Like many others who are fortunate to enjoy a low-key new year's day, I am reflecting a bit on the transition from 2014 to 2015. I remember a short, yet wonderful conversation I had with Jack on a Christmas Eve drive into the city.
Jack: There are extra DUI patrols out this time of year.
Silence as I wonder why he pointed that out….
Me: You know, people often drink more during the holidays. As good a time it is for some, it can be just that bad for others.
Jack: Uh huh.
Me: Drinking can be celebratory or used it to escape or numb emotions.
Jack: Looking directly at me: But, we’re mostly celebratory, right?
This moment, by far, was the best part of a somewhat challenging Christmas. I’ll do my best to explain what made the conversation so meaningful.
It all started on Ed’s birthday, which is the week before Christmas. As much as I try to tell myself to be strong and not feel like crap, there are days where all the mental toughness in the world is worthless. The grief barrels through like a globally warmed hurricane. Tears fall down my face no matter what I’m doing (taking notes at a meeting or talking on the phone to an upset student who has no idea how grateful I am to have the details of the injustice of her math grade to focus on). I have to decide between allowing bitter burbs to erupt throughout the day or save it all for one loud resentful belch all over my kids at the end of the day. Instead of giving into such a depressing dichotomy, I emailed a few friends to express how bad I was feeling. The response-- as is always the case when I reach out honestly, openly and without expectation-- was full throttle support, empathy and love.
Nicole, from Portland, gave me permission to give Reese a mop and tell her to clean the bathroom the next time she called me Miss Hannigan (which she did that morning).
Another friend, who juggles running her own business with her home/wife/mother/friend realities, gave me this amazing paragraph:
There is something about this time of year that just invites commercial grade stress into the mix on top of an already stressful life and I feel like throwing my hands up and waving a white flag. Then going offline and smashing my phone and speaking to no one. But then we still have to deal with our kids. "When are we going to make gingerbread houses mom?" (in my head: never, we don't have time for that shit this year) in real life: Maybe over Christmas break! "The advent calendar is broken mom!" (me: in my head: Who the hell cares, we don't have time for that shit). "I don't have any clean underwear mom!" (me in my head: go do the goddamn laundry yourself then. Or grab your brother’s underwear or the ones on the floor from last night, that you NEVER put in the dirty laundry bin 2 feet from your face. I don't have time for this shit. I have a company to run.) " I don't want to go to church today at school today mom!" ( the hell you don’t. You are going because I have 3 meetings today and can't cancel and someone has to go and talk to God and represent this family because I sure as hell am not her, and I don't have time for this shit!) oh, but I do love you; you are just making my life insanely hard right now. I am a Hannigan too, much more often than I like to admit.
I have read this paragraph multiple times, comforted by how much it mirrored my own sentiments. And, the line about someone representing the family at church, well that is just brilliant and hilarious.
This Christmas was harder than any other mostly because it was my “no” Christmas. 2014 focused on establishing boundaries, which meant saying no to activities, traditions, feelings and anything else that I simply no longer have the energy for. Maybe I’m finally growing up, or maybe this what happens after 40, but the last year was all about recognizing where the line is, being comfortable about where it is and not worrying so much about what others might think and/or how our lines may overlap or contradict. To both recognize the line AND be fine with where it is has been a slow epiphany. The world looks different and the emotional refrain is now mostly acceptance rather than should.
Over the last six months, I paid careful attention to cutting out unnecessary mental or emotional work. I determined what was necessary and when I found myself overwhelmed or overstepping what I knew was too much, I pulled back, damn the consequences. This meant not living up to all those family, friend and work expectations: both real and perceived. I gave them up as best I could. For example, I was invited to a handful of holiday parties. My cup overflowed with just how lovely it felt to be invited. In the past, I would have spent a lot of time figuring out child care, outfits, and giving up other holiday chores so I didn't have to say no and explain why I seemed to be refusing kindness. I really wish I could go to every party. The truth is it's not possible. For lots of reasons, reasons everyone has for not attending parties- the ones they write in the RSVP and the reasons they may not say. One of the reasons I don’t explain is financial. One Christmas party costs between $60-$80 just for babysitting alone. That adds up quickly after the mini mortgage that is my monthly childcare bill. Not to mention the time it takes to find coverage this time of year. Also, this ugly Christmas sweater trend is getting a little out of hand. As a middle-aged single parent who looks haggard at best on most days during the week, the last thing I want to do is look purposely ugly or ridiculous. But, I don’t explain this. I just trust the invitation for what it is: an open invitation without expectation. I mean it when I say, no, thank you.
