Ghost of Christmas Past

ghost

In the classic Dickens’ tale, “A Christmas Carol,” cantankerous old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited overnight by three spirits who help him remember the true meaning of the Yuletide season: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and my personal favourite since childhood, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

The worrier in me has always appreciated the notion of being shown a glimpse of the future. But in my story, rather than a fortune-telling entity from beyond, a memory appeared instead—my own Ghost of Christmas Past—and changed my anxious heart.

I crawled into December, distressed and depressed, but even more than that, I was starting to drive myself crazy with all my rules about what a “real” Christmas “should” include. It had been seven years since I’d last spent the holidays as a single mother, and I hadn’t counted on such intense Mom Guilt. It’s potent stuff.

Seven years doesn’t seem too long in hindsight, but even so, I must have forgotten how difficult it is to go through the holidays alone, because this Christmas caught me by surprise. I was totally unprepared for the unexpected, uncontrollable waves of grief, fear and anger, the painful and frustrating urge to overcompensate for what is legitimately beyond my control, and the unsettling impulse to achieve some sense of normalcy in the midst of divorce dysfunction through maintaining family traditions, many of which I can’t even afford anymore. It hit me really hard. I was a nervous wreck. My mind looped the same track, over and over:

 

Our family is broken. I’m falling apart and the tree looks bare compared to previous years because there aren’t as many gifts and I didn’t even have the time or patience to bake any shortbread cookies with the kids! I’m a terrible mother.

 

I declared myself the World’s Biggest Failure.

During a season specifically set aside for blessed moments of peace and joy, I couldn’t scrape together five minutes of peace, and joy? Joy came in short, spastic spurts, not unlike the frantic gasps for air from a panicked swimmer. It was never something solid I could grasp firmly and hold in my hands. A snotty, sputtering mess, I sobbed on the phone with my mom when we spoke on Tuesday afternoon. Bolted out of bed at six o’clock on Wednesday morning to vomit and barely held on by a thread throughout that night. But then, at some point on Thursday, while sitting alone in the office at my desk, moping, I remembered something I could hardly believe I’d overlooked.

Life could be, and has been, a helluva lot worse.

Ten years ago, my toddler son and I spent Christmas in a shelter for abused women and children. I’d just left an abusive boyfriend—the first man I’d dated since my marriage ended in domestic violence two years prior—who had physically assaulted me as my son looked on. There was nowhere else to go. Pregnant with my second child, broken down inside and terrified, I thought I’d been forsaken by love itself. But I was wrong. It took some time, but I finally realized that love, much like Dorothy Gale’s power in L. Frank Baum’s, “The Wizard of Oz,” had been there all along. Right inside of me. Love was, is, and always will be, the source of my power.

I was lucky to be where I was.

Shelters serve an extremely important purpose, beyond the obvious, although it doesn’t get discussed very much. I’d lost almost everything, for the second time in two years, and for the exact same reason. It was devastating on a number of levels, and I had some shit to sort out, you could say. I’d hit my rock bottom. And as much as I hated living there, for what it was and all it meant, I was smart enough to understand that it was the best place for us; not only the safest, but also the most supportive environment we could hope to inhabit while going through such transformation.

Nobody decides to work in a domestic violence shelter with abused women and children for the money. You can take that to the bank. Any person who chooses to give their lives to this kind of labour has been called—by their hearts, or their god, not their pocketbooks—to make a difference in the lives of others, even if it means slugging away most days for next to nothing, unappreciated and overworked.

I’ve witnessed the miracle.

I went into that shelter lost, afraid and uncertain of what the future held for my little family, and came out on the other side strong enough to find an apartment, provide for my kids, and build a good life. I leapt forward and never looked back.

It feels like forever ago.

