Friday, December 26, 2014

GRATEFUL, AT LAST

Well, that's over.  It's December 26th.  My favorite day of the year--usually.  But I feel a little like I'm just getting started.

Christmas season was quite a struggle for me this year.  My family and friends must have tired of my grousing and groaning and rolling my eyes and outright being negative with me singing my many and varied melodies of "I hate Christmas".  My decorating, cooking, and gift buying was minimal.  I sent out our Christmas letter, finally, on Christmas Eve -- a "Happy New Year" greeting as it turned out. I missed my mom a lot.  I derided the expectations, traditions, and commercialism of the whole thing.  I resented having to play along, when I just wanted to ignore the whole event.  Bah Humbug, indeed.

Then came Christmas Eve.  My family took up a whole row at the candlelight service at my beloved Unitarian Universalist Fellowship -- me no doubt beaming with pride and also noticing how all of us grandmas were looking around at extended families gathered and saw we were ALL beaming with pride.  It touched  my heart.

Then we all came home for our traditional Christmas Eve buffet, gathered in our living room which is under-populated the rest of the year, but becomes Christmas Central for a few days of winter when the fireplace is lit, candles burn, the tree is vibrant with color and Manheim Steamroller Christmas music serenades the scene.  Angel wrote her letter to Santa, we all exchanged gifts with Son-Two's girlfriend, who wouldn't be with us on Christmas, we talked and talked about Son-One and DIL's new baby, due in March, who would be part of our family next Christmas.  I felt all warm and fuzzy.

Christmas morning was quiet and I sat alone in the living room, letting all my angst and sorrow and anger and resentments melt away into a long meditation on gratitude.

In the afternoon, the gang gathered again.  Son One and his family brought cookies and fudge and spiced cider and bags of gifts and one excited little Angel who had had herself a fine Christmas morning at home playing with her Santa toys.  We all took turns unloading our stockings and opening gifts and I noted the thoughtfulness that went into each one -- the perfect gift for the person receiving it, obviously sought and purchased or made with pride and love.

Dinner, puzzles, books, assembly of the new bird feeding station, several games of darts on the new dart board, conversation, games, crafts….  How is it that I forget, or can't appreciate, that these are practically "Rockwellian" tableaus being played out right here in my house?  Why do I think it should all be even more perfect?  Even more jolly or festive or, I don't know, entertaining somehow?

Note to self:  Next year just shut up about hating Christmas and have a little faith.  It will all be more than OK.  It will be perfect, just as it is.

At least, that's the view from here… ©

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

THE NEEDING SEASON

A FICTION BASED ON REALITY:

I'll be so glad when the holidays are over!  The whole thing exhausts me.  So much to do, never enough time.  I am so distracted I often run out on some errand without my coat!  Coats are such a bother anyway, trying to get my seatbelt fastened over all that bulk!  I guess I could grab a lighter weight jacket, or my rain coat.  Crazy how we need about five different weights of clothing in the Northwest!
     Shirley shuffled along Hewitt Avenue.  The air was turning cold, night was not far off and she heard a man on the corner talk about snow coming.  She pulled her sweater around her a little tighter.  She'd walked the entire length of Hewitt ten times that day.  Killing time.  Trying to keep warm…

I'm getting so frustrated with shopping this year!  Toys are getting so expensive!  I must have made 20 trips to Toys R Us.  Every time I spent more than intended, but oh well.  Christmas only comes once a year and I don't want to disappoint the kids on Christmas morning.  The bills won't come in for a few weeks anyway.  Thank God for plastic!
     Carmin waited in line outside Santa's House on the first shopping day.  It was 7:00 a.m. and the doors didn't open until 9:00, but she knew she needed to get there early to get anything decent.  The good stuff went fast.  Donated toys were often broken or worn.  She spent Christmas Eve washing a dirty set of plastic play dishes last year -- a partial set.  She hoped to find a nice doll for Grace this year, but she knew she'd just have to take what she could get…

