A renegade health journalist breaks from holiday convention to nurture a creative calling — a permission slip to do things differently
For the past five years, I’ve been hard at work writing and illustrating a book about what I call ‘Healthy Deviance’ — the art of being a healthy person in an unhealthy world. I’ve been so busy researching, drawing, and writing about this norm-defying art, in fact, that for a while there, I became something of a hermit. I copped out of countless social obligations and events. I essentially let a few holiday seasons pass me right by. And you know what? That worked out kind of great!
For several years running, I didn’t get a holiday tree or decorate the house. I didn’t go to parties. I didn’t send out cards. I didn’t go gift shopping. I sure as heck did not bake. I did not give a thought to holiday makeup or festive fashion, or to ‘right-now resolution-setting strategies’, or to ‘New Year, New You!’ workouts. I didn’t konmari my house. I just hunkered down and did my thing, and hoped people would understand.
Please know, I wasn’t abstaining from all this holiday merriment out of any inherent Grinch-iness. I just knew that if I wanted to get the book done, I needed to make discerning (and in some cases difficult) choices about which holiday traditions I would embrace, and which I would forego.
Having a hot buttered rum with my mom while listening to chamber music in her kitchen? Yes. Lighting Christmas Eve luminarias and singing carols with extended family around the apple tree where my father’s and grandmother’s ashes are buried? Yes. Cocktail parties, work functions, media appearances, mall runs, and cinnamon-scented beauty treatments? No. Thank you, really, but no.
It’s not that some of those opportunities I declined wouldn’t have been fun. At the time, I just found that being home and finishing my book seemed, well, funner.
Daring to Do the Season Differently
It is both a lovely and terrible thing that the holidays are steeped in so much tradition. Because from traditions, we harvest rich meaning, memories, and a heartwarming sense of continuity. But traditions can also come bundled with all sorts of painful and annoying constraints, including social expectations, financial burdens, and cultural pressures to conform.
Fulfilling other people’s ideals for holiday gift-giving observances, family celebrations, religious ceremonies, sugar-stuffed buffets, and liquor-drenched bashes can compel us to abandon our own priorities — or leave us feeling like we never had a chance to consider what we wanted from our holidays in the first place.
Here’s what I’ve discovered during my own recent holiday-disrupting experience: It takes courage and energy to depart from the status quo, particularly if you feel the need to explain your thoughts and feelings to others, or to have them support your decisions. But there is a kind, honest, loving way to announce that you are doing the holidays a little (or a lot) differently this year, if you choose. And the people who really love and care about you — with the possible exception of your closest relatives — will always want you to act on your highest choices. Right? Um, right.
In Oddness We Trust
Let us keep in mind that the term ‘holiday’ quite literally means ‘holy day’ — a day that is separated from other days by a sacred quality or meaning. You make things sacred by separating them from the ordinary, the typical, the status-quo.
You can do that however you like. Spend time playing and partying with people you love, or retreat into the rare, quiet bliss of your own solitary company. Intentionally immerse yourself in fun and frivolity, or invest yourself in exceptional quiet and contemplation. Behold the magical wonder that is holiday retail, or decide you’re going to have nothing to do with that consumerist insanity.
If you give yourself one gift this year, make it the repeated affirmation of this simple truth: Your holidays, like the rest of your life, are up to you.
Make some part of your holiday weird, different, exceptional by choice, imbue it with the power of your own focused choosing, and in the process, you can make it sacred.
Try this: Complete the sentence, “This year, I’ve decided to celebrate the holidays by …” Say the words aloud, and repeat the sentence until you come up with something that sounds true and right to you. Notice how that feels. Notice what comes up. Sit with that for a little while. Then decide what, if anything, you’ll do next.
Prepare for Resistance
When you decide to do your holidays differently than others, or just differently than you’ve always done them, you can count on somebody putting up some kind of fight. In many cases, that somebody might be you. Or some part of you, anyway.
It might be the part that fears missing out, that hates disappointing anyone, that dreads the guilt, gossip, judgment, nagging, or full-blown retribution you just know will come from refusing to go along with the ‘normal’ holiday program. It might be the part of you that doubts your own decisions, or that doesn’t exactly know what you want and figures it might be easier to just comply with what others already have planned.
Nobody can make you do what you don’t want to do (at least not in the context of holiday observances), but the amount of pressure that you might feel to accommodate others, and the amount of bone-rattling turbulence you might encounter in steering your way out of well-established ruts could be substantial.
Just know that things might get a little weird, and that some people might get a little peevish, as you experiment with new ways forward.
Unexpected responses may follow as you articulate decisions it never occurred to anyone (including you) that you might make.
What?! You’re skipping the cookie party? You’re not participating in the all-company gift exchange? You’re not coming to the evening church service, showing up at the family cabin, or singing in the traditional singalong this year? You’re not doing the customary New Year’s Bloody Mary brunch or silent wheat-grass detox or even that wonderful charity event you’ve done every year since 1986?
