Every Possible Experience

Posted by Eric Francis

Store decoration on Corner of Wall and John, Kingston, NY.

Have the holidays got you down, or wondering about the meaning of life and capitalism? This article by Eric Francis does its best to make some sense of the Christmas holiday madness.

Note — I’ve taken the password off of the December extended monthly forecast, which is part year-end, part year-ahead, part current moment. –efc


The other day I had my dad on the phone. We were talking about media theory, one of my favorite subjects (which I happened to be writing about that day, and needed help). It’s a topic that he’s somewhat versed in, as a communications professor. At one point he was poking fun at me for being totally oblivious to the holiday season.

Store decoration on Corner of Wall and John, Kingston, NY.

Store decoration on corner of Wall and John, Christmas Eve, Kingston, NY. Casey points out that the five-pointed star is often displayed in its ‘satanic’ rather than ‘pagan’ position.

He’s correct, in that I’ve made it my business to participate as little as possible in the cultural rituals that surround the winter holidays.

They used to be just dismal for me, particularly as an adult. I would experience actual depression at the annual onset of Christmas — a feeling I could not control or even seem to influence, which was scary.

You know, that feeling of carols playing over the Muzak channel in supermarkets, decorations going up, and all these things that people would do that seemed to make them happy, but to which I could not relate. Everyone driving around with a chopped-down tree lashed to the roof of their car, rushing home.

At least my dad and I can kid about it, and at least he doesn’t take it personally. He knows I’m involved in a project every year at this time, one that (perhaps conveniently) precludes most direct participation — such as traveling. As for buying gifts, I prefer to do that at other times of the year, and I prefer that it be random, rather than associated with specific events.

Lately I’m not as mortified by the holiday season as I used to be. This is a huge improvement in my life. I even look forward to the holidays, so I can assure you that there’s sincere hope for getting over even the worst issues you might have with this time of year.

When I moved back to the United States from Europe seven years ago, I made friends with a guy named Dominick Vanacore, for whom the Christmas thing is absolutely sincere. That was my personal turning point. It’s 4:15 am on Christmas Eve and I’m sure that he’s left his outside sound system on, broadcasting Christmas carols to the neighborhood outside his cafe. That was my first point of contact to the whole holiday business not being some form of culturally inflicted torture.

Things have improved for me significantly in those seven years, and I have a local family that I hang out with every Thanksgiving and Christmas who I really look forward to seeing. It’s a truly social thing for me, a break from the work I have this time of year. It’s not vaguely associated with obligation, buttons getting pushed or some contact with the past. Nobody cares when I get there or when I leave (I usually leave last). I know they are always sincerely happy to see me.

There's always one house in the neighborhood designed to prove how little Christmas spirit everyone else has.

As seen in California — there’s always one house in every neighborhood designed to prove how little Christmas spirit everyone else has. The only snow that’s ever fallen on this house has been electric-powered.

Basically, I’ve designed the Christmas thing in such a way that it works for me. I’ve done so knowing how much cultural license I have to take to do that.

This year I got bold and bought Christmas gifts for my staff, but due to some excess activity in my office and someone sustaining an injury over the weekend, they are all sitting out on the floor, in their shipping boxes, perhaps to send this year late, perhaps next year. They are actual Christmas ornaments, nice ones, and funny cards, though there’s a joke involved, all of which appealed to my creativity.

What remains of my near-horror with the Christmas dimension is empathy for what people who don’t groove with the holiday season are going through. I know how horrible it is to have, or feel like I have, no place to go. There were years when the entire town would empty out and everyone would go home, and I would feel cast off, adrift and waiting for the whole thing to end. During one of those incidents, my buddy Christopher McGregor took me out for a ride and played me The Junkie’s Christmas by William S. Burroughs, which tapped me into the ‘alt’ side of the season.

One year at Thanksgiving, I think it was around 1997, I was at home by myself, utterly lonely and in actual despair. I was sitting at my usual place — my desk, ready to curl up and die. Then my phone rang.

It was one of my readers, someone I had never heard from before, calling to cheer me up — as if she knew. With no possible way to know. It was like getting a phone call from God, one of a very few times that’s happened.

I’m aware that there are many people in that situation, who have no idea where to go or what to do, sitting alone in their rooms, wishing for contact. I would offer a reminder that there are plenty of places where the castaways get together, everything from church dinners to events at the local fire house to families of friends who would have you over. You may have to be bold and invite yourself. It’s the 21t century — many places, that kind of thing is finally OK.

Uptown Kingston is modestly decorated this year, seen on Christmas Eve, 2014.

Uptown Kingston is modestly decorated this year, seen on Christmas Eve, 2014. The wet streets are fun to photograph.

If you live alone and are out in the sticks and don’t have transportation, at least call around and try to find someone to get you to some public gathering.

There are people who would rather chop off a finger than know that you’re somewhere you don’t want to be. Have a little courage, poke around the Internet and dial your phone. Keep making calls till you connect. Even if you can’t, at least you tried.

There are plenty of people who participate in the whole ritual out of obligation. They would rather be home and sit the whole thing out reading a book or baking corn bread. It’s the “the holidays would be so nice, if only I didn’t have to go anywhere” feeling.

Instead, they have to visit relatives who set off all the dusty old neural pathways in their limbic system that instantly revive various childhood horrors. If that is you, I suggest hanging out with little kids and animals, wherever you go. And there is always one other weirdo who feels the way you do. She might be 88 or he might be 13. Look and listen.

Then there are the people who know it’s all a ritual but who play along because they like it, or because other people do. That’s one way to handle things. Plenty of people do it for the kids — if you have kids, you pretty much have to take part, and it can be fun.

Others are revolted by the commercialism this time of year — the Black Friday DVD player riots, going into debt to buy gifts, the “no gift is ever enough” thing, the “it’s all a business” business. Plenty use the abundant alcohol that’s around to numb out.

There are those who long to be with their families, who cannot get there, who cannot afford to make the trip. Or their families are scattered, dispersed or disordered — or in a state of hostility and standoff. There are those whose families are long gone, or whose favorite relatives are dead and this time of year, conspicuously missing. This is especially sad if it’s the first or second Christmas that they’re gone.

Many people are absolutely overjoyed that they get to be with their families or friends. I know someone whose son is going to be home for the first time ever. I don’t know the backstory — I just know she’s very happy about it.

Charles M. Schultz got it.

Charles M. Schulz got it.

There are troops stationed around the world, wishing to be anywhere but where they are. Lou Reed paid tribute to this in his song Christmas in February.

There are all the cops and firefighters, EMS workers and ER staff working on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. There all the people who keep the power grid running, holiday lights twinkling in their windows miles from where they are. There are the people driving buses and trains, and people serving in restaurants so others can have a good time. If you go out, tip generously.

There are expats all over the world who could not make the trip home. Fortunately, Christmas season is a bit muted in most other countries, compared to its equivalent in the U.S.

There are people who tune the whole thing out, who don’t notice or for whom it’s not meaningful. There are those like my teacher Joe who for years would burn the skeleton of a pine tree in his backyard, celebrating Yule his own way.

And there are the people who feel totally, hopelessly alienated by these holidays, experiencing existential grief made all the worse because so few people seem to understand. I get it, and my heart goes out to you.

26 thoughts on “Every Possible Experience

  1. Rebecca

    Eric, thank you. My Christmas experiences are so varied. Some incredibly beautiful and spiritual, while others marked by depression; one Christmas, in the 90s, ending in the hospital for severe depression. The sad ones were mostly due to having too many expectations and wanting to relive the magic of childhood and the closeness I felt with my father at that time ( He was not an easy man ; stoic and grumpy, but Christmas softened him). Once I accepted the magic was in me, Christmas became a great time for positive reflection and self love. Shalom.

  2. rachael harrod

    I told my 3 kids (16, 12, & 9 yrs) and 2 sisters (16 & 10 yrs) that the 12 days of christmas is really for people like me who can’t get their shit together to get you your gifts by the 24th. thankfully they accept me for who I am :) and they know my holiday is the solstice, and we all share that together.
    I’ve been tortured by christmas, too. ive found it’s better with candles, pine bough, incense and fun uplifting music (bruno mars, my man!)
    SMILES, everyone, SMILES (wasn’t that what ricardo said on fantasy island?)
    much love to you all
    peace ! :)

    1. Amanda PainterAmanda Painter

      rachel — i *love* your approach to the 12 days of christmas, since they fall *after* christmas, anyway! it always makes me sad to see people putting their trees on the curb december 26 or 27.

      1. Suzanne

        I agree: as a kid, my sister and I would do everything in our power to get our mother to keep the tree up as long as possible (I think February 1 was our best holdout). In my neighborhood, trees will start appearing on the sidewalk tomorrow, and we’ll see them for the next two months.

        Several years ago, I was walking to an appointment on a bright, sunny October day, warm enough that people were wearing shorts, and came across a Christmas tree on a pile of garbage bags. It had about three needles left and a broken ornament on it. In a perverse way, I was amused and impressed: fire hazard aside, it really puts the Pro in procrastination…

  3. d c

    one of the feelings I had during this season is how there’s a greater need to go inward
    and there’s a lot of distractions with the holiday because it places so much emphasis on the outer societal/family/ritualistic demands… our soul is yearning for deeper love and connection thank you for your observations of the holidays and how they can create a myriad of ways of integrating the psyche… stay heart-centered, your writing is like listening to sweet music

  4. Eric Francis Post author

    Yes, winter solstice I find to not only introspective but also a fulcrum. It’s a place where small inner shifts make big differences in outer reality. The distraction takes people out of that. Of course it’s also the time of Saturnalia and its debaucheries, from Roman times. You could call that an outer event, though there’s an internal quality to being inebriated without any outer responsibilities present. I think that one issue of this time of year is the degree of external obligation and expectation.

  5. Brinda

    Hi Eric,
    Thanks for this:) ive made a deliberate choice to be alone this Christmas. Im working at a drug rehab in Kenya with 34 young men recovering from alcohol, khat, cannabis and kuber addiction. They are sweet guys, working the AA 12 steps. Yesterday I brought two christmas cakes, homemade chocolate chip cookies, a dance therapist who got them rocking and a local artist with whom they painted their wishes on a grand canvass. I spent today doing counseling with the patients and their visiting parents trying to make sense of their sons’ addictions. Tomorrow they will slaughter a goat and bake chapati. I couldnt stomach THAT so Ill stay home and bake lasagne. Lots of love to the loners out there, there’s usually a gift that comes with solitude, hopefully it arrives before you die curled up in front of your computer:)

  6. CarolynkcCarolynkc

    Well, I suppose I could die in front of my computer….Nasty upper respiratory track infection (a last gift from a very sick student. why wasn’t he at home? sometimes you just don’t want to ask) ….Not really alone as G Retriever Sam is here. My daughter who lives in the Great White North, Just south of Great Slave Lake would have her friend, Jackie, checking up on me if dd
    don’t “chat” within a day.

    Anyway, if one has to be bone tiredly sick, a little town in one’s own warm bed with no where to go…not bad.

    efc, I appreciate your thoughtful, interesting, at times wry sense of what goes on. You and your team are appreciated in all seasons.

    PS This was a particular piece of wisdom that struck home.

    Think I’ll have a nap.

  7. Aiyana

    The holidays are a very emotional time of year. I’m a person who has always enjoyed all holidays, always enjoyed decorating and wrapping gifts for others, loved the holiday cheer and the christmas lights and festivities.

    However, when I reached around 29 years of age and life kicked me in the ass and my Saturn return was unrelenting, this time of year changed for me. I realized I had been doing the “Ritual out of Obligation” for many years and finally, it was time for something different. I love my family, but I started to notice patterns that would come out around the holidays that I just didn’t want to partake in anymore. I have changed and often, family doesn’t want to see the changes, they just keep viewing you as the same person.

    So last year, after just turning 34, I decided to stay home and spend the holidays with just me. I still had some residual sadness left over from the emotional hardships that had gone down several years before, but I also felt relief and happiness. I did exactly what I wanted to do. Being single and on my own, I relaxed around the holidays, cooked a meal for just me and made some whiskey cider. It was new, refreshing and I started a different ritual that was completely me. This year’s celebration will be similar to last year’s, focusing on relaxation, art, writing, singing and hanging out with my new teenage puppy.

    The air feels lighter this year, I feel a happiness around this time of year that I haven’t felt in six years or so. I don’t know if its the position of the stars and the planets or if its the fact that I decided to make the holidays into something different for myself, or maybe a combination of both. Whatever the reason, I’m thankful and my spirit is rejoicing.

  8. Amanda PainterAmanda Painter

    if you are traveling, please drive carefully and mindfully. i just found out that the portland, maine, theater community lost one of its members, named susan, who had co-founded one of the local theater communities with her husband, tony. tony lost one of his legs to the mulit-car crash that took his wife’s life.

    if you have a little light to spare, i’d appreciate it if you could keep tony, susan, and their family and friends in your hearts today.

    however you celebrate, the people who love you just want you to be safe and happy. as do i.

  9. Amy Elliott

    Best wishes to all PW colleagues and members for a peaceful and pleasant holiday. My heartfelt sympathy, too, to everyone who finds this time of year difficult, with which I identify closely.

    Much love to you all.

    Eric, Amanda, a very special thank you for all your inspiration, kindness and support this year. I look forward to working with you into 2015.

    Amy xx

  10. Dorothy RodriguezDorothy Rodriguez

    Eric, thank you for opening your heart and enlarging so many others. Learning to have compassion and love for ourselves enables us to be the light that does the same for others. When I find myself in some of these difficult moments you so well described, I’ve taken to telling myself well, okay, I’ll just have to be the leader – the one that goes forward and proves it can be done, so that others who are struggling know they’re not alone, so they can see that someone else has taken it and made it their own and that they can too. Blessings.

  11. Barbara Koehler

    How interesting it is to read your article Eric, and the comments too. The “troubling” season begins even before Thanksgiving, when the commercials ramp up. This year was the worst so far, with even the local news devoting much air time to the insanity.

    For me, I start feeling better the morning (or when ever I get up) of Christmas Eve, and by the end of the day I’m feeling quite good. PBS never fails to have lovely commercial-free programs (tonight I watched Christmas in Yellowstone for the 2nd or 3rd time in as many years, almost all the way through.) Just leaving the television on (PBS) while I do other things is so pleasant (no blaring commercials) and comforting. I don’t miss the tense family get togethers that would take 2 or 3 days to recuperate from.

    Still the old “tapes” from childhood (programmed into memory) can sometimes break through into consciousness. So far it hasn’t create a longing for the past and it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve been obligated to attend the ritual. I’m happy for the folks who do enjoy those get togethers and am truly sorry for folks who would like to but don’t have somewhere to be. I remember how unpleasant that was when I was one of them back in the 80’s and deeply entrenched in the social programming.

    Having transiting planets in one’s 12th house or below the horizon makes it a pleasant experience to be alone; less feigning of delightful conversation for hours on end. But cycles change and perhaps when Jupiter reaches my 7th house in a few years I will feel differently. For now, the cyber community is just perfect and I don’t have to get out of my jammies! Love to all and to all a good night.
    be

  12. Linda Maypuma pink

    I love reading all your beautiful and insightful articles les amis and all comments bring a smile to my face. We re a beautiful bunch, celebration of beauts (saturn too NOW :) Be well everyone and yes as ‘be’ said elegantly…. love to all and to all a good night :)

  13. Megs

    Just wanted to chime in that I so appreciate this big-hearted community of travellers on the road; it feels a lot like a warm fire on a cold night. Here’s my contribution to the topic. This Christmas, I have found to my surprise and delight, that I am not playing. I usually do, in one of forms Eric mentioned,i.e, grudgingly participate, put on a happy face and power through, go it alone and feel depressed about that, or some variation. So this is interesting, to kind of just sit this one out. I guess Buddhist tradition would call this nonresistance. I see the game going on out there and I watch, a little, but that’s all. I don’t feel compelled to do anything. And, I feel at peace, Yay. Wishing peace for all of you too.

  14. carollatvala

    Thank you Eric! I so appreciate the sharing of the varied responses to this time of year. I usually try to pay as little attention as I can get away with and wait it out. New years Eve is even worse than Christmas for me. It used to be a holiday that I celebrated with friends and the Grateful Dead. Now that is gone and I am older and just grateful for the solstice and knowing that it is getting lighter and closer to spring. I am grateful for you and this space.

    1. chief niwot's sonchief niwot's son

      We Are Everywhere. And though the live experience is no longer ours to have, many of us find that Spirit every day through recordings lovingly preserved and cared for down the long years. May Spring bloom forever in your heart.

  15. wandering_yeti

    Thank you Eric. Yes, this holiday was happy in my childhood but depressing in my adult years for a long time. Now it’s no big deal cause I realized that the source of my suffering was projecting ideas onto the situation and feeding disappointment by letting my mind dwell on the things that weren’t happening. Ideas like, “it’s CHRISTMAS so I SHOULD be doing this or that and I’m NOT so I’m DEPRESSED. ”

    Instead I just go with what my energy needs: sleep until noon, meditate with crystals in my hands for an hour or so, play guitar and sing with the birds, make tea on camp stove since the cafe isn’t open, ahhhhh…there’s an upside to having no phone or computer in the house. If I just don’t think about what I’m not doing I can enjoy the quiet ghost town feeling in my normal routes through the city cause it’s gotten a lot more crowded here in the 20 years I’ve been living on this side of the mountain. I got enough social time at a friend’s house. This is my birth sign anyhow and I’m a 4th house Capricorn. I like hibernating this time of year. It took me until I was almost 40 to realize that. Those expectations that tortured me came from my parents, not my heart.

  16. GwenGwen

    Wow! Great article and wonderful comments! My heart is filled with gratitude for everyone associated with Planet Waves…Eric, the amazing staff and writers and all who read, comment and contribute! This year I made no holiday plans…which turned out to be the BEST plan! Santa Fe, NM is a virtual fairyland during the holidays…I now spend my Xmas eve (sometimes alone, sometimes with friends), joining throngs of people (locals and visitors) on the Canyon Rd. walk. The street is closed to traffic and there are farolitos (candles in paper bags) everywhere, random bonfires, musicians on every corner and people bursting into spontaneous carolling. The art galleries, restaurants and bar are bustling! This year there were fireworks! It always makes me feel like a little kid…filled with wonder and awe!

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