Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
Maybe this is too small a problem for your column, but here goes: I hate the holidays. It’s the gift-giving specifically that I hate so very much. Hates it we does.
I don’t really like stuff. I try to have as little of it as possible in my life, and my entire family LOVES stuff. They love it so much that they buy stuff to keep their stuff in and spend recreation time on missions to acquire more stuff. I literally beg them to stop buying me things and they won’t. I tell them every year that I m not going to spend good money on things no one needs and they act like I plucked their parakeet in front of them.
Even worse is that everything they buy me is aspirational. Gear for a life I don’t have and don’t want. I don’t need fancy dresses and fancy hair shit and fancy jewelry and fancy tennis clothes. That’s their world. It’s fine for them but I do not like or want any of those things.
What’s my question? How do I avoid all this gift-giving! And I suppose if I can’t, then how do I learn to hate it less? And if you can’t handle that one, can you at least tell me how to get my mother to cook something vegetarian for Christmas dinner? Literally anything.
• • • •
Dear Brave Correspondent,
Well, first let me solve the question you asked about, the gift-giving impasse. You write your family an email and say, “Okay, listen. How about we all get what we want this year? I will buy you Things, within my means, that will coordinate with your existing Things and I will not complain to you about it. In turn, I would like to have no durable goods, only experiences (like a gift certificate to that new chocolate bistro or airmiles for my trip to Berlin) and/or charitable donations (I support literacy organizations and my local animal rescue). It seems nice not to fight about this anymore, please and thank you.”
Then read the email out loud until you can say all the things without sighing heavily. You don’t have to be thrilled about this situation, but a little grace will help you get through the catalogs without stabbing yourself or anyone else in the eye with a gently-frosted decorative holiday centerpiece.
Okay, now that we have that handled, let’s get to the deeper piece here: You and the rest of your family are profoundly mismatched in your values about something (material goods, in this case, and apparently also ham) and it is causing a lot of upset and ongoing frustration. This is actually not a small problem in any way, Brave Correspondent, and it’s also not a unique one. In particular, it affects many of us who have been politicized in systems outside of what our families of origin are accustomed to. Though some have been raised in progressive households, The Holiday Problem affects many feminists, queers, transpeople, anti-racists, those of us who have started to think intersectionally about oppression and privilege, people who convert to a different religion or renounce religious belief, those whose higher education or other life experiences take them way out of the context in which their family lives—so, basically everyone I like a lot experiences this. I, too, have been strolled through the country-club dining room for a round of “show off the grandkid.” (and I, too, have eventually been mysteriously and un-explainedly not brought there, anymore). I, too, have sat through entire dinners challenging only perhaps one out of every five egregious things someone has said. I, too, have for sure brought a lot of chickpea dishes along with me when I have gone there (for my beloved vegetarian husband, who—no spoilers—also needs to eat).
But what does one do about that? How do humans stay reasonably well (physically, mentally, and spiritually) and care for themselves under such conditions?
Here I say: You do whatever you need to. Can I say that again? Let me. You do whatever you need to. You do the best you can. You reach out, you form networks, webs, phone trees of other people who are also doing the same thing that you are doing, which is struggling to stay connected with people with whom you share history and ties and perhaps even some love even when you feel like you cannot agree on anything, anything, anything. They are probably in some ways very excellent and loving humans, but they are a product of their experiences as you are a product of yours, and when your experiences are different then so are your lenses on the world.
If your family of origin is violent or abusive—or shaming and belittling or they deny your identity, which are an insidious but no less brutal form of violence—then that’s a good reason to stay your fine ass home. Stay home and mail a cheap card into which you have whispered everything you ever wished you could say to those people, and then forget to sign it. Which is still more than they deserve.
But other than that? Rely on your community. Post a lot of Facebook. Livetweet every single racist and/or homophobic thing your Uncle Harold says, after you say “Wow, Uncle Harold, that’s a really racist and/or homophobic thing to say” (and please do say that if you possibly can because while Uncle Harold may be well beyond change there are other people at the table who are listening). Make little illustrations of your mother’s face whenever you take a bite of food she thinks is too fattening and consider the puppet show you will do for your friends with them. Ask people to write you affirmations you can keep in your pockets, your shoes, under your hijab, or around your neck. Swap hoodies or kippot or socks or little beaded friendship pins with your people so that you have a real and actual item you can touch to remind yourself of the world in which you actually live. Take a lot of deep breaths.
And also, try to both ask for and give credit. This is very difficult for me, always. But in my marriage, my husband and I do a thing where sometimes one of us will say “I want points for…” and the thing will be something that has gone unrecognized. Maybe at home (“I want points for remembering to bring the baby seat inside this entire week.”) but more often elsewhere (“I want points. I handed my form to the person in Employee Dis-services and I just left without saying one word about her email.”) The other person generally replies “Oh, yes, you get totally get points for that.” It’s a fairly low-key exchange, but sometimes humans just want to be acknowledged, dammit. So, I would like to encourage you to do it both ways (::grin::).
First, ask for credit from your people, elsewhere. Make arrangements for a phone call or text check-in during which you recite list of everything you accomplished. you didn’t put an Ativan in your mother’s tea! You didn’t ship them a carton of the collected works of Audre Lorde and call it a day! You successfully kept people from driving drunk! This person can remind you with each one how absolutely fucking brilliant you are in every way. Then, do the same for them. It actually really helps.
But also, Brave Correspondent, save a little pinch of credit for your relatives if you can. Not the mean ones, but all the ones who are just going about it a very entirely different way than you. Who may not have a sophisticated analysis, who might have a vastly different take on a topic, who may be profoundly complicated in ways you cannot see and shaped by pressures and forces that will remain opaque to you forever, and yet are still generally pretty glad to have you around. Which makes sense, because of course you are delightful. Your challenge for what my beloved friend Hanne Blank refers to as the Pigduff Season (the pronunciation of PGDFF, or Pretty G-ddamn Fucking Festive) is this: Remain completely convinced of your own delightfulness, while also trying to identify at least one delightful trait in everyone you’re going to visit.
As long as they’re not being actually mean to you. Because fuck that with a rusty bucket of rabid ferrets.
Love and courage,
P.S. After my husband read this column, he revealed to me that he owns a holiday card that reads Season’s Greetings To One And All (Except For You), for which he paid $3 at some point in the last decade. He has never sent it, because he is a lovely human being, but he reports that it makes him feel so much better at this time every year to just look at it and imagine the satisfaction.