I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about this time. Nothing seemed to grab me. I have been in a kind of low place as I have a recurring pain in my neck that no one seems to be able to help alleviate. The doctor, the massage therapist and the physical therapist seem to keep trying things that don’t touch the pain. So with that on my mind and with the holidays approaching I have been at a loss. Not being able to do much physically due to the pain, I have been sitting with heat pads and ice packs and have had a lot of time to be inside my head. There are places I would rather be! I noticed that my emotions have been very tender of late. I hear a song and I start to tear up. I read an article in the newspaper about a kitten that followed a man walking his dog back to his house and the man took the kitten in and I lost it. A pattern was developing and I realized this has been happening more and more often in the last few months.
Everything seems to “touch” me more than it used to. I watch a movie and I better have tissues nearby because I know somewhere in the movie something is going to bring me to tears. I have always been a sensitive person and easy to express my feelings but this is something beyond that sensitivity. Maybe I am in a nostalgic period of my life where all these things take me back to positive memories from my childhood or from different events. I was thinking back today when I was an innkeeper and reminiscing about the good times and fun I had in that position and sure enough I began to cry. And it is a funny cry- I feel my face distort, the tears come and then disappear almost as quickly as they came.
Perhaps the approach of the holidays have brought me to this tender point. My daughter and I are going to a local restaurant for Thanksgiving. My son moved away recently and can’t make it back for the holiday. I was fine with it all until I began to reminisce about holidays in the past. They were filled with relatives, vast amounts of Italian food, noise, arguments, laughter- things I often dreaded at the time. But now I miss them terribly and sadness diminishes the memory. I love spending time with my daughter but it just isn’t the same anymore. I think she feels the same way although when they were kids they used to hate opening their Christmas gifts and then having to rush off to get to NYC in time for dinner with the family.
I also think the time change and the change in the weather have affected my outlook as well. The days have been gray and daylight is short and I can’t seem to muster up enthusiasm for much of anything. I know some people are affected by the lessening of daylight but that had never bothered me before. I suddenly understand why holidays can be very lonely times for people. Coming from a family that would have 14 or so people for Christmas dinner every year to just the 2 or 3 of us has been very difficult to accept. It is amplified by the holidays, I just wish I had a way to move passed it. Now with Christmas music everywhere it becomes difficult to escape. I am trapped in a world of happy holiday music and good cheer all around and I can’t appreciate it.
But in reality, the difficult realization is that I and my two kids are all that is left of my family and that leaves me with a very empty, and sometimes scared feeling in my heart. I guess I just have to accept the fact that my emotions are askew, and that I can be brought to tears in an instant, both wonderful things and sad things bring them on. Along with old age maybe more than just the body gets arthritis. Maybe I have arthritis of the emotions. I will survive, I will adjust and accept and conquer. But I probably will be brought to tears anytime I see something tender, hear or see something beautiful- yes, beauty does it to me as well! The last time I was in Italy in my grandfather’s village I walked into the little hotel and they were making sauce. The smell of that sauce brought me right back to my dad’s kitchen and, you guessed it, I began to cry!
A Rising Tide
They say a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s the same with emotion, which sort of wells up around the holidays and makes itself known in ways that George describes. No doubt most of us experience that bittersweet feeling of enjoying the present, while missing the past. Sometimes we are surprised by the strength of that feeling. The holiday season has so many strong associations that it is hard to simply remove yourself from cherished memories.
I confess to feeling blue around this time of year, missing my brother, mother, and father… and realizing that my kids are developing their own traditions independent from my wife and I. We are coming to grips with the fact that our time is passing and we are shifting into a less central role than we have played previously. In a way, this is welcome, because the ‘downshifting’ needs less energy. However, I don’t want the important people in my life — now gone — to be forgotten in the process of building those new traditions.
I’m moved by advice provided by a couple of smart individuals: Carl Jung and Erik Erikson. Jung talked about the importance of making myths and Erikson pointed to age-related challenges that must be addressed to remain psychologically healthy.
Jung has this mystic quality that is incorporated into his scheme of psychoanalytic thought. What I take from his writings is that it is important to stay in continuance with our past by reinforcing stories – or myths – that keep our history alive. My job is to retell – and maybe embellish – tales about my forebears to maintain the currency of those lost loved ones. Don’t we all do this? Friends get together and relive ‘war stories’ and old memories. We’re making myths – in a good way! I try to do that with my sons and grandsons. It honors those who have passed and gives me a role as a ‘creative historian’. Hopefully these myths provide significant life lessons as well as honoring people and times past. Erikson laid out a theory of developmental challenges as we grow. The generativity challenge has to do with a decision we make either to a) share our experiences and mentor others as we age or b) draw inward and focus on ourselves and our problems. Of course, we occasionally have a foot in both camps, but the latter choice tends to build a closed system over time. I’d rather acknowledge what I miss, take the best of it and reach out for new opportunities. Joni Mitchell sang “…something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day”. Synthesize and celebrate, my friends!
Deep Waters — Surface Emotions
I love George’s newly coined medical disease – arthritis of the emotions! Yup! I too, contracted the same condition over the last few years. However, my affliction is not necessarily triggered by only the holidays but seems to flare up on any given day, week, or season. Sensitivity to joy, sadness, love, or loss, evokes a deep connection to a feeling that often results in tears. Usually induced by a movie, I find my emotions, which have migrated to the surface over the years, release more readily and more frequently than before. And, interestingly, they are more prevalent around stories of extreme joy or love, or transformation than those of sadness or loss. I don’t know why.
The holidays for me have changed as both Wal and George have described. My mother, who was the focal point for our gatherings, is no longer with us and my siblings and children have their own families and friends and traditions. As a result, getting together for the holidays or birthdays is far less frequent. And, as a single man, sometimes I spend a holiday or birthday alone—except for Duke of course. At first I felt sorry for myself and drifted into places of sadness and questions of where I went wrong. But over time, I’ve recognized that spending time alone, holiday or not, does not represent who I am or how my life turned out. It’s simply a quiet time to rest, or read, or walk, or think, or watch one of those tear-producing movies. Someone once said to me that it was better to be alone with yourself, than feeling alone with a partner. I understand that difference and can now appreciate (most of the time) when I spend one of those days by myself without seeking to change it. Being alone doesn’t have to mean I’m lonely. However, when I do get to spend time with family and/or friends for a holiday, I truly enjoy the story telling that Wal referred to in his piece. When my sisters and I would spend time together, my mother seemed to be with us as we told story after story of experiences and events that made us laugh so hard that tears came to our eyes.