Journey to Health, On Writing, The Anxiety Files, The Work of Becoming

you learn to survive, then you learn to come back alive

mississippi river

I started my adolescence with all this fire and verve. All these goals and plans and dreams, and oh my god, I laughed at adults who told me “I hope you make it.”

Hope? I would.

I memorized New York City street maps, because someday, I’d leave Minnesota. I told adults who asked me if I wanted to be a mother that I only wanted to “after I was old and done living,” because I was too greedy for the world to imagine tethering myself. I installed a computer with only one working program (a word processor) and typed 250 pages about a girl who wanted to lead. I carried notebooks with me, and asked for books on writing for my thirteenth birthday. I registered for classes that I was technically too young for, and just didn’t tell anyone my age (until my classmates asked me join them for a post-class drink, and I had to say catch you in five years). I was going to be a writer someday. I knew this is how I’d get there.

I’ve written so much about the something that happened. Depression and anxiety caught up with me, and carved me from the inside out. Even after I got the help you get (meds, talk therapy, coping mechanisms, etc.), I wasn’t quite unstuck. Like silt in a river, I drifted and settled beneath the current. I stayed like this for years.

Movies and memoirs tell us there’s one big moment for us to change ourselves, but I have a theory that we’ll all do this many times over the course of our lives. Rise from a waking sleep, and realize that this life is partially, if not wholly, our own.

I spoke with a woman who is reaching the end of her career, and still preparing for her next act. She told me that she’s never regretted her choice to pursue what she was passionate about, not even when the money didn’t follow, not even when the dream jobs became untenable. When I told her I was still trying to figure out how I will pursue, she said, “If I could give you two pieces of advice, you need enough drive to understand your passion and how to follow it. And don’t ever, ever, ever delay your goals for a man.”

Elsewhere, I read an essay by a brilliant writer I admire, “I used to be a woman who did things. I was a doer, a maker, a builder.” I read that, and remembered the younger version of myself who assumed, at twenty five, that that’s who I’d be by now.

This isn’t about regret (although, to sing Sinatra, I’ve had a few) or some misplaced “I thought I’d have done x, y, and z by twenty-five” (we’re not expected to deliver in our first act), but rather about what happens when you start to feel the weight of time slowly building.

When I was a teenager, my favorite song was Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” A beautiful, and terrifying song. I rolled one lyric over and over, trying to make sense of it. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse.” He’s said that this album was his first attempt to hold both life and death in the palm of one hand. When you listened to this album at fourteen, you can’t understand all that pain. I held that line so close to me, because even though I knew (they way you only can when you’re fourteen, sixteen, eighteen) I’d never lose sight of my dreams, it haunted me.

About eighteen months ago, I laughed out loud when someone asked me what my dreams were. We’re really still asking those questions like they matter? We haven’t all given up and given in to the grind? Then someone else asked me the same question, a guy in a bar who I’ll never see again, and I felt the way you feel when you drink champagne on an empty stomach — all fizz and light and warmth in your fingers and your cheeks. Now, my boyfriend and I talk about dreams like they’re worth holding on to. He talks about mine like they’re worth fight for, and what’s even crazier to me, is I’m starting to believe it again.

I’ve been coming out of the fog for well over a year now. Survival is only one part of recovery. Reclaiming hope, reclaiming possibility, reclaiming not just the ability to, but the courage to dream, reclaiming my right to want something out of my life. That’s what comes after learning how to survive.

It’s like driving through the night. The earth starts to roll towards the sun again, and there, where there was only black, is the horizon. All clean and endless and there again.

Lovely Living, The Work of Becoming

questions that don’t need answers: on the what’s next of it all

“Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far guide you onward to whatever crazy beauty awaits. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you’ve got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.” — Cheryl Strayed, Tint Beautiful Things

Back in 2011, when I was a college kid losing myself in the black vortex of untreated mental illness, I told everyone who would listen what I was struggling with. Anxiety, depression, daily panic attacks, Zoloft to treat it. I had known so few people to have mental health conditions, and the few people of with conditions, I only knew about through backroom whispers. It was foolish of me, but I thought what I was going through was so unique. No one else I knew was frightened by meeting friends for a movie! No one else I knew had their chest go tight and their vision blurry and their stomach sour three, four times a day! No one was irritable like I was, sad like I was, unnamably hopeless like I was.

