Since I was a teenager, I’ve had a difficult relationship with the holidays.
There have been years, like the first Christmas I spent with my husband, which felt fun and magical.
But more years than not, the pressures of December have felt overwhelming and paralyzing. I’ve tried, without much luck, to figure out what the holidays actually mean to me, as I don’t have a religious practice. It doesn’t help that I don’t enjoy shopping, and I struggle with the ethics of propelling the Santa myth for my young children.
Add to the pressure the memories of holidays with people I wish were still living, but aren’t. All of this, combined with the long dreary days and the lack of Vitamin D, and I feel about as perky as a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Most years, at some point or another, I experience the “holiday blues.”
This week has been full of snow days and days stranded on the couch with a sick kid. It’s been full of sad anniversaries, the kind where my body remembers what happened before my mind does, and when my mind finally remembers, I can feel how each cell of my body holds those past pains.
It’s been the kind of week where I want to spend a few days huddled in bed under my comforter, sleeping and remembering and watching the snow quiet the earth.
But it’s the holidays, and while most everything in nature whispers to a stop, we are supposed to speed up. We’re supposed to rush around, buying presents and baking cookies and hopping from holiday party to holiday party.
As our tree, awkwardly bent like the leaning tower of tree-sa, gleams and sheds, I find myself thinking of past holidays, a swirl of memories I’m not sure what to do with. Amongst them, is this memory of a winter solstice past:
2001. It’s the longest, darkest day of the year. I stand on the beach at Alki, across the bay from Seattle, with my friend Aubrey and her mom. They have included me in their solstice ritual of writing their wishes on small squares of paper, then burning them. Aubrey hands me a slip of paper and a pen, and the three of us spread out, squatting in the chilled sand.
I stare into the sea. Into the air. Across Elliot Bay at the strip of buildings that is Seattle, the dots of lights from businesses and apartment buildings. I think about my wishes. I am raw from the sadness the year has brought: the recent death of a dear friend, the loss of my grandfather. September 11th. I consider the handful of years before this one: years that took another friend, and before that, my brother.
Behind me, somewhere, is the house I used to take singing lessons at when I was 20. I am 26 now, and 20 seems a lifetime ago. I wasn’t happy at 20, but I was unscathed by the losses that have visited me since.
I think and think, and finally, I write down my wish, a simple one. After all this loss, I wish for love.
It is not as cold here as Alaska or Maine, but I spent the last few months in California. I shiver in the black peacoat that I bought the moment I decided to return to Washington. Our bodies adjust to these changes: blood thinning out in the warmth, then thickening again to keep us from too much cold. I think of how we are as resilient as we are fragile.
Aubrey and I huddle together again. I scrape matches across the thin strip on the matchbook. The December wind squelches them. Aubrey cups her hands around the matches, the flashes of sudden fire making her hands glow. Finally, one sticks, and at the edge of the sea, we set fire to our wishes. The squares of paper curl and crisp. Our wishes turn electric orange. They flicker into the sky. They crumble and sink into the sea.
Months later, when I return to Maine, my wish comes true. I meet a boy. We fall quickly and deeply in love.
On our first Christmas together, we vow not to give each other gifts, as “our love is gift enough.” I can’t help myself though, and I tuck photos of us, a ticket stub from the movie we saw on our first date, and a poem I’d written for him into a black scrapbook, wrap it up and slide it under our fake tree on Christmas morning.
Over the years, we laugh. We struggle. We marry and move. We change jobs. We have children and mortgages. The scrapbook bulges.
My wish came true. It doesn’t always look the way I imagined it, but it came true.
I think about that Solstice, and how much has changed in twelve years. I think of the loneliness and darkness of that night, my wish ignited on a northwestern wind on that beach, thousands of miles from where I live now in Maine. I think of my friend who died that winter, and I wonder what she would be doing now if she were still here. I think of how many lives we get to live in this one. How many different versions of ourselves exist. Young and old, lonely and crowded, heartbroken and overflowing. I think of my babies, and how it seems impossible that on that night twelve years ago, I couldn’t have imagined them, though they were part of that wish. I think of my husband, and how we’ve forged a beautiful, messy, hard, gleaming life together.
Life is suffering, and I learn that over and over again: we all experience pain and fear, no matter what our status updates on Facebook say, no matter how glossy and pulled together we look at the grocery store. We lose jobs, we get sick, we die, and none of this stops because it’s the holidays. If anything, hurts feel worse at this time of year, because of the perception that the holidays should be happier, shinier, more perfect than the rest of the year.
Thinking of that solstice reminds me that sometimes when things feel so dark, they usually can only get lighter. Everything shifts, everything changes. We cycle around and around, dark to light, light to dark.
It reminds me that, like my sweet, flawed, wished for love, maybe the holidays are not about trying to make everything perfect. But that instead, they are, like the rest of life, about learning to hold the dark and the light together, to accept the suffering of life with the moments of lightness. To feel the disappointments and the successes. To show exquisite love for those around us, even as we miss those who aren’t.
Maybe it is not so much about hiding our pain at the “happiest time of year.” Maybe it is, instead, searching for sparks of magic in the darkness. About wishes that sometimes come true, even as others do not. About stringing lights against the night, like a beacon, shining hope.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant journal photo archives