Taking Some Stress Out of Christmas

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So many people get annoyed with those of us who start shopping and prepping for Christmas when Halloween has barely passed, but I find that if I don’t do a bit here and a bit there for many weeks I get caught at the last minute expending all of my energy in one fell swoop. Instead I learned long ago that if I slowly chip away at all of my Christmas tasks and I will have time to enjoy the season with friends, neighbors and family. It takes a bit of planning but I learned how to do that quite well as an educator when I had to be certain of teaching all of the concepts within a certain timeframe.

One aspect of my holiday traditions is the sit down dinner that I host on Christmas Day. I truly enjoy readying my home for that gala but in the past few years I have found that I spend most of the day getting the food served and then cleaning all of the dishes and pans for hours afterward. I have lovely Christmas place settings that are so festive but they generally have to be washed by hand and doing so takes far more time than it should. I have guests who quite sweetly attempt to help but the problem is that they get to visit with every one even less time that I do when they volunteer, and that isn’t much fun for any of us.

This year I decided to do something about the one Christmas duty that I abhor. I made a visit to the Party City website and ordered plastic plates that appear to be elegant china with matching bowls, dessert plates and even cups. All I need now are a few of those huge Costco garbage bags and the cleanup will be quick and easy. I will spend my time actually enjoying my guests rather than making sure that my kitchen stays orderly enough not to be designated as a toxic waste dump.

I still plan to use my Christmas tablecloths and napkins. They are easy to just toss into the washing machine. I also plan to set out my mother’s silver and the pewter utensils that my dear friend Egon left for me upon his death. I really don’t care to eat with plastic knives and forks and spoons and using the real thing will not create much mess at all. The entire lot will fit nicely into a sink of hot soapy water where it can soak until later. I’m thinking of maybe going with throw away serving bowls as well, but I have a wonderful Christmas platter that I always use for my roast or turkey or ham. It is a tradition that I refuse to surrender. It won’t take much to clean it and put it safely away. 

I feel a bit guilty about possibly damaging the environment with so many disposable items. The modern trend is to recycle everything but I will be seventy one this month and quite frankly I am tired of the annual cleanup. My mother-in-law announced her retirement from hosting the Christmas gala when she was younger than I am. My mother followed suit rather quickly thereafter. I don’t want to give away my day to provide the family with a feast just yet, but I am going on strike over the task of using all of the good china. I don’t think anybody really cares what the plates look like as long as what is on them tastes good. I’ll spend more time perfecting my menu and less washing and drying crystal and china.

Everyone seems to have a great time on Christmas Day. They have lively conversations and play games. I tend to be puttering about for so long that by the time I finally join the group they announce one by one that it is time to go home. I suspect that such has been the lot of women for decades. We eat our food cold and perform the “Martha” role to the point of missing all the fun. This year I am going to remedy that.

I’ve even sent out a family email to determine what everyone actually wants to eat this year. I have set a deadline of November 18, for the input and I will go by majority rule. I think it will be fun for everyone to have some say in what we our feast will be.

Many have suggested that I have a potluck but I don’t mind the cooking at all. It is one task that is fun for me and I prefer knowing ahead of time how to balance the meal. Besides the idea is that the dinner is a gift from me to the family. It is the one time of year when everyone comes and I have the honor of treating them. I get great joy out of the entire event.

I’ve bought a few Christmas gifts already. It’s easy to find great gifts for some people and almost impossible for others. I don’t know how it is for anyone else but the men are the hardest for me. I can only purchase so many ties or shirts or books or whatever. The guys tend to have very specific desires whereas women like just about anything. It will take me many weeks to figure it all out and then I will just have to hope that I have hit the spot.

Christmas is undoubtably my favorite time of the year and I plan to keep streamlining it so that I can get every bit of enjoyment out of the season and keep stress at a bare minimum. I’ll let you know how the plastic place settings work out. I suspect that they will be a hit.

What If?

