Christmas is like Tomatoes: Why Holiday-Centered Grief is Different

I don’t like tomatoes.  When I say this, people who love tomatoes all have the same curious reaction: they instantly leap to the tomato’s defense with the question:

“How can you not like tomatoes?!?” 

The same level of protest would never be leveled against a preference for the colors goldenrod and periwinkle.  I wouldn’t be challenged if I said I prefer kayaking over going to the movies.  What is it about tomatoes that makes people so adamant that everyone must like them?  I wish I liked tomatoes–they’re pretty.  They look like they should taste good.  But they don’t; not to me or to my daughter.  A few years ago, I finally found a way to phrase my rebuttal so that people would understand:

“If they tasted to me the way they taste to you, I’m sure I’d love them.  If they tasted the same way to you that they taste to me, you wouldn’t like them, either.” 

“The Holidays” is another sacred cow.  When I say that I don’t celebrate anything at this time of year–“These aren’t my holidays”–I’m not allowed to go my way unmolested.

“What?  Why don’t you like Christmas?”
The strange thing is, people who ask this question don’t generally want to know the answer.  It’s as if their primary reason for asking is to prove me wrong; nothing could possibly make someone dislike the holiday season, could it?  This attitude is so pervasive that, now that I’ve moved to a community that is more inclusive of holidays other than Christmas, I’m asked, “Why don’t you celebrate Solstice?  It’s not Christmas.”  You must celebrate something. 

If you really want to know, here goes:  When I was a child, my mother worked as a nurse on night-shift.  My brother and I were left alone at night from the time I was three years old, and because she could make extra money working on Christmas Eve and Christmas, she always worked those two nights.  She’d come home and put the presents under the tree before we woke up, and we would open them and have the typical happy Christmas morning.

Then she went to bed, leaving my brother and I alone.  All day.  Every year.  One of my most vivid memories of Christmas Day, when I was nine years old, was when I had received the one gift I had most hoped for–a set of toy horses and a barn and tractor–and was playing with them on the kitchen floor.  At some point, I stopped trying, and just sat and stared at them, bleakly wondering how to get my toys to love me.

I didn’t really understand how profoundly my childhood experiences had affected me until my daughter was three years old, and I got angry with her as she pushed her new plastic training-bike around the block on Christmas afternoon.  “Wow,” I realized, “I really get pretty grumpy on Christmas Day.”

After a few years, I saw how little control I had over my deep Christmas funk, and started making a practice of sending my daughter to stay with her father or my other family members on Christmas.  She wouldn’t have her mother for the holidays, but she would at least have the holidays–bright, positive memories with family, rather than a repetition of the bleak unhappiness I had experienced.

“Just reclaim the holiday!”
This is the usual counter-attack (as people really do subtly seem to feel they’re under attack), and perhaps if it was just the childhood experience I’ve described, I might eventually have done so.

But wait, folks, there’s more! 

In August of 2001. my stepfather committed suicide.  My mother fell apart and reached out to me for support–in the worst possible way.  In the years that followed, I figured out that she could probably be diagnosed as either a sociopath or someone with Borderline Personality Disorder.  It fits all the behaviors I experienced in childhood; behaviors that had never really stopped, but had been transferred to the man she married shortly after I moved out of the house.  When he died, the full suite of manipulation and cruelty was directed at me once again.

The events of Christmas, 2001, were horrible when I went through them the first time; I am not especially eager to go back there even in memory.  Suffice it to say, one of the behaviors of people with Borderline Personality Disorder is self-mutilation, often by cutting themselves.  When my six year-old daughter and I arrived home for Christmas that year, we walked in on my mother, stoned on Xanax, wearing the same filthy nightgown she’d been wearing for days, cutting her arms with a scalpel.

I was horrified, paralyzed, angry that my daughter had been exposed to this scene.  She had known we were coming, and this was the tableau she’d decided should be waiting to greet us?  It was the beginning of a five-year process of distancing myself from my mother.  I have not seen her since 2006, and do not wish to until I see her in her coffin.  Every time I think of maybe relenting and getting in contact with her again, I tailspin into a panic-attack.

