This past Christmas I endured a violent bout of vertigo that proved quite stubborn and had me on my back, cold compress blocking the light, for the whole time my family visited (and for five full weeks!) In the great tug of war between holiday striving and releasing, this downtime turned out to be a scarily fascinating experience and yielded some unexpected gifts.
The alliteration of vertigo and vomit go together for a reason. For hours a day I had zero motor control, and I would lie on a sleeping bag near the toilet. Then, BOOM! I'd vomit up the dregs of my guts while the room spun as fast as a jet's propeller. It was like having a hangover, the flu, and food poisoning bundled, and multiplied by ten. Each time an attack pommeled me, I prayed I wouldn't die in front of my kids. I hadn't held down food for ten days and I was missing ten pounds. Physically and emotionally stripped to the bone, I was scared.
When the terrorist in my head took a break, I napped or had short lucid periods, at which time I was able to cuddle with my two-year old grandson. If that meant watching sixty-four rounds of "The Wheels on the Bus" at a pop, that was fine by me. These raggedly salvaged moments were a redemptive slice of holiday heaven. Quietly holding that warm, precious bundle encased in a bright red Santa sleeper, my Lovie’s spirit gave me hope and pulsed life back into my ravaged body. I once managed to jot some notes down about why this condition happened to impose itself at this particularly sacred time of year—a guest from hell if there ever was one—and from these I started to see that this exorcism was much more than a just a bout of vertigo. I knew somewhere, on a visceral level, that I was eventually going to be okay, but that I needed to pay close attention to what was happening all around me.
My first AHA! moment came when I discovered that even though I was not available to be at the airport to greet my family, who were all arriving from DC and California; they all still managed to arrive on time, and were duly met—and even delivered home safely—by other excited family members.
After they arrived and found their accommodations—all by self!—I discovered that I didn't need to be in the chef's command position in the kitchen executing advanced knife skills and creating fancy soufflés for everyone to feel welcomed. Apparently, clean sheets and towels do the trick nicely. In fact, turns out it's quite a bit more relaxing for everybody concerned to have Mom upstairs in bed binging on "The Crown", than it is to have her clucking around the kitchen preparing lunch for everyone like they were ten years old again. Go figure.
After a couple of days or so, I started to get into whatever this thing was. I really had no choice, I was benched and the universe had my attention. I was realizing AHA! I don't need to be emotionally or physically available to everybody even though everybody is home and it's holiday time. In spite of my situation—that felt pretty good.
‘I'm pretty sure that this desire to over-perform perfectly is just big old Fear trying to fit into Santa's stocking cap.’
My own Mother may never accept this truth, but I've known it for a while: there is no such thing as 'the perfect holiday'. All that Hallmark brainwashing we endured as a culture growing up and then emulated as adults is just bullshit. And I'm pretty sure that this desire to over-perform perfectly is just big old Fear trying to fit into Santa's stocking cap. Lying there, listening to the buzz of activity downstairs, it occurred to me that it's actually pretty arrogant of me to try to influence people's emotional and sentimental moods at the holidays, or any day for that matter, with my personal version of pep. In this moment I was free of this particular habit—and it felt really good!
‘it's OK for me to take a break’
The nostalgia nudge starts subtly with things like over decorating, or over celebrating with heavy foods, or too many sugar-laden treats calling out by the coffee maker, and then it cartwheels into meltdowns and fatigue as we try to fulfill a list of soul-crushing traditions that are supposed to make us happy. It's the holiday version of psychological gas lighting. And AHA! guess what? It's a lovely, relaxing, and novel thing for folks to create and contribute their own idea of what constitutes a 'nice' holiday.
I found out it's OK for me to take a break and hideout in my bedroom. Yup, just shut the door and meditate, take a nap, or a hot shower, or all three, without checking in with everybody first. Most of the time I felt so lousy that I didn't care what anyone was thinking anyway, and that was new turf. And, you know what? I liked it— it felt really, really good! Turns out no one 'needs' me 24/7–can you believe it? And that feels super good. I tend to over-perform my perceived hostess duties a tad too much, a hangover from my smother-mother-martyr days, so this was a nice surprise to unwrap and indulge.
