many lifelong friends and so much extended family. The sun shone every day, we were by the sea, eating beautiful food and spending time laughing and being with all of those people. Everything should have been perfect, just what I so wanted and needed. I cried every single day of the two weeks, tears just leaking out of me every time I was alone, great waves of grief washing over me, and as I was more surrounded by kindness and love, the harder I cried. It was a mystery. I felt like I was being ridiculous, that I was “ruining” my children’s vacation, that I was not trying hard enough to “live in the moment”, to “be fully present” and just enjoy life. Even now, months later, I feel guilty and regretful that I wasted my beautiful hard won vacation weeping.
    Sometimes it seems impossible to just be mindful, count our blessings, or whatever we tell ourselves we should do and usually CAN do. I am still figuring out what the heck happened when I just cracked open, and how can I hold the pieces together a while longer.
    We may not know each other, but it DOES make me feel better to know that feelings of hopelessness are not unique to me, and no matter how great we THINK we should feel, the body feels what it feels whether it is physical or emotional or mental or whatever. To talk about it is brave and beautiful. I wish you peace, and joy and love and new contentment in the coming new year.

    • Rita says:

      I always love hearing from you, Stephenie–mostly because it takes me to your blog, and I love the writing you do there. I don’t know why I don’t see your posts when you publish them (I’m subscribed), but somehow I don’t. (I’m sure that’s something on my end. Probably get lost in my inbox.) Anyway, thank you for writing.

      I know it’s always easier for us to be generous and kind with others than with ourselves (or, ok, maybe that’s just me–but I think it’s a lot of us), and what I see in the story you’re sharing here is that what you needed was a safe place to weep. That it wasn’t a wasted vacation at all. It just wasn’t the one you wanted. (Gah! I so wish our wants and needs could neatly line up together more often.)

      I sometimes think the curse of all of us who write is that it is very hard for us to fully be in whatever moment we are in. Some part of us is simultaneously processing it. Myself, I’ve struggled most with fully entering into an experience when I am surrounded by others–the times I would most like to join in and just be with them. But part of me often is an observer, rather than a full participant, already putting words to whatever it is I’m living, as if I’m reporting on it in the moment, in my head. I think it is that quality that makes us able to write the way we do. (So I see the writing as a by-product of this way of being, not that we are that way so that we can write.)

      Also, I think part of me now is just always girding myself for loss. So, times that are the most joyful are always tinged with sadness because I know they (like everything) will pass. (Lindsey Mead writes often–and beautifully–about this.) Maybe your time was so wonderful (it sounds wonderful) that you were simultaneously loving it and mourning its inevitable passing?

      At any rate, thank you for sharing your story with me. It makes me feel better, too, to know that my feelings are not unique–something I always know in an abstract way, but also need to know in specific and concrete ways, through the particular stories of others. Wishing you peace, joy, love, and contentment, too.

  3. Kate says:

    Yeah, I’m with you on choosing feelings/bullshit. I think you can choose your behavior but feelings just are. Honoring them is just wisdom. Good on you for acknowledging how you feel and I’m glad you found yourself doing something that helped you feel a little bit better.

    • Rita says:

      If you are agreeing with me, I’m pretty sure I must be right. 🙂 When I am low, it can be very hard for me to counter all those messages telling me I just need to choose a different attitude/outlook/focus. Maybe it works for those who don’t deal with depression? But as someone who does, more and more it feels like victim-blaming to me. And stupid: Hey, use your faulty mind to fix your faulty mind!

      • Kate says:

        Ha! Use your faulty mind to fix your faulty mind!!

        It can be so hard to accept our lows when we live in a “find your joy, everybody should be chasing their dream, fake it ‘til you make it, and if it doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it” society. More and more I think we don’t know how to be with people who are sad, who are grieving, or who are struggling. It’s too uncomfortable.

        I saw a meme the other day talking about the beauty of Eeyore and how he was sad all the time and his friends still included him and didn’t tell him to cheer up and just accepted his “gray”. I mean, it’s a meme. But as a person who is kind an Eeyore, it really touched me.

        Finally, I borrowed your idea today. We’re celebrating my family Christmas this weekend and half of me is looking forward to it, but we’ve had some pretty big bumps in my extended family that have me also feeling pretty anxious. Anyway, I put on some warm clothes, hiking boots, and made the kids go for a hike with me at a county park. I’m still anxious, but I feel less shitty. I appreciate the reminder. Xoxo.

        • Rita says:

          Oh my goodness, yes: I am kind of an Eeyore, too. More than I’d like to be. Now I’m thinking about all the characters, though, and I can see that there are times I am each of them. I wonder if they are all representations of the different aspects of Christopher Robin (of any of us)? And the message I would take from that is that all parts of ourselves should be accepted and can exist harmoniously together, whether we are excitable as Tigger, pragmatic as Rabbit, or just needing someone to be a Kanga to our Roo.