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What if the people of the world decided to quit relying on someone else to fix all of the problems and we started taking care of things on our own without being asked or paid or honored for our efforts? What if we started by greeting everyone that we pass, noticing what others need and then quietly taking care of them? What if we opened our hearts and our talents to making the world around us better?

What if it became a habit for each of us to keep the environment clean? What if we were always equipped to clean up garbage along the roadsides and in the oceans? What if we got everything looking good and none of us ever again littered the environment?

What if every person found someone to help on a daily basis? What if we understood that if doesn’t take much to make a difference? What if we began to use the power of our collective good will?

What if we really managed to be free of the negative aspects of our human natures? What if we were able to rethink our priorities and work together without being forced by guilt or laws? What if we changed the world without a single selfish desire?

I’m an admitted dreamer. I think of the possibilities of human interaction if only we were able to fully harness our most positive powers and negate those that create problems. I love to think of a time when our intelligence evolves to a point at which we instinctively know what we must do to help one another and to honor our earth. I see examples of the kind of behaviors that I long to see multiplied millions of times over and I imagine a more perfect world. I still believe that we have the power to be our best selves but that we all too often refuse to make the sacrifices and do the hard work that must be done.

I recently saw a group of people working at the ocean to eliminate garbage from the beaches and the water. They removed mountains of debris that had been thrown away by thoughtless people. I wondered why we can’t all agree to come together regularly to sweep our waters and their banks just as we clean our homes. I thought of how we should not have to pay people to do this work when so many of us are able bodied enough to form daily crews that labor all over the world to make the waterways pristine and then keep them that way. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever think it proper to throw paper or cans or bottles or balloons or any object into our precious resource of life. It seems logical and right and just for all of us to be participants in the efforts to once and for all rid our waters from the garbage with which we have so blithely and unthinkingly polluted two thirds of our world. I wonder what if…?

I constantly worry about our young and the way in which we educate them by moving them along a preconceived pathway to knowledge that makes learning feel harsh and unpleasant for so many. I see our society missing the mark by making the act of learning a project filled with stress and sometimes even punishment. We act as though every child is just alike with our scopes and sequences that drive them like cattle from one concept to another whether or not they have mastered the previous ones. We make them feel stupid. We cause them to question their worth. We make them anxious at a time when they should be experiencing the joy of exploring the world around them. I wonder how we might make the act of acquiring knowledge a happy endeavor by tailoring more individualized programs that take differences into account. I long for a kind and gentle kind of school experience that builds children up one by one rather than consigning them to a kind of conveyor belt style education. I wonder what if…?

I see and hear of people who are lonely, bullied, abandoned, feeling hopeless. I think of how they are often treated as though they are somehow less than human. I know that many of them even lose faith in themselves. They become lost souls who turn to drugs and alcohol to ease their pain. In the worst case scenarios they use anger and violence in a perverse way to feel better about themselves. I find myself wondering why we did not notice them earlier when they were still young and open to change. Who was it who beat them down? Why was there no one to counteract the harm being done to them? I think of a world in which we are each like guardian angels watching over even those who are strangers to us. I see wonderful people taking those who are abused under their wings. I consider how incredible it would be if we were to all make efforts to help save a life. I wonder what if…?

Such thoughts may sound naive when faced with the ugly realities of the world and yet there have always been individuals who left the fray and simply dug into the work of making a difference even if its impact was small. That one piece of garbage that we remove from the street becomes a clean sweep when multiplied millions of times over each day. That one child who feels the power of mastering a new skill becomes an army of confident people when multiplied a millions of times over each day. That frightened soul who heals by the touch of kindness becomes a member of a confident, happy and productive society when multiplied millions of times over each day. What if we finally decided to see what might happen if we all agreed to do such things every single day? What if, indeed?

Strong

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Childhood is a kind of bubble of naiveté that protects us while we are learning about ourselves and the world around us. Some children like myself experience tragedy early in their lives and such events become cautionary tales for them. Hurt and loss changes little ones in varying ways. I suppose that in spite of the fears that lie at the bedrock of my personality I was somehow able to develop somewhat normally into a healthy adult who is perhaps a bit less adventurous than I might other wise have been. The shock of losing my father after a long journey to and then back from California left me quietly confused and desirous of clinging to any form of security that I might find.

