The Lights Before Christmas (And What To Do When They Go Out)
I’m sitting on a couch that feels like home. (You know, the one that has a nearly permanent indent of your backside from years of cozying up in the same spot). There’s a soft light that blankets my skin. It’s coming from the only lights currently turned on in the living room. The twinkling bulbs dance around the Fraser fir branches in perfectly spaced twirls.
There’s soft Christmas jazz playing. And snow falling right outside my window.
I inhale more deeply than I have in a while, hold my wrist gently,and exhale out the word “Peace,” keeping my eyes closed.
My therapist hears me exhale and says, “Now picture his face again. How strongly can you feel it? The shame? Those gross feelings? Those things-will-never-be-the-same, hopeless, heart-sinking, knot-in-your stomach feelings—how strongly can you feel them on a scale of 1-10?”
“2,” I whisper.
I smile lightly after saying it because I started at a 9, and can hardly remember how that used to feel.
I’d been carrying “9” around for a lot of my life like it was a Louis Vuitton bag someone gave me and I felt too bad admitting I didn’t actually like it. It was heavy. Not my style. Not my color. But mostly, it just wasn’t me. But I didn’t know how to set it down. I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. And I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t hold it anymore.
Ever been there? Ever carried something around that you didn’t like for so long that you forgot how life ever felt without its weight on your shoulder?
I’ve been working with a trauma therapist for a few months now. I didn’t realize how many things I’d been carrying that weren’t ever mine to pick up in the first place.
Every time we work through (through, not around) a painful memory, I always have my safe place to come back to in my mind. For me, the safest, sweetest place is not a beach or a mountain view like it is for some people. It’s jazz music and soft Christmas lights, snow outside my window.
Since I’d been working with the therapist and often envisioning that safe place in my mind, I was giddy that Christmas was around the corner and I would get to sit in that peaceful moment for real, not just in my heart.
When we unpacked the Christmas lights I saw four separate strings of lights for the tree. I’d only need one since we got a much smaller tree this year.
I almost started looping the first one I saw around the tree when I remembered I should probably check it first. So I plugged it into the wall. Nothing. Not a single bulb turned on. I tried to tighten them to see if maybe one had gotten loose, but still no light.
“Well, all good!” I thought to myself. “Every bunch has a bad apple!”
I plugged in the second string of lights. Dark as night. What are the chances that two out of the four went bad? “Bummer!” I skipped along to the third.
I whispered a prayer before I plugged in the fourth. “Okay, God. This is the last set. You know how much these lights mean to me. I just KNOW you’re gonna make them work. I ain’t scurred.”
Hmmm. No light. Well, that’s weird.
“Oh, duh!” I said out loud to absolutely no one. “This is just a bad outlet! Gelly, you goof.”
I proceeded to plug all four into three different outlets one at a time.
You guessed it. Nothing. Zilch.
On the verge of an adult temper tantrum. I found my husband in the other room, “BABE. How is this possible?! All four of our Christmas lights don’t work.”
“It’s fine babe, Christmas lights are so cheap. We’ll just get more tomorrow.”
BUT I WANTED TO LIGHT IT RIGHT NOW AND SIT NEXT TO IT WITH A BLANKET AND TEA AND HAVE MY FRIGGIN’ MOMENT WITH JAZZ MUSIC AND SNOW FALLING YOU DON’T UNDERSTAAAAAAAND… Is what I wanted to say. But obviously, I kept my cool, because I’m a mature adult. So I said:
“THIS IS SUCH CRAP ARE YOU KIDDING ME. UGHHGHHGHHGHGHGHHGHGGGGGGG.” Ricky looked at me the way he looks at our daughter when she thrashes around on the ground in protest because we won’t let her stick bobby pins in her ears.
In my desperation, I remembered we had ONE more string of higher quality light bulbs stored somewhere else. They were the “cool, calming, round-bulb hipster string lights” we got for our home birth with our daughter. You know the kind.
Plugged them in and VOILA! God said let there be light and there was light!
