Sweet Memories and the Drowning of the Sun

A murder of sorts happens every day. You’ve seen it, but didn’t think to make a police report.

Remember the day at the lake? Or was it the ocean? You thought you watched the sunset.

Nope.

The invisible hands of the water pulled the yellow ball down, inch by inch. The flaming star drowned. The day was done and done for.

The world departs us without even a goodbye note. Well, you might say, the sun will rise tomorrow and you’d be right. Other things, different types of disappearances, are less predictable. A final meal with a parent or friend that seemed routine when it happened. The last conversation with a comforting voice. A live recital by a musician you won’t hear again. In the moment you don’t realize the “next time” is an idea about to be defeated by fate, but some day you’ll say, “Oh, that was the last time, wasn’t it …”

No, it’s not so serious. The old buddy might still be out there. The pianist is yet performing, but no longer at his artistic peak. Best not to go to his next concert, you say. Better to remember him at the height of his perfection. Some folks — athletes and actors, singers and trapeze artists — stay on stage too long. Of course the latter reside above the stage, but you get what I mean.

Last times happen because we cannot hold the globe still any more than we can stop a bull stampede.

Reading The Night Before Christmas to your little ones becomes a swan song, too. I loved my two charming girls cuddled around me on the eve of the once-a-year gift-athon. What they thought or felt I can’t be sure. Perhaps enjoying the ritual, my voice, and the closeness; but impatient to fall asleep, the better to jump over the nighttime to the morning.

As the years passed I’m pretty sure this habit of December 24th came to mean more to me than to my little sweeties, by then less little. I found uttering the words ever more touching. The girls were getting to an age when such things wouldn’t fit: the end of their childhood and a passageway leading to one fewer intersection of our lives.

I can’t tell you when we laid to rest the pre-holiday custom, but whatever the year, it was one of those things about which I am philosophical. Life can’t be freeze-dried, tiny creatures kept small in perpetuity. Put the flight of this ritual under the heading “a small price to pay for their growth and maturity; their flourishing.”

Thursday night, though, came an encore. The unremarkable routine of baby sitting at my youngest’s house offered no foreshadowing. Bedtime approached and with it the three books my grandson’s mom put next to the recliner in his room, his invitation to dreamland.

My boy responds to the drill as well as I do. He sits in my lap after we put on his pajamas and, once the recitation ends, gets tucked in.

How lengthy he’s gotten! He no longer fits snug in my lap. Remind me to buy a larger-sized space between my chin and my knees. Soon this three-year-old — long-limbed for his limited span of years — will be too big for this position.

I was about to pick up the first book when I spotted the title: The Night Before Christmas.

My eyes moistened, but I plunged in. He’d heard it before, but not from me. I’m an animated reader, so I gave the job passion: speeding up, slowing down; some parts louder, others softer. A performance.

The tear that started at the start made its way down my right cheek by the finish. I wiped the dew away and turned the mute printed words of the other two children’s stories into sound. Afterward my parents’ great grandchild scrambled into his bed, I kissed him, and we exchanged the words “I love you.” Once the lights were dimmed I left the room.

There have been moments in my life in imitation of eternity. Maybe they are eternity if you fully inhabit them, lose yourself, forget the hourglass and the daily sunset. Reciting this verse to my progeny makes me immortal for the few minutes it takes.

The man I am is well-past thinking money is the solution to anyone’s troubled soul, outside of purchasing necessities. I am incapable of religious faith, never my strong suit. I am done asking the question “What is the meaning of life?”

As a young man I wondered and wondered.

Choose your own meaning or no meaning, but for me I’ve never come up with a more pleasing one than revisiting The Night Before Christmas with my children; and now the first male in my parents’ genetic line since my brother Jack. So long as I can do that, the sun will hover in the sky, the flaming thing keeping all my loves warm, safely beyond the water’s reach.

The idea of a river drowning the sun was borrowed from Matsuo Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1694. The top photo is a Sunset from Zebulun Beach, Herzliya, Israel. The photographer is RonAlmog. The last picture is the work of Maureen Boyle: Freya’s Golden Tears in the Style of Gustav Klimt. Both the sunset and the Boyle were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

28 thoughts on “Sweet Memories and the Drowning of the Sun

  1. So beautifully written! I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas, happy holidays, and a fulfilling new year!

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    • Thank you and best for the holidays to you as well, Multinomial!