Of course there's also all the last minute shopping.  You know, those gifts you didn't intend to get, but you got one from them so now you feel obligated and there's always a last minute party invitation that requires a hostess gift.  Well, that's what the season is for, right?  Generosity and good will toward all!  Just like the Hallmark cards say!  I also see so much I just can't resist for me too!  And decorations!  So many cute things to make the house sparkle.  Oh, I love Christmas -- so beautiful!
     The van was crowded.  They'd kept moving it, to avoid suspicion.  It was getting cold at night, too.  The social worker said all the shelters were full.  Christmas was coming, but they could hardly put up a tree in the van!  Bill had been out looking for work all day.  Cindy and the kids had gone to the park early that morning to play, sit, and wait.  Finally she saw the van coming.  Bill climbed out and handed her a sprig of holly.  He wasn't smiling.  She tied the holly to the antenna with a piece of string she'd found on the ground.  They watched the kids swing.  Maybe they'd come back here on Christmas morning.  There was a big tree in the park, all lit up.  There wouldn't be any presents, or much food, or a warm fire, but at least they were still together….

I tell you though, family is what Christmas is really about!  Even though they can sure be annoying!  I mean, Uncle Hal is so boring!  And if I have to eat one more of Aunt Helen's "amazing jello salads" I'll choke.  And couldn't we just NOT watch sports all day on the holidays?  Sometimes I wish I could just go off by myself.  Now that would really be a special holiday!
     Rosa sat in the dark, holding her baby, both of them crying.  How had this happened to her?  In Mexico she was a bank executive.  Here she was a fugitive.  She'd come to this country with her American husband, but after all the beatings at his hand she ran from him.  Now the immigration service was looking for her.  She was not legal; she'd be deported and her baby would go to her husband or into foster care.  She missed her family in Mexico City.  What would she do?  Her tears continued to fall…©


We think of Christmas as the season of giving, but the season of giving never ends so long as the season of needing goes on and on and on.  I originally wrote this piece in 1991, based on stories I'd known of through the social service agency where I worked.  It's been published a couple of times since then, and still, not so much has changed in 2014.

May our Christmas be filled with blessings we appreciate  and generosity that we remember to demonstrate all through the year.

At least, that's the view from here… ©


Sunday, December 21, 2014

MAMA


It's well documented (year after year) that I struggle with the Christmas season.  But the other day I just sat right down and cried.

Grief came calling out of the blue when I was cleaning my house, preparing to welcome dinner guests.  Thoughts of my mom came to me and my heart nearly burst with love and appreciation for her.  I wanted her back in my kitchen, sitting with me again, so I could tell her how much it all meant to me; how much she meant to me even when I didn't know it, rebelled against it, was too ego-centric or stubborn or just plain ignorant to tell her until she was well into her elder years and I was starting to have a glimmer of all she had accomplished as a wife, mother, and woman -- without complaint and with an admirable degree of good cheer.

I think of her most vividly at Christmas.  I know now the effort, work and worry that goes into "creating the magic".  She seemed to do it effortlessly, but nothing that memorable happens without effort.  My dad was a good father, but not a very helpful husband when it came to "women's work".  Jobs were definitely gender-specific and I don't believe I ever saw him get very close to the kitchen.  Or the vacuum cleaner.  Or the gift-wrap.  But it was all there, the Christmas magic, every year -- mostly a solo effort on her part.

Maybe some of my struggles with the season are about missing my mom.  My parents' home was always the family gathering place.  The tradition of hosting the holiday get-togethers was never passed down to my brothers or me.  We all went to Mom and Dad's, even when grandkids came along, even when I moved 2000 miles away and flew to Illinois for the holidays.   It wasn't until my dad died and my mom moved to the Northwest to live near me that I hosted the holidays.  It was a small gathering of just the four of us and mom.  The rest of the family was far-flung by that time.  Mom always brought coffee cake and fruit salad for early morning gift opening and always a dish to contribute the Christmas dinner too.  She carried bags of gifts wrapped and ready and was dressed in holiday finery with her fancy jewelry sparkling in the firelight.

Later, when her dementia set in, she seemed more confused than festive.  At her last Christmas with us she has a haunted look in her eyes, even as she is half-smiling in the photos and trying to remain present with the event.  I see my own haunted look of desperation -- the too-wide smile, the kneeling-at-her-side, arm-around-her-shoulders attentiveness,  the attempt to cheer her going so wide of the mark that now I  find the red boa and fuzzy Santa hat I adorned her in to be less fun than humiliating.

