First let me say: I love Christmas. I love the decorations, I love the lights, I love some of the songs, I love picking out gifts, I love watching old Christmas specials on TV, I love making stockings. If I could get a full time job choosing things to put in Christmas stockings, I would be delighted. One of the things I have grown to love the most is watching my kids watch each other (and us) open gifts. They are all thoughtful gift givers, and they all enjoy seeing the reactions to their gifts, and I enjoy their reactions to the reactions just as much.
I don’t love tradition for tradition’s sake. I have said at many, many jobs that the worst reason to do a thing is “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” and I stand by that statement at holidays. I don’t come from a family with a strong attachment to traditions. Our kids grew up with two households, one of which was entrenched in tradition around all major holidays, and the other one (ours) was a lot more anything goes.
The basis of most holiday traditions is the family gathering, and of course sometimes that’s the hardest part. Even when everyone wants to spend time with everyone else (which is rarer the bigger the gathering is), the group is not always greater than, or even as great as, the sum of its parts.
When my parents were still alive, for a lot of years I avoided family holiday meals. If we don’t ordinarily communicate, and we didn’t always through those years, I didn’t see the sense in getting together as if we had been longing to see each other all year. I also didn’t love us when we did get together, and in particular I didn’t love myself. With our relationship and communication patterns established in childhood and then not updated much because we weren’t a regular part of each other’s lives, we fell back into old patterns too easily.
My own kids are better friends than my sisters and I were at similar ages, and I still watch them struggle with this when they are all together with any of their parents. The more parents are there, the worse it is. Someone always gets their feelings hurt. In my family, it was usually me, and though when I watch my own kids I can see a logical way to solve that for them, I couldn’t often put logic into action for myself, so my solution was to not go.
This year, of course, was the Christmas of the non-gathering. We had a family video call with all the kids, but we were each in our own households otherwise. Next year, maybe getting together will be an option, and maybe we will, and maybe we won’t. I want my kids to start their own traditions, and to actively decide what traditions they want – because they love them, and for no other reason. They may not all love the same traditions, and I hope they will be able to mix sharing traditions and going their own ways in a way that works for them all. I want us to all get together because we want to, and to be able to say when we don’t want to. If we are going to resume a tradition, I want it to be the tradition of the non-tradition. Do what you want, don’t put the weight of the year on a day, figure out the best way to love each other, take care of yourself. It works on holidays, and it works on non-holidays, too.
When I first signed up for the job I’ve now had for five years, a colleague from my last job said “Wow, are you going to get to travel to lots of places you’ve never been to that you’ve always wanted to go?” and I said “Well, I will get to travel to lots of places I’ve never been to.” While I’ve heard of almost all of the countries we work in, I do sometimes have to get out a map to see exactly (or even approximately) where they are. Few of them are on the top of most people’s tourism lists, though I have learned that those lists vary a lot depending on what your originating country is. Anyway, I did not have a life goal to see all the countries I’m unfamiliar with. I’m not a huge fan of airplanes and the very closest place I’ve been for this job is eight hours if you can get a direct flight, but there are almost no direct flights to any of these places. Mostly, though, I don’t like being away from home. I miss my people, I miss my animals. I have a vague fear that I will be forgotten in the week or so that I am away (note to adults minding children: if you accidentally walk away from a five year old at the zoo and they look up to find they are surrounded only by hippos and strangers, they may in fact remember it for life).
But for the last five years, I have been traveling. I have done the bare minimum of travel and have still managed to go to six countries, three of them twice, in that time. For the last two weeks of February this year I was in two different countries. I came home a week before the US started limiting flights from Europe and about two weeks before everything shut down. After two weeks away, I was ready to stay at home. In fact, before two weeks away, I was ready to stay at home. Over nine months later, I’m still ready to stay at home. And yet.
