I was sitting with a friend, recounting our 2018 versions of The Holidays. He was describing a situation with his mother-in-law, setting the scene so I could understand, and he said something along the lines of: every year she asks this (same) question, and every year she gets this (same) answer, and then she’s upset and then things go downhill and we’re trying to fit so much in (and so on, you can likely substitute your own situation here)…
I was rude. In the middle of his sentence, I fumbled around for a pen and scribbled an urgent note to myself (he’s a writer, he understood).
I noted that January is the time to make holiday plans. Of course!
It seems that every year in December we smile (our eyes slightly twitching) and joke with each other: Have you gotten everything done yet? And we look forward to/complain about time spent with whichever holiday companions we may have. And we take solace knowing this time of year is difficult for everyone, fun, festive, difficult. That’s just how it is. We spend weeks or months preparing and we schedule or buy as much festivity as we can fit or (sort-of) afford.
Maybe we is not the right pronoun. Maybe it’s just me. It doesn’t seem like it, from the time I spend with others, from the conversations I have, from the advertisements I hear or receive in the mail. I feel surrounded by messaging telling me that I’m supposed to feel overspent (in all ways) at this time of year, that’s part of the tradition, it’s okay, we’re all in this together.
And November always creeps up on me and it’s too late. It’s too late to make a different plan, to change course. Because it isn’t just me. I’m connected to others and they are way more organized.
While my friend was talking about the things we do that are predictably difficult, and often unnecessary, or the things that are necessary but are adjustable, where I can behave differently and there might be a different outcome, or a different feeling in me or in those around me, I thought: why not spend some time, in January, to consider, to make some notes. To write a letter, draw a kind of map, thinking about what you loved, where you found light, where you shared light, and where you felt its absence. When did you laugh? When did you make someone smile? When did you feel peace or make peace and what were you doing and with who?
If things went seriously downhill on Christmas Eve because you needed to get some food into your kids before church and that caused some memorable unpleasantness, you could make a note: remember to plan time to eat accounting for Christmas Eve church schedule. If your husband gave himself a concussion or your sister had strep throat, or both at the same time, I guess you can’t really prepare for that, but you could make a note that nothing will go according to plan and there will always be more to do than you thought, encouraging yourself to let go of some expectations or plan less or do more earlier (no, not this). Or just write the words “leave space for life” and maybe that will help. Maybe it will.
Make the notes now, save the file, set a calendar reminder and read the notes in October. Before Thanksgiving. Before Black Friday. BEFORE you get this year’s version of last year’s email:
Date: Nov 30, 2018
Subject: Please send me Christmas idea
Note: Christmas idea does not refer to a soulful thought about peace on earth or goodwill toward men. It refers to an object, or possibly an experience (but usually an object), within a particular price range (price range determined based on the individual from whom the note comes). Christmas idea, in my case, refers to one idea per family member (myself, husband, two children) per requestee. Anyone who has requested Christmas idea signifies the need for a requisite return idea for members of that household. Additionally, a number of others who do not request idea but provide wrapped object also warrant their own Christmas idea and so it goes.
Thus, the tougher part of my brilliant plan involves some kind of discussion amongst those with whom you celebrate The Holidays. Yes, now it comes to talking about the gift part.
My beloved people, can we talk about the gift part? Acknowledging that elements of this can be fun and that I love my new sweater (the one I selected but did not pay for), I want to lovingly communicate that the parcel parade, in its current manifestation, is hard on my soul. I wonder if it is selfish of me to mention this, to raise the question. Maybe recognizing that your buying things — or experiences — and giving them to me (or my offspring) is something you like to do, I should connect to your heart, to your light, and appreciate the love behind the gesture.
I see that.
But if my daughter doesn’t want to be kissed, I teach her that she can tell you that. She can tell you what feels good to her and what feels not good to her. And you listen, because that is respect, that is connection. You care enough to listen and try to understand the kind of giving that makes her feel given to, considered, understood, and the kind that feels the opposite.
My dear family and family-like people, I think we love each other enough, we have known each other long enough, that I can listen to you and you can listen to me.
My soul and spirit feel good when you smile. When you wash the dishes after I have cooked something. When I make you laugh. When we make a puzzle together. When you listen to me or ask me questions about things you know that I care about. When you play with my children so that I can take a shower. When you do something silly, just because. When you turn on music in the kitchen.
My soul and spirit feel good when we help someone. When we make a plan together to do something caring for someone else. When I see you building a relationship with my kids, when I build a relationship with yours. When you teach Maggie how to knit. When you make me a breakfast sandwich. When you do the best you can. When we all pitch in.
The wrapping and unwrapping, the quantity of things and paper, the lesson to the children about what has meaning or where we find joy, the packing or shipping, the number of decisions, the more-than-enoughness of it all, exhausts me. It saddens me. There is less room for spirit. I try. I want to show you love and share it. But I am so tired with all of the thingness.
We don’t need more things.
We need more smiles. From you. To you. With you. From us. To others. To the world.
Can we celebrate light by sharing light? Can we share light where it is most needed? Can we do that together? Can we let go of the thing exchange, or change it?
Through our example, through what we emphasize, where we put our care, can we teach the children to value relationships and time spent with loved ones rather than emphasizing the brief thrill of another wrapped surprise? Another acquisition, another division of what is mine and not mine. What they need, for their happiness, for their spirit, is to learn how to find connection in the world — can we help them learn about finding joy in people rather than in cataloguing and comparing and protecting and admiring their stuff?
Maggie loves that donut pillow, she sleeps with it every night. And the Birmingham picture and sign, the garden seeds and the beeswax candles, and the sweater that I picked out for myself but would never have purchased on my own dime, these represent love and I feel it. So I don’t know what I’m asking exactly. We are fortunate to have people who care, people to spend time with.
I can’t seem to find a model that fits. I’m not looking for a day-off-work, get drunk at breakfast kind of day. I’m not looking for an all-pious, Jesus’s birthday kind of day. I’m not looking for a kale salad, experience-gifts-only where the depths of your creative thoughtfulness are the measure kind of day, that is exhausting too. I like our way. Sort of. But I don’t want to spend December shopping and wrapping, shipping and organizing. Is it okay for me to express that, to feel that?
My beautiful, emotional, sometimes dramatic family (and family-like people), we did just fine in 2018. If we had been sailing in four separate lifeboats, and for a few days the loads of all of those boats were tossed into one slightly larger boat, almost big enough for everyone, and the sea was rough but not so rough that it completely drowned anyone, in the midst of sogginess we worked together, finding places for everyone to sit (when they absolutely had to, but only then), sharing vests, raincoats, snacks, so that we all made it, and there was a little bit of laughter, or at least sometimes a feeling of rowing together, and the kids will remember it fondly.
But this year, before we all pile in together, maybe we could find a way to pack differently, pack less—so that our boat can float a bit higher, so there’s more space.
I’ve made my notes for next year. I’ll bring the puzzle.
This piece is part of The Stuffed Project: One woman’s quest to reimagine our relationship to the material world (working title). You can learn more about The Stuffed Project or subscribe to get updates in your inbox.