Lighten Up is about peeking at life through a new lens and examining the lighter side of things - world events, family and friends, job stress, pet ownership - for relief from the challenges that weigh us down. Even though we don't shy away from the tough stuff here, we value the humor, the joy, and the absurdity of life. Most of all, Lighten Up promises some thought-provoking conversation, a little laughter, and just a pinch of reality thrown in for flavor.
I apologize for being slightly MIA this weekend. Even though life happened, I continued my own giving, and I hope yours is going well, too.
Other than just a quick check in and a cheer to keep you going (and to ask you to please, please, please comment, share, post, message me with whatever you're doing!), I wanted to share a video reading of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree because, well, because I can't possibly top Silverstein. Whether or not you've read this book as I have (many times), this recording is a treat and a lesson all rolled into one. So I give you this opportunity to sit back, close your eyes, and prepare to be inspired ... to keep on giving.
If you're local, please stop in (often) and browse for yourself and everyone you care about while you pick out a book for a child who needs one. If you're not local but would like to donate to the Holiday Book Project for Disadvantaged Kids, let me know and/or contact East Line directly. Then sit back and acknowledge what a wonderful, priceless gift you have given.
I want to preface this whole post by proudly stating that I love Amazon.com. I have managed to accomplish a lot of my own Christmas shopping from the warm, quiet comfort of my own home this year, thanks to Amazon's great selection and even greater prices (and reasonable shipping and return rates.) And though this may seem like a "Shop Amazon!" commercial for which I am being paid some hefty commission (Don't I wish? Because, yes, I will write for money.), this post was actually inspired by the reaction I had to Amazon's advertising tactics when I opened my email, titled "Gift Ideas by Relationship" this morning. Clearly, this type of advertising isn't Amazon-specific by any means. It's just part of the "for sale" world in which we live, especially at this time of year. So I'll just present you with the following visual and give you a moment to process:
And there it is. Make-up brushes for mom and tools for dad. (La Cage aux Folles this is not!)
But wait, it gets better. Because while the girlfriend/wife and the boyfriend/husband both need jewelry, clearly the girlfriend/wife is more interested in decorating herself, while the boyfriend/husband will be getting the new watch -- probably so he'll have something to tap anxiously while girlfriend/wife threatens to make him late for the party with Family Friends. And speaking of Family Friends, we will all be gifting
those Generic McNobody's with a "candy crate" this year. Something that admits: "We don't know you that well, so we thought we'd raise your blood sugar and add to your cholesterol numbers while contributing a donation in your name to the worldwide obesity fund. Happy holidays."
Of course, we can't forget our grandparents, those wise and lovely elders. I mean, don't we all have meek little grandmothers who live in curlers and aprons, and who long only for more picture frames? Because the infinite number of collages and portraits we've given them for the past twenty Christmases don't cover enough wall and coffee table and china hutch space already. And of course, our grandmas need something to stare at while our stereotypical grandfathers watch sports, right? After all, dad and boyfriend/husband will surely be over on Christmas day (hopefully on time, if mom and girlfriend/wife's beauty regimes and primping sessions don't take too long). And while the dad/boyfriend/husband contingent use their new tools to assemble and hang Grandma's picture frames, mom/girlfriend/wife can apply makeup and covet one another's jewels and marvel over ... the kids, who sit covered in Play-Doh gifts of their own. Because all kids lovvvveeee to smush gooey, sticky stuff between their fingers ... before they eat it. Even though mom/girlfriend/wife has repeatedly told the kids not to put anything in their mouths before threatening: "Wait til I tell dad/boyfriend/husband. Then you'll be sorry." Because mom/girlfriend/wife doesn't punish children, after all. It wouldn't be ladylike. And because dad/boyfriend/husband is the keeper of the tools and the recipient of the new timepiece -- and isn't that the place where all power actually lives?