Today is the start of a two week vacation. It is the ideal kind of vacation – the whole office is closed so I won’t even have a backlog of work to come back to in two weeks. I love the idea of a staycation, but I’ve been doing an awful lot of staying already this year. If I were to go anywhere right now, it would be to Colorado to see my two kids who live there, and my friends, and just Colorado in general. I haven’t been there since January and like many things this year, it seems like years ago. I know that technically I could go, but I have zero interest in getting on a plane right now, and I don’t want to spend that much of my time driving. I also know that I will continue to stay at home until it’s less of a health risk to travel. All this time to think about traveling without having to travel has got me thinking about the travel I think I want to do and the travel I actually want to do.
In my mind I’m a much more adventurous traveler than I actually am. I want to go to more exotic places, and I want to do more things while I am there, and I want to travel for long periods of time – in my mind. In reality, when I travel I alternate between bursts of wanting to do things and bursts of wanting to curl up in my hotel room in the fetal position. I want to spend time getting to know the people I’m working with, but I also can’t wait to get away from them and be by myself at the end of the work day. Most of the time when I go somewhere I’ve never been, I try to do and see some things I will otherwise never have the chance to do and see, but I have about a day of that in me and then I’m done. I’m never going to be a person who tries to fit in a lot of activities in the end of the day after work. I do like to walk around anywhere I can, and my last trip before lockdown that is mostly what I did, usually in the mornings before the work day started. I really did enjoy both people-watching and nature-watching on my last trip – it’s nice to be in a city with big parks so it’s easy to do both.
Because I’m at home now, I get to dream about traveling. Because I don’t have to actually travel, I can look at the dreams against what I really like to do. I’m missing my people – my actual people, not my work people. I’m probably going to become one of those RV people, because I love the idea of traveling with Rose and the dogs, taking as long as we want to get places, and staying wherever and for however long we want. Part of me still wants to want to be the person who wants to get on the plane for the 20 hours or whatever it takes to fly to New Zealand. Part of me is still the person who thought peace corps sounded like a good idea, though I think that version of me also wanted to be a bull rider or a steeplechase jockey. I have an adventurous soul and a homebody heart and I’m learning to accept this.
One of the things I really do love about the work travel I have done is that it has given me perspectives I would never have been exposed to. I’ve encountered some eye-opening attitudes and questions about Americans. I’ve learned about history of countries I would have never learned about. I’ve heard personal stories of people who lived through things I’ve only read about in newspapers. I pay attention to world news in a different way because I know people who are living in the places the news is about, and that makes me hear and feel it differently.
I’ve decided to focus on other perspectives during my staycation, in particular the perspectives of the other inhabitants of my home, whether human, canine, feline, equine, or avian. Two weeks of listening and traveling in someone else’s shoes (or feet, or paws) seems like a good place to start my next travel adventure.
I’ve been trying for some time now to write the story of the Christmas Bat because a friend wants to hear it. The same friend also wants twelve layer Russian honey cake, but she lives on the other side of an ocean so I can’t make that happen right now. The main reason I’ve been unable so far to give her the story she wants is that I’m too tied up with what I want: for my friend to not have cancer, for there to be more than a tiny chance that we will ever get to meet in person, for my heart to not be so full of grief from all the other people I’ve loved who have died of cancer that I freeze just a little when I am faced with another potential death.
The accumulation of grief is a tricky thing. In between losses I feel like I’m doing ok, I’m processing the grief, I’m mourning and honoring the people. But then I’m faced with another loss, and I realize the grief that was sitting next to me is now something I’m treading water in and it’s getting harder to catch my breath, partly because instead of breathing all I want to do is scream. My accumulated griefs include friends with terrible diagnoses, and friends whose parents or siblings or spouses or children or friends have died are or are dying. They also include a lot of anger on behalf of the people I’ve loved who have died. Anger that they had to go through it – each member of my family who has died of cancer has had a different kind of cancer and they are all fucking terrible – and anger that I have lost them. I know this is a wave of feeling and even though it feels like a tidal wave it will become manageable again, but today I’m having a hard time writing about anything else.
