Merry Christmas – may it be so

Merry_ChristmasMerry Christmas, everyone. Happy Christmas. Frohe Weinachten. Feliz Navidad. And many more wishes in languages I do not know.

I hope it is a good day for you, and that you find peace and a measure of happiness before the day is through.

Christmas is a tricky time for a lot of people, including those who have some sort of limitation or particular need. One of the most poignant things about it, is actually the spirit of it, which so often gets lost in the shuffle. The original story (whether you’re a believer or not) is about people under duress making the best of a bad situation.

A whole country is uprooted by a tyrant (of sorts) and hauled away from their homes, so they can be taxed in the town of their family’s origin. One couple in the midst is a man and his very pregnant wife, who have to make the trek, regardless of her condition. Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary were from, was a kind of crappy area — economically depressed and not the sort of place “nice” people lived. So, Joseph probably wasn’t all that well-off to begin with, and dragging him away from his work as a tradesman to tax him, was just heaping one injury on another. It wasn’t like he made that much money, to begin with — but he gets taxed and he loses however many days or weeks of work. That’s rough.

And when Mary and Joseph get where they’re going, there’s literally no room for them in habitable lodging. So, they end up in a stable. In a strange city. Anyone who’s spent time around farm animals, knows this is about the last place you want to deliver a baby, but apparently that’s where it happened, and the child ended up laid in a feeding trough for his first night on earth.

Some entrance.

Now, I’m not a hugely religious person, these days. Once upon a time, I was, though. I was raised in an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian household and I was “raised in the church.” It was my primary social network. My parents are still very involved in their church community, as are some of my siblings. I’ve always been pretty spiritual (even after I stopped believing the way my family did), and that endured through the years with a strong tendency to feelings of mysticism and spiritual connection with something higher.

My TBI in 2004, however, pretty much erased my religious feeling. Suddenly, it just wasn’t there, anymore, and I could not for the life of me figure out why anyone would have any interest in religion or spirituality. My spouse has always been very spiritual, and I can assure you, the times when I did not pray along with them were not the best moments in our marriage. I rolled my eyes and tapped my foot impatiently, waiting for them to finish, which really hurt their feelings.

My lack of spiritual feeling has persisted somewhat, but in the past few years, that’s started to change. Just goes to show you how the brain continues to alter and develop along different lines, over time. And I’ve gotten some of my spiritual feeling back — though I have probably gotten back more willingness to play along so I don’t hurt others’ feelings, than I’ve gotten back my old religious fervor.

But religious belief aside, the story behind Christmas is one that really resonates with a lot of people. It’s all about being forced into a less-than-ideal situation, and making do. It’s about modest, humble circumstances setting the stage for later greatness. And to me it’s about dealing up-front with the indignities of life and recognizing that beneath the limitations of your circumstances, there lies a potential for rising above it all. The indignities of not having enough, of being pushed aside, being just another face in the crowd, aren’t the whole truth about who we are and what we’re capable of. We may not all be divine (though some believe we are), but we can surely rise above our circumstances, like that little baby who spent his first night in a feed trough.

Making do… that’s pretty much what this season has been about for me. I have been working overtime for months, keeping my emotions from getting the best of me, and that’s taken a toll on my system. It takes a lot of energy to keep yourself on an even keel, when everything around you feels like it’s going nuts, and I have really felt it, this holiday season. Not having a doctor I trust and can rely on… that’s a subtle source of pressure. Being told my neuropsych is retiring in the spring… that’s more pressure. Being threatened with a layoff in the immediate term… that’s a direct and intense source of pressure. Having everyone around me at work be in rotten spirits because of the impending job changes… that’s an indirect but distracting source of pressure. Expensive car repairs and drama while traveling over Thanksgiving wasn’t easy. Being sick has been a disruptive challenge. And having my spouse being sick, too — and increasingly disabled — has been hard to get my head around.

Most of this I’ve had to deal with on my own, but I don’t mind. It’s actually easier for me to handle things alone, so I don’t have to verbalize with people. Talking out loud is yet another source of pressure, and I’ve been doing it pretty poorly, this holiday season. Seriously — I haven’t been able to describe things I’m looking for, and people in stores don’t take kindly to it. It’s been kind of funny, actually, when I’ve tried to describe caulk… or a little bracelet with colorful beads… and failed to do so.

I’ve kept it together, more or less, but it’s taken a toll.

The energy that I’ve been using to keep myself on an even keel had to come from somewhere, and my thought processing has not been the sharpest. I’ve been forgetful, scattered, emotional, foggy, and that all makes it even worse. It’s really been a challenge to do the kinds of things that used to come easy to me, and that’s hard to take. I can’t believe I have to deal with all of this — and take things so much more slowly, plan so much more carefully, and resort to what feel like remedial measures.

And through it all… I                      am                   so                  tired.

But then I come back to the Christmas story. And I can relate. I have a pretty good idea how it must feel to be uprooted from your home and dragged somewhere else to pay someone money that you probably don’t have. I don’t know how it feels to have a baby on the way, but I know about long journeys and having more asked of you than you feel you can spare. And I know the feeling of despair and overwhelm, when everything around you seems to conspire against you, and you can’t catch a break.

I also know what it’s like to make do with what little I have. This year, we don’t have a tree indoors, because the artificial tree we’ve had for years has gotten old and smells terrible. It’s musty and dusty and the materials are starting to degrade and off-gas, so after a couple of tries, we ended up just putting the tree out on the back porch and arranging our presents on a beautiful golden cloth we have, surrounded by colored lights.

It’s modest, but it’s beautiful, and later I’ll roast the turkey for our Christmas dinner. We’ll have a quiet day, today, and just enjoy the quiet in our own merry way.

We’re better off now than we’ve been in quite some time, and for that I am grateful. We have our issues, but we also have our ways of dealing with them. It’s Christmas. Time to focus less on what we don’t have, and more on what we do.

May your Christmas be merry, as well.

What really gets to me, this time of year

And that's what I have to say about that - to some folks
And that’s what I have to say about that – to some folks, anyway.

I had an epiphany yesterday while shopping for supper. My trip to the grocery store was irritating and tiresome. Everywhere I turned, there seemed to be something or someone in my way. From the drivers on the road, to the people in the supermarket, it was like a maze getting around.

This time of year is crazy, and if I’d had better judgment, I wouldn’t have been out, period.  But I was still sick, still not thinking clearly, and anyway, I was on a mission to pick up my lumber supplies to fix my stairs, and I just needed to get up and out of my head, anyway, so what the hell?

Anyway, despite being foggy and disoriented, I managed to find the cut of lamb I was looking for. {Whenever my spouse is away, I make myself a dinner of lamb — cooked in olive oil in a pan with onions, mushrooms, yams, and green beans – and salt to taste. That’s my treat, since I love lamb, and my spouse hates it.} It took me several tries of walking up and down the meat displays, before I finally found the lamb — but now I know where it is for next time. And I found a yam that would work perfectly for just one person.

I forgot other things I needed to get, but after 10 minutes inside, I just wanted to get out.

