I have such mixed feelings about this time of year. I love the decorations and the trees and the generally festive spirit of families in reunion. I struggle with the short, dark days, and the drumbeat to review the year so I can be a better me in 2017. I feel an odd mix of sentimentality and love and foreboding, and aspirations combined with shame. This is the first year I think I’ve seen this combination of darkness and light in such a clear way; previously, having a big day job laid a thick layer of activity and distraction over this time of year.
Irony abounds as I experience clarity about my dark frame of mind. Every year I swear I won’t feel this way. I will certainly take better care of myself leading up to year’s end, and have a baseline of resilience, fitness and discipline to guide me until the days begin to get longer again. Every year, the same wish.
We’ve made the turn with the solstice a few days ago, and still I feel the path forward is hard. I arrived at my mother’s house yesterday afternoon, where my brother and his family also live, and after dinner my niece had a crying meltdown about applying for colleges. My first insight was that I am always on guard for the emotional curve ball with my family, and here it was. My second insight was that we don’t have to relive the patterns of our youth just because the opportunity presents.
I kicked in to action. I am by inclination a guide, and I also saw that she needed comfort, first and foremost. She let me sit with her as she cried on her bed (after hiding in the bathroom for a bit), and she showed me how she was worrying about today’s problem as well as the next, and the one beyond that. She was drinking an ocean of woes in huge gulps.
I felt deeply empathetic. Her worries, at their core, are about being good enough, about recovering from (and seeking forgiveness for) past mistakes, and always, oh always, wanting approval from her parents and elders in the family.
I comforted and calmed her so we could, together, narrow her list of potential colleges for the simple purposes of getting her transcript out in the morning, the last day her school was open before the application deadline for many of the schools she was interested in. We spent several hours poking over a list of about 30 schools, looking at them online and in the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which provides the ‘inside scoop.’ (I have prior experience with college admissions: I worked as a student interviewer my senior year at Wesleyan University, and then for three years after graduation, I worked as an assistant dean of admissions at Hamilton College in upstate New York. My prior experience was helpful in guiding my niece.)
My mantra with her was ‘one step at a time’ while encouraging her to express her thoughts and feelings about college, her search and how she saw herself. She will need to find her own thoughts and inclinations in this process, something that so many of us find challenging. We know what others want and think, but finding our own voice, authentically reflecting how we feel? That’s much harder.
It is harder still to put our own distilled sense of self into another context, one barely imagined. This is why bold planning for the future can be so hard, and why “vision” doesn’t always lead to change or results. It is difficult to imagine life different from the way it is now, not without more perspective, another vantage point, and a lot of help and guidance. As Meg Worden says: “We need all the help we can get. We just do.”
My niece and I got through the evening, and she went to school first thing in the morning with a list of 20 schools she wanted her transcript sent to. I’ve asked her, as her next steps, to start reviewing those schools and to try to get a feel for how she thinks/feels about them. I’ve suggested that she’ll want to narrow her actual applications to less than 10 schools (certainly) and probably more like 5-6.
I went to bed both wound-up and exhausted, happy to have helped, but realizing there was a lot at play here. This morning I realized how similar our states of mind are. Unlike my niece, I have years of experience at acting as if: everything is fine, I have it together, etc. etc. And mostly, I do. But the truth is that this time of year, and this time of my life, when I am considering launching a leadership, life and business coaching practice next year, is fraught with questions of worth, value, contribution and acceptance. For me, the key question is when I’ll start choosing to move toward the life I know I was meant to have. And then, on top of those existential questions, the days are short, leaving me, and others, to fret in the dark.
Tonight, we’ll have a casual family dinner at my mother’s house including David’s brother Roy and his wife Kris. And then we’ll traipse off to see “Christmas at Pemberley,” a light theatrical fare based on the characters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Could there be more opportunity for light, for joy, and to be fully present?
The light is always here. I have a hard time seeing it sometimes. Tonight, we’ll light candles, we’ll expand the table to add more family, and we’ll remember that we love each other. And even with an old family pattern or two, I know I am grateful to be here with these special people.
My very best wishes to each of you for a wonderful holiday season, and I wish the best for all of us for 2017. I’m very grateful that you are here, following along.