But. If a friend asks me for a thing that is in fact the very least I can do, and it is also all I can do, then damn it, I’m going to do it.
The Christmas Bat is now on top of his 33rd Christmas tree. Last year he got a break only because we took a break from having a tree. We did not have Christmas trees in my childhood, but we had neighbors who got theirs every Christmas Eve from a cut-your-own tree farm in northern Virginia and who let us tag along for the tree selection and tree decorating. I haven’t strung cranberries and popcorn since those trees, but I still think Christmas Eve is a good time to get a tree. I am the only member of my family on this bandwagon, however, so we always get ours earlier, and this year I was the one pushing to get the tree before Thanksgiving. Rose and I have both moved off of our early Christmas tree positions – she spent several years asking me if I was sure I didn’t want to use a star or an angel as the tree topper, but this year while we decorated our tree that I brought home nearly a month before Christmas, she was the one who put the bat in his place on the top of the tree.
For many years my mother managed a museum shop. They sold the usual kinds of things you would expect in a museum gift shop – things related to current or past exhibits, like books about Maria Martinez pottery, or honey and bee pins from the Utah: The Beehive State exibit, or postcards of the paintings in the Grand Salon upstairs. But because of my mother, they also had a wonderful collection of eclectic children’s books which had no relevance to anything ever seeen or exhibited in the gallery. The King Who Rained was a favorite of mine when I was in elementary school, as was A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me, but my very favorites were the Edward Gorey books.
My mother gave me Amphigorey, the first of the Gorey anthologies, when I was in middle school, and I began memorizing Gorey stories. My best friend from 7th grade and I recited them gleefully and often, and when she moved to the other side of the country we traded lines from The Gashleycrumb Tinies or The Object Lesson back and forth on the many envelopes we sent each other containing 20-page letters and cassette tapes. Not mix tapes, but just tapes of us talking in our ongoing conversation when long distance was still charged by the minute and we were too young to have jobs to pay the phone bills.
Gorey came with me to college in the form of a book of small posters of his work (also from the museum shop) which I cut out and used to paper my dorm room wall. After the dorm they followed me from one room to another for years, growing ever tattier around the edges from all the thumbtack holes.
As far as I know, the Christmas Bat is the only one of his kind. He came into being in the museum shop one Christmas season in the 80’s. In addition to all the books, my mother also stocked the shop with Gorey bean bag creatures, especially the cats in their little striped shirts, and the bats with their red eyes. She dressed one of the Gorey bats for the season in a tiny knit Christmas hat, a miniature brass horn, and a bright red tassel, and placed him by the cash register. When the season was over she gave him to me. I put him on top of my first Christmas tree and he has held that place ever since.
I know I have found a kindred soul when I find someone else who grew up on Gorey stories. The Wuggly Ump may not be a soothing bedtime story (“How uninviting are its claws! How even more so are its jaws!”) but anyone who knows it – or any other Gorey story – by heart likely has a dark sense of humor I will recognize. I have a book that my mother gave me for my 17th birthday, inscribed with a quote from Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest. She wrote “To Tessa, who came seventeen years ago and to this day has shown know intention of going away.” I still find this perfect, if maybe a little hard to explain as a birthday sentiment.
When my most favorite aunt was dying and we said our goodbyes, we first said “I love you” and the major things we wanted each other to know. She then drew a shaky breath (she was less than 24 hours from dying of lung cancer) and said “It was already Thursday,” so of course I said “but his Lordship’s artificial limb could not be found” and she said “Therefore, having directed the servants to fill the baths” and I said “He seized the tongs and set out at once for the lake, where the Throbblefoot Spectre still loitered in a distraught manner.” I kissed her, said “I love you” one more time, and we said goodbye. Quoting Edward Gorey at each other may not be how everyone says goodbye to a favorite relative, but what my aunt called “the quoting gene” runs strong in our family.
