Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Unpacking The Annual Angst

Well, time for my annual confession: I am not a big fan of the holiday season. It’s a bit of a mystery really, since I absent myself from those aspects I find unpleasant (staying away from stores and shopping malls,) limit my socializing to an amount happily tolerated by a dire-hard introvert, and only get together with people I love and enjoy. I have learned to produce the traditional festive meal with minimal labour, maximum flavour and lots of assistance from family and friends. And I love having leftovers that eliminate the need to cook for days.

So what’s my problem? I don’t know. What I do know is that from about December 10th until January 2nd I find myself riding an emotional roller coaster- waking up some mornings filled with overwhelming gratitude for being alive and other mornings, with an uncharacteristic sense of dread, considering pulling the covers up over my head for a few weeks. Although I have my share of unpleasant childhood memories, none of them seem to be about Christmas. Don’t think there are any skeletons in that particular closet.

Last year, my first Christmas since my marriage ended the previous spring, I was stunned and relieved just to have survived the tumultuous separation. This year I’m like someone who’s lost an appendage and is feeling an ache in the finger or toe that is no longer there. I find myself remembering a decade of holidays with my now ex-husband- the good, the bad, the exhausting- and feeling a little bewildered. How is it possible to have shared so much, to have had a life so interwoven with another and now. . . . for it to it to be done, gone as if it never was?

Writing this, I realize there’s a clue to my annual general malaise to be found in this year’s particular experience. The seasonal traditions that remain the same for decades highlight the inexorable march of time and continuous change in my life. Hearing carols, a part of me wants to rush to the window to watch for my grandparents’ boat-sized Buick with a trunk full of mysterious and enticing gifts. Looking at coloured lights and tinsel on an indoor tree I see my sons- two small boys in flannel pyjamas- laughing as they throw tinsel onto the tree despite my half-hearted admonishments to place strands on the end of the branches. It all feels like it was just a moment ago. . . .as if I could catch the sound of their voices, or see them out of the corner of my eye if I turned quickly enough.

It’s not nostalgia for past conditions that unsettles me. I am happy with the present, filled with wonder at the men my sons have become, and loving the time I have now with family and friends. Some memories are lighter than others, some happily left behind. But the sights, sounds and scents of the season remind me of what is constant but easy to miss or ignore at other times: the movement, the passage of time. . . . awareness of how fast it all goes by. . . . how short our lives are. . . . how the changes are always happening, whether we notice them or not.

Acknowledging impermanence as an idea is not the same as the visceral experience of feeling life moving like a fast flowing river- sometimes moving through me, sometimes carrying me along. At moments I am overwhelmed with awareness of what has been lost and gained, of how little stays the same from year to year even as I hang the decorations my grandparents used sixty years ago. People pass in and out of our lives; family members age and die; babies are born, children grow up; our health and living situations change; the world changes. Much of it is good, some of it is chosen, and many aspects are beyond our control.

I hadn't been fully conscious of how this season plunges me into the experience of impermanence, into awareness of the relentless and irresistible inner and outer changes. Being with the full range of feelings that arise with this awareness- gratitude and anxiety, joy and sorrow, bewilderment and delight- opens me, softens me to our humanness.

And I recognize that even as there is nothing in this changing reality to hang onto, there is so very much in every moment to cherish.

Oriah (c) 2011


  1. Thank you for this Oriah. You put into words exactly how I feel but have never been able to articulate, and I, in this moment am cherishing that.

  2. Thanks Amy. As I sort out the reason for the feelings of the season I experience, it reminds me to be particularly tender with my heart and others'. :-)

  3. The truth of yours words always has the capacity to halt me in my tracks, to cause me to acknowledge that, wow, you are so right...again! Beautifully written, Oriah and, as always, directly from your heart. Our hearts recognise and resonate in turn. I do hope you and your family and friends will have a joy-filled and peace-full Christmas.

  4. From another dire hard introvert:
    I loved how you tied real impermanence with this time of the year.Thank you for reminding me that a key antidote to this particular season is... cherishing and living in the moment.
    A time of and for good practice!Lori

  5. Oriah, I so hear you. I second everything you said about the holiday season. I guess the only thing I really like about it is that we get a few days off from work, at least here in Germany. Much as I would like to have a partner again, someone who kisses me under the mistle toe thing (yeah I'm such a sucker for this romantic stuff), I'm so so so glad I don't have one because then I would have to visit his parents, his family, his friends on Christmas etc. and talk talk talk and have this big smile plastered on my face for the benefit of others 'coz Christmas is such a cozy time of the year and you are supposed to smile a lot. My friends don't understand who I can be so happy "alone" at home with my books, my fav music and good movies and stuff to eat which I like. I'm going to church, not because I believe in church really, but I believe in my God and I love all the candles that are lighted on Christmas, it is a special atmosphere in this lovely old church with the old wooden benches. There I can be with my God and I know that my deceased parents and deceased grandparents and my deceased kitty are with me and hug me, even though it is just with their hearts and their etheric bodies. We just share the love without words. I'm so tired of all this talking *big sighs* You know what I like the most? Going to the movies alone. You can fully concentrate on the film without someone who sits next to you, having the need to share the film. I do have eyes to see, so please shut up and let me enjoy the movie. Yeah, I guess I do suck being social. Maybe I'm just used to being alone and have become weird. Ah well, so I will soon be a weird 40 year old, who cares? :-)
    Thank you for your honesty always and for writing straight from your heart. Your blog has been a lifeline for me. I am deeply grateful for your weekly words. They help me to go on when nothing else does, when I hit rock bottom and can't make sense of anything. THANK YOU. Bless you Beautiful!

