Category Archives: Christmas

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I’m already dreading Christmas with my family

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Cary’s classic column from

We’ll sit around with nothing to say, eating takeout food.


Dear Cary,

I know this is pretty early, but I’m already freaking out about hanging out with my family during Christmas. My family consists of my mother, my father, my brother and me, the daughter/sister. My brother isn’t married, but I am; I have a husband and two kids. My husband and the kids get along fine with my family; actually, my parents love my husband to pieces. The problem is with me.

Whenever I get together with my parents, which is only once a year or so, I get the feeling that they don’t really want to be with me. I mean, we drive six hours, they fly for four hours and my brother flies for four hours (don’t ask why we are all traveling…that is another long story) and then we spend the weekend together by doing a lot of nothing. My parents go to sleep at 7 or 8 p.m. and get up at 5 a.m., and by the time I get up at 7:30 a.m. or so, they have already left to go to doctors appointments, to fix the roof on a rental house, to go to the DMV. They don’t show up until noon or so. My brother stays in bed until 2 p.m. and parties with his friends until late. Our “quality time” together consists of eating from the same takeout places over and over again.

Now that I have toddlers, there is something to entertain us, but without the kids, there is nothing to say to each other. My parents are very private people; if you asked me what their biggest worry was, I would have no idea. When I ask about their work, I just get vague answers and sort of sarcastic replies. I know this is just par for the course because I have the same problem getting all defensive about choices I made and things that I do; when they ask me questions, I hedge as well. I’ve made some career choices that bother them and they let me know that they don’t like it, so I shut up about the details. My mother also recently told me that she would like to divorce my dad because he’s kind of a control freak and generally a rude man, except that she takes her wedding vows seriously and that she’s used to him and, heck, what else would she do? This was a shock to me (even though I think I could never live with my dad) as I thought that their marriage was fine, even stellar.

I just have this feeling that we are at an impasse, that all of us want to be closer but we don’t know how to be. Right now, I feel that hanging out with my parents is an obligation rather than something I enjoy. Is it to be that way always? If it is, I just want to know that and that I shouldn’t expect any more closeness from my family and I should look elsewhere. I’ve been reading a lot of Zen stuff recently and I’ve been trying to let go of my “attachment” to having a close family and have no expectations of ever having one, but I have to say, sometimes I read stories of people’s relationships with their parents changing on their deathbeds and their wishing it had happened earlier. My relationship with my parents isn’t terrible—it’s just not very much fun. What should I do?

Out of Sorts

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Dear Out of Sorts,

You can change your eye color. You can change your sex. You can change the temperature of the planet. But you can’t change your family.

What you can do is introduce small variations in the activities you engage in while visiting with your family. These activities may have the effect of changing how you feel while you’re around them. One of the things you might try is just to be a positive, supportive witness. See if there are ways you can be helpful, without getting in the way. You might offer to drive your parents around on their early-morning errands, or to accompany them in their car to expedite the parking and waiting as they go in and out of places. As you accompany them, perhaps riding in the back seat, observe them. Look at them closely. Think about who they are. Consider them as individuals. Let your mind wander. Be Zen-like about it.

There will probably be a lot of stupid and boring stuff coming out of their mouths. Try not to get any on you. Let it pass. Be a supportive witness to their experience. Hold a place in line at the DMV. Hand your mother a magazine. Hold her purse while she looks for her other glasses. Be unobtrusively helpful, and observe. Observe your mother and observe yourself. What are you doing as you stand there, holding her purse for her? Are you resenting her for being so befuddled? Are you mad at her for telling you she’d like to divorce your dad but probably never will? Does it give you a sinking feeling? A feeling of rage? Are you wishing you were somewhere else, anywhere other than here? Where is it exactly that you would like to be? Make a mental note to go there, later, after Christmas. Then get back to what you are doing, holding your mother’s purse, glancing at the magazines in the waiting room.

The idea is to get your bearings. Get comfortable being around your parents. Lower your expectations until they touch reality.

