I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Christmas

Crying With Strangers


Beautiful Tears

According to the buzzy factoids that bombard my FaceBook feed, there are three types of tears: basal, reflex, and psychic, the emotion-based tears. Psychic tears have a chemical composition that includes protein-based hormones that function as a natural painkiller. That is why it is such a cathartic release when we are able to cry.

Beautiful tears

I cried a lot when my mother died. I was so sad to see her die. I was so honored to be with her when she died. But it was and is my father’s overwhelming grief and anguish that breaks my heart. This from the awkward and undemonstrative man who never cried. Like the Swedish farmer joke, he loved his wife so much he almost told her.

Stop the tears

After she died, I had to return to my busy busy life, making lunches, pleasing clients, doing laundry. You know, the important stuff of life. My family, my friends, my colleagues offered genuine sympathy, hugs, love, and support. I was surprised and so, so moved at the outpouring from all walks of my life. But I didn’t cry. Even though I was sad, it felt like it was time for her to go. Even though I felt her loss, it was a relief.

Stranger tears

Then one morning on my way to work, I ran into a casual acquaintance on the street. When I told her that I had recently lost my mother, she wrapped me up in a big bear hug. I cried. I hardly know her! Somehow the spontaneous hug and this sense that she knew deep in her soul what it was like to lose your mother brought out the release. After that, everything set me off. Arranging for donations to my mother’s alma mater, I cried speaking to the young woman on the other end of the phone, a stranger who was probably a current college student, as I told her the story of  how extraordinary my mother was, earning her Ph.D. in 1950.

No tears

I am still holding it together when I’m with my most loved ones. Why? Too embarrassed? Afraid of judgment? Am I not allowed to cry? Afraid I will fall into an uncontrollable abyss? After all, my days of being depressed are behind me. I am not going back there. But. Shouldn’t we be able to cry with the people with whom we are most intimate? Why do we put up our guard? The risk of vulnerability is greatest with the people who know us best. If we didn’t have good emotional role models then there is even more reason to perfect that suit of armor. It is through writing and journaling, yoga and meditation that I feel I can peel away the layers of armor and reveal my hidden self, emotions and all.   When I reveal what is hidden, I connect.  It is these moments that remind me that we are all connected and that the love between people can occur anywhere. With all the complicated bonds and history behind family relationships, perhaps it makes perfect sense that honest, emotional, spontaneous connections are easier with strangers. Maybe the delineation between family and friends and strangers needs to soften. How can we change the habits and patterns grooved into family life so that honest, emotional, spontaneous connections can happen with family and friends?

Allow the tears

This Christmas, I want to be more open and emotional with my loved ones, showing them my heart and giving them my love. Love is what is sacred and holy. Merry Christmas. May you shed beautiful tears.

Photo Credit:  Deep thanks to Rose-Lynn Fisher for the use of her beautiful photo of beautiful tears, Tears of Grief.


Forgetting to Breathe


The Aftermath

The dreams have begun. Mainly anxiety nightmares. Like the one where the memorial service is happening for my mother and I am not ready. Confused at the presence of many people I don’t know and frantic that I haven’t written the eulogy I want to write. (I wish I had shared my blog with her.) Like the one where my new plants that seem so beautiful and alive are actually infested with microscopic bugs.  (Ugliness lurks, even when the outward appearance seems to thrive.)  Like the one where I am navigating an avalanche, struggling upstream on an iceberg. If I fail, I die. (No interpretation required.)

And then there was the one Friday night where I am sitting on a bench between my old father of my now and my vibrant mother of my youth. She is wearing one of her fantastic colorful handknit dresses and has black hair without a speck of gray. She is speaking to me, but no sound is coming from her voice. I urgently tug at my father, “Dad! Look! Mom’s alive! She’s speaking!” I am the bridge between the past and the now, between the physical and the spiritual, between my mother and my father.

It doesn’t help that it’s the holidays. The busiest time of year. Not the most joyful time of year. Bah humbug. I had promised to enjoy the holidays. That was before my mother died. Sigh. The finality of death seems, well, final. How can I possibly enjoy the holidays now?

How can I not? There is so much to live for! So I talk to myself. Fight with myself. Pretty much every waking minute is a negotiation with myself that goes something like this:

Oh my god, I have so much to do! It’s never going to get all done.

Remember, Sally, every year it gets done.

But this year is different. I’m too tired and sad.

Breathe and do what you can.

Ack! My father is coming for Christmas. Now, I’ve got to deal with my father. Is this some joke that God is playing on me?

Well, as Elizabeth Gilbert has said, our most challenging family members are the most powerful spiritual teachers of our life.

What am I going to get him for Christmas?  What am I going to get everyone for Christmas? What do I want for Christmas?

Nothing! I hate Christmas!

My kids love Christmas. Pull it together. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Smile. Breathe. Go to yoga.

I don’t want to go to yoga. I’m too tired to breathe. I’m too busy to breathe.

Why do we resist doing what feels good for our souls?

Oh my god, I have so much to do! I want to go back to bed.

Breathe. Be kind to yourself. Do what you can.

