After a busy fall, I took some much-needed time off last month. Away from the studio, away from trying to write – I just read and read and read and hung out with my family. In 2006, I tried to go all out for the Holidays: hosting a cocktail party at my house, going to fancy dinners, enjoying choir concerts, observing Advent, shopping for The Perfect Gift, decking my house out with tons of lights. And not because I felt like I had to pretend to be happy, but because I genuinely enjoy those things. Then the week before Christmas a new job, a wedding and a death in the family forced my attention away from all those devoirs, those self-inflicted “must-dos” and dashed all of my efforts to celebrate the holidays. I didn’t realize how traumatic those experiences were until this season came around.

So this year, I let my brain check out around the 10th of December and stay holed up in the Me Motel for a few weeks. But the holidays still weren’t easy to get through. Re-living the memories of last year reminded me of Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, and since I let the decorating and partying slide this year, I had more time to be a good American and shop, which brought on a spiritual crisis of sorts that’s continuing through the New Year. The disgusted feeling lingered for a few days and came out in a fretful conversation with my husband about who was left to buy gifts for on our Nice list. “I feel like I need to be doing more,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, all this shopping – it seems so unnecessary. I feel like I should be helping others. I feel like I ought to be giving money to charity instead. We’ve had to cut back a lot the last few month but we’ve still got enough left over to buy gifts. But I still feel this pressure, this guilt about being able to do that. Like we’re still better off than a lot of people. Am I being too hard on myself? Because then again, maybe we’re not that much better off, because we haven’t been saving any money lately. But is saving money just hoarding in disguise? Which makes me think that this guilt is coming from feeling bullied by the preaching about money at church lately. But I don’t think it’s Catholic guilt, as they say. (I don’t know what people are talking about when they say ‘Catholic guilt’ – it’s a cliche.) It’s more like Virgo guilt. The perfectionism and this desire to serve and help other people.” Deep breath.

He looks at me warily, not quite comprehending. “Capricorns – we’re driven and ambitious, but we don’t really get into all that.”

“I know, the holidays are a special time to show your family and friends that you care about them. It’s just… why do we need stuff to express that? Why do we spend all this time and money and looking for crap that they don’t need?”

“Because it’s the holidays and that’s what you’re supposed to do.” (now shut up and quit worrying).

When the Big Day finally came, I was spared from all these dreary ruminations. I became rather ill with stomach flu about 20 minutes before my family started opening gifts on Christmas Eve and spent much of the night and next day making donations to a porcelain collection bowl. While this wasn’t the most merry way to observe the birth of the Lord, and on an ordinary day, I’d just think, I’m sick and it sucks, but Christmas forced me me to find a silver lining: I think the universe was telling me, it’s not ever going to be Perfect, it’s OK not to be Perfect, so let go. Literally.

After all recovering from all the throwing up, I threw out my back while playing with the dog a couple days later. I was back in good health on New Year’s Eve, but dry weather and high winds spoiled the 5-mattress bonfire I’d been looking forward to. Yet another Act of God. I took that as another sign to extend my vacation another day or two, and naturally on my first day back at work, the gears were a little squeaky. My back had finally healed so I headed to the gym last night to start melting away any Santa belly I may have gotten over the previous month. Exercise was just the remedy to blow away the Holiday stupor and return to my endorphin-induced daydreams and plans. So here I go again.

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