Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Year in Review & Why Resolutioning Isn't Helpful
These aren’t resolutions, and honestly, I don’t think resolutioning is helpful.
Because they set you up for failure.  You are harder on yourself than you are on any other person on earth.  So you set the bar high, higher and higher still.  Then the minute an ankle twists, a dessert is eaten, a harsh word said, time allotted given away—anything at all and the firm standards that you were so sure of, fall apart as ether.  The reason they did aren’t what you think.  The reason they disappeared and your self-esteem ebbed and the rewards seem to be out of reach are because you decided that self-kindness wasn’t a worthy goal this year.  A resolution of thoughtfulness of self wasn’t to be made.  Forgiveness is the only way to self-absolution.  And forgiving ourselves is the one thing we have trouble with.  The ones that can, who can look towards tomorrow as a fresh start not a failed attempt, are happier, healthier and just honestly easier.

So these are some ideas, inventoried anecdotes from my year-in-review that I need to reference when the going gets tough, and I need to be tougher.  Hope they might make sense for you too.  Ready?

“Happiness is a choice, not a right.”  Those
Declaration of Independence
Founding Fathers were on to something.  We have rights to life, to liberty, but not to happiness, rather it is the pursuit of it.  Something in the chase leads me to believe that they meant it is a choice not a right.  Many people have everything and aren’t happy, others have nothing and are.  Maybe perfect happiness isn’t possible, but waking up with the conscious decision to be happy has made a difference when I could see it through.  My mom, who would have been a shade closer to 70 this year had she lived, had only one wish for me, to be happy.  I didn’t get it then, but looking at the trio I have now, I do. 
remote battles are epic by law
Happiness can be elusive and fleeting.  But it’s a righteous and commendable goal.  We have more challenges as far as the sky is long as I write this, but I am going to really try to put a spin on happy this year coming and let the Zen of it carry me off to possibilities. 

“I feel like we’re drifting apart.  I mean to put a stop to that.”  That statement, two sentences, were said to me by my friend Julie this year.  I wanted to repeat them here because I thought it was simple and brilliant and beautifully direct. In the first part she acknowledged a distance that I’d felt too, and in the second let me know that she valued me enough to
Bridesmaids (2011)  
want to do something about it.  I learned from her that the worrying and fretting changes nothing, friends that matter are worth the effort of a direct missive to the heart.  And those that cannot see and acknowledge it as such, are not worthy of any more effort.  It’s too exhausting.  There’s a lot to do that can be got on with rather than hanging on.
Closing a door opens a window in a lot of ways; I learned that this year. 

“It’s time to walk together.”  My husband moves quickly and with sure steps.  I move a lot slower and am usually holding the hand of someone a lot shorter.  His pace is brisk, and he’s a runner.  Mine is tortoise-like and I am positive I have a running allergy.  It will not always be so, the chase will slow
down for John and mine will likely speed up without the lug of “come look at this” missing from me.  What I’m getting at is, in the midst of bustle and worry, and money and children and in-laws and aging and ends, marriages need tending to in order to remind each other why it seemed like such a good idea to settle down in the first place when you took that first walk down a white aisle. 
It begins with being in step.  Not always in sync, but taking the time to stroll together at the same place has helped a great deal for me.  I learned it is as helpful to tell someone to slow down as it is to speed up if we can both get there around the same time.

“I thought you’d give me the benefit of a doubt.”  I said these words to a friend who I had been kind to and supportive of, had done favors for, and had listened to.  It was an uneasy fit for the introvert in me from the start but when you go someplace new and you are not in classes anymore, effort needs to be made.  So when she threw some cutting phrases at me publicly and seemingly out of nowhere, I was stunned and had the simmering heart-achy discomfort of being made
to feel small and awkward, hollow and humiliated.  It took some stumbling and moments of self-doubt, and even though it has been addressed, a conclusion has come, for me, at least.  We cannot be friends.  There is no time when someone who calls herself with the privileged moniker of “friend” should make you feel badly.  It is never okay.  And you don’t deserve it.  Moving on from it should ensure that a spot in your heart opens up for someone who does.  This is not a high school musical; I can exit stage left whenever I need to. 