Of course, that wasn’t true, but I didn’t know people who had – or at least who talked about having – any mental health conditions. There were some backroom whispers about tiny pills swallowed daily, but nothing or no one that said to me ‘mental illness is real, is common, is treatable.’ As the number of people who told me “I experienced the same thing” mounted, I wanted to shout why didn’t anyone tell me?

Why didn’t anyone tell me that this blackness has already been charted?

After writing last week about my depression, I was overwhelmed and grateful, as I always, always am, at the number of people who reached out to say that they got it. My god, people, life gets so lovely when we all stop hiding what’s supposed to make us lonely.

I’m also really happy to report that this week was better than last. After historic snowfall over the weekend, winter seems to finally be breaking. The sun has shined every day, and I finally ditched my down jacket. I read a sharp, intimate, breathtaking book, wrote two short stories back to back in a voice I barely recognize, and got really excited about bullet journaling. Then, on the one low day of the week, when I raged about stress and cried at the DMV, my sweet, sweet boyfriend reminded me that it’s okay to not always be okay. Like they say, a day at a time.

These last twelve months have been momentous and beautiful, and have given me the opportunity to, above all else, ask myself, to pull from Mary Oliver, what it is I want from this one wild and precious life.

I’m twenty five, and this seems like a good age to ask big questions. Or maybe every age is as good as any other, and I am ready now. What do I want out of life? Not just out of my days, but the whole grand sweep of it. What do I want it to have been when it comes to an end? How do I give my heart to someone, and what do I do when they give me theirs? What is purpose, and how do I find mine? What’s a career path, and how I build mine? How do I tend my roots without sacrificing my growth? What does desert feel like when you life in?

What comes next, and how do you decide when next comes? How do we even make that decision? Or do we just wait until there’s not decision left to make?

I think, again of that question Elizabeth Gilbert asks: who are you going to blame your life on today? Who get to be in charge of me today? And when will I learn to give myself permission to let that person be me?

Even when I can provide an answer, they only breed more questions. Like fruit I’m plucking from a tree, new ones ripen every day.

I know a few things for certain. That I must write. That I must love someone deeply and let them love me deeply too.

For a long time, I was a girl with no windows. No way for the light to get in. Then I torched my tiny room, and watched it burn. Unanswered questions thrill me. I’m young, and I’m curious, and I’m just the right amount of broke to be neither optionless nor tethered. It’s a miracle. That’s what I keep thinking: it’s a goddamn miracle to be here.

So what do you do? How do you build a wild, curious, thoughtful life? How do you love yourself and love your loved ones and love this world well? How do you keep these questions from becoming boxes that require answers, and allow them to be a journey in themselves?

Odds + Ends, Overcoming, The Anxiety Files, The Work of Becoming

everything you’ve been feeling? yeah, that’s depression

Late last week, after an episode of television left me unreasonably shattered, I remembered: This is what depression feels like. (How did I forget?)

I’ve experienced three major depressive episodes in my life. Darknesses so unnavigable I thought I’d never be a whole person again. But depression doesn’t usually come for me like this. It’s more likely to come in mild, stubborn waves. Instead of night that won’t end, it’s like clouds that refuse to part.

When I’m back under the clouds, I can’t understand how I ever forget that this is what depression feels like, but I always do. Maybe it’s a stubborn leftover from childhood, that hope that, once they come, sunny days will never leave.

But as steady as the sun comes, so do the clouds, and all my hallmarks signs of depression are back — and have been for several weeks. Brain fog, poor concentration, fast tears, a blue undertone, worries that seem unsolvable, a general sense that it’s all too much to bear.

It’s taken me three days to write these measly 800 or so words, because my brain feels both empty and waterlogged. This too reminds me I’m depressed. Accessinglanguageis usually themostnaturalthingI do. Maybe that’s why depression (even more so than anxiety) feels frightening — it cuts me off from the very act that heals me.

I like growing up, though, because I’m getting better at my life. Right now, I’m getting better at accepting that I can’t “fix” my way out of depression. Exercise or yoga or meditation or reading a good book — all these things help soothe me, but they’re not “cures” for depression, despite what the internet tells you. All I can do when I’m here is hang on. To myself and to the resources I have, and I wait for the days to get better. (And they always, always have).

