Sure I know people who are totally looking forward to the holidays with a “devil may care” attitude because I happen to know people who are less than seven years old. Just kidding, even privileged kids are set up for unreasonable expectations that will be met with disappointment. Even if they are lucky enough to have parents who love them, and want them to be happy, it will never be exactly as they want it to be. Maybe they want a gift Mommy and Daddy cannot afford, or maybe, as was in my case, their Jewish mother would not allow her to have a Christmas tree! Ugh, I didn’t get to have one until I was in college where my roommate wrestled my other roommate, accidentally tossing me into the tree, which was when I learned I was horribly allergic to it!
I know. I have listed possibly the most arrogant, privileged, carefree issues one could have during the season of pressured festivities. But do not think for a second my holidays have always been easy. A little over eleven years ago, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, my mom passed on. And although my relationship with my mother was fraught with more than the typical mother-daughter issues, I loved her more than anything. I cared about her feelings enough to keep the secrets she needed me to keep, leaving me feeling isolated, from our extended family. Secrets of the manipulation and abuse that I withstood, due to my mother helping to raise a boy, whose mother was too busy chasing men to care about her son, or the problems he had in his mind that lead him to turn me into the object he needed to dump his pain into for the better part of my childhood. Although the last few years of my mother’s life she did all she could to protect me, by making sure that I never had to interact with these “friends of the family”, I spent my mother’s entire lifetime feeling alone in my misery. So when she died I felt my coming out about my past could no longer hurt her, and would possibly end my suffering. I am sure you can guess that the love and support I expected was not there and instead I received judgment and disbelief. And on top of that, with my mother out of the picture, there was no one there to make sure I could feel safe to share the holidays with my family. Oh, my father tried. The first Hanukah after my mother’s death he brought dinner, from one my favorite vegan restaurants, to our family party for me. (Yes, I am one of those annoying vegans). But when I was greeted at the door by my abuser’s mother, throwing off an insult about my lack of smile, how could I stay and eat it. I went to cry in the bathroom until I could gather the strength to thank my father for dinner, bring it to my car, and eat it alone doing the best I could to not self-abuse.
Oh right, this article is about using humor to get through the holidays, so why the F%$k am I talking about this – especially when things have changed so much for me? This year I cannot wait to see my family on ThanksHanukah. Yes, my family was too Jewish for me to have a Christmas tree but not so Jewish that we do not meld holidays together to suit our fancy. And sometimes the high-holy days start out with shrimp cocktail cause you know, it goes with Jewish deli. What?!?
Maybe it is time for you to understand what it means to be a comic.
Well, first-off people are not born happily into comedy. Sorry if you thought that was the case but it takes a lot of prior sadness, a lot! And enough trauma for us to develop the coping mechanism of turning pain into something that can be laughed at. Some of my favorite comics, Martin Lawrence for example, will get onstage and come clean about some of their darkest hours to the enjoyment of an audience. (If you have not seen the special where he addresses why he was outside practically naked yelling at people I totally recommend it.) In my opinion, the best comedy comes from digging down inside yourself, admitting your faults, and finding ways to make it funny.
In some ways it is not too different than what I do during the day. As a Peer Specialist, it is my pain that enables me to be good at what I do. And I fricken love the peer movement because, like most Comics, Peers are honest. But while the Peers I know are amongst the most gentle, sweetest people, Comics are the exact opposite and it was with Comics that I spent many of the holidays away from my family.
Comics love, love, love! to attack each other. I want you to know something, if you ever find yourself with a group of comics and are surprised how awful we are to each other; understand that it is our sarcasm that indicates our respect and adoration. It is like a coed fraternity with whom being able to withstand these attacks is par for the course. So in other words, if they like you, they will insult you. So it was in part through this hazing that I learned to laugh at what I have and what I am, and although I am grateful for the holiday’s I have spent with my comic friends, and look forward to some of these celebrations all year, (the Fourth of July party I always attend is the Bomb!) something was still missing.