Christmas is a time of remembering and my memories of Mom are vivid and joyous; vivid and sad.

So I sat right down and cried the other day, tears streaming down my cheeks, dust cloth in hand, and murmured, "mama".    But she would not have wanted me to feel so bereft.  I can hear her, as I did so many times, say, "Oh, honey, don't cry.  I just want you to be happy."

Maybe me making peace with Christmas would be a way to honor her.  Maybe finding happiness in this supposed "Season of Joy" could be a healing practice.  And maybe a 64-year-old woman can just miss her mom...and that can be OK too.

At least, that's the view from here…. ©

Monday, December 15, 2014

ADJUSTMENTS MUST BE MADE

Once a month I facilitate a group called WISE -- Women Investigating, Supporting, and Exploring -- a gathering at my Unitarian Universalist church for women over 60.  We investigate what it is to be an "elder", how our culture views us, and what we can do to bust a few myths of aging. We support each other with sharing of  joys and sorrows, challenges and victories. We explore where we are and where we are going next, setting goals, making plans, making peace, and still raising our fists, fighting to the end for a better world.  We laugh a lot too.  

Yesterday we exchanged recipes, which is about the most traditionally "old lady" thing we've ever done.  We had a blast, each pulling a recipe out of a passed basket, then listening as the person who brought the recipe told the story behind it; why it was special to her.  We also talked about what kind of Christmas we are having this year:  Joyous, Lonely, Cranky, Broke, Sick…  there are all kinds of responses to this season, not all of them Merry and Bright.  Our minister gave a really good sermon on this topic right before our WISE gathering.

Something that came up for one woman was acknowledged by many.  There comes a time, often, when we are no longer the hub of the magic.  We are "retired" from being at the center of the festivities, as kids marry and move away, go to the in-laws instead, or just decide they don't really like Christmas.  Maybe we've lost a spouse, or have moved to a smaller house, or just don't feel like continuing with all the hoopla.  Sometimes Christmas sucks.

We decided there is a degree of freedom in stepping back, but there is also the possibility of a great deal of grief when our role changes, often not of our choosing.

My "kids" still come to our home for the holidays and I am grateful for that.  Yet there are times when I feel sad about losing the place of importance and primacy in my grown sons lives.  We were so close when they were young and my life pretty much revolved around them.  Gladly so.  Yet, the successful outcome of all of those years of dedication is bittersweet…they grew strong, independent, and capable of creating families and lives of their own.  

There are times when I miss the "old days" and indulge in a bit of longing for more closeness and intimacy at times.  I feel a little sorry for myself and that feels good -- to acknowledge my sadness and aloneness.  Then I dust myself off and realize the days of holding them in my arms, tousling their hair, hearing their most secret hopes, dreams, frustrations and griefs may be gone, but...

My job isn't really finished.  I continue to teach and show them the way, just as I always have.  I continue to model for them what I hope for them to experience as "elders" -- a life that is lived at a slower pace, but one still filled with passion and purpose.  

I can still reach out to them in ways they can accept now -- with a text or a phone call or a Facebook post, a small gift, a word of encouragement, a reminiscence, a loving hug, a weekly family dinner.  I am there for them, a constant in their busy lives, even when they don't notice.

I am there, just as they will be for their own kids, in some far-off future Christmas season when they will shed a tear, too, for what has passed, what has changed when they are no longer the Center of the Universe for their grown children.

And that's as it should be; it's just hard sometimes.  Our work is to acknowledge new realities and adjust accordingly, with love for them…and ourselves…at Christmas and always.

At least, that's the view from here… ©



Saturday, December 13, 2014

SCROOGE YOU, CHRISTMAS!

Oh, Christmas Season…you old foe.  I've largely given up the urge to run from adversity, having gained skill in "being with what is" and filling my emotional toolbox with a wide selection of just the right gadgets to get me through most anything, eventually.  But you….you….you still get to me.