It’s easy enough to “forget” those days now, to choose not to remember how tough the holidays were that year without a home of our own, how guilty and ashamed I felt to be in that situation, how few gifts I could afford for my child, and how difficult it was to live in a house with a dozen other women I didn’t know and their own distraught children, each one of us forced through fear to flee our homes. It was horribly traumatic. Maybe that’s why I don’t call it to mind very often. But looking back, I can see that it was not only painful, it was also an incredibly sacred time, a period of major transmutation, a necessary metamorphosis.

Much like the present moment.

Yes, life has been particularly brutiful lately, too many lows and so few highs.

But as hard as it is right now, my life has seen much tougher times, and I have an embarrassment of riches to be grateful for.

I am.

 

Our family has changed. I’m breaking open and life looks different than it did before but that’s how we find the hidden gifts and it doesn’t matter who baked cookies because we still got to eat some and they were delicious! I’m a wonderful mother.

 

Happy Holidays!

 

Divine Intervention

pleides

Just another silent night.

Pleiades, the sisters, hide

from sight, while I search for signs,

some divine intervention.

No pale moon peeks through the veil

of charcoal cloud tonight, yet

still I seek the stars. So far

all I’ve seen is an angel

made of gold wire, broken twine

and blue & white Christmas lights.

Home, in the distance, beckons

from afar, the only star

visible from where I stand.

I close my eyes.

Make wish.

 

 

 

*photo from wallpapercave.com

 

Death & the Afterlife

Life turned upside down a few months ago, flipped inside out and imploded, as it does on occasion. Total nightmare.

Oddly enough, when my world came undone, I was writing about seasonal triggers and the fact that I’m not a huge fan of October, its startling shock-of-blue sky and outrageously ostentatious trees, due to the fact that so many traumatic events have occurred in my life during that particular month. Call it prophecy, or even a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will—each makes for an interesting topic of conversation in its own right; either way, my essay heralded yet another disaster, which presented itself on the high heels of October’s habitually melodramatic arrival. So predictable. But despite the inevitable sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, the constant hypervigilance I always seem to experience at this time of year, I was still utterly, hopelessly unprepared. God help me.

‘Well, isn’t that just the way,’ my Grandma H. would say. I can almost hear it now.

Transformation often comes calling when I’m doing my best to avoid it. Change never seems to arrive when I’m on the ball, all jacked up and equipped like MacGyver, but instead, it usually appears when I’m hiding at the back of the closet, shaking in my boots behind moth-eaten coats, or in my ratty housecoat, obliviously watching old reruns of Three’s Company on the couch with my good buddies, Ben & Jerry. And while it may knock gently at first, much like the Big Bad Wolf of the Three Little Pigs fame, change doesn’t typically wait too long before it huffs and puffs, and blows the whole house down…

Miraculously, I managed to crawl through the remaining weeks on scraped hands and bloody knees, until I reached the other side of October. Unfortunately, I’d survived only to be blindsided by another seismic shift a few weeks later. The earth trembled beneath my feet. Hurricane force winds of change blasted through my life with such magnitude, the air was sucked out of my lungs, and for days, I couldn’t breathe. Roots shaken, I was forced to bend so far, in every possible direction, I thought I’d break.

“I’m not bamboo, dammit, I’m a human being!” I screamed at the universe.

I had no idea how much more I could take, but I knew it wasn’t a lot, because every day, waking up to face another sunrise, I could hardly believe I was still here. It felt like death, and in a way, I suppose it was. A part of me had to die, so that a truer, more authentic part of me could finally begin to live. And here we are, at last, ready to confront the purple elephant in the room.

What happened?

But it’s not really about what happened (death), in my opinion, what’s most important is what came next (the afterlife), and since this is my story, I get to tell it however I like. So, anyways, I died—figuratively speaking—and after that, everything fell apart for a bit, as you might expect. I stopped going to class, couldn’t eat or sleep, and most days, didn’t even bother to get dressed or brush my teeth before I took the kids to school. Apparently, the dead have no pride.