The trip to the store felt like an onslaught — too much light, too much sound, too much Christmas. Everybody being herded (speaking of lamb) towards additional purchases… even as my bank alerts me with a text that my account is below the level it should be.  All the people milling around… it actually wasn’t as bad as it could be, but for me on that day, with my senses going nuts and this sinus infection messing with my thinking and reaction time, all I wanted was to get out of there.

I finally did make my way to the front cash register, feeling and acting genuinely impaired. I was clumsy and pretty much non-verbal, and the cashier had to remind me what to do with the keypad, which I was poking at like an idiot. I paid for my $5.87 meal, and headed for my car, steering a wide circle around the Salvation Army alms-gatherer, who kept trying to get my attention. I don’t support the Salvation Army, because it’s a well-disguised religious and political organization (some call it a “sect”) that doesn’t tell everyone what they really support. I can’t agree with many points of their agenda, and I certainly don’t agree with them hiding it from people who have a handful of change to drop in the bucket. It really irritates me that the general public (who may not know what they’re all about and may not agree at all with what they promote) is every so sweetly pressured into donating to them by kind-looking people with bells.

I was in a pretty sour / disaffected mood, by the time I was done. And I headed to my car feeling slightly guilty about being so “bah humbug” at this time of year. I really wanted to get into the spirit of things, but I was just so underwhelmed with everything around me, so put off by the onslaught, so tweaked by… seemingly everything. At least I’d parked away from most of the cars, I figured. I was in no shape to be navigating between closely positioned vehicles in the state I was in.

I had just finished putting my food in the back of my car, when another driver zoomed past me into the empty space beside my car. They couldn’t have passed more than 6 inches away from me, and if I’d been feeling better, I would have been alarmed.

But I had  no energy for that. It was just one more irritation to grab my limited attention, so I just dismissed and shrugged it off and got in my car. The other driver put their car in park, and just for the hell of it, I looked over at them with a smile. I was feeling so contrary, I wanted to be pleasant, even in the face of the near miss and my total irritation with everything that had happened that day.

The other driver looked over at me sheepishly, then smiled back. A moment later, they looked over at me again with another quizzical smile, and I smiled in return. Then they got out and walked around their car to mine, and I rolled down the window. I figured they wanted to apologize, maybe, for nearly creaming me, and I was in a defiantly generous mood, so I was about to let that be what the exchange was all about. With so much bullshit going on in the world, these days, the most radical, contrary thing I could do, was be kindhearted and generous to someone who’d nearly taken my legs off.

There really wasn’t any need for an apology, and the other driver sensed it, somehow. They said, “Oh my God – how is it the supermarket?”

I said it was actually fine, that I got in and out in no time. I didn’t even mention the close call. Why waste my time?

They said they thought for sure it would be crazy inside, what with all the cars, but maybe it was everyone shopping in other stores.

I said I thought that was probably the case — that if you knew what you were looking for in the grocery store, you’d be able to get in and out. It really wasn’t any more busy than it is on a weekday night.

We shot the breeze for a few more minutes, then we went our separate ways. And both of us felt that much better. Because we’d actually had a real conversation between two real people — not the kind of superficial, crazy-busy rush and push of the holiday shopping experience. For a few minutes, we’d been able to be real human beings with each other, sharing an experience that both of us couldn’t friggin’ stand, that made us into people other than our best selves. And for those few minutes — all made possible by a near miss — we got a much-needed break from all the B.S. of this season.

And as they disappeared into the crowd, and I pulled away to go home, I realized that my malcontent and frustration and disaffection has nothing to do with Christmas, itself. It has nothing to do with the season or the time of year or the shortening of days or anything like that. It’s not because I’m in a BAD MOOD, or that I feel “bah humbug” about everything. It’s not because I’m sick, or I don’t have enough money, or I hate life or my job or politics or anything else.

It’s because at this time of year, especially, I really want to have some real contact with real people, and just put aside all the busy-ness. I want to be able to have a real conversation with another human being about something that is real and genuine. I get upset and disaffected and grumpy about the bullshit. All the commercial crap, all the bogus posturing, all the appeals for financial help at the end of the year. All the nagging and pleading and posing… it just makes me insane. It’s a waste of my time, and I resent the very existence of it.

So, it’s NOT that I’m not in the Christmas spirit. I actually am — very much so. The thing is, I’m in a real Christmas spirit, and I have no patience for people who aren’t willing to be real, and businesses and causes that make themselves out to be something that they’re not. I resent feeling like people are constantly trying to trick me, and I detest all the spin that goes on in the news. I get sick of being lied to, especially at this time of year, and I resent being forced to work harder at my life, because retailers can’t seem to offer anything of sufficient value during the rest of the year, to make their businesses solvent. I’m sick of the deceptive cycles of holiday debt, followed by months of struggle underneath the added burden. And I’m sick of a system that makes it all possible — even mandatory.

I just want my freedom. But apparently, that’s too much to ask. And the sight of the plight of so many people who are trusting others to point them in the right direction, just weighs down my heart.

So my lack of Christmas cheer is actually not a bad thing. It’s a sign that I’m alive and kicking, and I have precious little wish to live less than a fully true life. I have no patience for spin and obfuscation and masking agendas to sign on adherents, and I have no wish to perpetuate it.

If someone wants to engage me in a real conversation about real things, and be genuine and human with me, I’m all for it.

But if you’re just dishing up more steaming B.S. on a silver platter, you’d best keep your distance. To you, I say, “Bah humbug!”

Missions accomplished… kind of

Tree’s up… getting there…

This year all the Christmas preparations and activities are going a lot more slowly than in past years. Part of it is me, part of it is my spouse. We are both slowing down — especially my spouse, who is having increasing difficulty sequencing information and understanding things when I say them the first time. They are also having difficulty communicating their ideas to me. They tend to start their sentences mid-way, and then they get angry furious when I ask them what they are talking about.

It’s not much fun, watching the love of your life decline cognitively, physically, emotionally, and behaviorally, that’s for sure. It’s heart-wrenching, and it’s very difficult to observe… not having any way to stop it. They’re also intensely anxious about… well, just about everything. If they don’t have a sense of control, they flip out. Or run away.

So, I do my best under the circumstances. I try to remain calm. I take my vitamins. I do my exercises when I wake up. I keep on keepin’ on. I work on my projects, in hope that they will allow me to earn some extra money on the side, so I can take better care of us. I just keep on, taking care of what I can control, and “turning over” the rest, as they say.

And we both do what we can. We really work at keeping the arguments from getting completely out of hand, and get through the rough patches the same way as always. I have a lot less tolerance for the fiery arguments, than I used to have.  We have always had a very fiery, passionate relationship, and we’ve kept each other on our toes. But it gets a little old, to be honest, and sometimes I just don’t feel like going through the whole big loop to get to a final resting place where we both understand what’s going on.

Anyway, over this weekend, we did some Christmas shopping and got just about everything we need for family members. We’re not shopping for each other, just yet, because we have time and we don’t want to put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We also trimmed the tree a bit. This year, we are taking it in bits and pieces. In past years, we put everything — and I mean everything — on at once. We loaded the tree up with all our ornaments and lights, and it was a sight to behold.

