Random Musings: Ho ho ho

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With Halloween done and dusted, including the all night American Horror Story: Murder House DVD marathon that my elder two children enjoyed with a dozen or so of their friends (whilst emptying our freezer of pizza and fries), I can now see Christmas on the horizon. Unlike last year I intend to try to make an occasion of this.

It is not that I plan to party. The preparation for and clearing up after my children’s social events is as much as I can handle these days. Even though I did not actually take part in their Halloween gathering it still left me exhausted. Disturbed nights do that to me now.

This need not preclude me from making more of an effort with the festive season. Last year I did my best to stick my head in the sand until it was all over which resulted in a very subdued time for us all. I learned that it is up to me to build momentum. Not being allowed to celebrate in the way that I would choose does not make it okay for me to refuse to set the scene for my family’s enjoyment.

I know how lucky I am. I have three healthy, intelligent children; a husband who loves me and who I adore as much as I did when I married him two decades ago. We have worked hard to create a fabulous home for our family. Yes, the kids take it all for granted, but why would they not when it is all they have ever known?

Too often I feel tired, so very tired. I dream of a little terraced house, two up two down, small and easy to look after. I imagine a rural location, no car, long walks and peaceful nights sitting with a book in front of an open fire; no expectations or demands for food to be prepared that someone will complain about. It will never happen. My husband does not see the point of open fires.

What I hanker after is for those around to stop expecting me to do everything they ask, to listen when I demure even if this causes inconvenience. My husband works; my children have school, exams, jobs, plans, pressures. I say I am tired and they reel off how much harder their lives are than mine. They are right but I am still tired.

I am however getting better at standing my ground, at being heard. Perhaps this is why I think that I can manage once again to cope with Christmas.

I am making lists: presents to buy, meals to plan, friends to reach out to. I will ask my family what they want and comply when I feel able. I will sometimes say no.

“There are exactly as many special occasions in life as we choose to celebrate.”

My daughter was talking about her work schedule over the festive season and expressed a hope that she would have Christmas Eve off. Each year we enjoy a family party then, just the five of us. I liked that she wanted to keep this free, to continue the tradition.

I used to look forward Christmas, perhaps I will again. For this year I will aim to let go of enough of my anxieties to reclaim just a little of that elusive goodwill.

Guilt

I am feeling guilty. This is what I associate Christmas with now, guilt and obligation. How bah humbug is that? I am a miserable person, a miserable excuse for a person. And I feel guilty about that too.

This year I made a concious decision not to send many cards. It used to be that I would send out quite a few dozen, many containing my carefully crafted annual update full of news and family photos. I knew that round robins got a bad press so I tried hard to make mine an honest letter to my friends, to people who I thought would be interested in how we were doing. And then I was asked by one of the recipients to please not send her the update. I felt crushed.

Why did such a simple request hit me so hard? Naturally I acquiesced to her request, but sending a card that said nothing more than To- and From- felt impersonal, sterile, unnecessary. So this year I haven’t. This year I have sent only a few cards, plus even fewer brief notes pointing people to my on line life. This is where I hang out now. If anyone is interested in how I am doing then they are more than welcome to meet me here.

Except not everyone has a computer, not everyone is comfortable interacting on line.

I got a card this week from an elderly uncle who has, in the past, been a recipient of my annual update. His card said more than just To- and From-. He also told me how much he enjoyed reading my update each year. This year I do not have one to send and I do not know if he ever goes on line. He will hear from me, but may be disappointed at the shortness of my message.

I feel guilty that I have allowed the comments of one person to knock me down. Others will miss out on something they enjoyed receiving because I could not grow a thicker skin. How can I ever expect to be a writer if I cannot cope with negative feedback?

Next year I will produce a round robin, even if only for the two or three people who have specifically told me that they enjoy receiving it. I will not feel obliged to send cards to those whose only contact with me is a To- and From- with no news. I will not feel obliged to send cards to those who follow me on line and who require no update as they have access to my news in real time. I will endeavour to keep in touch with those who eschew social networks but who make the effort to talk to me in other ways.

I am not happy with how my card writing has gone this year, neither am I happy with my present buying. Yesterday I wrapped all the gifts that I have been amassing over the month. My elder son did not give me a list and I have neglected to hunt out the little puzzles and oddities that normally fill his stocking. I have placed a few last minute orders on line, but his space on the floor on Christmas morning will look bereft if these are not delivered before the big day. There will be nothing to keep him occupied as the others tear into their parcels, ordered early with the help of lists.

