Monday, October 11, 2010

Holidays and Loneliness

The poignancy of loneliness is relative; relative to the time of day, the mood of the lonely person, the time of year, the weather. Most of all, the amount of pain caused by loneliness is relative to the social surroundings. The feeling of loneliness one has while sitting alone at home watching TV is, for most people, substantially less depressing and disconcerting than that feeling of loneliness one has while eating alone at a restaurant or holding up a wall at a party. In my own experience, the times I have felt the most overwhelmed with loneliness were when there were when I was surrounded by others who were socializing and enjoying each other’s company, and I was merely a spectator and not a participant. I’ve been to the movie theater on my own a couple of times, and once the lights go out, I get lost in the storyline—besides, all of the other couples and groups present in the theater aren’t a taunting reminder of my solitude until the lights go up at the end of the film. Once I foolishly went on a bus trip to an amusement park by myself, and the other people on the bus were cuddling couples or groups of laughing friends. I was the only person on the bus sitting by myself. The feeling of loneliness that overwhelmed me on that five-hour ride was merely a preview of what I would experience when we arrived at the park.

Today is Thanksgiving in Canada. Thanksgiving in Canada is a bit different from Thanksgiving in the US for a few reasons: 1) In Canada, it’s not the start of Christmas season but more of a fall festival, 2) Canadians only get one day off from work while most people get two days off in the US, 3) Canadian Thanksgiving is on a Monday in mid-October while American Thanksgiving is on a Thursday in late November, and 4) my experience has been that Thanksgiving is the second-biggest holiday in the US, but I’m not sure Canadians regard their Thanksgiving with as much importance. However, the two countries’ holidays have much in common—turkey, large meals, internal inventories of gratitude, and family gatherings.

This is my third Thanksgiving in Canada. Each one I’ve experienced here has been especially memorable, but memorable because of the loneliness that creeps up on me. It starts in mid-September when I overhear people talking about their plans for family get-togethers for Thanksgiving. My first thought is usually about why they are planning so far in advance; after all, Thanksgiving is over two months away. Then I remember with a jolt that it’s in October. As Thanksgiving weekend approaches, I overhear all the conversations around me about family gatherings, preparations for big meals, talk of turkey. Then I remember with a jolt that Sarah and I will not be spending time with any family as we don’t have any within a five-hour drive. That is the point where I start to feel a bit sad and lonely.

Oktoberfest is a very big deal in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge area, and Sarah and I have gone each year that we’ve been in Canada. Oktoberfest always coincides with Canadian Thanksgiving. The first year we were in Canada, I had only been living here less than two months, but somehow we managed to get tickets to the biggest festhallen in Oktoberfest. There were thousands of people there, but Sarah and I floated around the uber-long tables without knowing anyone. The feeling of being lonely in a crowd was ever present. This year’s Oktoberfest was a vastly different experience. We had tickets to go to a hall on the first Friday night, and not only we were lucky enough to go along with some of our favorite Canadian friends, but we saw several of our other friends there throughout the night. But the prospect of a lonely Thanksgiving day still loomed at the end of the long weekend.

This year, we were also fortunate enough to have visitors for at least part of the Thanksgiving weekend. Some of our friends from Michigan were driving to Philadelphia and stopped to stay with us on the way. Still, they were only staying until Monday morning, which meant that Sarah and I would be on our own for Thanksgiving day. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, Thanksgiving is not a romantic holiday—it’s a family holiday, a holiday typically celebrated with more than immediate family. And, one of the problems with family holidays is that when you don’t have any family around, your friends aren’t around either because they are all with their families. So, this morning, as we stood on our front steps and waved goodbye to our friends from Michgan departing for Pennsylvania, we felt a bit lonely as we saw all the other cars arriving at our neighbors’ houses. The air outside smelled like a thousand turkey dinners. I was getting a bit depressed, but didn’t say anything to Sarah about it. For a fleeting moment, it occurred to me that I used to get so easily annoyed with the obligations of family holiday gatherings. Then the moment was gone and I felt a bit lonely again, missing my family.

We went back in the house and Sarah, looking quite forlorn, said “I feel really down. I’m a bit homesick today, but I don’t know why.” I said, “I know.” I gave her a big hug and thought about how thankful I was that at least we were together.

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