The first Christmas after my mother died I went to Hawai’i. A family friend worked for Alaska Airlines and gave me two guest passes. I flew on standby and stayed in the cheapest hotel I could find, right in Waikiki.
I was the first of many solo holidays, and like all my solo holidays, it had its challenges. Like all of my solo holidays, I became closer to myself, and learned to be more gentle with myself.
I was thirty years-old and learning to live without my mother. Really, I was learning what it was like not to have any close family at all. I look at this picture of myself and feel a lot of compassion— I hated my body and hated the way I looked. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the world. On this trip I went to a bar and slept with a stranger; something I’d done many times before. But unlike the times before, sleeping with a stranger no longer worked in the way it had before my mom’s suicide. Before, I’d sleep with whoever, and the act of false intimacy scratched some kind of itch. But my mom’s death had peeled something away.
Before her death, I’d believed in my worldview, and I thought I had an understanding of things. I thought I had control. After her death, I realized I knew nothing. If my mother could lie about having cancer, if she could buy a gun, if I could be so sure of my own interpretation of events and future predictions and also be so wrong about everything, then the world was chaos.
It was in that year after my mother’s death that I realized we control nothing.
I think about all the holidays I’ve had since then.
Last Thanksgiving I celebrated with my aunt, uncle, and two cousins. They invited me to Christmas, but I was pet-sitting for multiple families around Seattle, and on Christmas it snowed, like it’s snowing in Seattle now. I spent the day trudging through the icy snow. I walked from my freezing apartment in Wallingford all the way downtown and then to Ballard, checking in on other people’s pets. I clung to tree branches as I made my way down steep hills and plopped on couches after making sure the animals were fed. I was so sore the next day I could barely walk.
When I think back to the past twelve years of holidays since my mother died, it’s easy to focus on the difficult ones (like the time I watched Black Swan while hungover on Christmas Day), yet there are so many good ones. I’m lucky that Hawai’i has called me back more than once, and I cat sat there one December, spending Christmas day with a lovely friend on a beach. I remember wonderful times with the families of friends, who welcomed me into their homes with warmth and kindness.
This Christmas, though, I am alone. I’m pet-sitting again, hoping to make a little extra cash. My bank account is dangerously near zero, like many PhD candidates, probably. I do not expect to get any gifts, and that’s okay.
But yesterday I did get a gift, from a stranger. It was so thoughtful and personal that I cried opening it, knowing it would be the only gift I receive. But then I thought about my own gift-giving, and how I have resisted getting people gifts because of the cost, or because I’m a perpetually disorganized person. Opening that gift made me want to give more gifts, and I’m thinking about that, and how I can do that with a limited budget.
The thing is, the holidays were harder when I did have family.
The holidays were harder when I thought I had to be someone for other people.
The holidays were harder when I had to navigate the addictions of the people I loved.
The holidays were harder.
And now? It’s predictable. The 23rd is hard. The 24th is better. And Christmas? It’s fine. It’s nice. I get to turn my phone off. Read. Be quiet. Or not. But it’s my day.
And I don’t know how long it will be like this— how long I will be a solo human in the world, or how long I will be needing to take other work on these days, or anything.
If my mother’s death taught me anything (it has taught me so much) it’s that I don’t know what the future looks like.
So, I’m not complaining. Not that complaining isn’t okay, because it is. But I am just happy to be here. Happy to make my coffee in the morning and have the quiet space to work and think and be. Happy to be present on this day, and tomorrow.
I think I’ve learned to see the holidays as a time for reflection.
It’s a time for me to check-in with myself and see what needs adjusting. This year, I’ve decided that I am going to give up my iPhone and switch to a Nokia, or what some people refer to as a “dumb phone.”
I’m more online than I’ve ever been. Not just on social media, but always Googling, searching, and mindlessly scrolling. I can feel the way this is reshaping my brain and shifting my focus. I need a rest. My brain needs a rest.
I’m also working on getting a lot more focused with my time. How I exist inside of each day. Because of the stress of the past year (in February I was fired from a job I loved, then in March my left leg stopped working, then in May I had emergency spinal surgery, then in July I moved across the country, then in August I started my PhD (and finished another draft of my book), etc. etc.) I think I’ve been tuning out of the present moment much more than I used to, and I miss being with myself.
My iPhone has a siren call, truly. I have to admit my powerlessness. There are a lot of things I’ll miss, but to me it is truly worth it just to experiment with how it feels to live without this little device we all seem to depend on.
As I reflect on my many holidays, I am grateful for what I have.
It’s so easy to focus on what is absent from our lives, but as I think about my life now, I am grateful for a warm place to be. I am grateful for indoor plumbing and a refrigerator full of food. I am grateful for the (oh so many) people in my life, many of them far away, who I’ve connected with. I’m grateful that anyone wants to read any of my words, and for the connection I feel via writing and words in general.
We will all lose things. It’s inevitable. And yet, there is beauty. It exists alongside everything and is woven throughout everything and it’s always there to be felt and seen. Even in the darkest days of winter.
Sending you so much love. I hope that, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you can be gentle with yourself and kind to yourself and that you’re safe and warm.