What a Difference a Person Can Make

Last year, I went with a friend to the Great Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition here in Seattle, and I blogged about it. I had a wonderful time. But beneath the surface, I was feeling this great, yawning, howling, aching chasm of loneliness.

While I spent most of the holidays bravely stuffing that down and trying not to let it overwhelm me, it was a very near thing. Sometimes I could feel it surging upward, and I knew that if I let it take over, I’d probably lose my battle with depression and start howling or something.

Even so, Figgy Pudding is a wonderful event, and I decided to make it part of my Christmas tradition. I went again this year with my husband. As we stood there, listening to the carolers beneath the glow of the huge Christmas tree, what I felt was joy. No physically painful ache in the pit of my stomach. No feeling of being on the verge of hysteria. Just contentment. What a gift this man is in my life. He’s all I need for Christmas.

And then I looked around at the crowd, and I realized that no one who looked at me this year or last would have known my state of mind. I’m sure there was a lot of joy in the crowd, but also a lot of longing for companionship. A lot of pervasive emotional pain. The fact that it often looks one and the same is a bit troubling.

I’m not saying that everyone in the whole world must walk about two by two in order to be happy. Some people are perfectly satisfied being alone. I know I felt that way for quite some time. Some people who are in relationships are even more lonely than their single friends, and that’s got to be even more emotionally excruciating.

I just find it kind of enlightening to realize that there’s really no way to know what’s going on beneath the surface unless you talk to someone. We need to communicate more. We need to put down our devices and actually connect.

And to those of you who are swirling in that deep dark pit of loneliness that I used to know all too well, I just want to say that it may feel like that’s your forever, but keep reaching out. You never know when someone will take your outstretched hand, and that changes everything. I’m living proof of that.

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Christmas Lights

One of my favorite things to do during the holidays is check out the many Christmas lights. It seems like every town has at least a street or two where all the houses go all out with their decorations. We drove through one of those neighborhoods recently during a high wind storm, and that added another layer to the experience. The lights seemed like they were dancing, and the inflatable decorations were bobbing about, or clinging desperately to light poles.

It’s always fun to play Christmas music while doing this. Nat King Cole. Bing Crosby. And then sometimes we go rogue and go with a more modern artist like Annie Lennox, who has a great Christmas album. It’s called A Christmas Cornucopia. Highly recommended.

If you live anywhere near water, you might have the experience of a Christmas Parade of Lights, where all the boats light up. They do that here in Seattle, and that, too, was much fun. (Until the night turned to sh** when a car plowed into us, but I wrote about that yesterday.)

No matter what your religion, or lack thereof, I think colored lights at night are absolutely gorgeous, and well worth appreciating. I wish they were up all year round, but then I suppose they wouldn’t seem as special. Happy holidays, dear reader!

Here are a few of our pictures from the parade of lights in Seattle.

 

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For All the Unsung Bridgetenders

For the first time in many, many years, I will not be ringing in the new year all alone at work. This is not because after 16 years as a bridgetender I’ve earned a certain level of seniority. No. It’s simply because this time around, the holiday just happened to fall on my regular day off.

I’m reminded of that postal motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Yeah. Except they get holidays off. Bridgetender’s don’t. And they are some of the most truly dedicated people in the world. Despite that, most of you don’t even realize we exist.

So today I want to wish the bridgetenders of the world a Happy New Year. For those who endure poorly heated and/or air conditioned rooms, Happy New Year. For those who shovel and de-ice sidewalks, Happy New Year. For those who get covered in grease and motor oil, hose down pigeon poop and shovel pigeon corpses, Happy New Year. For those who have to stay late when their relief doesn’t show up, for those who have prevented suicides, for those who have pulled people out of wrecked or burning cars, for those who call 911, and for those whose own cars get vandalized, Happy New Year.

For those who keep you safe, even when you don’t realize you are in danger, Happy New Year. For those who have to think on their feet and sometimes get in trouble for it, Happy New Year. For those who are outrageously underpaid and mistreated by their employers (I’m thinking of Florida, in particular, here), Happy New Year. For those who keep the city’s traffic, in all its many forms, flowing efficiently, Happy New Year.

