LOCK YOURSELF OUT FOR THE HOLIDAYS
I know that sounds outrageous. It just may have worked for me in the winter of 2008. Let me explain.
My beloved soul mate and partner, Brian, died in June of 2008. I made a trip from sunny California to blustery New England for the wintering months. Do not ask me why. Maybe to have the exterior world match my interior. I felt so cold, barren and isolated. And nothing will match that feeling like scaling 3 foot snow drifts and slipping on black ice. A hard winter is similar to grief and sorrow, to be sure.
I was house sitting in a traditional small New England town – Easthampton, MA. I had several invitations to spend Christmas Day with people, however, the idea did not sit well with me. I was despondent and heavy with grief. Attending Christmas gatherings with people, some of whom I did not know, all who exuded positive energy... seemed wrong. I did not want to spoil their holiday or shift my energy to accommodate their festive spirits. I made several people confused and angry regarding my decline of their kind invitations. I chose to be alone in a snow drift on Christmas Day.
I isolated to work out my sorrow over my absent husband and children. The children were the hardest part. They, after all, were still alive and on the planet... but inaccessible. Our shared custody of his three wonderful children vanished after Brian died, since their birth mom was a problem that I could not solve. And so it was that my entire village had been bombed and nothing was left. I had no money to throw at my problems. Nor the desire to fight. So, I isolated and licked my many wounds.
I looked for a Christmas Day volunteer assignment. No homeless shelters were serving Christmas Day, having already served on Christmas Eve. My attempts to be of service on that day had no channels or outlets.
It was to be my first Christmas Day without Brian or the kids in years and years. And, frankly, I was mortified.
Forward to Christmas Day Evening. For some reason, that I cannot recall, I decided to take a drive in my car. Maybe my intention was to see the Christmas lights? I cannot remember.
I bundled up in miles of sweaters and coats and scarves and hats. So unlike my California clothing. I ventured out onto the darkening, slippery sidewalk toward my car. The wind pressed against me, as if to dare me to continue. I escaped the wind inside my frigid, small economy car. Started the engine. Looked up to see an icy windshield. And then, I made my mistake – or my best decision that day – depending on your viewpoint.
I turned off the car, opened the door and got out to address the icy windshield with the lack of acumen that one might expect of a Cali girl. As I leaned over the passenger side of the car to scrape – a wind rose out of the bowels of Antarctica – and slammed my driver's door shut.
I am an urban girl. I have a habit firmly planted in the reptilian part of my brain of ALWAYS taking my keys and ALWAYS hitting the button to lock the doors.
This time I had NOT taken my keys but HAD hit the button to lock the doors. So when the door slammed shut – I was locked out. Locked out of both the car AND the house.
The car door was ajar, but closed enough that it was locked. I tried cramming sticks in to pry the door open (the scratches are still there today), to no avail. I looked at the car and the house – my only shelters in this wintry world – and both were firmly locked. The chill of the frigid air was moving inside my coat.
Cell phone? Inside the car. AAA membership card? Inside the car.
I surveyed the perimeter of the house, leaping through snow drifts to see if there were any places where I could force entry. Of course there were not, the house was lashed up like a tight drum against the howling work of winter.
Therefore, my only solution was to seek a person who would allow me to use a phone. I started to walk.
It was amazing how few houses had any signs of life. As I went door to door, no one answered the doorbell. I suspect they all had taken flight to winter in the sunny state of CALIFORNIA. Of course. The irony was not lost on me.
Finally, I found an elderly woman at home. She was hard of hearing and extremely suspicious of me as an intruder. When I asked to use her phone, she said, “NO.” When I asked if she would be willing to call AAA for me as I waited outside, she said, “What is the phone number?”. When I said that she would have to call information to get it because, after all, I did not have my card with me, it was locked in the car - she said, “NO.”
No room at the inn.
I cannot blame her. In a world that is so predatory, it is hard to be old and alone.
So I kept walking. Dark house after dark house. Shivering. At one point I started crying, not because I thought there was no solution, but just because I was ANGRY. ANGRY that this is the sum total of my life now. Locked out in a two-dog night. That was me in December 2008.
