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.

snapshots of a happy summer + why i’ve been quiet

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I’ve left this space deliberately blank for several months, but I think I’m ready to return to it.

I spent the last three seasons living my life. For years, since I was a teenager (maybe earlier), I had the sense that there was some fullness of experience that I wasn’t getting my hands on. I paired with a crippling fear of what may come should I try to get to wherever that fullness was, and I lived inside of small boxes. It’s hard to explain to people who have been less afraid to me how deeply joyful and fundamentally expansive and overwhelmingly delightful it is to say yes instead of no. It’s wild and full, and it’s oxygen to empty lungs.

I spent the better part of the year hacking away at all these vines that had grown up around my life. Light after darkness? When you can claw your way to it, it’s glorious. It shows up on your skin and in your bones.

One of my uncles said to me: You look happy in your eyes. And my mom said: You don’t look scared anymore. And countless people said: You just look different, in a really good way. I told them this is what good looks like on me.

This summer, I saw things that I’d once clung to slip off my skin like water.

Between May and November, I read very little. It wasn’t an active aversion – books weren’t a struggle, but no longer were they a salve. One of the first warm afternoons in May, I took a blanket and a stack of books into the yard. I spent three hours moving my blanket to follow the sun, and not once did I open my books. Over and over, I found myself more content to sit quietly with my own thoughts, than I was to fill my mind with someone else’s. What little I did read, though, was brilliant, and radical, and healing.

Television, too, has lost some of it’s appeal. I’ve written before about how much I love well made TV, and while that’s still true enough, I don’t have the same stomach for it anymore. I still haven’t seen the new season of Game of Thrones or Stranger Things, and I haven’t even cared to give Mindhunter a chance. This is nothing intellectual or enlightening, I can still fritter away hours like a champion, I just don’t have the need I used to to anesthetize. Why would I, when all of a sudden, mine was so bright, and so beautiful, so equal parts terrifying and exhilarating?

I also wrote very little. Circumstance often left me without a laptop or without the paper manuscripts I work off. A notebook and pen were easy to carry with me, so I wrote extensively for myself and about extensively. But the littleworldsI’vespentyearscreating? I left them empty and untended to for months. I am coming back to these, but I’m finding it harder to slip into someone else’s skin now that mine has grown so easy.

Of all the changes I experienced this summer, losing my anxiety was most exciting. At some point this spring, it began to steam off my body the way fog burns away underneath a rising sun.

Do you know what it’s like to feel at ease in the world? For a long, long time I didn’t. I’ve writtena lotabout howmy anxiety is (was) a constant negotiation. I carried Xanex and apples with me, chamomile tea and a book in my bag. I was always bracing for what next thing would cause that awful, nauseous fear. And then I woke up one day, and it was gone. New people? Crowded rooms? Spending time with someone new? With several new people? With a whole room of new people? May, June, and most of July were one long rope of anxiety triggers, and not once was I triggered. When a friend asked me how I was handling all these social situations I was describing, I laughed. Afraid of being rejected? People have done worse to me than not like me.

At the beginning of November, I felt the first tremors of dread that I’d felt in six months. It took me a minute to recognize that particular internal shaking, but when I did, I breathed through it. It’s going to be okay. Not because it’s meant to be, or because it has to be, but because it always has been.”

I cried, one Monday morning, when I realized that I’d spent an entire weekend meeting new people. Not once, in three days of introductions, did I want to peel back my own skin and hide. (Big, big thanks also to the man I was with).

I am now at ease.

It may be gone for just this season, but I really hope it’s not. Of all the things that have rolled away from me this year, my anxiety is the one thing I most hope will never, never return.

I spent much of June hot and in my underwear. I was living with people who were rarely at home when I was, and because of it, I spent most of my evenings alone, and on this beautiful porch. I’d set myself up with a book and maybe a glass of wine. The sun would set all pinks and oranges over the neighborhood. One night, I heard a little boy yell at this dad “no, you need to go to bed!” Another night, the pre-teens next door played basketball and worked on memorizing the lyrics to 1-800-273-8255. I listened The Weeknd (surprise soundtrack to my month of peace) on loop, and rarely opened my book. I was so much more content to lie on that sofa, and reflect on who I was. Who I might be. Life was (is, will always be) as astoundingly, fundamentally hard as it was ever, but the difference was (is) that it’s hard in ways I want to be awake for. I think that’s the reason why I’ve been foregoing so many of my old habits. I no longer want to be distracted. Comfort isn’t the endgame anymore.

When I was a freshman in college, I was far too deep in the throes of an anxious depression to experience that particular thrill of being on the precipice of that which you cannot fully grasp. June was me on that ledge. I called it an ecstatic explosion. I didn’t have any other words to explain the compounding joy of learning and relearning to live a life of my own choosing.

I know that I’ve rambling, and I know that a lot of this is vague, but this is my way of coming back. For two years, I found something hopeful and inspiring about writing here for an audience so small it could barely be counted. At some point, writing became another coping mechanism in my deep chest of survival tools. I’m ready to come back to blogging (I’m even giving this space a new name, y’all!), because I’m hoping it gives me a path back in to the fiction writing I’ve loved for so long.

Onward, right? Always, always onward.