For those who stand in plain sight and yet seem to be invisible (and still keep the intimate conversations they overhear to themselves), Happy New Year. For those who occasionally find the loneliness hard to take, Happy New Year. For every bridgetender who sits in a tower looking at a bullet hole in the window (which is most of us), and wonders when it will happen again, Happy New Year. For those of us who have been pelted with eggs and tomatoes and pumpkins and beer bottles, Happy New Year. For those who have nightmares about some of the horrible things we’ve seen, Happy New Year.

But I especially want to thank those who show up day in and day out, and take pride in their jobs, often without acknowledgement. To me, you all are heroes. Please know that someone really does see you.

Somewhere, there really ought to be a monument.

Here’s the most amazing thing about being a bridgetender: In spite of all of the above, many of us truly love our jobs. I can’t imagine doing anything else. This is who I am.

Happy New Year to all of the forgotten ones out there. And many, many more.

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Keeping Christmas

In A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, Scrooge utters a line that I’ll never forget: “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” As detestable as Scrooge may be at first, that sentiment has always made sense to me. Christmas should never be forced upon anyone.

Part of the reason that I see a spike in jumpers at my drawbridge at this time of year is that when you’re depressed, being told that you’re supposed to be merry simply because it’s that time of the year is, well… depressing. It’s almost as if you have to bear an additional burden of guilt during this season, because you’re not feeling all Joy to the World.

And people seem to forget that there are as many ways to celebrate the holiday as there are celebrants. Some people are extremely devout and focus on that aspect of the holiday. Others are secular and celebrate mainly due to family tradition. Some people go all out, filing their yards with a million lights, synchronized to music, and buying gifts for even the most distant of relatives. Others are very quiet and discrete in their observance of the day. Some don’t celebrate Christmas at all. Everyone has a right to keep Christmas (or not keep it, for that matter) in their own way.

I must confess that for a few years, there, I wasn’t really keeping Christmas at all. When Chuck, the love of my life, died in 2014, I just couldn’t find it within me to even acknowledge the day, really. I didn’t put up a tree. I didn’t exchange gifts or go to any holiday events. In fact, I basically did my best each year to keep my head down and pretend the holiday didn’t exist.

Since I’m not a Christian, my Christmas focus has always been about love and family and warmth and togetherness. And suddenly I found myself all alone. I really didn’t see the point in even trying to go through the motions, when that tsunami of grief was liable to wash over me at even the most unexpected of times. I wandered through an emotional wasteland, where all the mistletoe had long-since withered.

This year, though, I’m starting to slowly lift my head and come out amongst the living again. I’ve attended a lot of holiday events both alone and with friends. And while I still can’t justify the expense and effort of putting up a tree and decorating it when I’d surely be the only one to see it, I did decide to decorate in my own special way. The first step was taking my Christmas box out of mothballs.

I pulled out my Christmas lights, and affixed them to my bedroom wall in the shape of a (decidedly abstract) tree. (Those Command removable hooks are one of life’s great inventions.) I replaced those lights that had burned out, and that process made me reflect on the passage of time.

Decorating was a bittersweet experience. I realized that on some level I had really missed my Christmas ornaments. They’re almost like family members that I had been neglecting. Each one has a story. There was the Nisse that my grandmother brought from Denmark. There were the many ornaments my mother made for me, and some that I made as a child. Many are keepsakes that I got during various vacations, which brought back happy memories. Some were gifts from friends. I chose a few of my favorite ornaments to hang on my abstract wall tree, and I must say, they made me smile.

And then, like a blade through my heart, I came across this ornament that I had made for Chuck. I had forgotten all about it. I held it in my hand and tried not to cry. But I decided to hang it anyway, because he will always be a part of me.