Does anyone really want to hear that story?  “Why don’t you like Christmas?” they ask, as if the explanation was as simple as the reason I don’t care for tomatoes.  I no longer consent to provide an explanation to anyone but my closest friends.  Whether I explain a little, or a lot, there is still one more salvo in their arsenal.

“Just reclaim the holiday!”
Yes.  I get it.  Your Christmases always ended with your drunken Uncle Billy getting into fights with your dad.  Your parents spent too much money they didn’t have and then fought over it all through the month of January.  Or they didn’t have enough money to buy real presents, and you got socks one year instead of the LEGO set you’d had your heart set on.  You decided you were never going to have that sort of Christmas, and you don’t.  You and your spouse went to great lengths to create the perfect holiday for your kids.  Hurrah for you!  That’s wonderful.

It’s also not the same thing.

Trauma around the holidays is just different.  As a child being severely neglected from an early age, I was always acutely aware of the parenting other people had, that I never did.  All year ’round I watched as fathers showed their kids how to kick a soccer-ball, mothers picked their kids up from school and cooked them dinner in the evening, other children arrived at school in clean, neat clothing that their mothers had inspected before allowing them out the door.  My brother started getting me up and off to school in the morning when he was seven years old, and I five.  We came home to a house that was always cold, always empty.  There was no after-school snack or dinner; sometimes, because our mother ate at work, she seemed to forget that we needed food at all.

My childhood was defined by absence; I looked at other families with something like envy, envy that was really desperate hunger and loneliness.  At no time was that loneliness more profound than during the holidays.  When school let out for two weeks in December, we looked forward to two weeks of freedom; and two weeks of watching people on our street come and go to family dinners and holiday parties, while no such happy events would ever come to our cold house.

Another compounding effect was the loss of what little human contact I had during the rest of the year.  I usually spent as much time as I could around other families; my best friend had the unbelievable wealth of both mother and father, as well as 4 siblings.  On occasion, I was even invited to eat dinner with them, though my mother pressured me to decline, lest she be thought to be a bad mother who didn’t feed her children.  But come holiday events, this relief was not available.  Another rule my mother drilled into us: Never disturb other families during the holidays.  At the times when our losses were more obvious than ever, we were forbidden to seek any solace from the few who might have made the pain less severe. 

As each morning of holiday break dawned, fresh new snow more often than not laying on the ground, and I could only look out the window at the bright lights in the houses across the street, resentful of the busy motion of family and food and presents.

“Just reclaim the holiday!” 
Because other people like tomatoes, I should like them.  Despite the evidence of my taste-buds, despite discovering that tomatoes actually cause my joints to swell and hurt, I should like and eat raw tomatoes, because Other People.  The question I have is, why?  Why is it so important that I not let sleeping dogs lie, leave my memories un-triggered and sleeping where I last left them (in my therapist’s office), and have a perfectly normal December 25th when I sleep in, clean the house, read a book, and ignore everything and everyone that might tear open old wounds?

Everyone has bad memories, unhappy anniversaries.  The anniversary of a divorce; the day a beloved parent died; the return of that quiet, unremarked-upon day the sad mother of a stillborn child never ceases to remember.

Holiday trauma is different.  The pain itself may be greater or smaller than other injuries, but the setting compounds it, unleashing a complex stew of grief and loneliness.  What’s worse than being the one person who is miserable in a room full of people having the time of their lives?  It’s like dying of a gunshot to the stomach while all around you, everyone is laughing, talking,  drinking martinis, and asking you to get yourself up off the floor and join the party.

If my childhood experiences of Christmas were like the siege of Leningrad, then my mother’s cutting in 2001 was Hiroshima, Nagasaki.  I doubt anyone told the radiation-poisoned survivors to “reclaim” the scarred, glassy ground from which they were rescued.  Let others heal the land and build new buildings; the Hibakusha need every ounce of their energy just to survive their wounds.

If someone tells you they don’t celebrate these holidays, don’t like Christmas, or if you notice that they clam up whenever the subject arises, please consider that they have their reasons–and their reasons are valid.  Some people don’t like tomatoes, and that actually is okay.  You can still enjoy your tomatoes; it’s nothing personal.  And please, give us an out: instead of “What? Why don’t you like Christmas!?” how about saying, to them as well as reminding yourself:

“Yeah, that’s okay.  Not everyone likes the holidays.  If I had lived your life, I wouldn’t like them either.” 

Just F’n DO Something!

I’m laying here in bed with my computer on my lap; typical of a Saturday morning.  Doing nothing.  Relaxing, watching the birds at the feeder just outside my bedroom window.  The heat is only tolerable when I’m not moving around, making my own heat, so I’m avoiding moving at all.

Doing nothing: except that I’m actually DOING SOMETHING with my day, something that matters.  Today, I’m keeping a tonne of steel out of landfills.  Today, I’m preventing the carbon-footprint of that steel from being wasted.  Today, people are helping me to stave off the madness that shadows me every single day.  Today, people are going to get a gift that they’ll use for decades; not a gift from me, but because of me.

I’m one of those environmentalists going quietly crazy at the way people throw things away–brand new things, things only used once, things broken but only a little bit, still able to be repaired to “good as new” status.  I collect cardboard moving boxes from my work’s dumpsters–proud dumpster diver–so that people who are moving, who can’t afford to buy moving boxes, can have huge loads of near-perfect boxes.  Often times, I deliver to their homes on my way home from work.  Sometimes, when people move on from our building, they leave their things behind.  Anything worth saving, I’ll take to a charity-store.

There is no “away.”  These things cost fossil fuels to make; their carbon-footprint on the world is already here, but if they have another owner/user along the way, that’s just that much carbon-dioxide that doesn’t have to go into making another one.  If they go to the landfill, it’s all wasted effort, wasted money, wasted future resources.

I’m not trying to toot my own horn.  That’s actually the exact opposite of what I have to say today.  Most of the time, I do these things because they matter.  I do these things because they cost me nothing, and yet, the benefit to people on the other end of my actions is a savings of hundreds of dollars.  Sometimes, these actions make people feel cared-about, and that’s even better.

A Bike Parking RackToday, the benefit to others is not in the hundreds, but in the thousands of dollars.  I’m waiting for a man I don’t know, who contacted me through Freecycle.org (check them out, please), to hitch up his trailer to his truck, and meet me at my workplace, where he’ll help me load up seven heavy-duty, city-street type bicycle parking racks.  Then he’ll offload a set of them at Tiny Home Village, and take the rest to distribute around town.  This morning, before the heat struck, I helped someone from Troy Gardens load up two more racks to mount on their premises.  Each one of these things costs between $300 and $700.  They were destined for sale to the metal-scrapper.

These things were bought by a mega-developer for a huge apartment complex with over 300 overpriced apartments.  Every apartment must have its own bike parking spot!  Only, some people don’t own bikes, or care to; they became clutter, in our way, 80 “spots” for bikes that don’t exist.  They need to disappear.  That’s all the company cares–they don’t care where they go.  I’m the one who found a way to get them to good homes instead of wasting perfectly good, brand-new racks that the bike-loving people of Madison can use.

I do things that help.  Sometimes, I listen to someone who needs to be listened to.  Sometimes, I fix problems that need to be fixed–broken drawers, scrambled mini-blinds, misaligned door-latches.  Sometimes I make sure that abandoned objects that have worth and life left in them reach someone who will use those things well.  Sometimes, I give someone walking in the rain a ride.  Sometimes, I pick up someone walking alongside the highway, away from a broken-down car, and take them where they need to go.  Sometimes, I don’t.  Most of the time, like everyone I know, I focus on me-me-me.  Part of me-me-me just happens to be making things better in the world.  It’s part of my identity–it’s not a “virtue,” it’s just how I’m built.  If I don’t help, I lose the life-vest of hope that keeps me afloat in life.

Here is my point: DO SOMETHING.  It’s all well and good to talk a good talk on Facebook–I do that all the time.  Ninety percent of the time, it isn’t worth anything.  Especially where I live, in Madison, Wisconsin, people love to talk the good talk.  We’re all great liberals and progressives, we go to political rallies, we donate to the right causes–but when it comes time to actually go to a Black Lives Matter rally, to listen to what black people have to say about their experiences in this city, nope.  Only a few “progressives” show up, and aren’t half of them married to a person of color?  They’re already in the choir, they already know the narrative.  When it comes to actually supporting the homeless, do we show up to meetings and donate time, ideas, money, and energy toward housing-first initiatives?  Or do people do nothing more than lament the fact that there are ugly homeless people cluttering up the State Capitol grounds?  Did you speak up for the Ash trees in your neighborhood that are being slaughtered by the city foresters at a rate 1000 times the rate of Emerald Ash borer?  Or just sit back and scowl and grumble that the shade on your street was suddenly gone?