Of course, the "extras" in the Amazon ad deserve some small mention, if only to pull me toward my final point - which, I realize, seems a long time coming. But can we really do no better for the "Someone with everything" than a fondue pot? Which, let's be honest, is probably what they got from all their "Someone with everything" friends last year. The very same friends who received (and likely regifted) the Candy Crate. At the same time, even for those of us who prefer to keep the personal out of the workplace, can we really do no better for our coworkers than a contraption with little metal balls attached to strings that bang into one another when plucked? Aside from inducing a rather problematic sort of workplace hypnosis, what is this thing supposed to do? What is its function? I see many missed deadlines and unproductive days in the futures of any coworkers who receive this confusing little distraction. Though, as always, I am willing to be educated on this one.
Perhaps the oddest Amazon gift recommendation of all - at least in my opinion - is the College Student coffee maker. Now, on some level, this one actually makes sense to me - college students drink coffee. Lots of it, in some cases. And a coffee maker is pretty gender neutral, which I appreciate. But don't most college students already have a coffee maker if they do, indeed, drink that much coffee? And what about mom/girlfriend/wife, or dad/boyfriend/husband? I bet some of them drink coffee, too. Maybe they would actually like a new coffee maker (perhaps to replace the one their college student son/daughter "borrowed" for the dorm and never returned.) As far as the grandparents are concerned, Grandma probably drinks tea anyway - since that's what all grandmothers do - and Grandpa probably sticks to scotch - since everyone knows that "the war" (Any war. All wars. Even the ones that happened before Grandpa was born) drives him to the bottle, which he now only drinks from when watching sports. Which is why he's always watching sports. And why people buy him more sports for Christmas and then complain that he drinks too much, especially on Christmas day.
I share all this to make one very self-serving Christmas gift recommendation that will deliver happiness and joy to anyone who receives it. It is my holiday pick this year, and my Hasky.com gift recommendation. It is gender neutral, ageless, ranges in price from free up to $1 million (I imagine, though I've never personally seen one that expensive), and will last forever if cared for and talked about and shared as widely as possible. The gift to give this Christmas, my friends, is the gift of books! Words. Stories. Lives. We all live them. We all read them. A few of us even try to write them. And, after all, nothing says "I know you" better than the perfect book. Nothing says "I wanted to get you something you would enjoy and share and appreciate " like the perfect book. Nothing says "I listen to you when you talk to me about your interests" like the perfect book. And nothing says "You're not a generic, stereotypical Mom/Dad/Someone with Everything Coworker Girlfriend/Wife Boyfriend/Husband Teenager Family Friends Grandma/Grandpa Kids College Student" like the perfect book.
So while I love - and will continue to shop at - Amazon, I encourage you to give the people in your life at least one gift that acknowledges how much they mean to you this year. Give each of them a book! And if you need a book recommendation for the Moms/Dads/Someones with Everything Coworkers Girlfriends/Wives Boyfriends/Husbands Teenagers Family Friends Grandmas/Grandpas Kids College Students in your life -- ask them. I bet most of them will be only to happy to help you give them something they will love.
I hope you are enjoying the Challenge so far! Quite a few of you have messaged me privately, and several people have emailed to request "Letters from Santa" for a child (and an in one case an adult) in their lives. So my own giving continues, and it really does feel good.
One unanticipated outcome of this Challenge so far has been the comment I have heard from a few people that "Sometimes I can't think of what to do/give and finding something seems to be on my mind all day." All I can say to that is: Double win! As I shared a few posts ago, giving - in my opinion - is like any other cultivated habit. When we put it in the conscious part of our minds, and when we planfully give with intention and with motivation to help someone else, we begin to change our thinking, which ultimately, over time, creates a change in behavior. This Challenge is less about crossing a "give" off your daily to-do list and more about really thinking through the people you encounter, the needs they have, and what seems a reasonable, sustainable level of giving. Like diets, a crash giving spree probably won't last. But a change in thinking and acting, little by little, will hopefully put this sort of thing on your daily mental radar and keep it there. No need to give every day if you honestly can't think of something. And please don't stress yourself out trying to meet some daily goal I may have set as a generic benchmark. Instead, think about this Challenge within the context of your life, and simply ask yourself what giving "often" would look like for you. Habits are built just as they are broken, and habitual giving is what will make it natural.
