Community In Between
How to deal with the paradoxical need for quality time with people, and also the need to say no to dinner parties.
A Note for You, If You’re Having A Bad Day
A few years ago, a sort of lucky thing happened to me: my sister let me throw her a baby shower. Her baby was due in January, so we thought early December (let’s call it December 4) would be a good time to have the shower — between the two big traveling holidays, and with enough time to be fairly certain that her little watermelon wouldn’t make an early debut. I was kind of broke, so it felt impossible to swing plane tickets to Portland for both the baby shower and Christmas, and the December 4 tickets were considerably cheaper. This is how I discovered the unparalleled joy of traveling by plane in the first week of December.
Since most people fly around Thanksgiving and Christmas, the airport and the airplanes are relatively empty: really the only people traveling are people doing it for business. On both my flights, the middle seat was unoccupied — which is kind of a dream come true, isn’t it? In the pre-COVID days, at least, these were good times to take off work, too: people showed up because they knew they would be taking extended Christmas vacations, and they were in “final push” mindsets. Other people wanted extra money for holiday shopping, and it wasn’t difficult to find a substitute teacher for my classes.
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The trip itself was low-drama, low-stakes, and low-stress. Since I wasn’t coming home for the holidays, I went to my parents’ house for light, holiday-adjacent celebration, but since it was early, there weren’t too many gifts and there was a lack of excess. Because Thanksgiving had already passed, people were mostly conversationally sated (if not exhausted) and so we sometimes hung out without talking. My sister and I played Mario Kart for hours; my mom and I watched a nature documentary and wrapped Christmas presents. I visited for five days, and noted how joyful I felt getting on the plane to come back to Chicago. This had been a close-to-perfect visit. I would do this again.
The next year we were under lockdown and air travel wasn’t back on the table. And then I got pregnant, and now I have a baby who makes long travel days more complicated. I haven’t had the opportunity to recreate the exquisite Early December Holiday Visit. But I’ve been thinking about it lately, because its lessons aren’t limited to strategic plane ticket buying.
Winter is a paradox. Our animal bodies know that we have less daylight, and they notice when the outside is punishingly cold. Like other mammals, we want to eat more (is it the bare trees or the conflagration of cookies that makes this true?), and we want to sleep more. The cold and the necessity to stay inside make our bodies more vulnerable to illness and fatigue. It’s harder to see the people we love, because it’s harder to get to them. This is the perfect recipe for a social animal who lives in a closed ecosystem (a nuclear family or a studio apartment) to get depressed.
It seems like the people who made the calendar understood this, and so they created two holidays that would force us together and trick us into thinking the winter is the loudest, most excessive, most social season of all. There are songs and a whole bustling movie industry; there are buttery sugary foods that we’re only allowed to eat this one time of year. On paper, this is a lot of fun.
Since I was a child, I have bought red velvet dresses while daydreaming about the kinds of holiday parties that were in catalogues: beautiful people sipping champagne in front of a roaring fire, daintily enjoying cheese balls and chatting on the couch about someone’s father’s company’s merger. I have never been to this party, and I’ve never had an occasion to wear one of those dresses, really. The idea of the holidays is exciting and optimistic. The reality of the holidays is more complicated, because its actuality stands in opposition to the very nature of nature. Our bodies want: more sleep, more food, more rest, more quiet, and most of all, fewer obligations. The holidays create: more obligations. The paradox is that we also need each other. We need each other more than at any other time of year.
But: there is space between zero and a hundred. I mean: there’s socialization that doesn’t require a party dress; there’s eating that doesn’t require stressing out over twenty-three side dishes to satisfy every palate; there’s company that includes your nearest and dearest and excludes Jenny from work (whose father’s company’s may or may not be merging — whatever that means). There is gray. There are margins. There is December 4.
As we enter winter, consider what it would mean to say no to the things that will truly exhaust you, or that your body honestly doesn’t want to do; and then to take that opened-up space and say yes to small, soft, quiet, whole interactions with the people you love the most. Have your neighbor over for half an hour, and don’t clean the house, and don’t fix a snack. Just sit in the living room and talk and drink tea if it’s easy; or watch your kid play on the carpet. Are there people in your life who feel safe to touch? If there are, make time to watch a movie and cuddle. (Touch is really important to our human bodies; unfortunately, it can also be complicated, so be careful with yourself and your own needs, and ask consent.) Instead of cooking, order in. Bake WITH someone, rather than in preparation for someone. Consider what it would mean to spend time with another person in your space without needing to be a host. Who are the people in your life who would benefit from seeing another person modeling that behavior? How can we be together without holding each other and ourselves to impossible standards?
Ina Garten (whom I reflexively dislike because once I read that she wouldn’t participate in a Make A Wish Foundation request to meet her, but nevertheless) says that people should feel comfortable using store-bought foundations for their holiday cooking: frozen pie crusts, canned cranberry sauce, rolls from a tube.included in her newsletter last week a literal form for reaching out to seek community when you need it. There are ways we can be together that don’t require quite so much work (or quite so much sugar).
What are your suggestions for spending time without spending all of yourself? I appreciate your wisdom, as always. Good luck getting what you need. It’s hard. You’re doing a good enough job.
T is a toddler! This is wild. I’ve been writing this newsletter since T was a chickpea in my uterus. I started this newsletter BECAUSE T was a chickpea in my uterus, and I wanted to document what that was like. Is it less interesting, now that she’s a toddler? To me, she only gets more interesting, but there’s something a little less biological-feeling about it. Early writings about T felt like observing something in a lab; like, wow, how interesting that a brand new earth creature can absolutely prefer the song “You’re Welcome” over all other songs! Now, it’s hard to know how much her preferences are innate, and how much we’ve influenced them — or how much something else external has. Over the weekend, we went for a long car ride, during which I was positive she would sleep, at least for a portion. The ride was right in the middle of the time she normally takes a nap, and it was two and a half hours long, each way. She did NOT sleep. She is now an age where she can make decisions that defy her own biology. She wants to sleep on her belly, and the car seat is not conducive to that, so therefore, no sleep in the car. This was incredibly stressful to me; I wanted her to sleep SO BADLY, but it wasn’t going to happen. Instead we watched “Sesame Street” so she wouldn’t cry, with the sound over the car speakers (which Kat thought was funny), and discussed (the grownups, I mean) the hotness of the human character Mando, who is now on “Rings of Power.”
This Week In Sophie
There will be a few new things in the shop next week, as the holidays descend. I’m not doing commissions this year, as a means of self-care (they always take up more time than I want them to, and this year I don’t know that I have it), so I apologize for those of you who have been asking. Thank you for wanting me to draw for you. It means a lot to me, and so do you.
We have a great Substack chat going, and the community in the paid tier is strong. They will also be receiving early discount codes for all my store items. If this newsletter is valuable to you, please consider paying for a higher subscription tier. If you’d like access to the community but can’t swing a subscription right now, just email me and let me know. I’m happy to accommodate.