Honestly, life just seemed far more bearable when I had some peace and quiet, coziness, warmth, and soft, comfortable things against my skin: my starry sky flannel pajamas, a divorce hoodie sent from a new friend, an old pair of yoga pants. The rest simply required more effort than I was able to muster. I walked a dark, lonely road at the edge of an overgrown forest, and although sensed a light in the distance, it was pitch-black where I stood. Couldn’t even see my hands in front of face, let alone two steps ahead, as I stumbled blindly into unfamiliar territory, ready to take my chances. Sometimes the unknown is better than the devil you know.

There were many moments I wanted to quit, stop moving forward, and just sit by the swamp of sadness until it pulled me under. But I refused to give up. Through was the only way out.

“The best way out is always through.”

Robert Frost

It’s taken time to dig my way out of the wreckage and build a new normal.

In the beginning, for days on end, I paced the rooms of my suddenly-too-big house, moving this or that. Scrolled social media incessantly, searching for something… I still haven’t figured out what it was. Wandered the empty beach alone. Ate too much junk food. Soaked my sorrows in a scorching hot tub, lathered my body in lotions fragrant with essential oils, and bundled up in blankets to watch sappy movies with my dog, who nuzzled my ears as I bawled into her fur.

I snuggled with my children, took time to breathe, and slowly settled into a new way of being in the world. I sat with an overwhelming sense of grief and loss, though I desperately ached to run from it, and for the first time ever, in the History of Me, I understood that the fires of pain had a purpose, not unlike fire-fallow cultivation, a slash-and-burn agricultural technique used to clear land for new growth. On a deeply personal level, I experienced a similar process of ground-clearing, cultivation for new life.

I welcomed it. Watched orange flames burn the old away. Exhaled.

Ah, quietness.

When it was over, I leaned into the stillness, and just listened. Tuned out external voices and tuned in to the perfect rhythm of my strong heart beating in my chest. Every day, even if it seemed next to impossible, I found something to delight in, because when it hurts, the best medicine is joy. Joy opens the door to gratitude, and gratitude is a direct path to love, healing, and abundance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not happy-go-lucky in the face of chaos by any stretch of the imagination, and there have been many times I have felt terribly ill-equipped to handle the challenges before me, particularly recently. I think it’s normal. Any death is brutal. But in the afterlife, among the ruins and devastation, the little things have given me a reason to carry on, filled my soul, and kept hope alive.

On the last full moon before Christmas Day, November’s Mourning Moon, I stood outside and performed a private ritual under the stars. Ritual is important, because it adds power and gives meaning to significant occasions in our lives, and in this case, it really seemed to matter. I wrote down a list of what I intended to release and let it dissolve in a glass of water drenched in moonlight. I let go. And since that night, the light at the end of this long, gloomy road has gotten brighter. I’m almost there.

I have nearly reached the other side.

*

Inside this new love, die.

Your way begins on the other side.

Become the sky.

Take an axe to the prison wall.

Escape.

Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.

Do it now.

You’re covered with thick clouds.

Slide out the side. Die,

and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign

that you’ve died.

Your old life was a frantic running

from silence.

The speechless full moon

comes out now.

 

“Quietness,” by Rumi (Translated by Coleman Barks)

*

For My Trail Angels:

Besides the regular conversations my tribe lovingly accepted as par for the course lately, which have basically saved me, nearly every other day, a friend or neighbor has also gone the extra mile to remind me I am seen, loved, and never alone. My beloved trail angels. In her inspirational and highly acclaimed memoir, “Girl in the Woods,” Aspen Matis describes trail angels, kindred souls who leave goodies, such as bags of fresh fruit and jugs of clean water, along the path for through-hikers (another trail term for those who travel the entire length of the PCT). In my own life’s journey, I’ve met my fair share of trail angels, people who kept me going strong along the way through their generous gifts of love…

I hope every single one know how truly grateful, and deeply honoured, I am.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.