Have Yourself A Merry Little September

When we want to describe a sense of joy, lightness, or unfettered enthusiasm, we often use the word “childlike.” This makes sense–anyone who remembers their childhood or now tends to a child has witnessed innocent joy in the purest form. But sometimes we forget that childhood also contains much sadness and fear. Children are sensitive, emotional creatures not yet conditioned to hide their reactions to the sensory world around them. They cry when they’re hungry, lonely, sick, or injured. They are small and new and the world is big and confusing, so it’s okay for them to feel however they feel in the moment. 

I have a three-year-old nephew who I absolutely adore. He’s funny, curious, loving, and easily thrilled by the most mundane things like lawnmowers and sidewalk chalk. He’s often joyful in the way we imagine children to be most of the time. But he’s also sensitive and readily emotional, reminding me a lot of myself. I once saw him weep when, in the book my sister was reading aloud, a kitten fell down the stairs. “Took a tumble,” he sniffled. Apparently, he cries every time they read this particular book out of empathy for the fictional kitten. 

The last time I was home, he and my dad were playing in his bedroom with the door closed and he was pretending to nap. I came in and he immediately begin to cry. When I asked him what was wrong, he said “I was sleeping and then you came in and it was too bright and too loud.” Yes, baby, I so get it. 

I find my nephew’s emotional sensitivity endearing and moving, especially as I get to experience it alongside his joy and humor. When we describe kids as being constantly carefree and light, we not only erase important aspects of their humanity, we also set an impossible standard for ourselves as we get older. The parts of me I recognize in this beautiful, perfect, innocent child are the same parts I’ve rejected constantly over the years. 

Judy Garland with Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis

I often wonder if there’s a sadness in me, a heaviness, that runs deep and will never go away. Even when things are going well, it ranges from a twinge of melancholy to a more palpable ache. At the end of Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland sings “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light.” Uplifting words, but sung so plaintively that it touches the sadness in me every time. Surrounded by her family and twinkling holiday lights, Garland’s character wants to let her heart be light, but she can’t. It’s deeply relatable. 

 Lightness and playfulness are things I crave. That’s why I love floating in the ocean and why I love how much my boyfriend makes me laugh. I wish to approach life with joy and gratitude, yet ease, play, and delight–they’re harder for me to cultivate than sadness, disappointment, anxiety, and frustration.

I recently went camping with my boyfriend, our dog, and four of his good friends. Camping is one of those activities that people always expect to be fun and is only actually fun about 50% of the time (in my experience). The place we went was beautiful. It was nice being out of the city. I loved watching our dog lose her mind over so many new smells and paths to explore. But getting up there in traffic was a slog. I became impatient waiting for six people to decide what groceries to buy. I felt out of my element and uncomfortable in the woods. While my partner and our friends seemed to know how to rig hammocks, start campfires and set up tents, I worried about bears, getting lost, and serial killers. 

At night around the fire, I started feeling left out for no real reason. One of our friends was monologuing about his work and various conspiracy theories. People were drinking and the group bonding I’d imagined wasn’t taking shape. The combination of being in the woods and being in a group was too much for me to handle. I walked away from the fire and went into our tent without saying goodnight to anyone, not the most socially graceful move.

 I figured I’d lie down for a bit, let myself breathe, and then return to the fire. But all I could process was the sound of hundreds of cicadas, a noise like someone putting a bunch of metal through a blender while also loudly chewing potato chips. By the time my boyfriend came to check on me, I was sobbing. “Nobody likes me. This sound is torturing me, and I want to go home,” I cried.

 He held me, comforted me, but also told me (because I’m 33 and not three) that there was no way we were making four other people and a dog pack up and drive home in the middle of the night. He didn’t shame me for being sad, but he also didn’t let it overwhelm the entire experience. He showed me I could be sad, overwhelmed, and neurodivergent and still be part of the group. He played a white noise app on his phone, brought the dog into the tent to snuggle with me, and went back to his friends. I fell asleep soon after and woke up encircled in his arms. I’d made it through the night. 

That morning, instead of beating myself up for having a meltdown, I decided to acknowledge it. “I hope you guys had a great rest of your evening,” I said lightly. “I was too busy crying about how loud the cicadas were.” 

Our friends laughed, not unkindly, and my own tension lifted. Instead of beating myself up and apologizing, I tried acknowledging my quirky reaction. I hope I did so in an endearing way. It may not sound like progress, but I can recall many times in my life when I would have chosen to shrink away in shame. 

My therapist, hearing this anecdote, asked me “What’s left when you decide to stop hating yourself for being who you are?” The answer, of course, is acceptance. It’s acceptance that I want. For myself. For my nephew. For everyone who feels different or embarrassed for having big feelings, or not being able to appear carefree.

I might always be a person who has sadness and heaviness inside me. It’s why I sometimes feel inexplicably drained even when I haven’t left the couch all day. It’s the weight of feeling everything so intensely, from the sensory differences I experience to my own high expectations.

I may only rarely experience true, unbridled, carefree joy. And that’s okay. The daily happiness I feel is softer, denser, and more contemplative. It’s not a roller coaster ride or Christmas morning. It’s the exhale when I get home after a long day. It’s the slow smile of recognition that raises the corners of my mouth when I see something beautiful or surprising. It’s the drawer my boyfriend keeps with all the little notes and cards I’ve written him over the years. It’s quiet.

My contentment leaves room for me to notice things like the pair of bright orange monarch butterflies floating above me as I write this. It’s the first sip of coffee. It’s a wry text from my dad. It’s my nephew, dancing in his pajamas and a funny hat, beautiful in the entire spectrum of his feelings. Let your heart be light. 

Published by adventuresofaschmidiot

Writer, media scholar, feminist. I was recently diagnosed with adult ADHD and hope to document my "journey of becoming" as I approach 30.

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