This is a mild and functional depression, and some days are easier than others. Some days are even easy. Tuesday was an easy day — cheerful, productive, bright. I fell asleep at ease. Wednesday was not, though. My brain was a wide blank desert, and every time I tried to dial in to my work, my blankness intimidated me and left me in tears. I wanted to crawl back to bed, and hide from the light.

I’ve been on hiatus from my blog, because work and life crowded out the time I usually set aside to write, and I didn’t do a good job of creating time elsewhere. I once listened to an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert where she said that when she wakes up in a bad mood, she asks herself: “Who are you going to blame your life no today? I was quiet here for several months last year, and returned in the fall to kickstart my creativity and retrain my writing muscle. Another month and a half of radio silence is good proof that I derail my own goals better than anyone else can.

Although, I hate the language of goals. Especially when I’m in my depression, I’m reminded that our resources are limited, and sometimes, you just can’t do everything you want to. Self discipline and commitment and “crushing it” all have their place in forward motion, but “no excuses” and “hustle harder” is just so antithetical how life actually rolls. I want to finish a draft of my novel by April 30. I told myself I’d write six days a week to do that. Last week, I opened my notes every day, and didn’t write a single word.

All that being said, I want to get back into a regular habit of writing here once a week. I like the space it gives me to think, and I like the small platform it gives me to connect with the people who share in my struggles and triumphs and questions and curiosities. That, more than anything else, heals me.

Reading Lately: The Woman in Cabin 10 + What Alice Forgot. After eschewing the novel in favor of essays for a year or so, I’m back to my roots. These last two novels I read are both highly marketed, highly marketable “commercial novels,” and while I dislike the snobbery of “literary fiction,” I see the difference when I read novels like these. These two novels are page turners/page burners. I’m not keeping either now that I’ve finished (I keep only books I really love and plan to return to), but losing myself in their stories reminded me of why I love books.

Watching Lately: Big Little Lies + Criminal Minds. I’ve been rewatching Big Little Lies (but only while I workout, because #motivation), and this show is so nuanced and complex. My boyfriend and I are also deep into Criminal Minds. We play this fun game during the credits where I shout out all the mug shots I recognize, and he buries his head underneath the couch cushions. (I didn’t say who it was fun for…). As much as I joke about loving creepy crime stuff, there’s something particularly fascinating about the gender dynamics at play in the true crime world. Women know — and we have this knowledge reinforced daily — that we are vulnerable to crime in ways that men are not. Our bodies and our lives only remain our own insofar as we are aware of how quickly they can be taken from us. Again, with the jokes, but I think women feel a little bit better when we know all the different ways we could be killed.

Working on Lately: Being kinder to myself. I’m not talking self-care or “treat yo self,” but rather about the way I talk to myself. I shared on Instagram this week the negative comments I made to myself about my appearance. I try to approach the world with grace and care, but when I think about how I approach myself, it’s all sharp edges and hard lines. Of course you’re lazy. Of course you’re not pretty enough. Of course you don’t deserve that. It’s exhausting to live under such a barrage, and yet I choose to do it to myself! Why? I’m the one that gets to decide how I treat myself. Why do I choose to be so mean?

Behind Us, and Before, Creating Home, The Work of Becoming

how did we wind up with so much stuff?

I never thought much about the stuff I owned until I needed it haul it across my city half a dozen times last summer.

I have so much of it. So much clothing. So much kitchen gear. So much hand soap. (Why I own so much hand soap is beyond me). So many books (but we’re not touching those, ok?). At one point this summer, I sat on a sidewalk, ringed in boxes and furniture, and I cried, because why do I have so much stuff to haul up and down so many staircases?

There’s very little psychology behind what I own or why I own them (except perhaps my books, but again, untouchable. Let them be fat in peace). I own as much as I do, because of circumstance: For a few years, I lived in one place, and had the luxury of being still long enough for stuff to accumulate in corners. My village, the friends and family who love me, have been generous with what they own, and I’ve become the (grateful) recipient of many items they’re removing from their home. This past summer, I rebuilt my wardrobe, giving myself permission to buy clothing that fit and flattered my body. For many years, I largely only wore second-hand or clearance clothing that only sometimes fit me, only sometimes made me feel confident.

