Holiday nightmare: Here it comes again

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY,  DEC 4, 2011

How can I make this year’s gathering tolerable, at least?


Dear Cary,

So, this is a boring question but a timely one. It’s That Time of Year again, when the secular and religious Christians descend upon the homes of their relatives to give gifts no one wants or can afford, and to torment each other emotionally.  

I am dealing with the Ghost of Christmas Past That Won’t Go Away. My childhood was horrible. The holidays generally involved going to my paternal grandmother’s house for the obligatory exercise in guilt and the giving of gifts that no one ever liked and which were always wrong and not good enough. My family didn’t like me, and they had severe problems that I won’t go into, but suffice it to say that these gatherings were damning, draining, discouraging and demoralizing. So much so, that once I got into my 20s I quit talking to my relatives for seven years and moved 3,000 miles away. They were not invited to my wedding. They never met my children.

Anyway, my grandparents, uncles and father have long since died. I have abandoned any semblance of Christianity — no trees, no Easter eggs for me — and have instead become interested in the religious tradition of my mother’s family. I still have a cousin from my father’s side who lives about 40 minutes from me. Every year, she invites me and my husband and kids over to her place for Christmas Eve. She is one of those highly repressed, chronically nice yet inwardly seething people who always tries to do the right thing and resents the hell out of the world for not appreciating her, but she’s too polite to go on direct attack. I feel she wants to go through the motions of maintaining the myth of family connection, as if that group were less horrible than they really were. She’s a very nice, good person who has been generous with my kids, and is reliable. She’s done a lot of stuff for me over the years, but I never felt like it was for free, thus I don’t feel safe with her emotionally. It doesn’t feel like an emotionally honest relationship. There is a subtext, but I don’t know what it is.

None of us can afford to spend a lot of money on gifts. She can’t, and I can’t. Nobody can. But I am afraid that we will be invited, and my kids will want to go, and I will feel obligated to go over there, even though I am probably not wanted anyway, and we will all give in to the pressure to shop in order to go through the ritual of giving gifts nobody wants or needs.

What is the deal with the competitive gift-giving thing, anyway? In my family of origin, it was supposed to prove that people cared because they couldn’t express caring in any other way but through money or gifts. They couldn’t say anything nice, they couldn’t be affectionate or warm — they were all bundles of grudges, resentment, suspicion, insecurity and bitterness.

Miss Manners would be appalled, so I’m not asking her, I’m asking you: How can I get out of this event? Is there any nice way to say to my cousin, to acknowledge, that none of us can afford to go through this charade? And then just not do it? Because what I wish is that anything anyone would spend on me they would simply take for themselves and buy something they really want and enjoy rather than give me something I don’t need or want and resent me for it. Do you get that receiving anything from anyone in my extended family carries the burden of resentments and unmet needs and accusations? It’s a drag. Why do we keep doing it?

You may wonder why I don’t invite my cousin to my house, which could be an option if my place were not such a dump — broken plumbing, holes in the wall, non-working electricity, a neighborhood eyesore, broken oven, rotting doors, chunks of house falling off, etc. Far from the Better Homes & Gardens image our grandmother lived by. No dining room, no place to sit. I hate the Holiday Season and wish I didn’t have to do this stuff anymore. Frankly, it would not surprise me if she really doesn’t want to do it, either — but how to address the issue? Or just make other plans?

Dreading It

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Dear Dreading It,

Here we go again.

I was at Salon’s panel discussion last night about the meaning of the Occupy movement and, more broadly, this moment in our social and political history.

Every now and then what we all know and have been repressing becomes visible. Someone does something and it catches on and things change. It is hard to know when such a moment is at hand.

But certainly now is such a moment. The moment is at hand to make courageous changes both public and private.

It is especially hard to make changes in family practices when there is no larger context for them. One risks being labeled an eccentric or a troublemaker. But when a large social context appears — such as when the feminist movement happened, or during the era of civil rights protests — then individuals in families have an opening. It is as though taboos are lifted and people may speak. That is when we may make changes — particularly when everyone has known the change needed to be made but no one had the courage or the opportunity to speak up.

