The holidays. I want to love them unconditionally, but the truth is I find them overwhelming. Every year I feel like I don’t have enough money to buy things for all the lovely people in my life. Gifts add up, and flying all the way back to Chicago is expensive, especially since I’ve recently transitioned into the life of a freelance writer. Not to mention the added cargo of a cat, someone I refuse to celebrate Christmas without.
I also feel like there’s never enough time to do everything. When you live across the country and only return home twice a year, your days fill up quite quickly. And even though you love all the amazing humans you get to spend time with, sometimes all you want to do is just be. To sit at home with your mom, drink some tea by the fire, and talk about nothing.
So yes. The holidays are stressful. But they are also a time for reflection. And one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is this cognitive dissonance I feel regarding contentment and longing.
I keep thinking back to the part in A Christmas Carol where Dickins describes the two children hiding under the robes of Christmas Present:
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
I remember seeing the illustration of these children when I was just a child, and I remember how much it disturbed me. I didn’t understand the passage, of course, as most kids don’t understand the meaning of ignorance. But that part of the story has always haunted me, and has stayed with me for as long as I can remember.
I want to talk about Want. Ignorance gets plenty of air time as it is. Let’s talk about that little girl instead (#fuckthepatriarchy). It says we should be wary of her, and I think this is true. She’s not evil, she’s not bad. She’s a product of human nature, and the more you feed her, the stronger she gets. We can’t pretend she doesn’t exist, because she’s always there, lurking under the surface. And we also have to mind her, keep her in check.
I can remember the strength of most of my Wants. It starts out as a dull ache, becoming more acute as I spend more time thinking about it, feeding it. It is always present, shifting shape to create a type of fog over everything. For me, it has appeared in the form of everything from baby dolls to white cats to platform sandals to new cars, new boys, better hair, perfect teeth, expensive clothes, unattainable real estate, a different life. It catches me unaware, and sometimes manages to make me drop everything I have and follow it blindly.
Embracing minimalism is difficult, yes. That’s what most people say. But they don’t often talk about the constant battle that comes with it. You have to have arms at the ready. You have to have your battle armor on every time you walk into a shopping mall, every time you pick up the phone and scroll through the lives of people on Instagram that you don’t know. Sometimes your Want will call out to you in the form of a pair of expensive shoes or bag, an object. Other times, it will be in the form of a perceived reality, a lifestyle. I’m talking about the people who are in Paris on permanent holiday, or exercise gurus with great glutes, people with interesting jobs and so much disposable income. The ones who are all in their twenties and have somehow managed to renovate their entire houses into Pinterest-worthy spaces. Their kitchens are clean and perfect. They don’t own a trash can. They seem to float through life, effortlessly.
And here’s the bad news: there is no quick fix for the Want. You can’t say a magic word and be rid of it, can’t pay ten payments of $19.99 to have it removed. You have to do the work yourself, again and again; you’ve got to build your own armor, and then remember to put it on. And your armor has to be constructed out of your own contentment, your gratitude for what you have.
It’s so easy to disregard contentment. It’s not very flashy or shiny, it’s internal, it’s quiet. The things that make you happy to have your life, your skills, your partner. The clothes you have, the books you’ve already enjoyed. The apartment or starter home you’ve lived in, popcorn ceilings and all.
You have to wear it around you every time you get that pang in your side: I want those shoes, this sweater, that purse, those gadgets, these THINGS. And again when you feel the pull for someone else’s life, body, closet, career.
I can’t tell you how many times I look at the strangers of Instagram, see them doing a cool thing (skateboarding! Yoga on surfboards! Shuffle dancing! Baking zero waste vegan meals! Spoken word poetry!) and then feel like shit because oh my god, what am I doing with my life I can’t even do yoga on a surfboard. I have to give myself a nudge and say, hmmmm, okay, those people are good at that random thing. That’s cool for them! But hey, there are lots of random things that YOU are good at, too! You can write poetry, paint pictures, do an unintentional impression of Bob Dylan, and do ten pull-ups! And that’s pretty cool for you.
We are all eternal works in progress. Things are never, ever going to be perfect. There will always be some piece of shit thing that spoils your plans, always a little voice in your ear telling you that you can’t be content until…. xyz. But it’s not true. Where you are is fine. Where you are is great! Look at how far you’ve walked! Your jobs sucks? That’s okay. It’s just a stepping stone. You don’t have money to buy all of the things you think you need? That’s great! Welcome the struggle! Welcome character development! Think about how boring your memoir would be if you got everything you ever wanted. Would you buy that? No. Me either.
So as we move closer into this season, the biggest season of overwhelm and Want, remember: it’s all good. We have a choice. We can stop looking outwards, and look within. We can turn off our phones. We can know that we are enough without the cardigan or the iPad or the whatever. While the Want is never going to go away, we can take a step back, look around us, and feel thankful. We can accept the life that we have, this big, beautiful, hectic and imperfect life. It’s lovely. It’s enough. It’s everything.