During morning meditation, I feel a draft on my face. Fragments of a memory surface. I am in my aunt and uncle’s living room lying underneath a fort that I’ve constructed out of throw blankets and couch cushions. Scattered around me are stuffed animals, Matchbox cars, a yo-yo, and the dog, Zack, who is napping. I can hear faint murmurs and coughs coming from the porch, where my uncles are outside smoking. A cold breeze sways the blanket tassels and I glance toward the hall. The front door is slightly open; minutes earlier, some of my cousins ran outside to play, but forgot to shut the door.
I crawl out of the fort, walk to the door, and rise on my tiptoes to peer through the panes of glass. It is nearly dark. The streetlamps have flickered on and snowflakes are drifting down through the fluorescent light. It is the first snowfall of the season. It is quiet—silent, almost—and I am alone in these swirls of frozen air still drifting in through the open door.
I stare at the shimmer outside for another moment and then wander down the hallway into the kitchen. Some of the grown ups are sitting around the wooden table. I notice my grandmother smile and examine the tops of her hands, which are resting in her lap. My father nods. My grandfather chuckles, then takes off his glasses and rubs the lenses with his sleeve.
I am deep in this memory when I hear the wail of an ambulance siren in the distance. I suddenly remember I am meditating. I feel my legs on the chair, my feet on the carpet. I hear the jingle of the wind chimes on my patio and take a slow, measured breath. At the peak of the inhale, I let the remaining images of the memory—the laminate kitchen floor, the flower pattern tablecloth sprinkled with pie crumbs, my cousin’s small fingers wrapped around a mug of hot cocoa—fade into the reality of the present moment.
This holiday season, I am grappling with tremendous change. In some ways, I am grieving. After a few years of managing difficult conversations and navigating tense family gatherings, I am mourning the way things used to be, or at least the way things used to seem. A family dynamic that for a long time appeared simple, predictable, and familiar—and sure, a bit quirky at times—has evolved into an elaborate and chaotic web of illness, confusion, fear, and paralyzing uncertainty.
I often find myself in moments of deep longing. It’s a trope to say I miss the good old days, but as the weather gets colder and the holidays draw near, I have moments when I am convinced that the only mental maneuver that can offer me relief is immersing myself in memories of holiday traditions. They usually seem much less painful and much more innocent. When conditions in my life feel difficult or unmanageable, it is tempting to slide back into moments when I was aware of nothing more than winter’s first snowfall and the padded protection of a cozy blanket fort.
I’m not alone in this tendency. For the past few years, my relatives have been trying to integrate decades-old holiday traditions into an ever-shifting dynamic. My family, like many, has evolved in myriad ways: marriage, divorce, remarriage, cross-country relocations, babies, adopted pets. Some of my elder relatives have passed on. Other loved ones are very ill; my grandmother suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease and is homebound. In our best efforts to come together, there is love—there is always love—but it is sometimes tinged with denial and aversion. We don’t always talk about my grandmother’s empty gaze or how anxious we feel. We may shy away from acknowledging the marked absence of a smile or laugh of someone who has passed. Sometimes our efforts to retain these traditions and detach from the underlying upset result in frustration and exhaustion.
My study and practice of meditation has taught me to look into the heart of things with fascination and wonder. I try to ask myself: Is this really what I know? Can I look deeper? My belief about traditions, for example, has been that they must be held onto, preserved, maintained. The word tradition, however, stems from the Latin word traditio, which translates to “delivery, surrender, a handing down, a giving up.” Maybe it’s time to realize that surrendering, or letting go, is very much part of tradition. This sounds like what I can practice more of in meditation; when I sink into a memory, instead of indulging it, I can acknowledge it, breathe, and—as much as it hurts—let it go. It’s gone. My practice is to return to wherever I am and embrace whatever I find there.
Related: “Bringing It All Back Home“
Over the past several years, I’ve noticed that my practice has slowly stripped me of the delusion—and the wish—that any upcoming holiday will be the same as years gone by. Though painful at first, accepting this feels much more spacious and realistic than any longing that I get pulled into. Here is the truth: My family is changing. Someone who has been sitting across the table from me my whole life may not be there anymore. This is deeply saddening. At the same time, someone new may be sitting across the table from me, or I myself may be sitting at a different table, in another house, in some faraway town.
At the end of meditation practice, a bell rings. I open my eyes. I am sitting in a chair facing a window. It is still dark; the sun won’t rise for another half-hour. A sad thought surfaces about a recent phone call with my mother. I then start to think about Thanksgiving, which is coming soon. I look beyond the shadowed trees and, in the glow of the city lights, I can see that it has started to snow. I take a breath, turn toward the shimmer, and face the darkness of the morning.
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