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.
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.