Whew!  The holidays are a distant memory – finally.  I belong to that ambivalent group – we love and want to be invited to lots of parties and holiday events, but we don’t want to actually have to leave the house.

Every year is different, but this year my social calendar assured me that I’m popular enough.  I loved getting dressed up and, after I got over that 4:00 “what was I thinking?” hump, I went where I was invited and had a good time.

I gobbled up hors d’oeuvres, drank wine, champagne and wonderful, unidentified liquids swirling merrily in crystal punch bowls. I overdosed on chocolate, anything topped with icing and little handmade balls of something that tasted magical.  I think cumin may have been the secret ingredient.

The homes I visited were uniformly lovely – some large and grand, others small and cozy.  Holiday decorations ranged from tasteful and elegant to hilarious and nutty.  How can you not love a bobble-head Santa?  The well-stirred scents of cold air, wood fires and good perfume were intoxicating.

It was a holiday season designed to make any reasonable person happy and feel right in the world.  So, why didn’t it?

Most of us have figured out that the holidays can make us as sad as they do happy, even when we seem to have gotten it right.  We still have the standard issues:

  • I’m not Christian; this is not my holiday
  • Where’s Christ? Christmas is too commercial and all about getting more stuff.
  • Everyone else seems to be having more fun than I am.
  • I miss the people I love and won’t see this Christmas.
  • Christmas reminds me of the people I’m no longer close to.
  • My children are grown and gone, and I’m no longer the holiday center of gravity in my family.

You may have your own, but my personal favorite is the suspicion that someone out there is having the perfect, unfraught, unstressful, non-neurotic, loving Christmas that has only existed in my imagination – but never in my house.

This year, at a gorgeous, perfect-in-every-way dinner party, in the middle of a conversation about dog grooming, I felt I wanted to cry.  I had that feeling people who seriously practice yoga can have:  Runaway emotions triggering something deep inside you didn’t know was there. It passed quickly and I was fine. I think I know what happened.

I miss the sixties and the seventies when we talked about what was going on in the world.  And we disagreed with each other without spilling blood. My family was one of very few African-American families on Boston’s staid North Shore during some of the most turbulent times in American history.

Boston smashed through the school desegregation wars while my small, black daughters began school in pristine Beverly, Massachusetts.  Louise Day Hicks was my personal Bull Connor. Roe versus Wade, the ERA, the murders of Martin Luther King, the Kennedy brothers and the Kent State students all happened while I was raising children, going to League of Women Voters and PTA meetings and taking college courses.  And going to dinner parties.

At those parties we talked – and often argued - about what was happening in the world.  I was asked questions about my life; about what it felt like to be black in America, to have lived the first quarter of my life before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  And, I was sometimes criticized for my choice to live (hide out?) in the suburbs rather than put my children on those Boston buses.

I met the revered Elma Lewis – educator, founder of Boston’s African American Center for the Arts and a MacArthur Fellowship awardee – at a North Shore fundraiser.  Excited, I introduced myself and told her what an honor it was to meet her.  Without missing a beat, she fixed me with a cool gaze and said, “And what, may I ask, are you doing out here?”

It stung but it was an important question, and I always appreciated that she asked it. That single question inspired me to think seriously about my life choices.

What happened to pointed questions?  Real conversations that make us uncomfortable? Conversations that make us think and challenge us to defend what we believe, or think we believe?

The last dinner party conversation that took my breath away was in Atlanta nearly twenty years ago when a man sitting across the table from me found out I was executive director of an organization dedicated to reducing adolescent pregnancy.  He lit into me about the existence of a law that would allow his daughters to have abortions without his say-so.  Fortunately, the host had invited lots of A-types who made it unnecessary for me to have to defend my work.  He later apologized to me (I think his wife made him do it.) for coming unspooled.  I loved it.

What’s changed?  Or is it different outside New England? Have we become so timid we’re afraid to say what we think and ask difficult questions?  Has it become inappropriate to talk about anything at social gatherings that isn’t light and fun?  I won’t even get into the separation of the genders at too many of these gatherings.

As I was listening to what’s involved in keeping a beloved pet looking its best, I realized that I rarely try to start conversations about politics, religion, race, sex or climate change anymore.

I did give it a try at a Christmas Eve gathering. It started out with a benign – or so I thought – comment about the terrible weather around the country. I should have been content to let it stop at, “Yep, it’s rough out there.”  No, I had to mention a piece I’d read the day before in The New York Times (“Bundle Up, It’s Global Warming” 12/25/10) about the effect of Siberia’s snow cover on the climate and why the “Eastern United States, Northern Europe and East Asia have experienced extraordinarily snowy and cold winters since the turn of this century.” Fixing me with a deadly gaze, he said, “Well, if it was in The New York Times I wouldn’t believe it.”  I gently suggested he check the information out for himself from a source he might believe – then I drifted off to get another chocolate ball.

I’ve decided to remember this holiday season for the fun I had, not for the conversations I wish I’d had.  Times have changed and, I suspect, we’ve changed too.  There certainly is as much to talk about as there was a half-century ago, but perhaps we are weary of it all and do need the down time the end of the year offers.  No more meetings for a while; no dreary thoughts about the economy, nationally or in our own households; and, no whining about our disappointments in ourselves or others.

Maybe the end of the year should just be – Party Time!

Perhaps it’s easier for me to be sanguine since I belong to a spontaneously organized dinner group of five women.  We call ourselves the Gang of Five.  We have no rules, no set meeting dates and no real agenda, but we get together about once a month and have done so for about six years.

We do a potluck dinner and we talk about politics and life. We come from fairly diverse backgrounds professionally, personally and geographically and, while we’d probably all define ourselves as liberals or progressives, we don’t always agree. Over the time we’ve been together we’ve taught each other, supported each other and we’ve sometimes vigorously disagreed with one another. And we’ve hurt each other’s feelings – but we’ve hung together because we’ve each found great value in coming together for no reason but to celebrate the life of the mind, and to talk about the events driving our amazing, exciting and frightening world.

In February when we meet we’ll be absent the holiday glitter, there will be no punch bowl and the dessert will be post-holiday healthy, but the evening will sparkle with ideas, opinions, questions and random thoughts - all flying around the room like fireworks.

Happy 2011.

The Girls

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