December 8, 2013 by panicpony
My favorite holiday movie is “Home For the Holidays”. It’s such a hilarious perfect mess of family drama at Thanksgiving. There’s a scene where the main character’s sister freaks out and screams to her husband, “You and I both know I am the ONLY normal person here!!!” I try to yell that at least once to nobody in particular every Thanksgiving. And towards the end her dad barks out sarcastically, “I can’t wait until god damn Christmas!” I love it.
I really don’t love the holidays though. I’ve finally decided, this year, to try to dissect the reason why I approach this season with a sense of dread and shame. Yes, there’s the anticipation of navigating the entire family all at one time and all the baggage that comes along with that. It’s not always easy. I’m sure I’m not all that easy to deal with either. And yet, I just don’t think that’s it. I don’t want to avoid my family. I don’t want to skip the holidays. So where is this sinking feeling coming from?
I’ve started trying to recall Christmas memories, not of what actually happened in Christmas past, but of how I FELT. And I’ve begun to realize that fear and shame have been a hallmark of the holidays for almost as long as I can remember.
As I recall from my childhood, my mom was great with holidays. She had a way of creating elaborate celebrations for Christmas and birthdays, often out of very little. Even so, things were not easy. Poverty largely defined our life. As the oldest of three I felt a distinct responsibility to take as much care of everyone as possible, to relieve as much of my mom’s burden as I could. As an adult I’ve been slowly unpacking how this has affected me. For example, I am pretty certain my eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating, are a result of childhood food insecurity. I subconsciously withhold food from myself until I think I’ve “earned” it, whatever that even means, or until everyone else has eaten so I can be sure THEY have enough. Or I binge uncontrollably because I have a secret fear that I don’t know when I will get a chance to be full again.
And I worry about my mom knowing that we’re all having the best Christmas ever because I know how hard she worked to create it for us. I watch everyone’s facial expressions to make sure they look grateful and not disappointed. I fall all over myself thanking her and telling her what a great day it was. And I totally mean it! But I’m all tied up in making everything perfect for everybody else. My mother never asked for any of this. This is how my child and adolescent mind molded around hardship.
When everything’s already rough, Christmas amplifies this times a billion for a kid. Not only do you have to navigate all the usual roadblocks to adequate food and shelter and the social cues you have to simulate because our culture teaches us it’s great–even helpful–to treat poor people as less than, you have to confront a season that demands that everybody get and give far more than they need. Sure, it’s about showing love to the people who are important to us, I guess, but the annual massive pissing contest of who got the best present in the 5th grade is just the absolute pits for a poor kid. It’s way easier as a 12th grader, and then as a 33 year old, but even by then it’s too late. The scars are already there.
It’s been a difficult year for my husband and I. We already have a pretty low standard of living compared to a lot of people, which we are quite happy with, thank you, but I’ve only been employed off and on this year and we’re really struggling right now. That familiar nausea that comes with all the difficult choices you have to make creeps up on me daily. My husband had more hunger and homelessness than anyone should face in a lifetime as a child (the amount anyone should face is exactly zero, by the way), so he’s no stranger to this feeling either. The kind of life we’ve chosen to lead means we’re never going to have much. But right now we’re stuck with the reality for poor people, which isn’t really about choice. It’s more about lesser evils, about doing things like trying to decide if you should actually spend 12 bucks on birth control pills when you know you could make at least two cheap meals out of that. Does that sound counter-intuitive? It’s not when you have to choose between food or medicine. It’s always having to make up excuses about being busy because you can’t afford to hang out with your friends. It’s living on overdraft fees. It’s going to Wendy’s for dinner because you are tired of macaroni and cheese or beans for dinner, but keeping that a secret because other people can afford to have moral pretentions about food that you can’t. It’s the grinding exhaustion of working and working and working and having nothing to show for it. It’s not bothering to have dreams because education is largely inaccessible. It’s being mocked for striking for a living wage. It’s having horrible self esteem because even though for poor folks their condition generally has less than zero to do with how hard they actually work, everywhere you go people are telling you you deserve everything you get because they “know someone” who just uses their food stamps to buy crack or something and if you would just pull yourself up by your bootstraps you could live the American dream like everybody else. It’s laying awake at night panicking, fleetingly considering running away in the middle of the night so you don’t have to watch your partner work so hard to support you. It’s just ceasing to care anymore because you’re so tired and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.
I have had it way worse. Way way worse. And I know I have it pretty good compared to a lot. In the midst of the despair I feel right now I am gaining some insights that I am really grateful for. I am well aware of the privileges I do have. I have a cozy little home, a partner that is amazing beyond belief, and the love of my family. I have a mom who spared no effort to provide for her kids and taught me more about work ethic than any crap myth about bootstraps that people who’ve never known need try to sell us possibly could. I am getting the opportunity to unravel a lot of hurt that was not really anybody’s fault but that damaged me anyway. And I can have whatever kind of home for the holidays I want.
I don’t want to hate the holidays anymore. I’ve said in the past that the fight for social justice, for many of us, includes the fight for the right to enjoy the simplest of pleasures, the energy to relax with a sufficient meal with our loved ones, to give each other simple gifts, to laugh, to have the day off on Thanksgiving, to enjoy ourselves. These are things that have been taken away from so many of us, so the joy of a few can be gained off the backs of the many.
This year I have the privilege of time to spend on small gifts that were crafted with love. I have the agency to offer love and gratitude to the people I care about most. And I think I owe it to myself, and everyone who has gone without these things, to revel in that, if I can, and try to spread it around as much as I can. My holidays don’t have to represent fear and shame, not this year.
I can’t wait until god damn Christmas!