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Another hard moment: Deeper in my Christmas box I came across the stocking that I had cross stitched for Chuck. I can’t remember if I ever had the opportunity to fill it for him. We only had 4 years together, and I don’t know when I made it. But I decided to hang it on my mantel so that the stocking I made for myself wouldn’t look quite so lonely. (I haven’t had a mantel since 2010, so it seemed worth decorating. Nice to use it for something more than a place to show off my book, which incidentally, makes a great gift. Just sayin’.)

After I finished decorating, I looked around, and felt rather proud of myself. Yes, I’m still alone. Yes there were tears in this process. There will probably always be tears. But I’m home. It feels like home.

To celebrate, I participated in one more tried-and-true holiday tradition: The annual humiliation of the uncooperative dog.

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From my house to yours: Happy Holidays!

Why I Say Happy Holidays

I like chestnuts at this time of year, but this particular chestnut is getting old. I’m referring to the annual debate about whether to say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. Here’s why I think the answer is clear.

When I say Happy Holidays, I am wishing you a Merry Christmas. I’m also wishing your neighbor a Happy Chanukah, a Good Festivus, a Lovely Winter Solstice, a Happy Kwanzaa, a Joyful Yule, etc. I do this because I love all my diverse friends, every single one, and I want them all to be happy. I wish them all well. Is that really so terrible?

By saying Happy Holidays, I’m not disparaging your beliefs or the holiday you choose to celebrate. I’m not saying Christmas is evil or your religion needs to be abolished. If anything, I think Jesus would be all about spreading the love and including as many people in that love as possible. By saying Happy Holidays, I’m showing my dedication to peace on earth, good will toward Men. All of them. Every last one.

I genuinely believe that the majority of people who say Merry Christmas don’t mean any harm. I think their wishes come from a good place and are sincere. Well wishes from an open heart are always welcome by me. In fact, when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, that’s the only time I’m perfectly comfortable responding in kind. Because their stance is already established. We are fellow celebrants, so there’s no risk of discomfiture or offense. So, Merry Christmas to you, too!

On the other hand, by insisting everyone say Merry Christmas, you are sending a very different message. You’re saying, “If you’re not Christian, that’s your problem. I don’t have to take you into consideration. My holiday is the only right holiday. You are wrong for not complying.” You are also assuming that every person does, or should, think and behave exactly like you. You are taking the entire month of December hostage, and making it awkward for anyone else to celebrate anything else. You are excluding people.

Why wouldn’t you want to open your arms and your heart wider? Wasn’t that Jesus’ central message, after all? You are turning this into a debate that’s so contrary to the holiday spirit that it makes me want to spit out my egg nog, throw up my hands and forget the whole thing.

So, um… Happy Holidays.

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Out There for the Holidays

The holidays can be painfully lonely for those of us who are single. At a time when joy is almost mandatory, it makes you feel that much worse when you can’t quite get there. Bah, humbug.

In years past, I’ve tried my best to pretend that the holidays weren’t happening. For example, it’s my New Year’s tradition to be asleep well before midnight. And I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have to work on Thanksgiving day, so no turkey for me.

But this year, I’ve decided to go about things differently. Rather than pull my head into my shell, I’m going to thrust myself, headlong, into the festivities.

First came the Holiday Bazaar that my little town puts on. Vendors and craftsmen galore. I was really impressed by the level of creativity. I treated myself to a few things, knowing that Santa hasn’t had me on his drop-off schedule in years. Usually I’m not really in to acquiring stuff, but what the heck.

On another day, I went to Julefest at the Nordic Heritage Museum with my friend Paula. Being half Danish, this has sort of become my Seattle tradition. Again, I bought myself stuff, and also enjoyed the good food and the traditional music. But mostly I enjoyed spending time with a dear friend.

Here are some of the things that I got myself at these two events. The dog is not included. But the socks are. I like the symbolism of the chick emerging from its shell. A local artist paints all sorts of things on rocks, but this spoke to me because I’m trying to emerge, too.

