The kid in the first row, sitting up straight with hands folded, eyes on the teacher — that was me (long ago when students did such things). I know how to meet expectations. I can sense people’s expectations a mile away, and I have this morbid fear of disappointing anyone, of dropping the ball.
This served me well in school and earned me accolades at work. I’ve gotten a lot of pats on the back and smiles of approval, the kind people give you when you do what they want.
But living up to expectations is a grueling lifestyle. Not dropping the ball is a skill of epic proportion when everyone you know throws you balls.
Eventually you start dropping balls. At least that’s what you’d think.
Strangely it doesn’t usually work that way. The human spirit, the will to survive — I’m not sure which — is so strong, you just keep rising to the occasion. You run faster, reach farther, lose sleep, lose parts of yourself, but you do what it takes to keep those balls in the air.
Nothing short of an epiphany interrupts the process. For me it’s been a slow, glacial movement, a series of conscious decisions to stop fielding every ball thrown in my general direction.
I watch the ball whizz past and brace myself against the fallout, the dreaded disappointment. Nine times out of ten it’s not the disaster I expected. Mostly the mess is in my head. Every time I’m surprised that I’ve survived. They’ve survived.
People really do survive when you don’t send Christmas cards. Like every first baby step, when I stopped sending Christmas cards it was monumental. For years I had done my duty, kept a list, and always sent a card to anyone who sent me one.
The importance of this task was magnified after I got married. Pete’s family is very good at remembering people with cards, and it seemed like a good wife thing to do. I did want to be the very best wife.
I wrote a meaningful note in every Christmas card I sent. I actually liked writing to people, especially those who lived far away. But the bulk of my cards were from people I saw regularly. I didn’t see the point, really. But that didn’t stop me from doing my duty.
One year I mentioned this to my sister. In typical Jacqueline fashion, she looked at me incredulously and her voice ratcheted up a few notches, “So why do you send them, then?” She and I see the world through a different lens.
“Well, how can I not?” I said.
She looked at me as she often does — like I have two heads. And in this case maybe I did — my own and the one that belonged to everyone else, the one I usually allowed to run my life. Even I had to admit, it sounded a bit lame.
She didn’t dare me exactly, but I didn’t buy Christmas cards that year. Or the year after. I quit cold turkey, the way people do when they have a debilitating addiction. I couldn’t do it halfway.
It was years before I finally stopped feeling delinquent. I still feel like the perfect person would send Christmas cards, but I’ve long since accepted the fact that perfection isn’t happening this side of heaven. I still feel like I need to explain when someone gives me a Christmas card. But that happens less and less — the cards, not the explanation.
A few people still send us Christmas cards. My in-laws are always right on time. Clearly these are the people who really want to send us one. As for the rest, I’m happy to have freed them from their obligation.