Like most of my stories, the story of the Christmas Bat is wrapped up in a lot of other stories. Some of them are funny, some of them are sad, some of them involve death, and some of them involve life and friendship. I’m breathing a little better now, but damn it, I want my life and my friends’ lives to have so much less of the sad and the death, and so much more of the funny and the life and the friendship.
I’m sure there’s a joke to be had about how I like my male horses – tall, dark and handsome, yes, but also – gelded? troubled? – but what I do know is that the geldings I have picked as riding horses tend to have a lot in common. The three I have chosen have been bay with strong black points, similar height, and with no interest in the job they were trained to do before I met them.
Soldier was a thoroughbred trained to foxhunt. I got him as a lease-to-sell project, with the intent of training him as an event horse. As it turned out, a horse who will run and jump with a group of other horses does not necessarily have any interest in jumping when he is alone on a cross country course, and a horse who has only ever seen natural fences on the hunt course may not have any idea what to do with painted jumps in an arena. His approach to a stadium jumping course went something like this: gallop towards the first fence, screech to a halt, take off from all four feet at once, land on all four feet on the other side, bolt to the next fence and repeat. After it became clear he would never be an eventer at even the lowest level (Super Chicken, they call it locally, or Ever Green), his owner sent him back out on a foxhunt with an interested buyer who Soldier promptly dumped and nearly put in the hospital. He eventually found his way to a great home with a woman who wanted mostly to do dressage and trail ride.
Wy came along about 5 years after Soldier. His full name was Wy’East, the native name of Mount Hood, the highest peak in Oregon where his breeder was from. He had been bred and trained to be a dressage horse (his breeder had dreams of him taking her to the Olympics) but was deemed neither sound nor sane enough for that job. That put him squarely in my equine specialty of what a friend once dubbed “the lame and the insane.” His first owner was my dressage instructor at the time she had him up for sale. When I rode him for the first time in a lesson with her I wound up on the ground pretty quickly, as his riders often did. I don’t remember landing, but I do remember getting up and saying “You son of a bitch, get back here” as I went to get him from the other side of the indoor arena. His owner, used to people sitting on the ground and crying after coming off him, agreed to sell him to me on a payment plan.
I had no designs on Wy as a dressage horse, and I let him show me what he was interested in, which was mostly trail riding, though he also loved jumping tiny fences as if they were Puissance walls. With the pressure off he got a lot saner, but he didn’t get any sounder, and I still had vague ideas at that time about having a horse I could compete in some discipline. I decided that he might be happier in a home where all the person wanted to do was trail ride, so I sold him to a nice man who wanted just that.
Several years after I sold Wy, and several farms after the last one where he had lived with us, we were house hunting again, looking for a place for us and our three mares. We were thinking about a house that had the right amount of land, but the land was mostly wooded. While we investigated how much it would cost to turn woods into pasture, we looked at barns where we might keep the horses in the interim.
There was a good sized boarding farm close to the woodland house. We arranged to visit, and the owner – something of a cowboy in the middle of hunter/jumper, eventer, and foxhunter territory – showed us around while we told him about our mares. I was explaining about my slutty thoroughbred mare Trappe, and telling stories on her mare-in-heat behavior, when I said “Of course, that was when we still had Wy.” The cowboy said “You had a horse named Wy? We have a horse here named Wy.” I said “Is it ‘Y’ as in the letter Y, or ‘Why’ as in ‘Why Did I Buy This Horse?'” He said he didn’t know; the owner just called him Wy, or sometimes Beast. Even though Wy’s most common nickname when I had him was Wy Beast, I still didn’t make the connection. “He’s a big, bay Hanoverian gelding,” said the cowboy as he pointed behind me. This finally sunk in, and I turned around and saw my horse looking at me over the fence of his paddock. I ran over to him and he buried his big head in my chest.
