I don’t like Christmas, one might say I’m a bit of a Grinch. Ironically, I happened to watch the 2018 rendition of “The Grinch” on the plane over to celebrate Christmas with family this year. I cried.
You see, my enjoyment of Christmas has steadily decreased over the years. My distaste for it started as a child, back when I was about 10 years old. My parents divorced when I was 9 and the settlement mandated that us kids were shunted back and forth between two families every alternating weekend.
For me, this caused a lot of stress during “handover” periods. I couldn’t really put a finger on it as a kid. Thinking back, I think it boils down to three things:
The sense of “divided loyalty”, needing to intentionally sever feelings of affection for one whole group of people and re-imprint on another group of people, entirely based on some arbitrary schedule
The social effort required to engage with my father’s social circle, his extended family and suchlike
As the peacekeeper in the family, I personally felt a strong need to always intercede and make everything OK, especially when there was tension between the two camps.
This stress as a child manifest in a lot of “avoiding” behaviours. My sister and I would hide out in the kitchen from strangers, or spend extra time in bed to avoid engaging with the day. Preferring quite moments to big social events.
This “alternating” visitation thing happened for Christmases as well. Every second year we would celebrate Christmas with my father and his family. We weren’t really allowed to avid socialising in these situations. Understandably, my father wanted us to enjoy our time with him and his family, to engage, especially over the festive season. The big social events were unavoidable.
I don’t want to make it sound as though I had a horrible childhood, far from it. It’s just that Christmas in particular I associate with:
a deep sense of social obligation to people I don’t know very well
the requirement to perform a sense of happiness and togetherness in the context of being actually separated and uncomfortable
a sense (as the peacemaker in the family) that I could never possibly make everyone happy even though I wanted to
This general sense of Christmas being an uncomfortable time only became more intense when I grew up, came out and met a number of other queer people who didn’t have any kind of family to rely on. So many people I know in my life now are depressed over Christmas because for various reasons they can’t engage with their birth family and members of their family of choice are busy with their own Christmas things.
Chloe, my ex, would endure Christmas like a soldier hunkering down in the trenches of the first world war, and I think that feeling of being embattled kind of rubbed off. In the past I have hosted “orphan’s Christmas” for my social group of people who have nothing, but it’s always a mixed bag.
I brought these complaints up with my psychologist, Chris. I didn’t want to go to Christmas with my family, but they expected it. In the spirit of me being more assertive, shouldn’t I just eschew this time period and go do something else?
Chris’ advice was, “well, if you’re just going to be at home being grumpy, you may as well spend Christmas with your family”. I relented and so here I am, and I’m sure I will enjoy it. I am sure it will be a good time with good memories. It’s just this is not my time, this is not for me, this is for someone else, and having lived a life in service to other people for so long, it especially grates this year.
The other part of Christmas that irritates me is the forced consumerism. The news here in New Zealand reports how busy the shops are and how much money has been spent in retail as if these are metrics of interest to everyone other than shop owners. The commodification of every kind of cultural or interpersonal experience into something that can be turned into cash makes me kind of sick. I pride myself in being able to find the most ideal gift for people, but like most people I genuinely dislike how cheap, tacky and performative Christmas is.
I’m not sure if I will have the same epiphany the Grinch had and suddenly have a love of Christmas, but I do know how important it is to others, especially my mum.
So Merry Christmas, Mum, I’ll keep my humbugs for later.
“Well, the good news is it appears your grief is not pathological” my psychologist, Chris, said in that unassuming manner he has.
It’s been well over 5 months since Chloe dropped the bombshell on me. Her plan to move out slipped from August, to September, till finally on the 4th of October (2 days after my birthday) she moved out. “I’m going to miss this place” she intoned before she gave me a hug and was out of my life for good.
“Not pathological.. that sounds good, I think I’ll write that down”.
It has been a bumpy ride to get here. I remember quite clearly sitting in a hotel room in Wellington on the 23rd of September. I had an appointment with Chris but had to do it via Skype because I was in Wellington for an important client meeting.
“I turn 40 soon” I lamented, “I’m going bald, my left hip hurts and the love of my life moves out forever next month.”
“So, what’s going well in your life then?”
“…my job” I barely managed before sobbing uncontrollably into the microphone.
It certainly felt pretty bleak and existential at the time, but really the only thing that was missing was a sense of purpose, or a sense of what I wanted out of life, my own goals, independent of anyone else.
Chris helped me come up with a set of values to drive towards, and I turned that into a Kanban board of tasks and priorities.
I didn’t really have much time to feel sorry for myself, because in true me fashion, I picked up a few dependents at about the same time as I lost Chloe.
About 3 months before Chloe moved out, I met Lilith (right). She had been having difficulties which culminated in her being homeless about a month before Chloe moved out, and on pretty much the same day she moved out, Vincent (left) also moved in because he needed a place to stay.
Now I know what you’re going to say, slipping into a “helper” mode is so very classically me.
Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm
And yes, you’re right. Still, it’s a lesson I have to keep learning for myself over and over till I learn how to set healthy boundaries. I think I am getting better. I have this trait strongly in common with my father: I tend to be drawn towards broken things.
Without getting into too much detail, October and November were rocky months for all three of us. I remember distinctly a moment when Lilith’s computer was broken and possibly lost forever by the courier company taking it in for repairs. It was just one more thing on top of everything else and she was beside herself.
