At least my brother was honest when he announced at the beginning of his Christmas letter, “This is the last year I’m writing one of these.” I had been thinking about mine for weeks, waiting for the moment of inspiration. That moment didn’t come. Instead (and before I could feel guilty about not sending a letter), I went online and created a photo card using four images I uploaded from my phone. Two hours later, my order was ready for pick-up.
Still, photo cards don’t tell the whole story. As a carefully curated version of the past 12 months, maybe they aren’t supposed to. They tend to feature the bright and happy faces and leave out the messy rest. Only one Christmas letter that I receive each year dares both. I’m always cautious when I open it up, always grateful when I’ve finished reading. Yes, the letter includes updates on their children and grandchildren, all doing well. But it also recounts the incredible bad luck (for that is what it seems) of a friend who, following a “simple” fall off the deck, has had one health setback after another. I read it and weep, yet am also reminded of the absolute fragility of life and the importance of celebrating all that we have, while we have it. Here is a woman who built playgrounds in Cuba long before the country was open to commercial travelers. A woman who has been a political force in her city and an advocate for justice through her church. A woman who now hangs on to life and hope in spite of overwhelming challenges.
When I refreshed my browser (read: searched my memory), I discovered a number of things that didn’t make it into my photo card. So here’s the unedited version of my year in review, the letter never sent.
In September the word “woke” was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. With roots in the dialect known as African American Vernacular English, the word has moved from urban slang to the mainstream. It means “awake,” and refers to a newly gained state of social awareness. I participated in the Women’s March of Minnesota last January 21. I walked from the grounds of St. Paul College to the State Capitol with 100,000 other people. It was my first publicly political act in years. It felt good. It felt necessary. It felt long overdue. I was woke to becoming a better informed citizen. I was woke to finding ways to stand up for the common good.
Lost and Found
On February 28, my beloved golden retriever Indie died of splenetic cancer. I know something about loss and grief, but I was unprepared for the aftermath of his death. I expected the tears, the sorrow, the twist in my gut when I saw another retriever on my walks. But I’d forgotten the chasm that opens up. I’d lost sight of the hole that loss of a loved one leaves in your heart, a hole that doesn’t close. Most days I write, often about the very people who have gone before me. That keeps them present during those few hours, but doesn’t fill the quiet of the house. And so I’ve begun to foster dogs that have been rescued or surrendered and help find them permanent homes. I had the extreme good fortune to foster a dog from Turkey that was identified in her passport as a golden retriever. A DNA test revealed she was predominantly Akbash, an ancient breed from the Mediterranean used to guard livestock. She was a beauty. “Isn’t it hard to get attached and then have to give them up?” people asked. Of course it is. But we can’t stop loving. And we can’t stop losing those we love. Poet Mary Oliver said it best. “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” (from “In Blackwater Woods”)
For about 3 minutes, depending on how close you were to the path of totality, the sun disappeared on August 21. A deep shadow fell across the land. Getting older is a bit like being eclipsed. A friend approaching 70 confessed, “I feel invisible.” As if her light, which still shines brightly, is being snuffed out or covered up by some dark force we call aging. Another woman who leads a vibrant life from a wheelchair spoke of how she is ignored when she goes out. “People don’t see me,” she complained. Who of us among the silver sneaker set hasn’t felt this, even once? We’re too gray, too slow, and mostly irrelevant. Our theme song might well be, “I’m mortal, invisible, God only knows.” Not to worry. There’s plenty to do while being eclipsed. We can busy ourselves with death cleaning, the Swedish practice of purging your belongings before you die, especially of items you’d rather not have your loved ones see. We can prepare to have “the talk” with our family about what they need to know when we die. I think I’d rather watch the eclipse than be one.
This past year I’ve worked through a revision of my memoir, feeling incrementally closer to telling the story that wants to be told. I’ve been honestly shocked at how hard it has been to write, only to realize that a lifetime of silence may have something to do with my struggle. So I feel particular empathy for the women who are coming forward and sharing their stories of sexual harassment and abuse, some after 30 years. I understand their silence. I also understand the courage it takes to break the spell of guilt and shame and fear in order to speak about the painful past. Distance swimmer Diana Nyad said in an interview, “I’m angrier at being silenced than being touched.” Our culture, our families, our workplaces and places of worship have perpetuated a “don’t tell” code of conduct. Here’s to more women breaking their personal silence and claiming their voice.
Get Over It
Change is in the air—this year, this holiday season, and the year ahead. When my son Andrew got married in May, I celebrated his union to a wonderful woman. I also had to accept that I was no longer the most important woman in his life. Yet when we talk, and even when we don’t, I know I’ll always be his mom.
For the first time, I am not hosting Christmas Eve but will join my daughter and family Christmas morning to witness the holy chaos of an almost 4-year-old and 2-1/2-year old tear into packages. At first, I was stunned. What, not plan a big dinner, bake too much, clean, and run endless errands? Then I got used to the idea. Very used to this change. When nap time rolls around on Dec. 25, I will go home to a clean, quiet house and be glad that the next generation is carrying the torch and doing it so well. Let them direct and produce the festivities; I’ll be happy to show up with a side dish. Best Christmas gift ever!
As for the future, next year I turn 65, go onto Medicare, and make my last mortgage payment. It’s gotta be better than 2017, right?