I wrote this last year a few days before Thanksgiving, but I could have easily just written it today. The sentiments remain, even if the date has changed. Merry Happy Holidays to you my friends. Maybe my words will help you find a moment of peace to let in the unexpected this holiday season. Because the thing I wish you all is a moment of peace in this hectic spinning world.
I’m in the middle of climbing laundry mountain, playing at chopping and prepping food like I’m a contestant on Top Chef, and trying to figure out the Martha Stewart logistics to having 18 people in my house for the Thanksgiving holiday. Oh yeah, and I’m looking for my gratitude. Cuz that’s what this holiday is all about, gratitude. But for some reason I stopped being grateful between cleaning the mildew spots off the ceiling in the bathroom and being elbowed too many times in the diary aisle of the grocery store.
Having everyone to my house for the holiday was my idea. I’m the Clark Griswold in my family. You know the scene, from Christmas Vacation. When Ellen and Clark are in bed and she tells him she’s worried, “you build thing up in your mind…you set standards no family event can ever live up to.”
I do that. For parties, weddings, anniversaries, holidays, graduations, vacations….just like Clark. It such a joke in my family, that when I hosted my own family for five glorious days a few years ago over Christmas; one by one (my dad, mom, brother and sister) they all called to ask if I was going to be okay. And I swear, they all quoted that same line…”you have expectations no family can live up to.”
But I love traditions. Love the crap out of them!
Then I read a beautiful essay a few weeks before everyone was to arrive that Christmas. And it slowed me down, gave me pause and allowed my normal expectant self to take two steps to the right and just breathe. And I want to share that with you, but first, let me explain why I love the traditions so much.
Growing up with little money is one of the things I think I liked most about my life. My parents who struggled paycheck to paycheck would wildly disagree with me, of course. Being a parent and an adult now, I myself hate the hand-to-mouth existence. Still, what those years did was force my family to create traditions on nothing more than a moment. There are so many traditions I carry forward from my childhood. Thanksgiving morning dad and I woke up early, (everyone else liked to sleep in. Not me, I might miss something.) Dad fried up sausage patties and baked biscuits. It was what his family ate growing up on Thanksgiving morning. And the meal is mobile, you can take breakfast to the living room with you to watch the parade. Dad and I watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade together and he’d slip into a reminiscent trance, telling me stories about his dad taking him and his brothers to the parade, which gave way to memories of growing up in New York. Dad loves Thanksgiving. A holiday built on eating all day long without the stress of present giving, that was right up his alley.
We always played soccer on thanksgiving and then football. We started going to a small mountain town Thanksgiving weekend to pick fresh mistletoe. Christmas Eve was always spent at my maternal Grandparents house. Christmas morning was always at our house. On birthday’s, crate paper was hung outside our bedroom door and a red plate with scrolling lettering declaring “You are special today” met us with a donut for breakfast. Valentine’s Day we woke to Valentine donuts and on our napkin in our sack lunch, mom drew a heart and the message “I love you” along with a pack of sweethearts. Dinner was always heart shaped pizza, heart shaped cake and 25 cent bottle of strawberry Shasta cola.
Then, I moved away from home. My brother, sister and I all moved away from home because of the wings our parents gave us. But it’s difficult, these wings. They flew us far and we were fine until the holidays came creeping around.
I’ve been philosophizing over these feeling for several years now, but it wasn’t until I read that essay that I pinpointed what was making my heart ache so much. You see, it was this one tiny word: Always.
Our lives had been deeply steeped in the tradition of ‘always holidays’. Go back and read about our family traditions that cost next to nothing but had big impact and you’ll find that was Always the way it was.
So now, I celebrate holidays with a new family. One I married into and things are, of course, different. There are no “always”. Which I’ve fought over the years, with little grace I fear. But in the fight I’ve tried to come up with my own always traditions and it’s been a strange uphill battle that often leaves me feeling more drained than filled with the true spirit of the season.
Today, especially. When my list of things to do out numbers the amount of time I have in which to accomplish my set goals…I had to sit down and take a breath and remind myself of the lesson I took to heart a few years ago, when my family was coming to town and I read these words: To celebrate the holidays was “to stop trying to live up to my own…preconception of how or what the day ought to be. Rather than chase Christmas like a lover that must be wooed or lost, I have found it much easier to sit still and let it find me…The secret of celebrating…is to empty oneself of all expectations so that there is room for the unexpected, or even the miraculous…” – Phyllis Theroux
I’m soothed with those words. And what is able to finally seep in is what I have been continually thankful for over the past few years. An ideal that is both tangible and intangible at the same time The kitchen table. My table.
I’ve spoken of this several times now. I’m given to sigh-worthy contemplation this time of year and my table is often the sentimental centerpiece.Ever since I read the phrase: “life happens at the kitchen table.”
The past five years we’ve nourished our bellies and souls at my table. My table has been infused with life; with laughter and tears. With confessions and conversation. My table has scars from artwork, homework, and score keeping. It’s been wiped down from playdough, pasta rolling, sushi making, and dinner time. It’s been dusted of glitter and paint and construction paper.
Friends old and new have rested their elbows upon my table. Family has gathered around my table.
This year, my table is missing grandpa; my husband’s father. But he left his mark on my table; he might not physically be there, but his indentation is.
And isn’t that what we’re all trying to do in the long run. Leave our indentation on this world so that we leave it a little better than it was when we found it?
There is one “always tradition” that I will continue this year. It’s one of my favorite. Growing up, on the holidays, we always set an extra place at the table for those who couldn’t be with us that year; for those that had left us; for those we remember fondly.
Deep breath. I’m gonna let go of expectations to make room. And while I do that, I’d like to leave you with my favorite poem that I’ve shared several times but still seems so apropos to me this time of year.
Perhaps the World Ends Here
By Joy Harjo
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
“Perhaps the World Ends Here” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 1994 by Joy Harjo.