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Next, I bought myself some pre-cooked turkey, some instant stuffing, some canned corn, and two types of pie (two slices). I had myself a Thanksgiving dinner a few days late. I even let my dog have a bit of turkey, as I’m thankful for him, too.

Then I went to my little town’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Festivities included Christmas music by the high school band. And when the city councilman spoke, the speakers stopped working, which seemed like a gift from above, if I’m honest. Then the tree was lit, in the same square where I’ve enjoyed Tuesday Farmer’s Markets all summer. My town. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

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And talk about putting myself out there. While waiting for the tree to be lit, I noticed a man my age, all alone, and sans wedding ring, in the crowd. An old hippie, wearing a leather hat. Just my type. Unfortunately, he was not receiving my “please talk to me” mental telepathy. Normally I’d leave things at that and just feel lonely.

Not this time. I knew if I didn’t at least try, I’d regret it. So, heart pounding, I walked up to him and introduced myself. I told him I’d recently bought a house in the area, and this was my first Christmas tree lighting, and I wanted to see if I had the courage to walk up to a nice looking man and say hello. So… hello.

He thanked me. He said his name was Neal. He said I’d probably see him around. And that was that.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Men aren’t used to being pounced on, especially at our age. And if he’d have been able to switch gears that smoothly, and ask me for coffee or something, I’d have been shocked. (But I probably would have gone. And I don’t even drink coffee.)

Ah well. I tried. And I’m proud of me for that. Life goes on. This loneliness blanket that settles upon my shoulders is actually kind of soft and warm after all these years.

At least I’m putting myself out there. Next on the agenda: The Great Figgy Pudding caroling competition with my friend Amy, and then Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn, the musical, by myself.

Do me a favor. On Christmas morning, remind me of three things: How much money I’ve spent on myself, how much fun I’ve had, and most of all, how lucky I am to have so many awesome people in my life, even if they aren’t there on those red letter days.

(But don’t be surprised if I still go to bed before midnight on New Year’s Eve.)

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Grieving through the Holidays

If you’ve lost someone you love, the holidays can be a particularly painful time. All those memories. All those traditions. All those people, still alive, who insist that you to carry on all those traditions.

How can you be expected to decorate a tree when every ornament reminds you of the person you’ve lost? And it takes so much energy to put on a brave face at family gatherings. I know more than a few people this year who were forced to retreat to the bathroom to weep.

There is a great deal of pressure at this time of the year to be joyful. That makes your utter lack of joy feel even worse. And no one wants you to figuratively (or literally) pee in their eggnog. “Can’t you see we’re trying to fa la la here? Don’t ruin it!”

And then there are the well-meaning gifts, designed to memorialize the one who is gone. They were given in a spirit of love and support, but they feel like little stabs to your already wounded heart. No one knows the right thing to say or do, because there is no right thing to say or do.

Even in a good year, the holidays can be exhausting. But they seem positively soul-sucking when you’re dragging around a tractor trailer of depression. It makes you feel detached at a time when everyone is coming together.

For me, it’s like having to take a huge breath and plunge into the ocean, in hopes of coming back to the surface again before you drown. That was Thanksgiving. That was Christmas. That was my birthday. What a relief to get through it all and come up for air!

One more to go… the dreaded New Year’s midnight, when no one will be kissing me. I’m supposed to overlook the fact that I’m completely and utterly alone. I’m supposed to feel happy for everyone who is being kissed. I’m supposed to look forward to the new year, and feel nostalgic about the past year.

That’s a heck of a lot to ask. I’ll probably try to go to bed at 11 pm and hope the neighborhood revelry doesn’t wake me up. While you sing Auld Lang Syne, I’ll be trying really hard to pretend it’s any other night.

If you know people who are grieving, ask them what they’d like to do or not do for the holidays. Ask them what they want to talk about or not talk about. Don’t apply pressure. If they are ready, offer to help them create a whole new tradition, perhaps one in which dancing and romance aren’t flaunted.

But most of all, be patient. And don’t force your fa la la on them until they can get through it without weeping in the bathroom.

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