          I’m glad I can come here to be sad and struggling and find others who are not uncomfortable with my discomfort. I appreciate you being OK with that and telling me I’m OK, too. 🙂 And good for you to take those kids out to hike! I started seeing a trainer (who feels more like a physical therapist) in November, and I am constantly amazed at how I can arrive for a session feeling completely depleted (physically and mentally) and I always leave feeling better. Always. I hope you have a time with your family that is good, even if good doesn’t always feel that way. xoxo to you, too.

  4. Jennifer Cassidy says:

    Rita, I happened to have read your first attempt you posted a couple of days ago and I was ready to post this comment when you deleted it. I hope you don’t mind if I post it now, I think it applies to both.

    I love your prose. I’ve been reading your words now for a couple of years, starting with past entries of your home design blog to your current writing and I’m struck most of all by one thing: how much alike our journey has been. Much of your experience in the last few years mirrors my own. Different circumstances, same gut wrenching spiritual journey. Along the way, I too lost a life I loved and I’ve been trying to find my footing ever since. We moved from Portland OR to the opposite coast and half way back again, trying to find a replacement for a life that was so special to us. In the process I’ve often felt like I couldn’t create that life again because there was something lacking in me. Reading your blog today tells me you might also feel disappointed in yourself or at least with your current attempt to make the pieces of your life come together again. Once again your words have given comfort and solidarity to someone facing similar challenges in life, and even though I can’t put words together as beautifully as you do, I’d like to offer you some encouragement in return.

    Anyone can jump on a plane and be adventurous and happy on the outside, but it takes real courage to be truthful and vulnerable with the most daring adventure of all: our real life, the one actually happening right now, the one we feel right now, not the one we imagine could happen if we just tried a little harder. Your honesty is incredibly brave. It’s helped me clarify my own journey and has made my experience a little less lonely. Most people would not dare to be this open, even to themselves, let alone sharing their truth with others. You don’t need to travel to far away places to prove that you’re interesting, daring and adventurous. You’ve already proven that.

    Just remember Rita, who you are and what you’re feeling and what you’re doing right now is perfect, perfect for you. Feel what you feel and keep writing.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Jennifer. For whatever it’s worth, I think you’re no slouch in the Putting Words Together department.

      I am clearly so much in the middle of the finding a replacement life process. (Which is more about making than finding, I know.) I don’t know about you, but it sure seems like it shouldn’t be taking as long as it is! Yes, I am disappointed in myself, in all kinds of ways. Or, probably more importantly, full of doubt. Not all the time, but enough of the time.

      I appreciate more than you know your kindness in giving me these words. And the encouragement. And the reminder that how things look on the outside of a person doesn’t always match how they look on the inside. It’s so easy to forget that.

      Here’s to hoping that both of us get further along to where we’d like to go in the coming year.

  5. Shannon says:

    Oh my dear Rita, you always hit the heart of things! Thank you for this Christmas gift I didn’t know I needed. Thank you for speaking the truth.

    • Rita says:

      Sending you love, Shannon. I know you’ve weathered a lot of loss, too. I hope you were able to spend the day with those you love who love you back. I know they don’t make you feel the absence of others any less keenly, but they do provide some comfort (at least for me, so I hope that’s true for you, too). I wish I had more fully known in the moments of previous holidays how sweet they were.

  6. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    YESSSSSS. We both come from a generation who came from a generation that told everyone to suck it up. Thank God we have evolved (well, some of us) a bit to realize that it is okay to feel shitty. To be sad. To be angry. To be happy. To be goofy. And there are days where all of those emotions happen at once.
    Sending you a hug and know that we get you. I understand how it feels to delete something too. 🙂

  7. Marian says:

    Oh Rita. I can SO relate. FWIW, I loved the first piece—the roller coaster story, the brutal honesty, the callout on the bullshit memes that just. please. need. to. stop. (“In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take” … Nope! My biggest regret, one I can’t let go of, despite the passage of 31 years, is the chance I DID take. The sad fact is we can talk ourselves into things that can destroy us.)

    I hope the last couple of days have been better. I’m SO glad you got out there and went for a walk, rather than Netflixing. Small purposeful actions—walking, cooking, knitting a few rows, writing a few lines—are often the only things that keep me going, pushing past all the emotions (for me, it’s anxiety; I suspect depression is a more difficult thing to push through). All the emotions are still there, but it’s easier to take those emotions when I force myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and to keep myself in motion. (This is NOT advice—I know you don’t want advice—rather, it’s just simple physics 😉 .)

