“What are you doing for the holidays?” This common, innocent question is a social staple this time of year. However, my answers aren’t what people expect.
“Staying home,” I say.
Occasionally, there is an invitation attached, one that I kindly decline. Sometimes there’s prying, which, depending on my mood, I handle with varying degrees of grace.
I spend the holidays alone. On purpose. It started with Thanksgiving, but over the years my abstention from mainstream festivities spread to New Year’s Eve, the 4th of July, and, yes, even Christmas.
It began innocently enough. I was living in New York and flying “home” to Kansas City for major holidays. The airports were crowded with angry, impatient people, the planes were packed, and the weather was almost always a threat to cancel the whole thing. By the time I landed, I was in no mood to be in anyone’s company, much less with my family.
The first year I used my struggling finances as the excuse for missing Thanksgiving.
“It’s just this once, Mom. Don’t worry.”
I don’t remember what I did that year, I just remember realizing I liked it, even if I couldn’t put my finger on why.
Like most former Midwesterners, I suffer from Midwestern guilt. This guilt, much like Catholic or Jewish guilt, comes from leaving your family behind, abandoning them to unknown depths of loneliness, sad calls, tears at the airport, and heavy sighs when you mention your independent plans. When the guilt strikes me, I always hear Lyle Lovett’s "Baltimore" in my head. Great song, terrible feeling.
I wanted to “do right” by my family, especially my mother and sister. To say I didn’t have the happiest childhood would be a gross understatement. I still think of Francine Hughes’ ultimate act in “The Burning Bed” as a happy ending. We were survivors, in part because we stuck together, so I struggled with unsticking myself. Who was I to deserve to leave? What made me so special?
After many years of excuses, my mom finally got it –- I wasn’t coming home for Thanksgiving. Over time, I realized that if I did something a few times in a row she considered it a new tradition, but if I broke the newly established pattern then the outcome was back in question. I needed to commit to it, and I did. I haven’t spent Thanksgiving in Kansas City for more than 15 years.
Christmas was another matter. It was sacred. Not because we were a religious family, but because there was so much planning and saving –- and spending -– involved to make it the event of the year. Growing up, we didn’t get many presents. We simply couldn’t afford them. The two great exceptions were your birthday and Christmas. Christmas was Everything.
The first time I missed Christmas, I was 28 and only missed it because I was in the Peace Corps and returning wasn’t an option. Even then, I spent it with my host family, melding into their traditions.
I never envisioned spending Christmas alone, but then I returned to the States. I moved to Chicago, a city with even crazier weather than New York. One year, I was set to fly out December 23, but Mother Nature had other plans. Within a few hours of my scheduled takeoff, a heavy fog descended upon Chicago; the fog was so thick you could barely see across the street. Flight canceled. Next available flight: December 28.
There I was, alone in a city I barely knew. No plans. No nearby relatives. Completely solo.
Though I felt a bit lost, I quickly improvised. I stopped by a bookstore (remember those?!) where I bought the biggest interesting book I could find. My plan was simple: eat, read, drink tea, repeat. I was looking to ignore the fact that I was missing the cornerstone of my family’s traditions. What’s better than a book for tuning out the world?
By the end of Christmas Day, not only did I not feel depressed and lonely, I felt an amazing sense of inner peace. I had done it. I broke the Thing That Must Never Be Broken. I was truly, utterly free. It wasn’t just the absence of drama and obligation, but the unexpected presence of empowerment, self-definition and uninterrupted solitude.
Truthfully, I’ve never been a holiday person. I don’t remember liking fireworks, and I once asked my mom if we could skip the Halloween costume and just spend that money on candy. Even as a child, I was all about efficiency.
I don’t particularly enjoy surprises, intensity, or large noisy crowds. I like quiet. I like to learn and think and have real conversations. And laugh. I love to laugh. I’m a one-on-one person mainly, but I’m also someone who really loves being alone. I don’t just endure it. I yearn for it.
Traditional holiday gatherings never gave me what I craved. They left me exhausted, stressed, and disconnected. I never recognized what that emotional rawness was until I stopped experiencing it and started creating something better. Something peaceful, fulfilling, and –- for me -– whole.
I don’t do the same thing every year. Sometimes I read a meaty book cover to cover ("Seven Types of Ambiguity" and "Freedom" were both great for that), sometimes I just lounge around all day, sometimes I have company and cook, and sometimes I dedicate myself to a project that I never seem to have time to complete. It’s my day. My inability to engage in errand running keeps me from personally violating the day’s sacredness, and everyone else is occupied with their own activities, which further protects my space.
It’s been several years since I’ve visited my family for any holiday. My mom no longer asks if I’m “coming home.” She’ll ask what I intend to do and when I tell her she laughs. I asked her once if it bothered her and she said, “It would if I didn’t know it makes you happy and is exactly what you want to do.” When I talked to my sister about it recently, she expressed disappointment, but admitted she might do the same if it weren’t for her own children.
I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to uphold the traditions that held our very fragile family together, even when doing so was at my own expense. Over time, I learned that my biggest supporters wanted me to have the same support and protection I wanted for them. They wanted me to be happy and at peace, even if that meant being apart.
It’s good to be home, no quotation marks needed.