Saturday, December 15, 2007

Merry Christmas to those not having one

(This column originally ran in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY, December 24, 1994)

I had a problem with my Christmas cards this year.

When you do cards, you have to wrap up the year's news in a few deft sentences before you ask about the other person's family and then add your wishes for a good holiday season and so forth.

The problem was, things have gone very well for me this year. I like my job. The kids are wonderfully content with what they are doing. We're healthy and happy, and, you know, about the fifth time I wrote that in a card, all the good news began to make me want to puke.

Tolstoy is right: All happy families are alike, which is why he didn't bother writing a novel about a happy family. Nobody wants to read about a bunch of perky, cheerful high-achieving jackasses.

I recognize, however, that having too much good news may not be your particular problem this Christmas.

I certainly wasn't facing a crisis of over-cheer a decade ago. My Christmas cards went out early in 1984, so our faraway friends would know in time that they should either choose which of us to send the card to, or else send two cards: One to me and one to my wife of 13 years but no more, at her new address.

It could have been worse. I had my kids part-time and the Colorado economy hadn't crashed yet, so I was still able to pay most of my bills and to buy basic groceries, though I couldn't afford health insurance or car repairs.

Still, it was bad enough. I took what little money I could afford to spend on presents for my kids and bought a toboggan, one good present the three of us could enjoy together. Then, the only times it snowed, they happened to be over at their mother's. It all seemed to go like that for me in 1984.

I could write an uplifting holiday message here, suggesting that my current swell Christmas is some cosmic payback for having been put through that really lousy one. But I don't believe that, not even at Christmastime.

No, I wasn't visited by three yuletide spirits, or by an angel-in-training named Clarence, that blue Christmas.

The transformation, rather, came over the course of the next year, through the agency of mortal folks who had been down that road themselves and were willing to extend a hand to assist a fellow-traveler.

For instance, I dropped off a manuscript at a client's office one day, and mentioned to his accountant that I was working on my income taxes. Turned out she was also a single parent, and she proceeded to give me a quick lesson in filing as head-of-household despite having joint custody and thus qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit. It saved me a generous fistful of much-needed dollars.

My dentist had been through a particularly unpleasant divorce: He repaired a cracked filling for me at no charge.

And my main client, God bless her soul, was big sister and counselor and a boss of saintly patience and forbearance throughout the year. She'd been through it, too, and we had many extra cups of coffee and a few unnecessary "business lunches" while she assured me that everything was going to work out for me in the long run. And she went across the hall to a sister publication and got the editor there to throw a little work my way.

If this is not a cheerful Christmas for you, I can't fill your teeth or give you a job, though I do suggest you look into that earned-income tax credit.

But what I can do is to promise you that blue is not a permanent color.

Others have been through this, and, while there is no fast-forward button you can push, it will eventually end.

Yesterday, Dec. 23, was the longest night, the darkest day, of the year. Beginning today, the sun will start shining a little earlier every morning, and it will stick around a little later every evening.

Make the effort to stand where that sun can shine on you. Keep your head up so you can see it. Avoid the shadows, and especially, refuse the company of those who wish to share misery and bitterness instead of hope.

The days will eventually become longer than the nights, it will be warm once again, the flowers will bloom.

And then maybe one day, a few years down the road, you'll be faced with the problem of phrasing your good news in a way that won't make people want to puke.

When that happens, remember how you got there, and help someone else find the way to a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Dann said...

Great stuff, Mike. You think that there would be some sort of journalism awards out there for writing like this. Maybe they could call it a Pulizer or something. [grin]

BTW, did you know that you look an awful lot like Dustin Hoffman??


Sherwood Harrington said...

I think Heather over at racs could appreciate this post right now... and, I see, you just alerted her to it.

Good on ya, once again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for giving me this link. I will bookmark it for later repeat perusal.

ronnie said...

I remember the year that Husband and I were brokest (and since we were perpetually broke, that was a pretty impressive degree of desperation) and I was at one of the worst stages of my illness. I suggested to him that we skip Christmas that year so as not to have the extra stress on ourselves. I can see in my mind the look of horror he gave in response as clearly as if it was yesterday :)

We have Christmas dinner at his mom's, and there is always a stray or two there, someone who is having their own worst Christmas. It's one of the truest ways to honour the spirit of the season, I think.


Anonymous said...

Really terrific, Mike.
Sleepy Hollow reader

Anonymous said...

Hope is the very nicest gift.


Robin from racs said...

I keep hunting for a "like" button ... consider this (and you) "liked."