One of my BFFs is jetting off to Kona this weekend for a month-long stay and I am still holding out hope she will kidnap me and make me go along.  And when I say "make me" I mean, my bag is packed.  But more likely I will be here for the duration of the Falalala-ing with December 26th circled in red on my calendar -- my favorite day of the time period from Thanksgiving to New Year's.  What some call a let-down, I call relief.

Relief from the traditions, expectations, "to-do" lists, socializing, shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning, cooking, cleaning, cooking, cleaning, cooking, cleaning, last minute shopping, lists, lists, lists, socializing, socializing, socializing, socializing….

I hear your advice, so don't even bother.  You would be amazed at how little I do for the season compared to when my kids were young and I ran around like a friggin' Martha Stewart clone.  To look at how I do the season now, comparatively, you'd think I was comatose.  Still…

I don't think it is entirely my own doing that causes me to fall into a Christmas Season funk.  I think it's the whole craziness that has grown up around it and this culture of commercialism that has influenced even the ways in which we think we are rebelling against it all.  As if the pressure weren't great enough to create a meaningful, festive holiday I now am asked to "walk my talk" at an even brisker pace.

The pressure to "shop local" means no gifts or gift cards from stores my family loves.  (I must have been a terrible mom to raise children to adulthood who go the mall for clothing -- where's your sewing machine???  And buy their lumber at Lowe's -- grow your own!!!)  No bulk items from Costco that would make food and drink more affordable (even if I only buy organic, free trade, uncaged cheesecake?).   No new Christmas music downloaded from I Tunes (get out the old clarinet; make your own music!), No new books (and every single other thing I can imagine) from Amazon  (Fine…I'll write a book and impose it upon my unsuspecting loved ones).   It's just a different version of the quest for perfection.

So, yeah.  I'd like to be sitting on a beach about now and on Christmas morning,  papaya juice running down my chin, Mai Tai in hand, I'd raise my glass to shield the sun.  My BFF and her hub would then serenade me on their dual ukeleles plunking out a little "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", as the waves kiss the shoreline.   Yep, that sounds about right.

At least, that's the view from here…. ©




Monday, December 1, 2014

LIFE LESSONS FROM THE NUTCRACKER

I may finally be making progress on a part of myself that I have not loved for a long, long time -- the part that rears its ugly head most prominently around the holidays and has caused me so much frustration and angst: trying to create a perfect experience.

I love the "idea" of many things, but especially the Thanksgiving to New Years season of festivities, so when the reality of said activities falls far short of the ideal (Hallmark cards, "very special Christmas episodes", etc.) I am sad and depressed and feel a failure at something others seem to pull off effortlessly. (At least that's the story I make up.)

So this past Saturday I felt a wee bit of anxiety about my storybook-perfect idea of taking my 5 year old granddaughter, "Angel", and her mom (my beautiful daughter-in-law) to the Pacific NW Ballet production of The Nutcracker.  This is a fairly big deal thing around these parts -- a big, bold, beautiful professional ballet of the holiday classic.  The tickets are pricey.  Everyone dresses in holiday finery.  It's a highlight of the holiday season and all declare it "magical", making it a prime target for a big letdown when all doesn't go according to the fantasy-laden plan, right?

So I woke up to a blanket of snow.  Snow.  It almost never snows in the lowlands here in Puget Sound.  And when it does people freak out and driving becomes a snarled mess, especially on the hills of downtown Seattle -- where we were headed.  Add that to a massive street reconfiguration construction project blocks from our destination and I figured we'd just be sitting in traffic listening to the soundtrack all afternoon.  But amazingly (!) I didn't panic.  We were leaving in plenty of time and my new Suburu Outback was up to the snow-driving task.  Unusually cold, unusually sunny -- a gorgeous winter day.  Perfect for The Nutcracker.   Son-Two gave me some alternate route driving tips and we were there in no time.  Easy-breezy.  So glad I didn't stress about it!

Upon arrival we discovered they offered padded seat cushions to younger audience members -- a "booster" of sorts so they could see better.  Another concern of mine averted.  I had sprung for some close up seats, but still, it's hard to see over adult heads.  Again, a problem I'd created in my mind, solved.