Okay. That’s fine. Even if somebody throws a fit, or you stay home feeling anxious and sorry for yourself. It’s fine, really. Give and share what you feel inspired to give and share, in the moment, with a free and open heart. Allow others to have their fun, and take responsibility for creating the fun (or beauty, or meaning, or space, or whatever good you are craving) that is fun for you.
It’s also fine, by the way, if you experiment with abandoning an old tradition and find that it sucks. That’s great! It turns out you LOVE that cookie party, and missing it was a total disaster that ruined your whole holiday season? Terrific. Now you know. That cookie party is going back on your list, dammit. Or you are going to create a new cookie party you like even better.
This is all good fodder for the holiday experiences you choose to have next. And the ones after that.
Try this: Envision a holiday experience you are craving, traditional or not. Write it down in as much detail as you can, describing when and where it will occur, and including all the sensual details you can regarding how you want this experience to be. How will it look, smell, sound, and taste? What will you personally be doing or enjoying as it unfolds? What attitude or feeling will you be radiating? If you have a supportive friend or partner you’d like to share this lush description with, do that. Then consider how you can make this aspect of your holiday happen. Take steps to cordon off some time and resources to honor this desire, even if you can’t make it happen at 100 percent. See how it feels to imagine creating and embodying the experience you choose.
Beware of Monsters and Machines
As the holidays approach, you will encounter two forces with almost unimaginable power: the multi-headed monster of the media, and the always-grinding gears of the retail-industry machine.
Both would very much like you to buy something, everything, anything, all at once, right now, for as much as they can possibly get you to pay. They would like you to hand over your time, your money, your credit, your attention, your appetites, your synaptic responses, and your cell tissue.
Both would like you to believe that they (and they alone) hold the keys to your holidays being wonderful and joyous, to your home being festive, to your body and your life being as good as they can possibly (read: should) be.
In many cases, these monsters and machines really will have something of value to offer. They will dangle a great many shiny objects and ideas that look good, taste good, feel good, that promise to make your life easier, and to make you look like an even greater success than you already are. But in a great many more cases, these beasts will take more than they give. They will extract more than you agreed to exchange. They will leave you feeling at a loss, confused, bereft of the things you most wanted, which was…what, again?
Oh, yes. To feel present, free, and at peace in your life. To feel connected with the people you love. To feel inspired by a sense of purpose. To feel radiant, resilient, and at ease in your own skin.
Yeah, sorry, there is no app for that. There is no program, no product, no listicle, no 10-step ‘New Year, New You!’ plan that can deliver these things, even though some of them may nudge bits and pieces into closer view. Or seem to.
The only way to have these things, really, is to claim them for yourself. And often, the only way to claim them is to shut off the noise, the promises, the come-ons and money-back guarantees that are forever being hurtled at you from screens, speakers, and display ads.
The only way to really possess and enjoy what you most desire (during the holidays and during your life) is to reclaim the awareness that you, and only you, can cultivate within your own body-mind, moment to moment. It’s that all-too-easy-to-lose awareness about what already feels good, about what already makes your eyes light up and your heart go Mmmm.
Basking in Enough
Here’s the Healthy Deviant truth I learned while writing my book, and that I now tell myself almost daily: You don’t need more things, or more knowledge, to be happy.
You need more space to feel the power of your own life force, and to decide for yourself where you will put it.
Try this: Look up from this article for a moment. Look around. Find something of beauty or pleasure or magic in your midst. Maybe it’s the quality of light out the window. Maybe it’s the feeling of your dog’s muzzle against your foot. Maybe it’s the bass line of the music you have on. Maybe it’s the smell of coffee. Maybe it’s the feeling of that big, deep breath you keep meaning to take in, and then let out, but too often don’t. Put your attention on what’s there and available to be enjoyed. Ask yourself: If I put this much attention on all the good I currently have in my life, would I really need to have more, be more, or know more, to be in a pretty sweet place?
There’s no right answer to that question. There’s just noticing the good in your midst. There’s just the value of embracing what is there and always available when you pull yourself free of the monsters and machines long enough to settle into the space of your own attention.
This is where we will find the real prize and gift we are all after in this lifetime. Not in the tinsel and the trappings and new-and-improved wonder products. Not in the warmed-over, amazing two-for-one offers and ‘BEST BODY EVER!’ promises. But in the moments and choices that allow us to show up with our own lights on and our true shine intact.
My book is done now (yes, it is a thing you can buy!), but I’m still not sending out holiday cards this year. So I’ll put my holiday wishes right here instead: This season, may we all take pleasure in the decisions that help us find and reflect the real source of sparkle at the center of our daily lives, where true joy is generated all year long.
Want More Healthy Deviant Wisdom?
Get a free sneak peek at the introduction to Pilar’s book, The Healthy Deviant, at www.healthydeviant.com. While you are there, sign up for Pilar’s FREE 5-Day Healthy Deviant New Year Challenge.
Are You a Healthy Deviant? Take the three-minute “Are You a Healthy Deviant?” quiz and find out where you fall on the Healthy Deviant spectrum.
You may also enjoy reading The Making of a Health Deviant: Choosing a Healthy Life in an Unhealthy World, by Pilar Gerasimo