Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
December 2007 - Volume 07, No. 9
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The Holidays: Shadow and Light - and Stories

For certain I’m biased - mostly because a number my therapy clients have family relationships and history where the very idea of holiday family gathering brings dread and depression.  There are “duty dollars” spent on gifts and “duty miles” driven to gatherings that are more ordeal than celebration.  Some definitely “hold close” to their therapist at this time of year.  And I’m careful to not abandon them.  It’s not easy for the rest of us to realize just how difficult, even toxic and cruel, some family situations are! - and this suffering is often hidden from the eyes of others.  Then there are the difficulties of many divorce and ‘blended’ family situations, especially for children.

For others, hopefully a majority, the holiday gatherings are eagerly anticipated, like a ritual emotional filling station where the soul (and stomach) is refilled with goodness.  There may also be the sadness of memories - where persons and circumstances no longer present can be recalled and cherished.  All of this, of course, is the way it’s supposed to be. 

Many families experience a combination of both types of gatherings.  But even among the best, the logistics of travel and schedule and hosting, these days,  can require the expertise of a graduate degree in hospitality and travel agentry.  As I look back on my own childhood, I understand my parents’ frequent satisfaction that we rarely lived less than 250 miles from the nearest relative.  We had Christmas all to ourselves - year after fortunate year.  The car never left the garage. 

Yet, the deeper meaning of our long-established holidays, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s, and others, has always had the sense of light in the darkness - a time of renewal, hope, and thankfulness for remembered blessings. Sometimes this is easier than other times - but it’s still seems a necessary element part in our cycles of life.  We recollect what has been and anticipate what will be.  Our holidays themselves, from their deep roots,  always seek to be rituals of Renewal.   

One cherished memory from my own childhood is my mother’s annual reading of a smallish book by storyteller Ruth Sawyer, This Way to Christmas [originally published in 1916, and fortunately now available again - check your favorite book source].

The setting of this story is World War I, when young David is sent to live temporarily with his former old nurse in upstate New York while his parents are needed to help diagnose an illness afflicting soldiers.  Far away from his friends and familiar big city surroundings, he finds himself in an isolated mountain village, with just seven days to go until what will obviously be a bleak and empty Christmas. 

But the lonesome boy comes up with an ingenious way to bring Christmas to the equally lonesome inhabitants of his small mountain community, all of whom were spending the winter far from their own homes. Visiting each in turn, David befriends his neighbors and delights in hearing the Holiday stories they share with him, stories they heard in their own homelands long ago. A final celebration brings all the neighbors of different nationalities together, forging relationships that will outlast the holiday season and sending a message of hope to a war-torn world.

That theme, of course, I recognize now as an adult, was central to my parents’ philosophy, life purpose, and vision.  But what I remember most is the stories themselves that were told to David - that in turn my mother learned by heart and told again and again wherever fame, circumstance and invitation took her - eventually all over the State of Iowa.

I mention this not just to recall and celebrate my own history, but as a lively and healing suggestion to you, my readers, for the holidays.  In earlier times, holidays were times for storytelling - that’s what happened whenever folks and families gathered - long before the seasonal productions, and classics of television, and now the ubiquitous DVD.  (It’s significant to me that most spiritual traditions are best maintained by the telling and retelling of stories.)

So, during these holidays, no matter where your family gathering fits on the scale, from toxic to beneficent - ask for stories.  Tradition is that a storyteller must be asked before a story is told.  If you have your own stories to tell, tell them - even if you have to ask for an audience. [And don’t use anything electrical in the process!]  Strangely enough, even difficult families can have good stories.  The older folks usually have the best ones.  And what you hear, remember - memorize!  Some of them you may want to carry close to your heart - for often this is your heritage, it’s part of where you come from.  To be able to acknowledge some riches of where we come from is good mental health.  Then, in time, see that the best of it is passed on to the next generations.

And so, this Holiday season, ask for stories, especially family stories - and
pay attention!

Yet one final suggestion:

For those of you who are generally not the self-indulgent type - do something, even if quite small, for yourself this season.  Maybe that piece of cheesecake in the coffee shop.  And for those of you who are self-indulgent by nature (you know who you are) - buy it anyway, then give it away - maybe to somebody you’ve never met.  It’s the holidays.  “God bless us every one!”

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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