It’s not you, it’s me (Crow’s Feet Writing Prompt #22)
Tech bloggers and Instagram fanatics tell me that the Christmas letter is, like, “so over.” A quaint, antiquated, useless custom. Or worse yet, déclassé. They use phrases like “back in the day” or “retro,” and they don’t mean charming or hip. They imply that my holiday letters will go the way of polyester leisure suits or the Bumpit — straight to the I-can’t-believe-we-ever-did-that bin.
Yesterday, in the midst of putting out my annual letter, writing notes on cards, licking envelopes and correcting labels, I asked myself, “Okay. Why? Every year it’s the same thing. Why do you do this to yourself? You could be spending your time finishing up that alpaca scarf or watching reruns of The Bishop’s Wife — time honored holiday customs. But no, here you are again, writing and stamping and checking your watch. It’s late. You’re tired. Is this really *&$#ing worth it?”
From the foggy, all-but-atrophied holiday area of my brain came a resounding, “Yes!” And then, “No more questions. Leave me alone to finish my cards.”
Why DO I do this to myself? Most of my friends send blanket Facebook greetings, or, more commonly, nothing. There are a few diehards like myself who send cute cards or a family photo. A couple of them even include a holiday letter. But no one expects it anymore. Printing out letters isn’t “green.” Writing one that doesn’t put people instantly to sleep takes effort. Who really cares?
Answer: I do.
In 1980 I moved halfway across the country from New York to Minnesota. Six months pregnant, newly married, and desperately lonely. By Christmas, I had a month-old colicky daughter, a C-section scar, and no visible friends. Looking out my apartment window into a frigid St. Paul afternoon I needed perspective; I needed companionship; I needed to write.
When my daughter found enough comfort to fall asleep, I opened a box of Christmas cards and started writing. I think I sent about twenty cards that year, and every one of them contained some version of my hand-written tale of hospitals, diapers, gratitude and hope. With each one I felt a little better. A little less alone.
It took me three days to finish those twenty cards — frequent interruptions to breastfeed, marvel at the perfect child in my lap, and turn up the thermostat slowed the process to a disjointed crawl. But I finished them. I enclosed a picture of my daughter in most of them. Mailed them. Rested in the comfort of having connected to the people I sorely missed.
Since that year I have looked forward to writing my Christmas letter as a sacred rite of winter. Like the solstice or the New Year, it is a tiny hatch mark on my timeline. Subsequent letters were written by hand and Xeroxed, then on a typewriter, then on various computers. I abandoned the card-by-card sagas in order to tell a larger story to everyone: We’re here; we’re fine; we miss you; we love you.
There were some years that weren’t really so fine — when it was hard to write. Could I really stand to hear about other people’s children headed for Stanford when my own daughter had spent a night in juvie? How do you tell people you’ve left your husband for the love of your life without seeming like a selfish gadfly? Will anyone care about these things? And who will want to know that my daughters have turned into glorious young women with lives and families of their own?
Answer again: I will.
As I sat down to write the holiday letter this year I recognized that I write it for myself. I realized that it probably goes directly into some recycle piles. But I also knew that it gets passed to others and read aloud. I knew that people would laugh at the funny parts and understand the hard parts without having to suffer all the details. Over the years friends have told me, “Yours is the letter I wait for every year.” Or, “I loved that part about your dad being the ‘hydro-engineer’ when he waters your garden.” Or, “That picture of you with the girls is tucked into my Bible to remind me to pray for you.”
When I revisit letters from previous years, I read between the lines. Like photos of a vacation when everyone fights between stops, but smiles for the camera, it looks a little happier than it actually was. But that is the privilege of the artist, isn’t it? To decide which details to magnify, which to delete. The final product reveals what the creator wants to share, nothing more or less.
And what I realize most of all is how much I still need to do this. I need to sit down and capture twelve months of drama and calm. I need to draw the whole crazy picture and then use literary Photoshop to soften the edges, color up the good parts, and sharpen the focus on what matters most. By the time I’m done, I don’t need a dorky Christmas movie to remind me how very lucky I am to have such riches to describe. In the end, I have an elegant snapshot of my life and year. A colorful synopsis of mishaps and blessings; details and impressions. I have the chapters of a life, one December at a time.
These cards, then, are my tidings of comfort and joy. I send them out like little reindeer notes in bottles. Some of them will wash up on shores to be read and cherished. Some will be so much holiday flotsam in people’s mailboxes. I don’t concern myself with their fate.
What washes back in the wintry surf is a feeling of completion. The writing itself brings me hope, perspective, and what the holidays are supposed to deliver to every one of us: