Monday, December 7, 2015

It's OK if you're not happy this holiday season, but I hope you find joy

"Startin' the crack early today, huh?" So Abigail said to Bailey this past Saturday morning, catching me stitching in bed.

Her first words to me actually were: "Do you wanna build a snowman?," but that's a different story altogether.

First you must know that we have a joke in our home, in which we refer to my obsession for cross stitching habit as my tendency to do "crack," as it consumes much of my time and is often my default activity.

Second you must know that we are very anti-drug in our home, and we only use the crack nickname in jest.

All that said.

Though I did in fact begin the stitching early this Saturday morn, I quickly abandoned my purple elephant baby-bib-in-progress once Abs presented me with a mug of coffee atopped* with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.

[*Actual word? The Internet is being unclear.]

I headed promptly to the living room, because we had crafting to do.

Holiday music playing, pipe cleaners and paint and embroidery floss in front of us, moments later we were hard at work.

Hard at play, I should say.

In a matter of hours, we cranked out a string-wrapped poinsettia vase, a beer cap snowman, a tissue paper luminary, a popsicle stick wreath, and a very adorable reindeer upcycled from a dead lightbulb, giving new, ironic meaning to the beloved lyric, "Rudolph with his nose so bright."

We took a break for mimosas and eggs, to keep up our crafting strength, and continued valiantly on.

That night Abby bought Christmas lights and I went to a holiday party with Alex. Festive fun abounded.

On Sunday morning, in his effort to keep up our holiday cheer, Santa Claus came to visit us for St. Nicholas Day, leaving a number of dollar store -- I mean, elf-made -- Christmas decorations for our apartment.

We admired our gifts from the North Pole, then headed to church, where we sang "O Come all Ye Faithful" and one of our favorite worship songs, "Oceans." We listened to a message on Mary's joyful song of praise and chattered about the service on our quick drive home.

Abby made us poached eggs and ramen while I drove a nail in the wall to hang up a decoration. We popped in a Christmas movie, and continued forward in our festive ways, slurping up our noodles drenched in hot sauce.


Enter 3 p.m.

Abby and I confessed that we were each feeling gloomy, glum, blah.

Old college pal Samantha and I had a Skype conversation, but then I had fallen to halfheartedly tying knots in a friendship bracelet. I could hear Abby hammering nails in her room, stringing her colorful lights, but I found her reclined in her bed, happy about the lights but not exactly elated about life.

I headed to the gym. Abby went to Trader Joe's to get us salad nutrients.

We revived a little, eating our greens and watching "The Santa Clause." We decided to go to our favorite spot for shooting pool, and played several games with each other and later with Alex. We danced to the quirky playlist and reveled in how much joy we got for our 50-cents-a-game buck.

We went to bed happy.

But we didn't forget the part in the day where we lost our steam. What happened?

Well, life did.

The Sunday blues crept in, laundry beckoned to be washed, we slowly remembered our email inboxes at the office.

Life attempted to steal our joy.

But during our chats throughout the day, Abs and I discussed the message we had heard at church that morning -- it was all about being surprised by joy. Our pastor, Rustin, talked about how Mary, faced with an incredibly hard predicament of being pregnant, with God's child, out of wedlock, chose to sing with joy. 


For many years I loved Christmastime, as evidenced by my extra large collection of Christmas CDs and movies. Then for many years I hated it.

I was single, I was broke. I was anxious. Depressed. Fighting so many demons it was unfair, pushed down in fear that I couldn't talk to anyone about them; I thought no one would understand. I watched my siblings cuddle close with their new spouses, nursing cups of tea, enthusiastically passing around their gifts, picked out together for each of us.

I came empty and idle handed. Grad school left me with no money to buy gifts, and I didn't have a boyfriend's hand to hold. The gray skies kept me imprisoned in a state of inner mustiness, and I ached for spring.

When people say they hate the holidays, I do understand.

Probably no time is more difficult to be happy than when you feel like you must be happy, because the circumstances around you supposedly warrant it.