Wy had come to this farm through two different owners after he got sick while with the guy I sold him to. The diagnosis by the time I saw him was possibly EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis), but no one was really sure. Some kind of degenerative neurological condition, definitely. He was not rideable, and his owner was trying to decide what to do next. I wasn’t sure what to do next either. I did nothing for about two weeks, and then one Sunday I woke up and said to Rose, “I had a dream about Wy last night and he told me to come get him. I want to go back to the farm to see him.” When we got to the farm I told the cowboy about my dream, and he looked at me like I was a little nuts, which I had expected. I said “I know it sounds weird” and he interrupted me and said “No, I don’t think it’s weird at all – it’s just that his owner just had the vet out yesterday and he said there’s nothing else they can do and she was asking if I knew how to reach you to talk about having you take him back.”
Wy came home to us and the three mares he had lived with before, though at a different farm. When we first put him out in the field with them, he spent a couple of days with a look on his face like “I had the weirdest dream – but here we all are together so I guess it really was a dream.” The mares – especially the slutty thoroughbred – were thrilled to have him back. We didn’t buy the woodland house, but we did buy the house where we live now. By that time we had acquired one more filly and we also had a foal on the way. They all lived at our vet’s farm for a few months while we put in fence and a barn here, and then they came home.
Less than two months after we brought the horses home, Wy had gone downhill enough that we had to put him down. He couldn’t reliably stand up without his knees buckling, and he walked like an old drunk man. With Trappe standing close at all times and trying to prop him up, I was worried that I would come home to find them both on the ground with her squashed beneath him. Our vet, who hadn’t seen Wy since he came home to us, took one look and said “You know you don’t have a choice about this, right?” which, true or not, was what I needed to hear. We buried Wy near the barn, and everyone that drives onto our property drives by his grave. A year after we buried him, an acorn sprouted in the middle of his grave, and that oak tree is now about 30 feet tall.
Wy left a lot of legacies. One of them is one of our family mantras: “Don’t pick up the reins.” It took me until the second time I came off of him to realize how he got people off so consistently. He would wait until his rider had a good hold of the reins, and then he would duck his giant head down between his knees and pull the rider off balance, and then he’d throw in a buck with a twist and off the rider would pop. The thing was, he always had something a little off in his back and hind end, and his buck really was not that athletic. I discovered that if, when he put his head down, I let go of the reins, he could buck all he wanted and it would not unseat me. It was that rein yank that created the problem. It became something Rose and I would say any time anyone verbally tried to knock us off balance in an argument – don’t pick up the reins and you won’t find yourself getting into a fight.
Finn is a legacy of Wy’s. I’m sure it’s no coincidence how much they look alike, or that Finn was another horse that someone tried to turn in to a dressage horse when he neither understood what was being asked of him nor was he interested in it. I don’t know that I would have brought Finn home if I hadn’t known Wy, and I don’t think I would have listened to him as much as I have when he tells me what he does and does not want to do and what he can and can’t handle. I still needed some reminders, like the first time I asked Finn to trot and he said “I can’t” and I mistook that for “I need some encouragement” rather than “I really can’t do that right now.” I said “Come on, you can do it!” and then I was up in the air looking down at his back, and then I was on the ground with him looking down at me with a look that said “I told you I can’t and I really meant it.” I got up, dropped my pants to get the sand out of my underwear, pulled myself together, and got back on with a different attitude. Finn is the Truth Serum Horse in his own right, but I know how to listen to him because of Wy.
Wy’s biggest legacy for me is to pay attention and to trust my gut. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we went to look at one house so that we’d meet the realtor who took us to see another house that was the reason we went to look at the barn where I found the horse and was able to bring him home. Life doesn’t always run in straight lines, but I find that if I just keep moving forward – and if I don’t pick up the reins to try to control something I have no business trying to control in the first place – I end up where I need to be.