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The holidays can be tough enough. Throw in a case of the flu and the challenge becomes more…interesting. Interesting—a nice word for it.
Christmas retreated from my catalog of enthusiasms a number of years ago. In the bad, long-term relationship that I wasn’t self-possessed enough to escape, I adopted a smiling, benign indifference to it. Safer that way. In the years since, I’ve used the cherished silence of the house to let words find me; in the vacation week between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve braved the chill in long, thoughtful walks on the goes-nowhere road outside and let the universe find me. Days were filled with the page; nights, with the thought of the page. The hours were full.
Not this year.
Being between books is hard. Being beset by the challenge-to-confidence that is the search for an agent makes everything harder. Keeping one’s emotional balance is a difficult thing when the winter silence is silence only. Then, enter the flu.
The 900-mile drive to the house was almost alarmingly easy, even after a 4 a.m. departure. No visits from the Muses during the long drive…but never mind. By the time I’d arrived and unpacked, the illness set in for real: the body-twisting cough, the hammering exhaustion, the Niagara of sinus.
Keeping one’s heart open to creativity is pretty impossible when you’re sleeping 18 hours a day. So be it. Job One is the dutiful avoidance of self-pity. Exist to get well—fair enough. Do the dishes five at a time, the length of time one can stay upright. Read. Indulge in movies that take little attention. The other stuff, the good stuff, the stuff that takes psychic strength and confidence…the reassurances that yes, you are a real writer and, yes, it’s just a matter of time and added effort until an agent finds you and your friends actually get around to reading what you’ve written and, yes, the story is in there even if it’s hiding…those understandings will just have to wait until you’re well.
When you’re sick, the darkness lets the black dog in. The holiday is a festival of expected happiness and the promiscuous see-what-a-wonderful-life-I-have celebrations of others. The night is not Possibility, it’s just night. The silence is just silence. The blessed, glorious week of solitude is an hourglass of lost minutes. And that damned, ever-present self doubt, that knowledge of the too-thin veil that lay between you and the big, empty, indifferent world: That, my dear ones, is the very real wolf at the door.
So, here is the list of tasks at hand. One: Get strength back. Two: Find the joy that’s so clearly around you—the peeks of sun on grey days, the birds in the back yard, the eagles circling behind the house. Three: Get back on the horse. Write those letters. Transcribe those notes. Pet a cat. And four: Kick the black dog out into the darkness from which he came. You can’t overcome a feeling by pretending it doesn’t exist. Feel it, face it, move on. We are not held hostage by truth: The door is right there, and the key has been in our hand all along.
I am not talking to me.
The current chapter is a puzzle of notes, its pieces laid end to end in their approximate fit. But the pieces won’t come together. Concentration is a casualty of the season.
The agency’s business picks up precipitously at this time of year. I come home from work tired, without an extra ounce of brain power to spare. As for the rest of my condition of blotto-brain, the holidays are to blame. And not.
My packages have long been chosen, wrapped and mailed away. The pet-sitter has been contacted. For the rest, I am victim of my ever-habit—to be always where I will be next, not where I am now. A flight to the UK is just days away. So my brain is there. There’s packing to do. Straightening, vacuuming, litter-box cleaning. Tired nights don’t give writing much runway to sail imagination into the air.
In writerly terms, my inner Santa is stuck in the chimney. My personal carolers are flat. My dreidel won’t spin. I’m not writing.
I’m trying to, believe me. I’m trying to think. I write paragraphs, write them differently and read them indifferently. I just don’t have the steam to care much. The days of being swept away with excitement have become casualties of the season, erased from my personal holiday wish list a until I return.
I’ll deal with it.
Pining is good for one’s character.
Happy Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/Hogmanay/Eid-al-Adha/Pancha Ganapati/Winter Solstice (Choose One):
Let us speak frankly, shall we? There are a number of gifts that, as a writer, I would not like to receive this holiday season; gifts that I would be certain to return. They are gifts of monumental cost, yet they are not to be found in any store. They are not givable to me by anybody but me. Thank the stars.
The list, here…
• Suffering/Anguish. I already have far too much of both. I don’t need any more at the moment. Thank you.
• Self-criticism. This is the bad holiday carol that gets sung over and over. It’s the same old song. Heard enough of it. Move on.
• Neediness. It comes in only one size: Too Big. It doesn’t fit me comfortably. It never will.
• Envy. Green is just not my color. Sorry.
• Indecision. Still unspooling this massive gift from last year. There’s no end to it.
• The Pity-party. Been there. Didn’t enjoy myself. If I am in bad company in this party-of-me, I’d like to sit this one out this year.
• Defeatism. The Trojan Horse of the writer’s holiday. It always comes gift-wrapped, looking like something else. Unwrapped, it stinks like a dead fish. I won’t be home for the delivery. Apologies.
• Ego. The temptation to a second helping is almost irresistible. But on the holidays, as all year long, excess-in-moderation is the Tao for me.
To all of you who have the same excess baggage to haul through the airport this holiday season, these are my wishes for you: I wish you contentments—even temporary ones. I wish you joy in small moments. I wish you satisfaction from all your hard work. I wish you success…in whatever way you define it. I send you cheer and blessings, and easy going on the impossible path you’ve set yourself to walk.
And most of all, I wish you the gift of ready words: The one I know you’ll never take back to the store.
[And a special shout-out to my friend Rob—a Santa of the soul, all year long—for letting me use his photo.]