“Everything can be fixed” I said as I hugged her tightly, and I really mean that. In fact, “fixing” things has become a theme for me these past few months, and not in a bad way.
For example, take my beloved Nikon camera. I turned it on optimistically with the hopes of taking some photos. Nothing, not even a friendly little light or an error message. Nothing, and that was after charging the battery overnight. I took it in to the repair shop and the young gentleman from behind the counter declared that a camera more than a decade old is not worth trying to fix. “Just buy a new one”. I suppose you could try get a new battery, but we don’t sell those anymore.”
A new aftermarket battery means the camera works just fine. The next challenge was the lens which could no longer focus. I sent it in for a repair quote. The quote came back at $1000, so I declined the repair and thought I might take it apart and fiddle as I had with my other lens.
Simply sending it in to get a quote was enough to get the lens working again. No grand investment required.
The camera has become a bit of a metaphor for me: so often in life, we despair that things are irreparably damaged.
So this then brings me to the title of this post and the subject of the song I have been practising. At first I was practising it so I could use it as a foil to discuss my need to be needed, how I tend to be drawn to people who are in trouble, just like my father was. I was even going to talk a bit more about his own personal situation. But you know what, my perspective has changed.
I don’t think the “you” in the song is about “you” after all. I think it’s about “me”. I think the song is about “me” or the person singing it. At least, over the last few months it has become about me: everything in life can be fixed.
I say everything in life and that does deserve some small caveat. You see on Saturday 14th December, someone in my local community passed away from pneumonia. He was young (34) and it happened so quickly. He is survived by family, friends and his partner who is beside herself with grief. Everything in life can be fixed. Death, however, is something we have no fix for as yet.
I was in a barbershop quintet in high school, a little over two decades ago. One of the songs we sang was Billy Joel’s beautiful ballad “And so it goes”. Like all of the songs we sang, it became an important part of my psyche, and is probably why I have had a life long love of Billy Joel’s music. The song itself is about someone whose lover has left them, or is leaving them. It’s beautiful, tragic and pure.
I remember distinctly, all of 18 years old, standing there in front of the audience full of adults, belting out this song and it struck me mid-song that I had never been in love, never known heartache of the romantic kind before and although I did my best to channel real emotion into the song, it would always be a little inauthentic. I wondered how fresh young pop stars of any generation were able to sing authentically about such strong emotions without much life experience, or was this just me?
I put a pin in that thought for my future self to come back to and it just so happens the pin poked through space and time and popped into my thoughts recently. Because, you see, I have since known love, I have since known heartache and now I believe I am finally ready to sing this song anew.
For the past 7 years, every love song has (to me) been about my partner Chloe. Every time I heard something about love, it has always been about her for me. “And so it goes” is no exception because as of Friday 12th July, Chloe broke up with me.
It’s hard to put in words how I feel, because the feelings are complex and all over the place. Unsurprisingly, Billy’s words resonate quite strongly. Right down to the bit about the rose, because I gave Chloe a copper rose for our 7 year anniversary this year. The metaphor of sharing a room, thus sharing your heart and opening yourself up to heartbreak is such a beautiful and painful notion which I keep coming back to over the last few days. We’re no longer sharing a room, but she remains in my heart, and watching her slowly disentangle her life from my own is painful.
You might ask why I am being so candid here and sharing so much intimate information online. Those of you who read my old blog starting in 2002 might well ask the opposite: why did I ever stop? I mean, I haven’t written anything in this blog for over 4 years, and before that, my original blog stalled in 2012. The closest I can come to an explanation is to describe as an awakening.
Some time after my father died (a topic which deserves its own attention) I dreamt about him. It wasn’t a pleasant dream and so I wondered why, when I woke up, I didn’t feel relieved to realise it was a dream. Then it dawned on me, as it would again and again over the coming weeks: “that’s right, he’s dead and he’s never coming back.”
The same slow realisation has been creeping into my consciousness over the last 2-3 weeks. It’s like waking up from a dream, only to find that the real world is a nightmare, but at least it is the real world now, and at least I can do something in it, can make the most of what I have. I suppose this is why I am writing now and not before. Before I was in a dream. A wonderful dream full of love, happiness and aspiration. With its share of difficulty, but secure in the knowledge that I was a member of a team which could not be defeated.
Because that’s how we saw each other, Chloe and I: a team. We overcame her crippling family difficulties, embraced her gender identity, moved countries, fought depression, and above all loved and cared for each other unconditionally with a broad confidence which could overcome any obstacle. Our friends looked up to us, admired and in many cases envied us our strong relationship which we always declared was based on mutual respect, hard work and communication.
Her psychologist warned us about what I call the “queer meta-game”. “People are going to see you as a happy confident couple which is rare in the community and they are going to want it, or want to be part of it”. And try they did, there were at least four people before the current one who expressed an interest in encroaching into our relationship, one of whom after the first couple weeks.
I don’t think it’s really as simple as “she found someone else” but there is someone else who she fancies, and she’s decided to move out in August to gain some independence and perspective. Of course I am hopeful she will decide to get back together with me, but as the days and weeks march on, I am starting to come to terms with the notion that this may never happen.
I have committed to self-improvement. Almost instinctively, my natural reaction was to move into the spare room, get the piano out and start practising. I hope to post more soon.