the Christmas letter and the truth

The annual tradition of the holiday letter is one that we hold to. Well, sometimes. Each year it’s a little different, but in general K. take pictures of the girls, we pick out a few that make sense and look good for a card. Maybe there’s a theme somewhere — last year G. was screaming in one of the photos, but it looked like she was laughing hysterically while her sister looked with adoration. This got captioned “love and joy.” After we sent out cards out, a few days later we received the C’s card that proclaimed, “peace, love, and joy.” Damn it; we forgot the peace. The C’s had to trump us with “peace.” We secretly hated them, but only because their card was beautiful with beautiful children and beautiful sentiment. Peace — how could we have forgotten?

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2008 photoshoot

Anyway, usually there’s a letter or some kind of summary of the kind of year we had. Last year and the year before, we started creating short descriptions of each of us and what had happened over the past year. Other years we did newsletters or photo narratives. This year, for whatever reason, we only sent a photo card. No letter, no summaries, just “happy holidays,” “peace and love” (no “joy” this year — we’re mixing it up), here’s a nice 4×8 card for your wall with our beautiful children. “We didn’t want to bother you with yet another narcissistic form of communication,” is one way of interpreting this. “We were too busy,” is another interpretation. The most truthful, though, is probably, “We were going to, but when it came time to actually try to summarize the year, it was harder than we thought.”

The problem is this: It’s hard to tell the truth in a Christmas letter. I don’t mean that we are naturally apt to lie; it’s hard to really explain the essence of a family and a year. We see no shortage of holiday letters, including my own parents’, listing events, travels, and endeavors. We look forward to a lot of these, but many end up leaving us with no real meaning. It’s sometimes no different than reading the newsletter from the milkman or the real estate agent. How do we get real meaning, truth, out of the one page newsletter?

Now that my grades are turned in, the semester has been put to rest, and the main agenda item for the day is to have the car people check the funny sound that our brakes make, I can reconsider how a true year-end narrative could be composed. One version would go like this:

We’ve been drinking more this year than we used to. A. turned 10 just the other day, and when I mentioned that it would only be 9 years — less than that now, actually — before she left for college, her mother burst into tears. It didn’t help that G. had just had her heart broken a few days before by a 7-year-old boy who tossed aside a card she’d made for him, but we’re sure in the long run this will be good training for life’s long string of disappointments. Better than what she’ll have to face when she grows up, we suppose. I, for example, spent much of the summer wondering if I was dying, when in fact it was probably some combination of stomach acid, an injured shoulder, and anxiety over budgets and new assignments and health. I think I was overly influenced by the real mess-up of our family, my wife, K., who managed to get diagnosed with glaucoma and have two surgeries on the same eye in the window of about a month. She looked terrible with that patch — the children were afraid of her — and she felt worse than she looked. But, we all got a kick out of watching her trying to spoon soup into her mouth with only one eye and no depth perception. We laughed because it was better than imagining what was going to happen next.

Fortunately, we have family to support us. Well, no, strike that. Fortunately, K. & I are able to compare our mothers to see which extreme is really the most difficult, crazy, or simply unreasonable to deal with. On most days it’s a draw, but sometimes one edges out the other, although it’s only on the basis of some action that would, in a court of law, be deemed as evidence for neurosis and thus make the trial impossible to see through. Fortunately, when K. had her first surgery, we learned just how helpful it was to have family stay with us, so that for the second surgery we made sure no person a generation senior to us in our family was within the state boundary. Or any adjoining state, actually. Having one state in between, like the DMZ between North and South Korea, seems to be a good buffer on most days.

Speaking of family, many of you have probably been wondering about my epileptic autistic transgendered brother. No, we didn’t expect to string together those adjectives, either, but that’s what we have…

This could go on, but it would just get more sordid, and it would be hard to figure out where to stop. We fantasize about writing such a letter, though. The shock value alone would be immeasurable. It would also be the perfect contrast to the perfect picture painted by my own parents’ Christmas letter.

It’s funny what kind of truths we write to the people who might only hear from us once a year. We could tell you about the glaucoma and how we don’t know what’s going to happen next, or the brother who forges my dad’s signature. It’s all complicated and mysterious, and maybe these are truths we don’t tell simply because we don’t understand them ourselves. I suppose we also are afraid of letting too much truth out, either because it will then be with us, out in the open like mosquitoes we have to keep flailing at, or maybe because they’re easier to deal with when they’re neatly put away in shoeboxes under our beds. I’ve been meaning to call my brother for weeks now, but I haven’t, and maybe it’s in large part because I don’t want to face his own truths, and try to emote something from his autistic psyche.

I think we probably don’t tell these truths, though, because they don’t actually tell the whole, real truth. The other truth is that we really did laugh when K. couldn’t get the soup to her mouth, guided with her one good eye. We laugh too hard when G. farts at the dinner table. K. usually loves her new job and her students are learning to read, and that’s a really big deal. She gets to walk with the girls, two and a half blocks, to our neighborhood elementary school and they all learn there. I won a university teaching award that I’d coveted for years, and I’m proud to say I won it and a little embarrassed that it meant so much to me. G. earned a purple belt in martial arts for which we cheered and went out to ice cream. A. is getting really good at violin. Both girls love each other and pet the dog and do their homework. We love each other more than we each deserve. K. takes fewer photos, but when she does I’m still awed by the beauty in what she creates. I don’t always understand the new half of my job, and I feel disorganized with it all the time, but I’m liking it and doing things that might even be important. K. didn’t like working at the elementary school at first, feeling like she was stretching herself thin and wasting her time in a bureaucracy, but now she’s loving it and working with the kids. Most of the time. We’re happy. Most of the time. We camped in the Redwoods and played on the beach and hiked in the desert and it was all beautiful beyond words. Even when I reprimanded teenagers for throwing watermelon rinds in the national park from the side of the road, it was still all happy. We are blessed. We have food and clothes and a warm home and one another and, for the first time since before the kids were born, enough extra savings that I could look at Brandi Carlile’s concert tour, see that it intersected with Disneyland over my spring break, make a few phone calls (“only four tickets left on the balcony? then I guess we should get them) and then make the girls guess what I did. I have a really amazing job, and I think I’m doing some important work and I’m good at it. Most of the time. We’re blessed — I said that already — and even though sometimes things are really hard and this year in particular sometimes made my entire body hurt with worry, we’re doing really well. That’s the truth. Most of the time.

It’s true that G.’s heart will be broken again, but her heart is full right now. It’s true that Anna will probably leave for college in only nine years, but she’s here now. And when a heart breaks or when they leave us or when all of the rest of it happens, it will be painful and good at the same time; and that’s how it was this year. And I guess that’s the truth that the picture we sent to friends and relatives is trying to say.

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4 thoughts on “the Christmas letter and the truth

  1. I struggled with this truth-telling, or not, in messages I would send out to family and friends around John’s illness and treatments.

    Sometimes the whole truth is too much for people to handle, and sometimes the whole truth is more information than they need.

    Your truthful letter made me laugh out loud, though, from the recognition of my own family in yours. Our tragedies and craziness are different, but the proportions and infusion seem to be about the same.

    Your card, which I received yesterday, made me smile. Peace to all, indeed.

    1. Thanks. I think I’ve experienced tragedy and craziness in minimal ways compared to you, but it’s something to be able to connect through some of these experiences.

  2. BEST CHRISTMAS LETTER EVER!!
    Love it…and feel so lucky to be able to be a part of your family truth for a weekend or so every year. Love you all.
    I guess my xmas letter was kind of lame in comparison :).

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