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      • Thank you, Dr. S! I have been reading some of the other comments to this post, and I can relate to the sense of not having the wonderful experiences that you provided for your children. However, my parents did try to buy us gifts with what little money they had, and they would hide gifts and bring them out in the middle of the night. They were wrapped and tagged “From Santa.” I discovered this when I was 7 years old, but I still believed in Santa as a cultural thing throughout the years. I have always been grateful to my parents for at least keeping that tradition, and for the love they could offer in the midst of their own struggles in poverty and otherwise. My mother continues to buy me Christmas gifts, but now I can afford to buy her gifts back. I do not make excuses for any of my parents’ abuses to me or my sister, but I do understand their struggles a little more, and I cherished the good times we also had at times. I suppose that I had focused more on the good than the bad, which would explain my resiliency and dissociation. When I studied children’s strengths and trauma as they related to behavioral risks, savoring

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      • Oops. My phone cut me off. Anyway, when I studied the moderating effects of strengths on behavioral risks, given childhood trauma, only coping and optimism were significant when the levels of trauma were low. The other strengths included savoring, spiritual beliefs, etc. Resiliency and vocation were not accounted for, however. When combined with extended family support as a strength, significance in decreasing behavioral risks were only found when internal strengths were high and trauma was low or moderate. But behavioral risks did not include dissociation or internalizing trauma symptoms as outcomes or covariates. If I were to still study positive psychology, I would venture to guess that savoring and dissociation are linked in some way, that social support from other healthier family members help to buffer childhood abuse and neglect, but that nothing can make up for the lack of parents’ love that such children deserved. You set a good example, Dr. S, on what that love should have looked like, or at least one version of it. I feel blessed to have had some experience with parental love, and some experience with internal and external strengths. And it is a blessing to read stories like this because it helps me to know that love is still out there for kids and families.

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      • Yes, love is still out there despite all we read of actions contrary to love and decency. I, too, think dissociation is a little appreciated concept. As I read the responses to my own writing, it is clear how many find shelter in the experience. Some use it exclusively as avoidance, but a part of the talent of living “in the moment” is dissociative as I understand it. One day soon I might write more about this. Thanks, Multinomial.

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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog, very touching and full of what matters, love! Well done bro!

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  3. I would draw a big heart for you, if I could….
    I can still just about tuck my seven year old onto my lap (he is very bendy and folds up nice and tight 🙂 ). But I know it won’t last much longer.
    What a beautiful experience you describe, and wonderful to imagine it by your words….
    I have no memories of being read to by my parents – they taught me to read young, so perhaps they didn’t think they needed to read to me. Your girls and little grandson are lucky, and have precious memories to fall back on xx

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    • Thanks for the advice about folding children. This is going to make the next reading more interesting! Yes, my progeny will have memories and a few blogs posts. The invisible heart is lovely!

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  4. Beautiful and so touching. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. No, there’s nothing in my eye. 🙂

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  6. A touching post, Dr. Stein. Though our Christmas traditions differ, my happiest childhood memories were at Christmastime.

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  7. “Forever – is composed of Nows -” Emily Dickinson
    All your special “Nows” with your grandson will be remembered forever. No better eternity!

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  8. Your family is lucky to have such a devoted and loving father and grandfather. We are also very lucky to have you as our devoted friend, supporter, and life mentor. What is the meaning of life? Loving others….you have found the meaning, Dr. Stein.

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  9. Oh, Dr. Stein! I could hear your “performance” in my head as you began to describe it. Softer, louder, faster, slower! You are a masterful artist when it comes to telling a story. I became misty at the same time you did. I feel as though reading this beautiful
    piece actually sweetened my soul.
    Thank you so much for sharing these intimate moments of your life!

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  10. This made my heart melt and spoke to me so deeply. Incredibly touching, and beautifully written.

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  11. This was very lovely — thank you, Dr. Stein.
    As I get older, I have more thoughts about transience and about the beauty of precious moments like the one you describe.

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  12. You are welcome, Mary Ann. Many feel as we do. Thanks for your comment.

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  13. I hope your daughter saves this and gives it to your grandson when he’s a little older and better able to appreciate the nostalgia, sentiments and feelings expressed in your essay. It’s truly a gift to them both! Would that most of us could ever feel this genuine a love.

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  14. This entire blog site was started with my children in mind, long before any new lives came along. So, you may be sure they will have it. Thanks, Brewdun.

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  15. “I, too, think dissociation is a little appreciated concept. As I read the responses to my own writing, it is clear how many find shelter in the experience. Some use it exclusively as avoidance, but a part of the talent of living ‘in the moment’ is dissociative as I understand it. One day soon I might write more about this.”

