The Longest December

December has a way of breaking your heart while simultaneously giving you hope. Even now, as the new year is well underway, December reverberates in the soul. It should be done, December. But the leftovers of it hang on like the last holiday cookie you can’t bear to throw out. Still there, crumbly in the depths of the cookie tin of your mind.

There is a beautiful dichotomy of pain and joy in every December. Pain in remembering holidays past that didn’t live up to expectations. In tragedies that sting more because they occur in a month that is supposed to be the exact opposite of tragedy. Joy in thinking about the small moments of expectation. Joy in the advent and preparation. In the quiet moments by a fire, staring at a well-lit tree. December is everything, all at once.

This December was no different. It was so much pain, so much joy, so . . . much. It was drinking-from-a-firehose much. Pain, joy, sorrow, fear, excitement. It worked overtime in every possible category.

I’ve grown accustomed to the poorly-timed December tragedy. This past December marks the third such event in my life. Number three on my “shitty Decembers” list. I’m getting pretty good at managing my way through a December sadness while still making holiday magic happen, though I still hope against hope it’s a skill I can set aside. I’ve built my coping skills over time, learning how to bookend celebratory anticipation with the quiet expectation of reality and a healthy sense of foreboding. It’s a survival skill those in the December Tragedy Club know very well and use all year long. It’s an advent of the soul we carry through the year, that feeling of hope intertwined with lowered expectations. We prepare our hearts for joy, yet try to protect them from sorrow.

By now, I can set my watch to mid-December for that feeling of “Oh God, what now?” each year, prepare my heart for the inevitable hit, yet it still takes me by surprise every time. Every. Damn. Time. “They say bad things happen in threes,” I tell myself as I turn the calendar page to a new year. “Maybe this was it. Maybe we’ve had enough. Maybe, maybe, maybe.”

I know better, though. Because that’s life, baby. And the hits will keep on coming, no matter what month it is or what big thing you have circled on the calendar or what image you had in your mind’s eye for that perfect event, perfect holiday, perfect meal. December is life, writ small. It’s a microcosm of the year. We’re forever preparing hearts and girding souls in this endless advent.

And that is the gift we carry with us — the ability of our hearts to multitask their way through this life. To hold joy and sorrow together in our cupped hands and be glad with the abundance of both. To approach each coming year with renewed hope intertwined with steely resolve. Because in spite of the imprint of December tragedy on the heart, it still calls to us to revel in celebration, to recognize the small moments of joy and carry them with us. Even when we hurt. Even when we are separated. Even when we are there in body, but not always in spirit. And we do. We drink the cocktail, we give the gifts, we sing the songs. The moments frozen in time build a barrier around the heart so we can face what’s next. We hang onto those memories to fortify our souls into the new year, sometimes to carry us through the next long December.

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Jen Dorsey

Jen Dorsey

Editor, writer, book pusher, political junkie. Hoosier by birth, Illinoisan by necessity, Californian at heart.