This year, we just put up strings of small lights, and last night we did the larger lights. We didn’t have enough of the lights we needed, so the tree is looking a little lop-sided this year. We’ll figure it out, I’m sure.

Or we won’t. And this will be kind of a sad and low-key time.

I’m thinking it’s going to be the latter. For all the progress I’ve been making, and for all the strides I’ve made, I’m married to someone who is on the exact opposite end of the spectrum — too afraid of their own shadow, and too averse to hard work, to maintain and improve. They are literally letting themself go, and when they are challenged, they’ll react for a few days… maybe a week… and improve. Then they will go back to how they were before. It’s very dispiriting, to be honest.

It also makes me all the more aware of what a difference attitude makes in brain injury recovery. By hiding from it in fear and ignoring it, basically refusing to engage with it, that just makes things worse. You can’t shrug off a brain injury. You can deal with it. You can address it. You can fix a lot of things. But NOT if you’re hiding from it, cowering in fear in the dark corners of your mind.

Of course, brain injury lends itself extremely well to panic-anxiety disorders. You can get stuck in fight-flight mode, simply by right of the nature of the condition. You’re always ON, always on high alert, trying to figure out how to do things that used to make sense, and you’re constantly being surprised / jolted / alarmed by things that did not work out the way you needed them to — or expected them to.

It is so hard, at times. A real pain in the ass. And the worst thing you can do is avoid dealing with it. That just does not work.

Well, anyway, we got done most of what we meant to do. And we’ve got more planned for this week. We’re moving carefully through the steps of getting it all done in good time, and it will all get taken care of, for sure. It’s just hard, right now, watching my spouse decline… watching their thinking degrade… their physical mobility… their overall health and well-being. It’s hard watching the one person you care for most in the world, let themself just go downhill like that.

If I didn’t care, it would be one thing. But I do care. Deeply. I guess I’ll just go with that.

Each year better than the last – I hope

Looking back… looking ahead

Now that Christmas and Hanukkah and Winter Solstice have all passed, it’s time to start looking ahead to the New Year. Kwanzaa is still underway till January 1, and the Seven Principles that mark this time give me good food for thought, even though I don’t actually celebrate it formally. Yuletide is also underway till January 1 (or the 13th, depending what part of the world you live in), allowing everything to just slow down for time to reflect and look ahead to the new year.

I’m celebrating the spirit of Yuletide more than any other holiday this season. It’s been a quiet time, without a lot of travel, and minimal racing around to take care of presents and what-not. If anything, I’ve been pretty neglectful of others, this holiday season. But you know what? They’ve been totally neglectful of me, too, so we’re even. If anything, the past years have been about me and my spouse doing a hell of a lot more for them than they did for us — doing more travel, making more of an effort, going out of our way to keep everyone aligned and on track with coordinating our holiday activities. This year, we haven’t done all that — and guess what… nobody picked up the slack. So there you go — they must not care that much, so… what-ever.

It’s time to us to take care of ourselves for once.

And we’ve done just that. I’ve been in a pretty low-key frame of mind since before Christmas — all the excitement of work notwithstanding — so, it’s been a very “Yule-like” time. Things have slowed down. I’ve allowed them to slow down. I’ve taken time OFF from all the sense of obligation and duty and required activities, to just rest and relax and not race around like a chicken with my head cut off, as I did in prior years. I’ve done energizing things that are good for me, and I’ve been eating lots of new foods that support me and my brain, as well. I’ve cooked up some pretty excellent dishes lately, if I say so myself, and my spouse says I’m becoming quite the chef:)

Looking back on the past year, it’s odd — I can remember bits and pieces of it, but I don’t get an overall sense of how the year was. I know it’s been challenging, and I’ve been actively looking for a new job for much of that time — especially in the past three months. At home, things have stabilized somewhat — with less undercurrents of stress and strain, but some extreme meltdowns that have taken a toll on my marriage. I’ve been through a lot of intense challenges with my spouse, including issues with money and infidelity and physically unhealthy choices. All in all, though, I think we’re on the up-swing, and taking time out from all the travel to see family, as well as me getting my own “house” in order, has benefited us a great deal.

I feel stronger and more stable than I have in a long time. Perhaps ever. And yet, there’s a constant sense of confusion and disorientation that is always in the background. I am more functional than I can remember being in a good long while, and the circumstances of my life are leveling out and becoming more “structurally sound”, but at the same time, I’m in a fair amount of general pain much of the time, I have tremors and shakes, and my brain is definitely not firing on all pistons. I feel like I’m maybe at 65% on a regular basis. 85% if I’m lucky.

And that makes me sad.

But I think perhaps I am acclimating to the instability. I’ve decided I’m going to just get on with my life, even though I can’t seem to get rid of the memory problems, the sleep difficulties, the constant sense of fatigue, confusion, distractability, getting things turned around, and getting lost and not knowing where I am for a few minutes at a time… and more.

My solution is to just keep going and not get sidetracked and depressed by what’s going on inside my head. If I can just keep going, keep working at things, and do my best to learn from my lessons and try again, this all doesn’t need to hold me back permanently. It might slow me down, but it’s not going to stop me.

I’m also coming to terms with the idea of not being Alpha in every situation at work — and beyond. At work, I have been long accustomed to being Alpha and being in a leadership position of some kind. But now that things are shifting and changing at work, I’m not sure if this is going to last. There are so many people at work who are a hell of a lot more possessed by the demons of blind ambition and greed, and I just can’t see competing with them around the clock. There’s all sorts of politicking — and if it takes politicking to get ahead, then I’m going to step back and not engage with that, and allow myself to simply be happy in the position where I am.

Now, I don’t for a minute expect that I’ll stay in that subordinate position for long, if I get the attention of the right people who recognize what I’ve got to offer. I do want to get ahead. I need a raise. I need a promotion. I need to really put what I know and have learned into action. But I need to be smart about it and not just charge forward into the gap, without understanding what’s ahead of me. If a promotion means I’m going to have to travel all over the world and not be home more than two weeks out of every month, then I’ll pass. There is that possibility. But who can say? Who can say…

Anyway, I can’t invest too much time and effort in thinking about what may be… inventing all sorts of dramatic stories about what that will mean for me. Who knows what will happen? I need to conserve my energy, because I continue to have some limiting difficulties — the headaches and the joint pain which suck a lot of energy from me… the confusion and disorientation that keep me guessing and demand even more energy from me to keep up and do my part… the vertigo and tinnitus that are just so damned distracting… and the attentional and distraction issues that interrupt what I’m doing with a regular dose of screw-ups.

I need to keep going, and in order to do that, I need to take good care of myself and also practice things that will keep me sharp and make me sharper, while not using up a lot of time.