    –> Thank you, Dr. S! I look forward to reading (in the future) what you think about dissociation.

    Here’s a longer response (when you have a few minutes)…. In particular, what I’m looking for are the strengths and the variations (i.e., heterogeneity) of dissociation, such that dissociation is both a proactive and reactive coping mechanism, which can be both adaptive and maladaptive, depending on the circumstance. I’m not sure exactly how “living in the moment” is dissociative, but if that entails being mindful, then I totally get why I struggle sometimes with mindfulness meditation; I tend to dissociate a lot whenever I do those exercises. For me, personally, I have had both maladaptive and adaptive experiences with dissociation – especially around the holidays or when upwardly comparing myself to others. FOMO – or the “fear of missing out” – is a trend that nearly everyone experiences, but how people deal with that phenomenon differs. Some people will react impulsively and do everything in their power to not miss out on some perceived important event or relationship, whereas others will react in a very depressive way.

    Then there are people like me who feel depressed, acknowledge some painful truths, and “dissociate” to move on and “savor” the good time I remember in my own past while trying to do something new and fun for myself in the present. I dissociate to remember the good when reality is too painful. When that “strength” is enacted, such that I savor the good times and try to be forward-thinking to make the most out of my current situation for a better future, I feel better and am productive. However, even “good dissociation” comes at a cost of not processing the reality of the pain, stuffing or hiding or restricting emotions and thoughts, and then later going into a depression when additional stressors that trigger that initial loss get compounded; it makes it harder to find strengths when compounded trauma triggers come up later on, and it makes socializing that much more difficult.

    But other people I’ve known in the distal past have dissociated in different ways, in accordance with their different diagnosis, such that their dissociation involved a part of themselves they didn’t want to acknowledge or feel, such as anger, resentment, retaliation, and revenge. Initially, I didn’t understand them since I rarely (to my knowledge) dissociate in that way (unless it was an alter or two, whom I’ve since dealt with, who felt the need to “protect,” which I guess is similar to others who dissociate primarily in that way as a “non-multiple” or “dual-limited-multiple/black-or-white-multiple”). For the most part, I dissociate to remember the fun and to enjoy life (as myself, fragmented, and as a multiple with “helper parts”), but I’ve known others (outside of myself) whose type of dissociation are typically aggressive or combative.

    There are so many differences with dissociation that I’ve seen, heard, felt as a recipient, and experienced for myself that I often got confused why dissociation was treated by professionals as “all bad” or primarily maladaptive. When I had the privilege of meeting a behavioral scientist/psychiatrist at Stanford, namely, Dr. David Spiegel, he spoke to promising (and very affluent) high school students about Freud, dissociation, mindfulness, hypnosis, and his current studies on cancer patients right before he met with me. He explained the benefits of dissociation in terms of reducing pain in cancer patients, which paralleled my independent (me) studies on how the military and special forces use dissociation training to help their force deal with pain, torture, capture as a POW, and major stressors. Such definitions of dissociation, which they assume to be differentiated from “maladaptive dissociation” or what they think are typical of dissociative-based disorders, appear to be more proactive coping and therefore adaptive. Well, in my own experiences with military training (while brief), being a daughter of a WWII veteran, and being a victim of childhood abuse and neglect, I’ve come to realize that dissociation was both adaptive and maladaptive throughout my entire life – from childhood to now. I use dissociation to deal with the dentist, for instance, but I’m still present and “me.” I no longer lose time, but I’ve learned to manage dissociation to deal with major losses, including relationship losses, career losses, health-based losses, financial losses, painful memories, pain, fear, and stress. I use dissociation to stay positive and balanced with my memories of the past, the things in the present, and my goals for the future. I manage the maladaptive parts of dissociation by acknowledging my feelings, fears, memories, parts of self, shortcomings, and others’ critiques or even abuses. I know how to take care of me, because I’ve always taken care of me (in a sense), but I’ve learned how to lean on others for support and help as well (instead of trying to be a lone ranger all the time). What I have a really challenging time with, when it comes to holidays or present-day and life-based rejections (such as career losses), is not dissociating into the “everything is going to be okay” outlook on life. I should know by now that there are reasons why we defend ourselves when we sense danger or a sabotage, that there is a need to be vigilant about red flags, and that there are times when sorrow and mourning are warranted (and when such feelings should be expressed to safe others for added comfort and support, as opposed to dissociating and doing self-care only).

