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Ambivalence, Realism, and Holiday Cheer

December 1, 2013

Three interesting things happened this week. At first they seemed unrelated, but this morning they all bubbled up together and suddenly the fact that they are all happening basically at the same time seemed meaningful.

First, my sister got interested in researching our family tree. The initial impulse came from my nephew’s 5th grade research assignment, but now she’s on fire. She’s finding out stuff about our grandparents’ parents, and even about their parents, that neither of us ever even thought to ask before. She’s even connected with family members that she hasn’t talked to in ages. I’m excited about her discoveries and I can’t wait to see her at Christmas so we can pore over them together. I have an image in my head of sitting down together at her kitchen table, sipping coffee and speculating about our ancestors. Whether or not that happens, this new interest of hers has infused my recent days with anticipation and discovery that has made me unexpectedly happy.

Second, Will and I hosted Thanksgiving at our apartment for the first time ever in our lives. Will’s daughter Myriam, her husband Kamau and our grandkiddo, Azariah, all drove up from Atlanta. My friend Barbara, who just recently lost her mom, shared the day with us. Her son also came by. And, we unexpectedly met a new friend: a friend of Myriam and Kamau’s who had just moved to NYC and would have otherwise spent the day alone. Never having roasted a turkey before, Myriam and I did a beautiful job. We kept things low-key and kept expectations moderate, and a good time with plenty of good food was had by all. The presence of family and the ease with which everything came together helped to smooth over the feelings I had about missing my mother, who died just before Thanksgiving last year.

Third, I watched the Thanksgiving episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. This was a result of seeing the Facebook post of a friend who watches said episode ritualistically each Thanksgiving. (Thank you, Janice Cable!) The episode (“Pangs”, Season 4, Episode 8, if you’re interested) is full of themes related to ambivalence and expectation and injustice and loss. As you know from last week’s post, Buffy is a touchstone of sorts for me. Watching Buffy doesn’t always lift my spirits but it generally affirms my emotions in some important way. Last night it affirmed my ambivalence about the holidays, my feelings of injustice connected to losing my mother, and my need for connection and family during the dark months of the year.

Then, while I was writing this post, a fourth thing happened:  Ricci Levy sent me an illustrated version of a talk by Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s her talk on the dangers of the religion of positive thinking, which she argues we need to replace with realism if we want to understand our lives and achieve positive social change. People often tell us to cheer up, to have hope, and to keep a positive attitude, but often those bits of advice are really directed at making us easier to be around, not at making us more effective in dealing with our day to day realities.

The winter holiday season is a hard one for caregivers and those of us dealing with the sudden, irreparable, absence of the people we loved and cared for. Our day to day realities are not always cheerful, and they are not always realities we should feel positive about. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the days are short, the nights are dark, and the weather may be cold or dreary. That’s depressing enough without the burdens of care work and grief. For those of us in the southern hemisphere, the hours of wakefulness are long, the weather may be bright and warm, and the reality of our day to day lives often seems in opposition to the natural world around us. And all around us are myriad demands that we smile, be cheerful, and enjoy the spirit. There is no easy way through these holidays. Ambivalence is appropriate. Realism may not be cheerful, but it keeps us focused on what is possible, what is reasonable, and what we can and cannot do. We may not always be easy to be around when we are being realistic, but we will be much more effective in managing the many competing demands on our physical, mental, and emotional resources.

So what about those three, no, four things that happened this week? Why are they relevant? Here’s my bit of advice for all of us dealing with loss, grief, or ongoing caregiver roles this season:

  1. If you can find time, try something new. Or let yourself vicariously enjoy someone else’s discoveries. My sister’s new interest in genealogy has turned out to be exciting for both of us. My taking a risk on Thanksgiving dinner was tremendously restorative. Of course there is no guarantee, but something new might help to restore you when grief or care work is draining your energy.
  2. Honor your ambivalence. It’s okay to feel love and anger at the same time, or to want to celebrate and cry at the same time. Or to feel, as I did on many occasions, that you want this ordeal to be over and that you can’t stand the thought of the loss that entails, both at the same time. Ambivalence makes sense. Don’t fight it.
  3. Counter the incoming demands that you be cheerful or positive with a healthy dose of realism. The real situation in front of you is not a cheerful one. Sure, there are lots of moments when happiness or joy will feel right, and being open to those moments is tremendously helpful. But when you are dealing with illness and death there is a lot to be said for keeping a realistic perspective. Don’t give in to the demand that you smile just to make things easier for others.

Whatever you do during this season, I wish you all the best of ambivalence and realism, with joy and time for reflection as it presents itself on its own.


To view the other posts in this series, click here: 

Image of cat hiding under the covers is my own, and is presented here a Creative Commons license attribution-share alike license.



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