Sunday, 27 November 2011

Through The Looking Glass

Through The Looking Glass by Chaz Folkes
Through The Looking Glass, a photo by Chaz Folkes on Flickr.

Thanksgiving is a tradition my family has continued to observe, even though it isn’t a holiday in Ireland. Usually I allow my children to stay home from school. Often I entertain friends, but sometimes we are invited to celebrate with other American expats in their homes. We eat turkey with all the trimmings, drink wine, sit around the table deep in conversation, while the children play games. One might almost forget that we are no longer in America, except for the curious lack of football on TV. Plus most of our neighbors are at work.

For the first time, I nearly let the holiday go unmarked this year. My house flooded two weeks ago. Our central heating has been shut off as a result of the leak. It’s unclear if we will have the central heating restored any time soon, or if I will have to continue lighting all three fireplaces every day this winter. I’ve had a cough for several weeks that won’t clear. Finances are tight. The stress of judicial separation proceedings is taking its toll. I’m tired.

When my teenager arranged to visit me on Thanksgiving, I decided to make the effort after all. He lives with his dad, and I miss him. I wanted to have all of my children around the table, the way it used to be. I smiled as I bought enough food to feed a small homeless shelter. In my mind, it would be perfect: the table set beautifully, delicious food, happy children, pleasant conversation, and enough time to watch a movie and cuddle together on the couch, completely relaxed. I could clearly envision it all!

At first everything seemed to be going as planned, but somewhere along the way I ran out of time. There were too many dishes to cook and not enough helping hands. I couldn’t prepare the meal and play with the kids at the same time. For a while, they joined me peeling potatoes before opting to watch TV instead. The phone rang. Then it rang again...

We all took turns talking to the American grandmas, and overwhelm crept in. Pangs of homesickness became wide gulfs. My American boyfriend’s texts made me laugh, then want to cry. The distance between those I love abroad and myself became even greater. Suddenly I wanted to lie down, but the pecan pie still needed to go in the oven, and gravy needed stirring.

Slowly, slowly everything unraveled. My perfect scene retreated to an imaginary place. When my son said it was time to go back to his dad’s, I cursed the clock and my inability to work miracles. The food wasn’t ready yet, and I was unwilling to let him- or my holiday- slip away so quickly. When I pointed out the trouble I’d gone to, my teenager replied, “I didn’t ask for a big dinner.” How would you have reacted?

Though I couldn’t see it in that moment, I now realize my son had a point. Why do we put ourselves under so much pressure during the holidays? Whose needs are we serving?

I realize I’m not supposed to share my not-so-happy-Thanksgiving story. These are the moments we’re encouraged to keep private, to hide away, as if such memories are a mark of failure. “Image is everything” is one of my (ex) mother-in-law’s favorite quotes. She’s not alone in this sentiment.

I am as adept at social media as anyone. I’ve studied the way successful people present themselves on twitter, facebook, and the blogosphere. I admire and am influenced by all of the inspirational quotes, articles, and tweets I read every day. I welcome my place in the pool of positive thinking, but at times wonder if I’m the only one struggling.

Last night I read an interesting article in the December 2011 issue of Psychologies Magazine, which focused on the benefits of envy. The author, Laurel Ives, shared some interesting insights. Other people’s lives are flaunted in our faces like never before. Yet we are only witnessing the highlights, she pointed out. You can bet I didn’t take photos to share on the web of my crestfallen face when my Thanksgiving dreams dissolved into tears!

There is a social psychological concept called the looking-glass self. C.H. Cooley explains it as such, "I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am."

Perhaps this is why I’m feeling like an impostor in my own skin lately? Each day I accrue new followers on twitter, mostly driven, high-octane people ready to share their tips on how to become more successful or spiritually evolved. I suspect they’re expecting me to do the same. Part of me likes being lumped in with this dynamic group, and I just want to blend in. The rest of me feels like someone has made a mistake; don’t I belong in a group for worn out single moms scraping by? The only place I hold the position of CEO is in my kitchen!

While it’s normal to be influenced by society and other people’s projections, I don’t want to live my life seeking approval. Why should anyone try to fulfill an idea of what they think others think they are? Honesty seems a far superior path.

Neither do I want to compound my discomfort by comparing my disappointing Thanksgiving to someone Else's glorious one. I’d rather accept that my expectations weren’t met- and perhaps even contributed to the holiday chaos- and move on. Instead of viewing Thanksgiving in terms of what it could or should have been, I can remember that it was just a day, as imperfect as any other. It came to an end, just as today will.

I’m grateful that tomorrow always comes, and if I’m lucky, I’ll be given another chance. My hope is that I will meet tomorrow with more grace than I found possible yesterday.

Big hugs,

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