Stop talking.  Stop writing.  All that energy you’re pouring into Facebook?  Turn it off for a few minutes and use that same amount of energy to figure out what matters to you.  What small thing you can do that takes a few minutes of your time, or a little bit of thought, a few miles detour on your way home–that will make a difference.


I Am the Termite

This essay is a response to reading an online conversation between my friends, where a person (Tammy) made a racist comment about Obama being greeted in Charleston by White Supremacists waving the Confederate Flag.

We human beings are very bristly when we’re accused of being any form of bad. Racism is bad in today’s world–thank goodness–and it must feel like an attack on one’s character to be called “racist.”  It becomes a major point of ego for people to think that, because they do not actively hate black people, because they do not actively think that black people are inferior, they must be not-racist.

ANY white person raised in America who cannot admit that they have been RAISED racist may simply be in need of consciousness raising. Some people will be educated, and some will refuse. But the approach we take with them can make the difference. It’s hard to reign in my anger with people who display racism; harder still because I watch the black people who live in my neighborhood fighting the consequences of that racism, in the MOST SEGREGATED State in the nation. (Wisconsin? YES. Wisconsin.)  People tell them to “get a job” when they protest with Black Lives Matter–but of those who do not hold minimum-wage jobs, it’s not easy to get and keep a job in this town.  Those who yell, “Get a job!” at the protesters are the very people who will unconsciously choose the white job-applicant over the black applicant. 

Yet, I have learned to bite my tongue and redirect my anger, because of the many times I have countered someone’s assumptions with a gentle word of explanation, and seen ignorance replaced by a gleam of shock–the shock of realizing that they’ve been missing a big piece of the picture.

As a white person, I am the Termite: chewing slowly and steadily at the beams that hold up the edifice of racism. Small bites in places no one ever sees. I can’t make much dent by myself, and the homeowner often tries to fight me with fumigations of hatred. But someday, I must believe, the house will fall.

Not to reprimand anyone’s responses to racism–I’ve DEFINITELY responded with just as much shock, anger, and personal attack on those who don’t grasp the nature of institutional racism–but Tammy might have been better educated by questioning to finding out why she said that Obama was “the real racist,” and then having the holes in her logic exposed, disentangling her assumptions about Obama (possibly largely political?) from the racism of the situation. And we white people fighting against racism learn something too–how to listen to those who have a different perspective, so as to understand how they’ve come to the conclusions they have. That’s how you chew down the house–by knowing the structure of the wood that holds it up, and cultivating the proper tools to chew it down, one blind, ignorant thought at a time.

Cattail Pollen

From the road, I see yellow tops swaying in the wind alongside the green leaves of cattails. Too late, too late! I’ve missed the best of the harvest. Some of the oversized grasses might still hold what I’m searching for, and I pull my car into the parking lot next to the college sports field.

On either side of Starkweather Creek, cattails form a seemingly impenetrable wall. At the top of the wall, like yellow turrets, eight inch tall anthers still stand. Some have turned a mellow orange, a small amount of pollen clinging to the empty brown husk of the male part of the plant. Tomorrow, the next day, the fluffy husks that held billions of particles of pollen will blow away with the wind, leaving behind only a thin stick above the swiftly swelling flower, dark brown and soft to the touch. People always think that it’s this brown, hot-dog shaped flower that I’m harvesting; few ever notice the short mating season of the cattail plant, when the anthers bloom.

I get out of my car with my foraging bucket in hand. A 20” bicycle tire, inflated, is wrapped double around the top rim of the bucket; if I lose my grip, the bucket will stay upright, my foraging prizes safe and dry.  Inside, I’ve stashed a pair of pruning shears and three types of insect repellent. I plunk my wallet, phone, and other random bits of paper and metal from my pockets down into the driver’s seat, apply two of the repellants to my clothes and one to my face, and head toward the wall of cattails.