“Open books aren’t always safely read.”  I’ve mentioned a tendency I had before, because of my
history, of dealing with difficulty in ways that weren’t honest.  My reaction to that has been one of an “open book” policy.  It makes me vulnerable, sure, but as I have told my own children, lies are always found out, the truth just hangs there and is unvarnished.  So when I write, I promised that I would not write here about my life or ideas in any way that was false.  Perhaps nothing is as vulnerable as the stories we tell and the audience we tell them to.  Usually, the latter is controlled.  But not when you enter the world of a blog.  I always think of my audience as small, but I’ve been surprised when I find out how and who (and especially touched when told why people) are reading my words.  Perhaps because of this, I found myself the recipient of a completely unexpected missive about my family and my way of walking in the world from a person I barely knew.  I did not feel it was kind or generous, I thought it was offensive and overstepped and said so.  In my shock and defensive anger I revealed personal details of my life that I absolutely should not have shared with this person.  It was an error.  I did not seek counsel.  I reacted.  In the end, I’ve learned this year that while being an open book is almost always a wondrous thing, certain chapters have to remain firmly closed.  That’s a secret narrative for a very privileged, very trusted few, and for me, at the top of that list is God.    

“Be kind anyway.”  Do you remember those stickers that say, “mean people suck?”  Well of course they
do.  I’m sure it is a suckfest for them as well, seeing as they have to live with it all the day long.  But I’ve found that when in doubt, being kind has helped in numerous ways, to the person I don’t know, and certainly to the person I do.  Kindness matters.  Holding doors, offering a smile or a word of encouragement.  Giving when you can.  It helps change the entire world.  A butterfly effect of generosity.  And that extends in all aspects.  The same thing your mother told you if-you-don’t-have-something-nice-to-say-say-nothing-at-all applies too.  That’s being kind.  Just don’t say.  Sure you may have been to the Grand Canyon or Cayman a thousand and one times, sure you know the best place to eat in the Village, yes, you enjoyed that spectacle first.  But, just…don’t say it.  Like the post, give a nod, smile brilliantly.  Let their experience lie in its sheer awesomeness and be happy for them.  It’s important for both of you. 
And this lesson is as old as time itself, Instead, let your message be 'Yes' for 'Yes' and 'No' for 'No.' Anything more than that comes from the evil one." Matthew 5:37  The evil here being jealousy or envy, temptation or covetousness (yes, that’s a word.  Isn’t it cool?  Doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue though.) that may lead you to say something that could’ve been better left unsaid.  A simple “happy for you” beats anything else any day. 

“Smiling should not hurt.” Grinning and bearing it is overrated.  When my mother got sick, she began to read her favorite cat centered mysteries with an increased fervor.  It bothered me a bit, but she was
right when she said that she lived long enough and read enough of the highbrow to know what she liked and what she liked was this.  Understood.  We’re all getting on and up and about.  Do what you want to do and in company worth keeping.  Don’t apologize for it. 
Read what you want and make it count.  Don’t grit your teeth in an imitation of Marlon Brando in The Godfather.  I’ve found myself in less than stellar
social situations this year that I entirely opted into in the erroneous idea that I had to finish the commitment even if it hurt me to do it.  That’s done.  Time is precious, and smiling should come with bubbling joy, lesson tucked Mom. 

“I loved it when you said that you loved it.”  You know that really together friend you have?  The one that has kids she wrangles with ease, a body that you cannot understand and energy to burn?  The house that’s lovely, the marriage without squeaks?  I've learned this year that that person, specifically, needs encouragement.   I don't know what is going on behind the scenes, the exterior may be perfect, but the interior may be still and quiet.  When I’ve been called to, when a person appears to me in my mind, in prayer, in a whisper from God, I’ve answered it.  It doesn’t take much, a call, a text, a
message an email.  Whatever it is, encouragement helps.  And it helps everyone.  I did that for a friend of mine, and she said it made her day.  It didn’t take all that much of mine.  And my friends have done it for me.  Friends, some writers, some not professionally so—well a few have told me consistently that they like what I’m up to, and why.  That helps me immeasurably face up to this keyboard and have another go.  We all need encouragement.  We all need acknowledgement.  It’s free.  It’s love.  It’s good.  We need to do it often because it fills us up even more than the person we’re applauding.   