This is also another reason to journal - daily, if possible. Even if you don't feel you "gave" anything to anyone on a given day. We often underestimate how naturally we do give. And yes, we also occasionally go through days without giving others' needs a second thought. Journaling can help pull all this together, so use this space and time to reflect on how you feel when planning to give, while giving, and after giving. This will be your takeaway from the Challenge, as you are building what I have referred to several times now as a "giving spectrum" - which is really nothing more than a catalogue of your own ideas and "gives" as well as the ideas that others have shared here. And remember: there is no crime in borrowing someone else's "give"! That's actually the idea. In fact, what a great way for someone to give to you, without realizing it. And how might it look/feel to let that person know, if you can, that he/she gave you an idea, inspiration, motivation?
As we continue on with Day 4, I leave you with a quote that I love, and that I think is a perfect fit for all we are all accomplishing here together:
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit."
Happy holiday season, everyone. As the stress of shopping and baking and decorating and running around threatens to take over our holiday cheer and interrupt our peace and joy, I thought this piece (which I originally shared on December 12, 2011) was a timely re-post. And some necessary food for thought. Enjoy!
"Santa isn't coming this year!"
Last year at this time, life was very much the same as it is today: It was just before Christmas. Red and green decorations erupted all over stores and offices and front lawns while lyrics intended to make me smile and glow (i.e. "Born in a stable" and "I am a poor boy, too") generated tears of sorrow and angst rather than celebratory smiles and endless joy. They always do. I'm not sure why, exactly.
I should probably clarify right away that, overall, I am not anti-Christmas. I even love the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, not because he is an angry, nasty little miser, but because he eventually sees the beauty of humanity that often comes alive at this time of year - and more importantly, he realizes his own capacity for growth and compassion in the process. I love that, despite the anger and hatred that often seem to permeate our world on a daily basis, this time of year inspires people to give -- and not just material gifts, but time, and service, and genuine human connection.
But last year at this time, something out of the ordinary did happen, and I have found myself thinking about it over the last week or so, amidst all the twinkling and sparking and jingling. I was in Plattsburgh visiting my family a few days before Christmas, and while my parents were at work and my brother was busy, I sat at Panera enjoying a hot coffee, an internet connection (much faster than my parents' dial-up), and a two-hour block of time to write. The restaurant was packed, but I had been fortunate enough to find a corner table by an electrical outlet - my own little pre-Christmas miracle. And since I was trapped in a writer's nightmare - time to write and nothing to write about - I was happy to watch groups of people parade by with their packages and their soup/salad combos and their animated conversations. Something would give birth to an idea if I just sat. And sipped. And observed. Patiently.
At about 2pm, a frazzled mother walked by with two very young, very tired children. While the little boy screamed and cried, the little girl pulled on her mother and threw herself into chairs and tables to relieve the indescribable stress of childhood. Suddenly, without a word, the children switched roles - the little boy began slapping himself and falling into walls and garbage cans while the little girl started screaming and pleading for toys and cookies and princess shoes. And then there was mom - loaded down with bags and soup bowls and sippy cups and a very large, ergonomically destructive purse. She threatened to topple as she lumbered past me, and she almost seemed to prefer lying face down on a Panera floor to dealing with her very normal-for-their-age-and-situation kids.
As a childless woman of 37, I sympathized with the mom on some level, even as I wondered what would possess anyone to trek around town on the Friday before Christmas with two little ones who should have eaten lunch (and probably taken a nap) hours ago. But I get it - daycare isn't always an option. And isn't this, at least theoretically, supposed to be part of the seasonal joy? Shopping and lunching with one's children, surrounded by the splendid wonder of Christmas tidings and lightly falling snow?
I'll save you some time on this one: The answer is No.
But I didn't realize it before that moment. Not really. Let me be clear here - I am generally not a "grass is greener" kind of person - only because I have found that, from afar, weeds tend to be greener than grass. It isn't til you are up close and personal with the lovely shade of "greener" that you realize it's non-grass, often covered in fertilizer, or waiting to be plucked and discarded from someone's carefully manicured lawn. That being said, I do have a habit of romanticizing parenthood. I've often wondered whether I made a mistake by choosing not to have children. And then, something like this plays out in front of me and reminds me of the reality: Children are wonderful, beautiful miracles - a good thing since they are exhausting, and expensive, and an unending litany of needs and demands and anxiety-provoking behaviors. They are, after all, human beings.
