Saturday, December 10, 2005

WHISTLING PAST GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

Maybe your family will never be fit-for-prime-time or perhaps you've lost someone dear. It could be you've been laid off or diagnosed with an illness. You might be struggling with poverty, addiction or painful memories of Christmas past. For those of you who find Christmas difficult, I'm reposting an entry from several years back. I know how you feel.
Don't let the general merriment - and your lack of it - get you down. I'm thinking of you.
******

Let’s say her name is Adrianna. She’s wearing beige jeans and a thick patterned sweater, underneath a jacket. A natural blonde and even taller than me, she’s formidable and impressive looking, in a Celtic sort of way.


I’m sitting on the wooden bench outside the college’s metal shop. I’m shivering in the cold and smoking when she wanders over, hesitates a minute, and then sits at the other end of the bench and lights her own cigarette.

“Well,” she says, exhaling smoke and giving me a sideways glance, “I suppose I’d better be happy, seeing this is a happiness zone.” Her tone is ironic. Someone has stuck a neat, typed label to that effect on the back of the bench, and she tells me one of her friends pointed it out to her when she sat there last week. “I had the flu and I was burnt right out, and I hate this time of year. Right. The happiness zone.”

She’s a student, of course. I’ve seen her around. We’ve smiled or talked once or twice. But we don’t know each other.

I say that everybody’s burnt out right now. Tired, trying to finish studio work and study for exams. But it’s the remark about the season that grabs my attention.

There’s a comfortable silence for a minute and I tell her, “I hate this time of year too. And what’s worse is, one year someone gave me a Grinch head on a stick, and I felt like, fuck you, go ahead, knock yourself out, just stop making it mandatory for me to join you.” She nods agreement.

We smoke our cigarettes for a minute and then I turn to look at her. “I’m not asking what or anything, but is there a reason – I mean is there an emotional trigger or a memory that makes this a bad time for you?” There is for me, and I’m curious whether it’s true of most people who find Christmas a struggle.

She thinks for a minute. “I grew up poor,” she says, “I mean, people around here mostly can’t relate to what I mean when I say ‘poor.’ A lot of the winter, we ate potatoes and salt fish and game because there was nothing else.” She hunches forward.

“My mom is fifty…she’s an artist and she just went back to school and she’s trying to raise two teenage boys and she hasn’t got any money. I used to be better at it when I was young. You know, I pretended better.” She mimes opening a present. “Oh! Slippers! Thank you! I’d be able to put on the surprised, pleased look as if it was the big present. As I got older I didn’t do so well.” She sighs. “I invested a lot of energy in being negative about Christmas. I’m trying to stop.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“But you know,” she continues, “a couple years ago was a good Christmas. When I went home for the holidays, my mom said, ‘I have to make a decision. I have $200.00. Should I put oil in the tank, or spend it on food for Christmas?’ I thought about it and I told her, ‘buy food.’ So she put $50.00 into the tank and we bought a bottle of Rum and cooking supplies.

We sat in the kitchen all day, drinking rum and cooking, with the oven going, heating the house up.” She’s smiling now. “And the next morning – my mom’s room is in the attic, so there’s no insulation. It’s so cold I’m sleeping with a hat on – we wake up and she says, ‘Are you okay, dear?’ and I say, ‘I’m just fine,’ and I can see my breath as I answer her. But it was good, laying there under the covers, talking. And there was no drunk there to spoil it. My brothers got ski-jackets – the really good kind - and all day, they ran around saying they couldn’t notice the cold because the jackets were so warm. It was a good Christmas.”

She tells me her mom is studying to be a therapist. I’m not familiar with the type of therapy, so she explains that it has to do with integrating the different personalities we have. “They use affirmations,” she tells me. “I’m not altogether on side about my mother’s therapy.” Wry grin. “But sometimes I use them and maybe they help. How they do it is, I’d say, I am an intelligent woman. She is an intelligent woman. And then you look in the mirror and say, You are an intelligent woman.” I nod.

“I think most types of therapy help people, some of the time.” It’s vague and noncommittal, but as close as I can come to what I really think. She seems to understand me.

“So,” she says, with a big grin, as we get up to go inside, “I am not a nasty, cynical Christmas hater. She is not a nasty, cynical Christmas hater. You are not a nasty cynical Christmas hater.” We both start to laugh.

“What’s your name?”

“Adrianna.” She adds, pointedly, as if she’s a little insulted that I don’t know, “I’ve been here for several years.”

“Linda.” I reach to shake her hand and look in her eyes, “Yeah. But we’ve never really met.”

I am not a nasty, cynical Christmas hater, I think to myself as I head into the office grinning hugely. She is not

8 comments:

Mella said...

A Grinch head on a stick, really? How tacky!

I love your storytelling, LJ.

Teri said...

Yes! Great story.

Lucas said...

You studiously avoided elaborating on your "trigger," I see--not that I endorse blogging as therapy.

Also, you mentioned hope, before. How does that fit into all of this, the season, the time of year? Isn't it all about hope? There are those who might hate the season just because of hope. Am I being obnoxious, again? Sorry, didn't mean to be. Just thinking out loud.

Koru's Daughter said...

I am not suprised that a season mandating everyone to be joyful, grateful and hopeful produces the opposite in some folks.

Human being feel what they feel. Telling them what they SHOULD feel when they don't only creates cognitive dissonance, shame and misery.

LJ said...

Caught that, did you, Lucas? Yeah, I was aware of leaving that out - but mostly it was because it would have sidetracked the story "Adrianna" was telling.
My unhappy reaction to Christmas began with the first one after my mother died.
That was the first trigger and whatever else added to it, was set up, pyschologically, by that, I think.

You aren't being obnoxious at all, Lucas. It's a good observation.

Lucas said...

Sorry to hear about your mother, lj. Obviously, the holidays can and often do bring a lot of sadness to those who have lost family members--a time when family members generally get together (for better or worse). Too, feelings are often complicated. Haven't we all had the individual experience of having conflicting feelings at the same time (e.g., joy and sadness)?

In any event, I did not intend to suggest that anyone should, or should not, feel some particular way.

LJ said...

Lucas, I know absolutely you didn't intend to suggest that. And I always appreciate your observations and questions. My mom's death was a long time ago - but I have one of those indelible memories of a moment when everything felt completely wrong...when the world as I knew it shifted and altered in a way that would change things forever.

It's what it became - a trigger. Christmas = trigger. And so, because of that, I built a structure of memories and perceptions which were to save me from the danger of trusting Christmas, I suppose. Add to that, in this little mathematical formula - the social pressure to be full of cheer, goodwill and belief.

But you also said you don't endorse blogging as therapy. Me either. I will allow myself sober or sad moments - but the story was of Adrianna and a good Christmas. My "therapy" in all this is trying to write my sorry ass out of negative spins and defense mechanisms I should long ago have discarded.

So. Lucas. Merry Christmas.

g said...

And it's good therapy. Your sorry ass has every right to feel the tremendous loss of your mother's presence at Christmas time.