I blanketed myself in the luxury of routine and a certain level of isolation from the realities of the world. I spent the remainder of my growing up years in relative ignorance of hurt and intrigue. I became resilient and once again confident by living a quiet and somewhat uneventful life inside the little neighborhood from which my family and I rarely needed to venture save to visit with my grandparents and my aunts, uncles and cousins.

I cared little about world affairs or intrigue of any sort. It was not until I was fifteen and in high school that I once again faced death when my beloved grandmother developed cancer and died. That was about the same time that President Kennedy was assassinated while he was visiting Dallas. I went into the same state of shock and grief that I had felt when my father died. I wanted to look away, to somehow pretend that such events were not really part of our human experience. I buried the fears that I inside my heart and pretended that I was stronger than I actually felt.

Like so many of us so often do I ignored my feelings and stoically moved forward, avoiding contact with negative thoughts or people or situations. I tried to make life a fairytale forgetting that the theme of all such stories revolves around triumph over hardship. It was not until I was twenty years old and I saw mental illness take hold of my mother that I realized there was no running away from the tragedies that each of us must face. I had to become fearless without warning or practice and it was painful.

For some time I hid my reality as though it were some ugly thing that defined me and my family. I did not share with others. Instead I dealt with the situation hoping that my mother would be cured and I would be able to move forward as though nothing had ever happened. Of course her chronic illness kept jerking me back into a dark world that was confusing and painful beyond measure. It was only when I freed myself from the constraints that I had placed on my willingness to face the truth that I began to see the world around me in all of its good and bad iterations.

By becoming honest with myself and with the people that I knew I developed more and more trust even in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. I saw that there is always someone willing to help if only I had the courage to ask. I found friendships and relationships that made me a better person each time that I reached out for understanding and assistance. By facing the toughness of life I actually began to see its true beauty more clearly.

There are patterns among human beings that repeat themselves over and over again through the centuries. How we deal with our longings and our sorrows may change ever so slightly as we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors but the basic feelings are in total harmony with every man and woman who has ever walked on this earth. We strive for happiness while enduring the inevitable sorrows. None of us will make it through life without scars, but if we are very lucky and willing to embrace those situations with wisdom and determination we will surely learn from them.

I know so many who are suffering at this very moment. It hurts me to see their pain and to know that in some cases there is so little that I might do to help them. I offer small bits of encouragement knowing that theirs is a season of sorrow through which they must walk. In other cases there are tangible things that I am able to do because of the resources that I am blessed to have. Mostly I simply demonstrate how much I care because I have learned that even the tiniest bit of generosity has the power of bringing joy to a broken or frightened heart.

We should never underestimate our power to say or do exactly what someone needs in a dark moment. Thoughtfulness and openness are like healing salves when administered at just the right moment. From my own experiences I know for certain that small gestures of love are never forgotten. It may be a neighbor lighting the pilot light of a heater on a cold winter’s day who brings hope or a pot of soup delivered by a friend that begins the process of healing.

I see the faces of those who took the time to comfort me when my father died and then my mother. I know exactly who extricated me from the darkest times of my life. I have never forgotten how impactful their kindnesses were. They remind me even when I am feeling low that I am not as alone as I might sometimes believe. I may stumble and skin my knees in this grand adventure called life but I will always find a hand reaching out to save me. I have learned time and again that there are very good people just waiting to be at my side and in that knowledge I have become very strong.

The Ticking Clock

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How can it already be September? Wasn’t it only yesterday that we were ringing in the New Year? When did tiny strands of grey appear in my hair. How did my knees come to ache when I walk too far? Wasn’t it only yesterday that I was able to run like a deer and see without the aide of spectacles? When did my long narrow waist become thick? From whence came the wrinkles and folds in my skin. Wasn’t I a young woman looking into the future with boundless dreams only a week or so ago? How does the same time that creeps in its petty pace suddenly race so quickly that I lose track of its passage?