  • Ride the exercise bike or move and stretch, first thing in the morning to get my blood pumping and clear out some of the sludge that’s built up. (10 minutes a day)
  • Practicing juggling one thing at a time, tossing it into the air, and then catching it.  I do this with my toothbrush each morning, to improve my eye-hand coordination and also my focus and attention. (1-2 minutes a day)
  • Working on my balance and leg mobility with exercises on a daily basis. (5 minutes a day)
  • Doing my measured breathing that regulates my heart rate and keeps me calm. (5-10 minutes a day)
  • Allowing myself to really, truly relax on a regular basis — just letting myself collapse into bed or on the couch, and letting the fatigue just wash over me. (The first few minutes when I go to bed)
  • Increase my dopamine levels by eating more foods with L-Tyrosine and also taking the supplement… and also taking Oil of Oregano, to keep my body from breaking down the dopamine and seratonin in my system. (In the regular course of my day.)
  • Drinking plenty of water to flush out the sludge.
  • Studying anatomy and physiology, to help me better understand the inner workings of my physical life — and how to improve my health.

All these things are really good for me — and I can work them into my daily routine. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to do them as a regular part of my life, without up-ending my routine. That is totally do-able, because I can find time when my breakfast is cooking, and I’d just be sitting around anyway.  I just need to do it. And I need to not just take things for granted, because I’ve been doing them a while and it feels like I don’t need to do them anymore.

That’s probably the biggest threat to my well-being in the new year — getting complacent and just assuming that “I’m good” and I don’t need to keep up my routines and activities. That state of “good” can rapidly decline, as I’ve learned time and time again.

So, as I look forward to the new year, I’m thinking about the basics. Focusing on that, and not making myself crazy with a whole lot of dramatic schemes and Big Plans, like I have in the past. I’m settling in, in a way, and it feels pretty good. I just can’t get complacent. Gotta keep working at it. Each day.

Well, speaking of working at things, I need to get a move on and get my ass in gear. I have some errands I need to run before everything closes for the day.

Onward.

Keeping sharp during the holiday seasons

So, I’ve had a few days to simmer down after the last weekend of blow-ups, and now I’ve got another weekend ahead of me to sort things through and do a better job.

That’s about the best that I can expect of myself, under the circumstances. What’s done, is done. And I have to just let go of it, even though it still bothers me and I get sick to my stomach, thinking back about how rough it was last weekend.

New weekend, new chance. New lessons learned.

The big lesson I learned — once again — is that “time off” isn’t always such a good thing for me to have. I can rest, certainly. And I can take some time off. But spending too much time resting and relaxing… that’s a recipe for disaster.

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, as they say, and I have so much I need to do, anyway, that taking too much time away just stresses me out and makes me even more irritable and difficult to live and work with. I need discipline, and a planned approach, which will let me not only budget my time and get things done, but also allow me to rest. It’s all a balance. It’s when I have too much time on my hands and I’m not extending myself to do something meaningful, that I get into trouble.

The same thing goes for the week between Christmas and New Years. I have the full week off — 8 days total, plus Christmas Eve, when they close the office early. So, I have all that time, and I’m not traveling anywhere. I need to keep things pretty structured during that time, and I also need to give my spouse some space and room on their own, so I’m not underfoot and they’re not walking on eggshells around me.

My spouse is convinced that I am dangerous, and that I could go off at any time. They tiptoe around me and placate me and act like I am a monster, and that really drags me down. I still feel pretty crappy from the whole thing, and them dragging it on, just makes it worse. We both try to keep it light, but it just feels like they’re back to where they were for years, not giving me the benefit of the doubt, really trying to “handle” me and keep me in check, so I don’t go off.

It just sucks when the environment is like that. It gets old quick, and I don’t feel like being around it.

So, I need to clear out, at least a few of the days. Keep busy. Keep it light, for sure. Maybe not spend that much time around them, since they don’t really want to be around me. I dunno. I just wish it were easier. But then it wouldn’t be the holidays.

Anyway, I need to keep pretty sharp during the holidays — not get sucked into the whole junk food thing, keep getting my exercise, stretch regularly, not get bogged down in a lot of busy-ness, and keep my mind and spirit clear. I can’t stand feeling rotten all the time, and I hate how I tense up, whenever my spouse is talking to me. It’s stupid and painful for both of us, and I don’t know how to make it stop.

I guess these things work themselves out with time… We’ll find out.

In the meantime, I need to take care of myself and stay as clear and cool as I can.

What my spouse does, is up to them.

TBI Holiday Strategies – Rest

That -- pretty much
That — pretty much

Nothing says the holidays like the frenetic race to do-do-do, and go-go-go. For some reason, a whole lot of people think it’s important to DO MORE between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and Christmas and New Years, than they’ve done in months — and will probably do in the months after. There’s the tree setup, the lights setup, the gift buying, the parties, and more.

This year is particularly tough for me, because I have very little money and I’m unable to travel to see anyone in my family — it’s a mixed blessing, actually, since family tends to make me crazy, and being up close and personal with their decisions and the things they’re choosing to do with their lives, is incredibly painful to watch.

But the fact of not getting to see them, is also an added stressor. Strange, how that works…

There’s not much I can do about the frantic pace the rest of the world is setting, aside from closing my eyes during those manic, brightly lit commercials with everyone dancing around and singing and rushing – and looking quite happy while they’re doing it. I can mute the t.v., and I can close my eyes. I can smile politely and nod as people are pouring out their hearts to me (for some reason they do), and tune them out until they’re done, so I can go back to handling problems in my life that haven’t been manufactured for the sake of drama. I can hunker down and make sure I eat well, don’t fill up on candy and pies and such, and drink enough water.

But there’s no escaping all the frantic activity for the next month or so.

The one recourse I do have is getting added rest. I lay down on the couch early last night — as in, before 11:00 p.m. — while my spouse was watching television, and I slept for a few hours. Then I woke up for about half an hour and watched the end of a show, before going to bed. Once in bed, my head was racing with all kinds of thoughts, so I “talked it through” — not exactly a prayer, more like a kind of conversation with God — and then I felt better and went to sleep.

And I slept till 8 a.m.. Which surprised me. I usually only sleep till 6:30 – if I’m lucky. So, between the 2-1/2 hours of sleep I got lying on the couch, and the 5 hours of sleep I got in bed, I got about 7-1/2 hours, which is a recent record for me. I’ve been operating on 5-1/2 – 6 hours per night, lately. Largely because I really don’t feel like going to bed at night. And I can’t seem to sleep past 5:30 or 6 in the morning. So, there we have it.

Anyway, I’m feeling a bit better than I did last night. I’ve been increasingly agitated over a lot of things — mostly having to do with having discussions with people in my life who are usually at a distance, but this year are closer by. The friends I had Thanksgiving dinner with… family members I usually don’t talk to… not to mention folks I’m connecting with through volunteer work. It’s like I can feel their pain, and it’s pretty tough — especially since I’ve got a bunch of pain, myself, both physically and emotionally. It’s just not easy, these days, and I feel like I’m getting a double-dose of it.

This even goes for my spouse and me. Thanks to the long weekend, we have been around each other more in the past week, than we have in months, and sparks have been flying. All spring and summer, my spouse was working regularly on the weekends, going on business trips, etc, so we didn’t see much of each other. And as it turns out, having the time apart actually helped our marriage. Being in close quarters now, tempers are flaring. We’re both very strong personalities, and we have our own ideas about how things should be, and when we don’t see eye to eye, things can get very … fiery. It’s a bit touch-and-go at times, but as long as we keep talking and we keep our sense of humor, that smooths things out.

