‘Tis the season

Two nights after the election my friend Lisa and I sat out on my dark back patio and drank gin under the twinkle lights and talked, as we’ve been doing pretty regularly since June. We wore sweaters and decided that, no, we didn’t really need to light a fire in the pit. It was dry and we were plenty warm; we told ourselves that the winter we’d spent the summer dreading might not be so bad after all.

“It’s already November and look at us!” we said.

A week later, the weather had turned cold and the patio cushions were soaked from days of rain. We canceled our Saturday lunch plans because on Friday our governor announced a two-week “freeze” on activities (which will be at least 4 weeks in our county) and because it’s too damn cold and wet to sit outside, even for us.

I talked on the phone with my mother yesterday. Back in the summer, when I was pushing hard for her to let me visit, she told me that she and my dad had decided to think of this as a lost year, but that they can be OK with losing it if that’s what’s necessary to have more years in the future. Yesterday she told me that they’ve decided we’ll just need to celebrate this year’s Christmas next July.

“But I’ve already gotten you a gift,” I said.

“Oh, we’ll still do gifts,” she said. “What’s on your list?”

Begging the question: What is a holiday, anyway?

For years, my feelings about the holidays have been ambivalent, at best—and my feelings about the holidays are rarely at their best. I’ve chafed against the commercialism, the materialism, the waste, the busyness, the stress. I’ve hated missing all the people I love who I’ll never share a holiday with again. I’ve wished we could all just hygge down at home with some candles, soup, and puzzles and call it good.

Careful what you wish for?

Last summer, when I anticipated the holiday season, I felt only dread. I hadn’t seen my parents since February or my son since the first week of January, and I knew I wouldn’t be seeing any of them during the holidays this year. When my daughter’s visa for Sweden came through we made plans for her to come home for Christmas; I let myself believe that fantasy for awhile, but I let go of it about two weeks ago when it became clear that the pandemic’s numbers were only going to go up. In the summer, knowing that I wouldn’t get to spend the holidays with any of my distant beloveds, I thought about maybe just ignoring them altogether this year–because for me, what holidays have been, my whole life, is a time you gather with family who don’t live near you. How can it be a holiday if someone isn’t traveling so we can be together?

Like so many things this year, though, things haven’t gone as expected and I feel upside down in them: As the holidays approach, I’m feeling neither dread nor a desire to ignore them. Instead, I feel a pull to embrace them.

Normally, gift-giving feels like nothing but a chore, and I find myself resenting it—which is about the opposite of what gift-giving is supposed to be. This year, I’m enjoying thinking about what I can give each person I’m not going to see. I want them to have something that tells them I love them and am thinking about them and want to care for them. I want them to feel my presence, even though I’ll be far away.

In previous years, seeing anything smacking of Christmas before Thanksgiving set my teeth grinding, but this year, two weeks out from Thanksgiving, I’m ready to clear out the pumpkins and bring in greenery and lights and peppermint hot chocolate. You want to put your tree up right now? More power to you. Do whatever makes you feel good.

The only thing bringing out my inner Scrooge are people on social media posting about how they’re going to have their holidays with whoever they want, Covid (and orders) be damned. No one can tell them what they can and can’t do in their own homes.

OK, sure.

This summer, when my mom was explaining why I couldn’t come visit them—even if we stayed outside, even if we wore masks, even though they understood that if we didn’t see each other during the summer we probably wouldn’t until the following summer—she told me their thinking about losing this year so that they could have a better chance at having more years in the future.

“Your dad is turning 80 next spring,” she said. “He’s really hoping he can have 10 more.”

I’m not unaware of my parents’ ages or the typical span of a human life, but something about my mother putting a concrete number–and such a small one!–to their life expectancy coalesced amorphous anxiety I’d been feeling about lost time into a gut-punch. All the fight left me, and I stopped pushing for a visit and started reading about radical acceptance.

Not long after our conversation yesterday (in which we established that yes, we’re still exchanging gifts), I saw this in one of my feeds:

I’m often wary of the idea of re-framing hard things; that can easily morph into toxic positivity and victim-blaming and lead to ignoring (or not seeing) systemic ills. But I sure wish we could re-frame what the coming holiday season (or hell, the whole pandemic) is or might be.

Given all that we must accept about our nation’s response to the pandemic and its current realities, I wish everyone would commit to having a small bubble and to celebrating holidays only with those inside it, and see that commitment not as an act of acquiescence to authority or of living in fear, but as an act of hope and love. Love for family in the largest sense of the word (especially our health care workers), and hope for a future in which we can all once again gather freely and safely.

