The most something time of year.
I’d have thought by now I’d be writing about leaning into holiday cheer – my love of kitschy decorations, salt dough ornaments, or gingerbread houses that have had all the candy gnawed off. But this is not that post. This has not entirely been that kind of December.
This post is about darker Decembers. Those years you have to dig down deeper for the kernels of joy that keep you going.
In 2004, my older brother, Craig, died unexpectedly on December 23rd. He was 21 years old. There’s so much I could say about who he was, but it feels insufficient, a betrayal to his memory to distill him down into whatever that would make him to you, a person who probably never knew him. He was a computer nerd. He was a little boy who loved lighthouses. He was prescribed Oxycontin.
He was, at the time of his death, possibly the person I’d spent more time with than anyone in the world. Taking baths together. Fighting over the computer. Taking the Acela train together back from New York.
But none of those details really showcase his spirit. They don’t begin to encompass what we’d lost.
By now, we’ve weathered many holidays without him. The first ones are so impossible, and then bit by bit you find your way back to joy. It’s like buying your favorite candy after they’ve changed the ingredients. Still sweet but never quite the same. Life happens and you’re forced to move on.
I’ve been lucky since 2004. I met my husband. Had two of the best kids in the world. Decembers got brighter again.
And this year, it feels as though the pendulum is swinging back around. My cousin Joe is in the hospital. I won’t pretend to know what’s in store for him, but, emotionally, my family has been brought back to December 2004, back to the day when this same cousin held me as we discovered my brother was gone.
I’m back now, in the coastal town where my family lives. Winter in Massachusetts can be bleak, depressing, freezing as fuck. But it’s nice to be by the ocean, where there’s beauty in the harshness of nature.
This town has a handful of beaches. And there are hidden coves, recesses in the cliffs, places you’ll find if you scramble over the rocks, sneaking past “private property” signs. Yesterday I passed one of those secret spots, not visible from the road, where sometime, a decade or so ago, my cousin and I discovered a big piece of driftwood.
It caught my eye, something about it seemed so perfectly weathered. And Joe got carried away with me. I don’t know whose idea it was. We lugged that heavy piece of wood up to the road. Joe got his dad’s pickup truck and we brought it to their basement. He helped me cut it down the middle with their terrifying table saw.
Even my uncle thought it was a good piece of wood. Pine, he thought. And he had the brilliant idea to fold the top half of the wood over onto the bottom, to make it like a mantle. I brought it back to New York and secured it together. And I’ve hung that driftwood on my wall, in every place I’ve lived since, as ridiculously cumbersome as it is to pile into moving trucks. Even though it’s wonky, and doesn’t have a flat surface to put things on, it’s perfect and it’s mine.
I’m glad Joe and I were wandering aimlessly that day. Taking random turns into the debris-strewn corner of the rocks. I guess that’s what you do with cousins. With brothers and sisters. Get down into the dark places just because you’re there together.
For many, the winter solstice is a celebration of the return of the light after the shortest day of the year. And our Christmas traditions are rooted in those nature-based, Pagan traditions. Though the origins are diluted, the acts of getting a tree, lighting a candle, are really pointing us back to the land, to the stars, to the cycles of life and death that surround us.
I often lean into holiday traditions zestfully, with the knowing that there will be years when you can’t find any joy in them, and you might as well take it where you can. But this year, I’m a little less interested in the pulling out of the same old boxes. And I’m more inspired by the left turns.
My sister and I came home this week. My cousins and family dropped what they were doing to have a meal together last night, on a random Wednesday in December, and laugh as hard as we’ve ever laughed before. Not because it’s Christmas. But just because we’re here and we need this.
Sometimes you find your way back, with no lighthouse to guide you. There’s no recipe to hand down, no perfect present to make it all seem right. There’s just the light within you and the people you love. The light that all the wreaths, and symbols, and gestures were trying to point you back to all along.
That is enough. And maybe, when I get back home, if I’m feeling it, we’ll decorate some cookies with the kids or go look at Christmas lights. Not because it’s what you’re supposed do. But because even though we’re weathered and beaten, we’re here, cycling back around. And we know we’re so lucky in that.
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