Holiday Survival Guide, Intro
There you are. Walking down the street on November 1st, 2012, trying to decide which flavor of fro-yo you’d like. Red velvet cake batter, or the plain and plainly sinful vanilla bean. At the moment, since you can’t have gluten, you lean toward the former. What better substitute for the batter shots you used to down when the grown ups weren’t looking, than a dairylicious snack that’ll have you farting like a mad cow for the rest of the evening?
As you approach the entrance of the fro-yo shop, a large group exits. You’re instantly distracted by the fact that they’re all wearing Hello Kitty t-shirts–and further concerned that this damn Kitty has no mouth, so how does she tell the Tom Cats to back the fuck off when she’s out at the Shitty Kitty Bar on Saturday nights? And then it happens.
An angry glint of red flashes to the far right. You look fast–worried there’s a fire–and instead find a giant present topped with a bow straight from an eighties prom. Shit. Halloween ended barely twelve hours ago and faster than the GOP can say “no exceptions for rape or incest,” Santa’s taken over.
Mannequin families cluster in every window, their eyes less animated than the walking dead, smiles whittled and pained as those starving Bratz dolls. Cemented to their hands are whatever holiday present you should buy your family in order to truly be like a family, to feel like a family, at this time of year that’s all about family.
All right, all right. I realize that first section is all angsty. But don’t worry. I’m not here to be a coal-hearted deconstructionist Scrooge. I too love spending money I don’t have on shiny things that distract me from drone strikes and photos of dead Palestinian children and the long list of victims to be read at tomorrow’s Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Just a few weeks ago in early November my partner returned from a three-day conference to find me cleaning the house nude, belting Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas (Is You).” (Note: be wary of using a spray bottle of bleach as a microphone.)
I followed this classic holiday hit with Ms. Carey’s lively gospel rendition of “Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child.” Now, in case you’ve never witnessed such an event, few things are more Christmas festive than a hobbit-looking gay fella prancing around the house wailing “Jesus! Jesus! Je-je-je-je-je-jesus!”–actually keeping up vocally cause he’s that kind of stereotype-in-real-life homo who worshipped Ms. Houston as a child in his lonely, snowy white town where the best way to keep warm was to sing radio songs that called his soul, songs that were rarely sung by white folks like him.
When we time warped back an hour this year, I immediately dumped the best of the Christmas crooners onto my iPod: Aaron Neville, Mariah Carey, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Sarah McLachlan. 98 Degrees. (Oh please. Like you don’t have some spray-tanned boy band blowing up your earbuds from time to time. And don’t hate them without listening: their version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is a capella and tight!)
At approximately 6 AM the day after Thanksgiving, you’ll find me pulling out my sparkly lights, jingle bells, christmas tree, and beloved manger. The last of these I’ll set up first–the figures arranged delicately, so Joseph and Mary gaze warmly down at a Jesus I think had no more divinity than you or I (which is to say, a lot).
I’ll feel relief that, aside from Joseph’s beard (which could be home grown, or the patted-on stubble of a sexy, no-hormones trans man)–there’s nothing to indicate the sex or gender of each parent. I mean, sure, in the original story, we all know Mary is supposed to be the biological mother of Jesus. She went through the hard and blessed labor so many female-bodied folks do in order to share this world with a new tiny being who’ll grow up way too fast, then walk out onto the troubled waters of the world, becoming a beacon of critical thought and caring and compassion and connection (hopefully). And Amen to that!
But these days, we all know parenting is about much more than the biological bond–much more than what lies between the legs of a caregiver, or what hormone levels course through her or his or hir brain. And while some will say “there’s no denying biology”–there’s one thing biology cannot magically provide, no matter the increased levels of oxytocin flowing through the birth mother’s (and also birth father’s) brain. This one thing not guaranteed by biology? Loving familial proximity.
Just because we’re born, just because we are prepared for pre-natally–to whatever extent–doesn’t mean we are born into love. Trouble is, without the loving proximity of at least one person, we mammals don’t thrive, let alone survive.
Given this, it’s a problem that this season pivots so delicately on the plastic, polished lie that loving proximity is as easily assembled as mannequins–or as an Old Navy photo shoot featuring a woman, a man, and a child with similar facial features.
Tis the season for people to walk around moon-eyed, speaking about family of origin as though the instinctive, collective action during this time of “joy” is to rush into their close proximity in order to experience a love that is big and warm and predictable and, for some, actually loving.
Little do these people know how many of us have instincts rightfully honed by intense experiences of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, financial, spiritual–any combination of these)–that keep us as far away from our families of origin as possible. Where do we find ourselves during this season of purported forgiveness and reconciliation–when the mere mention of family can trigger deeply embedded experiences of defense and protection, and resentment of those who have loving families?
What would happen if we actually showed up on our parents’ doorsteps–with our same-sex partners, without the child we opted to abort… with an increasingly healed heart able to speak out and set limits against abusive behaviors, without the husband/wife we are constantly nagged to find to be “complete”?
What would happen if we knocked on that door–with our long CV of esteemed published articles and books in hand but absent a child, with or without the weight we were supposed to lose or gain… with our non-Western, non-dual, non-fundamentalist beliefs about the world… with our partner of differing ethnicity and religious background, without a ten year plan–what then?
Where’s THAT holiday TV special?