Of course, none of this logic hit me at that moment. I was too caught up in the scene unfolding, the mother's eyes beginning to water, the children exploding in a cacophony of wails, the eyerolls and speedy exits of the other diners whose "tsk tsk" nods further condemned the already defeated mother as she plopped first the boy, then the girl into red, plastic booster seats and shoved them as close to the table as possible. I didn't think things could possibly get worse, until I watched the little girl pick up her mother's bowl of soup and turn it over on top of the table.
Time stopped. Noodles and chicken hit the floor, landing in puddles of their own broth. The green ceramic bowl sat, inverted, in front of the victorious little girl whose Grinch-like grin curled her mouth upward and forced her eyebrows into a sinister arch. I couldn't move. I didn't know whether to help or look away or leave. And shamefully, I admit, I was most curious to see how mom intended to handle a maneuver that would have paralyzed me.
And that was when it happened. Mom yanked her little girl's arm, looked directly into the child's face, and screamed through the tears leaping two at a time out of her eyes: "SANTA ISN'T COMING THIS YEAR!"
All I could do was join in the collective gasp as everyone in the restaurant (who hadn't already retreated to the quiet parking lot) recoiled and immediately slapped a "Worst Mother of the Year" label on this woman's soul. How could a mother say such a thing? How would these children ever enjoy Christmas now? What about a simple "Time Out" or going to bed without dessert? Or what about feeding these children lunch at a decent hour and navigating the crowds with two children in tow a little more strategically?
But as I sat in judgment, another thought arrived, replacing the all-too-familiar critical voice of a non-parent: This woman, this tired, overwhelmed, vilified woman, was Santa. And she didn't get to go away to a toy shop and hang out with elves and show up once a year to be adored and idolized. She was Santa every day. Unless she was busy playing the role of Tooth Fairy. Or Easter Bunny. Or Nurse/Taxi/Chef/Coach/Teacher/Housekeeper/All-knowing, Never-sleeping, Rarely-eating ... Mom.
For a moment, I met her eyes and tried to tell her, with the nonverbal glance of a non-mom who would never speak her language, that I understood. Not her situation, of course. But her defeat. And her desire to give up. She glared at me as if to scream "What the hell do you know about my life?!" and she was, of course, very right. I knew enough to know that I knew nothing. Not about her life, anyway.
At that moment, a Panera employee showed up with a broom and a pile of napkins - he could have been a knight on a white horse for all the fuss this mother made. She wept and thanked him and apologized over and over while she helped him clean her messy life off the table and floors. Her children simply watched in silence.
It took me a year to write about this - probably becase I felt some sense of voyeuristic shame as I watched it happen, refusing to look away, unable to walk away. But as the holiday season continues to envelop us day by day, I am reminded that the spirit of Christmas is really what we make it. Some of us play Santa. Some of us play Scrooge. Some of us bake and shop and wrap. Some of us sing and party and travel. But no matter what our roles and regardless of our beliefs, we all want Santa to show up with gifts. And it is my hope that whether you are a four year old child in need of a nap, or a forty year old mother in need of a break, or even a kid from 1 to 92, that your Santa Claus knows where to find you. My guess is, your gifts have already arrived, you just haven't gone looking for them yet.
May your holidays and your new year ahead be filled with happiness and peace ... and perhaps a warm bowl of chicken noodle soup.
(Please do not watch this video around young children - you'll see why once you hit "play")
As I mentioned in the video above, I would love to write a "From Santa" letter to any child (or any kid at heart) who would like one. Or who seems to need one. So send me an email with the following information if you know someone who might enjoy or benefit from receiving a letter. (And please put something like "Santa Letter" in the subject line, in case this goes to my Spam folder, which I will check regularly):
Name of child (or kid at heart)
Child's interests, talents, hobbies
Any noteworthy accomplishments the child has had this year
Any challenges the child has faced/overcome or continues to struggle with
Child's "Wish list" for Christmas
Anything else Santa should know and comment on
My goal is to get each letter into the mail within 48 hours after I receive the request.