I never thought of growing older. It seemed to be an aspect of life reserved for my elders. Somehow it rarely occurred to me that I might one day be respectfully called “mum” or “mother” as a sign of my advancing age. I look into the mirror and I see my twenty year old self, not the seventy year old woman who has lost two and a half inches of height and whose eyelids droop over her once big brown eyes. My brush accumulates more and more of my thinning hair and I have taken to wearing comfortable shoes rather than stylish pumps. The world and its future is being overtaken by younger women with ideas that sometimes seems as strange to me as mine appear to them. Yet somehow I find myself fighting to maintain my relevance, my purpose on this earth before I am called to one day leave.

My mother embraced her age as have so many women before me. I struggle to stay in the game, to be considered woke. Haven’t there been women my age running for President of the United States? Isn’t Ruth Bader Ginsburg still demonstrating an incredible acuity of mind? Who determines when someone should retire to a state of old age? Why should I simply sit back and watch the rising and setting of the sun without making efforts to squeeze every single second of meaning out of my existence? After all I come from a line of people who live for a very long time. If I make it as much time as two of my aunts I still have at least thirty more years to contribute to society. If I consider my grandfather I can tack on another eight years. People have entire careers in less time than I may still enjoy if I am true to my DNA.

The world is not the place it was. We are often able to keep our minds and our bodies vibrant far longer than once thought possible. Our appearances may change and we may move with less vigor, but our minds are as alive as ever. Coupled with the experiences that we have had we are in many ways the wise men and women of our time. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ve endured triumphs and tribulations and learned from each of them. We understand that simple answers are rare, but there are solutions for even the seemingly most hopeless situations. We also understand that there comes a time when we must give the young the freedom that they need to learn how to be stewards of the world when it is time for them assume the leadership roles that we once held.

Hopefully the world that we leave behind will be somehow better for our having been here. I’d like to think that each of us will have a positive impact on some person or problem or advancement. Since there is still so much to be done, we should search for new ways of making a difference now that we are no longer part of the teeming race of workers who report to jobs each day. Ours may now be small almost imperceptible contributions that nonetheless are important. What we accomplish may be as simple as sending an encouraging word to a young person who is struggling to launch. Ours are now the quieter moments that touch individuals more often than creating a buzz in the crowd.

I am indeed older. I see loveliness in the hard work that shows on my hands. Unlike what people may think about someone of my age, I know that I am more open and forgiving than I once was for I have seen my own humanity and weaknesses. I have somehow overcome them with the grace and help of others. It has been in the kindnesses of even people that I did not know that I have been able to survive this long. Now I understand that it is up to me to continue to pay my blessings forward.

I do my best to spend a part of each day outside of myself. I have friends who are far more gifted in such ways than I am and they continually inspire me. I see them spending time at nursing homes and bringing smiles to people who are sick and lonely. I watch them unselfishly donating their talents to causes that make life better. I read their evangelical praises of God and know that they are living breathing angels of example. I am awed by them and do my best to emulate them in tiny ways. They are my peers who are not daunted by the passing of time and the aging of their bodies. They are good people who forget themselves and focus on others.

We live in a world that idolizes the young and the beautiful. That is perhaps as it should be, but those of us who are moving ever closer to the inevitability of closing the circle of life still have so much to offer. We need to spend each day with purpose and resolve. The truly beautiful are those who forget about their images in the mirror and instead devote precious time to benefitting the world just a bit more.

I See You

I See You

I went to a fairly small high school in which we tended to know of everyone of our classmates, but often did not really know details about all of them. Some of my friends from that stage of my life are still very much part of my world, and what I have learned over the decades is that each of us have had to deal with difficulties both when we were young, and when we were adults. None of us have gone untouched by daunting challenges that sometimes took all of our reserves to overcome.

As I have aged I have had opportunities to get to really know some of the people who went to school with me who were once little more than acquaintances or names and faces in a yearbook. Even those that I thought had a golden touch have endured painful experiences, and many of them occurred even as they sauntered through the hallways of our school with smiles on their faces hiding the hurt and fear that was stalking them.