I learned that I'm not really all that interesting to my grown children. There are just so many times I can play the 'childhood memory' card or report that so and so from third grade is engaged, before I look pathetic trying to spark some warm-fuzzy camaraderie; which—by the way—will show up on its own, beautifully, when it damn well pleases. Excessive, force-fed, uninvited sentimentality is like eating too many cream cheese Christmas cookies—it might feel right at first, but the result is heartburn, dismay at the indulgence, and a vow not to do it again.
What I did figure out is that my kids are still trying to find their own way as adults, and they need to puzzle things aloud, just like they did when they were twelve. They need to brag or confess to someone who cares and who won't judge or try to fix it. They need to be seen and heard. The parent-child dynamic evolves over time but it remains unique by design. Being an avid listener and asking thoughtful follow-up questions is a far better contribution to bonding with my kids than me trying to recap the hilarity of my girlfriend's 60th birthday party. Plus, I learn so much more about their actual lives—and that's really the point of a visit home, I think.
To my delight, I discovered a phenomenon I only ever dreamed about is actually real: if I leave the dishes in the sink, someone will eventually come along and load the dishwasher. (Particularly if it's not on MY timeline.)
‘Holy. Mary. Mother. of. God…’
I love family company and all the hoopla of the holidays but I've decided that one week of festivities is optimal for me. On day eight I like my routine back, my clothes back, and my fridge organized in a way that I can see what actual food is available to eat. I don't need all of the trappings and obligations of the holidays any more—things like perfect Christmas cards and braggy letters, too many sweets or gifts, visiting people I never see any other time of the year—too much ho-ho-ho is not my ode to joy. A nice fire, a healthy meal prepared together, snuggling in with a real conversation or a board game and some writing time makes everything calm and bright. When I think back on the miracles of magic I used to perform in the crusade to make my children's Christmas memories serene, it triggers an endless episode of vertigo in me. Holy. Mary. Mother. of. God., the things I used to do (and even then, it never felt like enough.)
I spent a lot of time on my back wondering about things. I wondered about why I had encountered this truly horrid condition that made the room a tilt-a-whirl-hell at will. What did Louise Hay say about vertigo I wondered—duh—probably an unbalanced life, right? But I truly didn't think that could be it. I've got time, resources, and energy to indulge in self-care, travel and play. I'm not stressed, I work on my own schedule, and I don't commute; I love my life and I love my hubby. When I actually looked vertigo up in her causes of healing list I was floored: "Feeling completely outside of things. Not belonging. Not one of the group." Hummm, now that was something deep to ponder. Was I experiencing some kind of existential awakening? In my desire to make traditional merry magic was I being dropped by my pack? Belonging is the most basic of all human motivation and satisfaction and ironically, here I was stuck in my bedroom while my tribe made new kinds of merry in the kitchen below.
Then, I thought about the surge in fascination with my already active spiritual life, and my growing devotion to plant-based eating, and that vertigo and wine do not mix. And about how my vow turning sixty was to live life fearlessly—to work through obstacles of all kinds, and to speak my heart's truth to others, and especially, to myself—no matter what. All of these things potentially have the power to kick me out of the metaphorical 'group' and yet, I find myself cued up for a swan dive off of starboard. What I discovered is that I DO belong, indeed I do: I belong to me. This journey of knowing what is enough is so freeing. This is my time. It's my turn to declare my desires, and I say a simple freedom from old traditional thinking is more than enough to sustain my holiday heart the whole year 'round.
As I see it, I didn't really miss the holidays—I found them. In the quiet of my bedroom and in the faces of my family, who cared lovingly for me. From this gift of down time (or 'Mom is off line' as my middle daughter described it), I've learned that no what matter what I do, or, even better, what I don't do, or won't do anymore—I will always be enough. Enough for me, for my authentic self, and enough for those who love me.
I’d love to hear from you—feel free to send your comments to me!