“Love the ones you’re with.”  Isn’t it strange that we save the best for what’s outside our own home?  Maybe because we expect, intrinsically that the people who know us best should just know us.  Just know what we’re about.  How dare we have to explain it?!  How dare they just not know it.  Deep down in their marrow.  So resentment ensues and the happy shining face is best spent outside.  Who
needs me more—the friends I see occasionally or the folks who I see every day to break bread?  Loving someone means really loving them, all of them, all the time.  Not liking them consistently.  That’s near impossible, but loving them regardless.  And that energy is best consumed and best spent at home.  The reaction of that effort to “love without stopping” (1 Corinthians 16:14) gets easier as it’s put into practice.  The first good word has to go to one of the four boys I live with.
  It just has to be that way.  The same ripple effect applies.  They leave lighter.  I stay a bit more calmly.  Whoever you’ve chosen to love or who have been chosen to be loved by you, are the ones that need the first bright gold rays of your impossibly bright sun.  Whether they consist of family or family and a few select friends, tell them, often and constantly how important they are to your well-being.  It’s the best boomerang you’ve ever had in your whole life.  And makes your home a far, far better place.  

“My word this year is ‘story,’ and I’m determined to write it.”  A billion or so yesterdays ago, I found this really great idea I think through Ali Edwards.  One Little Word.  Something to define you and be defined
by you this upcoming year.  I chose story way back when and then everything kind of crashed and it was a word deferred.  But my word for 2015 is STORY.  The one I write, the one I live, the one that I want to be part of.  It’ll be ongoing, and most likely twisty.  The best tales are after all.  What that means for this corner of the Internet, I’m not so sure, but I am sure that the end product will be worth it.  Because I am.  Story is my word.  What word will define you this year?

In whatever way you look at it, and however you chose to let the New Year in, I hope it is filled with more hope than you think is present, more love than you think is possible, and more joy that can ever be contained or considered practical.  I cannot wait to see what’s in store for you!  Have a wonderful, happy, healthy 2015!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Reclaim that Holiday Narrative--Why You're Doing Just Fine

In my memory, there was a lovely soap in a dish wrapped nicely in cellophane.  I think it was a favor from a party.  It was so nicely presented, wrapped up with ribbons, the pressed flowers, a variation on the theme of purple that showed so nicely on the white.  The scalloped porcelain dish on which it resided was delicate and lovely.  You almost didn’t want to use it and break that mirage of perfection.  So.  We didn’t.

For years, the soap gift was left to reside in the guest bathroom, a permanent fixture of temporary perfection.  Once it was opened, the illusion would be abandoned.  The “niceness” gone. 

The shrink wrap and cellophane did nothing to stave off the dust that accumulated under and around it,
Great Expectations 1860
however, and the only way to clean it—to salvage the soap, would be to open it.  Otherwise it would sit, growing brown with lack of care, a
Miss Havisham remnant, suspended in time, grown ill and forgotten from lack of use.

My mom was not a hoarder; she was a frugal saver.  And it wasn’t that we couldn’t afford nice things, it’s just that we didn’t have a lot of them and what we did have, were chosen pretty carefully.  I had started to ask her though, especially in the last years of her life, what we actually were saving these things for?  The china that was on display, the linen tablecloth in the closet that was yellowing with age, but never unfurled for the fear of the stains of the act of living and celebrating.  What was the actual point of keeping it perfectly perfect?

Because when we do, or when we try, often the standards are far beyond our energy or interest.  The willingness is there, the execution not so much (consider, will you, the popularity of the “Pinterest fail” posts?).  If we all can agree that the striving for
"Strawberry Santa Pinterest Fail"
perfection is such that we need professionals to trim our trees and decorate our homes, if the only photos that grace our cards are those that have been shaped and filtered and vetted to a high polish of unreal, if we all agree that we’ve lost the newborn heartbeat of this season, then we’ve got to scale back, reevaluate, and reconsider what it is that we’re doing to and of and with each other.