    Also in the not-advice department: Have you read Quiet, by Susan Cain? I’m also a highly sensitive introvert (I’m pretty sure you’ve said you’re a HSP as well?) and this was such an affirming book. There isn’t anything “wrong” with us, it’s simply the way we’re wired. That, and the fact that the damned extroverts are in the majority and seem to be calling the shots, writing the effing memes and telling us we need to go places…

    I, too, hate traveling. And have trouble living in the moment. I, too, have beaten myself up over it. It’s exactly as you said in a comment: we’re observers. Sometimes all our observations cause us severe distress. This is a real thing and cannot simply be switched off or wished away.

    Your two posts have reminded me of something I heard on the Harry Potter as a Sacred Text podcast: the fact that everything we do/go through becomes a story we can tell. (To ourselves or to others.) Because I love stories, and want my life to have stories, I will often do things I absolutely know I do not want to do. I guess you could say this is partly me wanting to be a better or different person—one who is able to be there for family/friends, one who is either capable or fun—and maybe it IS partly done out of a sense that I don’t want to regret chances not taken, but it feels as though it’s mostly done in recognition of the fact that hindsight often smooths out the jagged edges. I do, to a certain degree, want to be able to tell myself (or others) the tales of the things I did (not BIG things, not keeping-up-with-the-Joneses things, just things above and beyond boring SAHM things), so I will do these things all the while knowing I will enjoy the re-telling more than the actual experience.

    Oh, and one more thing I was reminded of with this post: this Ted Talk on the tyranny of positivity (another affirming take for those of us who cannot just “be happy”). https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_david_the_gift_and_power_of_emotional_courage/transcript?language=en
    Marian recently posted…Scrawling Versus Scrolling: Can Journaling Break a Mindless Phone Habit?My Profile

    • Rita says:

      Marian, you are such a generous friend. I love all the things you share with me. Yes, and I have read Quiet, and yes, I’ve seen this TED talk–but these are such helpful reminders. Several things in that TED talk really struck me as I re-watched it again just now: “Rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic”–oh, how that brings clarity to several situations I’ve struggled with this fall! “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” “Emotions are data, they are not directives.”

      And the Susan Cain book–yes, this was one of several that helped me understand that I’ve just got wiring that’s different from that of the majority of people. Some day I will bore you with my ideas about how so many of the things that have impacted my life and those of others I love all seem to stem from hyper-sensitivity–from migraine to autism to intellectual “giftedness.” Too much data getting in, all the time. Difficulties with regulation of it.

      Can I tell you how much I love it that there is such a thing as a podcast on Harry Potter as a sacred text, and that you listen to it? I absolutely agree with and understand what you are saying about story. One day a few years back my daughter, out of the blue, told me that I really should write the story of my life because so many interesting things have happened in it. I have had a lot of experiences that most don’t have. And while most of those have been painful (or, at least, fraught with difficulty of various kinds), I have always been grateful for the story of them and the things I’ve understood because of them. I’ve long said that I’d rather have an interesting life than a boring one, knowing that “interesting” often means challenging. When I’m dying, I like to think that I will have felt that I fully lived. And not because of anywhere I went in the world! Because of where I traveled internally.

      Finally, I agree with you about regret. That’s a subject I think I want to do some more thinking about.

      Thank you so much for sharing so much of yourself with me. You are a good friend.

  8. TD says:

    Rita, l appreciate and thank you for your Christmas gift to me yesterday! I read your post, but needed time to compose a proper reply.
    I love your deep raw feelings of truth which all hold true for me as well; and I am that someone who is struggling with something.
    Despite already knowing my feelings of lonely or angry or sad would surface during this time, separately or all overwhelming at once or perhaps not at all. I knew there would be no happy pill, recitals of mantras, meme, amount of exercise, sitting in the sun, healthy food, one way to grieve or any way to “fix me” as others say for me “to be xyz or act like xyz, become someone else other than me. And it’s okay to be me, it’s okay to have to ability to think deeply and to feel deeply. I’m not a monster. I’m just different.
    My gift to you is this: Take whatever words or meanings that benefits you and leave all my other words behind.
    Thank you for all your writing gifts!

    • Rita says:

      “I’m not a monster. I’m just different.” Yes to that. Thank you for being here with me and everyone else who is part of this conversation. I’m glad these words were helpful for you.

      • TD says:

        I see your update now. And thank you for allowing me to be part of the conversation! Our emotional pain through this complicated world certainly needs support of others even if it is only through words we can type to each other. Thank you Rita for your kindness!

    • Rita says:

      Hi Bethany,
      I’m so glad you wrote me a note here. It took me to your blog to catch up with you–something I haven’t taken time for in the crush of the fall–and I can see that we’ve been traveling a similar path of late. I hope the release from your teaching schedule will give you what you need. Or at least some of it. I am finding that grief is a strange journey. It wears a lot of disguises. Or maybe just has many different faces. Some stomping is definitely good for it. Take care–

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