In 1984, after I graduated from college, I headed to Japan for what I expected to be the beginning of many adventures.
I arrived in Tokyo at the end of September and slid into a few of the most difficult months of my life. I intended to teach conversational English but had a hard time finding work. I hadn’t spent much time in cities and the noise and crowding, much worse than anywhere in the U.S., wore me down.
Sometimes, after a few hours out in the streets and the subways, I would come home to the tiny apartment I shared with an extended family of cockroaches, lie down on the tatami mats and tremble.
Japanese do not embrace foreigners and I felt very alone. Also, although they don’t care much about Christmas, everything shuts down for days to celebrate the new year, so I spent much of the Christmas week by myself in my apartment.
Things got better after that, but that year has become a time I can look back on, when things are bleak, to console myself with the thought that at least I’m not in Tokyo.
I never have been a fan of Christmas, at least not as an adult, and I have gotten to be a bit of a Grinch, waiting until the last moment to get a tree and letting my wife, Bella, do almost all of the shopping. A couple of years, she got family photos copied for Christmas cards I was supposed to send out but didn’t.
This year, all the usual elements are in place to make me resent the holiday — pledges not to overspend that have been broken, gifts that will be mailed too late, a list of undone chores that I drag around like a shopping bag filled with rocks.
But my perspective has changed, probably because Bella was diagnosed in February with younger onset Alzheimer’s disease, and my Grinch-like grumpiness is easier to shrug off now.
In previous years, Bella would madden me with her equanimity.
“We’ve always survived,” she would say as I wrung my hands.
Now I finally see what she means. We survive, and while we’re at it, we may as well appreciate this day.
Our younger girls are home from college, their last Christmas break before graduation. Tam has been cooking for us. Their friends show up and hang out and have dinner.
I got the tree earlier this year (it cost more!) and Bella and I decorated it. She made her Christmas kahlua from a friend’s family recipe and the bottles are arranged on the butcher block, waiting to be passed out.
Every expectation and obligation is a way to be useful and recognition of our connectedness. The worst part of that Christmas week in Tokyo was the emptiness: No one to see, no chores to run, no gifts to buy.
At work, people have been bringing cookies in, as they do this time of year. I should resist, but I can’t. Sometimes, I wish they weren’t there, tempting me. But they taste so good.
Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on his blog, I think not, and on Twitter at