preparedness vs control

During the transition from fall into winter (or here in Fresno, bloody sweltering to fog), the question everyone seems to ask each other: “So, are you ready for the holidays?”

It’s a go-to question, a standard, and relevant to our societal current affairs. The cynic in me is convinced it’s simply a filler question, something to ask while feigning interest in what someone else is doing in life while you quietly obsess over your own life’s events. It’s the equivalent to discussing the weather.

Perhaps I’m just lucky. I don’t really do anything for the holidays. I don’t typically cook because my family always has that covered and always turn me down when I offer this dish or that (although I like cooking, so I usually arrange a social evening with my friends so I can get the bug out). When it comes to meal time, my family is local, not overly large, and pretty close-knit. We gather, eat, clean-up, and go home. Holiday meals typically run about two hours. Two. Hours. Hugs and kisses and see you in a couple weeks. Low maintenance. I love it.

But then we’re all local and close-knit, so we see each other pretty regularly. No less than once a month for whatever birthday, holiday, or just because there’s no birthday or holiday in a month and we want to see each other. Easy peasy.

Christmas time is a bit more stressful, but only because I’m rarely in a place where I can buy my family members anything useful to them. We don’t really do sentimental. Most years I hand-make all the presents and only buy presents for the younger children (of which there is only ever one) so I’m not blowing my budget. This year I haven’t made anything and expressed to my family that I didn’t want anything, except to hang out and have a nice day with everyone. I might make a bunch of Christmas ornaments for everyone. Make that an annual tradition from me.

But I don’t live in a vacuum. My predictably relaxed holiday season doesn’t seem to be the norm for most people. Around me, many are whirling around with checklists and shopping lists and a swiftly dwindling checking accounts, doing their damnedest to exert some semblance of control over their perceived chaos.

I’ve been thinking a lot about control–the illusion of control, to be precise–over the last few weeks. It’s been a recurring theme for me in life, attached to expectations and hopes. I feel as though I’ve relinquished my need for “control” in many areas of my life and I’m able to enjoy existence a whole hell of a lot more than I used to allow myself. Still, sometimes I’m overwhelmed with fear of failure, rejection, not finishing, and so on until either my body sweats and my heart races or I fall into actual obsessive compulsive behavior (the latter very rare these days). Once a full panic attack has set in, it usually takes a lot of sleep and distraction therapy to release it. Yes, it can actually take me two to three days to get over a panic attack. It’s ridiculous.

I imagine people who have a much more involved holiday season feel that as well: that fear of failure, not being good enough. If everything isn’t just so, it’ll be the worst holiday ever in their minds and the minds of their family members.

Growing up, my father would always remind me to be prepared, usually when I forgot something or didn’t anticipate the need for something he expected a child to be responsible for. My mother would tell me to expect the unexpected. Preparing for and expecting everything meant I carried a big purse, became a pack rat, and had to know the reason and why behind pretty much everything (friends, you may thank my parents for my often unending random trivia facts and my insatiable need to fact-check everything you state as fact). When I failed to be prepared for <insert anything here>, I was berated and punished. When others interfered with my attempts to be prepared for everything, I would become defensive, angry, and fearful of failing. I would resort to temper tantrums to get my way or pick up my toys and go hibernate by myself for however long I felt I needed to be away from people. In other words, I was completely dysfunctional.

Some years ago, I was having a casual conversation with a friend about traveling to Disneyland. I only remember that we were talking about packing, and I was amazed she barely packed a thing. Her response was that if she needed something, she could just buy it when she got there. No big deal. Resource availability aside, her comments kind of blew my mind. You forget to pack a toothbrush? Buy one at the corner store. You didn’t pack enough clothes and can’t afford to pack a wardrobe? Find a laundromat. Forgot your phone charger? Buy one, find a mobile charging station, or practice unplugging and reading a real paper map (it’ll be novel). Failing to be prepared was not the end of the world. In fact, being unprepared was almost always fixable. If it wasn’t fixable, you adapted (because no one is driving four or five hours away from Disneyland for a phone charger).

When I traveled to the UK two years ago today, I lived out of a carry-on bag for two weeks. I packed three, maybe four days worth of clothes, focusing on items that were interchangeable or rewearable without washing (and I splurged on packing lots of extra underwear and socks with the left over space). I packed no toiletries, except a toothbrush and toothpaste, a travel soap, and a can of Febreez. I wore the same pair of shoes the whole trip. My only electronics were my phone and a DSLR camera. Oh, and maybe my Kindle for the plane, I can’t remember now. Nope, I packed knitting, not a Kindle. We never stayed in the same place more than a night or two. Packing light meant getting around was a lot easier. Anything else we needed, we purchased, shared, and discarded before we boarded the plane home.

A couple months later, I traveled an average of six days a week for nine months due to a work project. I packed light because we rarely stayed in the same place more than a night or two. Mobility was essential. Being prepared was a requirement, but expectations had to be constantly abandoned.

When I went to the Pacific North West earlier this month, we knew what days we were traveling but never where we would be (except the short duration of time when I was booked for a conference). Our schedule was flexible and open. We had some ideas of things we wanted to do and places to go, but that was it. We would wake up and ask, “Where are we sleeping tonight?” and go from there. We never intended to hit every capitol on the West Coast, but it happened!

Learning to be prepared, to expect the unexpected, made me a more flexible human being once I learned to let go of my need to control. Being prepared means when the unexpected happens I can roll with the punches, adapt, and move on…without a meltdown. In fact, when the unexpected happens, it usually turns into a fun story in the process. Everyone knows how much I love a good adventure!

So as we come into the full swing of the holidays, I’m fortunate that there isn’t really much I have to prepare for, but if I did I know my head would remain relatively attached to my body. I wish I could impart this on some friends I see are struggling and anxious in the days leading up to celebrations. I know once the day in here, they’ll relax, enjoy the moment, and have a happy holiday.

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