The Strange Gifts of the Season

Snowy mountain in Sandia Mountains.

Posted on January 14, 2024 by Jenn Zatopek

After the excitement of Christmas, of writing heartfelt cards and opening sweet presents and watching our favorite holiday movies, I woke up early the morning after and groaned. Christmas was peaceful this year, if a little quiet, and then came the sore throat, a tiny patch of skin inside that no water could quench, and I sighed in dismay at my luck. Bravely, tiredly we packed up sweaters and hiking boots and wool socks and leftovers the morning after Christmas and drove nine hours to Albuquerque, me driving and getting sicker as the cold windy day progressed into an even chiller night in Northern New Mexico.

All day long, I insisted on driving, feeling powerful as I took the wheel and made it all the way to Amarillo before giving up. We listened to playlists I’d created to encourage myself, mourning the loss of a dream I’d had that coincided with the soul awakening of the past fall, (the one in which stars explode in the night sky and you would laugh at the telling.) After witnessing a spectacular sunset a few hours south of Albuquerque, I turned on the Christmas albums of Sufjan Stevens for our family’s annual musical tradition. We both sang together the haunting, ethereal words of a songwriter who is well known for highlighting the light and dark of our existence, a welcome companion for the strange ways that Christmas ushers us all into both grief and gratitude.

I sang the entire drive too, my throat parched, my body aching, my fatigue growing. I thought it was freedom to take hold of joy in the moment, to delight in the way the topography shifted before our eyes, the flat plains and wind turbines of West Texas giving way to distant dry mesas and old volcanoes that are now New Mexican mountains which call out to me still in my dreams. It was freedom, yes, indeed, but maybe it was also protest against the unfairness of life, of working long hours and saving precious time to hike, but instead becoming ill and being cajoled into honoring my body’s need for rest and for sleep. Maybe we sang that night because it was the only reasonable thing to do when faced with our limitations. 

After hiking a few hours each day in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I lost my voice and couldn’t sing at all without rib-cracking coughs and a fatigue that begged for sleep. I came face-to-face with the end of myself, of needing an even deeper rest for my body to heal, the silence during the long days after returning home the only nourishing thing I could touch. Canceling the first week of work, I worried briefly about my counseling clients, but then I gave into deep slumbers of rest, finally surrendered that yes, there’s freedom in doing but there’s also unexpected gifts in giving up, of listening to my beloved body and letting myself be for a while. 

We are so strong and so vulnerable as a species, aren’t we? While I didn’t accomplish anything in the world’s eyes, I chose myself and my healing, surely one of the most subversive and holy acts any one of us can do these days.

Image: Pino Trail, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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