Earlier in the week, a friend and I were texting back and forth about how we hoped to get our families together over the holidays. As we bantered and emoticon-ed our way to an exchange of what the next few weeks promised to bring -- relatives, parties, hosting obligations and, not least of all, Santa ;-) -- we finally agreed that we would congregate, in spite of all the holiday hullaballoo. Both of us were determined to do what one of us called "carefree and casual entertaining" over the break.
"Just a few families."
"Keep it simple!"
But later in the day, as I was measuring out molasses for my grandmother's gingerbread cookie recipe, I began to wonder about this desire for simplicity amidst the seasonal chaos: What is it about the holidays that compels women to believe that entertaining can be casual, let alone carefree?
This longing is not one that is unique to the holidays. But the holidays are a perfect time to expose the fantasy: If there is one time when life is at its peak of chaos for families, and especially for women, it's during that long stretch that starts with Thanksgiving and lingers until New Year's. Who doesn't aspire to a simpler self right about now? When I've finished the shopping, posted the holiday cards and walked the dog; when I've put away the groceries, vacuumed up the pine needles and gotten a jump on summer camp registration, then, then, then what? I'll be ready for carefree entertaining? We all know that the to-do list never ends.
Nonetheless, we try to clear the decks of the quotidian chores to get to the important stuff -- decking the halls with boughs of jolly, or the sharing and being present with loved ones -- that the simple pleasures of the holidays offer us. But that goal of narrowing things down often carries with it a fantasy -- not so much of a more simple life, but a fantasy of a more simple self. For women this is particularly the case. We live in a culture in which women are told that we should flatten out our sense of self to be like a photograph in some magazine of effortless upkeep and entertaining; but, the reality is that with jobs and kids and in-laws and spouses, nothing about women's lives is effortless! So why do we keep fantasizing that it could be, that it should be?
As women, as lovers, as daughters, as mothers we share moments with people we love, building reciprocity with the world around us, weaving exchanges together to create a web of life that adds up to something meaningful to us. Those shared moments -- fleeting as they may be -- are ones during which we feel ourselves to be recognized, accepted, taken as we are. Moments where we may have felt spot-on. As centered as a bull's eye.
These instances have been thrown back at us by the mass marketing of women's culture and commercialism such that we are constantly trying to recreate them. The complexities and stresses of our lives as we manage and plod through them produce a huge market for these moments of felt simplicity. And even though we know better, we may be fooled into believing that we can buy our way back there. Witness the surge of magazines and advertisements trading on the goal of making our lives "simple." Buy more and simplify! Shop and ye shall find peace! We are particularly vulnerable to these seasonal incantations during the holiday frenzy. Even the idea of the perfect gift is about keeping things simple. Simply perfect". Fa la la la la.
The problem with this fantasy, and I am as guilty as the next woman, is that it rarely enables us to appreciate, let alone embrace, the complexity of our lives. Not only are our lives multifaceted, they are interwoven with the people around us. When we shop at the local Target, we don't really want to think about how a discount on the latest flat screen might mean fewer benefits for the cashier checking us out, let alone the fact that some factory worker in China may be working an eighteen-hour shift under dismal conditions. In complex and (let's hope) indirect ways our happiness is connected to the suffering of others. We hear this in the timbre of Santa's Salvation Army bell. We see it in look of a homeless person turning her collar against the chafing wind. Often we don't heed their calls for charity, which may be OK. But it's not simple.
In this holiday season, we need to remember that even the most basic act of loving can be complicated. And instead of running away from complexity, perhaps we should embrace it. Our lives are messy; they are not streamlined, and they certainly are not carefree.
I'm still going to be entertaining in the next few weeks, and my desire for simplicity may be a defense mechanism against the dull and repetitive realities of what it will take me to get there! Real life can be found in embracing those realities, and being mindful of those whose realities are beyond ours. So sit back and fantasize about carefree entertaining. It's a story we tell ourselves. But will it happen? Maybe next year....