My parents and brother and I have lived through 55 Christmases together, and there is only one year I can remember not celebrating with them. I miss them more than I have words to express, and I’m sad and angry (but mostly just sad) that I won’t be seeing them again until we have a vaccine or we can visit outside. But even if the worst happens–if we never see each other again–I won’t regret not spending this holiday with them. We’ve had 54 together. We’ve got such a full bucket of memories and love that we’ve shared, and our decision about this Christmas is rooted in that love and in our faith that if we can tough it out this year, we’ll get to fill our bucket with even more in years to come. I will never not feel good about that, no matter how things play out.

Maybe all of this is why I’m feeling more holiday spirit than I have in decades. When I consider what I have to be thankful for, I am so profoundly grateful that I haven’t lost anyone to Covid, and I can’t think of a better way to love my family (which includes all humans) than to do my part to keep the disease from spreading.

So, this past week, I’ve been bringing out the candles, working on gifts, and embracing the comforts of winter. I turn on the ficus’s twinkle lights in the now-dark mornings and now-dark late afternoons, and I light candles on the table while making dinner. I’m letting myself take breaks to just sit with Daisy on my lap (her favorite place to be) and read or write or knit. I’ve tried new recipes and enjoyed looking for others. (Pretty sure Lisa and I are going to try one of these if we can get a dry spell and brave the patio again.) Cane and I have sat at the kitchen table and just enjoyed long conversations, without any voice in the back of my head telling me I should be doing something more productive. This year, just being together with my tiny pack and finding any kind of contentment feels like accomplishment enough, and something to celebrate in whatever fashion we can manage.

12 thoughts on “‘Tis the season

  1. Marian says:

    For a moment there, I thought you were about to say you were going to follow that “don’t live in fear” message you read in one of your social media feeds! I absolutely love the reframing that you’ve done, Rita. I’ve been thinking about the concept of “enough” for years now, and that’s the word that came to mind when I read this part of your post: “We’ve got such a full bucket of memories and love that we’ve shared, and our decision about this Christmas is rooted in that love and in our faith that if we can tough it out this year, we’ll get to fill our bucket with even more in years to come. I will never not feel good about that, no matter how things play out.” To me, this comes off as the opposite of fear, and in fact, when I compare your paragraph with the social media message, it’s the SM message that seems to be holding the fear. (It’s also incredibly short-sighted, IMO. How will these people feel, I wonder, if a vulnerable relative of theirs dies because of their actions? And it’s selfish, too, quite frankly. Hospitals in so many places are near the breaking point, and the fact that we’ve got people who are flouting public health guidelines—or rallying against masks or restrictions—is incredibly disheartening.)

    I love this part too: “. . . finding any kind of contentment feels like accomplishment enough.” I have to admit I’m struggling hugely with this right now. (I would feel better if I could just stop looking at the news ten times a day. Worrying about a coup next door is jangling my nerves.)

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      I’m sorry you’re struggling right now. I feel as if we are very bad neighbors, indeed. I wish I could assure you that all is well now, but…I don’t feel assured of that myself.

      I’m 100% with you on fear and selfishness. I’m so worried about health care workers, and all those who will suffer because they can’t get medical care from our at-capacity systems. The whole thing is tragic, especially knowing that it doesn’t have to be this way. (Oh, now we’re back on the topic of your poor neighbors again.)

      I hope you can find ways to get away from that news this week.

      • Marian says:

        When Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, was prime minister 50-some years ago, he said (of the US), “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” The past four years have been brutal. Not only has it been hard to stand quietly by (for fear of being seen to interfere in another country’s domestic affairs), but it’s also become crystal clear that Trump is willing to wage a war on anyone who disagrees with him—even if those people are fellow Americans. If he’s willing to do that, then there’s literally nothing that would stop him from one day invading Canada. (The alarm that we all felt this summer when he floated stationing troops near the border . . . !)

        Unfortunately, even if Trump goes (and it’s looking as if people are finally starting to pressure him to accept the results), the damage is done, and it’s not just confined to the US. We’ve seen the same (if less widespread) resistance to public health measures here, including people marching in Canadian streets carrying Trump and QAnon signs.

        I absolutely do have to find some way to get away from the news. It helps being here, seeing the ways in which you’re trying to get through it all. I’m so grateful to you for continuing to show up here.
        Wishing you a good week, Rita.

        • Rita says:

          You’re speaking to something that I think a lot of Americans probably haven’t considered much (how typical of us): The impact that this presidency and our continued unrest has on the rest of the world. As you said, the damage is done; there’s no putting back in a box all that has been unleashed. Some of that is good. Some things needed to be let out in the open where we can all see them. But what a mess we have to clean up. And how vulnerable it makes the whole world. We’ve been able to stave off, for now, the catastrophe that four more years would have been, but I’m under no illusion that the nightmare is all over. Which is all the more reason I think we all need to figure out how to live in this new normal.