The lobby was teeming with families and children dressed in party finery.  Little girls in lace, ruffles and frills.  Boys in dress-up clothes.  There were larger-than-life figures of characters from the ballet to stand beside for photos, even a miniature "set" of Marie's bedroom, and several large and ornately decorated Christmas trees.  My fantasy was that I'd take a Christmas-card worthy photo of Angel at each of these and she would be resplendent in her pink lace party dress and beautifully styled hair.  Reality:  there were lines a mile long of families with the same idea in front of each "photo-op station" and we'd be lucky to get even one photo taken before the curtain.  We opted to hit the restroom then saw a long table full of coloring books and Angel did what she loves -- colored for about 10 minutes.  I let go of my photo fantasy and enjoyed her pleasure in coloring a ballerina picture.

As we took our seats, Angel started to struggle with her hair -- it had picked up some static electricity and was flying about and into her face and very annoying, so her mom pulled it back into a messy pony tail secured with a hair tie.  There went the perfectly coifed fancy "do".  I loved how relaxed she looked and happy to have that annoying problem solved without stressing over the degradation of her dressed up "look".  Relaxing into reality and letting go of perfection felt good to me too.

Angel seemed to really enjoy the first half of the ballet.  She was attentive and joyful.  At the intermission she wanted a Rat King cookie, which her mom stood in line forever to secure for her.  Many families had pre-ordered their intermission snacks, and I guess some secured them along with prime seating near the Christmas trees (photo op!), but some families were annoyed that their pre-order refreshments were no where to be seen!  Oh dear.  So, our wait in line did result in a cookie for Angel, and she got to have several hurried bites and one sip of apple juice, sitting on the floor, against a wall with an electrical outlet over her head (not picturesque), before the bells rang to warn us the second act was about to begin.

Back in our seats, I could tell Angel was losing some of her rapt attention.  She was a little squirmy and distracted by wanting to talk to me about the ballet ("shhh….shhh…shhh"), rather than watch quietly with deep appreciation for the classic beauty of the ballet art form, the beautiful and rousing Tchaikovsky score, and the creative and unique set design by Maurice Sendak.  Instead, she took great pleasure in continuing to applaud long after everyone else had ceased, her little hands clapping an echo throughout the acoustically perfect McCaw Hall.   Her mom and I gave her about 5-6 claps, then reached over to silence her by gently putting our hands over hers.  Instead of being annoyed, I was sort of amused by her delight in breaking this little social etiquette rule.

After the ballet, we had hoped to have a backstage tour.  A man from my church works PNB and other big concert venues and had offered to take us backstage.  His wife emailed me his phone number and I'd already sent him two texts and left two voice mail messages, but had not heard back.  I called home and had Hub recheck the number I'd written down and the one I had was the one she gave me.  But finally, I got a text from a stranger telling me he received all my contacts but he was not who I was looking for.  Darn!  Disappointed, but oh well….it was a bonus add-on to the event and I was able to just let it go with barely a ripple of regret.  Maybe next year.

I later found out his wife had transposed a number; she felt badly, but I was still fine with the outcome especially given the fact that Angel seemed to need to let go of the little girl in lace persona and proceeded to yell, run, jump, and throw sticks all the way back to the parking garage.  Enough of this "all dressed up, acting oh so mature" stuff!  She also had a bit of a meltdown about her mom not letting her eat the Peppermint Rocha sample candies that were being passed out as we exited and the traffic getting out of the parking garage was at a standstill and all she wanted at that point was to just Go Home!  When we tried to ask if she'd enjoyed the ballet she pouted, "No!"  I just smiled.  I knew she'd have a different story the next day, and she did.  ("It was so fun!")

The point of recounting all of this is to say…..I saw within myself a transformation that has been years in the making.  After the ballet fewer people were hanging around to have pictures taken, so we did get to have one in front of one of the characters.  I asked a woman to take it of the three of us, but we already had our coats on so our pretty dress-up clothes are hidden, Angel's hair was in her impromptu ponytail, and the woman stood a bit too far away -- but we are there and I will treasure that photo as a reminder that perfection isn't real, that memories aren't made of  Hallmark soft-focus portraits, that sharing that day and that experience just as it was was more important than trying to create a storybook moment.  I'll leave that to the professionals at PNB.

At least, that's the view from here…. ©