“I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.”
—Hāfez of Shiraz
This time of year, I often see messages and social media posts hoping, for those struggling with the season, that the holidays (regardless of which, and whether one personally celebrates them at all or not) land gently. I’ve long loved that wording—I think it was in a piece by essayist (and hometown-hero) Connie Schultz, where I first met with it, and it stuck, in that way that good poeticism does: echoing over and again in some place deeper than the mind. For me, though, I don’t know that the words have ever resonated more strongly than they do this year.
Because in many ways, the holidays are beautiful. Aesthetically, there are glittering lights and so many colors, the scents, the sights, the weather, the food. But in a broader sense of beauty, the holidays tend to speak to community and joyous anticipation. They speak to giving, and generosity of spirit; of peace and goodwill.
But sometimes, all of those lovely sentiments are wrapped—under the shiny papers and the well-curled ribbons and the poufy bows—in other things; difficult things. And sometimes it’s a complicated family situation, and sharing a table, or breaking bread, or offering goodwill is a just a bridge too far, a stretch too wide for your hands in a season that can make you feel guilty to not bridge the gap and making that trademarked peace on earth come to your doorstep, if nowhere else.
Sometimes, the world is in crisis, in mourning—sometimes it’s far away, sometimes it’s outside your door. Sometimes death and conflict and hatred lay a thick fog and those twinkling fairy lights on houses and trees look sickly as a result; sometimes it’s too much to integrate into the festivities with any meaning—too important to set aside until the season’s had its run.
Sometimes, it’s that your own, personal world hasn’t looked very bright of late, or there’s something heavy you’ve been carrying—for just a while, or for as long as you can remember—and a given month or week or day is not sufficient to change that fact, perhaps it only compounds the feeling, only deepens the darkness: not even the season of perpetual hope can shine a light that pierces through what you’re wrestling with.
Sometimes it’s simply a sense that your “joyous anticipation” is aimed more at the end of this season of bright lights and heightened attention and anxious-rushing, magnified experience.
Regardless of what it is that threatens to land heavily in this Season of Light, there is one thing I feel compelled to make unequivocally plain: if you are struggling with this time of year and all that it brings, and if the things that it offers seem invisible in light of all that it demands—that is okay.
No, really. It is.
See, there’s this stultifying cultural mythos—perhaps particularly in the West—that come mid-November (if you’re lucky to escape it that long), sugar-plum-giddiness will whisk away your troubles via the miracle that is the Holiday Season. The songs say that’s how it works, so it must be true!
And if it doesn’t work—if you can’t let the sparkly-peppermint panacea of wonder take all your troubles far away, well. Maybe you’re not trying hard enough? And if you, dear Grinch, really can’t bring yourself to come down to Whoville and celebrate: at the very least, keep it to yourself. Suffer in silence and don’t ruin it for the rest of us!
Because the real truth is this: the “holidays” are not a cure-all. You are not obligated to be happy based upon a number on a calendar. You are not contracted to suddenly put the realities of how you feel, and how you interact with the world, and the weights and joys you carry aside simply because the end of the year draws nigh. And just as some people love summertime, and others hate it, the holiday season isn’t for everyone, every year. It’s not a crime for the holidays to sing in your bones one year, and make you want to hide in a corner the next. Things change. People change. Circumstances demand new perspectives and new modes of coping, of interacting and enduring: and sometimes, the holiday season is not a refuge. Sometimes, instead, it demands energy that you just don’t have left to spare.
And so I think that all the posts hoping that the holidays land gently are crucial, are necessary: are messages that need to be highlighted and held up, because it’s a disservice in our culture to assume that everything, and everyone, needs to be—or even can be—“holly-jolly” or “merry and bright” based solely on the change of a month and the hanging of some tinsel. Thus: in appreciation of these posts of well-wishing, I wanted to offer some of my own gentling-practices to the mix—because what can I say? I love the theory, but as Whitehead argued: we can fly the airplane into the air of imagination as long and as high as we like, but the plane, ultimately, must land again in fact (and how apropos: another use of landing imagery). Practice is the key.
And thus—a few suggestions to build from:
If holiday music seems like the overbearing black cloud that follows you from your apartment, to your car, to the mall, to the coffee shop, to the bell-ringing in the streets; if it eats under your skin and puts you a little on edge for reasons you can’t quite articulate: listen to something completely different. Listen to what quiets you, what makes you feel rooted and calm. Listen to what comforts you, listen to the things that make you believe that you’ll weather the strain of these days. Listen to what excites you, makes you want to dance; listen to what makes you smile, for whatever reason. Listen to what takes you somewhere, some time that feels like higher ground, that feels steady: an auditory sensibility you can settle into and regroup.
Watch films, if it helps—holiday-themed or otherwise. Let cinema provide the scenery for a short withdrawal from the festivities, and if watching It’s A Wonderful Life makes you sad, and you don’t want to be sad? It doesn’t matter if it’s a tradition. Go watch The Holiday, instead. Or Guardians of the Galaxy. Or The Lion King. And sink into that world for a while until you’re steady enough to partake in (or stand the sight of) the revelry once more.
Retreat as you need to from the places and times that strike you, that overstimulate you in unpleasant ways, and don’t feel as if you have to apologize for doing so. Get a good book. If they settle and stir you, there is nothing wrong with turning (in small, controlled doses) to the themes of a season that feels overwhelming as a whole, either. But don’t feel as if you have to acknowledge or honor the “sacred space” of the season out of some implicit sense of cultural duty. Reread a favorite. Revisit a classic. Find a new classic! Read poetry. Nonfiction, sometimes, is the best companion for an overwrought psyche—find what makes you feel revived when you finish a chapter, when you turn a page, and let yourself revel in the fortification it offers.
Cook the recipes that cultivate the best of memories, and brew the ciders that make you warm when you drink them: but do so without any schedule or agenda. Make for others, or just yourself, but don’t feel pressed to put on a spread, or to share in product as well as in person: leave a tray of cookies at a friend’s doorstep, or make spiced tea and let it simmer on the stove-top for the family or your roommates while you enjoy your own mug in solitude. Community can happen (or not happen) however you need it to—giving doesn’t have to take from reserves you can’t spare.
But most importantly, whatever you do, remember: you aren’t broken if the “magic” of the season doesn’t make you feel lighter. The astonishing light of your own being isn’t lit in candles, or strung in multicolored LEDs.
And above all: do not allow anyone to make you feel as if you have to apologize for celebrating with a generosity of spirit toward the self—for cultivating an inward peace, and clearing a smoother, calmer runway on which to let this season land, as gently as it possibly can.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.