You may wish to make some breakthrough by talking about the things that are on your mind—why doesn’t the family come together like a family, dammit?! But you must be careful. A family is a delicate thing, wrathful and sensitive to disturbance. If there are certain things that you feel need to be discussed, it might be best to approach them not as emotional or spiritual questions, but as tasks that need performing. It sounds like your parents are practical people who value getting things done in a timely manner. So if, for instance, there are questions of health, or life and death, that you feel your parents and your brother avoid talking about, you might approach them by attempting to square away financial concerns, powers of attorney, investments, the will.

For certain kinds of people, a troubling spiritual question is best addressed in its physical embodiment. For such people, the proper disposition of such an embodiment can, in itself, constitute a spiritual or emotional experience. I know that sounds rather arid to those of us who breathe deeply of the bracing air in the world of ideas, but in my experience it is often the case.

You must go slowly, respecting the depth and complexity of the family as an organism. To be realistic, in this first year of trying to make it better, you might only accomplish small variations in your own activities.

Because of your dissatisfaction with how the family performs, which you probably have not successfully hidden (we can hide little from our family), other family members may already fear that you are going to try to “bring the family together.” They may not want to be brought together. In fact, such enforced togetherness can be so excruciating for its victims that they find some pretext never to return.

Anything that smacks of trying to bring the family together may have the undesired effect of tearing it apart. It is, as I said, a fragile thing.

So I suggest you make such changes as you can in your own activities, quietly, meditatively, without attachment to result. Try to be a reliable, supportive witness to those around you. Hope for gradual improvement.

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My 13-year-old still believes in Santa Claus


Dear reader,

Below is another of our favorite holiday columns. And, as always, if you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com.  Norma and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!


 

 

 

Should I tell her the truth — to save her from the derision of her friends, if nothing else?

 

Hi Cary,

I will be the first to admit that this may seem like a lame problem in the full scheme of things, but I would love for you to weigh in on this. My nearly 13-year-old stepdaughter believes in Santa Claus. Completely.

To give some background, her father was widowed when she was an infant, so we are her only living parents. I also have two small children from my first marriage who are still very much in the Santa target demographic. So you might assume she’s going along with the game for the younger kids, but it’s truly not the case.

Last Christmas, our first as a family, I was stunned when she asked me how Santa would know to find her at her new address. And just yesterday she admitted to wondering how Santa could truly go down everyone’s chimney at midnight. (“That would be impossible, even for Santa.”)

Her comments and questions have all come at times when the other children are not around. She’s not pretending.

This is an incredibly bright child — honor roll, advanced classes, very much a freethinker, with an amazing social consciousness. She’s not stunted in her emotional development. Tooth fairy, Easter Bunny — she gave those up years ago. But Santa’s legitimacy isn’t even on her radar.

So here’s the question my husband and I are pondering: Do we spill the beans?

I have very vivid memories from fourth grade when an insensitive teacher made a comment about Santa truly being our parents. My classmates and I were stunned when the one little girl in the class who was apparently still in the dark put her head on her desk and burst into tears. The rest of us had already known for some time. That was the early 1980s. And kids today are supposedly so much more advanced.

My husband is concerned she is going to embarrass herself around her peers. And he has a point — especially at this age where she’s so overwhelmingly self-conscious about fitting in and being part of a group.

But at the same time, a part of me thinks it’s kind of charming. I mean, she’s had to grow up faster than her peers in some ways, having no mother around for so much of her life. Why shouldn’t she be able to keep some aspects of childhood around a little longer?

Aside from preventing social embarrassment, the only other advantage I see to telling her the truth is that it would make it a little easier for her to understand why she won’t receive some of the excessive gifts her peers will find under the tree on Christmas morning (iPods, computers, video game systems). I do remember from my own experience that it was quite a relief to discover that my more modest Christmas gifts weren’t an indication that Santa didn’t like me as much as the other kids.

I wish we could afford to do more for all three of our wonderful kids, but our oldest, because teenagers’ “toys” are considerably more pricey, is the only one who is really noticing the discrepancy. Maybe it’s guilt that’s truly fueling this question?