          As I’ve watched the focus, over this weekend, shift back to the pandemic, I feel that acutely. I’ve been watching The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix; recommend for the wallpaper, if nothing else), and at one point in the story the setting is 1964, the year I was born. It was a bit astounding to me, that I lived in a time when social norms were as depicted—because only 10 years later it was all so, so different. Of course, I was born at the beginning of a period of great social upheaval, not unlike now. Sometimes I feel so nostalgic for 2014, and I suspect that by the time we get to 2024 our lives will be as changed as they were in that earlier 10 year period. Probably more, as the unrest and the challenges are so much greater. I say all this not to make your anxiety spike (I hope I’m not doing that!), but to suggest a framing that is (I also hope) helpful: It makes sense that we are feeling anxious. We’re like toddlers or teenagers dealing with rapid changs that we can’t control and haven’t figured out how to navigate. I try to stay in the changes just enough to stay reasonably informed, and then I’m giving myself a lot of grace to self-soothe as I can. I spent 20 minutes last night knitting while listening to an audiobook (Tana French, great escapism), and it was a perfect before-bed activity.

          Wishing you well this week. I do now think Trump is going to be leaving office, and that is a good thing. I hope it brings some relief.

  2. Kate says:

    Oh Rita, this warms my heart. It is a hard holiday season and it’s absolutely fair to pout and stomp, but it’s so nice when one can put out twinkle lights and candles, try some new recipes, and embrace what joy can be found.

  3. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    Thank you so much for tackling this. My parents sound very much like your parents. That meme you shared is so toxic and is the reason that people get brave and is the reason the hospitals will be even more overflowing in December. I wish we could just fast forward to January. To have a current president who is literally watching our country die and we have to suffer until the end of January is cruel.
    But I am willing to sacrifice this holiday season so that we get to next holiday season and think positively. Looking to better days and I won’t ever say in the future, “we missed 2020” because I would never want them to get sick and die of this virus.
    Sending you so much love. Thank you for sharing this today.

    Also, I still don’t miss Facebook. 🙂
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…If Laughing Was The Answer, I Wouldn’t Be in This Predicament to Begin WithMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      No wonder we turned out so good–it’s all due to our parents! 😉

      Yeah, I think that meme is toxic, too. And I’m with you on not saying “we missed 2020.” I’m not missing it. I’ve absolutely missed some things (my mom and I not seeing my daughter graduate from college will always hurt), but we’re here, we’re living. It’s just different. Some parts are really hard and some parts are pretty sweet–which I could say about any year. I’ve had a lot of growth this year, and I think I will come out of all of this a better person than I went into it. As I write these words, I’m aware of the privileges that make them possible. Just want to name that. I know this won’t necessarily be true for everyone. I’m thankful it is (so far) true for me.

    • Rita says:

      YES. I am not a fan of forced frivolity. TBH, probably not of frivolity in general. Or force. No wonder this time of year can be challenging and turn me into a curmudgeon (which is not my usual personality type).

  4. TD says:

    Dear Rita, Twinkle lights on your ficus gave me a little giggle. I like hearing that you’re ready to clear out those pumpkins and bring in greenery and lights!

    Your plan this holiday season may actually heal your soul with joyful heart felt thoughts more than you could have ever imagined.

    I’m keeping the holiday season simple, just the front porch has green twinkle lights on a string. I may tie my red art glass ornaments to the string. (We will see. Even that may feel like too much “work”.)

    It’s just Yorkie and me; truly Yorkie has no interest in any of it. Today I pulled out my box of holiday decos’ so I could get out the holiday table cloth. And oh… the emotions came with sweetness. I found myself distracted going down memory lane of all my goodies, handmade ceramics and needle arts; photographs and greeting cards. As you say, Rita, memories of those who are no longer in my life, but apparently deeply embedded in my soul and heart.

    Mostly I am wishing for rest and non-movement this holiday season. I’m exhausted from all that I had to do in order to survive. The gift of Home 🌳🏠🌳…is here.

    I love that your parents were able to give you the communication of clarity that was needed for you to settle in with twinkle lights and candles in what you know is HOME 🏡🐾👩🏻‍💻📞💌📬📚✏️🎁💝…

    • Rita says:

      I’m so glad you’re feeling at home and able to find some restoration there. And that you have Yorkie to share it with. A simple holiday season is the best kind, I think. I’m not sure if I will haul my tree and all of its stuff down from the attic. Maybe? But I think I’m with you–just some lights and a few favorite things to remind me of those I love (past and present).

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