Hang with me.  I’ve got a point about all this, and here it is: the holidays.  The act of celebration of family, friends and faith can quickly become like that unused but lovely relic in the stories of our family history.

It begins the minute I order the turkey for Thanksgiving and then have to choose a date to pick it up.  It hits quickly and definitively that the holiday season has begun.  And so too has the craziness, and the keeping up and the keeping in and the keeping of perspectives.

The last bit is the hardest to do and see and reinforce.  I want my children to have gratitude and to remember that the endgame in all of this: the presents, the lights are all visceral reminders of the Savior’s birth….

But the anxiety begins at Thanksgiving—the dishes to make, the pies, the baskets to fill for families in need, the lessons to impart while doing it all:

“Why aren’t our decorations up?”
“They have a tree all picked out, what about us?”
“I want the wishbone!”  “Wait!  Me too!  What’s a wishbone?”
“Where’s our elf?”
“Why don’t we have more decorations?”
“I really don’t want to wear that shirt.”
“When are the cookies being made?”
“I need to add something to my list for Santa.”

Clement Clarke Moore 1823
When I was growing up, Christmas centered around church, the constructs of a tree and presents and Santa and chimneys, stockings and cookies left out were foreign ones for my foreign parents.  I felt a distinct lack and embarrassment because of it.  (When you’re in school, you just don’t want to marked as different, that “othering” is also a social construct that we do anything to avoid well into adulthood.  After all, it has taken me many years to stand firm in my own skin to say it’s fine.  I cannot imagine the bone density I would have required at the age of 8 or 12 or 16 or 22 to do that.)

But when I became a mother, I wanted to do it all differently.  Create traditions and firmly plant seeds of ideas of gratitude and compassion that would be sparked into action from memory in the years to come.  And I don’t think I’m a bit different from anyone else in this regard.  It’s not the intentions that do us in, it’s not our kids, it’s the refraction of double vision (much like when you forget to put on the 3D glasses), the double vision of all you see around you quickly turns to tunnel vision and all you can think of are the things you have not done to make your holiday warm, meaningful and bright. 





Shake your head from the snowflakes of cheer that abound and know this.

You are doing just fine.  And the forgiveness and love that comes with this special season needs to start with you.  It’s not easy, you are smack dab at the end of the lengthy to-do list, but you need to forgive yourself and allow every single one of your senses to rest and rejuvenate.  You’re pretty good at giving grace.  How about sparing some on yourself?

I’ve been conditioned to look around me and see what other people are doing, and seeing, and tradition-ing.  All of this is conflated then when the brothers three come home and talk about what their friends are doing: “He said it’s a tradition!  What’s our tradition?”

Whatever your answers are, I suspect that’s truly where your traditions are.  You can reclaim the holiday narrative that has been written in your family.  You can impose the limits you need, you can reinforce ideas, and you can begin new ones.  Grace is like that, your book of grace; your narrative is not static.  It moves along with your life, it has no edge to test, its center moves around.  You can change it.  It doesn’t need to define you; it needs to be defined by you

Meet Milo.  He's on Joe's model
of  the Knight Bus.  I've tried
(unsuccessfully) to convince him and his
brothers that Milo really just wants
to be a wizard and hoped to catch
a ride to Diagon Alley by staying right there.
I could get grumpy.  Truth be told, I probably am.  I still have cookies to bake so they can be decorated to goopy perfection by this trio.  I have gifts to wrap, and to order, Christmas cards to address, cookie swap to bake for, teacher gifts to consider, a poinsettia plant to keep alive, a tree that needs watering, dinners to plan, an elf to move, Advent devotionals...and that doesn’t count all the other things checked off the list.  But here is my response, when we look at Christmas, we’ve got to look at our hand, and count the senses we’ve been given:

Sight: I can see so much more beauty in the house at Christmas, the tree, ornaments that have stories
Advent wreath by Caleb Voskamp
attached to them, an advent wreath that follows Mary to Bethlehem, stockings, all in deep crimsons representing the heart and love and greens offering hope and growth.  Those colors offer surety and comfort somehow.

