As people fly and drive and take various other methods of transportation to be near friends and families this week and next for Hanukkah, Christmas and other important celebrations, I find myself thinking about how many are dreading the obligatory reunion and how many are genuinely looking forward to the chance to reconnect over long prepared meals and perhaps in some cases, introduce new members to old family traditions. The picture above is the table my mom and I decorate for a Christmas brunch we host each year at our church, a favorite time for both of us to begin the season by serving others. Each year, we choose a different theme, we never know who our guests will be and it is with great joy we plan what it will look like and organize who’s plates are to be used, etc…
I think back to another picture I saw of two young girls, probably both around 11 years old. They are standing in a sunny field wearing light, cotton dresses, hair loose and long, expressions somber but not unhappy. One girl stands straight, facing the camera full on, while the other girl who could be her twin, so similar in appearance, leans over slightly into her sister, their arms and hands intertwined together and bent at the elbow which gives the effect of their hands being very close to their faces. The only caption is: “Protector”.
Which one is the protector is the thought running through my mind? Is it the girl leaning in as a protective measure against what may come? Or is it the girl standing straight up, bearing the weight of the one leaning in thereby providing a solid foundation of support, its own form of protection? Perhaps it is the give and take of what they offer each other which provides protection for both young souls.
I always find pictures thought provoking and they often become inspiration for my stories. Most interesting is when one impression of a picture has formed in my head, only to read the caption and see it in a completely new perspective. It is both fascinating and explanatory of our human condition. How many arguments start because of “a look”, or a word said wrong? Was it a wrong look given and a word said in error or was it a look grossly misinterpreted, a word perceived as having malicious intent? How many times have I edited how I’ve written this piece, simply because my audience cannot hear how I am saying what I write? The answer is more than I can count and so words are changed to soften the intent I’m not even sure is being misconstrued in the first place.
Holidays become our snapshots of family so many times. Emotions run high and with it the brains ability to produce the chemicals that make the most passionate of our experiences, be it warm and cozy or cold and painful, permanently etched in our long term memory. Hence the look of both relaxed joy and tense dread on so many travelers and hosts.
Sorrow can be fear and shyness too often is mistaken for arrogance. So many times we transfer our own emotion of what we feel to how we perceive others are feeling without asking questions or offering comfort without judgment. The makers of Hello Kitty, that innocuous famous white creature my daughter adores, were aware of this upon her inception and purposefully did not give her a mouth because their desire was for the owner to project whatever emotion they wanted on to the doll. How many people go through life with a permanent smile glued to their face so as not to give anyone the wrong impression?
I took our daughter to our favorite children’s hair stylist recently, where two little boys were extremely anxious to be out of there the second they walked in and since they couldn’t leave, they were content to raise the noise level exponentially compared to their size and found whatever apparatus they could to assist their experiment. Each time the noise lasted more than 30 seconds, mom calmly walked over with baby number 3 on her hip and knelt down, trying her best to assure the boys this was not appropriate behavior. Due to the incessant repetition of this action every 30 seconds, it was clear this method wasn’t working for her. The entire time, she smiled really big while attempting to discipline them and I wonder how that will translate as the boys grow up. This is not judgment, purely observation. How will what I perceive as mixed signals of a happy expression and admonishing words serve them when they deal with other people who choose to frown when they disapprove and speak louder when they are agitated? Maybe I have it all wrong, there is always more to the story.
We flavor our conversations with the spice of our experiences and unless we have the relationship and connection to understand the vast amount of historical or current references being used, the capacity for mistrust and animosity seems so much bigger than for understanding and compassion. When you grow up in the same area, the slang is similar and many nuances are inherent and understood without even realizing our brains are instantly interpreting what we hear according to our shared environment. However, even coming from opposite sides of the same state, such as California can make some feel like a foreigner. I’ve spent holidays in Northern, Southern and along the mid coast of it, each is very different in every way from speech to rhythm of life.
Having also lived overseas as a young child, I still have a nostalgic sense of familiarity when I hear someone pronounce words a different way than most Californians would. Friends that say “GARage” instead of “gaRAWWGE” have me instantly speaking the same way as if my brain is switching tracks to an earlier linguistic environment. I start talking about the bonnet and boot of my car instead of the Hood and Trunk. I have to remember why my computer is telling me “colour” is wrong and “color” is correct and not grimace because I wrote it the other way and read it the other way for so many of my beginning, formative years. It’s been quite entertaining for my California born and bred husband and children, although they might describe it as more confusing.
I once dated a man who began to feel extremely ostracized when playing a game of Taboo with my family at my parent’s house. If you are unfamiliar with the game, your goal is to get the other person to say a word while you describe it without saying 4 or 5 key descriptors listed on the card in front of you, for instance describing a ball without using “round” or “bounce”. Because we have so many unique experiences among us, my parents, brothers and myself were able to say specific inside joke phrases which sounded nothing like any association to the word but triggered a certain chain of events in our collective memory and led to the desired word in spite of few adjectives left. Sound like any holiday conversations you remember feeling left out of or unintentionally left others out of perhaps?
Looking back, I’m sure the game sounded like gibberish to the outsider, which is unfortunately exactly how my date felt, despite how long we had been together. (A year sounded realllllly long at the time!) The rounds were lightning fast and at the end, he was visibly agitated when I asked what was wrong. He was embarrassed he couldn’t keep up and when I apologized he said a Porsche would always have the ability to slow down for a VW bug but the bug would never have the capability to catch up to the Porsche.
I’ve never forgotten that phrase and I do a better job these days, some 18 years later, in making sure people are included in conversation, not sanitizing my speech and staying away from “inspeak” or ignoring old stories altogether but rather taking the time to include them in the history behind them because I want them to feel the same joy from the memory and to feel connected to the moment and people surrounding them.
Remembering this during the holiday time when so many tight circles of family have an opportunity to widen and accept in new members or old ones who have spent a long time away can often make the difference in the warmth of everyone’s holiday memory. Have a very merry Christmas and a warm whichever holiday you hold dear.