I know in the full scheme of things this seems rather small and insignificant, but I would be very interested to get your opinion on this.

Wondering Mom

Connecticut

Dear Wondering Mom,

Insofar as possible we tell our kids the truth. But there is of course much leeway in what truths are told and how. There are for every truth a thousand ways of telling. Tell your stepdaughter the truth. But which truth, and how?

I think you tell her what can best be called the poetic truth. It’s possible that your stepdaughter possesses a very poetic soul, and that what she gets from her belief is the pleasure of beauty and magic. So it may not be terribly important to her whether it is literally true or not — what is important is that you be sensitive to what it means to her. The story of Santa is art; it is so captivating and beautiful that she may simply want to enjoy the music of it, the captivating happiness of it. That enjoyment could be shattered if too rudely explicated, but it need not be shattered at all, even as she awakens to the impossibility of Santa’s most vaunted feats.

“Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world,” wrote Francis P. Church in his famous 1897 New York Sun editorial, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.”

He said pretty much what I would have said, only better.

For doubting, secular people, Christmas can still be an innocent time, a time of taking pleasure in innocent beauty. When I was a child it was the only time of the year when society seemed to recognize that there is beauty and joy in the world and it can be shared and there is a time to sit together by the fire and play music and sing songs and give each other gifts. What a wonderful time.

What you want to communicate to your stepdaughter is this: the willingness to both know and believe.

I would ask her what she believes. I would respect her beliefs.

And then I think I would warn her. I would warn her — as if she did not already know — that other children can be extremely cruel, and that while it is perfectly acceptable to believe things others do not believe, it is sometimes wise to keep one’s most cherished beliefs to oneself. People can trample one’s beliefs. They can destroy them with a careless word or gesture. So it is sometimes best to hold one’s beliefs close, to protect them from the corrosive derision of insensitive others who would trample on our dreams.

I would warn her, too, about the way people keep score with presents, and remind her that there are, in this realm too, a thousand different ways of keeping score. If she is bright, she can keep score with grades and achievement, and if she is inward-looking, she can keep score on how true she is to herself.

So encourage her to have dreams, to cultivate dreams, and to protect her dreams and her beliefs.

There are many truths. There are musical truths and sculptural truths and performance truths; there are baseball scores and mathematical theorems; there are poetic truths and observable truths and observable truths that are not true — for instance, the observable truth that the sun revolves around the Earth is an illusion. It depends on where you’re standing.

And there are many things that we believe which are as yet unprovable. We believe that pi, for instance, does not repeat its digits. Having calculated it out to 200 billion digits in which as yet no pattern has been found can we yet be certain that no pattern ever will be found? What about at 200 billion billion digits? That’s a lot of digits. Even 100,000 digits is a lot of digits.

So I would stand with Francis Church. Mysteries and miracles abound in the visible and invisible world. Santa is among them.

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Cary’s weekend archival column: Dec. 24, 2004/Dec. 25, 2005

Dear reader,

If you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com. And if you would like to help support this endeavor, feel free to make a donation.

 

 

I’ve asked my family to write but they say they’re too busy.

 

Dear Cary,

Happy holidays; hope this letter finds you well. I’ve been reading your column for a long time and respect your advice, so I’m seeking some of it here. The brass tacks of it: I’m deployed in Iraq and I’m depressed as all hell. I would love nothing more this holiday than a card from my family or loved ones, something, anything, and here it is late December, and nothing. I try and talk to my family about this, but every time I go to bring it up I feel like a selfish ass or am reminded how busy everyone is. Help me out, man, am I being a selfish ass? Trust me, I can certainly take a yes and any advice you may have to see another view.

Thanks,

Benjamin

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Dear Benjamin,

I forwarded your note to your family. Their response was rather surprising:

“Dear Benjamin,

“How selfish of you!

