The Five-Part Recipe for a Happier Holiday

November 17 A year ago last October, my dad passed away from Leukemia.  Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday.  I wish I could say I loved every last Thanksgiving with him but certain aspects of being together as a family were hard for me.  The reality is that I am still trying to reconcile our relationship.  The cool part of about this is that I still am in relationship to him, which makes him feel close to my heart.

I wondered if some of my reflections on what makes holidays hard and what could make holidays easier might be of use to you.   These special days--full of family and overeating and close quarters--can bring up a lot of emotion.  As we approach tomorrow's feast, I offer these thoughts in honor of father's memory and as a testament to our continuing relationship.

1.  Let yourself grieve what isn’t there.  My dad and his wife Jennie would plan Thanksgiving dinner for months beforehand and then stay up all Wednesday night making way too much food.  I'd arrive with a bottle of wine, their dining room table already filled with more kinds of stuffing and cranberry sauce than we could ever eat.  And more was in the oven.  We often wouldn't eat to 7pm when I was beyond hungry and close to crabby.  Once served, the meal was delicious and everyone would leave stuffed, with tupperwares of leftovers.  

Although I grumbled that I wished they got more sleep or that I wanted to eat earlier, it was our family tradition.  This year I am feeling sad that he is not here and I am missing our tradition.  It feels good to type that out.  Admitting my sadness doesn't change anything but it does release the stress of having to be "okay."  Instead of pretending, I can be with what is in a more accepting way.  The energy of grief is hard--violent sometimes--but when it's honored it can also be extremely life-giving.  

This year, let yourself grieve all the people who couldn’t be there, the trips you couldn’t make, the fancy dinner you didn’t have the energy to make.  My assistant Thea’s grandmother just passed away in the Philippines. I asked her to write a piece honoring her grandmother’s memory.  What she wrote is so lovely and full of life.  Please read it here.  Then practice for yourself. Watch what happens when you consciously grieve. Something beautiful can arise suddenly from the sad realities of life.

2. Honor the ordinary over the extraordinary.  My dad used to get so excited for the holiday season.  His prefered way of getting excited was to plan elaborate dinners for us.  I can relate to this.  I love the fantasy of a happy family seated around a big Martha Stewert-esqe table.  Everyone is having a meaningful conversation and no one feels like her pants are too tight. Even the dogs are happy.  

Yet how often does this happen? Most holidays my dad would plan something so elaborate that he would be in the kitchen for hours.  Instead of the joy of us cooking together, he would get stressed and snap at my brother and I.  One year, in his efforts to tackle a five page recipe for bouillabaisse on Christmas Eve, he kicked us both out of the kitchen.  We were left to giggle in the living room as we listened to him reckon with a leaky blender while trying to make his own scalding hot fish stock.  He was working so hard to make everything special that he forgot to enjoy the time we did have together.

Again, I do this too.  I want everything to be perfect and everyone to be happy around the holidays. This is perfectionism in a fancy apron! The saddest thing about trying to be perfect in these moments is that it actually drives away the connection that I want so much.  In my hopes of making everything AMAZING, I miss the sweetness of an imperfect moment of being together.  

Most of my favorite moments of life have not been the outrageous ones but rather the quiet ones that arise from an honest conversation over a easy bowl of soup.  Although I am not cooking for Thanksgiving this year, when I do entertain I’ve learned to embrace simplicity in my menu-planning.  I cook ahead so I can have something in the oven already when my loved ones arrive.  This helps me to focus on them instead of the food. Eating more simply also helps our digestion and gives us more time to talk, laugh, share--which is really what I am hungry for.

3. Make tough decisions around your self care. My dad passed away about a month before Thanksgiving last year.  I had already planned a yoga retreat in Guatemala (thinking of all the You Do You 2014 ladies!), which provided the perfect escape from the sad memories while the wound was still so fresh.

This year the idea of Thanksgiving at home felt too sad for me. So I planned a trip to Florida to visit my dear friends Danielle and Mark.  Yet after six months of my most intense travel season ever, I realized that I do not have the energy to get on another airplane.  It became clear that I should stay put in DC, but I was afraid of disappointing my friend who had so joyfully invited me to come.  I was afraid of losing the money I spent on my plane ticket.  I was afraid of being lonely on Thanksgiving when I could be celebrating with people that I loved.

Making decisions like these can be so hard!  I wavered, I hesitated and finally on Monday I made the hard decision that I wasn’t going to go.  Immediate relief.  I called my friend and told her I wasn't going.  I used my squeaky voice that shows I am afraid of disappointing someone.  She was amazing, of course, and told me to take care of myself.  It turns out that I could funnel some of the plane ticket refund into my return trip from Costa Rica, which I routed through Orlando so I can see Danielle for a day.  Once again, when I acted in the interest of my own self care, it worked out pretty efficiently for everyone.

4.  Practice clarity.  Another form of decision making is to set a personal or family intention for your holidays. Try setting an intention to have a good time, no matter what your brother-in-law says.  Or make one to set boundaries for yourself--like saying you need to leave by a certain time--so you can enjoy meal without worrying about when to go.  Boundaries of all kinds are a great intention, even if you have to use your squeaky voice when you set them.  

You can also be clear about how much you want to give and then voice it out loud when the giving starts to feel like a burden.  You can ask for help.  You can give yourself permission to miss your father or to be sad because you best friend didn’t come.  You can love yourself when your magazine-inspired pie turns out weird and you feel compelled to eat the whole thing before guests arrive as a form of self punishment.  

In short, you can set your intention that you are allowed to be a sad, imperfect, striving human being and that within all of that you are allowed to laugh and dance and have a lovely holiday on at least a few of your own terms.  You can be clear that you are worthy of love, no matter what.  Armed with your own clarity, you can be the warrior princess of your own experience.  

5.  Take seconds on gratitude.  We are alive.  This is a great big human experience of life.  When we are in the presence of loved ones, often we let our truest selves shine forth.  This is pretty and this is messy.  Even when we fight, we still love each other.  Even when we overeat, we will feel better tomorrow.  No one gets it right.  I don't even know how to define right.  

But I do so firmly believe it's important to be here and to do the best we can. The world needs us--all of us.  Most of us live in a place where food is plentiful, where we are allowed to speak our minds.  Plus we even have the self awareness to skip the seconds, chew slowly and feel pretty good at the end of the night. Or we can toss the rules out the window.  The next morning is always there for us to drink some warm water with lemon, go for a brisk walk and forgive ourselves yet again.  This is the gift of being a human being learning how to love. 

So let’s do it!  The oven timer is going off and people want to kiss you hello. Splash some cool water on your face, wink at yourself in the mirror and once again take a seat at the ordinary, achingly-beautiful table of your own life.