We’re going gently into the holidays this year, keeping our tender hearts open and stepping only as far into the fray as feels exciting and fun for us. At holiday time we feel the changes that the year has wrought, we feel them acutely. It’s wonderful to celebrate the year’s accomplishments, and enjoy the good firsts – new family members, new homes, new relationships. There may also be firsts that are sad and tender. The holidays bring us up close to loss and change.
At midlife more than ever before, we see that the foundations we build in life are constantly shifting and dissolving. Permanence is an illusion; the legacies and traditions we build are in a constant state of dissolution and renewal. We realize that, paradoxically, our most permanent foundations are also the most ephemeral; the foundations of love, compassion, character and memory.
I vividly remember a Christmas nineteen years ago, our first Christmas in the tiny island community which has been home ever since. We were full of ambition and energy, and we were a bit at sea, finding our way in a new town, a new country. Also, we were broke. The job my husband had moved to take had fallen through, and I was trying to re-establish my business in a new environment. Our daughter was four years old. I remember decorating the Christmas tree, and feeling really sad and un-tethered. I had a couple of boxes of cheap globe ornaments, and only a tiny handful of meaningful and valuable pieces. The tree looked very sparse. I felt bereft of security, far from the warmth of tradition. The dearth of meaningful ornaments hit me hard. I’ve never questioned my choice to cut ties with my family of origin – I broke the cycle of shame and abuse, and by doing so created the strongest, most meaningful foundation I could for my daughter’s life. But breaking ties left me with the task of making family traditions from whole cloth. There were no boxes of treasured family ornaments to dust off and reminisce over… just a sparse tree and my very passionate desire to create a world of security, abundance, and celebration for our little family. Over the years, I haven’t always felt equal to that task. On that year we bought tinsel and a few boxes of candy canes to fill up the tree with glitter and sweetness and magic. It worked. To this day, my daughter’s favourite part of trimming the tree is hanging the tinsel.
Last year, my daughter flew home on Christmas morning from her rich and busy life in Los Angeles. Because of her late arrival, I was left on my own with the task of trimming the tree. We always have a huge tree, a tree that scrapes our ten foot ceiling and spreads its boughs across half the living room. I took my time with the trimming, carefully unwrapping each ornament from its red tissue paper nest. Each piece, collected over the years was so beautiful and meaningful. Hand made grade school creations, gifts from friends and family, driftwood angels and felted santas, hand-blown glass and construction paper and glitter. There were so many, the boughs of our huge tree were weighed down. Somehow, over the last twenty years, I had managed to make my dream come true. Piece by piece, memory by memory, I had built my dream of an abundant, secure, and loving family home.
This year, much has changed, again. We are selling the house that my daughter grew up in, moving off the island and on to the next really exciting phase of our lives. This will be our last Christmas here in this house. My daughter won’t be home – the last year brought her a promotion and more responsibilities at work, and she can’t afford the time off. We’re planning on a petite tree, which means most of the ornaments will stay in boxes. Once again, I’m up against feeling a little sad and bereft. I hadn’t thought this far ahead. I hadn’t really considered that what I was building was ephemeral, a vessel of security to carry my daughter to the shores of her own adult life. It’s time to start again now, to build another tradition of warmth for another phase of life.
I know how fortunate I am, and how little reason I have to feel bereft, really. And I still must have compassion for myself because change is hard – even change from one good thing to another.
What I have built doesn’t come down to a box of ornaments. It doesn’t come down to a house or a community or a bank account or a business, although all those things are meaningful and worthy things to build. We all want so much to build something secure for ourselves and for those we love. I’m considering the possibility, today, that the most powerful thing I can build is a practice of resilience and compassion, and yes, love, within. A practice that will allow me to face the changes, no matter how gentle or harsh, with more equanimity as I age; a practice that will help me find ways to provide sweetness and sparkle and security for those I love even when inner and outer resources are meager; a practice that will prepare me for every letting-go that is to come.
Wishing you peace and resilience today,