“Sure, you are getting shot at, having bombs go off in your cafeteria, driving over explosive devices, having your deployment extended with no end in sight, blah blah blah. But don’t you realize that we, too, face dangers every day? Who knows when the Internet connection could go down and the whole family can’t log on! Who knows when the newspaper might not arrive, and somebody might have to drive to 7-Eleven and buy the paper — and then: Are you still expected to give the paperboy a tip, or what?

“There are phone calls to make, Benjamin — important phone calls to friends and not just to any friends either but to close friends — friends of a kind of closeness that you and your buddies, with your silly risking your lives for each other, wouldn’t know anything about! And there are gifts to wrap and give to each other — did you think all these gifts we’re giving to each other just wrap themselves? Cards and gifts. Stuff for each other. That’s what we’re busy with. Why haven’t you received any? Maybe because you’re way over there in Iraq. Do you know how far that is? Do you know how inconvenient it’s been for us to have to look on a map to see where you are — I mean a big map, the kind that goes beyond Rockaway Beach?

“Why did you have to go over there in the first place? Don’t you think the world’s problems would have worked themselves out eventually? But no. You had to go enlist, protect the country, be of service, live by a code of honor, blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda.

“Besides, Benjamin, how can we be thinking of you when you never drop by? Do you expect us to remember you exist when we don’t see you for week after week? Now, if you were living next door like our junior life and casualty underwriter for Northwestern Life (you think life and you think casualty but this is life and casualty!) or pursuing a graduate degree in the metaphysics of silicone breast implants or trying to start up your own reality TV show like some cousins we know, maybe you’d be a little more in touch.

“But don’t worry, we forgive you. Silly Benjamin, always trying to help. Anyway, we’ve heard it gets very hot there in the summer, but it’s winter now, isn’t it? Maybe they’ll give you an extra blanket but don’t make a pest of yourself. And for God’s sake, no matter what you do, don’t let them see you shivering in the cold the way you used to when you were a little boy!

“Love,

“Your Family”

Well, Benjamin, I just made that up. I thought it might make you chuckle, and I figured you could use a chuckle. But seriously I wanted to tell you that most of us over here are awed by the sacrifices you are making on our behalf. We are capable of making the distinction between policies we disagree with and our countrymen and women who are carrying them out. I know that’s two ideas to hold in your head at one time, but we can handle it. So for you and all the other soldiers over there whose families are too busy this holiday season: We all love you and care about you back home, and we are deeply humbled by the fact that you’re laying your lives on the line so that we can go on watching television, talking on the phone and buying stuff that doesn’t make our butts look big.

We’ll never be able to thank you enough, so, frankly, we probably won’t. You’ll just have to know that it’s true: In our hearts, we appreciate it more than we can say.

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Update on the lonely soldier

Remember that soldier in Iraq sitting all by himself wishing the family would write? Response from readers was amazing.

 

Dear Cary,

Could you please give us an update on the poor soldier who was alone at Christmas with the family that was “too busy” to write? Did you get many responses from readers for him?

Brenda

Dear Brenda,

Wow. Did I get many responses? Yes, it was amazing. All told, more than 400 readers were moved enough by that soldier’s letter to write to him. I’ve been meaning to update everybody on that. Here’s what happened:

I was on vacation on Friday, Dec. 24, the day the soldier’s column was on the cover. I happened to check my e-mail and saw this note: “Cary, why don’t you set up a Hotmail (or something) account for that soldier, give him the password, and then publish the address so this poor guy can get greetings from your readers? It might not happen in time for Christmas, but it probably could for New Year’s and he would love it, I’m sure.”

That seemed like a pretty good idea, I said to my wife. However, it would require getting in touch with the soldier, whose whereabouts I didn’t know, getting his OK, setting up the account, getting the password to him, then publishing it. As I considered all the steps involved, I decided to take a simpler, if more labor-intensive, route and just publish a notice in that day’s column inviting readers to send greetings to the soldier at the advice@salon e-mail address, and I would forward them. I published that notice on the column around midday Dec. 24.

