Tuesday, December 21, 2010


In the wee hours of this morning there was a total lunar eclipse, the moon smudged by the earth's shadow to a faint charcoal blot in the sky. This afternoon the winter solstice occurred, heralding the longest night of the year. The day was a double whammy of darkness. Though the eclipse was a lovely distraction from a sunset at 4-something p.m., many of us quickly returned to waiting, with varying degrees of patience and strength of mood swings, for precious daylight to show up earlier and linger longer once again.

We humans are diurnal creatures, evolved to go about our business in the daylight. Our circadian rhythms respond to an increase in the duration and intensity of natural light by making us more energetic and happier. Darkness makes us inclined to eat more (back AWAY from the bathroom scale and no one will get hurt!), sleep more, be less active, and generally get a bit unbalanced, sometimes just plain weird. The return of daylight hours is an important milestone for every human in the circular pattern of every year. And that's why virtually every culture and tradition has some kind of celebration marking the return of the light. Often those celebrations of a primal relationship with our world are embellished with an overlay of religious myth -  for instance, Jesus, in the Christian tradition, is called the "Light of the World" and is said to have been born in the dark of the year, even though there is no historical evidence whatsoever that his birth took place in December - coincidentally close to the solstice, too. Even Groundhog Day on February 2nd is a secular holiday celebrating the coming sun and the imminent end of winter. The fun superstition of Groundhog Day was overlaid on the Catholic holy day of Candlemas, which in its turn was overlaid on an ancient celebration of the goddess figure Brigid, bringer of fire, knowledge, medicine and writing to the Celtic people (note that all those gifts are forms of light or "enlightenment").

Whatever your belief system, take the time to acknowledge that we are creatures of light, our shadow side notwithstanding, and revel in the few minutes of additional daylight we begin receiving each day after today. Greet the day as you would greet a good friend - notice its new clothes and tell it how nice it looks. It will hang around you for the pure pleasure of the relationship between light and that which it illuminates...and you will be the better for it.

Happy Return of the Light!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Happy Holidays: Rituals of an Overcompensator

A Facebook friend recently posted a comment that she didn't understand people who get stressed out about holiday rituals like sending cards, putting up decorations, baking cookies and so forth. Her assessment was that, since nobody is making you do these things, why do them if you don't enjoy them? Simple, yes?

Lucky you, if you are as clearly well-adjusted as she and do not comprehend the workings of the mind of an obsessive neurotic. But if you have nothing else to do for the next few minutes, sit at my feet, Grasshopper, and I will attempt to enlighten you. Perhaps this mini-education will allow you to generate some compassion for us poor, screwed-up perfectionists who get twisted into knots during the holidays and never seem to figure out how to untie ourselves.

This holiday season, I'm trying to talk myself out of sending the usual holiday letter and cards, and it's no mean feat. It's wrenching: it actually HURTS to think of skipping this ritual. It almost hurts more than trying to figure out how I could possibly carve out time to do it. Part of the problem is that I do love doing all the things which, to me, symbolize the essence of the holidays, and set this time apart from all the rest of the year. Writing a pensive holiday letter, sending cards, baking, putting up sparkling lights or decorations - all that feels meaningful, like a gift to myself and an expression of love to others. Unfortunately, constraints on time and energy often turn my feelings about beloved holiday traditions into something more like a love-hate relationship. And then there's the endless downward spiral of feeling bad about feeling bad, at the time of year when you're supposed to be filled with happiness and good cheer. Oh, I can take the dance of holiday dysfunction as far as your imagination reaches, and farther!

Plus I'm overcompensating for all the things my family didn't do at Christmas when I was growing up. We never had a "regular" Christmas tree; we decorated a huge philodendron that my paternal grandfather had planted and which presided over an entire corner of our living room. Kinda cool for an adult, maybe, but in a child's eyes it wasn't the way Christmas was "supposed" to be. Now we have a regular, real, u-cut Christmas tree every year. When I was a kid, we didn't always get cards out, and after my early childhood, my mother never seemed to get around to baking. So I have a real sense of urgency about doing those things. It seems therapeutic - when it's not killing me because I don't have the energy for all this stuff AND the Normal Obligations of Everyday Life.

This season, in an attempt to make sure I reach a reasonably healthy old age, I've adopted a new "yoga," a practice of letting go of just a couple of problematic to-do list items at a time. I may still struggle to find opportunities to bake and still get stressed about putting up all my Christmas tchotchkes, but I'm resolutely passing up the boxes of Christmas cards, taking a deep breath as we receive cards from friends and family, and will perhaps capitulate to sending an e-card at the last minute. I'm skipping most of the shopping, which I truly DO hate, and either contributing to charities on behalf of my loved ones, or scheduling some fun thing to do with friends and family who are local, rather than giving them unneeded stuff.

My Holiday Yoga practice includes gently returning to my basic worldview: that humans are uniquely suited to making meaning, and that that is our number one job in the world. If we are well-suited to making meaning, then we are equally well-suited to re-making meaning as necessary. If I understand the reasons why certain rituals feel significant, I can re-tool those rituals or adopt new ones that will still satisfy the drive to create meaning out of apparent randomness. AND I can live a longer, more contented life.

Finally, in the interests of gaining perspective on the priorities of others which we may not understand, let me point out a common, non-holiday-related obsession, mostly but not exclusively engaged in by women. Personally, I never have trouble suppressing a desire to run the vacuum cleaner, but I know people who will get up and vacuum the house at six in the morning. Repeatedly. Often. Happily. Since the task of vacuuming involves sweat and noise, and excludes sparkly decorations, twinkly lights or cookies, THAT particular fixation is totally beyond my comprehension. It all depends on your sense of what matters, doesn't it?

I wish you a holiday season filled with warmth, peace, joy, love and sparkles.