Gird your loins, dear ones. The holidays are officially upon us. Prepare yourself for Facebook's floodgates to open wide and release a tidal wave of idyllic photos and descriptions of the most well-adjusted, intact, loving families; the most gorgeous, healthy human specimens imaginable; the most adorable (and naturally, adoring) children, and the most totally smitten couples who are each other's very best friends forever and ever. And ever! Hallelujah!
Yes, my friends, it's going to get rough.
Steel yourself for more than a month of Facebook posts, holiday cards and year-end letters filled with glorious details about your enviable family, friends and even mere acquaintances enjoying expensive dream vacations in snowy mountain chalets or money's-no-object family reunions on tropical beaches. Expect images of abundant, Norman Rockwellian tables covered with decadent food and high-brow beverages surrounded by smiling folks who are clearly the happiest people on earth; people who have not a worry or care.
Sometimes it's enough to make me want to poke my eyes out with a turkey carving knife.
Last night I'd planned the ubiquitous Thanksgiving column, the one where I demonstrate my plucky attitude of gratitude.
Then I looked on Facebook (as I often do when I'm supposed to be writing). A post by friend Mark Calkins made me laugh.
He's right. Even so, expect to see scores of photos showing Thanksgiving bounties galore and images of people having the time of their lives while they partake of the most delicious feasts imaginable.
No matter how fantastic a meal you have today, I guarantee there will be at least one post that makes you feel as if your Thanksgiving was supremely shitty by comparison.
I confess. I've been as guilty of posting envy-inducing posts as the next person. My European and Hawaiian vacations. My culinary creations that I prepared with my very own gifted hands. My weight-loss success. My painstakingly remodeled home(s). My perfect grandchildren. My supportive children. My supremely fun adventures. My clever solutions. And I've not even mentioned selfies.
Why did I post those? I mean, were they for me? No. I was there. Were the posts to keep people who love me up to speed with my life? Yes, in part, because I really do have loved ones who live far away who enjoy seeing what I'm up to, just as it makes me feel genuinely happy to see their posts. But I probably have 100 people who fall in that category. The remainder might not give two squirts about me and my life.
As long as I'm being radically honest, the truth is that sometimes I post those photos when I'm feeling crappy, unloved, sad, depressed, unappreciated, lonely, insecure, hungry, fat, terminally single, scared, frustrated and needy. Sometimes all at the same time.
In those moments, rather than deal with whatever's ailing me, I become a social-media-craving little lab rat who repeatedly smacks my Facebook happy-lever in hopes of getting a quick dopamine fix. If I post something positive (or pathetic), I'll get a positive (or uplifting) response. And because I have so many "friends" (nearly 5,000 - no brag, just fact), I can guarantee almost instant results 24/7.
You're awesome! You're a great Noni! Your kids are so lucky you're their mother! You're an amazing cook! You're so strong! You look great! How do you do it all? Gosh, when do you sleep? You have a great smile! Your grandchildren are so cute - and by the way, they look just like you!
The rush is fleeting, because in my heart of hearts I know I manipulated those responses. Because it's all artificial sweetener, the elation deflates quickly, often leaving me feeling worse than before.
This topic is on my mind after a conversation I had with a dear friend, someone who doesn't have grandchildren, but wants them so badly that her lack of grandchildren literally brings her pain. It's torture for her to hear others speak of their grandchildren, because it only reminds her that she has none, and may never have any.
Despite that, yesterday she said how much she loved the recent photos I posted on Facebook of me with my grandchildren. I know she was sincere, because she loves me, and she's happy for me. But she admitted that it sometimes hurts to see these photos.
I reminded her of my favorite quote: Comparison is the thief of joy. I listed a few areas of her life that I envy (like having a husband, for starters). We ended up laughing about it. But still, I knew what she meant.
The thing is, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but there are a million unspoken words behind that seemingly perfect photo only known to the subjects, or the photographer.
For example, this delightful photo of me with my grandchildren taken on the river trail Saturday doesn't even hint at some of the more stressful parts of our weekend together. You'd never guess the degree of sibling rivalry that led to complex negotiations about everything from who got to sleep with which stuffed animal, to whose turn it was to pull the wagon, to who got to sit in the blue chair, and whose plate got the first waffle and which book we read first.
Calgon, take me away!