My heart is easy as my feet leave the groomed grass ringing the parking lot. The rest of the world makes no sense to me. The marsh is a simple place, with simple rules.

Red-winged blackbirds perch on the top branches of trees, playing sentinel over the marsh.

Red-winged blackbird calls out to the marsh as I approach: “Predator in the marsh. Attention! Human in the marsh.” Thirty feet away, on the far side of the creek, a coyote trots confidently away from the grasses where she’d been hunting, headed for the woods. Coyotes hide all through the city, in woods and by the railroad tracks; coming out at night if they must, in broad daylight in places like this, where humans have reintroduced pieces of the wild. It’s the first time I’ve seen a coyote, outside of a zoo; she’s beautiful, head held high, tongue out and panting as she runs, tail a fluffy flag behind her. Little hurry in her motion; she knows how loud and slow I would be if I chose to chase after her.

“Predator in the marsh!”

“Predator in the marsh!”

I’ve heard these marsh birds make four distinct calls, and I know I’m missing most of the content of their communications—whatever it is they say to each other when they’re not focused on surveilling me. By day, red-winged blackbirds are the first, most distinctive sound of the marsh; “Bur-cheeee!” the call and “quirr-whit!” the response. By night, every frog and toad takes up chorus, louder and louder as the human world quiets down; at least four different species compete to make their mating calls clear across the cacophony. If it were night, my approach would trigger sudden silence; unlike the frogs, the blackbirds have no fear that I might follow their call in to their hiding places. The birds call back and forth from the freedom of the sky, tracking me.

These are narrow-leaf cattails, invaders from Europe; they have fewer predators than the common cattails native to Wisconsin, and spread faster, shoving out the commons. Their roots are nearly worthless, skinny and fibrous, where common cattails have a thick inner root, full of potato-like starch. I’ve decided that I’m not so fond of cattail root starch; it’s the pollen that’s the rare treat. Common cattail anthers are over an inch thick at their fullest, bright yellow and turgid with encapsulated sperm, ready to fly with the wind to every adjacent flower. Narrowleaf anthers are more slender, but still prolific enough to gather nearly a liter of pollen in a few hours.

A few anthers still cling tightly to their central, woody stem, pollen mature but still encapsulated in a fibrous mesh; they’re neatly slender at the base, but the rest of their length begins to rumple like the skin of a Basset Hound as the plant-sperm pushes against its confinement. These are my targets; I reach high along the slender stem rising from the center of the cattail, stopping the blades of my pruners below the anther, just above the flower, and cut, dropping the un-exploded head into my bucket.

On the Internet, people demonstrate collecting pollen by putting milk-jugs over the end of the flower, shaking the pollen out, and leaving the anther behind. I don’t know why; it’s not how the original Americans did it, and wastes time and pollen. A single male anther can pollinate the entire marsh for hundreds of yards up and downstream; I take the anthers from a hundred narrowleaf cattails and leave the few commons, hoping they’ll hybridize and make the marsh at least a little more productive. My foraging bucket begins to fill, slowly, sides quickly coated in yellow dust.

The water is lower this year than last; perhaps because I’ve come so late in the season, missing early June’s occasional deluge. Now, the light rains of early summer fall every few days, not quite covering last year’s thick leaves, flattened into a mat by winter snows. The mats make a pleasant bedding for my footfalls; cool and soft, rustling and crackling beneath me; spreading my weight out, so I don’t sink as deeply into the mud as I will in the bare patches of creekbed.

Invasive phragmite reeds (“common reed”) chopped and laid out for the college landscapers to deal with. DIE, evil reed, DIE!

Sometimes I take after invasive phragmite reeds with a machete, killing off as many as I can, hauling off the reeds to make mason-bee houses, roofing for a shelter in my garden, or just throwing them on top of each other to dry in the sun. They have their notions of revenge; they don’t lay down in winter, and their broken stems are like daggers underfoot. Slowly but surely, they advance across the marsh, impervious to hungry insects, shading out the young cattails, the tight confines of their growth giving the blackbirds nowhere to build their nests. Cattails are a kinder plant, generous; worth defending.

