Monday, December 3, 2012

Off the Island: A Search for Simplicity

As we approach the time of year when my personality feels most divided, I’m half inclined to shave my head, give away all of my possessions and head for the hills while half of me yearns to hand paint candy canes and beg Mr. Claus to take me as his mistress. I don’t consider myself a Material Girl, but who am I kidding? “Gimmee gimmee gimmee! Gimmee some more,” is my heart’s true song. However, it’s not the stuff I crave so much as the frenzy. In my mind’s eye December is a month of binging and gorging, stuffing it in and packing it on. In January comes atonement, fasting, pumping iron and making resolutions to need less of the stuff I spent the last month hoarding. How much can I do before I feel like I’m finally done?  The answer-- if I’m honest—is never, ever enough.

            So this year I’m hoping to approach things a bit differently. I’ve abolished credit cards and booked writing retreats for two weekends leading up to the Big Bang instead of camping out at the mall trying to determine if this mug full of bath beads will really prove to my (mother/step-mother/mother-in-law) how much I love her (I really do!). I will no longer be dragging my husband to the craft store on All Hannukah’s Eve to start assembling grouted marble sun dials on our dining room table at midnight (apologies to anyone who’s received any such home-made “craft”). I’d like to wrap my mind around this bizarre concept of Keeping it Simple.

            Despite an emphasis on quality time over quality stuff, most of my holiday memories from childhood blend into a montage of What I Got: the longed for Rubik’s Cube, the surprising mix of a Ken doll, walkie-talkies and Born in the USA, the real gingerbread house under the tree that I loved too much to eat and let the cats pee on instead. Still, of all this bounty, the year that stands out most vividly did not center around what I got or gave but where I was and who I was with.

My traveling companion and I were, as usual, nearly broke and, as usual, had no idea where we’d spend the night. It seemed that all of the shops in Europe were closed for Christmas Eve and by the time we found an open hostel we’d finished most of the crust of bread squirreled away at the bottom of our packs. We were, by American standards, starving. The hostel concierge took pity on us, giving us directions to a soup kitchen free for travelers and the homeless. At the moment we were both. I expected the basement of a grungy YMCA, not the medieval banquet hall we stumbled into an hour later. Torches lined the walls; vats of potatoes, platters of meat and carafes of wine adorned the tables. Vaudeville singers danced on the stage and other homeless travelers danced all around. Unbeknownst to us, we had just discovered Christiania, a hippie squatter commune in central Copenhagen fashioned around an abandoned military barracks. Actual heaven could not have been better. We danced and ate and sang and made merry, feeling the holiday spirit—and many other kinds of spirits too. The next day, with snow falling softly all around, we made a pilgrimage to see the Little Mermaid, beautiful and perfectly contained on her rock in Copenhagen Harbor. I wish our Christmas story ended there and not with getting kicked out of our hostel later that night or ending up on a subway with the Hungarian Mafia on New Year’s Eve but that’s another essay. I’m sure gifts were exchanged at some point but I don’t remember a single one of them.

            Now, for better or worse, unlike the Little Mermaid, I don’t live on an island. I live with people that I want to cram full of as much happiness and stuff and cheer as possible—even if it means driving us all mad in the process. This year I’m hoping that giving myself the gifts of sanity and simplicity will be the gifts that keep on giving.  


  1. "I’m half inclined to shave my head"

    Why not just shave half your head then?

  2. Oh, I remember Christiana! I went there, too -- such fun! You've inspired a blog entry for me...thanks so much and I hope you don't mind the mimicry. Enjoy these holidays!