Overwhelmed by the rampant materialism and cheap sentimentality of the holiday season, I find it difficult to make it through New Year’s without succumbing to self-medication and retreat. Multiple viewings of the horror classic Black Christmas and the “cha-cha heels” scene from John Waters’ Female Trouble help, but are not enough to quell my disgust when holiday music infiltrates every public venue and commercials, even muted, blare loudly with garish colors about outrageous deals on useless crap.
Yes, I am a Grinch.
To make matters worse, the season’s refrain is a question to which I rarely have an answer: “What do you want?” If I knew, surely I would have found it by now, right? But the question invites a litany from my seven-year-old son: Pokemon Black 2 for the 3DS, the new Wimpy Kid book, fuzzy slippers, a pillow pet, more screen time. He wants to jump in the leaves, to stay up for 10 more minutes, to eat one more piece of candy. He wants and wants and wants. His desires range from inconsequential (of course you can have a pear, of course you can read your book) to the impossible (we can’t go to SeaWorld tomorrow, we can’t paint the entire house neon green, no one can hold his breath all night). But my son wants what he wants with a simple belief in possibility, with a hope that has not been entirely subdued by the disappointments that will inevitably tame his wilder desires, as they have tamed mine.
Ironically, it is my child’s unchecked wanting – the bane of many parents’ existence this time of year – that tempers my negativity and forces me to embrace the season. He has taught me that there is a difference between wanting and expecting, and that while greed is oppressive, desire can be liberating. His experience of the holidays has reminded me of my own childhood and the annual permission we received to want and want and want.
Like most children, I was wowed by the lights and colors of the holidays, mystified by the appearance of so many packages under our 13-foot tree –the only extravagance I recall from the split level I grew up in, a house modest in everything except the high ceiling where the two floors met, allowing us behemoth pines that took hours to decorate with white lights, our mother’s antique glass ornaments, and the odd assortment of homemade baubles that now grace my own tree: Shrinky Dinks, clothespin reindeer, pipe cleaner stars.
The tree itself and the gleaming packages beneath it fulfilled most of my desires before I had unwrapped a single gift. Indeed, the closer I got to exhausting the bounty that waited for me on Christmas morning, the further I moved from what it was I wanted. While back then I may not have fully understood which aspects of Christmas in particular brought me the most joy, as I watch my son engage in this frenzy of wanting, I see in his behavior confirmation that the holiday high has little to do with what is in the packages; it is the wanting itself, the license we give ourselves to lust for things, this total indulgence in desire and dreams, that brings us a kind of frenetic happiness.
Catalogues have always been an integral part of this ritual of desire. For me, it was flipping through the now extinct Sears Wish Book. This massive tome held in it such possibility, little of which concerned the actual objects advertised on its pages. This act of “shopping” was a method through which I was able to engage my imagination in new ways. How I marveled over the flimsy, slick pages, the scent of ink! Each page was sacred, even the ones with the Craftsmen tools and grills and lawnmowers. I wrote lists, chronicles really, of every detail about my future self, usually represented by a jean-clad Cheryl Tiegs. I selected my husband, my children, our clothes, our furniture, even our cutlery, and of course the toys each child would find underneath our tree. I wrote down details about my career, my husband’s career, where we would live and how we would spend our time. I dreamed of my life at “the office,” working as a “businesswoman” – concepts that remain foreign to me, but back then were defined by sharp suits with shoulder pads, a shiny briefcase, and a business card. My “family” was an abstraction, but our possessions had item numbers and dimensions that gave them gravity in my imaginings. My expectations of what would be under the tree Christmas morning did not have a direct relationship to the items I listed or the lives I invented. There was power simply in the act of wanting; just identifying the things I liked was a way of claiming them.
For my son the ritual begins just after Halloween when our mailbox overflows with more concrete possibilities. He studies the pages of each catalogue with the seriousness of a scholar, inspecting each item, marking ones of interest, completing draft after draft of his Wish List, refining his desires. By the fourth or fifth manifestation of this list, he has what is essentially a map of his wants – a chart with categories like “Science,” “Art,” “Building,” and so on. The items are then copied a final time in order of importance. He reviews the list with me, explaining the various addenda and clarifying for me the hierarchy of his desire. But he expresses no surprise or disappointment when I tell him in no uncertain terms that he will only receive a small fraction of the things on his list. On some level, he is already learning that wanting – and the freedom to want – is itself a gift.
There is evidence to support my theory, not only in the form of games and toys from last year’s list that began collecting dust on December 26, but also in the form of recent studies that suggest desire itself has a surprising power to make us happy, regardless of whether or not that desire is fulfilled according to our expectations. Indeed, knowing what one wants seems so simple, but the world presents itself to us as endless aisles of stuff. How can we possibly choose? And really, in the end, how much control do we have over what we get? Sure, we can order things from catalogues, and those things can show up at our doors neatly packaged, in an array of colors with names co-opted from exotic fruit or abstract emotions or forms of weather we may or may not have endured, but what does an object matter in the end? And how often are we truly satisfied with the things we thought we wanted?
I have tried to figure out a way in which all of this desire for stuff can translate – or at least help inform – my understanding of desire for intangibles like love, approval, acceptance, joy – but the research here is less conclusive. Material needs can be studied, but the human heart remains elusive. Still, the power of writing things down, of allowing oneself to imagine possibilities beyond the current reality works outside the realm of the material. How often have I written the version of the story I wish I had lived? How often have I composed answers to questions I am afraid to ask? No satisfaction lasts indefinitely, but the act of imagining what we want is powerful. Of course my son will find gifts beneath the tree on Christmas morning, and of course there would be disappointment were this not the case. Still, I maintain that the mystery of the wrapped package is itself a gift, a promise that breaks as soon as the trappings are ripped away.
Elizabeth Hazen is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2013, The Normal School, Southwest Review, The Threepenny Review, and other journals. She teaches English at Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland.
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