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Monitor Board of Contributors: An antidote to holiday stress

  • Brian Hotz, left, director of Land Protection at the Forest Society and Dave Anderson, right, Director of Education at the Forest Society, explores a 447 acre land in Warner, NH on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008. The Forest Society is working to protect this 447 acres of significant ecological area called the Quabbin to Cardigan Initiative.  (Marcus Yam/Concord Monitor)

    Brian Hotz, left, director of Land Protection at the Forest Society and Dave Anderson, right, Director of Education at the Forest Society, explores a 447 acre land in Warner, NH on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008. The Forest Society is working to protect this 447 acres of significant ecological area called the Quabbin to Cardigan Initiative. (Marcus Yam/Concord Monitor)

  • Brian Hotz, left, director of Land Protection at the Forest Society and Dave Anderson, right, Director of Education at the Forest Society, explores a 447 acre land in Warner, NH on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008. The Forest Society is working to protect this 447 acres of significant ecological area called the Quabbin to Cardigan Initiative.  (Marcus Yam/Concord Monitor)

    Brian Hotz, left, director of Land Protection at the Forest Society and Dave Anderson, right, Director of Education at the Forest Society, explores a 447 acre land in Warner, NH on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008. The Forest Society is working to protect this 447 acres of significant ecological area called the Quabbin to Cardigan Initiative. (Marcus Yam/Concord Monitor)

  • Mel Graykin shot on November 17, 2010. She is a new Board of Contributors columnist.<br/>(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

    Mel Graykin shot on November 17, 2010. She is a new Board of Contributors columnist.
    (John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

  • Mel Graykin shot on November 17, 2010. She is a new Board of Contributors columnist.<br/>(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

    Mel Graykin shot on November 17, 2010. She is a new Board of Contributors columnist.
    (John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

  • Brian Hotz, left, director of Land Protection at the Forest Society and Dave Anderson, right, Director of Education at the Forest Society, explores a 447 acre land in Warner, NH on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008. The Forest Society is working to protect this 447 acres of significant ecological area called the Quabbin to Cardigan Initiative.  (Marcus Yam/Concord Monitor)
  • Brian Hotz, left, director of Land Protection at the Forest Society and Dave Anderson, right, Director of Education at the Forest Society, explores a 447 acre land in Warner, NH on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008. The Forest Society is working to protect this 447 acres of significant ecological area called the Quabbin to Cardigan Initiative.  (Marcus Yam/Concord Monitor)
  • Mel Graykin shot on November 17, 2010. She is a new Board of Contributors columnist.<br/>(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)
  • Mel Graykin shot on November 17, 2010. She is a new Board of Contributors columnist.<br/>(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

I try to take a walk every day. Having dogs gives me added incentive. They need the exercise as much as I do. They know the word, even spelled out, and burst into an ear-splitting display of joyful histrionics as soon as I announce my intentions to the rest of the household. I’ve taken to using “perambulation” instead of “walk” to fool them, but they’re beginning to learn that one, too. I’ll have to think of another synonym. I’m going to have dogs with the best vocabulary in town.

It’s more than just exercise. It’s a chance for some time to think. Or not to think, as the case may be. Poking along the trail, kicking leaves or listening to the birds twittering (the old-fashioned way) and the squirrels scolding, I have a chance to unwind a bit. No emails or messages.

No phone (I do not take a cell with me, unless my husband insists for safety’s sake, and then I keep it turned off). Nobody talking at me, no demands on my attention. I get some of my best ideas on walks, because my mind has the room to rattle ideas around at random.

This time of year it’s tough to get up the gumption to bundle up and go out. It’s cold, and the woods are deep in snow, and the days are so blasted short. I finally get done with work or through my chores and the sun is already past prime, not that it ever got that high up in the first place. But the dogs are waiting for the word (Stroll? Hike? Constitutional?), and I know I need it as much as they do. Maybe even more so.

I don’t know about you, but the holidays wear me out. There are some fun parts to the rigmarole, but let’s face it. We all have busy lives anyway, and all that regular stuff still needs to get done, plus all the holiday duties piled on top. No wonder we get frazzled. By the day after New Year’s I’m ready to hibernate. Bears have the right idea: They just sleep through the whole business.

A big part of it is the forced familial festivities. The annual gathering of the clan can be warm and wonderful, but there are also the perennial battles: those in-laws or siblings who never could get along; clashes of tradition (“We always did a crèche. Why don’t you do a crèche?”); high expectations that get dashed; old arguments that never get settled or grudges devotedly preserved like a family heirloom. Whose house do you go to for Thanksgiving and where do you spend Christmas? Who gets the kids for Christmas Eve and who gets them Christmas day, and who will be offended by your plans?

Can’t go to so-and-so’s party because you-know-who’s ex will be there. Johnny wants a thingummy for Christmas and Jenn has her heart set on a whatsis, and how can you possibly afford it, but if you don’t, their father will get it for them, and that will make you look bad. And Aunt Snark is going to sniff and make cutting remarks about the way you keep house, and Uncle Buster will drink too much and make passes at your son’s fiancee. Those who are in the room will gossip about those who aren’t and you’ll be expected to take sides.

Growing up, I used to wonder why everybody else’s family seemed so normal and happy, and I got stuck with the soap opera. Then I began to realize, every family has its quirks. Some are more screwed up than others, some tragically so. But there’s no such thing as the perfect family; if they claim to be, check the closet. Bound to be a skeleton or two rattling around in there behind the golf clubs.

They say you can choose your friends but not your family. What makes the difference is how you cope. Diplomacy and tact, humor and discretion, compassion and forgiveness, all are valuable tools for making the best of what you’ve been blessed with, or what the tribe has thrust upon you.

That, and taking a lot of nice, long walks.

(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives in Deerfield and practices freelance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)

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