The truth is that many of us have been cast out of our families of origin (whether adoptive or biological) because we chose to move in the direction of holistic integration–by honestly naming our individual and authentic experiences of sexuality, gender, religion, politics, American history, embodiment, etc. We just happen to see things differently than those who raised us, those who–despite histories of offering somewhat loving proximity–now offer callous judgment, fundamentalist religious abuse… you name it.
Often these folks who raised us want to put aside our differences during this time of year, so everyone can get along. How odd then, that “putting aside our differences” often means only putting aside our own–never theirs. Don’t bring your gay partner, and/or partner of a different race and/or different religion with you. Don’t bring that CV to share. Lie about dating around in pursuit of marriage. Hold the secret of your abortion/family planning in your heart. And so on.
We all have a choice about how far we’ll self-silence and -destruct in pursuit of a Hallmark moment that can be placed in the slideshows of family members hell-bent on believing that all is well and all is normal (at least at this time of year). As a counselor of numerous lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender clients and straight allies–I see how deeply painful this time of year is for the many in our community who’ve survived traumatizing families of origin. The choice seems to be between “having yourself a merry little christmas” and somehow searching for love in close proximity with folks who’ve frequently demonstrated they have very little to offer.
Other than finding an area counselor/therapist (especially one versed in the needs of LGBTQIA folks, if you are one of those letters)–there are a few basic survival tips I encourage you to play with as the holidays descend. These are things that help me on a regular basis, as a survivor of severe emotional and spiritual abuse by certain (not all) members of my family of origin.
Short story: I came out at seventeen, and at twenty-nine, I am now more fully aware of my right to stay away from harmful folks (whose mandate is that I always arrive partner-less to family gatherings and censor talk of my full adult, partnered life). This Thanksgiving and Christmas I will choose to spend my time with those who truly see me, hear me, and love me. And that is Tip #1!
Tip #1: Find at least one dear person/being who helps you feel (more) fully seen, heard, held, and loved. Could be a pet, could be a friend, could be a co-worker, could be a truly caring member of your family of origin. Could be a therapist or a religious/spiritual counselor. Could even be a character in a novel or movie or television show who you admire and aspire to be more like.
Allow yourself time to be with these kinds of folks in coming weeks–and if possible, mostly/only these kinds of folks. Fight experiences of “obligation” to commit to traditions and people that never felt good, or healthy, or safe enough. Especially experiment with setting limits and creating distance with your family of origin if you need to. Fight that holiday narrative that “togetherness” is the answer. It plainly, simply, is not the answer for everyone. You can hang with your family of origin a little bit, instead of last year’s a lotta bit. Or maybe don’t hang with them at all! Maybe give yourself the gift of a holiday to yourself!
Whatever you choose, notice if you’re hesitant about allowing a warm connection to develop with your above-chosen dear one (even if that “dear one” is yourself). Fact is, most of our defenses are up right now. Grim self-reliance frequently helped us survive our families (along with compassionate outsiders along the way)–so why should we bother reaching out now, when our whole body-mind-spirits are geared toward defense and isolation? Why should we be gentle with ourselves and others, instead of the more familiar hardy- and spiky- and prickly-ness?
If you get looped into anxiety and/or depression around gift-giving, make an agreement with your dear one that you’d like to nix that part of the season… or maybe instead get creative by setting a reasonable dollar limit and finding or making gifts full of the love and intention and good stuff you can never actually buy.
Finally, name for yourself (first through journaling or contemplation or therapy) the extent of what your dear one means to you. How is it to sit with them? How do you feel in your body as they laugh and smile (and/or wag their tail) with you? Do you feel warm, or cold? Does your breath deepen or become shallow? How do you feel afterward, emotionally? If you feel relief over being seen and heard–what are the exact qualities of that relief?
Can you let yourself sit and breathe into that relief? Can you get to know it better–given how much time you’ve spent getting to know your useful and previously necessary defenses?
By touching in and bringing awareness to your experience of this caring connection, you focus on the abundance of what you have–while holding awareness of what you also have lost. This holiday season, be courageous enough to ask yourself: am I putting my energy into people, places, and practices that leave me feeling healthy and full? How can I place myself in truly loving proximity to another–whether person (stranger or friend), animal, plant, mineral? How can I set myself up to receive love and care, where previously I was censured and silenced?
I realize these questions are big, and likely scary. You might think the pain of your family is at least familiar. But as my favorite tarot deck (Tarot of the Spirit by Dr. Pamela Eakins) says: “the price of true freedom is falling forward into an unknown future.” And I would add one piece: “the price of true freedom is falling forward into an unknown future, though not necessarily alone.”
Who can journey with you into, and beyond, the narratives of this silly season? Who can fall alongside you into a new kind of family–one that is chosen, that rests not on histories of origin but on a sound commitment in the here-and-now… to protect and to love, to care for in times of wellness and sickness?
In my next post, I’ll focus on what it’s like to expand your use of “family language” to include chosen family as well as those members of your family of origin who remain caring. And I’ll also kick off my list of songs that helped me survive my transition into a more expanded sense of family, starting with “Listen” as sung captivatingly by Beyonce in the film version of the Dreamgirls musical. Check it out below, let the lyrics hit you at heart, and try singing along.
“I’m more than what you made of me
I follow the voice you gave to me
But now I’ve gotta find my own…”