Christmas (along with my birthday) is one of the most difficult holidays to manage emotionally as someone who is estranged from their family and who struggles to connect in relationships. I’ve been invited at times to friend’s houses for the holidays, but have found being around an intact family stirs up more pain than it soothes. I’ve also tried staying home and telling myself it is just a day like any other day, which tends to lead to binge-eating and/or wasting money on online shopping. This is the first year that I chose to engage in an activity on my own.
I visited a local zoo and was greeted more times than I can count with a “Merry Christmas!” Each time I heard it, I felt a little less like I was missing out on something and a little more like I was present experiencing something. None of the other zoo-goers were particularly festive, although I did see one child gifting another a pale-stripped candy cane. The zoo itself was decorated in holiday themes galore and the cafeteria offered a special holiday menu.
I’d only ever been to low-budget “zoos” growing up, the kind where some crank gathered together animals in questionable housing and in which their distress was palpable. I have mixed feelings about even the highest-quality places as keeping animals locked up feels against their nature. As I visited the zoo near where I live now (which is much better than the ones I had growing up), I felt an internal clash of recognition that the animals were safer than they’d be in the wild and that they were serving as “ambassadors” for their habitats, but also that they weren’t free to live life on their own terms.
The animal that pulled at my heartstrings the most was the polar bear. I got to the zoo right as it opened and walked fast enough that I was able to see the bear alone. I was very upset when I first saw it as it was pacing back and forth in a small area and looked agitated. It was scratching its sides against the enclosure in a frantic rather than soothing way. As I stood watching it and willing it to calm, it looked at me more and more directly with each pass. Finally, it jumped off the small ledge on which it was standing and swam right up to where I was standing! I felt immensely connected to it and an overwhelming feeling of sadness to which I could not put words overtook me. I’m sure my emotional reaction had little to do with what the bear itself was feeling, but, in that moment, I believed that something more than two beings staring at each other was happening. I could barely bring myself to leave the exhibit.
The animal that delighted me the most was a small deer-like creature (I did not pay much attention to the information on the signs). When I first approached the enclosure, I only saw one deer and it ran away from me. I looked to my right and there was this little one only a few feet from me, gazing at me with amused eyes. It kept regurgitating and chewing cud (or something like that) which was not the most pleasant eating practice to watch, but I felt joy and a sense of adventure in its perkiness.
The zoo is very large and I’ve purchased a year’s membership, so I left several exhibits unexplored, waiting to be visited next year. On the whole, it felt so good to do something aside from spending money on useless trinkets or stuffing my face with junk food on a day on which my sense of alone-ness in the world tends to peak. Holidays are not necessarily a choice, for those of us with difficult family issues, between spending time with people who have harmed us, crashing parties that heighten our distress or curling up alone crying. We can make whatever we want out of it. Merry Christmas (and Happy Holidays!).