confession tuesday: thoughts on christmas, “family” & this spoiled writer

I confess that I had written a different confession. But then I began to prepare it for this blog and realized it was too heavy and too squared at the edges. So I started over.

I confess that Christmas is a big deal in my family. 
Much of Stoddard family lore is rooted in Christmas traditions. For instance, ever since my grandparents were newlyweds, the family has gone to a tree farm and cut down our Christmas trees together. It’s a rite of passage for newcomers and a sacred thing for old-timers. Every year involves an hour or two of searching for the perfect tree — which in my case usually involves finding the tallest and fattest one I can reasonably stuff in our living room. 

I confess that death made Christmas a bigger deal. 
My grandma died on Christmas morning eight years ago. I confess that I watch for the collision of opposing and unlikely experiences, because I like to see the tension that inevitably connects them. 2003 was full of these collisions: Christmas, my grandma’s death, and parts of my first wedding all met up.

Eight years later, I still unravel these pieces and find myself looking at the experience in new ways. There are parts I love even if they’re not memories I can really share anymore, like searching for my wedding dress and buying it off the rack, so I could show it to Grandma. There are parts that are still surprisingly painful. It feels like I’ll always cry when I hear Silent Night, which my family sang to her in a large circle at the funeral home. It’s not the missing her that’s hard when I hear it. It’s remembering what it felt like to see everyone I love in one room, singing together and grieving for the same person while feeling the loss in their own way, with their own stories attached to her. Like a chorus of histories.

I confess that Christmas changes, or I change within it. 
This Christmas seemed to follow the tune of the year: transition, transition, transition. Some of it was out of necessity — with the first grandchild/nephew born on December 10, some traditions (like decorating the family tree together) had to take a backseat. Christmas day itself was pretty quiet, as we had gone to Carl’s family on Friday and done our Stoddard get-together on Christmas Eve. Late on Christmas day, it struck me that Carl and I should have prepared our own rituals for the day. We’ve grown so accustomed to the larger family traditions dictating our holiday time that I realized we have hardly any traditions as our own little family. 

I confess that I believe two people can be a whole family. 
And this is the transition I sensed — the need to acknowledge Carl and me as our own family, the opportunity to shape the holidays in our own way. I caught myself living in someone else’s framework: when you have kids, then you’re a “family,” and then you create traditions. It’s not a model I subscribe to intentionally, but it’s an easy one to fall into, especially in a family-focused place like West Michigan. There is an odd “When we have a family…” dynamic that not only makes bad assumptions about what a family is, but also can put a child-free couple’s (or single person’s) life on hold. I confess that I see this framework in action, and I am opting out of it. 

I confess that I will be a stronger writer in 2012, thanks to Carl’s amazing gift.

That, my friends, is an invitation to the Poets on the Coast writing retreat with Kelli Russell Agodon and Susan Rich, two poets I have followed for awhile and a retreat I wanted to attend when it was launched last year. I have been desperate to connect with like-minded people to push my writing forward. I have tried a couple different online experiences, the most recent of which was a technological blunder (just say no to Adobe Connect) that only pointed out the hard fact: my writing will only go so far in isolation. I felt positively restless, almost angry, after that experience, like a boat that keeps being denied a place to dock. 

This gift is a huge investment in the de-isolation of my writing. Not only will I get to spend three days working with two accomplished poets, I’ll travel to Portland, Oregon and then drive a couple hours to this fantastic, literary-themed hotel in Newport, where I’ll hopefully make some West Coast writing friends. It’s a triple threat of creativity: a new place, new people, and guidance to create new poems. Yes, yes, yes. 

I’m so excited about this opportunity and beyond grateful to Carl. Next year already feels more productive on the writing front knowing that this retreat is waiting for me.  (And I confess that I would not mind if discovering a writing retreat in my stocking became one of our new Christmas traditions.)