Louise Thayer looks at the journey of life through remembrances of Christmases past.
Either be a moth going back
to the flame or a Phoenix
to arise and amaze.
It’s eight days before Christmas and I’m writing this in bed in what used to be my parents’ room in the house in Wales where I grew up. At the same time I’m remembering tumbling excitedly into this very room with my twin sister, our half-opened stockings in tiny hands, our patience for waiting to wake the household all gone.
I remember how dad used to go downstairs first to bring us all tea and toast, which was an agonizing ritual when we were young, but which is a favorite memory of my childhood Christmases now.
I was reminded of this memory when friends and I talked openly last week about what it was that we felt most nostalgic for when it came to the holiday season. For many of us, our early Christmas Day experiences epitomize a time of innocence and joy. We waited all year for this one day and birthdays were a pale shade of exuberance in comparison. We wrote and exhaustively rewrote our lists and we set out our cookies and milk before we lay, barely breathing, as we hoped to fall asleep so that Santa would come.
It seems to me that for one day of the year the love of my family wrapped a cocoon of warm bliss around this snug den of a house and that (apart from the occasional overwrought breakdown) nothing could touch the complete sacredness of the time we spent together.
In talking with these various friends I’ve discovered that we pretty much all have similar memories, simple and profound, of holidays spent with loved ones. I’ve also found out that we all share the almost unnamable wistfulness for those unsullied times.
In the Welsh language we have a word that has no equivalent English translation—“hiraeth.” Merriam Webster defines Hiraeth as: (noun) “a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that never was.” and I think that cleaves to the heart of the matter. Life gets complicated as we add our layers of experience and disappointment to it. We almost can’t believe that anything was ever that perfect and pristine but if we view it as the holy grail, we are unlikely to keep seeking its equivalent for our present.
In the last decade I’ve spend a few utterly depressing holiday seasons thousands of miles away from family and friends, twice divorced and on shaky ground with my mental health. During those years Christmas Day felt in equal parts like a slap in the face and a smothering blanket of doom. I couldn’t stand to be around happy people. I felt their happiness as being contrived or too overwhelming as it reminded me of how far I’d traveled from times of peace and light.
I can’t say that I navigated those years particularly well. I know I made it through because I’m still here writing about it, but if you asked me to name a favorite memory of those particular Christmas Days I’d be hard pressed to come up with even one.
I take full responsibility for my part in failing to be present in my own life. I made decisions I would never make now as I painfully learned how to be comfortable in my own skin. I refused to create new rituals of my own because nothing seemed to fill the hole in my heart that I allowed to become deeper and more scarred with every passing year.
It’s been a long, arduous climb to ascend from those inner depths, but this year I simply can’t ignore how grateful I feel to be alive and aware of my own breath. I am honored and blessed with friendships and more love than I could ever have fathomed just a few short months ago. I am able to be here with the core of my family, including my five-year-old niece who is currently at one of her many scheduled parties, getting more and more invested in sugar and blissful anticipation.
I am blown away anew by the ethereal weaving of the tapestry of life and how it subtly incorporates even our darkest threads into the pattern, making it something entirely awe-inspiring when we can stand back and view it from a place of non-attachment. That’s not the same as disassociation. That simply means that we can finally accept what ‘is’ instead of yearning for the intangible of long gone but not forgotten.
If you’re struggling this year, my wish for you is that you hold onto those memories from the past but look for the threads that link them to the now. I hope that if you can do nothing but breathe until the day is over, that you can do so with the knowledge that everything is temporary. That used to scare the pants off me until I realized that all we have is the present moment. All we are is right here and right now and it is enough if we’ll only let it be.
My writer friend Dyllon Charron has graciously allowed me to close this column with a quote from a very honest discussion several of us were having about the trials of a season which almost demands that we be joyful:
The life of a storyteller, or a writer, is an exact likeness of life itself—you write a story a certain way because you want your readers to gain the most from that experience. That is what life does for us. If it’s difficult, if we feel down, it’s because we must. We must face this darkness in order to discern the lesson. For the lesson is what will help us face tomorrow’s darkness, and one day, help the ones we love face their own darkness.
Deep breath. The holiday season is just like any other group of days. People, like us, just think too much about it. Eat food. Do what you love. Think of it as a time to have an excuse to say ‘hi’ to people you wouldn’t normally talk to. Do something exciting. Volunteer if you are alone (always lifts the spirits) and remember at the end of the day, you aren’t alone. None of us are. We all have each other and the rest of this crazy, fucked up world.
Photo courtesy of author