Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A Discipline of Pleasure--or advice from a divorcee


It's been thirty-four years.  I could see my marriage unraveling in December and my husband moved out in early January.  My life has gone on--wonderously so--with rich relationships with Bill and Veronica, with the start of a new life here in Regina, with a life in the English Department that was warm and welcoming.  Bill has taught me the impulse of gratitude; I think it's part of his DNA.  So most days I'm grateful simply to be alive.  Still, my memory vividly brings back that first Christmas, post-divorce, which I spent alone while Veronica was with her father.  It wasn't as bad as you might have thought, largely because over the year I'd developed some rules.  Maybe a divorce is rather like a pandemic:  you are lonely, frightened about the future, feeling under threat.  (I won't go into details about that one, but no, he wasn't abusive.)  The dark of the year is just outside the door of one's house and one's psyche.  So maybe a handful of those rules will be helpful now.

Consider what you do have, not what you don't.  Poet Brenda Riches, who died way too young, said we look at our world as through the viewfinder of a camera.  We don't see everything.  Keep that in mind.  But we can move the camera and find a "better composition" for our view.  I would later learn that psychologists call this cognitive reframing and it's a skill that's gotten me through some tough times.  Our default frames are often media driven--social or unsociable, news or gossip--and right now they're offering us an even  more contradictory Christmas.  Christmas is supposed to be perfect--and be seen to be perfect.  This year's Christmas is going to suck.  It's true that this year's won't be perfect, particularly if you focus on what you don't have, whether that's family, parties, a trip somewhere warm, tons of presents gathered at risk in crowded stores.  Focus on what you do have or what you can make yourself or learn to make yourself.  That box of decorations you never open because they're from another era?  Put them on the tree.  Put up outside lights like so many people have this year.  Go for sparkle tours.  Learn to make shortbread.  Collaborate with a mother or an aunt over Google Meet and learn to make that fancy dish that she serves every year.  Teach your daughter how to make meringues filled with chocolate mints.  (Sorry, guys.  You'll have to provide your own advice here since I'm neither a father nor a son.)  Set up a roster of phone calls or Zoom meetings with friends or relatives you haven't talked to in years.  Hey!  We've all got more time on our hands, unless we have kids.  But kids are exactly the inspiration we need to create a different kind of Christmas.

Here's the hard part about this:  it takes discipline.  It's easier, but only in the short term, to whine. Once you get the discipline going, you'll find it more or less goes on its own.  That's because you've reframed your life to focus on the riches you do have. If we're not a doctor or a nurse, a patient in ICU, or living on minimum wage, we have riches.  If you're not sure about this, read the essay in The Paris Review by a doctor on the front lines.  The link is below.

The second rule is give.  Give to the Food Bank, whose users need all the help they can get.  Take cookies to a neighbour and leave them on the doorstep before phoning or texting.  Or do guerilla giving.  I have terrible vertigo, and the people in my favourite coffee shop have always been kind enough not to fill my cup too full or to bring around the container of cream so I don't have to walk so far trying to balance a cup of coffee.  Two years ago, I started taking them a bag of 100 Lindt truffles.  I'm going by there today, with chocolate and a thank-you card.  Startle someone with an unexpected act of kindness.  I know; we've all got masks on.  You will have to look in their eyes for a thank you that says the world is, at this moment, a slightly better place than it was a few moments ago.  Give hope, in whatever form that might take.  We need it, and you'll create hope in yourself by giving it.

Rule three:  do something different.  Learn something new.  One of the things about Christmas that I love and that I've written about often in this blog, is that decorating the Christmas tree is a kind of archeology.  Every year, I unearth my past, all the way back to the very beginning of that first failed marriage.  I'm thinking about memory a lot these days and find that, at seventy, memory often reaches over the shitty times and pulls up something joyful that is an intrinsic part of who I have become.  That's to be celebrated. 

But this year, think about what you're going to put into that memory box that's new.  Oh, yes,  The COVID-19 Christmas.  That's the year I watched Jacques Pepin's video of making an omelet four times and finally mastered it.  That's the year I learned to make socks, though the first pair wasn't gorgeous.  Embrace imperfection.  Embrace process.  That's the year I cooked up a batch of clay from water, salt, flour, and vegetable oil.  My kids shaped it into decorations and painted them.  (While the clay is soft, embed a straightened out paper clip in the back so you can hang it.) If you want to know how to do it, someone on the internet wants to teach you how to do it. 

I know there are readers out there for whom this advice is--well, why not say it?--a slap in the face.  Your memories are of trauma.  Your present is a life of isolation or abuse.  You may be--it is the dark of the year, after all--struggling with depression or other mental illness.  Take one of these "rules" and make a little progress on it.  It will give you a sense of agency.  All around the world right now we are in the grip of an event that has been called a world-wide trauma.  Even if we're not in full lockdown, we live in uncertain times and have little control over our lives.  So maybe it's even hard to get a grip on rule number 1.  But we can still give and learn.  Therein lies our hope for this season.

Anna DeForest in The Paris Review

1 comment:

  1. Cognitive reframing, eh? Well, I'm gonna get me some of that! Thank you for your bracing essay, and Merry Christmas!