It's Christmastime in Conway, and a couple of times recently Noel has reminded me what we were doing at this time last year. The forecast showed a snowstorm bearing down on us, and for almost a week ahead of time, I fretted and made contingency plans for our planned drive to Nashville and flight to St. Simons. Eventually we made the decision to open presents on Christmas Eve and drive to Nashville on Christmas Day, mere hours ahead of the storm which ended up dumping nine inches of snow on our empty home.
The contrast with this year couldn't be greater. With no place to go, we are baking cookies, watching movies, crafting with the kids, and paying attention to the weather only with respect to the best time to make a grocery run. Noel's folks are arriving on Christmas Eve. I'll play handbells at the midnight service. And we'll open our presents on Christmas morning, as the baby Jesus intended.
I'm highly aware of my stress level these days. Many of the big decisions I made about my future this year were based on observation of what stresses me out in bad and good ways. Whole-family travel is a high-stress affair for me. I worry and make multiple levels of plans and try to keep everything as under control as possible. It's not something I should try to avoid in order to make my life more relaxed, of course (although to my shame, I do). But when I am not obligated to trek with everyone to some far-off destination -- especially on a tight schedule at symbolically-charged and heavily-trafficked cultural moments rendezvousing with multiple branches of the family, like at Christmas -- my quality of life shoots through the roof as my level of stress stays comfortably low.
As the years go by, the kids grow up, and the parents get older, each year's holiday planning is haunted by the shrinking number of opportunities it's using up. A chance to see the grandparents. A chance to establish and reinforce traditions. A chance to give. A chance to enjoy. A chance to worship. A chance to reflect. With every chance taken, exchanged, or passed up, a chunk of our family's life slides into memory.
I know everyone experiences these tradeoffs at this time of life. I wish I handled them with more grace, less self-absorption, more generosity, less anxiety. What you don't expect, I think, is that these phases of transition just keep coming at you, at times when you once thought that you'd be settled and finished with all that. And whatever choice you make, there's no way to completely avoid regret.