Drawing the line and holding it takes discipline and practice, particularly when not explaining my reasons. Reasons are easily heard as excuses and excuses blur authenticity. The shifts are subtle, if significant. In accepting my own parameters, I better accept everyone else’s. Interactions are more authentic. I know, without a doubt, that I was able to reach out to my friends as honestly as I did on Ed’s birthday in part because I wasn’t spending time explaining myself everywhere else.
Extra time, normally a welcome gift, was challenging, too. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I landed upon Christmas week, having established boundaries for how much I could drive or deck the halls, that without work, school and ALL the extra stuff, that I was alone, with my kids. Alone to feel the familiar absence. Alone to realize I was moving towards living Anne Lamott’s quote that "what you are looking for is already inside you." Apparently, I had to empty my life a bit, live the blank canvas of "no's" to begin to see what might be inside and worth exploring.
Of course, no one said charting your own course is easy. I mostly wanted to curl up in a ball, toss my phone next to my friend's broken advent calendar and speak to no one, including my kids. I would lie in bed in the mornings, wondering how long I could wallow before I’d be swallowed up by depression. But, then, I’d remember that awful, wonderful, sobering truth that I tell my kids: you have the power to determine what happens. I always remind Jack, before a soccer or basketball practice he doesn’t want to go to, how better he feels -- how much more energized he is - after he goes. He just needs to get moving, and for inspiration, remember the after feeling to combat the lethargic before feeling.
We had no plans Christmas Eve. I didn’t know exactly what we were going to do; the only parameters were that it was important for me that we go to our church for Mass and that it was important to Jack that we went to the service where his friends were altar serving.
To honor both our parameters, we stayed in town on Christmas Eve. No plans with friends or family. I could have easily moped around all day. Instead, I got us moving, having faith in the after joy despite the before blues. I suggested to the kids that we head downtown and soak up the festivities. We could soak in the energy of the city and the people in it. I had no idea if the outing would help or make it all feel emptier.
Jack’s "mostly celebratory" comment about drinking during the holidays was a sobering reminder of the privilege and burden of free will. The magic of the moment in our short conversation was in his declaration that we are mostly celebratory. It hinted at a reality his ten-year old soul is coming to understand: that there are days where the expectation of celebration on birthdays or holidays can actually make those times feel worse. But, we do have some room to choose what to celebrate. Like Christmas Eve, driving to the city with no pretense or plan, just getting moving. When he said “we,” I pictured the people in our lives that I can reach out to on a shitty day, not worried that I sound like a whiny broken record. And “mostly” -- well that’s just beautiful. It reveals that nothing is absolute: not loneliness, happiness, life or death. “Mostly” allow us to fully accept those real deep down lonely blues AND the ability to brush them off like crumbs because the weight of them is near nothing when they are honestly shared. In that one exchange, I knew we were slowly building an authentic family, despite all the grief, stress, and confusion of the last few years.Best gift of the season. And this, my friends, is one of the hardest aspects of moving on in life -- from whatever transition we happen to encounter: the letting go has to happen before the new can fill in the space. And that transition is often lonely, painful, but necessary. It is often easier to fill time explaining ourselves or just saying yes to everything than it is to inhabit the empty space crucial for building on the ever-evolving, if authentic life.
Ironically enough, the miracle of Christmas came in the midst of feeling like there was no miracle. Damn. And, so, I can say this without most the familiar bitter bile of the holiday season’s emotional complexity: I wish you a happy, happy 2015.