There’s little to no pathology behind why I own what I do, buy oh my god, why do I own so much?

I think often about the kind of life I’m building. That’s what this whole space is dedicated to: the process of becoming who we’re meant to be. What I don’t want is for my belongings to overtake me. I want my collection of items to be slim and agile. Utilitarian and well-loved and appropriate for small apartments. (Except! For! The! Books!).

Since my move this summer, I’ve been slimming down what I keep. Kitchen gadgets that only do one thing, clothing that doesn’t fit, decorations aren’t sentimental or don’t serve a purpose. All into bags to be given away. I was jubilant one day when I opened a drawer in my kitchen and found it empty, even though all my dishes were clean.

This all goes back to my desire to cut back, to reduce. To cut back on all the noise. All the commotion. Everything that demands my attention.

I want to travel.

I want to write.

I want to build relationships where I am known and I know them.

I don’t want my time, or my attention, or my money monopolized by gadgets or trinkets. Do you ever think about how much time you spend attending to your stuff? Cleaning it, sorting it, dusting it, arranging it?

What donation bags of clothing has to do with my desire for deep friendship, or the tentative ways I’m returning to (and trying to finish) my first novel, I’m not sure. But they seem connected. I invited people in to my home a few weeks ago, and I glowed with all the commotion, all the happy conversation. So few people have been to my apartment, so few friends have visited me.

I’ll move again this summer, and when I do, I don’t want to haul dresses I bought when I was a different person. I don’t want to pack souvenirs collected in places I can’t remember.

On the morning after I moved in to my apartment, I fell in love with the light. It was clean and bright, and it spilled into my empty apartment like an invitation. Like something essential. I keep thinking about that morning. How I had seven books, and my laptop, one pocket sized notebook, and a coffee maker. How everything else I owned was somewhere else. How even though I’d gone to sleep lonely and a little bit frightened, I woke in a room suffused with light.

Odds + Ends, On Writing, The Work of Becoming

thoughts on abundance versus reduction and what we create space for

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about reduction over the last few months. Reducing my spending, reducing my possessions, reducing my stress, reducing my clutter, (I want to say reducing my waistline too, but I’m working on self-compassion over here). The cleanness of January–new year, fewer plans, clear, winter light–makes me want to cut down, cut back.

On Monday, I lay awake in bed thinking about writing. I’m reading Karl Ove Knausgaard, and thus far, he hasn’t written much about his writing, but the act of writing is a constant specter in the books. The joy of language (“These two places alone, which I could not believe I had written…are two of the best moments in my life. By which I mean by whole life.”), the industry of publishing, the slog of working on it, the anxiety of not writing at all.

I’ve written very little this past year. I did publish short story in a small journal in June (cue the trumpets!), and have written reflectively both in my journal and in this space, but as far as creating, pulling new stories out of the nascent fog, shaping those narratives into something readable, something publishable–I’ve only “done” three longhand pages of that kind of writing in the past seven months. Despite having written so little, I still feel writing on me the way I always have. I still shutter beautiful moments, listen for cadence as people speak, note the phrases strangers use as they cross me on the sidewalk. On Monday, I thought about how hard it is to create something new (even if it’s just for yourself), and then I remembered that I’ve done this again and again and again. Creating is hard, but it’s also as natural as breathing.

What will occupy the space I’m creating with all my reducing?

I wrote about this feeling last week: That I want 2018 to be an abundant year. It strikes me, lover of words that I am, that the two words that have been rising to the surface now are at odds with one another. Abundance and reduction.

But then I think about the two areas of my life where excesses can be most visible: my spending habits and my book collection. I’ve been diligent these past weeks at tracking my spending, and weighing my purchases, and while I’ve said no to what I haven’t needed, I’ve genuinely enjoyed spending each dollar I’ve spent this month. A Saturday night with friends, a haul of fresh, adventurous foods we turned into meals on a long, snowy weekend, sipping the “world’s best chai latte” in a warm parlor on a cold, cold night. Cutting back to make room for more.