I do need to set some new guidelines for the next year, however. Some things need to change, or we can’t continue the way we are. I’m not talking about divorce — I’m talking about a business venture that they’ve had going for many years, which they have never bothered to make really profitable. It’s been sucking $$$ out of our coffers for close to 20 years, and they keep promising to take steps to make it more profitable, but they never actually do anything they’re talking about. It’s time to put up or shut up. If things don’t turn around in the next year, we’re going to stop production on it, call it a day, and that’s that. I’m the one who’s been doing the bulk of the work, anyway, and I’m tired of it running my life. For nothing.

But enough about me. The way I get past my own issues and pain, is reaching out to others to help them. In some small way… who knows how much it helps, or if anyone really notices, but at least I try. And I can hope that it will help. I also spread the word and encourage others to do the same — like sending holiday cards to our troops this holiday season. (Please join me in this – we only have till December 6 to get the cards to the Red Cross.)

The other way I get past my own issues and pain, and also see things more clearly, is getting enough rest. When I am tired, my flashpoint gets pretty hot, and my temper becomes trigger-happy. It’s bad enough that my spouse has a whole lot of bad memories of parents freaking out during Christmas time. When I get tense and angry, it just brings all that up. And that sets me off, because I’ve been told so many times by so many people, that my temper makes me dangerous, and I should not be around other people when I get angry.

It’s like a perfect storm… and it can be pretty difficult to recover from the biochemical storms that tear through us both. For days, we’re both pretty on-edge around each other.

So, the thing to do is head it off at the pass, by getting enough rest and also being smart about how I spend my time. I took the last two days OFF (pretty much), only doing a few things that had to be done. I was pretty wiped out by the time Thanksgiving came around, and I sorely needed a break. So, I chilled, read, hung around the house, did some repairs on my car, and didn’t live by my to-do list.

Today, with the past several days of rest behind me, I’m feeling more able to do the things that need to be done, and I can see more clearly what needs to be fixed in my day to day.

Sleep being the first thing. Resting. Digesting. And exercising enough that I really need to rest, by the time the day is done. Keeping moving, but at a pace that lets me get things done in an orderly manner — without exhausting myself. Intervals. Short bursts of activity, followed by intentional rest.

Speaking of short bursts of activity, I have a bunch of things I need to sort through today. So, I’ve broken them down into manageable pieces, and I’ll handle them one at a time as I proceed. And rest in between. So that I can keep going. At a decent pace that actually gets things done. The main thing is to not overwork myself, so I don’t go off the deep end over things that pass anyway.

That’s no way to spend the holidays.

Today’s a new day. Begin again. And get plenty of rest.

Considering TBI : Staying safe during the holidays

This looks familiar – and not in a good way.

Well, I almost did it again. I almost fell down some stairs while rushing around during Thanksgiving activities. Nine years ago tomorrow, I fell down a flight of stairs while packing to home after Thanksgiving. I completely screwed myself up. Trashed my life. Almost lost everything. And I didn’t even realize what was happening, while it was happening.

That fall in 2004 happened because I was standing at the top of some stairs and I turned around to do something, then my feet went out from under me. The same thing happened yesterday, while I was getting ready to head out to Thanksgiving dinner. I was starting to go down the stairs, when I remembered something I needed to take with me, and I turned around, while my body momentum was moving forward. My feet slipped on the stairs, and I stumbled down a couple of steps, before I caught myself. Fortunately, this time I was wearing shoes. When I fell in 2004, I was wearing socks. And I managed to stop myself from going head-first down the stairs, when my feet went out from under me.

Hm. Wake-up call. Time to slow down. Pay attention. Take things one at a time, instead of doing a couple of things at one time — like going down and up stairs at the same time.

Slow down. Don’t do everything at once. Just chill.

I paused for a moment and caught my breath and realized what had almost just happened. Then I slowly turned around and went back upstairs — much, much more slowly than before.

And I got through the day without getting hurt.

Even better, I had an amazing day, and everything turned out well, for a variety of reasons — including not falling down stairs and hurting myself.

As the holiday season officially kicks off, I have to really pay attention to things in the coming six weeks, to get through to the other side in one piece. I know what sets me off, and I know what makes things more difficult for me than usual, and the holidays are just the time when all those things come together in a perfect storm that aggravates my TBI symptoms and also puts me at risk for another injury (like yesterday).

  1. I need to remember that I’m dealing with TBI issues, and I can’t just push myself blindly like I have no limitations. We all have limitations, and mine are especially pronounced during the holidays. I need to be uber-mindful of my issues — not in a way that holds me back, but in a realistic way that keeps me from doing serious damage to myself.
  2. Make sure I get plenty of rest. Nothing kills the joy faster than fatigue-induced irritability. And given my history of melting down and flipping out during many holiday seasons past, my spouse is particularly on-guard around me during this time. So things can escalate quickly. And that’s not good. Shouting matches and flip-outs just because I’m tired, are no way to spend the holidays. Fortunately, staying rested takes care of a lot of this. Naps help, too, so I’ll be doing a lot of that this holiday season. Whenever I can.
  3. Eat smart.  When I get tired, I tend to boost my energy with sugar-containing foods, and the holidays are chock-full of them. Pies, cookies, candy… it’s all around me, and since I need to push harder to do everything, I fall back on them. A lot. Which just makes things harder in the long run, because it throws off my sugar and it makes my joints ache, which then makes me more irritable. AND sugar feeds infections, so I have more trouble with colds and sinus infections. I have to have a lot of willpower to avoid that stuff – and it doesn’t always work. But if I can enjoy with moderation… it’s not so terrible.
  4. Give myself time. Don’t rush around with everyone else. Give myself more time to do things like go to the library or food shopping or running errands. Just take my time, so I don’t get trampled by everyone else who’s stampeding around. Do I need to go out to the store today? Not one bit. Black Friday will be fine without me.
  5. Take frequent breaks. I get very irritable for a bunch of reasons during the holidays, so it pays to just take a break regularly, let me catch up with myself, and simmer down if I’m getting revved. It really helps for me to cut myself a break and give myself some extra time off by myself when I need it. Planning my breaks helps, too, because then I can keep from getting stuck in a “loop” and pushing myself past where I should be backing off and taking a break.
  6. Get a lot of exercise. I start my days with movement and stretching, and I get out and walk whenever I can. I also try to do some heavy lifting, now and then, as well as working around the yard and house. Yesterday I got a workout with roasting that turkey — a lot of lifting and bending and reaching. I’m actually sore, which is a good sign for me. This helps my body process all the extra stuff I’m putting into it, and it also helps clear my head. Both of these are important for being happy during the holidays.

These are things I can do, in general, to make my life better during the holidays. Not doing these things can result in experiences like falling down stairs, having confrontations with police officers, and losing it at work — none of which will add to my holiday cheer quotient.

It’s all a big-ass learning process. Onward.

Helping our troops during the holidays

Our troops helped us, now let’s help them

The food has been eaten, everyone has returned home, and the weekend awaits. For those who thrive on social activity, being alone after being with so many loved ones can be difficult.

