Sunday, December 31, 2006

2007 Here We Come Ready or Not

The best thing about the New Year is that favorite pastime of human beings: the chance to reinvent ourselves. Here is a whole year with no regrets, no mistakes, no missed opportunities laid out all shiny and clean in front of us. The flip side of that is the chance to pause in the act of moving along the slipstream of time to look back, to view our time just past from a broader perspective than today, this week, this month. I love both of those aspects of the holiday.

The part of the New Year celebration that has never quite worked out for me is New Year’s Eve. It is one of those occasions so freighted with societal expectations that for me the poor thing always withered on the vine with no chance to achieve the magic I was hoping for. Perhaps the worst was experiencing New Year’s Eve during my single years. It was a critical date night, but for some reason I never seemed to be in a relationship on New Year’s Eve. Writing that, it seems impossible that that was the case, but it is the way my memory records it.

Not having a date on New Year’s Eve meant that one was left open to the slings and arrows of their friends’ ideas of fun things to do on New Year’s Eve. Going along with that got me into some strange predicaments. Once in the 70s, a girl friend talked me into going to a New Year’s Eve party with her at one of her co-worker’s homes where I would know absolutely no one. Strike One. The house was beyond the suburbs out in the wilds where new developments were being completed, but no one lived there much yet. It was an enormous split-level monstrosity with three full floors of partying that became so packed with humanity that, had anyone checked, clearly would have violated local fire codes. Strike Two. The décor was ghastly. Now, mind you, this was the 70s when all décor was ghastly so this was pretty horrific. I remember it included a games room, complete with pool table, which had a safari theme—lots of faux (I think) animal skins on the walls, crossed spears, etc. Naturally, I lost contact with my friend in the crush. I felt totally isolated moving through this crowd thinking I must have been out of my mind to agree to come. Until midnight which brought us to Strike Three. That happy event apparently caused most of the males at the party to feel they had been granted an open license to grope, forcing me to evade several hands, tongues and, well, you get the idea.

By the mid-80s, I was married. Some of my favorite New Year’s Eve events took place at a friend’s cabin on an island north of the city. These were sort of adult pajama parties in that we all spent the night. Each couple or single brought some food contribution assigned by the hostess, kids were left with family members or babysitters and booze flowed freely. I look back fondly on that era when I had passed much of the angst-filled years, but was still young enough to party and recover. And, except for the occasional newly rotated-in girl or guy friend of someone, the core group were all very old friends, many of whom I had known since college. So, it was a comfortable group, where I felt free to be myself.

Even that tradition eventually gave way to mostly quiet New Year’s Eves at home, many of which we did not make it to midnight before going to bed! Now, life has moved on again. My recent New Year’s Eves have all been solo acts while my husband is working. I usually don’t go out, which would entail leaving the pooch alone to face the fireworks and other noise. In Florida, I spend a few minutes always hoping that no yahoos will be celebrating by firing guns into the air with the resultant stray bullets.

Now, 2007 has dawned all shiny and new. I can’t wait until I get up tomorrow and start mucking about in it. My wish for your New Year is the same as for my own: peace, plenty, and joy in the moments that make up our years and our lives. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

So This Is Christmas

Christmas is a complicated season. For me, there is a gulf between my idea of Christmas and the reality of Christmas. For example, as the season approaches and I am far away, I long to be with my family at Christmas. If I were to be magically transported home, would it be good? Sure, I would love to see them all, love to experience all the family rituals, foibles, in jokes, genuine love and warmth. But would it be the experience of my pre-Christmas longings? Hardly.

Somehow the memories that make up the tug of longing and love and nostalgia do not include some of the harsh realities. Like a Christmas some decades ago when everybody drank too much, and we all watched my brother-in-law crawl down the hall on his hands and knees toward the spare bedroom in my Mom’s house. Or the time I stormed out in tears in 1986 after the family’s efforts to fit me back into the fold as if I was unchanged after 10 years living in another state hurt my feelings, only to have two of my sisters arrive at my nearby house in tears to beg my forgiveness, and we all ended up sobbing. Comfort and joy, indeed. Or going all the way back to when my Dad was alive and not a single holiday ever took place—or if it did, it was only a single one—without him erupting in rage over something.

How do we lose that complexity when we store the idea of Christmas?

The whole thing is such an emotional set-up. In the holiday-light glow of the Phantom Christmas, the Real Christmas with wrought-up feelings, dashed expectations, and a crushing burden of mostly imagined societal perfection cannot stand a chance.

I try to avoid the yawning gulf between Christmas Never and Christmas Present. My husband and I, both veterans of different types of crushed expectation wars, elect to downplay the holiday. We often choose not to exchange gifts with each other. We set up a low-key Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with only a few things that we enjoy doing. Walks, long drives, nature trips, movies and quiet meals together are among the activities we usually choose from. Our very favorite Christmases are the few we have allowed ourselves to be absent from both sets of family, and to travel somewhere. No tree, no stress, just us.

Still, just when I least expect it, it leaps out with a gotcha again. Like this year, when my mother told me not to try to call during the family Christmas Eve celebration, that she would call me. We had coordinated clocks, and I knew what time the get together was starting. Two hours passed. “Well, they had to eat and open gifts,” I reasoned. Three hours passed, then almost four. I knew very well these things seldom lasted much more than three hours, because everybody wants to get home and tucked in relatively early. Still, I fooled myself. “Well, they are just waiting until the end of the football game.” Then, there were no more excuses—and there was no call. And even though this kind of cavalier disregard of my feelings is not at all uncommon with my loving-in-their-own-way, but less-than-sensitive family, like Charlie Brown and the football, my hopeful view of the great Christmas that never really is, had me falling for it yet again.

May the gap between the Christmas you long for, and the Christmas you create be a narrow one. I wish you all some joy and much peace during these stressful days.