Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
December 2007 - Volume 07, No. 9
The Holidays: Shadow and Light - and Stories
For certain I’m biased - mostly because a number
my therapy clients have family relationships and history where the very
idea of holiday family gathering brings dread and depression. There
dollars” spent on gifts and “duty miles” driven to
gatherings that are more ordeal than celebration. Some definitely “hold
close” to their therapist at this time of year. And I’m
careful to not abandon them. It’s not easy for the rest of
us to realize just how difficult, even toxic and cruel, some family situations
are! - and this suffering is often hidden from the eyes of others. Then
there are the difficulties of many divorce and ‘blended’ family
situations, especially for children.
For others, hopefully a majority, the holiday gatherings
are eagerly anticipated, like a ritual emotional filling station where
the soul (and stomach) is refilled with goodness. There may also be the sadness
of memories - where persons and circumstances no longer present can be
recalled and cherished. All of this, of course, is the
way it’s supposed to be.
Many families experience a combination of both
types of gatherings. But
even among the best, the logistics of travel and schedule and hosting,
these days, can require the expertise of a graduate degree in hospitality
and travel agentry. As I look back on my own childhood, I understand
my parents’ frequent satisfaction that we rarely lived less than
250 miles from the nearest relative. We had Christmas all to ourselves
- year after fortunate year. The car never left the garage.
Yet, the deeper meaning of our long-established
holidays, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s, and
others, has always had the sense of light in the darkness -
a time of renewal, hope, and thankfulness for remembered blessings.
Sometimes this is easier than other times - but it’s still seems a necessary element part in
our cycles of life. We recollect what has been and anticipate what
will be. Our holidays themselves, from their deep roots, always
seek to be rituals of Renewal.
One cherished memory from my own childhood is my
reading of a smallish book by storyteller Ruth Sawyer, This Way to
Christmas [originally published in 1916, and fortunately now available
again - check your favorite book source].
The setting of this story is World War I, when
young David is sent to live temporarily with his former old nurse in
upstate New York while his parents are needed to help diagnose an illness
afflicting soldiers. Far
away from his friends and familiar big city surroundings, he finds himself
in an isolated mountain village, with just seven days to go until what
will obviously be a bleak and empty Christmas.
But the lonesome boy comes up with an ingenious way to bring Christmas
to the equally lonesome inhabitants of his small mountain community,
all of whom were spending the winter far from their own homes. Visiting
each in turn, David befriends his neighbors and delights in hearing the
Holiday stories they share with him, stories they heard in their own
homelands long ago. A final celebration brings all the neighbors of different
nationalities together, forging relationships that will outlast the holiday
season and sending a message of hope to a war-torn world.
That theme, of course, I recognize now as an adult,
was central to my parents’ philosophy, life purpose, and vision. But
what I remember
most is the stories themselves that were told to David - that
in turn my mother learned by heart and told again and again wherever
fame, circumstance and invitation took her - eventually all over the
State of Iowa.
I mention this not just to recall and celebrate
my own history, but as a lively and healing suggestion to you, my readers,
for the holidays. In
earlier times, holidays were times for storytelling - that’s
what happened whenever folks and families gathered - long before the
seasonal productions, and classics of television, and now the ubiquitous
DVD. (It’s significant
to me that most spiritual traditions are best maintained by the telling
and retelling of stories.)
So, during these holidays, no matter where your family gathering fits on
the scale, from toxic to beneficent - ask for stories. Tradition
is that a storyteller must be asked before a story is told. If
you have your own stories to tell, tell them - even if you have to ask
for an audience. [And don’t use anything electrical in the process!] Strangely
enough, even difficult families can have good stories. The older
folks usually have the best ones. And what you hear, remember - memorize! Some
of them you may want to carry close to your heart - for often this is your
heritage, it’s part of where you come from. To be able to acknowledge
some riches of where we come from is good mental health. Then, in
time, see that the best of it is passed on to the next generations.
And so, this Holiday season, ask for stories, especially family stories
- and pay attention!
Yet one final suggestion:
For those of you who are generally not the
self-indulgent type - do something, even if quite small, for yourself
this season. Maybe
that piece of cheesecake in the coffee shop. And for those of you
who are self-indulgent by nature (you know who you are) - buy
it anyway, then give it away - maybe to somebody you’ve never met. It’s
the holidays. “God bless us every one!”
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