Welcome Christmas, come this way

I have survived the holiday marathon. I’m now panting and depleted at the finish line, but I’m here. I made it. It was sketchy there for a while – my resources were dwindling rapidly at the end – but I staggered through the tape, and now, after a few swigs of metaphorical Gatorade and a good night’s sleep, I am ready to go on. It’ll take the whole of this 4-day respite from work to completely recover, but now I know I’ll be okay, and knowing I won’t have to go through it again for another year is cause for much celebration and rejoicing.

I don’t hate Christmas. I’m not one of those people. I’m not the Grinch. I’m not even the Grinch’s distant relative. I like the music, the lights, seeing people I don’t normally see in the year. I like the presents, even, though not the greed and commercialism, but…whatever. Not my circus, not my monkeys. I like selecting just the right things for the people I care about, and I enjoy receiving gifts from the people who care about me.

I love the magic feeling of Christmas Eve, and I like Christmas Day. Christmas Eve morning I’ll listen to the broadcast of the Christmas Eve service at King’s College Cambridge, and Christmas Eve I’ll watch the service from the Vatican before I go to bed. Those two things I’ve done every year of my adult life and that continuity is important to me.

Those kinds of things – Christmas with Conniff, the record that for me is the soundtrack of Christmas; at least one viewing each of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Holiday Affair, The Bishop’s Wife, Holiday Inn, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas; my grandmother’s little artificial Christmas tree with the little angel topper that’s as old as I am; my mother’s Santa collection, some favored Christmas tree ornaments that are two big to go on the little tree, so they hang from the mantle in between our stockings, and a little Santa holding a string of tiny Christmas lights that I’ve had since college that lights up when you touch him – help me to remember the people I loved who were here for other Christmases, and to remember who I am.

It’s that last part that’s important. I get overwhelmed by all the people and emotion of the season – all the get-togethers, the hugs, the smiling – I love it all and I love my friends and co-workers, but it wrings me out like a sponge and leaves me a little twisted and dry.  The disruption of routine is a little hard to get through, too, with mom and work and trying to get to the gym and eat properly. I’ve only been to the gym 3 times in the last two weeks. Last weekend I took a couple of long walks as the weather here was blessedly un-wintry for a couple of weeks, and that was helpful.

Exercise and writing and photography and reading are the things that fill me up, and the hard part about October, November and December is that there isn’t much time left over for any of those things because of all the hoopla. Hoopla wears me out. Not only is it just too too for me, it denies me the time to for the un- things like unwinding, and unstressing, and un-overwhelming (de-overwhelming?). Throw in the crap weather and it’s just downright challenging for my tender parts.

But here I am. Finally. It’s the Saturday before Christmas. All my shopping is long done (very short list) and all the friending is over. All the smiling, laughing, hugging, thanking, feeling is over for me. Four days of sleeping in, eating Christmas cookies, turkey and apple pie (with cheese) and drinking Irish Creme (a friend’s family recipe that I look forward to every year), watching movies, reading, playing cards, long walks (I hope), and hanging out with mom stretch ahead and I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief.

Whatever you’re doing the next 4 days, I hope it’s wonderful and whatever you hope it to be.

Merry, Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Shine a light

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On my way to work this morning I passed a semi-truck with Christmas lights strung across the grill and the windows of the cab. It was still dark and they were wonderful – so colorful and sparkly. So unexpected. The truck could be from almost anywhere, (we were on a US highway), and headed who knows where, but for one second, our paths crossed, and the driver, who I will never meet, put a smile on my face, because he took the time to do something fun and offered it to the world as a gift.

I love that! I like people like that. I would like to be like that. I am lucky to have friends who are like that, and that spontaneity, sense of humor/fun and generosity of spirit is exactly what I love about them most.

People often disappoint me. I get discouraged when I make the mistake of reading the news or hanging out on Facebook or Twitter too much. Or when I overhear a situation in which someone is being treated without respect, or bullied, or thought to be “less than” for some reason. Or when I encounter someone – usually in traffic – who appears to think only of themselves, and in doing so treats the people around them as though their needs don’t matter. There is no shortage of reported instances – especially in the United States lately – in which people are less than kind to each other.

This is when I start thinking of other people as “them” or “those people.” Of course, I know there is only US – ALL of us. There is no “them.” We are all human and sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrible. It’s a package deal. It’s hard to remember that sometimes, though.

I have to take a step back and think: do I do all those things I listed in the paragraph above? Absolutely. Not intentionally, at least as an adult, but I do, and that’s true of most of us, probably. I am the least perfect person I know.

Life is hard, and harsh and sometimes we humans buckle under the weight of life and act less kindly or patiently than we hope to. Sometimes I say or do things that make me cringe, and I disappoint myself, cuz that’s just not who I want to be. In the heat of the moment, though, especially if I feel threatened, some ugly black thing slithers out of me before I know it.

Perhaps that’s the worst part about being human. It’s in most of us, I wager: that ugly black assemblage of past hurts and slights and mistreatment. It’s so disappointing. With a few notable exceptions, I guess, we all have our moments. And I’ll bet even Mother Theresa and Ghandi had those moments at some point in their lives, too. They were human, and it comes with the territory.

But, there’s so much more.