But luckily I have friends with more traditional family lives. And I have been blessed to be invited to many of my friends’ families’ holidays, but although it is no one’s fault, being around husbands, wives, parents, grandparents, and children, made me feel bad about myself. And even if I try my best to keep quiet about my lifestyle, no one is happy about having a vegan at their table for Thanksgiving. My plate consisting of red wine and uh, in some cases that’s it, makes everyone, including me uncomfortable. After being vegan for eleven years I cannot digest your string bean casserole filled with dairy even if I wanted to. And for some of my friends’ families, roasting a whole pig and making it the centerpiece is customary. I have never had to fake nausea to get out of eating at tables such as these as I love pigs the way most New Yorker’s love dogs and I truly cannot stomach watching the people I love eat Ms. Piggy. Although someone was always kind enough to offer me the apple.
For so many Thanksgivings all I really wanted to do was volunteer but my ideals made serving turkey impossible. Luckily the great hurricane of 2012 changed that for me! In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I worked with a church helping to clean up the Jersey shore, wearing the required Jesus loves New Jersey T-shirt. Not only did I have a nice time, but my growing confidence enabled me to tolerate the fact that I was the only one there without any family. Mine was, from what I was told, wishing I was celebrating with them, but although I was promised none of the childhood perpetrators I wanted to avoid would be present, I was still three years away from letting go of that part of the past to rejoin my family. My confidence and my ability to enjoy what is was growing. After the cleanup, I went to a bar with my friend and her husband only to be hit on by a drunk and disorderly man who, due to the T-shirt I was still wearing, was very impressed with my love of Jesus, Oh Jesus!
Then there was my first holiday with the man I would eventually become engaged to. To my surprise, he is Jewish, not Jewish like my family, really Jewish. While my father spends his Friday nights at the movies with his girlfriend, or as he refers to her, friends-no-benefits, (a description of which I am no longer convinced is true) my fiancé’s mother is lighting the candles and saying prayers. In order to help them like me, I was asked to cover my tattoos, including the one my mother bought me for my eighteenth birthday, and pretend to actually have a clue about what it meant to be Jewish. I hate – I mean really hate lying, I am the kind of friend who has been known to say “yes, you do look fat in that” but I did it. I talked about Leonard Cohen and my limited experience at Jewish sleep away camp at nauseam. And although I was looking forward to the day when I would be honest with them, while I was there I respected my man’s request, and found the situation very funny. They were no more perfect than my family and while they were as “Jewish as could be” they started dinner after 11pm, and were hanging out with me instead of going to Temple, I mean Shul. I just learned there were only two Jewish Temples in all of history, but just about every Jewish person, including my fiancé’s mother, calls it Temple.
I was just grateful that they wanted me there and made a vegan stew just for me. Why did I have to be so harsh with my relatives? Why did I have the impossible expectation that they could change the past? I wanted to find a new way to relate. My way, a comic’s way.
No family holiday is perfect! Not even the Obamas. I am sure Michele can be a little controlling over how much pie her daughters get to have, I mean, look at those arms!
So neither is my family. When I got engaged a cousin, I hardly know, attacked me over when I was going to have children saying it was the only way to make my father’s life complete. I am an entertainer, in my forties, with borderline personality, and hearing disorder that makes loud noises excruciating. So, assuming I could get pregnant, and on the off chance that spending ten years over-medicated didn’t affect my ability to bear a child heathy enough to survive childbirth, who does she think would care for the child while I was out at night working, my eighty something-year-old dad and his girlfriend no-benefits?!
Sooooo there it is. I did not get upset, I did not internalize it. Instead, I just went to the bathroom to laugh it off and write it down in case I could use it for a joke later. I have learned that we only have so much control over our relationships. The people you interact with are not dealing with you as you see yourself; rather they are interacting with who they have decided you are, which the longer they know you the more likely they are wrong. This leaves us and our families interacting with the ghosts of who we were years ago, instead of who we have worked so hard to become. And this is true on both sides. I am now someone who loves interacting with all kinds of people and someone who sees adversity as a way to grow, or even better, a chance to write a joke so funny that it finally gets me on Conan, yeah I know too late, but I just can’t get with Fallon. The fact is it is unlikely that ThanksHanukah will end with me sitting in my car eating tofurkey crying by myself because I want to enjoy myself. And it has taken me about eleven years to realize that no matter what happens on the outside that choice is mine.
Happy holidays everyone! It is my genuine hope that you all find your own way to enjoy the entire holiday season. And when all else fails, remember the words of the great Victor Frankl who reminds us that “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”, but I hope your holidays are happy enough to find joy, acceptance, and laughter in the moment, without needing to remember a quote written by a man while he was surviving the Holocaust.