I have learned useful lessons this year. I have learned that I should be concentrating my efforts on those who offer me support throughout the year rather than those whose relationship to me makes me feel an obligation towards them. I must also try harder to shrug off mental setbacks, although that is easier said than done.

I still have time to write a few cards, to contact those who enrich my life. There is still time to set aside my guilt and allow myself to try for a merry Christmas. I can only hope that those who seek to bring me down have more pressing matters to divert them. I really must try to grow that thicker skin.

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Preparations

As often happens at this time of year, my life seems to have stepped up a gear. I have a long list of jobs that I need to complete in the next few days if I am to meet other’s expectations. I am not good at coping with obligations that I did not agree to but are presumed accepted.

After the initial wobble when December arrived and I realised that I could not realistically hide under my duvet for the entire month, I have been coping with the preparations for Christmas reasonably well. It will be very low key in our house this year, but the event will be marked. There has been some irritation from my children that I am not displaying the expected enthusiasm; sorry guys, I’m doing the best I can.

I had an added challenge this week as my daughter is attending a conference at a university 160 miles from our home. I have written before about my dislike of driving but, on this occasion, I had to balance my antipathy against the worry I would have to deal with if I sent her on her own by train. The compromise we arrived at was for me to drive her there the evening before and stay overnight in a cheap hotel to remove the pressure of having to complete the journey in a set time. This worked well and I actually rather enjoyed my time away.

With three children and a husband to consider, it can be hard to spend time with just one member of my family. Months can go by without this happening, although I have benefited from two such occasions this week.

On Sunday my husband and I had a meal out together, just the two of us. We do not have regular date nights so this was a rare treat. Admittedly it only came about because we had to bring my daughter home from a Black Veil Brides concert that was due to finish after the last train home had departed. As a trip to the city was necessary we decided to make use of the need to travel and park by indulging ourselves. I still had to cook a dinner for my sons before we left, but it was good to spend time alone with my husband. I almost felt young again.

The late return home after we had collected my daughter, followed by the need to get up for school the next day, meant that I had four hours sleep on Sunday night. This was not the best way to ready myself for the long drive on Monday evening.

I had prepared the family dinner in advance so that all my husband had to do in order to feed himself and our boys was to reheat the contents of a couple of pots. I was impressed on my return to find that they had been washed.

My daughter and I planned to eat on arrival, although I brought along a packed meal just in case we suffered delays or could not find a suitable eatery. I worry a lot about potential problems and feel better if I have contingency plans.

The journey up was exhausting. I am not used to having to drive in the dark and the traffic was very heavy. The unknown roads were confusing at times, despite the many maps and detailed directions that I had printed off. As I had to concentrate hard on my driving I needed my daughter to act as navigator. As a non driver, she struggled at times to understand what it was that I needed to know.

However, we reached our destination after about four hours and were able to walk to a restaurant from our hotel. After a delicious meal we relaxed for an hour or so before settling down for an early night. I slept better and for longer than I normally do at home.

The next morning we spent a pleasant enough couple of hours exploring the university campus before I left my daughter to find her own way into her conference. It was obvious from the many students on site that I was something of an anachronism but, having made the journey, I wished to see what the university had to offer as it is one that my daughter may consider applying to. She showed signs of irritation at my behaviour at times but coped well.

After a picnic lunch I then had to face the drive home on my own. Nobody seemed to have missed me and I was back in time to cook the family dinner. My daughter texted me to say that she was having an awesome time and had made friends already so I do not need to worry about her for the rest of the week.

My week, meanwhile, must continue apace. School finishes for the Christmas holidays on Friday and I still have letters and cards to sort as well as presents to wrap. With one week to go I am struggling to keep my mood up.

However, I am coping. I may not get to the gym as planned, or manage a walk this week, but I should be able to tick off all the essential tasks on my Do List. I also plan to do more writing as that is a guaranteed mood lifter. How grateful I am to have found this outlet for my vacillating emotions.

My house is a mess so I shall now tackle some chores before I face those festive tasks. I hope that your preparations are coming along as you would wish. One week to go and counting.

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Santa Claus

Spoiler Alert! If you are expecting your Christmas presents to be delivered down your chimney on Christmas Eve by a big, bearded, soot sprinkled, magical elf dressed in red with white fur trim then please do not read this post.

I hope that was warning enough. I do not wish to spoil anyone’s Christmas.

That was my problem when I first had kids. It was very important to me that my children should trust me; I did not wish to lie to them about anything.