Same goes with my book collection. Reading My Struggle, which is so compelling and wise and asks questions of me that I haven’t know to ask, has me thinking, yet again, about which books I keep and which I pass along. I have a tremendous amount of books, many of which I haven’t read yet, and while you wouldn’t guess it looking at my four full bookcases, I edit my collection frequently. I won’t keep a book unless I loved it, or unless it taught me something. The six volumes of My Struggle are the kind of books I will gladly haul with me from apartment to apartment, and from city to city. Books with this much life make me want to cut back on the volumes where the magic has dulled.

As is so often the case in my life (in all our lives?), I feel like I’m holding disparate things in one hand, and wondering what will be done with them. I want to write, but I don’t trust my words yet, or my ability to work with them. I want to foster abundance in my life, but right now, I’m taken with reduction. What is going to fill up all this space I’m creating?

I’m considering dedicating a month to a daily habit to try to create some forward motion for myself. Journaling, maybe, or mediating. I’m always interested in what happens when we commit ourselves to one thing. How can that one thing crack open the ten thousand?

I have all this joy right now, but also all this anticipation. The new year is arbitrary, I know, but the hope I have for it isn’t.

Overcoming, The Work of Becoming

what i want 2018 to be

I planned to spend time at the end of 2017 reflecting on the coming year, and when the week before the new year disappeared into more important commitments, I planned to spend the first days of 2018 reflecting, and then, I spent the first week of the year sick. Best laid plans, right?

It’s funny that all my plans to plan failed, and that I’m now two weeks in, and, aside from a few conversations with friends, this is the first time I’m meditating on what I want from 2018. (A former version of myself would have harbored fears that I’d already wasted the year, because what’s a rebuilding of myself if I can’t mark its beginning and end on a calendar).

Before Christmas, my Elise friend asked what I wanted in 2018. I told her I want to remain as happy as I am now. It was late, and I was tired and giggly; I didn’t just mean happy, because happy can temperamental. What I meant was more than happy: I want to remain as full as I am now.

2017 was a happy year, yes, but more than that it was a full year. I grew so much, experienced so much (both good and bad). I met new people, had new experiences, lived in new places. I traveled, read, drank, ate, swam in the ocean, dug my fingers in mud, laughed, cried, spent time alone, spent time surrounded. Last year was abundant. I, in 2017, felt abundant. It was the year people told me my face changed. They saw joy in my eyes, on my skin, in my body.

After drought, I was (am) a girl overflowing.

That’s what I want in 2018. I know that to say my “new year’s resolution” is to “have a full year” sounds like vague bullshit, but I don’t have a better way to describe it. My life is this beautiful, flowering, sometimes hard, sometimes soft thing that I want to love and nurture and grow. Now that I am more me — more in tune with who I am, what I want, who I want to be — I want to experience more and more of that fullness.

I don’t have checklists or plans, but rather I have directions in which I want to move. Areas of my life where I want to concentrate my energy, nurture life into.

– Cultivating friendship – 

Oh, how many times has my heart broken over friends? I’ve always struggled with friendship. Even as a little kid, I didn’t make friends easily, and when I did finally, I rarely knew what to do with them. So much of the time, I still feel this way.

While 2017 lit up so much of life, it also did a number on my social sphere. For a complex set of reasons, I either lost touch with, intentionally distanced myself from or unintentionally lost intimacy with many of my friends. (Not all of them. The friends I’ve held on to are dear, shining, bright stars to me). I shed so many tears over friendships last year. I don’t often journal, but I had to last year, to understand what was happening to my friendships, and what those losses were doing to me. Through all that hot, lonely heartache, I finally got to a place where I decided that, while the “problem” didn’t necessarily lie solely with me, the solution would.

For all my longing for friendship, I’m not very good at the work that friendship requires. I’m content being alone, and I’m also deeply insecure about the bonds that I have. I assume my presence is a burden or inconvenience, and opt, instead, to not reach out or follow up. If I want strong friendships in my life, I have to first learn how to be a good, consistent friend. My primary experience of friendship has been one of starting over (new people, new groups, new circles who will accept and maybe love me), and even though I feel that again now, I’m trying to be hopeful. If I get better, maybe my friendships will too? I want 2018 to be a good year for friendship, to be the year that I learn how to be the kind of friend I want.