The best part of being human – putting Christmas lights on your truck to spread some cheer, just because you can – is in us, too. We’re all trying our best in difficult circumstances, but sometimes we do better than that. Humans are creative and loving and kind, too. This time of year, especially, there are instances of the best humans can be and that’s heartening.

I’m not any of those “best” things often enough anymore, though, and seeing those lights this morning helped me realize that. Decades battling depression and the stress of the last few years have dimmed that light in me.

I accept that I’m a work in progress, and I have to remember that about everyone else, too. We’re all just doing the best we can, but sometimes someone does something good that reminds us that we can do even better.

My lights are dim, perhaps, but they’re not out completely, and I’m going to make it my goal this next year to figure out how to get the spark going again. We can all do it. Give expression to that fun, loving, creative part of ourselves and see what comes out. Figure out what we have to offer the world and give it freely.

Whatever I come up with probably won’t make a bit of difference in the world, but I hope it makes a difference in me. I hope it takes me another step closer to the person I’d like to be. I hope, too, that whatever I have to offer has the impact on someone else that the anonymous truck driver had on me this morning. In that way maybe we can change the world, one person at a time, one light at a time.

Let it begin with me.

I’ll be home for Christmas

I realized this morning that I’ve never spent Christmas eve or Christmas day anywhere other than in the living room of the house I grew up in, and that at 56, that’s a pretty remarkable thing to say. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but there it is. My parents moved into that house in 1958 and my mother and I still live there. Though I’ve had my own home since I was in college, I have never had a family of my own, so no matter where I was living, I always came “home” for Christmas. This will be my 56th Christmas in the little house in this little northern Michigan town.

I moved back in with mom in 2012 after my father’s death in November of that year. We experienced Thanksgiving and Christmas without him for the first time. I remember Thanksgiving, but I don’t remember that Christmas. My dad was a Christmas freak and even though in the years before dementia had stolen a little bit of him each year, he was still there to celebrate with mom and me. We still put up the big tree and all the decorations, and we went to Christmas Eve mass and sang the carols and the hymns, ate cookies and opened presents. Ever since I can remember we went out to dinner on Christmas Day. The number of people at the table fluctuated over the years, but the 3 of us were always together, including that last year before he died.

Mom and I don’t do any of that anymore. We have a little tree, and a few favored decorations we put up, but it is a much more muted affair, and that’s the way we both prefer it. We don’t exchange gifts. My dad was the heart of our family’s Christmas, and it just isn’t the same without his joy in the holiday.

I don’t remember what we did that first year, or specifically how I felt, but I know it was hard.  We didn’t go to church on Christmas Eve, but we did go to dinner the following day, and I’m sure someone at the restaurant we had been going to for nearly 50 years asked us about dad, and I’m sure I said something socially acceptable about his death, but I don’t really remember any of it.

I say all the time – and it’s true – that my dad’s death was a relief; that I had lost my father to dementia years before his physical body was gone. When he died he hadn’t known my name or that I was his daughter for years. He had been my hero, my buddy, my most cherished person all my life, and though I loved him and did the best I could for him right to the end, my Daddo was lost to me, and I mourned for a long time. Before and after he died.

My grandmother had died 20 years prior to that and that nearly did me in. I was lost for a long time without her, but I survived and went on, of course. My father’s death was a different experience. I was older and better settled and as I say, it was not the father I knew who died. He had been gone a long time.

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I have wonderful memories of Christmases spent in that living room in that little house in this little town, including those spent with my mother the last 6 years. Different is not necessarily bad. There will be a time, presumably, when I will not be decorating that living room, and the little tree will be lighted in my own little house across town, or maybe in another town, and it will just be me and the cats singing carols and enjoying the lights. Will that be next year or 10 years from now? Who knows?

That’s the thing about Christmas and the New Year celebrations; they are fraught with memories of holidays past, and beckon to all that may be ahead in the coming year. So much emotion. It’s overwhelming to me sometimes. I think about my Nana and my dad and how much I miss them, and all the friends who are no longer on my Christmas list. All those memories – the good and the not-so-good – have sharp edges, and I have to be careful and remember that while it’s wonderful to remember the past, life is here and now, and that’s where my attention belongs.

Laugh and rejoice in the past, and let the tears flow. Then take a deep breath, blow my nose, and look around. This is what’s real. My mother is here now, and that’s all. This could very well be her last Christmas – or not – or it could be mine. We don’t know the future. So I owe her my love and attention in the moments we have now. That’s the best thing I can give her: my patience, understanding, and love. The past is gone. The future beckons, and will be here soon enough.

In the meantime – the nowtime – I’m going to try to appreciate fully my 56th Christmas in the living room in the little house in the little town that has been a constant in my life, fully cognizant that there may not be a 57th. And I’m going to continue to try to give my mother the gift of forgiveness, understanding and patience, and in return I hope she will offer me the same.

And when my dad’s favorite Christmas song comes on the radio – the one I could never get the harmony quite right on, but he never cared – I’ll cry a little and be grateful that I knew such a wonderful man, and think about all the fun we had together and how much I miss him.

Then I’ll sing to the next one, too. Maybe it’ll be a new one, and the harmony will be easier.

Merry Christmas.

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