I'm sure I seem like a downer when I continually encourage people to talk about their sadness, but it's because I know that being dishonest just makes it worse. I'm a veteran of depression, and I've experienced victory of renewed happiness, so I simply preach what I know worked for me. Telling the truth got me out of the pit. The pit where I believed no one would understand. The pit where I thought I had to put on a happy face at Christmas, even though I wasn't feeling the Christmas spirit.


This weekend I didn't have to fake my joy. But it was a reminder, with my brief emotional intermission on Sunday afternoon, that joy may not always be permanent.

When I was in the throes of my depression and anxiety filled days, I remember finding how quickly I could be renewed by something as simple as 30 seconds of chatter with a friendly grocery cashier.

Surprised by joy.

My story is a long one of hiding my fears and later slowly revealing them, going to therapy, taking psychotropic drugs, and reaching out to my family, friends, and faith community. I'll be honest, I had a harder time reaching out directly to God. But I have tried -- and still try -- to hope that He hasn't cut off the phone line, given my failure to pick up and dial.

After years of struggle, I find myself now in a place of joy. A place where I not only feel the Christmas spirit in December, but actively pursue it, getting my fingers sticky with craft glue to deck the halls with homemade boughs of holly.

Surprised by joy.

After Mary found out she was carrying the Son of God in her womb, she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth previously believed she was barren, too old to gestate, but by the time Mary came to see her she was pregnant herself. As Mary crossed the threshold of her home, the babe in Liz's tummy literally leapt in recognition of the one inside Mary's belly.

That leaping babe was John, who would later baptize Mary's son, Jesus.

As Bible stories go, I find this one to be slammin'. A fetus recognizing his cousin, prenatally??? Awesome.

And perhaps I wasn't paying attention, but I feel like my Sunday School classes of yore glossed over this story. I grew up understanding the significance of John the Baptist's role of baptizing the one true King, but I don't think I ever realized they were kin, and especially not that they were acquainted before birth.

I felt a little cheated when I first took notice of this story. Why hadn't I known it before?

The point is I know now. Surprised by the joy of a story that's been before me my whole life and I didn't know it. Like discovering a precious heirloom in a dusty attic, after its owner has passed.


I haven't always been joyful at Christmas, and I haven't always been joyful in general.

Now that I am, most of the time, pretty darn happy, I try to acknowledge that all the gifts in my life are from God. But in general I don't feel like a "great" Christian the large majority of the time. I don't feel like I talk about God enough, pray to Him enough, read His stories enough.

I don't sing enough to Him, like Mary did, when she visited Elizabeth.

In light of recent events, Rustin didn't pretend like the world isn't a scary mess. But he said we have a lot to be joyful for.

While I struggle in my faith, I can't help but regularly be reminded that God provides for me. With food and shelter, yes, and also countless friends and supportive family. A roommate who is a sister more than one to split a rent check with. A boyfriend who slow dances with me by the pool table in a bar. A cat who is the cutest, snuggliest little munch.

When I was having a harder time in life, I found provisions in smaller things, things that I honestly had a hard time always being grateful for, as they seemed meager. But I felt their power, if for an instant. The friendly grocery cashier, a warm, healing breeze, a song that chipped at the ice inside me.

I know that faith is hard, and religion is a hot button issue in our beyond-broken world, especially as it seems to be something that divides us further. Why do you think I'm so terrified to talk about it with those around me?

But all I can say is that I don't think it's an accident, in my life, that I can become giddy in the face of glitter and glue, in a season that before was dim. Dim and dark for a long time.

Yes, I've been given the right concoction of prescribed meds and I've moved to a place of sunshine, etc. etc., but I prefer to believe that I've been led to those things.

My hope for you is that, one, you'll find peace in this season. I know that we can't fast forward our lives to a season of happiness, even if the calendar says December and we're not ready to dust off the holiday greenery.

And two, I hope that you find yourself surprised by joy. The world is dark, I won't lie about that.

But I believe that "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." -- John 1:5