Then my wife and I went about our business. We wrapped presents, we cooked some food, and then set off to see the “Nutcracker” with niece, nephew and in-laws, as we traditionally do on Xmas Eve. (Tradition also dictates that every year we forget to make reservations at any restaurant, preferring instead the holiday cheer of wandering chilly San Francisco with hungry children in tow, looking for a place to eat. It seemed that every place we might eat was either closed or full. Incredibly, both Max’s Opera Cafe and Chevy’s were closed! John’s Grill was full up. The Hayes Street Grill was full up. But wait! What’s this! Cafe Della Stelle has a corner table in the window! For six! There is a restaurant God after all!)

After dinner we came home and toasted marshmallows in the fireplace and opened presents. (I got a furry jacket, which I am now wearing all the time.) After Dom and Doris and the kids left, the fire was dying down, and it was quiet and warm in the house and I was alone with my wife, and it seemed like an ideal time to … check my e-mail!

That was our “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment: The letters had been pouring in all afternoon and evening! It was so sweet! It was so moving! There were hundreds of letters — thoughtful, kind, measured letters recognizing the simple fact that, policy differences be damned, this guy is family. So we spent the rest of Christmas Eve forwarding these letters to that soldier. Here are some of the things that people said:

“Gaaahhh, your letter in Salon was terrible! From at least the 15 people I told this to, Happy Freaking Holiday!! A thousand smooches from the pretty girls. A thousand pats on the back from the boys.”

“Aw, c’mon, Cary, give us saps out here a way to contact poor Benjamin and his guys there in Iraq so we can send them letters and cards and homemade body armor and stuff.”

“Thank you for laying your life on the line for the rest of us back home. Thank you for enduring life in Iraq.”

“I propose that your family is ultimately too distracted by the culture they live in to see past the crap that burdens their existence. It’s what we all do — define ourselves by the norms and expectations of our culture. So I cannot believe they don’t love you and wish you were with them, and maybe they’re also quietly terrified of having you where you are.”

“Mahalo, Mele Kalikimaka and Hauoli Makahiki Hou from Hilo, HI!”

“I was and am against the war, but I have tremendous respect for people like you who are willing to put your lives on the line for this country, regardless of my feelings (or yours) about the decisions made by the political leadership.”

Those are just a few quotes from the first few letters. Reading through them still gives me some kind of chill. I don’t know what it is. I guess it’s just plain old goodness and compassion and decency is what it is.

My wife and I sat there at the iMac and forwarded as many letters as we could by midnight, and then we went to bed.

I got a quick note from him the next morning, saying, “Merry Christmas, brother, and my most sincere thanks to everyone who has replied.”

Not too long afterward, I got another, longer note from him:

Connecticut

Dear Cary,

My wife is also a regular Salon reader, it didn’t take long after she read the letter for her to put two and two together and immediately hit me up. We talked for hours over I.M. and I think both of us were reduced to uncontrollable sobbing through it all. She apologized profusely and passed the word onto my family, who also in turn have responded in droves. Sometimes a kick in the pants is all that’s needed to remind us of the truly important things in life.

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression. This deployment has been extremely hard on my wife, who has had to deal with severe financial constraints; I’m in the National Guard, and we took a severe pay cut when I deployed, raising our son, trying to keep everything on the home front secure and all the things a spouse does when their partner heads off to foreign lands.

Thank you, Cary. Thank you for your words of advice and for all of your readers who have responded with all their love and support. It means the world to so many of us over here, so far away from those we love and care for.

All my love to you and your readers,

Benjamin

Pretty cool, huh?

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Cary’s weekend archival column: Sept. 15, 2010

 

Visiting my family gets me down

Every time I see them I’m depressed for a week

 

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Dear Cary,

First, thank you for being persistent with your crazy wisdom, and for not giving up. I enjoy your column.
I need a new way to think about this situation, and I’m hoping you can help. Here is a bit of background, in case it helps.