Looking for a way to get out of your post-Thanksgiving funk?

Send a card to a service member. The Red Cross is having a Holiday Mail for Heroes campaign – get details at http://www.redcross.org/support/get-involved/holiday-mail-for-heroes – for folks to write cards to service members to wish them all the best for the holidays.

Each year the American Red Cross provides assistance to more than 2 million service members and many of our nation’s 24 million veterans. We support military families, military and veterans hospitals and provide emergency communications across the globe. And once a year, we get the joy of delivering holiday greetings to veterans, military families and active-duty service members at hospitals and installations around the world.

The cards and personal messages, sent by tens of thousands of Americans, provide a welcome “touch of home” for our troops during the holiday season.

Send a Card

Each year we collect cards between October and early December and then distribute them at military installations, veterans hospitals, and in other locations.

There are several ways to be part of the Holiday Mail for Heroes program. In addition to sending cards on your own, you may want to start making plans to host card signing parties or card making parties. Here are a few guidelines to help you on your way:

Card Guidelines:

Every card received will be screened for hazardous materials and then reviewed by Red Cross volunteers working around the country.

Please observe the following guidelines to ensure a quick reviewing process:

  • Ensure that all cards are signed.
  • Use generic salutations such as “Dear Service Member.” Cards addressed to specific individuals can not be delivered through this program.
  • Only cards are being accepted. Do not send or include letters.
  • Do not include email or home addresses on the cards: the program is not meant to foster pen pal relationships.
  • Do not include inserts of any kind, including photos: these items will be removed during the reviewing process.
  • Please refrain from choosing cards with glitter or using loose glitter as it can aggravate health issues of ill and injured warriors.
  • If you are mailing a large quantity of cards, please bundle them and place them in large mailing envelopes or flat rate postal shipping boxes. Each card does not need its own envelope, as envelopes will be removed from all cards before distribution.

All holiday greetings should be addressed and sent to:

Holiday Mail for Heroes
P.O. Box 5456
Capitol Heights, MD 20791-5456

The deadline for having cards to the P.O. Box is December 6th.
Holiday cards received after this date cannot be guaranteed delivery.

I’ve dug up a big box of old Christmas cards that, for one reason or another, I could not use in the past. Some of the messages don’t work for my family and friends, and some of them are extras I couldn’t use. I’m going to start writing out cards this weekend, while I have some extra time. And then I’ll send them all out in a big batch next week.

It’s a start. I can also pick up those big batches of cards that are mixed collections, and send them along as well. I’ve got almost 80 cards I can use right now — I have to pace myself, because my hand cramps up, but I should be able to make good progress by December 6th.

This is a great way for me to get out of my head and think of others during what can be a very difficult time — especially if you’re laid up in the hospital and you’ve had your career cut short by a terrible event.

Being cut off from the ones you care about most — your family, your brothers/sisters in arms, your “tribe” of choice — can feel like the hardest thing in the world during the holidays.

So, reach out and send a card to someone who needs your help and encouragement. Heaven knows, there are many, many folks like that out there.

Okay, enough about me. It’s time to write some cards.

Eventually figuring it out…

This was the plan… more or less

Okay, so the last time I wrote, the turkey was in the oven, and I was on track to an amazing Christmas dinner.

Then life happened. I’m not sure whether it was the ever-present concussion / TBI / post-concussion / sensory overwhelm / attentional issues mix that always seems to lurk beneath the surface, or if it was dumb luck. The thing is, this kind of thing happens to me all the time, so either it’s just apart of my life, built in to be annoying, or it’s a sign that — even after all this time — I still need to make an extra effort to ensure things turn out well. And it’s another reminder that I can’t get cocky and just assume things.

Anyway, what happened was… I finished writing my Christmas Day post, checked Facebook a bit, then went downstairs to check the turkey. I felt the glass on the front of the oven, and it didn’t feel warm. “That’s weird…” Then I opened the oven door, expecting to be blasted by a shot of hot air.

No such thing. The oven was faintly warm, but around the bird were pools of melted ice and blood, and there was no roasting to be seen.

Well shit.

I must have accidentally turned off the oven when I was resetting the timer after I got the giblets and neck out of the bird. There are a number of lights on the front console that are the same color and size, so I must have mistaken the timer light for the oven light.

So, there I stood in the kitchen, my (sick) spouse upstairs expecting a delicious, hot (and completely roasted) turkey in just a few hours. And I had probably lost a couple of hours of roasting time, if I turned off the oven when I got the giblets and neck out. What to do? My spouse is a pretty anxious individual, to begin with, and when something this important gets screwed up, they can go off the deep end. I wasn’t really liking the chatter going on inside my head, either, about what an idiot loser I am, and how I never should have thought I could do this thing today, when I was so sick and feeling off and tired and out of it.

Think… think… First thing I did, was turn the oven back on. The thought occurred to me that there were major bacteria growing inside that bird, and to proceed would have meant certain death. Then again, I figured the bird was still so frozen when I put it in the oven, it had probably kept pretty well. And anyway, roasting it another 4-1/2 hours would likely kill anything that might be growing. I thought about what people have done for eons — eating food that wasn’t prepared exactly to Betty Crocker spec… and they’ve survived. The human race has been eating crap we should never eat, for generations up on generations, and we are still here.

So, eventually I managed to talk myself into proceeding with the turkey roasting… as though nothing had happened.

But how to explain it to my spouse? The last thing I wanted to do was spend Christmas Day being barked at and harangued over my lax cooking skills, ordering out, and then never living that down. I would probably hear about that till the end of time, if I let on about what had happened. I decided, eventually, to use the frozen bird as the excuse for the extra time — it needed more time to thaw and cook… that’s what my story was going to be. My spouse was incredibly leery of putting an un-thawed bird in the oven, anyway, so they had been pressing me to cook it longer… and longer would better. Right?

That was my hope (and prayer) anyway. I wasn’t exactly sure what precisely to think, in any case, because maybe the danger from a weirdly cooked turkey was Real And Present… maybe it wasn’t. I didn’t have the time — or presence of mind — to Google it. I just winged it. Took a best guess, weighed the pros and cons, and figured if the turkey was really bad, my spouse would be able to smell it, because their sense of smell is, well, existent — and very acute at that. Where mine is, well, a lot less than that.

Yeah, I left the turkey in the oven… kept the heat where it was supposed to be, and said a prayer.

Around the time that I got the turkey squared away (for the second time), it was the hour to rise and exchange presents. We don’t have any kids, so we tend to sleep in on Christmas Day and don’t worry about being the first downstairs to open presents. And we were both pretty under the weather, so a slow start got even slower. It was a really nice time, I have to say – we didn’t get a lot of presents for each other, but we got enough nice little things that we could honestly say the gift exchange was a success (unlike in past years, when I totally spaced on the present-buying until the last minute, then couldn’t find what I was looking for, and ended up screwing up pretty badly – arguing and accusations of “You don’t love me!” with tears included – not good).

Dodged that bullet this year, thank heavens.

