Hangin’ Around the Inkwell: Loneliness, Holidays, New Traditions

In my busy rock and roll head, songs pop up constantly, often in reaction to something I hear or read. This is no surprise to people who know me, and who are accustomed to my breaking into song inspired by an intruding spark of spontaneous association. Recently I was perusing my groaning, growing pile of books in the cue to be read. Oh, how I wish I could read faster! I cannot begin to keep up with the bounteous wealth of really good stuff that comes along every day, (and a measure of not so good stuff too, that I feel I should at least familiarize myself with, to know something of what is going on out there.) I happened on the unread book I ordered months back written by former US surgeon general, Vivek H. Murthy. Murthy who was appointed by President Obama served only a brief two-year tenure as the nation’s supreme medical authority, before he was dismissed by the Trump administration. His strong stance in favor of childhood vaccination, along with his identifying gun violence as a major public health issue, apparently drew an unsupportable amount of heat.  

His book entitled Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes -Lonely World (Harper 2020) is about his assertion that there is an “epidemic of loneliness” in this country. My reaction to that was the fifth-grade exclamation “duh!!” and then I was visited by the exquisitely accurate and far superior words, from the old Bob Dylan song, where Bob eloquently croons, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…”     

Certainly, the world of trauma and neglect, most often characterized by one or another variety of attachment trauma, is a vast desert of loneliness, and for many, it is that and the great challenge of relationship that drives them (and/or us) to seek therapy. Trauma and neglect are lonely worlds. And in addition, there are many other varieties of despair and isolation. I heard one report that the Silicon Valley town of Palo Alto, a hub of technological innovation and immense wealth, is peppered with numerous railway crossings throughout town. At each crossing, a security guard is posted poised to prevent people from jumping in front of the trains. Suicide is that great of a danger. 

Researchers report that at greatest risk for suicide (but certainly not exclusively,) are men, and even greater- older men. They have identified five factors that heighten suicide risk, the “Five ‘D’s:’ “Depression, Disability, Disconnection, Disease and “Deathly Means,” which primarily refers to access to firearms. Disconnection is of course endemic to trauma and neglect as we know, with many of the others following close behind. We have reason to be vigilant for them all.  

Holidays 

Especially during the winter holiday season, where the culture here is swept up in a blizzard of commotion and pressure: pressure to spend money on “stuff,” get together in idyllic Norman Rockwell scenes of loving family, abundant and wonderful food, and drink and lots of “fun,” many of us, probably most of us, are ashamedly unable to fulfill the script. Being Jewish and also immigrants I always felt particularly (and ashamedly) ill equipped to navigate the season. Channukah often roughly coincided in time with the Christmas holiday. And where the Christian kids perhaps jealously imagined we got 8 presents, one each night, that certainly was not true in our family. For me gifts, at least being on the receiving end, were generally a disappointing ordeal. I would look forward to some sort of show or evidence of affection, “worth” or specialness, often with a big build-up and hope. It was the one time of the year, apart from our birthdays, that we might hope to get something that we did not “need.” Maybe something impractical or even vaguely extravagant. Somehow, I wound up feeling as unworthy, worthless or unknown as ever, so I made it my project to be a great giver of gifts, trying to create the experience I longed for, in the other. In general, they were rarely happy days. 

When I got a little older it was a great relief and escape to have restaurant or catering jobs, that were super busy and often lucrative too. It was admittedly kind of fun to work that hard, and I felt I was getting away with something in fleeing the seemingly impossible mandate. And at least customers were generous on the holidays, appreciating that we were willing to work on holidays, not knowing what a blessed escape it in fact was.  

New Traditions

As I got older and later partnered, I/we began to explore for ways to cope with and even enjoy this season and put our own stamp on the holidays. To find what is festive, meaningful and “ego syntonic” (a psychobabble or fancy way of saying in keeping with our own inclinations and values,) for observing the winter holiday season. We discovered destinations that were free of the dreaded consumerism and congestion, religiosity or simple cultural “coercion” to celebrate in particular ways. We made several visits to Cuba at holiday time, and there was little evidence there of anything outside of ordinarily quotidian life. When the pandemic interrupted traveling far, I found that having more time to write, that being a way to both relax and reflect on the change of both season and year, to move forward into the next cycle, became a delightful and for me celebratory new ritual.  

When I looked up the Dylan song where the weatherman quote originated, Subterranean Homesick Blues, I found another exquisite phrase: 

Get sick, get well, 
Hang around the inkwell… 

I thought, yes! There is at least one of my holiday rituals, the luxury of time to “hang around the inkwell.” (I do miss handwriting although admittedly as I age, and can barely read my own handwriting, the digital ink cartridge has become a blessing.) We also discovered that Hawaii is a great escape from the holiday atmosphere we dislike on the mainland, so that has become our go-to. We discovered that besides the quiet tasteful tree in the hotel lobby, and the post office being closed, there is little evidence that these dates are different. The warm tropical breeze, and peaceful atmosphere is a balm, and my idea of the perfect gift for me. And admittedly I do enjoy the excuse of special baking and cheesemaking before we go. 

I hope you can go gently with finding your own way. I know the pressure of these days can be a hotbed for shame and increased loneliness for many. Wishing the very best for the season to you! 

Today’s song:

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