I never used to send Christmas cards.
In fact, it used to be, if there was a letter that failed to be in your mailbox, that letter you never got was the one I meant to send. Maybe. Eventually. That empty lack of email in your inbox? That was all not from me.
I’m not saying I’m the best communicator these days — far, far from it. But something happened in the last four or five years. I manage to mostly return emails. I manage to remember birthdays and holidays. I manage to coordinate familial visits. I (sorta) remember to see some of my in-town friends, in between science fiction conventions. Butt the biggest sign of all is that I send out Christmas cards.
It’s all my kids’ fault.
Now, most people I know have the opposite thing — they used to be better at communicating, etc, until they had kids, and now they don’t have time for holiday cards. But I’ve always had the time — I mean, I don’t send out a flotilla of cards, just a few. It takes — with buying cards, addressing them, and taking them to the post office — about three hours in total. It’s not the time, it’s the priority. At some point in the last few years, it’s become more important to me to stay in touch than it is to read another couple chapters in my book. And I blame the kids.
I blame the kids because it finally dawned on me in an empathy-sort-of way, how long the silences were on my end when I was in college. How little I called my mother, or told any member of my family that I was still alive. The self-absorption was profound. After all, I knew I was fine, so what did it matter?
But now I have kids, and I can see my future. I can see the future of them living across the country and me not knowing a damn thing about their lives. And, I don’t really like that future. And while there’s nothing I can do to prevent my kids from forgetting to call me, and there’s nothing I can do to make up for all the emails and letters unsent and the calls unmade, I can try to do better right now.
I don’t control my future and I can’t change my past, but I can let my friends know I’m thinking of them this week.
I find this thoughtfulness, however imperfect, to be sort of weird. I mean, I’d gotten really used to that vague cringe-y guilty feeling when someone from my family or my past got in touch with me. All I could think of was the vast distance I’d let grow between us. All communication was impossible because it was prefaced by trudging up the Hill of Guilt.
The Hill of Guilt was such a fixture in my life — the product of wanting to be a certain kind of person, yet being unwilling to do the work to become that avatar of virtue. My ex, Moxie, used to have weeks where she would break up with people, throw away all mementos, and clean the house with all the windows open, regardless of the weather. She would then announce that she was going to eat nothing but brown rice and Virtue. This was, of course, a metaphor. What she meant was that she felt out of alignment with her self-image, with her idealized self. And she felt bad, so she tried to jerk herself into alignment. I never tried to do that correction — when I felt myself to be disappointing my own standards, I just tried to avoid the whole area of guilt.
The problem is, that doesn’t work. You can’t avoid everything in your life that makes you feel bad — not forever. And if you keep doing things that make you feel guilty, eventually you are avoiding your whole damn life. Suboptimal, this is.
It’s that Hill of Guilt that gets in the way, distorts reality. And, I rarely feel guilty for things *other* people think I should do differently. I only feel guilty when I am behaving in a way that is contrary to how I think I should behave. I’m not worried about getting caught or in trouble — I simply know that I am A Bad Person. And because I was A Bad Person for not communicating with my family and friends, I had to avoid talking to them so they wouldn’t remember what an awful person I am.
When my kids were born I decided to tell their relatives about them. I mean, I decided to make an effort to send notes and pictures of my kids to their relatives, instead of having said relatives hear about it through the slow familial grapevine. My efforts were, of course, not perfect, but they were better than I’d ever managed before. And, oddly enough, no one rejected my overtures with scathing accusations of “too little, too late! Begone, foul abandoner! Your cute kid pictures are FOUND WANTING.” Or whatever it was I was afraid would happen.
I mean, what did I think would happen if I sent my grandmother a card? Did I think she would send it back? No, not really. Did I think she would expect more of me? Maybe that was it. What actually happened was far more insidious. She started writing me back more often. Which meant I wrote back to her more. Which meant we were . . . .
. . . having a conversation.
The Hill of Guilt is still here, in my life, about different things. But I figured out that taking the long route around to avoid it doesn’t do a damn bit of good. I lost track a long time ago of how many emails I send out in a month that start with, “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner.” But there the email goes. And however frustrated the person is to receive a late email, they are less frustrated than if I’d waited another day or week.
Besides, I want my friends to know that I *do* think about them, even if I sometimes forget to mention it. And I want my kids to see me remembering to send cards and emails and make phone calls. Because I want my future twenty-year-old children to occasionally remember to tell me that they are still alive.