“Predator! Predator! Near the nest! Look sharp! Predator!”
This third call, closer to the harsh “grak!” of a crow, takes no skill to understand. I’ve stepped over some invisible perimeter. Rally the flock and prepare to do battle! I don’t know how many birds associate in one area, whether they’re related, or if they coordinate their nest-care across more than two parents; there are at least ten birds in the branches of the willow over my head, calling to each other in alarm, focused on this enormous predator in their midst. They dart over my position, then land again; I have the impression, from the tenor of their calls, that each of them is a parent to those tiny, fuzzy babies, unfledged and helpless in the grass.

I’ve never seen a redwing blackbird nest. I hope I will not come across one while it’s in use, but I’d like to see one later on, empty of residents, just to know what it is I’m trying to avoid when I steer clear of the birds’ precious offspring. It’s their marsh; I’m merely a visitor. Wishing not to be an intruder; inevitably intrusive. Last year, I caught some children chasing after one of their babies, making it jump into the air in half-attempted flight. I scolded the children and spoke gently to the little bird, pressuring it with my presence to head back toward the safety of the grass, where worried parents stood high on the reeds, waiting to see if their offspring would be crushed or eaten.

Snip. Snip. One last anther catches my eye. Snip. “I’m leaving,” I tell the birds, and retreat back toward shore. They won’t relax until I’m well away from the nest and show no sign of coming back.

American leopard frog; rich brown patches painted over a lustrous golden hide, buccal patch beneath his throat pumping air into his lungs. Watching me, suddenly too close to run away from, wondering if he’ll be consumed. Snails, the size of a child’s fist, spiraled to a point. Broad wapato leaves grow in an open spot; I won’t disturb them until fall, when the leaf dies and the root is full of summer’s energy. Bullrush, dark green and holding their orange-brown flowers out to one side for the wind to sweep through. I’m glad to see these other plants; cattails are better than invasive phragmites, but they’re weedy themselves, forming monoculture stands that take up most of the space in the wetlands. I’ve recently helped to plant bur-reed, bulrush, wapato, and water lilies, in the ephemeral ponds across the street from my apartment. Some have taken root and shot up quickly; some may even have washed downstream to colonize the rest of the wetland.

Cattail marsh in early spring, before new growth arrives; this is a monoculture stand.
Cattail marsh in early spring, before new growth arrives; this is a monoculture stand.

A tall willow has dropped several of its weak branches into the muck; thistles grow thick on the other side, and stinging nettle grabs at my ankles. I’ll have welts for a few days. I usually wear long-sleeved shirts, and military pants that tie at the ankles, no matter how hot; it keeps the plants and insects at bay. Short-pants, today, stopping on impulse after work. I needed the rest from the world; worth a few mosquito bites and the stinging rebuke of plants.

I work my way out through the thistles and the entangling willow, and find myself on a groomed lawn, at the opposite side of the long park-strip that winds through this part of the city. A woman sits in the center of a man-made stone circle, a place for those strolling by to rest and meditate. If she sees me, she doesn’t look my way. I turn west, knowing the paths will link up eventually and spill me out onto the parking lot I’ve come from, a quarter mile away. Two hours have passed without a sense of time.
My bucket is full; two gallons of anthers, soon to be half a gallon of bright yellow pollen, which we’ll eat in pancakes, cookies, mixed into bread. In the traditional diet, thousands of years ago, it was a winter food, hoarded as a precious source of Vitamin C.  My ancestors collected this pollen, not for calories or taste, but to fight off the scurvy of January, February, March; before the first greens of spring are born. Today, no one notices the quiet lives of the plants that live beyond their gardens; we take for granted that food comes from farms far away, and scurvy is a thing of the past.
What was life like before work became work? How would a people think of foraging, if it was their entire life? We all must have been much calmer then, those of us who had access to the bounty of swamps and marshes. Why be ambitious or competitive, when it took the work of everyone, working equally hard, to provide enough food to last through a dark winter? And yet, why worry, in a world so full of food, so freely given? Pollen and greens in the spring, acorns in the fall, squirrels and rabbits year round. Ambition is the death of the world; as Dean Koontz said, “Everyone wants to make their mark on the world, but the earth never asked to be marked.”
Back at my car, I look back at the mucky, weedy streambed, and see no trace of my entrance. Cattail wall; unmarked. The red-winged blackbirds are back to their conversation, the one that does not mention me: