Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.
- Robertson Davies
What about that? What if we simply stop worrying about our present unhappiness, knowing that it is weather that brings unexpected gifts? Every year I swear I will do this holiday season differently only to be swept up in a tsunami of activities and expectations "other people" demand that I participate in without regard for my health, well-being or wealth. To reject the holidays seems to leave only the bah-humbug aspect of my persona grimacing with resistance. I'm searching for a middle ground that will leave me bounding into the New Year rejuvenated and raring to go. I'm attempting to overcome the two extremes of "too much" and "too little," and set a moderate course that I deeply feel will acknowledge the meaning of gathering up the people of my life with joy rather than dread.
I believe many of us unconsciously create poison jars during the holiday season to store up our forbidden resentment so that we can project all of the season's advertised aspects -- peace, good will and being of good cheer. A poison jar is usually a vulnerable person in our midst who "never seems to do anything right." My wasband was an excellent poison jar for me because he did not understand that I was never going to do Christmas like his own mother. Our conflicts over Christmas included everything from decoration and food, to exactly how presents would be opened and who was invited to share in this debacle. There was always an internal calculation on how much should be spent on the holidays that was never the same between us. Years away from this fiasco, I see my own flawed behavior and I'm really sorry about it. My gift to him is to acknowledge it. I loaded my self-loathing onto him without any thought at all about it. It was a perfect projection so that I could be the Christmas hero, and I always was the Christmas hero and he always was the Christmas villain. I'm quite sure I am not alone in this behavior.
Obviously, though it is a well-worn path, I have no desire to stay on it for this year or any future years. I will not be happy if I manage to make my current husband into my Christmas poison jar. In fact, I have been going through a sort of Christmas purge for the last four years, admitting to anyone who stumbles into my sphere at this time of year that Christmas is simply not what it used to be and that gift exchanges, holiday meals and just about anything above the bare minimum is out of the question. It was partly a financial consideration, but also it has been a sanity decision. My budget has been so tight that all I could do was meet my kids' desires as well as possible and everyone else got jipped including myself. Even so some of these past few years my kids' gifts were cobbled together from discount stores and help from my parents, my boyfriend-now-husband, and they were disappointed at times. I know that.
It's really my fault. The big neon arrow is right over my head flashing "her fault" in a variety of colors. I have chosen to focus on re-raising myself this past year. I rebooted my entire life in the past four. Every year I have an excuse now to side-step the hooplah. This year my excuse: I have had health problems that significantly slowed me down to a dependent crawl. Though my now husband is incredibly generous, I feel guilty that I am taking his bonus and overtime to create Christmas for us, and I am utterly confounded by how to make this sensible in my own mind. He wants nothing to do with planning the holidays and is happy to put me in charge -- am I a poison jar for him I wonder? In fact, he is very non-judgmental and not apparently invested at all in any outcome except to please us as he can. He has been the Christmas hero for us in the last three years running without a doubt, and yet he asks for no credit and stands on the sidelines without commitment to anything except doing his best to meet the expectations of the culture he finds himself in. When I ask about his Christmas memories he draws a blank or mentions a hotel room in Turkmenistan with vodka and a Soviet-trained surgeon who worked to save his foot from infection. It's a totally different ball game for him in terms of expectations and I take heart from that, but then it all rests with me to figure out how Christmas et al will play out.
I'm trying very hard to be reasonable and wise with the given resources. I'm not a crafty person, and so it isn't like I can knit a sweater or hat for people, and anyway if I do those kinds of things then I'm not writing and if I'm not writing then there is no hope for a future that alleviates my husband's burden and shares responsibility. As much as my children love the character of Mrs. Weasley, I also expect that if I could knit them a Christmas sweater, they'd be about as enthusiastic about it as Ron is when he receives his hand-magically-knit monogrammed sweater with disappointment. So you see me going round and round. All the time investment it takes to make things like gingerbread houses, and give parties interfere with my long-term goals in more than just the activities themselves, but also in the fall out of getting sick, being waylaid by lack of energy, etc., and being broke at the turn of the year. I don't have it in me to create that kind of homey perfection even with months of healing behind me. I have a hard time just keeping up with the laundry and I'm trying to learn how to accept reality rather than make up more layers of fantasy. Deep down I believe that my children will, in the long-run, appreciate that I have created an option for them to embrace in the future if only the option will make itself obvious.
One thing I've learned how to do in the past year, that I didn't know how to do before, is wait rather than act on my voracious impulses. What I've discovered with this waiting thing is that the world actually spins without my involvement. You smirk, perhaps. Well, it was a discovery of importance to me to realize that things come up without my planning them, and it usually turns out much better than I guessed it would. For instance, last week I wrestled with the idea of reserving a horse and carriage ride in Denver for a special experience that wouldn't add clutter to our lives, but I waited, balking at the cost and questioning the value, and a friend just told me there are free hayrides in a town nearby on weekend nights to see the lights of small town America. Hazah! It's a different experience, for sure, but it is within my budget and has no built-in disappointment because what could one expect but something quaint and small? I return to the lessons of my own childhood low-expectations and am reminded that gratification is not necessarily for sale. Playfulness enters the picture again when you don't have every minute filled with extravagant plans. If my kids change their minds a dozen times before Christmas about what they want to unwrap, it's okay because I'm not shopping until the last minute. If the stores run out of what they wanted then the surprise they get will hopefully work out. If I can't afford their first choice, I've heard dozens of desires that will be almost as good. The point is that there will be something under the tree, and that the things take a back seat to spontaneousness possibility.
A great thing has happened with my kids' lowered expectations over the past four years. They are starting to look at the price of things in catalogs and they're SHOCKED at the cost of things they've received in Christmases past (i.e. American Girls, and Nintendo DSI). Now that my daughter earns money of her own through babysitting, she values a bargain more than ever. Even my 9 year old son looked at the Target ads for hours and decided to ask for very reasonably priced items. I have to guess that their reduced desires are a testament to the benefits of having a sane mom, and this spills over to birthdays and other celebrations too. They see the difference and it's getting better all the time. This is my hope.
Christmas Present is leading to a Christmas Future that is not dreadful, but is mysterious and unknown. I'm no longer convinced of the sales job that "giving is better than receiving" either, even hand-made gifts take up space and are not necessarily treasured as much as the time it took to create them. The consumer society locked into the idea of buying until the guilt goes away is just gross. How to bring my children down to earth, and tell them the truth that I believe about this time of year is the option I hope to at least begin finding this year...