I’ve been really getting on my own nerves this Christmas season. I have this constant urge to run and hide. It’s weird really, considering how much I love Christmas; the lights and candles, the Kenny G Christmas station, the smell of pine from the tree, the shopping and gifts and family time. But it’s become an increasingly tedious season, especially since motherhood, and this year I feel constantly short of breath. In part because: asthma. But there’s a gasping even the inhaler can’t seem to clear.
The trickiest part for me is all the gatherings. I am growing more weasely about them each year. I get so cringy about all the small talk with distantly known relatives, I could cry. No, actually I do cry. It’s not that I don’t like these people. I (mostly) REALLY do. But there are so many of them all in one place, and so many questions that I can either answer politely or honestly, but not both. I’m no good at motherhood chitchat. I’m not going into adoption chitchat. I worry our family is a display, that the girls will feel they are treated as interesting artifacts to be admired, rather than the thinking, feeling humans they are. I get crazy tired before I’m even inside, and can feel myself vacillating between artificial enthusiasm about gingerbread houses and distant, short responses that likely get some raised eyebrows and whispered wonderings about my well-doing. I’ll clear it up for everyone, there are indeed some problems upstairs, but mostly I just don’t do gatherings well.
All of our extended family gatherings have out grown our Grandparents’ homes. This means a little more space, but it also means a little colder and a little lonelier. Without the sentimentality of my grandma’s kitchen and the chimes of Grandpa’s clock, it feels even more disconnected. It also means a new building with a passel of kids scattering hither and yon. Call it over-protectiveness or OCD, I can take it, (or rather, already have it), but I’m not super chill about sending my girls off in a new building with a clan of kids and not seeing them again until bedtime. I used to quietly disappear for a few hours after lunch; sometimes to the car where I’d stashed a book, sometimes to go home and “check on things” for a while (my bed needs a surprising amount of supervision), sometimes to take a walk or hide out in my Grandpa’s study. But now I need to remain present. And while I’m present, I also get to exercise swallowing my pride when one of my attendees has a moment that is beyond what I’m willing to explain to on-lookers, and proceeds to sit huffing and scowling, with occasional body flops on the table. I get to figure out how to either facilitate a nap in a strange building with endless interruptions, or attempt to pave the smoothest possible path for a 3 year old going napless, a delicate condition that can turn rabid on a surprisingly small grievance.
I told God if we were to have any illnesses in our future, I would be ok with pink eye hitting the week before Christmas. It was the most harmless contagious disease I could think of that would keep me home-bound. Then my mom reminded me of how hard it was to get rid of, all the mattering and oozing and free flowing germs and stuff. So I took it back.
I’m living these squirmy feelings to the fullest this year. This week, actually. I don’t have a How I Learned to Love Big-Gathering Small Talk eBook to offer. I’m just giving all of us wheezers permission to use an inhaler. Albuterol is good, but it doesn’t seem to reach the soul, so I’m taking some notes of what does help clear soul congestion.
For me, it starts with less. My decorations are minimal this year, and I actually love it. The few bursts of added greenery and lights are easier to notice with less clutter. I’m not committing to any fancy baking. I ordered about half the number of Christmas cards I usually do. I’ve turned down events, some I really wanted to attend and some I was glad to see go. With the declines went additional obligations that would have accompanied them. Learning how to gracefully say no is a muscle I’m shakily trying to build.
“You can set your own odometer. Whatever takes you further away from Jesus and love and generosity and goodwill, shelve it. The earth will not spin off its axis and you will not retroactively prevent the birth of Baby Jesus. Be healthy, be merry, and may this season be wondrous all over again, because unto us a child was born.” Jen Hatmaker
The math of a well-chosen “no” is that it always adds up to a sum of more space for a yes. This year, our space has been dedicated to a few special events and opportunities to engage with the community. Advent reading is at the top of the "best yes" list this season. It’s harder than I can even understand to get reading in every night. The first week of advent I was already counting up how many days we were behind. And I got frazzled and frustrated until I stopped and smacked myself back to reality. The girls have no clue that we’re behind. I have serious doubts that Jesus has an eye on the calendar and an eyebrow raised at us. As if he’s going to catch us still reading in January and say “Enough with this belated birthday talk!” The time frame we put on celebrating God With Us is ridiculous. I can’t recommend Unwrapping the Greatest Gift highly enough. Ann Voscamp works her wonder in the words, and the stories move me to worship every time. You can find the book we read here. If you don’t have a good book your family is reading right now, order it and read it into January. It’s incredible. We all look forward to sitting the light of the tree and reading together. It’s a longer chapter than what we normally read at bedtime, and it’s good. More is good when it comes to reading.
And the most important part of getting some oxygen to the soul? Finding a way to escape whatever is suffocating, be it crowds, shopping lists, small talk, kitchen chaos, family drama, or the budget, and find some quiet. Some stillness, some fresh air that goes beyond the lungs and revives the mind and heart as well. Someone told me once that a quick remedy for an asthma attack was sticking your head in the freezer and inhaling the dry, frigid air. While I can’t say it’s ever done much for me, I’ve certainly tried it a few days that were thick with humid allergy air. If your air gets thick, find a freezer, and take a moment to go stick you head in it. For me, this looks like sitting at my desk most mornings and writing down some words by the light of my candle. It looks like walking the path along the woods and listening to winter bird songs and the rustling of grass under my dog’s feet. It looks like hiding out in the bathroom and getting lost in the plot of an audio book for a few minutes. It looks like pre-arranging with my extrovert husband for the girls and I to leave a gathering early, or for me to slip out and take a short nap or drive while the rest are busy playing games. For you it might look like 15 minutes in your favorite book while you sit in the school pick up line or a cup of hot tea after the kids are tucked in bed. Maybe it looks like saying no to an event altogether and finding another time or way to reconnect with those people. It definitely looks like honest conversations and compromise with our more-the-merrier socializers. Nobody is wrong in this equation, just different personalities with different needs.
I’m looking forward to catching up with my dearly loved cousins this weekend. Giving Grandma a hug, kissing a new baby I haven’t yet met, and laughing loud at some endlessly ornery uncles. And I have some exit plans in place, some breathing treatments to use as needed. For all of you emotionally short-of-breath friends, find your inhaler and use it liberally. Here’s to a Christmas of quiet moments trumping chaos. We can’t be messengers for the Prince of Peace, peace for our family or nation or world, if there isn’t first peace in us.
Let there be peace on earth And let it begin with me. Let there be peace on earth The peace that was meant to be. (Peace On Earth)