Silent Night

Today marks the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. As the month of December has advanced, the sky has been darkening earlier and earlier with each passing day. But on this day, that cycle will come to an end. Tomorrow, the day will be just a little bit longer, just that little bit brighter. This is a hopeful change.

Each day when I come home from work, I look around at the lights decorating our house, and watch them twinkle in the dark. It’s a moment of beauty in an otherwise cold and barren landscape. I’m so thankful we got our Christmas lights up early this year. It’s been a welcome change from years past.

This feeling of Christmas tranquility has been all but impossible for us for about the past ten years. It’s funny how the weight of those years became almost invisible to us back then, we’d been carrying it for so long. But now that it’s gone, I can remember the weariness more clearly. Its sudden absence brings a feeling of relief, but also of sadness.

Those who live with family members suffering from dementia will probably understand.

Caring for someone with dementia is challenging. As much as you try to remain patient, as much as you prepare yourself for each day, you will inevitably lose your temper. And then, you will chastise yourself. You will feel guilty for becoming angry at someone who, though an adult, has the mental and emotional understanding of a toddler.

During the last few years of Julia’s life, we put up a Christmas tree only mechanically. In her final year, we didn’t bother putting one up at all. It just created too much trouble. Julia would ask: “What is that? Why is it lit up? It bothers me,” or some variation of those responses. Then, she would unplug the lights, and the tree would sit in darkness. This would happen about every hour, if not sooner. Since it was impossible to keep the lights on, Christmas was effectively cancelled.

It wasn’t just Christmas lights, though. Julia would also turn out room lights, even if you were still in the room! She would unplug the stove while you were trying to warm it up. She would stop the washing machine, mid cycle. Then, she would take clothes out of the dryer and spread them out about the house, not knowing whose they were, or what they were for.

She was also paranoid about the front door being left unlocked, so she would check it all the time, pulling hard on the knob, twisting and turning it one way and then another. We actually had to replace the doorknob twice because she broke it. I didn’t even know you could break a doorknob until Julia did it. It boggled the mind. How could such a small woman cause such damage? And yet she did.

She would regularly open and close the garage door, multiple times a day. I never quite understood why. I think maybe she was just checking inside, but the cycle would inevitably end with the garage door being left wide open, exposing our junk for all to see, and potentially steal. During those years, I often felt like I was leaving the house in my underwear every day. My entire life felt exposed for all to see. Nothing was private anymore.

As Julia’s dementia worsened, she got kicked out of the local supermarket. The manager called the police, who threatened to take her to the police station. I guess she had been bothering other customers, probably giving them dietary advice they weren’t interested in receiving. She also got banned from the bulk foods store – for life. I have no idea what she was doing in there, but we suspect she might have been eating indiscriminately from the bins. She was impossible to contain. During those years, life was never dull!

Now that Julia’s gone, and her husband too, the house feels unnaturally quiet. The night more silent than I can recall it being in years, if ever. The losses are really hitting me now. The warmth and comraderie of the Christmas season seems to draw it out.

This Christmas, I would like to extend care to all who are struggling with burdens of various sorts. To those struggling to care for elderly parents, as we did for years, I wish you patience and fortitude. For those struggling financially, I wish you abundance. For those who are alone, I wish you moments of warmth and connection. For those who are grieving, I wish you love.

The night may be dark tonight, but tomorrow brings the beginning of greater light, increased brightness. May the lights of Christmas bring you solace during the more difficult days that lay ahead, and hope for a better and brighter future just around the corner.

The Season of Gratitude – Part 2

In my last blog post, I wrote about my difficulties feeling gratitude in the past and how allowing myself to feel all the feels opened up some space in my heart, allowing the gratitude to finally move through me.

In this blog post, I’d like to delve a little deeper into all those murky feelings and then talk about choice.

Back in 2010, when I was in the thick of my struggle with CFS, I remember watching an interview with Karen Armstrong. In case you don’t know her, Armstrong is the author of many books on comparative religion, and during this particular interview, she was promoting her latest book (at the time), Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

I was not paying particular attention to what she was saying in this interview until she openly admitted to feeling bitter. Very bitter about life. That got my attention. An expert on religion, and author of a book on compassion, was declaring herself to be bitter? I wanted to know more.

She spoke about her past as a nun in training in Ireland, and about the Superior who was responsible for her. This nun had had a very difficult life, going deaf at an early age, and then being sent to a convent. She happened to be dying of cancer and was in extreme pain, yet she had still spoken kindly to the nuns under her watch. As Armstrong said, “she had trained herself, through all those difficult years not to become bitter, not to think, why me? Why am I deaf? Why am I wasting my life? And as a result, she has remained in me as an icon of what a good person should be”.

And then Armstrong said, “Becoming bitter is always a choice”. In essence, she was saying that life is a road with two very different paths, both equally valid. The decision you make will determine the quality of your life going forward. You can either decide to be bitter and angry about the difficulties and injustice in your life, or you can choose to be compassionate instead.

Her comment really resonated with me because I was slowly coming to the same realization myself. Stuck in bed and unable to accomplish any of my life goals, I was feeling frustrated, angry, and yes, definitely bitter. But I was also realizing that this was not the kind of person I wanted to be.

I think it’s the same with gratitude.

We are living in difficult times. A lot of people are struggling. In many cases, basic needs are not being met. The climate is worsening. Wars are being fought. Everywhere you go, people are suffering. It is very easy to feel hopeless and despondent at the number of crises surrounding us.

It is at these times – often especially at these times – that we realize we have a choice. We can either choose to become bitter, or we can aspire to something a little more noble.

During my years of difficulty, I would often console myself with the beauty of my neighbour’s garden. I may not have had the energy to care for a garden myself, but I felt grateful that I could still enjoy the gardens of others around me.

I became spellbound by the gracefully arching branches of the tree outside my window, watching its many moods as the seasons changed. I may not have been able to spend much time outside, but being able to watch that tree outside my window was a lifeline for me.

I was also deeply consoled by the laughter of the neighbourhood children as they walked past my home on their way to and from school. I may not have been able to see them, but I was grateful for my ability to hear their small voices, and to feel the bubbling energy of their youthful selves.

I know it’s been said before, but it is often when life is at its most bleak, when we are grasping at the smallest example of beauty or kindness, that possibilities for gratitude are fully revealed to us.

This doesn’t mean we don’t also acknowledge our pains and our struggles. It means that, while still feeling our pain in all its fullness, we make the choice to be grateful anyway. It’s a powerful choice. I can’t promise that it will magically make your troubles go away. What I can promise, is that it will make your heart lighter, and your burden easier to bear.