Hating the holidays

All I want for Christmas is a kind, intelligent man. I'm starting to doubt it will ever happen.

By Cary Tennis
Published December 9, 2003 8:09PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

The holidays are here, and I need to unload!

I spent Thanksgiving Day in the hospital with my ailing grandmother, and tried to console my depressed grandfather, who is going broke because of her health and only has me to depend on -- I live three hours away. This Christmas marks the 15th anniversary of my mother's death. New Year's marks the 10th anniversary of a brother's death. My younger, hipster sister and her boyfriend arrive in two days, to spend three looooong weeks with me (not my idea). Don't get me started on my pothead brother whose bar band is going to "make it big once they move to L.A. ..."

This weekend my dryer broke, my car is going in for a $400 tuneup tomorrow, and I desperately need new tires to get through the Minnesota snowy-icy-salty mess we call winter. I haven't purchased a single Christmas gift yet.

I turn 30 in five months and am very single. (Being single and 30 in the Midwest is equal to having "Loser" tattooed to your forehead.) I haven't had sex in four years. I feel completely unattractive, undesirable and destined to spinsterhood. My sister tells me "you don't need a boyfriend" -- this is the sister who is so codependent when she's away from her boy for more than three days she goes anorexic. Yeah, I don't need a boyfriend, but a companion to keep me sane and loved over the holidays would be fabulous.

I've considered calling my doctor for a prescription for Holiday Zoloft, but then realized it would take a few weeks to kick in and the torture of the holidays would probably be over by then. I've been exercising regularly, but those endorphins don't seem to be doing the job.

I have no desire to step foot in a shopping mall, or spend time with my family. Christmas day will consist of 8 minutes at the dinner table, me and my siblings, with dad running off to the casino to play blackjack after beating last year's dinner time of 10 minutes. I have friends I'd rather spend time with, but as the oldest sib, I can't abandon my family -- the guilt is too much.

When I look at the bigger picture, I do sound whiny. I have my health, I'm good at being self-employed, there's a good chance that Bush won't be reelected next year. But it's really hard to see everyone else going to big family gatherings with their significant others ... I'm feeling shortchanged.

All I want for Christmas is a kind, intelligent man. And I know it's not going to happen this year, and I'm starting to doubt it will ever happen. So how long do I have to endure the obligations of family before I can run off and spend mid-November to mid-January far, far away? Do you think I'll ever be able to enjoy the holidays? After all the ucky stuff I've been through shouldn't there be some karmic turn of events? Or do I count my blessings and accept that this is the way it's always going to be?

Hating the Holidays

Dear Hating the Holidays,

I know, I know, I know about the holiday season and how it crashes down on you without permission. I know. I have been hunkering down for weeks, afraid of the avalanche, and it has come, and I have struggled up out of the snow and trudged into town where all the shiny things are, where the people don't know the streets because they never come downtown except in December, where giant red sweaters with cute embroidered animals lunge at you from blind corners, where children paw your bags, where traffic resembles something you might find on planet Jupiter. I know, I know, I know.

Still, two things strike me about what you have unloaded -- and you certainly did unload! First, you are conspicuously absent from your own story. Second, it is not really a story but a collection of situations. They are only situations because if they were stories they would be about you and what you are trying to accomplish. Instead, there is nothing here of you and how you have tried to live through the deaths and the craziness. Perhaps that is the root of your desperation, the sense your letter gives not just of weariness and misfortune but of panic: that you have disappeared from your own story.

What have you been trying to do all this time? That is what you need to find out. What were you about to do just when your mother died? Where were you headed? Did you start cooking for the younger ones then, and for your father too? Is that what you have been doing since then, caring for the rest of them? Did you even have any time to grieve after your mother died? Maybe you're still grieving, except it sounds like anger. Maybe that's what happens when we shove aside the grieving for years: It turns to a kind of impatient, panicked anger.

So go back to the time when your mother died, and play the videotape again slowly. Try to find your own face in the picture, and understand the expression on it: Are you startled, sad, amazed, frightened?

There are many reasons to resurrect this story, not just to save your soul. If you find a kind, intelligent man, for instance, he is going to want to know your story -- because that is what kind, intelligent men want -- aside from world peace and a better book lamp.

As you are aware, given any set of facts we can make a variety of stories. Given your set of facts, for instance, one person might say that she had had the privilege of being with her grandmother over the holidays, during what may be her ailing grandmother's last days, in a way that she perhaps wasn't able to be around when her mother was dying, or at least not as an adult, aware of the immense finality. She might say how lucky she is that her grandmother lives only three hours away, and how glad she is that her grandmother's medical care is still being taken care of by her grandfather, who though depressed can still afford to take care of his wife, although it is a bit of a financial strain. She might mention how glad she is that they are both still alive, and how grateful she is to them for being there for her after her mother died.

You get the picture. Some would call it the glass half-full/half-empty thing, although my problem with the glass being half-full or half-empty is I always want to know why it's half-full -- Did somebody just fill it halfway? Why? Did they just want half a glass? Or was that all the water there was? Or was the person who filled the glass stingy? Or maybe the person was overly cautious and was afraid it would spill. Maybe, in fact, half the water had already spilled out, in which case the glass had either been handled clumsily, or in anger. Or had the water simply evaporated, in which case the glass has been sitting there for days or weeks and nobody wants to drink from it anyway. You might as well pour the water out and wash the glass and get some fresh water. There's a faucet right there anyway. There's no shortage of water. So who cares if the glass is half-full or half-empty? The question is, are you thirsty?

The question is, What have you been looking for? And what happened?

Maybe what you've been looking for all your life is just 10 minutes to yourself, without duty, without sadness, without tragedy and loss, without guilt. And you almost had it and then your mother died and maybe that's when your father's gambling became his secret escape, because all he wanted was one good roll of the dice. But how did his gambling contribute to her death? And did she like gamblers? Was she drawn to men who take chances? And is that why you feel such a powerful sense of duty to your siblings, because there's always been too much gambling in your family, and somebody's got to bet on a sure thing? What would happen if you let them screw up on their own? Are you concerned that if you let go, you might invite another tragedy?

You know you can't prevent tragedy from occurring, right? That's the nature of it. You can't stop it.

So what would happen if you tried to step back and find some wry amusement in your family members' adventures? After all, your family sounds like fun, what with the musicians and hipsters and gamblers. Maybe the story is that when your brother died too, five years after your mom, again the burden fell on your shoulders and again everyone filled with unspeakable grief and confusion but this time your younger sister said to hell with this, I'm going to be a hipster and try to live my life, and your other brother said to hell with this, I'm forming a band and moving to L.A., and your dad said to hell with this, I'm going to the casino. So they all realized they had to just live their lives, and you have been left now as the dutiful one, and it's killing you! So let it go! Maybe if you would only let them all go off and do their sound checks and their raves and play Texas Hold 'em, you would maybe have a few minutes to yourself, and you'd have time for a boyfriend.

You've got to let them go. As the older sibling, you absolutely can abandon your family, at least for one season. In fact, you can make plans right now to spend next holiday season in Mexico. Buy your ticket on your 30th birthday, as a little gift for how good you've been this year.

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Cary Tennis

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