Great Expectations—Not!

As frequent readers of this blog know, one of my mantras is that we only control two things: how we act and how we react. Last March, in the early days of the COVID explosion, I wondered aloud here whether or not Ed and I would be able to take a scheduled mini-vacation to Portsmouth in May. Would my son be able to safely fly here for a week in July (tickets already purchased)? Closer to need, would we even be able to find laundry detergent, toilet paper, hand soap? No one knows, I wrote.  

Pithily, I added “The bottom line is: We have to stay in the here and now. The here and now is all we have. It’s actually all we ever have, but pre-pandemic life gave us the illusion we could make plans and have reasonable assurance things would unfold accordingly. Well, now we can’t. There is simply nothing ahead any of us can know with certainty.”   

What I didn’t realize then—couldn’t yet know—was how hard it would be to live with the blunt force trauma of that reality day after day. Month after month. As birthdays and holidays passed without parties or family celebrations. As the canceled trip to Portsmouth became the canceled trip to London and Paris (September), and the two weeks in Barbados (this January). Ed and I used to go out to dinner every Thursday night, where all things domestic were set aside, and we talked about what we were reading, thinking, dreaming. Nights of laughter and ideas and great food. I haven’t seen the inside of a restaurant since February 2020. I don’t know what will be left of my town to “come back” to. Whenever.  

I Celebrate Therefore I Am

The one thing I had LOTS of time to do during the past year was think. What I thought about most can be loosely summarized as “What is living?” On my daily hikes through the streets of my town, one of the things I noticed was the quantity of Halloween decorations people put up this year, starting in September. (This may seem like a non-sequitur, but stay with me.) There was the usual festival of enormous blow-up ghosts, Frankensteins, and pumpkins at the house with the huge front porch, three blocks over, but there were easily another 50 houses whose tableaus of giant tarantulas, gravestones, and witches covered every square foot of porch/garden/yard. Almost everyone had some ghoulish display. And the day after Halloween, the Christmas decorations emerged!

Watching a woman unpack some 30 boxes, newly-delivered by Amazon, and set up display after display across the vast lawn of her three-storied home—Santa’s sleigh with all the reindeer, a mini-hood of gingerbread houses, Santa’s workshop teeming with elves—I calculated the cost. A good $2,000 and change. I thought about the miles-long line-ups for food handouts. The millions facing loss of employment and unemployment compensation, electricity and heat shut-offs, evictions. A part of me was angry at this ridiculous waste of money/resources. But another part of me understood: If this woman was inclined to donate, she was probably doing so in addition to this lawn show. The “lawn show” was a lifeline for her. A link to a happier time when family and friends could gather, could celebrate without masks, without fear. A return to a pre-pandemic world many of us took for granted.

The Way It Used To Be

I’ve always thought of the “holiday season” as beginning with pumpkins ripening in the fields. A season that embraces not only Halloween, but Thanksgiving, the Solstice, Chanukah, Christmas, and the Festival of Lights, wrapping up on midnight December 31 with a toast to the New Year. In that stretch, Ed and I normally purchase pumpkins from a nearby family farm and carve them. Pies are made. Our children and their various partners/friends arrive to share a Thanksgiving that features both turkey and vegan fare. Later that weekend, we journey to another local farm to pick out a Christmas tree. Back home, we wrangle it into its stand, string the lights, hang the ornaments, and toast this work of art with eggnog fortified by a dash of brandy, while watching some seasonal film like Miracle on 34th Street. In the following weeks, gift wishlists are exchanged. Ed and I shop the local merchants on our town’s “Bag Day.” Wrap and ribbon everything. Send cards. And I bake tins of cookies for far-flung friends. Evenings, we kick back to enjoy The Holiday, Love Actually, and the one that always makes me cry—It’s a Wonderful Life: “No man is a failure who has friends.” I’m not much of a traditionalist, but I cherish the traditions of this season, carved out and personalized over decades.

This September, though, my emotions ranged from indifference to dread as the first Halloween candy hit the grocery shelves. I debated endlessly with myself about whether to drive out to the farm where we usually pick our pumpkins—and wound up getting two from the supermarket a week before the day. We carved them, and they came out well (Ed’s “Trump-kin” was especially amazing), but I did not feel the holiday buzz. The eight trick-or-treaters I doled out Reese’s Cups and Hershey bars to—all of us masked and muffled—seemed to share my dispirited state. They thanked me politely as I wished them a Happy Halloween. Absent were the high-pitched laughter and squeals of candy-joy from years past. It felt like we were all just going through the motions.

The Way It Is

How does one celebrate, get into the festive spirit of the season, when friends and family are absent? When the kids scattered in cities across the country shouldn’t come home, and the annual Solstice Party that gathers the people you’ve built a life with in your community—some of those ties stretching back 30 years—isn’t happening?   

