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Have Yourself a Sorry Little Breakdown

The doldrums is a nautical term for the belt around Earth’s equator where sailing ships can get stuck on windless waters for days—an apt metaphor even in landlocked Vermont.

For those who get in serious doldrums after the holidays, you’re not alone. In the 70s, as the tree splintered and shed, we’d beg our mother, “One more day!” Understanding, she’d consent to leave it up. I still suffer while boxing up decorations accumulated over 50 years, many hand made by beloved people now grown—or gone. It physically hurts and I go down.

My theory on the plummet’s severity is this: a combination of most humans’ inability to make transitions easily, plus the nostalgia of where one was 5, 20 or 30 years ago—or even just pre-COVID.The holidays are an annual plunge into sentimentality that wrecks some people for a while. After all the togetherness, even if at times fighty, many have to part with beloved people we wished we still lived with, or near, now miles or oceans away. Add to the emotional soup that sometimes we can tell when these people have had enough of us, or vice versa.

There’s something about that pre-holiday hustle and year-end philanthropy. I love the craft sales and transformation of everything from garlanded gas stations to tricked-out buildings. Carols evoke a simpler time. In truth, there were untold disasters and wars and far more domestic abuse back then, fueled by widely accepted over-drinking (think: the “hilarity” of Red Skelton’s drunk character; Dean Martin crooning basted). But hear the first couple of bars of O Holy Night and smell that balsam fir and you are swept back into your own (hopefully abuse-free) childhood or a dreamy image of happier times before you were born. When the decorations left up too long start getting dusty and something—anything—to look forward to seems a long way off, it’s easy to to go into a death spiral.

So last week after a Covid exposure, for the very first time I decided to wallow. None of this Yankee toughie bootstraps crap. No health-giving exercise or efforts to cheer self or others. Just a marathon of self-isolation, sorrow, and mourning.

It was not at first intentional. After leaving family to return to Vermont, I drove and cried until distracted by old radio interviews with Desmond Tutu (an evolved human, yet strikingly down to earth). But then Christmas music came on and sunk me anew, thinking of this very drive I had taken countless times with my now-gone mommy. Once home, I carried inside only my freezable belongings, got in bed, and let it rip. I cried over everything. Loves, parents, pets, houses and friends lost forever. Strangers who got stuck home alone for the holidays by cancelled flights. Refugees. Great people who died in 2021. Awful situations endured both by people I adore and by complete strangers. Sad pieces of fiction I read that never even actually occurred. I ate nothing but old foods around the house. Slept, woke, ate garbage, cried, slept. And you know what happened?

I’d love to say something profound here. But basically….nothing. Nothing happened. I didn’t come up with a grand epiphany. I didn’t resolve to start a new career or humanity-saving nonprofit, invent a climate change solution or clever movie plot. Nothing came of it. As Yukon Cornelius says, “Nuthin’.”

If you bottle it up and never let it out, you’re in trouble. That’s called being repressed. Although I did ask a male friend how he deals with the deaths of his legendarily party-throwing, smarty parents within weeks of each other. His answer: “I keep that locked up deep, deep down inside.” Hell, maybe that’s the right approach. 

The virus and supply chain madness factored in. Due to Covid exposure, I couldn’t leave my apartment for a week upon returning home — Xtreme solitude rarely boosts mental wellness. As for the supply chain, disappointing in December was the lack in stores of favored holiday items, e.g. the annual “limited edition” cookie by Pepperidge Farms’ called Snowballs®. They were only on Amazon—for $19 a bag. A year without Snowballs® is like a year without…Snowballs®. And this year I didn’t get into preparations or meticulous wrapping the way I once did. Threw things into bags with tissue paper. No hand-drawn gift notes. No Christmas cards.  I skipped movies I watch yearly. And all of that, while freeing, ultimately felt crummy. Next year I’m going back to overdoing it. Obviously, that’s the answer. So there’s the epiphany. 

At this time of year I usually suggest one of three things. 

  1. Make a list of what you got done in 2021. You’ll be surprised.
  2. Make a list of intentions for 2022, before it gets frittered away.
  3. Books: Greenlights; A Girl’s Guide to Missiles; Life (Keith Richards); Boys in the Trees (Carly Simon); Good Habits, Bad Habits; Olive Kitteridge, Olive Again, and Oh William; Mobituaries (Mo Rocca); Dodging Energy Vampires; A Girl Named Zippy; All The Light We Cannot See; The Power of Now; How To Be AloneJoyful; Elevation (S. King); and my personal favorite, A Man Called Ove. Email me for a personal recommendation for you. That’s my gift.

Good repression, good wallow, or good New Year with light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. 

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