We are in a strange kind of era in which we almost appear to be vying to determine which people among us have been the victims of the most unjust tragedies. Certainly some among us have always had more resources for dealing with difficulties, but none of us have ever been entirely free of troubles. My brothers and I had a heavy dose of sorrow, poverty and exposure to mental illness but we also had more than a generous share of emotional support from our mother, our extended family, our neighbors, the people at our church, our teachers and our friends. We may have been thrown into the maelstrom more than we might have wished, and wondered at times if we would survive, but time and again we learned the very important lesson that we were never alone. That realization was more valuable than money or possessions or influence or privilege. In fact, we were quite young when we knew beyond a doubt that there is always is source of kindness and that often it comes from the most unexpected places.

The one thing that most people desire is to be seen and heard. I recently read a book that my grandson chose for his summer reading that reminded me of our human need to be noticed and honored for being exactly who we are. A Monster Calls is the story of a young man plagued by nightmares in the midst of his beloved mother’s battle with cancer. It is a gorgeous flight of fancy that speaks to our desire to be understood. There is no race or class that does not share the desire to be fully and totally accepted.

Just as the boy in A Monster Calls was filled with anger because he believed that nobody fully understood him, so too are many people in society today filled with rage because they feel misunderstood. They are mad about this or that and don’t want to take it anymore. They seem to be unaware of the fact that we all have been burdened with challenges beyond our control that have made our lives more difficult than we want them to be. They carry on because they want someone to empathize with their plights, some of which appear to be more deserving of our concern than others. In truth it is impossible to discern the difference between rotten apples and moldy oranges. Problems are problems and we all have them. When they pile up and become unbearable, which they tend to do in spite of our efforts, we simply want some compassion and for those around us to acknowledge our sorrows.

When humans feel abandoned they are more likely to lose hope. They lash out or devolve into depression. There is no telling where their thoughts of desperation will lead them. Sometimes they become ugly and violent versions of themselves. I always ponder when I encounter such a person what brought them to such a terrible place. I find myself wondering if someone along the pathway of their lives might have helped them to find positive ways of dealing with tribulations. I contemplate the possibility that they became so invisible that they broke.

I  have been greatly saddened by a tragedy that occurred near where my grandsons live. On a summer afternoon just before the start of school two boys the same age as my grandsons met in a park. One of them shot and killed the other. They were sixteen and my grandsons knew both of them from their high school. The shooter was in the same advisory period as theirs. The victim’s mother was an acquaintance of their mom’s. It hit all of us hard just as it did the teachers at the school. Everyone wondered what might have prevented such an horrific moment. Was there something that might have been said or done? What was the defining event when things began to go so terribly wrong?

We tend to operate as though laws and rules and allegiances are more important than individual lives, and yet there are stories after stories both in literature and history of people who were saved because someone witnessed their pain and did something meaningful to help them. Kindness often does wonders. I know for a fact that it made an enormous difference for me and my brothers when we were growing into adults. Just having someone see us and offer a hand taught us to be optimistic even in the darkest hours. Little acknowledgements were enough to sustain us.

I was reading about Latinas going to college and feeling different and a bit frightened when checking into their dormitories. It reminded me of my own college days. I was unable to live on campus. I went to the university in my city and commuted to and from school each day. I did not have a car but I had two dear friends who offered to get me there and take me back home. They went out of their way to help me.

I would have liked to have been part of college life with a dorm room and all of the activities associated with that experience, but I barely had enough money to cover my tuition which I paid from summer jobs and little bits of work here and there. I instead got something even better, a lifetime relationship with the two wonderful souls who made sure that I got to my classes. They saw me and they listened to me then and all the way into the present. I don’t know what I might have done without them, but I’ll never have to wonder because they were there.

Perhaps instead of growing irritated by those who are shouting about their pain and sorrow, we simply need to let them know that we do see them and we will listen to them. That is the first step in helping someone to find the way to a better life. I had angels who gave me that gift, I pray that other frightened souls will find someone willing to provide for them.