Your critique of how your family celebrates Christmas is nicely linked to the larger critique of our general economic arrangements. If we can speak of the unfairness of our current system, and its waste and destructiveness, we can also speak of the unfairness of our individual practices, and how wasteful they are. We can do this with a clear conscience. We can do it in context.

It is a time to make changes, some large, some small. These changes may be “political” in certain ways. But what is great about the current moment is that when “political” movements take hold they always touch individual lives in important ways.

One interesting thing about the panel discussion last night was that those of us who have lived through previous social and political movements were able to acknowledge what we learned from those past attempts to change our society. One thing we learned was that a nonhierarchical, consensus-based approach leads to a more durable — if messier — group process.

It was refreshing to consider afterward the wonderful benefits of just leveling with people, of just telling the truth and being heard.

So I hope that in some way this holiday season you can tell the truth to those who matter to you, and that you can be heard, and that you can be yourself and be loved for who you are. My guess is that you are indeed loved for who you are. My guess is that this relative of yours who has invited you over has a real appreciation for you. But, like you, she must struggle to find an “appropriate” way to put her appreciation into practice.

There are many dangers in trying to “fix your family”! But there are ways to simply be present in it, and there are ways to appreciate the flawed but sincere ways that people come together this time of year and try to share what is in their hearts. That is what many people are trying to do, however imperfectly they are doing it.

One idea that comes to mind is for you to give each person an envelope with a personal letter in it; make it a card, as a nod to holiday convention, but put a longer letter in it, too, telling that person the truth about your experience, and inviting that person to confide in you, if he or she wishes, about his or her real experience of the world and of your family.

This could be done quietly.

You might have to give these cards at the end, as you are leaving. Or you might write them in such a way that you are comfortable with each person reading what is in it. If you write what you truly believe and are comfortable with each person reading it — that is, if you refrain from slander and venting — then it might indeed be an empowering act by which you cease this compulsive and harmful thing everyone has been doing for years while acknowledging the universal drive to connect with others at this time of year and celebrate our humanity, such as it is.

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My girlfriend “settled” for me — and I don’t trust her

 

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008

I shouldn’t have looked in her diary, but maybe it’s best that I did.


Dear Cary,
This summer, my girlfriend went to Central America for three months. She was in spotty contact with me the whole time, saying it was difficult to reach a computer. I’ve known her to be unfaithful to her past boyfriends. She actually cheated on one with me. I didn’t trust her when she came back, so when she left her journal on my desk for a week, I read the portion of it about her trip.

In it, I found a never-to-be-sent letter to her first boyfriend, my old best friend from years ago, written in drunken handwriting. She lamented that she still loved him and how “I went and found the closest thing to you and I settled, like everything in life, I settled.” I assume this is referring to me.

I wouldn’t have read her journal if I trusted her. Those trust issues aside, I feel like we have a good thing. We work on a lot of levels with each other, spend a lot of time together, give each other presents with cards, etc. Though neither of us has a career (I struggle playing music and waiting tables; she dabbles in various professional track jobs that don’t interest her), we’ve hit the mid-20s and relationships seem more serious.

She’s moving away soon to take a professional-track job in Mexico and I am considering following her, but this whole thing bothers me. I try to ask her about him to see how she responds, but she never lets on anything. Right now, she is visiting her old roommate who now lives with him, and I am unable to trust her. Of course she always says they are just friends, but that she still really cares for him in a platonic way and there is nothing to worry about.

Had I not read the journal, I could take her at face value. Maybe she tells me what she really means. But as it is right now, I can’t help getting mad at her because I feel she’s deceiving me. I have to resolve it somehow. I know journals are the dumping grounds for our deep insecurities, horrible thoughts, our fantasies, generally things we can’t say, and they may not always be real, but I can’t brush it aside so easily. How do I handle this?

