A visual expression of the mixed emotions of the holiday season.

mixed emotions at year’s end

December is a month of layers. Not just the warm shirts and sweaters of my Northern Hemisphere locale, but layers of feelings and memories, love and loneliness. In 2019 it brought resurrection, when I smiled my first genuine, spontaneous smile after nine months of wearing a public face and privately drowning in a black lake of tears and despair. The feeling of that smile, the difference of that smile, broke over me in gentlest waves of astonished pleasure and hope for the future.

While my brain was recovering from its neurological crisis—medically described with the worrying language of lesions and the –oma suffix that sounds as though it should be as warm as a childhood friend’s grandmother, but instead bodes ill—a neighbor’s actual brain cancer was worsening, her confusion and dependence advancing. She was only about twelve years older than me. The last time I saw her, her face seemed transformed, broad and blank where she was once focused and lively with extroversion and kind wit, as her husband slowly walked her up the sidewalk near their house. His right arm around her shoulder, his left hand clasping her left arm. That was before the darkest dark, balsam fir and wood smoke suspended in cold air, the extra cars parked up and down the street and the telltale lit windows of that same quiet house, seeming kindled as if all the light of their lives together were gathered there, where friends and family gathered after her memorial service.

I’ve been wanting to write about that smile, that neighbor. I was going to try today. Then I learned that a beloved mentor who has been battling cancer is now preparing for hospice and death. Someone who, after that resurrection, helped me find the ground under my feet and a path forward, in the space of one long beautiful conversation in February 2020. I met him in person for the first time late this summer, among people who’d known him much longer, at a party whose theme was “Why the Fuck Not?” I’m an introvert and had to compel myself to stay three hours until his speech, then left when the dancing began, music and voices rising above the grass to the roof-line and beyond. My windshield needed replacing, so it was better to drive the hour north before dusk and the refractions of oncoming traffic. That was my official logic. —And here I feel I should have more to say, but I see no way, I really see no way, to uncouple the joy and the pain, the love and the hurt of this life, and no way to capture it whole. Layer upon layer, wave after wave.


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The other night my car broke down in front of a butcher shop. It was a Sunday night in a sleepy town. My phone was nearly dead, and AAA’s system had apparently malfunctioned. I also had a migraine. I couldn’t read to while away the time, so for three hours I lay back with my seat reclined, willing my body into perfect stillness as my review mirror lit up periodically, reflecting the headlights of a slow, unaffiliated parade of sedans, wagons, jeeps, motorbikes. No tow truck—not for three hours. I had plenty of time to notice that migraines can make my teeth chatter, a strange and overwhelming sensation. Also in a slow parade, dog-walkers. Several brisk women, one shlubby barefoot older guy, another guy more kempt and alert to my propped-open hood. He eyed my car walking up the opposite side of the street, then paused walking down the sidewalk past my window, which was lowered for the fresh air in an interlude between days of torrential rains. He asked the basic questions, made friendly conversation. We must have talked a good 10, 15 minutes. His dog, meanwhile, had settled expectantly in front of the door of the darkened butcher shop. His haunches seemed to twitch like the legs of tennis players waiting for a serve; I wondered if he could somehow smell the meat through the door? “No,” said the man—“the owners of the shop give him treats.” I was nonetheless mystified—the lights were out; there was no one there. Surely that was apparent…? But the dog was fixed on waiting. He didn’t respond to his name, he didn’t respond to tugs on his leash. It was Sunday night, and the store would be empty till mid-morning on Wednesday. Yet there he sat, oblivious to everything except his memory of lights and people with treats. So deep and alive was his expectation that I believe he might have waited sixty hours if not bodily removed at last. That’s what it looks like, I thought. But what was “it”—was it beautiful, amazing, miraculous faith, or was it something more like a foolish consistency? I can’t decide in part because I lived it, and I saw how it could be equally one or the other. Incidentally, it was my starter that needed replacing. It cost $235. Expensive, but well spent.


Text and image copyrights held by me. In a world overabundant with content, you landed here and read this far. Thank you. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.


You may have heard the phrase “radical acceptance.” It’s a term in DBT for the recognition that, echoing the Serenity Prayer in AA, there are things in life we cannot change. Faced with the immutable, we have only our responses. An accepting response hurts less, the way a childhood friend emerged from a car accident with only a bruise, because her sleeping body had been relaxed at impact. If anyone reading this feels that radical acceptance of certain biographical facts is an impossibility, I understand. The losses in this life can be enormous. Abuse, neglect, betrayal. The failures of one’s own mind, a loss I know all too well. I could be haunted by the most grotesque and terrifying memories, from when the veins in my brain leaked blood and irritated the surrounding tissues. Still, as I walked through a light rain this weekend, I reflected on my good fortune. When I thought I was plummeting in an abyss, throughout most of 2019, I was actually falling backward into arms that caught and held me. Love can accomplish amazing things, just as March accomplishes the miracle of crocuses, gathered in shy regiments, silken petals at attention, violet and white. Life can be so fucking awful, it’s hard to imagine a worse punishment than breathing. Please hold on. Believe in spring. Believe in love.


Text and image copyrights held by me. My posts have gotten shorter as I deal with other things. As ever, I’m grateful for your reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.