    With regards to the holidays for trauma survivors (even those veterans who have had an otherwise healthy upbringing, but also those persons who have experienced childhood abuse), there are tremendous amounts of losses, pain, memories, and comparisons that come to mind during Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Years, Easter, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, and/or other religious holidays and special events (e.g., Quincenera – Sweet 15 or American’s Sweet 16). Dissociation helps to avoid the pain of those losses (in maladaptive and adaptive ways), but it can also bring strength to those who have had both good and bad experiences during those times (as opposed to those who have primarily experienced only bad experiences during those times).

    Still, I may be wrong in my assumptions, as I’m biased with my own life’s history and mental processes.
    I’m left with the following questions. How should one process the losses, and how can one “let go” of those losses? How can we come to a place of not mourning forever, but also having a safe space to finally grieve in the way we need to in order to let go? How can we acknowledge the differences between losses without minimizing our pain when comparing ourselves with those who have had it worse than us? Conversely, how can we acknowledge the differences between inflating our losses when we have compared ourselves to others’ good or more affluent experiences of holidays and special events? How can we deal with the memories that come in spite of every coping skill we have used in an adaptive and positive way? How can we know when to stop upwardly comparing our circumstances to movies, stories, “ideal” traditional experiences, etc., such that we do not minimize the pain we went through, but also that we do not maximize the meaning of our pain to something that would not have existed had the comparison stimuli not been there in the first place?

    For this last question, what I mean is best explained by an example of how I feel and what I’ve experienced. If I knew that I had some good experiences during Christmas, but I also knew that my parents were very cold (not warm) at times, somewhat abusive, and somewhat neglectful at other times, I can savor those good experiences to understand that they tried to connect with us kids in their own way, but I can acknowledge the pain I felt when I was abused, neglected, or treated coldly. Without comparing myself to the ideal family systems during Christmas, I know that I can feel a range of emotions and sense a range of thoughts that ran through my mind when I recall from memory different events at different ages. However, when I compare myself to my more affluent friends’ loving families, I begin to feel even worse, more dysfunctional, more “crazy.” I realize then, if I introspect long enough, that such comparisons do me no good – and they don’t do my friends any good either if I covet what they have, get jealous, or neglect them when they’re really looking to share their happy memories with me as their friend. I also don’t want people to feel burdened by my feelings or what I’m struggling with when I juxtapose their happiness and joy to my bittersweet memories and somewhat modest enjoyment of Christmas. But I also want to bond, connect, share, and feel a sense of having a voice that can both celebrate with others while also being true to who I am without committing social taboo (if that is even possible). How, then, can traumatized (or what some professionals have deemed as “damaged”) persons overcome these psychosocial obstacles, even if they’re still in the process of dealing with their individual psychological obstacles? Dissociation seems to be one adaptive answer – especially in terms of “the here and now” mindfulness or catering to others’ needs/the status quo. Dissociation, then (to me), becomes managed and proactive at focusing on the good, savoring any good moment I can, and avoiding the seeping of past pains (even at the expense of not being “authentic” – unless there is a way of being authentic while also hiding my own pain).

    Put differently, my struggles with interpretations are like the following. It’s like everyone is running a race, but you are on crutches (you don’t rate enough for a wheel chair), so even those in wheelchairs coupled with those without disabilities are all passing you by, and you’re missing their smile and closeness when you’re struggling to run that race with them. They don’t see your crutches that you’ve used to help you run the race, and they don’t acknowledge those who have decided to not even participate in the race at all; in other words, they don’t acknowledge your strengths that you are still with them in that race with any means (i.e., your crutches/coping skills) necessary to participate in society in some way while also not avoiding the race altogether (like some people who are bed-ridden and have no other choice, or some who are neurologically dealing with depressive stages of bipolar, or some who are majorly depressed and cannot find any crutch that enables them to attend a race). Dissociation becomes an invisible crutch that allows for one to socialize, run the race, belong, feel part of – even if everyone else is passing you by. If only there were wheelchairs, apparatuses, and energy boosters for the rest of us, including us dissociators with crutches, depressives with neurological/chemical problems, and paraplegics with mobility issues. Psychology and psychotherapy offer one tool, but there are many others. I think we are still in the phase of trying to discover what those “many others” are, apart from pharmacology. You don’t want others to slow down their pace (and their own self-actualization and authenticity) to meet you where you’re at, but you also want to be “up to speed” with them (sort of like scaffolding in some way) so as to still engage and belong. That’s what being disabled and “different” and a minority feels like to me. It’s hard for me to draw the line between what is adaptive and what is maladaptive with regards to dissociation.

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