New Christmas

I don’t know if it’s normal or common but whenever I travel I end up feeling changed. Changed by the new environment, even if it’s somewhere familiar: things change over time. Changed by experiences and my interpretation of them, this new way of understanding myself and my place in the world.

One of the most difficult parts of this change is when I return. It’s easier to feel like things are constantly in motion, like everything can change in an instant, like nowhere is home.  That way you’re always poised to jump, and it doesn’t take too much energy to go from calm to quick reactions, or to re-evaluate everything over and over again. You get used to it after a while. But when you’ve established a sense of normality, when something is familiar and comfortable and you start to let yourself relax, then getting thrown again into change takes a lot out of you.

And it’s exhausting, and it feels strange to keep changing. But in a way it feels like discovering, as if who I am is unknown to me but is being revealed through a series of letters to myself. With each new installment, a little piece becomes clearer.

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I spent three weeks in the US over Christmas and New Year. Last year I was there because I had no funding, and the year before that I was in Finland and it was really lonely because everyone left the city to spend time with their families. I wrapped up some work for the fall and it was a fairly good place to take a break, and I usually work through summer holidays at least half-time, so I was excited about getting a real holiday and hoping to reconnect with all the relatives.

It turned out… different than I expected. Some parts were really great. Others were awful. It was a lot of hectic rushing, trying to do too many things, sadness and confusion, bringing up a lot of feelings of guilt and helplessness relating to taking care of people. I had a list of things that I wanted to do, traditions that to me meant Christmas. I wanted to make gingerbread houses and the Yule log, listen to Burl Ives and decorate a tree, spend time wrapping presents. I wanted to watch Christmas movies and drink eggnog and be able to relax.

Most of those things didn’t happen, and those that did happen didn’t feel right. It felt clear to me that wasn’t important anymore to keep up the facade of a big old-fashioned family Christmas which had been hanging on by a thread for a few years already. Things aren’t perfect, there’s a lot of drama and complicated stuff that happens in life, and I think it’s pretty normal for people to drift apart once the kids are all grown up. It’s been difficult for me to accept, but in a way it’s also given me permission to do my own thing.

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One thing I love about Finland is the people’s gung-ho attitude about the weather. I went for a hike the other day to clear my head and to get back to the forest. There weren’t significantly fewer people out and about biking, running, dog-walking, skiing and Nordic walking than there are on a bright sunny day in July, even though it was just a few hours till darkness and -16 degrees Celsius.

Even so, I always manage to go far enough off the trail to get some perspective. At one point I climbed up a big rock that was covered in over a foot of virgin snow, and on the other side I could see something small and red in the lower boughs of a pine tree. I thought maybe it was an old trail marker, or one of those colored plastic ties they put on trees to mark them for whatever reason. On closer inspection, I was surprised to find that it was actually a tiny red felted hat! About three inches long, and cone-shaped, it had gotten caught on some twigs and stuck there.

Now, I’m a logical and educated person. But I can be fairly superstitious. I have a belief that saying or thinking bad things toward a person will cause bad things to happen to them, and an irrational fear that if I leave things badly with someone, something terrible will happen to them and I’ll never get the chance to set it right. I also believe in the Cottingley fairies, on a conceptual sort of level, and ghosts and spirits and a sort of sardonic karmic energy to the universe. Even if most of that is probably due to the fact that given enough permutations, patterns will arise out of randomness, I still think that quality of the universe is amazing in itself.

I’m also convinced that I have a house tonttu, a little hobgoblin-like elf who lives in my apartment and gets up to all sorts of mischief like misplacing my socks and dropping things behind the radiator. But it helps out occasionally, like the time it unstopped my sink drain. So we have a respectful sort of existence together.

So of course when I came upon this little hat in the forest, off the trail in a silent, snow-buried part of the woods, I figured this tree belonged to a haltija who has unfortunately dropped his cap. I took a photo but I didn’t touch it. I didn’t have any treats to offer as a gift, and all the flowers and berries have long been gone, but it made me smile and I hoped good thoughts would be enough.

Some cynical part of me knows that’s all nonsense. But I still choose to believe in these things for the same reason I choose to believe in free will, and that people are essentially good. As the magically wise little elf Judy said in the epic Christmas classic The Santa Clause: Seeing isn’t believing–believing is seeing. When you believe in something, it becomes real to you.

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I think this is maybe the root of my issues with the holidays the past few years: I no longer believe, and so I no longer see. These rituals and traditions are all caught up in superstition for me. They create the magic that was the holidays. Part of it is getting older and people changing, and part of it is my own unwillingness to create the magic. People say that children are psychologically selfish–it’s just part of their development. But they’re really the least selfish among us. Children naturally create the world we live in. They inspire and create the stories that become our mythology, their creativity lives on in the adults who dare to believe–in artists, writers, musicians, scientists, teachers. For me, the things and the rituals of the holidays became talismans over which I had no control; in a typical adult fashion, I expected the magic to be done to me. I wanted to see in order to believe.

But maybe I need to understand the holidays in the way that I understand the forest. I believe there is magic there, and power. There is something about the forest that always centers me, brings me enlightenment and reality at the same time. Even though the things I wanted didn’t happen, other great things did. Pleasant surprises happened. Relationships evolved. I learned things about people. Maybe it’s okay to change, to create my own thing. My Christmas is just as valid, and can be just as magical if I believe in it.

After all, the world is a much more interesting place when we believe in things.

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  1. Finnish Christmas in big cities are totally different than in ski resorts. Another day when cities are empty is MidSummer weekend. People go again to their cottages.

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