Finally, a block or so away I saw a man smoking on the porch of a house and the Christmas lights were on. I moved with intention – partly because the cold was reaching a critical point and partly because if he was outside my approach might seem less odd.
I was on the sidewalk when I called out to him - “Excuse me... Would you be kind enough to help me?”
And he responded, “What's the problem?”
“I am locked out of my car and my house. My cell phone and AAA card are locked in the car. I need to use a phone to call information and then call AAA. Could you help me?”
“Sure, come on,” he said.
I hesitated at the screen door. The house was brimming with decorations and people – lots of people. There was a constant low roar of arguing and laughter enveloped in the family tale-telling. There was the smell of an ample table of food pouring out the screen.
I wanted to wait outside so as not to disturb them, but when he invited me in – I jumped at the chance because I was frigid to the bone. I felt my face flush and I did not know if it was the cold OR the embarrassment to be so messed up and alone and barren in the midst of people bursting with family and “having.”
The man told everyone that I needed to make some calls, so they left me alone for those few minutes while I was calling, but when I hung up and turned to say that I would go wait by my car for the AAA truck - they would have none of it. Their argument was that on Christmas Day that it would take the truck a while to arrive and that it was too cold out there. Of course, they were right.
They were extremely curious. I tried to be inconspicuous and be a shadow in the corner. They would not let me. What was I doing here? Where was I from? Where was I staying? Had I eaten? Here, have a plate of food. Have a warm drink.
I conceded to wait thirty minutes indoors before moving back outdoors to wait by my car for AAA. They asked me all of the typical questions – and when my brief answers were so bleak – they were full of respectful compassion. There was no misplaced pity. There was no trying to roust me out of any sadness. They just were with the stranger who arrived on their doorstep. All thirty five of them (give or take). All of us crammed in the kitchen. I felt sick that I was in such a bereft state in contrast to their dinner party.
They talked with me about a few of their family members that had died, and the stories percolated into a richer and stronger conversation that poured out into other related topics. I could see that they were such a large family that their losses were absorbed into a larger landscape of churning life. It would have literally taken a nuclear warhead going off to take their large family down to just one individual.
I silently contrasted their burgeoning family to my little family of five that had now become a tribe of one – me.
Soon it was time to go out and wait for AAA. As I waited, the darkness enfolded me. Finally a very kind man arrived and in short order had my car door open. When I tried to tip him for coming out on Christmas Day, he refused.
So what conclusions can be drawn from this event? Probably more than I know today, but here are some reflections.
First, I think I can give Karl Jung a run for his money on the symbolism latent in my experience.
I had intended to insulate myself in a solitary space on Christmas Day. But the metaphorical door had slammed shut by the winds of circumstance, blocking me. I had sought a volunteer position to help other people, but was thwarted – and more to the point, I ended up being the one needing and receiving help. I became painfully aware of my pride and embarrassment. I saw that my level of “poverty” - my lack of family, the needy state I was in - was actually humiliating to me. I had tried to isolate, but was cast out in the cold, forced to seek human support and care to correct my situation.
Even though I wanted to be alone - I needed community.
As temporary as it was, there was enough kindness through accidental community to restore me to my car and a warm house. Apparently, I needed circumstances to lead me where I did not have the courage or strength to go. Perhaps I am one of the many who have equated status with privacy and self-sufficiency, negating the need to call on friends, neighbors and strangers now and then. Perhaps I am one of the many who have accepted the societal message that my grief should never interrupt anyone's light and happy day. Perhaps I am one of the many who have an underlying fear that my catastrophic losses really mean that I hold an an inferior status in some wretched cosmic roll of the dice.
Maybe I needed to look at how I had exiled myself. And become compassionate to the exiled places in me where I had colluded with the world's view of grief and loss.
Perhaps I needed to learn trust - that opportunities for supportive community in my grieving will manifest like going from door to door ringing metaphorical doorbells. I will go from one door to the next, looking for someone to finally answer and provide help, looking again and again for the help that I need.
Maybe that was, after all, the largest gift I received that first Christmas Day after Brian died.
The knowledge that I need community.