Sometimes this aspiration got me into trouble, such as when I gave birth to my third child at home and my eldest burst into the room before we were ready. I explained to her carefully, in what I thought was age appropriate language, how her little brother had emerged from mummy’s tummy. She then wanted to know how he had got in, which I also tried to explain as honestly as I could. The next week she was passing on this important information at playgroup. At no point were any birds, bees or storks involved; just a mummy, a daddy and a special hug; followed nine months later by something like a big poo.

So, what to do about the existence of Santa Claus in the Christmas story? At first I simply ignored him. I explained to my children that Christmas was a birthday celebration for Jesus. When a child has a birthday, family and friends give the child gifts and a party is held. Because Jesus is so very special we all get given gifts on his birthday and everybody celebrates with a party. I reckoned that I could cover other religions when my children got a bit older.

Except me not mentioning Santa Claus didn’t stop every other adult that my children came into contact with just expecting them to be in on this tale. Without a word from me they came to believe in the flying reindeer, presents coming down a chimney and a funny little old man all dressed in red who granted every material wish.

At no point did I ever say that this was how it was. I didn’t have to. However, whilst I may not have lied explicitly, I did implicitly as I went along with the established orthodoxies. The night before Christmas, when my kids asked to put out cookies and milk for Santa along with a carrot for the reindeer, I obliged. I ensured that they were tucked up in their beds before sneaking the presents down the stairs on Christmas Eve. When they were old enough to write a letter requesting particular gifts, I helped address the envelope to the North Pole and walked them to the village postbox to send the carefully crafted missives on their way. I made no mention of the wonderful service that the Post Office provides when, a few weeks later, each child received a reply from the man himself.

What else could I do? Had I told them the truth then that important information would have been shared at playgroup or school too. I was not willing to take responsibility for removing the magic from all those children’s lives. Perhaps more to the point, I was not willing to face the potential wrath of their parents.

When my elder son eventually asked outright if Santa existed I told him the truth and, as I had feared, he rightly accused me of lying to him. I felt dreadful. It is not the only time that I have fallen short of his good opinion, but I do not recall any other deliberate untruth that I have perpetuated.

On Day 4 of my countdown to Christmas then, I am feeling glad that I can now celebrate Christmas with my family without a pretence that I never felt comfortable with. I may be the only one in my family who still looks on this event as a birthday party for the son of God, but we exchange presents with each other out of love, not because a mythical stranger invades our home in the dead of night.

My daughter still remembers her little brother’s birth, probably her first real memory. I do wonder if witnessing the aftermath of that momentous but very real event has scarred her for life.

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December

And so it begins. December. Today we can open the first door on our advent calendar and start the countdown to Christmas. Light the advent candle, deck the halls.

Despite having an enjoyable and relaxing day with my family yesterday, I felt jittery. After a pleasant and easy dinner, just before we settled down together to watch a film, I had to control myself to prevent weeping. For no reason. Nothing had happened to upset me.

I am fighting to overcome the dread that has settled in the pit of my stomach, that threatens to wrap itself around my heart.

Yet this will not do. The festive season will not go away and I have a family who will want to enjoy the build up and the event itself. Much as I would like to hide under my duvet for the rest of the month, this is not an option.

I need to find strategies that will enable me to cope. Perhaps if I exhaust myself at the gym each day I will be able to sleep, an elusive activity when I feel anxious. Perhaps if I avoid all gatherings and instead head out into the countryside to enjoy the stark, cold beauty of this time of year I will find solace.

There is only so much that I can choose to eschew without causing offence. I have no wish to cast a shadow on the bonhomie of the season. I want to run away and hide but am aware that my absence would tarnish what is a happy time for others.

A season of joy has become a season of obligation. The enforced sociability, the expectation of gaiety has stripped my resoluteness to the quick. I wish joy to the world, goodwill to all men, as I fight to quell the rising panic in myself.

So much negativity.

Throughout this month, as I open each door on my advent calendar, I will seek out a reason why this season is good, a reason that will help me to get me through that day. It is the anticipation of what is to come that I fear, not what is happening today.

So, what can I find that is good today?

In my garden there is a small flock of hens who crowd around me the moment I step into their garden. They follow me to the shed for the handful of corn that they know I will scatter for them to enjoy. They find happiness scratching over an area of freshly dug soil.

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These creatures rely on me yet demand so little. They always make me smile with their funny little ways. They tolerate my hugs and welcome me, even if it is only for the food that I provide. Their presence will help me get through today.

The Best Christmas Ever

It is coming. I can duck, dive, weave and hide but I cannot avoid it. Yesterday, as I walked through our village to the gym, I saw the first decorations glittering outside a house. To misquote Eddard Stark, Christmas is coming.