So, after the presents were opened, I made us a little brunch, and I looked in on the turkey. It was getting there… but I still wasn’t sure. Another hour went by, and my spouse was remarking at how the smell of the cooking turkey wasn’t “filling the house like it usually does” which set off alarms and put them on alert. Another hour went by, and still the turkey didn’t have that pervasive, delicious aroma it “usually does”… so my spouse started to get really nervous about how “You never roast a frozen turkey,” according to their mother, and how this was dangerous and we might get sick…

I got busy making stuffing and popping veggies in the oven to roast. I figured, if worse came to worst, we could at least fill up on roasted yams, potatoes, and carrots, along with those fresh green beans. And of course there was always pie… Meanwhile, my spouse Googled “cook a frozen turkey” and got very quiet while they read all about it.

Nerves… frayed nerves. But I kept on with my work. I called my mother, too, to check on whether or not things were going to be okay. She reassured me that as long as I left it in longer, it would be okay. I took her word for it, and my spouse emerged from in front of the computer looking much more relaxed. They declared “Everything should be fine,” and we were back on again.

In the end, the turkey turned out amazing. I carved a side to check it, it looked a little pink, so I popped it back in the over at a higher temp for another 20 minutes, and by the time all the stuffing and roasted vegetables and green beans were ready, the turkey was ready too.

We ended up having Christmas supper, instead of mid-day dinner, but I have to say it was pretty phenomenal.

All was well, and the day ended well. Yeah, I felt like crap the whole day, I was out of it and foggy and anxious and frustrated and disappointed and nervous as hell, but that was just the backstory. The real story of the day was that it all came out extremely well – just at a different pace and with a different timing than originally planned. I think that was actually for the best, however. Who eats Christmas turkey as their very first meal of the day?

So, there it is… lesson learned — always check that all 3-4 lights are on the stove, when the oven is on: light for the timer, light for the oven, light for the “stove on”, and possibly the light for “preheat”. Especially when I have the timer going. Because when the timer is on, I can’t see the temperature. Bad design, if you ask me. But I’ll just have to remember to work around it.

Now, two days later, I still don’t feel that hot. I’ve been working a lot, these past few days — cleaning out my garage and working around the house. I’ve been using muscles I haven’t used in months, and I’m sore as hell… and feeling a bit off. I will make a point of taking care of myself today — get the extra sleep I’ve been meaning to get… empty the trash cans full of used tissues… do some laundry… and do a few minor projects I’ve been wanting to do. I have an idea for a snow-moving contraption that will save me a lot of work shoveling, if I can figure it out. That’s my big project for today – that, and rearranging my basement a bit, so I can get to all my tools. I have a ton of great tools in the basement, as well as a great workbench, but I have not made the most of it, especially since my accident in 2004, which really plunged me into concussion / TBI hell.

You know, it’s funny… being sick and not being able to travel this holiday season has been a real bonus in a bunch of different ways. I’m not constantly “on”. I’m not pushing to get stuff done. I’m not hustling and bustling and hauling ass, left and right. I’m taking my time doing things, and I’m figuring things out. And the crazy thing is, even though I tend to think that I function so much better when I’m “on”, I have felt better, these past several days, than I have in years. Even with the cold / sinus infection that’s got me feeling like crap, I’ve still had more energy and more will  to do the things I’ve been meaning to do for years, but could never get my act together to do.

Pretty amazing, really. I’ve been wanting to clean out my garage for years, but couldn’t manage it till this week. Okay, so I’m only half done, and there’s still a lot of work to do, but at least I made a really excellent start. I’ve been wanting to design and invent some things for quite some time, but could never get it together to do it, till this week. And that’s pretty awesome. It’s all good. It really is.

What matters most is that eventually, it is all coming together. It’s taken me years, and I don’t expect everything to be completely sorted anytime soon, but it’s a start. I have to remember how far I have come, and not get down on myself because I am not as far along as I want to be. I will screw up, now and then. I will overlook things. I will come up short of my own expectations. I will probably mis-judge many situations over and over. But I can’t let that stop me from moving forward.

I am moving forward. What’s more, I’m actually enjoying my life. And that’s what truly matters.

Onward….

A great Christmas morning

May you have peace… or whatever else you need today

… to you and yours. I’m off to a good start, all things considered. The turkey is in the oven baking, and I’m listening to my cassette tapes of Handel’s “Messiah”. I woke up feeling really sick and not feeling up to doing the turkey, but my spouse is sick and I’ve done this before, so I hauled the turkey out of the refrigerator, to find that it was not in fact thawed — probably due to my having bought it only yesterday and not having soaked it very long in that sink full of cold water as my mother used to do. The neck and the giblets were still firmly frozen inside the cavity, so I ran hot water through the works, trying to loosen it up.

No such luck. And me feeling not very well at all… Ah well, soldier on… I finally just put the bird in the oven and set the timer, resolving to check it in an hour when the whole business had time to warm up. I made myself some hot lemon-honey “tea”, had my coffee and cereal, and did the math in my head for when I should start doing other things like start prepping the stuffing and vegetables I was going to roast.

I also did some of my leg exercises, since my knees have been giving me trouble, lately. Even though I have been going for long walks and have been pretty active over the past few days, my knees have been hurting — which happens if I haven’t done my morning leg lifts, which I haven’t been doing regularly for some time. Amazingly, when I do my leg lifts — straight-out front and back and to each side, and then front kicks and back-lifts — my knees get what they need and they quit complaining.

So, I did that, and my knees immediately stopped hurting. Nice when that happens. And important to remember, so I don’t let myself just go to seed for no good reason.

By the time I was done with my morning prep, about 45 minutes had passed, so I hauled out the bird, worked at the neck and bag of organ meats, and eventually got it all out. Salted the inside of the cavity and flipped it over and put it back in the oven, breast-down, because I did that by accident a number of years ago, and the breast meat was by far the most moist and tasty that I’ve ever tasted. I’ve heard people recommending that, also, no matter what the wrapper on the turkey says. The meat felt a bit more thawed, having been in the heat for a while. I may have to roast it a bit longer to make up for that… we’ll see. Anyway, I’m hoping I didn’t screw everything up — at least I’m not deep-frying it. When you deep-fry a frozen turkey, it has a nasty habit of exploding and catching the roof of your garage on fire. I’ve talked to folks at work about deep-frying turkeys, and they’re practically rabid about it. But it seems to me they’re more excited about the gear and the inherent danger, than cooking technique. For me, I’m old-school. It’s less dramatic, sure, but I’m not going to have to call the fire department on Christmas Day, this way.

And the breast meat will be just as tasty as tasty can be.

So, once I got the bird squared away, I felt a lot better about things. I’m still feeling sick and “off”, and I’m not sure I 100% trust my judgement (which has been a bit off, with regard to time and things I need to do in a certain order), but I’m rolling with it, and I’m just going to enjoy myself this morning.

One of the things I had been meaning to do, but kept forgetting, is pull out my old cassette tapes of Handel’s Messiah that I got for Christmas while I was in college. My parents used to celebrate the Christmas season by playing their Mormon Tabernacle Choir “Messiah” record, and it was one of my favorite parts of the season. The “Little Drummer Boy” upset me intensely, for some reason, but Handel’s “Messiah” really put me in the Christmas spirit. Each and every time.

