by Emma G. Keller)
Alice Hoffman offers beautifully written, priceless advice for anyone finding the joys of the season rather too much to bare
The holiday season is endless. Having had to endure plenty of miserable ones over the years, I would argue that it's particularly interminable for anyone whose life isn’t completely great. All that forced gaiety, during the period of “look at my tree/gifts/family/massive spread of food”, is made worse in this time of social media. But it's no secret that Christmas in general often makes the lonely, the traumatised and the depressed feel even more isolated and grim.
Which is where Survival Lessons comes in. Alice Hoffman is a superb writer, as fans of her novels know. But I am new to her. Reading this book, I remembered awful Christmases I suffered through in my 20s and 30s. Times when my father refused to invite me home to meet his appalling new wife; the year my mother died; the Christmas I broke up with my boyfriend. Those ones.
You’ve either had ones like them too or you will. Maybe the last thing you'll feel like doing is reading. Maybe you've clicked on this page en route to Candy Crush. Whatever. The last thing you want to read while you’re wondering whether or not to even get out of bed is some sappy book telling you that Better Times Are On Their Way. Hoffman, thank God, doesn’t do that – although she is pro adopting a puppy. This was the only point in her terrific book at which I wrote “No!” in the margin.
Don’t get a puppy. You never know – you might want to get the hell out of here in January. And then what are you meant to do with it?
Hoffman doesn’t deal with Christmas, per se. Her trauma came when she discovered she had cancer. Which was a shock. She writes:
I was the person who sat by bedsides, accompanied friends to doctor’s appointments … went to meetings with lawyers when divorce was the only option, found therapists for depressed teenagers.
You get the picture. But then she found the tumour and straight away she figured out that: “Good fortune and bad luck are always tied together with invisible, unbreakable thread. It happens to everyone, in one way or another, sooner or later.”
In other words: you are not alone. Or as Hoffman puts it, so much more eloquently: “When it comes to sorrow no one is immune … I forgot that our lives are made up of equal parts sorrow and joy, and it is impossible to have one without the other.”
When I was at my lowest, I didn’t buy books. I’d go into bookshops – into the section where you might find this type of book – and sit on the floor and read them. But you might actually want to buy this book. You’ll want to highlight lines like the following:
• “There is always a before and an after.”
• “It is difficult to measure a personal tragedy. How much bad fortune does it take to destroy a person? How much strength must someone possess in order to survive against the odds?
• “Life is beautiful, just very unfair.”
• “Start by eating chocolate.”
• ”Stay in your pajamas for days.”
• “Write your troubles on a slip of paper and burn it.”
• “Just buy the ticket and stop thinking so much. You’ll pay it off later.”
And my favourite:
The truth is, some of your closest friends may disappear during your most difficult times. These people have their own history and traumas; they may not be able to deal with yours. They may belong to the before … If people aren’t there for you now, when you really need them, they never will be, and it’s time to move on.
Hoffman ends by writing that some things stay with you forever. I can attest to that. Every Christmas, I try to create the warmest, coziest home for my family, to erase the memories of misery and loss that I experienced in my youth. Every year, I create beauty. But every year the memories are still there.
“You are a different person now,” Hoffman concludes. “You know it and I know it. You’re not the same. You’re a survivor. Congratulations.”
Survival Lessons is not a gift. It’s the book you buy for yourself. But while you’re about it, splurge on a book that follows it nicely and will actually make you laugh from time to time. It’s Sister Mother Husband Dog: Etc, by Delia Ephron (Blue Rider Press). The first chapter is entitled "Losing Nora", which explains a lot.
Take it from there. It will help.
If you have any other books you have found helpful during times like this, please share them in the comments section.
Meanwhile, instead of wishing you a happy new year, let me pass on this memory from Delia Ephron:
There was also a song that freaked me out: 'What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?' Ella Fitzgerald sang it (quite inappropriately, in my opinion) on a record of Christmas songs. When the record … got to that song, I would pick up the needle, very carefully so as not to scratch the record, and skip it to the next song.