– Get my financial house in order –

Last year, I lost balance with my finances. I carried a balance on my credit card for the first time in my life (small, but nevertheless there), and I struggled to figure out exactly where my money was going compared to where it needed to be going. As 2017 came to a close, I began to clean up this general “messiness.” I can be lean and disciplined when I need to, and have created a budget that work well for my life and its rhythms. But as the new year starts, I’m thinking more broadly about money than just hitting targets on my spreadsheet. As with so much in my life, I want to be intentional about where my dollars go.

A lot of what I make goes towards expenses I don’t control — rent that is a little too high, groceries that I keep having to buy, insurance that I’m goddamn lucky to have — but when I think about the rest of my spending, I think in terms of addition. I want my spending to add to my life, enrich it, not detract from it. Sharing meals with friends, owning books that set me on fire, hopping neighborhood bars with my boyfriend — these experiences, though they have a cost, bring me so joy. In 2018, I’m looking to minimize what I spend on the mindless stuff — the stress shopping and impulse buying — so that I can spend, without worry, on what fills me up, and save the rest.

Basically: don’t spend on what I don’t need, so I can focus on what I do.

– Travel-

This is so simple. I want to go everywhere. I want to see everything. There’s no one place I want to experience in 2018, but rather a thousand places I’d be excited to visit if I have the opportunity.

With the money goals that I also have, travel may not be as attainable as I’d like it to be. But while I want to work towards affording “real” travel, I also want to expand my definition of what it means to “travel.” Last July, I visited Lake Superior with my boyfriend. Even though I’ve experienced the lake a hundred times and in a hundred different ways, to experience it with someone who hasn’t was like experiencing it new again. I want to visit Toronto/ Stockholm/ Vienna/ Olympic National Park/ Los Angeles/ Boston/ London (literally, you name a place; I want to go to it), but if that kind of big-far-wide travel isn’t in the cards for 2018, I want to be equally thrilled to see and explore the bits of the world that I do get to.

Get comfortable with vulnerability –

Sometime in my early adulthood, I trained myself to keep what’s true about myself locked up. I would either write it down, or I would only tell it to myself, but I stopped telling other people. It was a lot easier to stay quiet than it was to unzip myself and hope the person I was with would hear me and understand me and treat all my fragile spots with the kind of tender care they needed.

I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s lonely, and uncomfortable, and prevents me from learning safety, and it prevents my loved ones from learning about me. But, god, vulnerability is hard. I have visceral, physical reactions to situations that require it of me. The more opened up and raw I feel, or the more intimate the information I want to share, the harder it is to physically open my mouth, physically form words, physically breath through the intensity. I want this to change. Becoming more comfortable with vulnerability is a gift I can give to myself and to the people who love me. In 2018, I want to become softer with those people. I want to be known, and I want to let them know me.

As I look over this little list, I realize that none of these “resolutions” are new to 2018. I’ve been working on financial health, on friendships, on vulnerability already. I’ve already had successes (and failures) in each of these realms. Dedicating 2018 to working on these intentions doesn’t signal a departure. There’s no “new Torrie” I’m aiming to create. Last year, I wrote that I hoped that even if the new year wasn’t better than the old, I, at least, would be better. Last year was, thank God, a much, much better year, a healing, happy, hopeful year, and I want 2018 to be a continuation of that. I want a year of more. I like being a growing person. I like knowing that I’m still getting there.

Lovely Living, The Work of Becoming

merry christmas: thoughts on tradition + what comes after seasons of waiting

As a child, I was militant about holiday traditions. The music we played when we decorated the Christmas tree, the dishes served on Christmas Eve, the snack we chose when we drove through neighborhoods at night, looking for lit-up houses. My mother, survivor of a sad childhood and painful Christmases, worked hard to create a whole season of warmth and love and the familial familiar. She did far too good of a job. I looked forward to the month of December with an anxious longing. There was so much light for us to bottle up, so few days to do so.

I remember waiting for the nights to grow so long the bus would drop us off in the dark. I’d run down the hill towards home, looking for the straw star, hanging in the kitchen window, gold against the deep blue of winter night. As an eight year old, it stirred in me something too deep to name. Family or home or some form of safety so fundamental, so elemental it strikes against our evolutionary code.