I pushed through Thanksgiving. Ed baked a marvelous mini-ham and I roasted a downsized pan of my customary autumn veggies. I made blueberry pancakes for breakfast, but skipped the mimosas my daughter and I would enjoy if she were home. A bottle of champagne is perfect for several people to tip in their orange juice at Turkey Day breakfast—recorked to finish during the boisterous hours of dinner prep, when the kitchen is crowded with cooks. But just for me (Ed doesn’t drink)? It seemed ludicrous and begging for a hangover to empty that bottle (the local liquor mart stopped selling splits five years ago), so like much else, I nixed it this year.

Ed and I played Scrabble. Dug into the pumpkin pie I’d baked. Watched the final episode (13 seasons!) of Poirot because Mind Hunters, though excellent, felt a bit too “dark” for a holiday.

It was a nice day, but it didn’t feel like Thanksgiving. And I was having trouble getting excited about going out on the weekend to pick out a Christmas tree. But we did. A slightly smaller one than usual because I had to wrangle it by myself on and off the car, into the house, and into a tree stand—Ed being but two weeks out of hernia surgery. Won’t take all the ornaments, I thought, but I started stringing the lights and decorating it. “Heavy” ornaments first, and the ones from my childhood—the glass dog, missing a leg and its snout, taking pride of place because nothing, nothing, has been with me longer. Then the “fragiles.” And last, the “regulars.” True, it didn’t take all the ornaments, but I managed more than I’d expected. Gazing at the lit tree in the evening dark, it’s ornaments sparkling, I felt a breath of holiday pass over me. Maybe, maybe… I could do Christmas.

What is Possible

Among the wisest words I’ve heard in my life, this quote from Bertrand Russell stands out: “In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

Up to this year, I’ve always considered Russell’s words to mean: Don’t be afraid to question or re-examine your assumptions, even your beliefs. What is true will remain so, and the rest should be jettisoned. It is only now that I understand those words encompass expectations, as well. And traditions come with a lot of expectations—when things will happen, how things will happen, who will be involved. We tend to measure our happiness of such experiences by how closely they fit our expectations. But what to do when those expectations can’t be met? When, as now, they are impossible? What if, as Russell suggests, we were to rethink them? To tie our happiness not to what we can’t have—and so be hopelessly unhappy—but to locate the joy in what is possible.   

If those words sound blithe, offhand, believe me, I did not/do not find it easy to accept the loss of so much I cherish—I can be a very determined girl about making things happen. But, it has gotten easier, with mindful practice.

The Shape of Christmas Present

I knew that Christmas Day would be quiet this year. The piles of presents for our far-flung kids reduced to a few gifts for each other. The festive noisy table shrunk to a Zoom chat with the absent family members.

And shopping for gifts in my favorite local stores, where I can touch the fabrics, handle the pottery, and sift the selection.? Not happening this year. Online was the only realistic—and safe—choice. The fact that Louis Kill-Joy is still mismanaging the post office has meant everything is taking muuuuch longer than “normal” to arrive. (Of all the things we took for granted pre-pandemic, anything “normal” was the first to be jettisoned.) So, I printed out pics of things I ordered and wrapped those in small boxes, topped them with ribbons, and sent them off across the land. The printer, naturally, didn’t work from my laptop—printer error, printer error—so Ed and I tried various other computers in the house until we found one that the printer was able to relate to—and then it printed three copies of everything. Ed, in problem-solving mode, ordered a new printer. Staples delivered. And then the old printer started working again. I’ve come to expect this. The time is “out of joint” as the Bard would say, and so is just about everything and everyone in it.  

Celebrating What Is

But there have been moments, here and there, when I totally forgot how I wanted things to be and lost myself to the joy of what was at hand. Wrapping a present, listening to Brenda Lee belting out Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree on a Christmas compilation CD Ed made years ago. Or Elvis doo-wopping on Blue Christmas. I mean, how can you not smile when the King is singing “It’s gonna be a BLOO-BLOO-BLOO Christmas without you”?

And so it goes.

As I write this, Christmas is just days away. We are watching our traditional holiday films— It’s a Wonderful Life is on tonight’s view-list, a reminder that not everything has been “lost.” For Christmas dinner, Ed will be making “buttery shrimp” and I’m baking a French Apple pie. We’ll have good conversation—we’ve never yet run out of things to say to each other—and appreciate that we have a home, heat, good food, and most of all, each other. It won’t be a “normal” Christmas, but it can still be a good day, a festive day.

I might even crack open a bottle of champagne at breakfast. And if a portion of that bottle goes flat in the end, well, worse things have happened this year. At every moment we can only do what we can do.  

A very Happy New Year to everyone out there. As virtually every holiday card we’ve received notes: 2021 has got to be better. We don’t yet know what the “new normal” will look like, but we can decide to find the happiness in it, too. To gaze at the stars in the infinite night sky and know there is still magic and joy in the universe. And we would be wise to do so, because our time here is not infinite, and our lives too precious to waste mourning what, at any particular moment, cannot be.