Armen Bacon

Goodbye, Norman Rockwell

“Freedom from Want” by Norman Rockwell
“Freedom from Want” by Norman Rockwell

A few weeks ago a friend and fellow writer, Phil Fullerton, responded to one of my columns and shared a quote by John David Thoreau: “Behind every door is a scene of quiet desperation.”

These words resonate, especially during this time of year, when the mood begs festivity, cheer, and all things glittered with twinkle lights. Sadly (for many), reality delivers something entirely different.

Less than 48 hours after receiving the quote, Thoreau’s words jumped off the page and landed right in my lap. Or should I say very nearby.

Anyone with a good hairdresser or barber knows that the really good ones also serve a therapeutic role. They are good listeners, a safe place to vent, and sufficiently distanced from family and friends to remain calm, neutral, supportive.

I had a haircut scheduled that afternoon with no intention whatsoever of eavesdropping, but immediately sensed weight and worry coming from the woman sitting in the chair next to me. Unfolding before my eyes was a scene of utter despair: a mom sharing her heart, secrets, and worst nightmare.

All too familiar were her words – hospital, blood alcohol level, unconscious, overdose. Wanting to reach over and offer a warm embrace, tell her I’d been there, too, I opted to sit still, honor her privacy, fearful she might interpret my outreach as intrusive.

Between words I heard heavy sighs laced with shallow breaths. Sounds I’d heard before. My own. With fluency, she spoke a language known by far more parents than most can fathom.

While the outside world spins wildly out of control, families here at home battle their own private wars. There I sat, witnessing one of them in real time: a mother, a family in distress.

It’s no surprise that the holidays grab hold on all of us, stirring emotions and memories of loss, estrangement, things gone wrong or falling apart: a sick or troubled child, an aging parent, financial struggles, grief over lost loved ones.

Lumps in the gravy. An unthawed turkey. Not exactly a Norman Rockwell moment, now, is it?

There probably isn’t a single person alive who has not had some visceral reaction to the famous painting of a family gathered around a sumptuous Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings, smiling, snuggling, politely passing the dressing and cranberry sauce, an all-American portrait of family intimacy.

On one level, this image offers comfort – reminding us of the sense of love and belonging – that warm, fuzzy community each of us has (at least theoretically) been born into.

But for most of us, the Rockwell image of perfection is troubling, even torturous to view. It razor cuts into a belief system that “everyone has it right but me.” With it comes a sense of failure, one that can bleed us to the bone if we let it.

To make matters worse, those same images are now magnified by social media posts where everyone is painted pretty – wide smiles and arms embracing one another in a circle of unconditional acceptance and happily ever after moments.

Let’s get real.

As we approach this holiday season, how about we dismiss the Norman Rockwell image and cut ourselves some slack. Allow ourselves to be human. Before the doorbell rings, here are a few thoughts worth pondering:

There’s no sin in breaking from tradition, doing things differently, simplifying rituals. Whether you cater, potluck it or start from scratch; use china, paper or plastic, the goal is being together, right?

The holidays are a state of mind, not a place. Experience them wherever and however you want. At home. In a restaurant. Or from afar with extended family, stray friends, work colleagues.

Go light on the gift giving and make a donation to one of our many local charities. They need your support now more than ever. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for those in need. You’ll be amazed at how good it makes you feel.

If you are living with loss – whether it’s fresh or ancient, carve out personal time to reflect, give voice to your sorrow, even express a “Bah Humbug” moment. If you don’t feel like caroling, then don’t. Grief is unpredictable. The party will go on without you. There’s always next year.

You don’t have to be busy the entire month of December. Find time to relax, take a walk, catch your breath. Call a friend and sneak off to a matinee. Get lost in someone else’s world for a few hours. Share popcorn. Or put on your sweats, find some little ones, and watch “Wizard of Oz” for the umpteenth time.

At our house, Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” is a personal favorite. In the end, this turns out to be the best gift you can give yourself.

No matter how you spend your holidays, let Thoreau’s words guide your actions this season – maybe even paint a new image stronger and more meaningful than Rockwell’s. Make someone’s day while making the days of December matter. Inhale the magic of the season by being more human – draping those in need with love, compassion, and good tidings.

And while you’re at it, send up a good thought for the woman in the hairdresser’s chair.

Armen D. Bacon of Fresno is a writer and co-author of “Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship” and two collections of essays, “My Name is Armen – A Life in Column Inches” and “My Name is Armen – Outside the Lines.” Write to her at, @ArmenBacon.