When I got the cassettes for Christmas, it was like — well, Christmas. I had my own copy that I could listen to! Amazing. Joy unbounded. It wasn’t a big thing, and thinking back now — when we are all swimming in so much plenty and bounty and easy access to each and every thing we could ever want or ask for — it seems so small-time, so modest. But it was seriously one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received. I used to listen to those cassettes repeatedly during Christmastime while I was in school. It drove the folks on my hall nuts; they would pretty much vacate and leave me to my music, then reappear when it was safe to just hang out and drink beer again. They didn’t get it, and I didn’t care. The voices of the choir were transcendent, and it reminded me of what was actually right about my childhood — those relatively brief periods of transcendent emotion and beauty… Yes, there was something right in my world, and with those cassettes I could relive that and remember, for as long as I played them.

Well, this morning I’m playing them, and it’s pretty clear to me why the world has moved on to MP3s and digital formats — the cassettes are easily over 30 years old — copyright 1979 — and the tape has stretched and warped with age. The voices are warbling and at times halting. It’s not the smooth and easily transcendent presentation it once was. And there’s the constant worry that the tape will get wrapped around the spools and end up getting “eaten” by the tape player, the way so many cassettes did when I was much younger — and the world still had cassettes… and cassette players in all the stereos and cars coming off the assembly line.

Yeah, I must be getting old, it occurs to me, as I resolve to just not care about the sound quality, and I can appreciate the experience for what it is, rather than how I think it should be. I know what to ask for, for Christmas next year — a CD of Handel’s “Messiah” that I can listen to without the warbling and hesitating and angst over the tape getting eaten.

At the same time, though, there’s something quite poignant about this experience. It has a kind of character to it that places me in time — the natural order of things is to change and alter and become something different. Sometimes the changes mean degradation, dissolution, disintegration. Sometimes they mean entropy. And sometimes it means improvement, growth, evolution. But even the degrading, dissolving, disintegration are all part of a larger cycle, a larger set of movements into the future… nothing stays the same forever, nor should it. It’s just a little creepy, when it does. At least, I think so.

Things change. Cassettes wear out. And each year when my spouse and I put up the Christmas tree and hang the ornaments, we have a little harder time remembering where each one came from. We’ve been together for over 20 years, and each of us brought to the marriage items from our separate pasts. Did that ornament come from Before Us? Or did we buy it together early on? And where the hell are all those lights and ornaments that we both know we had three years before, but haven’t been able to locate for the past couple of Christmases? We’ve started taking turns looking for items in the basement — I go down first and bring back everything I can find, then they go down and find everything I was blind to. Between the two of us, we’ve managed to piece things together — even if we got a late start this year and didn’t even put up and trim the tree till Christmas Eve.

At least we got it done. And lots of people do it that way, too. My relatives in Europe, for example. The don’t even start thinking about decorating till Christmas Eve. So, I comfort myself with that thought and decide not to get worked up over it. There are other battles to fight, other things to correct — timing of tree trimming isn’t one I want to worry about.

And Handel’s “Messiah” warbles on. I’m almost at the end of Side Two of Cassette One. I’m not sure if I’m going to finish the music before I wake up my spouse and we go downstairs to have our morning coffee and open presents. As long as I get in the Hallelujah Chorus (and stand up while it’s playing), I’m good. My spouse is not a big fan of “Messiah” — too maudlin, they say. Well, it’s not for everyone… especially those who don’t care about hearing how “by His stripes we are healed”, which is what they’re singing right now.

There is something to be said for focusing on life, rather than suffering and death, but it all seems to get mixed together on Christmas morning, which in some parts of the world is really just a prelude to the Passion and Easter and the reminders of suffering and death that precede resurrection.

Not to get off on a theological thread… even though I am listening to “Messiah”… anyway, I’ve been thinking about how we’ve pretty much trashed the whole Christmas experience, over the past 30 years of wild, abandoned consumption… and now that the unbridled buy-buy-buy has been so scaled back for so many of us (at least, it has for me), Christmas just isn’t the same as it used to be. When I was a kid, it was a strictly religious experience, and since my family really didn’t have much to begin with, and the focus was extremely Christian and tradition, the whole gift-giving thing was not that big of a deal. If anything, gift-giving was awkward and sometimes painful, because of all the conflicts between what we kids wanted and what our parents were willing (and able) to give us, and the “outside world” commercialism competing with the “reason for the season”… the whole deal.

It was never easy to begin with. But in the past few years, it’s gotten even more challenging, as money has been such a problem with so many of us in my family… and we’ve had a harder and harder time just getting together, period. Somehow, the season just doesn’t seem the same as it once did. Maybe it’s because of my job, which keeps me out of my present by forcing me to be constantly planning the future and thinking about everything I do in terms of how it affects things 6-12 months down the line… Maybe it’s my conscious choice to refuse to participate in the wild consumption of the season, that’s changed things.

Whatever the reason, Christmas seems totally trashed in mainstream society — I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said by many, many people over the course of many, many years. It’s gone from being a season of giving to being a cornerstone of the American economy, so it’s almost like we’re obligated to spend and spend and spend (I had a good laugh at Best Buy yesterday, as I looked at headphones — headphones!!! — that cost over $200 — oh.my.god — someone must surely be kidding…) And people who build their holiday season around buying and giving those kinds of gifts (many members of my family included), seem, well, kind of sad to me. Like there’s nothing more to it all for them.

But as long as they go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, their holidays are complete.

Not so much for me. First, I don’t have the money to spend like some of my relatives. Second, going to church on Christmas Eve isn’t something I do anymore. I realized a few years back that it is in fact pretty hazardous, because so many people with colds and flu (and their kids) turn out and occupy the same space for a few hours — just long enough to share their infections with me, which has proven truly terrible in the past. My holidays are different. My Christmas is different. I don’t celebrate the way others do, but I do want to celebrate — I really do.

So, here’s what I did this year: I went about my everyday life with a real sense of gratitude and peace. Not sure where it all came from, but I decided I was going to do that, no matter what. I gave when and where I could — I did my best to be helpful to people around me without over-extending myself. I also bought extra groceries every time I went shopping, and I put them in the food pantry bin at the grocery store. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something. I also paid attention to what people were doing around me, and if someone needed help, I at least offered. They didn’t always take me up on my offer, but at least I offered. I also slowed down. I quit driving like an a**hole on my way to and from work. I took my time. I listened to music. I didn’t focus on the speedometer, and when someone ahead of me was going slower than they should have been, I either passed them when I had dotted lines, or I came up with some story about why they had good reason to go slow — and why it was good for me that they weren’t driving as fast as I wanted to.

I didn’t get into the regular Christmas spirit much at all, I have to admit. It was just pretty much lost on me — just a lot more commercials, a lot of lights, a lot of reasons to go out and spend more money, and events to interrupt the flow of my daily life. But in retrospect, I think the way I lived my life was more meaningful this year, than it has been in prior years, when I was “in the holiday spirit”.

Well, I’d better go check the turkey. And wake up my spouse, so we can open our presents. It’s Christmas morning, and it’s going to be a good one.