I used to love this time of year. I would bake my huge fruit cake in October ready for the children to ice and decorate on Christmas Eve. Throughout November I would make copious present lists and place numerous online orders. I would write more cards than I needed to send; spend days composing and rewriting my annual update, carefully choosing photographs that I felt depicted each family member’s year. I enjoyed this preparation and looked forward with excited anticipation to the big event.

As the day approached there would be dinners out with friends, celebratory drinks and house parties to attend. I took pleasure in putting on my glad rags and heading out into the cold, dark night to drink and chat with my lovely friends. The children would take part in organised events at school and their various activity groups, bringing home goodie bags of sweets and small toys. It was a joyous time.

And then it all started to go wrong. Little things happened that took the shine off the anticipation. That general feeling of wellbeing and joy slowly dissipated. Friends fell out and would not accept an invitation if another was to be there; the children were less keen to partake in organised events; I was asked by one recipient of my annual update to please stop sending it. The relaxed, happy expectation leaked away to be replaced with stress and confusion. I found it harder to please even those I felt close to; I began to worry about everything.

But before all that, before I began to feel that I was a square peg in a round hole, sometime in between the joy that it had once been and the drudge that it is threatening to become, before it all started to go wrong for me, there was The Best Christmas Ever. For three days running I was as relaxed and happy as I believe it is possible to be.

It started on Christmas Eve, after a typically manic December. We closed the curtains to keep in the warmth, turned on the corny Christmas music and filled the oven with party snacks before starting the little family party that had, over time, developed into an annual ritual. It was a time together between the plethora of parties and socialising with others. The children were still young enough to enjoy the company and attention of their parents. We chatted and ate and messed around together before snuggling up on the sofa to watch a funny film. Afterwards I read aloud ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas  and we all settled down for our long winter’s nap to allow Santa to visit (we had been good, of course).

Christmas Day started early with much excitement as presents were opened and happiness reigned. This day was even more special than usual though; this was the only Christmas Day we have ever experienced when it was just the five of us.

With only us to please it had been agreed that we would forgo the big turkey dinner and let the children choose what we ate; they chose pizza. With only us to please there was no need to get dressed so we spent the entire day in pyjamas. With only us to please we could do what we wanted, when we wanted, so we spent the next two days watching the entire, extended edition of the director’s cut of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy on DVD. Each film was around four hours long but we still managed to watch loads of the extras as well. How they managed to film grown men alongside each other looking so wizard tall and hobbit small was impressive.

Between disk changes we would dash out to grab food from the fridge, refill drinks and take comfort breaks. Other than that we stayed sofa bound, in our pyjamas, with the curtains closed for the entire time. It was fabulous. I don’t believe I have ever felt so snug and happy as I did over those few days, alone with my family, eating what we wanted when we wanted, the rest of the world ignored.

It is not something that would be easy to repeat. My children have become less satisfied with me as they have grown older. I am no longer regarded as amusing, but rather foolish and behind the times. We can still spend time together and enjoy that time, but the underlying antipathy towards me from one teenage child or another rarely goes entirely.

Last year I tried to recapture the spirit of the season but it all went wrong. I tried to turn back the clock, but it cannot be done. For now, my wishes are no longer heard or are not regarded as important. My family have their own ideas about how they wish to celebrate, and much of what they do involves me only as a facilitator.

And so to this year. If we choose to have a cake it will be shop bought. Only my nearest and dearest feature on my very short present list; I have yet to place any orders. Cards will be sent to just a few people; I have not prepared a Christmas update and am undecided if it would be worthwhile. I have declined all invitations to outings; my children will organise for themselves any that they wish to attend.

The day will happen and I am steeling myself to cope with whatever expectations my family have. I will cook the big dinner if it is required and try to fit in around the plans that are now made without consultation. I will make the most of any moments when we can recapture the joy that can still be shared if the five of us choose to spend time together, but I will try not to expect such times to happen for fear of disappointment.

Last year I did not manage to get through the festive season unscathed and it took me many months to recover. This year I will be more aware of the catalysts that bring me down and work to manage them. There are some things in life that can neither be avoided nor changed and I must cope.

Alongside all of this I will hug the knowledge that we once enjoyed The Best Christmas Ever. I have that happy memory, and January brings a whole new year of opportunities to explore. Life moves on and, just as Christmas was once a time of joy, it may become so again. I will do my best to go with the flow and keep my head above water. Who knows, I may even find a new way in which I may celebrate that I can enjoy.

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