Also, I found myself feeling frustrated with the kids as they rushed from toy to toy and activity to activity, sometimes spending less time playing with the latest thing than I'd spent getting the thing out and setting it up. Sad to say, the one thing that held their attention the longest was a Smurf movie. (I must say, it was pretty good.)
At bedtime, the kids were excited (first time for a joint sleepover in my new house) so they had difficulty settling down and going to sleep. It was not my finest Noni hour when I actually resorted to promising a prize the next day to whichever child fell asleep first. Of course, the next night you can bet the child who "lost" the previous night was first asleep the second night. I may be onto something ...
OK, so I'm not proud about how I handled bedtime, or the fact that I sharply expressed my displeasure when the 4-year-old treated the new couches like trampolines, and then later made a black Sharpie mark on the new bamboo floor. I said something that caused the 6-year-old to scold, "I don't think you're supposed to say that word, Noni."
You can call me Noni Dearest.
Don't get me wrong. They're wonderful little kids. The best! But my point is that I certainly don't post photos of them, or me, at our very worst. Consequently, people like my friend -- someone who longs for grandchildren -- all she can imagine is she's missing out on those picture-perfect grandparenting moments depicted in my picture-perfect photos. My sins of omission gives her a warped view of grandparenting that's heavily skewed in the direction of whitewashed perfectionism.
I feel my own kinds of holiday pain, mainly, for the last eight years, related to being single with grown kids, and never knowing where I fit into their lives and holidays.
It's no accident that I've spent one Christmas and one Thanksgiving in the Czech Republic. I literally left the country to avoid the uncertainty and potential pain. It's the pits being alone on a holiday.
That's partly why I, someone who did not plan on being single for the rest of my days, look longingly at photos of contended couples and my heart aches. Of course, being married twice myself, I know that marriage is not always a bed of roses. What nobody shows on Facebook (nor should they - for the love of God, please no) are those thorny marital moments; bickering, disinterest, impatience, relaxed hygiene, boredom, or even outright dislike and dissatisfaction.
Although it's a day-to-day struggle to keep life's disappointments, pain, loss and sadness at bay during the best of times, it's an especially difficult feat during the holidays. Forgive me for being a Doni downer, but sometimes, holidays' timing really sucks. Right in the middle of what's supposed to be the hap - happiest time of the year, some people are undergoing chemo, or divorce, or bankruptcy, or hospice, or suffering the loss or a job, a home or a loved one.
The holidays can be an emotional land mine, and triggers are everywhere, sometimes in the most seemingly innocent places.
Nobody knows this more acutely than my twin, Shelly, for whom Christmas used to be her favorite holiday. Now, she's haunted each year by a particular Christmas tree lot. Just seeing it sets off an avalanche of memories of her with her son Matt, who died of leukemia at 20. Matt, like his mother, loved the holidays, too. And he was such a good sport about indulging his mother at that same Christmas tree lot each year to find, cut down, bring home and set up the biggest tree for her, because her former house had massive vaulted ceilings.
Now, when it comes to Christmas, Shelly goes as simplistic and small as possible. For her to "go big" would remind her too much of Matt, which would hurt even more than the daily unrelenting pain she already endures over the loss of her youngest child.
For Shelly, and anyone unable to share the holidays with someone they love, whether because of death, illness, addictions, divorce, deployment or estrangement, it's impossible to think of that loved one and simultaneously have an unabashed holly, jolly Christmas.
The thing is, I don't care what the song says, this really isn't the most wonderful time of the year. In fact, it can feel like quite the contrary. So many dashed expectations. So many painful memories. So many comparisons to others' lives that leave us feeling diminished and disappointed.
With that in mind, I wish you the best Thanksgiving and holiday season possible. Be easy on yourself. And if you're really struggling, you might give social media -- and the malls, for that matter -- a rest. Just until after New Year's, when it's mostly safe to venture back again. Wait, I take that back. Make it March, because you'll want to avoid February, and Valentine's Day. Shoot. I forgot about Easter. And Mother's Day and Father's Day. Then there's the Fourth of July, which reminds me that for that matter, that you'll need to get through the whole happy summer that's bursting with weddings and everyone's exotic vacations. Sorry.
At any rate, if you do go on Facebook today, take Mark's advice, and consider skipping the food pictures this year. Unless they're really unusual, or funny, or they involve a crazed cat, or if your dinner was a total disaster. Those, you can post all day long. Bring them on!
We could all use a little levity. And you'll get lots of likes.