And as much as I could during naps and after bed times, I had my moment, y’all. It was magical and glorious…
For about 7 days.
About a week in to my winter wonderland living room bliss, the lights flickered out. Literally, out of the blue, I watched them go before my eyes.
(They had ONE job.)
Five. Five sets of broken lights.
To everyone’s surprise, I didn’t get mad. I actually laughed out loud.
Because at that point, it was clearly a joke that the Universe was playing on me. I had never cared more about Christmas tree lights than this year. And they had never failed me so hard.
I don’t know if God allowed all our Christmas lights to break in order to teach me the lesson that hit me out of nowhere later that day, but I am taking it and running with it. Maybe we can run together, because maybe we both need it.
My lightless Christmas tree and five (FIVE) sets of broken lights, taught me that we just can’t fabricate perfect moments that stay, at least not on this side of heaven. No matter how hard we try. No matter how badly we want to control our environment and create order, traditions, or peace in our homes (or our relationships)…. No matter how badly we want things to stay the same, for people to respond to us a certain way, for moments and events to go one way and not the other, we’ll always have curve balls thrown at us. We’ll always want calm, but almost always get some chaos.
Some lights will always go out, no matter how many outlets we try them in.
And that’s okay only because we can practice finding safety and peace in our hearts regardless of what’s going on in our homes. I know, I know, it sounds like a bumper sticker. But it's true.
God gave me this brilliant pumping heart that can come to Him, come to my safe place under that tree with the lights that shine—and it will never change. Those lights don’t ever have to go out. Like, ever.
And if in my heart-house, those lights are on, if that music is playing, if that snow is falling, then I can just roll with lights flickering off in my house-house. I’m not hinging my happiness on how people treat me, which Christmas traditions stay the same and perfect, who shows up or leaves me hanging, or who I may or may not disappoint this season (there always seems to be someone, doesn’t there?)
So when Your Aunt Gertrude is asking if you’ve put on a couple pounds this year, why you are still breastfeeding your baby, why you are bottle-feeding instead of breastfeeding, or when you’re going to finally have a boyfriend, just whisper to yourself, “She can’t turn these lights off.” And you’ll remember that your happiness doesn’t hinge on Aunt Gertrude’s approval anyway.
When your mom lets you down yet again, your brother gets moody, or your new stepdad changes Christmas traditions and makes it awkward… whatever or whoever is flickering your lights out, remember they can’t touch the ones that actually matter if you don’t let them.
I do think God let all five sets of the lights break. Not to be mean, but to free me. Because I don’t think it's freeing to need a pair of lights to work in order to feel joy: that sounds like conditional joy to me.
But now I can have consistent joy in my heart, regardless of the lights that flicker out around me. That doesn't mean I’m not allowed to feel deep sadness sometimes. It just means I am free to feel what I need to, and not stay there. I’m free to be fluid, flexible. Because I always have my safe place to sit in regardless of what’s going on around me.
How I’m actually doing this IRL:
I don’t spend time on the broken lights. I don’t stare at them and wish they were different. I acknowledge that they broke. I let myself throw whatever tantrum I need to (because I heart honest, healing emotions). And then I redirect my eyes to the lights I love that won’t ever turn off, and spend my time there.
We can have that same approach with whatever feels broken—a relationship, a tradition, a house. And you can bet your bippy (is that something only grandmas say?) I got some new lights: if it can be fixed, go for it! Hopefully by the time you read this, they are up and shining. But the point is that now I don’t need them to stay lit to have my “safe place” or feel content. I can just go there, whether I’m on a beach, on a mountain, or sitting in a car waiting for the windows to defrost while my toddler squeezes her fruit pouch into every crevice she can find and then cries when she runs out.
What lights are flickering off for you this season? I’m tantrumming with you, my friend. And then I’m finding my sweet space and staying there.
*Update* here are the new ones we got— they work! Bless the heavens! I haven’t managed to get them on the tree yet, but I have managed to lay them on top of a silly letterboard. Which is basically the same thing.