Mental Health Monday: A Winter Dialogue

“Pops” and I are in Denver, staying at our son, Jason’s house, for Christmas. We’ve reflected a bit on Christmas past, with Jason and with our daughter, Beth. They both  live in Denver with their spouses and children. While we hope our (grown) children will only remember the joyous aspects of family holidays, I know that the stress often pushes every family’s dysfunctional trigger points. I chatted with our oldest son, Jon, about this a few days ago. He’s in Memphis (in our house) for the holidays, so we’re visiting with him before and after Christmas this year. These “winter dialogues” have served to remind me that I couldn’t figure out how to make Christmas “perfect,” so I gave up and settled for reality, with all its messiness but also the richness of our broken humanity reaching out and trying to love.

About ten years ago, I spent six months participating in a Twelve-Steps group. As Christmas approached that year, the intensity at those meetings grew. Members shared war stories from the past, as well as their plans for “surviving” the holidays. Most of the folks in the group had family members who were alcoholics or drug addicts, but I think some of their stories would apply to “sober” families as well. After all, people are people. We are all messy. But also wondrously made.

My favorite “survival tip” was shared by a woman who was an artist. She painted a sign and hung it by her front door before her relatives began arriving for the holidays. It said, “Check your baggage at the door or don’t come in.” If only it were that simple. If only we could all check our emotional baggage outside our homes and the homes of our loved ones. But we are broken creatures, and so we muddle through the best we can.

I subscribe to, from which I receive a poem in my email box every day. Most days I take time to read this poem, as faithfully (and sometimes moreso) than saying my Morning Prayers. As the poet and memoirist, Mary Karr, says, in her wonderful essay, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” which is included in her book of poetry, Sinners Welcome:

“In this state–what Dickinson called ‘sumptuous destitution’–prayer was a slow spin on a hot spit, but poetry could still draw me out of myself, easing my loneliness as it had since earliest childhood. Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar…. the first source of awe for me, partly because of how it could ease my sense of isolation: it was a line thrown from a seemingly glorious Other to my drear-minded self.”

That line was thrown this morning to me from the poet, Joseph Robert Mills, and his poem, “A Winter Dialogue.” If you’re having winter dialogues with your extended family this Christmas, I hope his words will bless you, as they have blessed me today. As I write this, I’m sitting at my son’s breakfast table, watching the sun peak through the clouds. Jason has gone to the Honey Baked Ham store to beat the crowds. Everyone else is asleep, although I hear my granddaughters stirring upstairs. We are all eagerly awaiting Christmas Day, with whatever it brings. I imagine we will all have what Mills calls “a protective touch, and a willingness to be touched.” I hope his words will bless you as they blessed me.


A Winter Dialogue

By Joseph Robert Mills


We decide to take a break from the eating, drinking,

and arguing — our traditional holiday pastimes —

to walk around the ice-encased neighborhood.

In the hallway, we sort through the piles of coats,

hats, and gloves, pulling out what we think we need,

and when I get to the door my father calls me back

to drape a scarf around my neck. In my forties,

I don’t like scarves anymore than when I was six,

but, now, having kids, I recognize what his fingers

are trying to say as they adjust the wool, and, I hope,

he recognizes what I’m trying to say by not moving.

It’s not much, but since neither of us needs anything

the other can buy, we try to exchange what we can,

a protective touch and a willingness to be touched.

Please share!