Remember, Sally, you can choose to not be anxious and depressed. It’s not your go-to place any more. Choose life. Choose joy.

The finality of death can seem final, but life goes on. Clearly, not the same life as before. The new normal is one where my mother is no longer “declining,” but gone. The new normal is one where my father is alone and cognitively not sharp. I am his only child and feel love and sadness for what he is experiencing and anxiety about what the future holds and, frankly, some dismay and anger and selfishness. (Those evil bugs infesting my beautiful growth.) What if I don’t want to take care of him? The new normal is one where my children are growing up and leaving home. What is next for me, for my family, for this next phase of my life? The new normal is one where my mother lives in me and my dreams. Death is not final. Death changes life.

When I am sleepless from a nightmare, in the grip of anxiety, I tell myself not to shut down and close myself off. I can tackle the avalanche coming my way.

Remember to breathe.

Dear Santa


The List

Around about now, my gift-buying panic sets in.  I didn’t buy enough stuff!  I got more fun stuff for my son…my daughter will be disappointed!  I got more expensive stuff for my daughter…my son will be disappointed!  Somehow, in the chaotic peak of the Christmas rush, being judged a good gift-giver is a referendum on my self as a mother.  I didn’t get everything on their list. 

The list.

After Thanksgiving, my kids write to Santa with their list of what they want for Christmas.  My daughter is pretty good at coming up with a quantity and a variety of realistic and shoppable girly items, acceptance into college notwithstanding.  My son has one thing on his list, year after year.  A dog.  (Actually, a dog is on my daughter’s list every year as well, but somehow we have keyed in on the dog being more of my son’s desire.  That is because she, like girls everywhere, is more accommodating and adds other items to the list.  He is single-focused, dare-we-say-it … stubborn.)  He’s resigned himself to the fact that we are not going to get a dog because our lifestyle is not compatible with having a dog.  Besides, he’s grown attached to our dog surrogates:  two beloved parakeets named Cooper and Ginger – both Christmas presents from the last 2 years.   With two birds already and no dog in sight, his realistic and shoppable list is bare bones this year. 

The list ensures that everyone gets stuff that they want and Santa doesn’t waste time and money on stuff that people don’t want.  This is an expedient way of dealing with the chore of gift-giving that I learned from my parents.  New pajamas.  Check.  Esoteric book from the top 10 list.  Check.  God forbid you should deviate from the list.  The gloves need to be black not brown.  The slippers can’t be too firm nor too slippery.  And the hand knit scarf that took weeks to design and create?  Too long.  Too thin.  A strange color.   It’s languishing unused in the back of the shelf in the closet.

Gift-giving was a very transactional process when I was growing up.  There was little room to surprise and delight.  As for Sheldon, in my son’s favorite show The Big Bang Theory, gifts (and friends) are an anxiety-producing obligation.  When Penny tells Sheldon she has a wonderful gift for him, he rushes out and buys a gift basket in every size and value so he can immediately reciprocate with exactly the right basket.  She surprises him with a napkin autographed by his hero, Leonard Nemoy.  Sheldon is so overcome with surprise and delight that, after dumping all the gift baskets on Penny, he realizes that he can’t possibly reciprocate such a meaningful gift and does the unthinkable.  He hugs her. 

The combination of a spiritually bereft upbringing with an obligatory approach to gift-giving has made me approach the holidays quite Scrooge-like.  Don’t give me another chotchke!  When will the parties be over so I can get back to my disciplined routine?  Bring on the new year’s resolutions!   It is with effort that I create a holiday with my family that is more than a realistic and shoppable list.  A holy day that is about love.

This year, I was determined to be joyful.  To look at the work involved with Christmas as a labor of love, not of duty and obligation.  My husband and my children love Christmas.  We’ve worked hard to make it a special and magical time.  We maintained the myth of Santa so well that neither child figured it out until each was 12 and in 6th grade, when my daughter overheard two careless moms discussing it at the bus stop and my son burst into tears when we took him aside and revealed the truth – afraid he was getting to be so old that his peers would make fun of him.  To deal with the end of the Santa era, we spent the following Christmas on a sailboat with almost no vestige of our usual traditions.  It didn’t feel like Christmas.  Last year, I breathed a sigh of relief as the effort to maintain the myth was gone.  But then, my children complained that the appearance of the gifts under the tree was no longer a magical surprise.  They begged us to do it after they were asleep on Christmas Eve.  Even though they’ve been inducted into the secret of Santa, they (and I) want to hang onto childhood secrets just a little bit longer.

So, this year, my daughter’s last Christmas before college, we set up our tree earlier than usual.  I did not complain about schlepping down the ornaments from the attic.  Well, that’s not true.  I did catch myself yelling at my son, as he brought down all the Other decorations from the attic, “Do we really need all that stuff?!” He calmly looked at me and said, “Yeah, Mom, we do.”  He proceeded to decorate the mantle and then put back the boxes.  I breathed and remembered my intention to be joyful and tried not to anticipate the chore of undecorating.