Thanks,

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Too Curious

 

Dear Too Curious,

You know what I think? I think that every time I sit down to write this column I have the opportunity, if I play it right, to make a big difference in somebody’s life. So I try to do that. I try to do that by taking a guess at what the big issue in a person’s life is. There’s the diary and all that, and I’d like to say right upfront that reading your girlfriend’s diary is not the best idea. But what’s the big issue?

The way I figure it, the big issues make the difference. And a lot of times we don’t know what our big issues are. We may know what other people’s big issues are. But not our own. So we make big mistakes. We make them over and over. Often the big issues in our lives are not what we think they are. They tend to be emotional things. Say, for instance, you are a brilliant and talented jazz musician. So naturally you are on the road a lot. But say that also, in your heart of hearts, you are the type of guy who really needs to be sitting at the kitchen table night after night with a wife and kids and relatives. That is where you are actually happy. So you might say that your talent and your emotional needs are at odds. You might not know you need the security and warmth of a family life. You may feel empty and anxious on the road but maybe you call it something else. You call it the blues. So you end up meeting this need in some way — because you are on the road. You end up, say, doing heroin. You do heroin because heroin gives you the feeling of sitting at your kitchen table on a full stomach in the evening breeze, listening to the crickets.

That’s how our unacknowledged needs shape our lives. That’s how we lose our geniuses, how they disappear into the evening breeze on a quiet summer morning.

If you knew, from a young age, that you were not only a talented musician but also a person who requires the closeness of family, warmth, security, rootedness, then you might take the time to arrange your life so that you do not die of a heroin overdose in a Memphis hotel room.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I write the column. I think about geniuses dying in Memphis hotel rooms. I think about perfectly decent guys being lied to by one woman after another. I think about the demons that have driven me off the road from time to time, and how things might have been different if I had known what the demons were, or if I knew they might be coming.

Our emotional needs often aren’t as overtly interesting as our talents. But they drive us. Sometimes they drive us to a strange part of town.

So with you, I think there’s a good chance that you have the opportunity right now, today, to discover what big personal issue is driving you. I think I know what your big issue might be. I think you can face it. I think you can do something about it.

But first of all: Do not follow your girlfriend to Mexico. Do not do that. Do not travel there to see her after she gets herself set up down there. Do not discuss with her the pros and cons of traveling with her to Mexico before she goes. Do not tell her you will think about coming to be with her in Mexico. Instead, tell her you have decided to stay here in the United States and try to get your life together on your own, without her. Tell her that you are breaking up with her. Tell her it’s best this way.

So now your real life begins. You make a choice. You begin from scratch.

To begin your new life, take an hour of quiet time. Sit down somewhere where you will not be interrupted. Make sure you have some paper and a pencil or pen.

Write these words at the top of the page:

I trust these people:

Then make a list of the people you trust.

Who is on the list? With each person, ask: Is that person a friend, a relative, a former lover, a teacher, a public official, an animal? What are the qualities of the relationship that make you trust the person? Is there an element of structure or formality to the relationship that leads to trust? Do they tend to be family members, college friends? Are they women or men? Look for patterns.

Then make a list of the people you do not trust.

Who is on the list that you do not trust?

Pay special attention to this question: Where is your dad? Is he on the trust list or the do-not-trust list? Where is your mom? And where are you? Where do you put yourself on the list?

I predict that if you do this simple exercise with an open mind and an open heart, and you spend some time thinking about these people and why you do or do not trust them, it will cause you to experience some fairly deep emotions. You may, at that point, want to find some structure for yourself. You may want to find a psychotherapist to help you work through this. But if I am correct, and if you seriously work through this, you will learn who can be trusted and who cannot. You will gain a new respect for your own need for trust. You will see that you have ridden roughshod over your own need for security. You may be surprised about certain people; you may realize that certain people may not have been so much fun, but at least they could be trusted. Others, you may realize, you never really trusted to begin with. You will become, through this process, a man who is markedly less likely to be fucked over.

And then, once you have firmly in your mind what it means to trust and not trust and be trusted or not trusted, you can fall in love and get married and have kids and live happily ever after. Or at least you can navigate more carefully life’s baffling jamboree, its streets full of beauty, genius and betrayal.

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