    Much Love, Sabine xox

  6. Grace and peace to you during this seasonal malaise. Make the choice to move toward people, interact intentionally, and to expect their optimism to found new sources of satisfaction, primal but eloquent joy and a thirst for all that is good. Eric

  7. this is so raw. honest. beautiful. "acknowledging impermanence as an idea is not the same as the visceral experience..." i have never heard this expressed in such a simple way. my own body and soul know the truth of these words. grateful for your wisdom and insight. thank you.

  8. Oriah you said "How is it possible to have shared so much, to have had a life so interwoven with another and now for it to it to be done . . . . . . . gone as if it never was"? My own loss resonates in this question. And it leaves me with questions that stoke my regrets, even as the lessons I learned swirl in my head.

    What was once treasured, dims in the darkness of divorce. Every memory, takes on the unwelcome cloak of a new reality. And that’s when you realize what you’ve done, as you reconcile the fact that this is also the fate of your children’s precious memories as well. Mine were 12 and 14.

    To know that even the most special things will never again be what they imagined. That safe place they called home. The constant togetherness they came to know. The understanding that this was their world that could never be touched.

    How do parents do this to children, to themselves? What takes place in the minds of the well intentioned, which allows them to ignore the abyss looming in the distance? If we could only see the absurdity of putting anything so precious in harm’s way. How do we not sense the enormity of the gift we possess? A gift so strong that it can withstand the fiercest storms that come its way, and a gift so fragile that it can be crushed by simple neglect.

    If we knew, we would never tempt fate. We wouldn’t want to. For we would know the incredible riches that come with loving what is. Appreciating those who stand beside us. Accepting the imperfections of those we love.

    What we never get to see, is the difference that it all would have made, if we had just taken the time. Those who do, ultimately enjoy a life that eludes those who are sure there’s a better view just around the bend.

    I’ve come to this. If you can’t be grateful for what you have, you’ll never be happy with what you want.

    God bless.

    Brian from Maine

  9. Brian, I appreciate you speaking from your experience- but it is very different than my own. My ex and I had no children together (my sons are fully grown men who never lived with us.) Also, although I express a sense of how strange it feels not to be with someone where my life was previously entwined I have no regrets about the ending. Staying is not always better- and in fact can often be driven by fear of the unknown more than a treasuring of what is. When I look back, of course I can see things of value (which I valued and expressed appreciation for at the time) but I can also see how, had I been fully conscious, I would have left much earlier.

    The choice to end a marriage can be a choice FOR life, for love (of self and other,) to alleviate suffering of all those involved. Of course, sometimes that's not true- and no one has 20/20 vision, not even in hindsight (people tend to remember things as they wish they had been or fear they once were- rarely simply as they were.)

    Accepting what is does not preclude action to alleviate suffering. I have the peace that comes with knowing that I did everything I could (including extensive marital counselling) to try to heal and continue the relationship. I am grateful- grateful for both what I learned in the relationship and grateful for the insight and courage it took to leave. I have no regrets, and am deeply grateful for the life I have now.

    Wishing you peace, Oriah

  10. Oriah,

    Thank you for that perspective. You were wise to try.

    I think most of my regret comes from the realization that I did not try hard enough. In fact it would be more accurate to say I spent most of my time trying to be right.

    In doing so I ignored the beauty of what I had all around me. Unfortunately grateful was not part of my thought process. In hindsight that became very corrosive on our relationship.

    I too am now grateful for what I have, especially the relationship that has evolved with my daughters as I have focused on gratitude. The lessons I have learned have changed me for the better.

    However it is the "gone as if it never was" that is now hardest to accept. To find a place without regret seems beyound my reach, but moving forward brings promise, and that is foremost in my plans.

    Thank you for taking the time to respond. I wish you and yours a happy holiday season.

    Brian from Maine

  11. Oh Brian, I hear you- have felt this myself around other situations where I was not really taking in the beauty of the time with gratitude and felt regre later. My comment in the piece about the sense of. . . being stunned by what was gone was, although hard, is a move in the right direction. At first we try to "let go" but, as Suzuki Roshi said- "We don't need to learn to let go. We just need to recognize what is already gone." I think that's what this time of year does for me- it brings home what is gone, and that is sometimes a shock. All we can really do, as you are with your daughters, is use this realization to deepen our appreciation for what is still here :-)