This weekend, I decided to tackle the stores one more time, because even though I got most of the stuff on their list, I did not get enough, equating quantity of gifts with quantity of love, never a successful equation.  I found myself braving the traffic, the parking lot, the lines, the people.  I went over the lists one more time.  And then, I stopped.  What can I give them that will be a delightful surprise?  What can I give them that will show them that I have listened to them?  That I care about making them happy?  That I love them?  Instead of diligently crossing items off the lists, I opened my eyes and found a few funny and sweet things that are not on their list.  Nothing big.  Nothing expensive.  Just something that I know they will appreciate.  After all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?  Finding light in the darkness, giving love to family and friends.  Creating traditions.  Sharing celebrations.  Honoring what is magical.  Even, perhaps, awesome.

I am going to set my alarm for 3 am, my usual pee-in-the-middle-of-the-night time, and sneak downstairs.  Stealthily filling the stockings and placing the gifts under the tree.  I’ll move the fireplace screen, to look like Santa’s been there.  I’ll make sure we leave Santa some incredible bitterdark chocolate as a special 3 am treat for myself.  I’ll sit and gaze at our beautiful tree that we decorated, together, with love.  I’ll sneak back into bed for a nap before magical, awesome Christmas morning.

Merry Christmas.

“What Do You Want?”


Love Under the Christmas Tree

“What do you want for Christmas?” my husband asks.  And asks.  Gently but persistently.  All month long he has been asking.  I have not answered.  Except to say:  “Nothing.  I don’t want anything.”  But that is not a satisfying answer.  It is not a fair answer to someone who truly wants me to be happy and to contribute to my happiness.  Being in a relationship means learning to receive gifts of love, however they may come, openly and appreciatively.

My first instinct is to wonder what SHOULD I want?  What is the right answer to this question?  What does he want to give me that will satisfy his desire to give me something, his obligation to give me something suitable for Christmas, without putting him out too much?  (God forbid I should actually ask for something complicated.)  I could pick out something and he could manage the transaction and have it waiting for me under the tree.  Certainly, there are many beautiful things that would fall into this category.  So many beautiful things that I am paralyzed with indecision.  For my choice represents me.  What if I make a mistake and choose badly, choosing something that is not who I am, not who I want to be, not who he wants me to be?  What if that necklace is too conservative for the more free-flowing person I wish I were and maybe will become…someday?  What if that red leather tote is not the right size or is too heavy and he spends all that money and I never use it?  Why is stuff so expensive anyway?  Besides, I tend to buy what I need and then not want to spend the money on the extra luxury enhancements.  After being downsized and laid off, I have a new appreciation for being able to pay the mortgage.  Keeping the house and sending the kids to college are my financial priorities.  Skip the jewels and the luxury items.  Just as the first bite is the most delicious, so it is with stuff.  It’s shiny and beautiful at first and then…it’s just more stuff.  It’s not what makes me happy.

Every year I feel the pressure to create a fulfillable wish list while fulfilling everyone else’s wish list by deadline.  It’s exhausting and I am not very cheerful about the process.  One season my husband had an aha! moment and announced that he had figured out why I didn’t like Christmas.  (Aside from the fact that it is a burdensome amount of work especially if you are keeping up with Santa.)  It was because I didn’t have anyone to play with and share toys with on Christmas Day as a child.  Wow, that was a profound observation from someone I don’t always give credit to for noticing.  But who knows me better (at least when I let him)?  As an only child, I received many gifts.  Many gifts appropriate for a girl of my age at the time.  And after I opened my last gift one year, I remember having an overwhelming feeling of “Is that it?”  Christmas was over.  No more presents.  No one to play with.  Back to being alone.  Indeed, why would anyone enjoy that?

So, what do I really want for Christmas?  (And will I have the courage to ask for it?)

I want to be loved for me.  I don’t want to be alone.  I want to look into the eyes of my husband and feel love and the joy of having a partner.  I want my children to be happy, healthy, safe and secure – in an increasingly frightening world.  I don’t want my anxieties and neuroses to ruin Christmas for them.  I want to feel there is purpose in my life, our lives, and to feel there is meaning in this world.

It is a strange holiday for me.  I was not brought up to be Christian.  I am not Christian.  Yet I was brought up with Christmas.  How can I create a holiday with my family that is a holy day?  Christmas is beautiful.  The music elicits goosebumps; the lights and the candles offer hope that the dark days will grow bright and long again; the cooking and eating of special food brings us together; and then there are the gifts under that magical tree, decorated with ornaments that we chose for our family life together.  We want to give gifts that show our loved ones that we know them and delight in them and want to make them happy.  Christmas is a time to pause from the relentless pace of our everyday lives and reflect on what is meaningful and to connect with the people we love.

It is not just stuff under the tree.  There is love under the tree, to be given and received.

Here is what I want for Christmas this year:

  • A family photo shoot
  • Ballroom dancing lessons with my husband
  • A sacred place in my house to practice yoga
  • New pajamas (My favorite set has seen too many menopausal night sweats and is threadbare from being washed too many times.)
  • Tickets to just about anything – dance, theater, music.  I love all performing arts and don’t get to see enough of it.
  • Free flowing jewelry, because someday, someday, I will be a less careful and a more free flowing woman.
%d bloggers like this: