There are years in which you are a stranger to yourself. This was one of them. I stopped keeping to-do lists, forgot obligations, hit pause on making sense of my life: why I cried when I should have been happy, why I grew angry or listless, why convictions I’d held no longer convinced even me. It was the last year of my third decade on this earth, and it seems that with every passing year I grow increasingly alien to that earth, or it to me. A fragmented year.
This was the year I moved to San Francisco for the third time, ambivalent. A bizarre place. Nowhere else can the simple act of buying snacks or going to a day job trigger in me the question, How to live?, or perhaps, How to live as a human?, or, What is a human?, or, How is humanity defined in a place of enormous income disparity and mind-boggling callousness as well as beauty? I’m not sure we all share the same definition of human these days. I’m not sure that, were I to rap politely on the skulls of those beside me on Valencia Street or in the backseat of my rideshare, I would hear flesh rather than a more synthetic response. A surreal place. In trying to make sense of it, I found conversational partners in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror.
This was the year I got engaged, and though publicly I kept it low-key, privately I gave myself license to obsess over my favorite obsession: the impossible paradox of being a good parent in a very bad world. I found dark and delightful and intelligent company in Louse Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Karen Russell’s Orange World, Alex Ohlin’s Dual Citizens, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Meng Jin’s forthcoming Little Gods. I sobbed through Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. Though I doubt I want children, I have a perverse desire to marinate in the idea—maybe because children seem to bring with them a sense of anticipatory loss, and so a child might be a tangible thing on which to pin the ache I feel anyway.
This was the year I was so paralyzed by anxiety that only horror could shake me out of it. In the summer, my non-American partner was exiled in Mexico for an unspecified amount of time, awaiting opaque “further processing” on his routine visa run. On my trip back alone, the only book that could distract me was Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone—at least we weren’t being boiled alive or eaten by bears! I read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, Megan Gidding’s forthcoming Lakewood, Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World. Meanwhile, I practiced pacing my apartment while voicing the very worst possibilities: I could quit my job and move to another country! I could sell our needy puppy! I could delete my digital presence and become a hermit! How soothing to twist reality into its most nightmarish shape, and then study it.
This was the year I sought to lose myself in worlds I’d visited before. I reread sagas: Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu from the Earthsea Cycle, Cynthia Voigt’s Elske from the Tales of the Kingdom series, and George R. R. Martin’s entire A Song of Ice and Fire series (as far as it exists; George, please). The escapism is not lost on me. Closer to home, I reread Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth—more than one reread, in the case of certain stories. “As ordinary as it all appears,” Lahiri writes of the immigrant experience of shifting from one world to another, “there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
This was the year I grieved and found solace in books that peered closely at the texture of daily, mundane grief. I read Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days, and Miriam Toews’s strangely hilarious All My Puny Sorrows.
This was the year I looked for joy in the last pure place: in syllables. I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar, in which syntax is sheer delight. I reread Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on a solo writing trip to Hiroshima where, alone in my hotel with a sea view and two beds, no one minded if I occasionally threw the book across the room to yell WHAT THE FUCK when metaphors got too good. Intending it as mourning, I reread Toni Morrison’s Beloved the day the news of her death broke. I felt only elation. It is a perfect book. It is new every single time, as if the language is being birthed in radical shapes as you read—you can’t help but celebrate the life in it.
This was the year I stopped assuming I could see how things would turn out and cozied up to ambiguity. I read books that, rather than force a sweeping lesson, do what good friends do: hold space for complexity. I read Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming Real Life and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, in which endings are not ends. I reread the lyrical puzzle box that is Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero. I read collections whose individual pieces fragmented, overlapped: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias. I read Sarah Elaine Smith’s Marilou Is Everywhere and Alexandra Chang’s forthcoming Days of Distraction, their narrators keeping me company in my state of persistent bemusement. Maybe it’s enough, these books say, to live with integrity through a day, a paragraph, a sentence.
This was the year in which I wondered what happens to women’s rage and hurt when it is no longer as fresh as it was in, say, 2016. What happens as time passes, what ferments or crusts or festers. I read Shelly Oria’s Indelible in the Hippocampus and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Miriam Toews’s Women Talking. One of the first books I read this year was Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, a real mindfuck of a book, too smart and too cynical and too exacting to give its reader the easy gift of catharsis. It won’t let me forget it. I don’t want to forget.
In 2019, I stopped reading more books than I ever have before; life is too fucking short. The books that held my attention this year—that reached out to me—are capsules of strangeness, of varied extremity; what they don’t do is try to convince me that everything is okay. That was a form of companionship I needed very much.
I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
The Bell Jar isn’t an obvious Christmas book but I always remember this scene and how it perfectly sums up that feeling when you’re a grown up of it mostly being disappointing.
I’m fortunate in that I had great Christmases growing up, so I love Christmas. There’s one thing you know about me. The other thing is I’m not that happy. I’m not that bad most days, I’m Wednesday Addams, more cynical that miserable, but my idea of a good day is if I get through it without crying or if I pet a dog or don’t spill anything down myself. Long gone are real notions of happiness. I will gladly take alive, safe, warm, fed, loved, petted a dog, over happy any day.
But I love Christmas and I always worry that I won’t have a happy Christmas. Most of the year I’m ok with not being that happy but at Christmas I want it.
Obviously a lot of this pressure to be happy comes from the movies and fiction we are surrounded by. When people think of festive fiction they think of Charles Dickens and The Kranks and The Grinch, which are all about Christmas miracles and warm fuzzies. You’re supposed to wear ugly sweaters and drink egg nog whatever that is and sing nonsense songs, preferably round a piano — shouting Mariah Carey in a karaoke bar doesn’t count. You’re supposed to be glad to see your family, eat a big dinner, fight with your siblings but then make up when you remember the time one of you got up in the night and opened your presents and then wrapped them back up again, because that happens.
But people forget that those stories are all about how awful Christmas is really and it’s only at the end that things turn out ok. It’s a Wonderful Life was based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern and is the perfect example of this. People love it for its hopeful message at the end but really it’s mostly about suicide. (It’s also important to point out that in this story the worst fate that could befall Mary is that she becomes a librarian.)
Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm is one of my favorite miserable holiday books and films. Set during the holidays in New England in 1973, everything is falling apart for the Hood family. The adults are fighting and cheating and barely holding it together and the children are going off the rails. The daughter Wendy turning A Charlie Brown Christmas up louder on the TV to drown out her rowing parents sums it up for me. And reminds me of the patron saint of miserable Christmases himself, Charlie Brown.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is another holiday classic about a dysfunctional family who are summoned together for one last Christmas. Obviously it doesn’t work out because the dad is sick and they’re all nuts and this has become the classic Christmas scenario in both literature and film. The message being families and holidays just don’t mix.
Christmas with the Kranks is based on a John Grisham book called Skipping Christmas and it might be the only John Grisham book I’ve read. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie, it’s about how awful the holidays can be and how sometimes you just don’t feel like it only eventually you’re pressured into it and have to just give in, let Christmas take over.
My recent favorite Christmas book has to be the outstanding Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. She truly sums up how bleak and depressing the holidays can be. “I had hard feelings around the holidays, the one time of year I couldn’t help but fall prey to the canned self-pity Christmas prescribes,” Eileen says, she also says she can’t be done with the charade of it. Which is exactly what it is. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it but you will never read about such a depraved Christmas party in your life.
Christmas is also something we do for other people. It’s something that can hold us together when we’re falling apart. Nothing makes me think this more than the wonderful book All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. This is a devastatingly beautiful book about two sisters, one of whom kills herself just before Christmas. Her death is imminent throughout the book so when it actually happens you almost feel relief then watch as the family push on. “We had to get a Christmas tree” says Yoli right after because that’s what you do. And later her daughter says “Let’s not have forced gaiety this Christmas” but she says “We’ll have a tiny bit”. Because that’s what you do.
One of my favorite writers, Augusten Burroughs, wrote a whole book dedicated to Christmas called You Better Not Cry and it’s a perfect balance of wonderful and awful. His stories make you laugh and cry and that’s what the holidays are about. I think once you dispel the myth that it’s all about being happy you are much more relaxed to just take it as it comes. If Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas taught us anything it’s that the man in the red suit is pretty grumpy himself and I love him more for it. Bah humbug forever.
One year I was so worried I wasn’t going to be happy I just got very drunk because drunk people are always happy I thought only it turns out I’m not a happy drunk, I’m a shouty crying drunk. I realize I could do that skipping Christmas thing but that’s so passé now and I had a friend that did that who went to some party island and she still hasn’t come back but I can’t dance nor do I like the heat. But also, I love Christmas. I don’t want to skip it.
So when I say I’m dreading the holidays I mean I’m worried I won’t feel how I want to feel. I’m putting the pressure on myself really so I need to learn to give myself a break, to say ok, so it’s not going to be like the movies and books but it won’t be as mad as Eileen’s Christmas or as bad as Tiny Tim’s. Reading about dysfunction families at this time of the year makes me feel better about my own and that’s obviously the point. Christmas is going to be what it is and it will all be over soon anyway and then you can go back to being your miserable self and no one will make you wear a hat or sing a song or eat a Brussels sprout.
I just want an ok Christmas and for everyone else to be ok with that.
Image Credit: Pexel/freestocks.org.