Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Whistling past 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