Sound: Music fills the air this time of year more than any other.  And it usually isn’t the loud, pop music I’m really unfamiliar with, but the old classics that everyone seems to know and hums along with.  My mother loved the Mormon Tabernacle’s version of Joy to the World.  For me it’s the Carol of the Bells and new renditions of old favorites that stir me to imagine something greater and makes me better. 

A Hallelujah Christmas - Cloverton Music Video... 

Smell:  I make twice-buttered rolls a couple times a year, standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding once a year.  But what really reminds me of Christmas is roast duck.  My grandmother made 5 of them one year when she came visiting from India.  My mom
Since my mom's not here to advise
I found a gorgeous step-by-step from
The Hungry Mouse
took up the tradition afterwards and every Christmas Eve, that’s the dinner waiting for us. 

Taste: Sugar cookies have become a battle for me, considering I only started making them in earnest five years ago.  I think I’ve finally got it down though,
my gang, last year, decorating away
and the Martha helped a lot!  In all seriousness, nothing tastes like Christmas for me more than one of those carefully, crazily decorated cookies.

Touch: The laughter and cheer of games and stories.  We are more generous with each other this time of year; at least that’s what I see.  Hugs are given more readily; hands are clasped with earnest grace. 
the boys 2009

“Grace” in the Old Testament, the word used is chesed, which can mean deliverance or favor from God against enemies or adversity.  It suggests daily guidance and forgiveness.  In the New Testament, it can mean the unmerited favor of God.  For me, with this season, with Christ’s birth, it offers a chance of the amazing possibility of salvation and freedom and that kind of present asks for nothing in return but an extension of that forgiveness.  Some compassion, some understanding.  Amazing grace.  I have an opportunity to enact it all the time this season.  When I saw the lovely decorated house of my friends or the amazingly coordinated family holiday photo, I used to get pretty glum.  My house, not so much.  My photos…well, it’s an opportunity and a hope that one good IOS photo comes through.  Our budget was stretched to the extreme, and that meant no formal photos or extras.  But lately, just lately, I’ve taken off my glasses, cleaned them, gotten out of the double/tunnel and put them back on to see what’s really happening: 

  • I don’t know the crazy that took place around that holiday photo, but I can be so glad to see the genuine smiles of a happy family in it, and pray that it stays that way.  And I can file away an idea or two for the future.

  • I don’t know the amount of stuff that has been placed in the unused guest room so the main space can get gorgeous or how many things were broken by the dog before the party started, but I can be glad that my friend has this house and these things and share her pride in them.

  • I’m not sure of how many cookies got broken in the making of the intricately decorated Christmas tree sugar wonder in front of me, complete with miniscule candy ornaments and a glaze so fine, it cannot have been made by hand, but I can look at it and enjoy it and tell my friend how talented she is and how much joy seeing it brought me.

  • I’m not sure why my friend decided to post everything she’s done lately for the holidays or house or kids or classroom, but I instead of allowing the imp of jealousy come and steal my goodwill, I can give her the praise that she really needs to hear, because it isn’t coming from places where she needs it to come from.  She’s asking to be noticed, acknowledged and told that it is well.  And I can do that.  I can do that for her and maybe that will be the words she needs to begin the journey to rebuild whatever is broken in the background just out of the photo frame that will make her stand taller and more confidently. 

In the end, the very end, I cannot impose the intention of any post, photo, card or gift.  It is up to me how I’ve chosen to receive it.  And in the reception is grace.  And the more you give yourself, the more you have to give away.  The season is already perfect.  You are the perfection in the season, just as you are

That soap by the way?  We talked, my mom and me, and it was opened and used, and worn out and replaced.  Because that’s the whole point of lovely things after all, they grow lovelier with use and touch memory will imbibe it with significance.  That’s the alchemy of what makes the ordinary extraordinary

And that’s what I wish for you, moments of extraordinary ordinariness, and the perfection of your family, just as it is.  Merry Christmas friend, and God bless you in the upcoming New Year.