I live in a separate state from my family, and visit about five or six times per year. My relationship with my parents was dicey for a long time, but it is now more even, as I started simultaneously sticking up for myself more, and caring about their approval less. I’m in my mid-30s now. After a wandering employment history (two different careers), I am now underemployed in some ways, but happy to have a job, and try to be useful. Married, have some pets that I adore. I have a history of depression but am managing for the most part. No children because I spent a long time not feeling good, and now that I feel more OK, I don’t want to ruin it (not that I dislike children, I just want some internal peace and am too old to have a bit of peace and then have children).

My problem is that every time I visit my family, I feel like shit for three to four days afterward. I don’t feel bad while I’m there (anymore). In fact, things are better than they’ve ever been. But this shitty feeling, it is on the inside, and it takes me days to shake it off, even when I try to talk myself into a better place. I try to get at exactly what this feeling is about, and the most I can tell is that I feel like a loser when I’m there. It’s kind of an extension of the more pervasive feeling I have that I somehow just don’t fit in, that there is something slightly “off” about me.

The strange thing is, my parents aren’t all that successful or well adjusted. If anything, I’m slightly more adjusted than they are, unless I just have no objectivity and am fooling myself. My sister and her husband are more successful in that they both have careers and a more standard life, by American standards. When I ask myself if I’m jealous, I am not so much envious of their standard lives as I am of their seeming feeling of “fitting in.” In other words, I don’t necessarily want what they have (my parents and my sibling), but I want to feel like they feel. This is true not only of my family, but of society in general—I don’t really admire the lifestyle I’m told I should want, but I want the part of the dream that has me feeling good about myself. It’s just, for some reason, that this part that I lack is more pronounced when I’m with my family.

Anyway, I do not want to stop seeing my family. They’re basically good people. But this does affect my willingness to visit for extended periods, since it is really inconvenient to feel shitty for a week afterward. I’m embarrassed that I still feel this way well into my 30s. Is there anything I can do about this, or is this just how it is?

Confused

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Dear Confused,

Your family is never going to be the family you wish you had and they are never going to give you the feeling you wish they would give you and you are never going to fit in the way you wish you fit in and the sooner you realize this and get angry about it and shout it out and bang your fists on the floor and scream at the gods about it and grieve it and fully accept it and let it go the sooner you can be at peace with yourself and your gifts and the way you are loved now.

The way you are now is the way you are loved. Those who love you do not love this other person you wish you were. They do not even know who that person is. The way you are now is the way you are loved.

You think there is some other person you might be if you were only different but even if she showed up on your doorstep you wouldn’t know who she is because she would be lacking the full code of you. There is only one person who has the full code of you. There is only one person who can be loved as you and it is your job to keep being that person.
Why are you sad after being with your family? Because you start pretending to be somebody else because you think somebody else deserves their love. And then you lose your bearings. It takes days to put yourself back together. So remember:

It is you whom the people who love you love. They don’t need you to pretend. When you pretend they just wait for you to come back.

(Here is one reason I am a writer and not a therapist: If I were a therapist I would start making stuff up just to have something new to say. So I will not say for the umpteenth time to read Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns even though you probably should read it anyway because it seems to help with things like this.)

To sense that your family does not really love or approve of you hurts but it doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be somebody else. It means you’re supposed to bear that sadness with dignity; it means you’re supposed to bear that loss as a wise person would, knowing it’s just the tension between your capacity for dreaming and your capacity for acceptance.

Some people are fine because they don’t think about the infinite possibilities but some of us do think about the infinite possibilities which would be fine if that were all we did but then we also think about how much it sucks that these infinite possibilities do not all come to fruition although if you think about it there must be a natural cap on the number of infinite possibilities that are brought into being just as there must be a finite number of partners at Goldman Sachs.

You are here to do the one job no one else can do and that job is to fulfill the destiny written on your skin in a place you cannot read without turning inside out. Take several deep breaths. Stop what you are doing.

What is the source of your sadness?

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Xmas_smallInterested in more holiday-related columns? Check out Cary’s collection of holiday columns, That Special Time of Year.