Last year, my grandfather died two days before Christmas. A sudden, cruel phone call that cut through all the tinsel and lights. Grief and then illness cut Christmas short. I pulled all the decorations down on the night before his funeral, and boxed them hurriedly. My grief was dark. I needed lights off to feel it, sit with it.

I wonder if it’s the coming anniversary of his death that has tempered this holiday season, or if it’s simply, as I’m finding in different ways all across my life, that I don’t need the rhythms to give me comfort this year. I decorated a tree, sweet and small and a hand-me-down from my grandmother, but not on the pre-appointed date (day after Thanksgiving, always, so the short season will be as long as possible). I’ve watched some of the movies, listened to some of the music, but have done neither with the same kind of strategy. It sounds silly, but I had a schedule — this movie, at this point in the month, to accompany this activity. I baked cookies, both alone and with people, but I haven’t baked what I always deem “traditional” yet. At this point, I likely won’t get to them at all.

At some point in my teenage years, my mom had to talk to me about my traditions-stringency. It was too much for the rest of the family, too much for her. I had so many expectations, so many demands. I took the joy out of our customs when I required they be performed, and I removed from our family the ability to relax into the season, adapt to our always-changing selves.

I mellowed out after that. (Thank God. I remember the anxiety I used to feel to try to squeeze! it! all! in! Even as a child, I worried about how fleeting the holiday season was, and how long it would take to get back to it again. In high school, I faked sick to give myself an extra day to bake cookies, and sit under the lights of our tree). But even with my mellowing, I was still careful to perform my traditions. This song, first thing on the morning of Black Friday, as I unpacked the decorations. Thinking about it now, it’s no wonder I always cried as a child, silently and without understanding, on the drive back home from my grandparents’ house. I was so desperate to stock up on joy; I couldn’t stomach it all ending.

This year, I feel mellower than ever about Christmas. Two days from the day and on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, I don’t feel desperate or giddy or anxious or panicked about what the season was or what the next few days will be.

When I decorated my Christmas tree, I turned into a child again. I cleaned my apartment, organizing corners and dusting off shelves, to prepare for the tree, and when I unpacked the ornaments, I did so with the explosiveness of a toddler — everything out so I could see it. Then I hung each ornament with extraordinary care, tracking down the memory that accompanies each one. When I drove home, one night in the dark, I nearly wept at all the lights on houses and trees. Every single decoration tickled something young and enchanted inside of me. One of the first pieces of writing I ever had published was a short essay about Christmas wonder that my dad sent in to the Twin Cities newspaper without me knowing. I re-read it this year, and even though I shudder at my use of adjectives (people, who, other than 16 year old Torrie, uses words like dulcet and cordiality), I resonated with the idea that Christmas is a season of “anticipation,” of “the beautiful, unrestrained and determined faith of a child.”

I don’t observe Advent, but I do think about what it means to wait. Last year at this time, I was sad and angry, and, although I didn’t know it at time, on the brink of some of the deepest soul-searching and self-building I’ve done yet. I was waiting for something hidden inside me to come to bloom. Out of the darkness of my grandfather’s death, out of the ensuing grief and the shattering loneliness that marked the first months of 2018 came something really beautiful: a life I was happy to be living.

This Christmas, I’ve felt less beholden to a performance of Christmas and more childlike about Christmas than I have in years. I feel mellow and happy and glad for the season. I baked a cake on Wednesday, and plan to frost it before we leave for a Christmas party today. My mom said about Thanksgiving that she likes how our family is at ease, but doesn’t want us to sacrifice tradition. I don’t see it that way. I’ll spend Christmas Eve at my parent’s house, with the people I love. We plan to bake cut-out cookies, the kind we baked when my brother and I were young, but who knows how much of the family will actually participate. We’re going to be together. We’re going to sit in front of an actual fireplace (my parents heat their house with burning wood). We’ll have stockings hung, and trees lit, and I’m sure I’ll get shouted down when I suggested we watch a Christmas movie together. (At this point, that’s happened enough to call it tradition). I’ve done about half the Christmas “stuff” I usually do, and have enjoyed all of it twice as much. After Christmas day, I’ll have some time off work. I’m looking forward to rest, to New Year’s Eve, to 2018 beginning. I’m so grateful for all of it.

I wonder if this is what it’s like to be, at least for a little while, at the end of the waiting. To just, for a little while, be.