For many years, I went out of my way to feel embittered and surly at Christmas, refusing to live in the moment, opting instead to wallow in memories of lonely Christmases past. Looking back, though, I’ve never actually been alone. The memories I wallow in are false. They’re little stories, truncated and manipulated versions of reality, created by me. They make it easier to share my past experiences with others and to convey a version of myself that best fits into—maybe not how I saw myself at the time, but how I want people to understand my past.
For a long time, I held tightly to the memory of the Christmas sixteen years ago when I was nineteen, pregnant with a baby I was going to put up for adoption, and homeless. Truth be told, I’ve never spent a night outdoors except when camping. I’ve never spent a night starving. I’ve never really been homeless. This fact, however, doesn’t fit into the story I’ve told about me. It serves to make my bitterness justified—yet it no longer feels authentic or serves the new narrative I’d rather tell. I realized recently that I’ve built an identity around myself that no longer fits into my current understanding of who I am. It’s not who I want to be anymore.
Truth be told, that Christmas I had a warm, comfortable bed on my friends’ couch in a cardboard house. Cara and Charles took me in unquestioningly, providing me space of my own in their home, a home built in the 1920s by the Short Lady of the Circus. The labyrinthine structure was about two feet shorter than a normal house and had long since been reinforced with wood and concrete, but the original interior was intact. The peephole on the front door was located around sternum-height. The home had been passed down from one artist to another in its seventy-plus years, and each room was painted with a different mural, most of them jungle-themed. I guess it can be said I did live in a cardboard house that holiday, but what a wonder it was.
It was a lean Christmas for all of us. Cara and Charles were both college students living on student loans and grants, and I didn’t have a job until Christmas day, when I walked into a local Sonic Drive-In and told them I needed work and could start right away. They handed me an apron and a tray, and I took my protruding belly outside and immediately began serving burgers in a snowstorm to people sitting comfortably in their cars. I made fifty dollars in tips that day and bought dinner for my host family. Cara surprised me with a pen and ink set she’d bought in the student bookstore with her grant funds, as well as a knitted blanket she’d made for me. “Because I know you’re not going to have a baby shower,” she said.
For years I regarded that Christmas as the saddest of them all. But looking back on it now, I see that it was overflowing with love. For years I held the story about being homeless and broke so closely that I never made space for the truth: that it was one of my favorite Christmases ever. I’ve built castles of sand around that story—or, rather, houses of cardboard, reinforced over many years through repetition, but they never provided a solid foundation. By referring to myself as homeless, I constructed a quick way to make people understand how financially bereft I was because it was easier than the longer explanation. This adjustment carried with it a variety of unintended consequences. It evoked, for example, images of me begging on the sidewalk (though, truth be told, I loved the drama of this image), but it didn’t honor the fact that I had a safe place to stay with caring people who were nothing short of angels.
At 8:30 in the morning on Christmas Day this past year, my nine-year-old sons were opening gifts at their dad’s house and my daughter, her son, and her husband were exchanging gifts in their small, new family. I sat alone in my warm living room surrounded by the litter and chaos from the previous day’s Christmas Eve gift-giving I had shared with the boys. My house was quiet, save for the hum of my desktop computer and the occasional mewing of a cat expressing his boredom.
Admittedly, there was a pang of loneliness, a warm surge that shot from my gut to my heart when I thought about being without my children and family. For many of us, people who share DNA gathered around the tree with mugs of steaming liquid is a Norman Rockwell ideal that doesn’t always correlate with real life. Instead of being with family, I shared the day with a friend with whom I drank whiskey, watched The Bourne Identity, and went to a nearby park to watch strangers play bike polo. I received invitations from many people this holiday, all of them generously willing to share their day with me in any number of ways. Even though I wanted to be with my children or much of my other family who live thousands of miles away, I took heart that I wasn’t alone. I felt a sense of peace as well—a fondness for the way the universe provides me with love if I’m willing to shift my thinking and embrace life on its terms. Alone may not always be a choice, but I’m grateful to finally learn that loneliness often is.