Holidays

Little Wooden Soldier

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This little wooden soldier has been in my life for a long time. My first memory of him was when he was attached to a musical night light lamp in my childhood friend’s room. The soldier had two friends with him on a wooden platform and when the lamp was wound up, they went around carousel style. I think I was three or four. I remember playing with the lamp, winding it up, and eventually breaking the music box portion. These friends lived right across the street from us and they were more like auxiliary family rather than friends. Friend’s mom was an extra mother for me. She loved me, gave me many horse books, encouraged me in creative pursuits, and didn’t even get very angry when her son and I painted splotches on the walls of her house.

At some point my friend out grew his need for a nightlight. His mother, wise woman that she was, took the little soldiers and turned them into Christmas ornaments. It is possible that she did this just prior to them moving away. One of the little soldiers was given to me. He has hung on my tree every year since. When I pull him out of the ornament box I think about my childhood friends. I think about the woman who was so kind to me and who has since died. I’ll never get to hug her again or tell her thank you.

The soldier smiles at me and he keeps marching, reminding me of good things past and that good things are ahead too.

Christmas Cards

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I love Christmas cards. They are a tradition that is waning as electronic communication takes over. I remember when my Christmas card wall would be covered with dozens of cards before December was over. These days I’m fortunate if we end up with ten.

Yet I know that Christmas cards are complicated. They seemed simple when I first got married. I just took a mailing list, printed out a cheerful letter, and dropped them all into the mail. I liked doing it. I liked reaching out an connecting with people whom I may have lost contact with during the prior year. I liked that each card carried an invisible message “I’m thinking of you.” Though at that younger age, I may have been less aware that the message was muted by my mass mailing approach.

Then I arrived in 1999. That was the year where I went through radiation therapy to kill a tumor in my neck that was not cancerous, but kept growing back. The radiation sapped my health and sent me into a depression. By fall things were better, but then in early December Howard took himself to the emergency room with chest pain and ended up in the cardiac ICU because he had myocarditis. I still hadn’t sent out my annual Christmas letter, and I couldn’t bear to write one. What would I say? “Merry Christmas from the hospital. Howard will probably be fine eventually, but we’re in crisis right now?” That was the first year I didn’t send a letter at all. I sat in Howard’s hospital room and signed the cards “Love The Taylers” then dropped them into the mail.

2000 was a better year for us, Howard and I both recovered fully and we’d launched Schlock Mercenary. 2004 was when I gave up mass mailing Christmas cards at all. We’d just quit Novell and money was very tight for the next few years. I let Christmas cards fall off my December to do list.

I miss them. I miss getting bright colored seasonally appropriate art in the mail. I loved the year that I got an Eid Al Fatr card. Yet I find that this year I feel about writing a Christmas letter approximately what I felt in 1999. I would have to choose between being appropriately upbeat for the holiday and being truthful about how this past year has felt for me. So I’ve compromised. I just spent an hour writing The Christmas Letter I Will Not Send. It tells of all the medical appointments and mental health issues. It talks about joy and bright spots that are all mixed up with stress and pain. It goes on for three pages with far more personal information than acquaintances are likely to want. Writing it was really good for me to do. It helped me see my year in summary, and I can see that it qualifies as a good year because we are all stronger and better than we were at the beginning. Most of it was not fun, but I’m not sorry for it. Writing the letter helped me see this in ways that I had not before. I suspect that most Christmas letters matter far more to the person who writes them than to anyone who reads them.

With that letter written and stored on my hard drive, I find that I still want to reach out to friends and family. So I will be sending out some Christmas cards. Each one will have a handwritten note. They aren’t trying to catch people up with all the events of my year. They just express love and gratitude to the recipient. I don’t know how many I’ll do, time and energy are in limited supply, but the ones I’ve done so far have made me happy. I’ll do a few more as I find time until I run out of December.

May you find the holiday traditions that bring you joy and let go of the ones that don’t.
–Sandra

The Story of A Wall Sconce

Almost three years ago I devoted a couple of weeks to repainting our front room. It was a project that required shoving all the furniture to one side, draping everything with plastic, painting and then repeating the process for the other side. I then had a lovely empty wall. I spent the next few weeks looking at that wall and planning what we should hang on it to finish making the room a beautiful place. I even went out and purchased a wrought iron wall sconce as part of my plans.

That January was the beginning of 2013, which was the year of massive transition in our family. Mental health issues emerged in not-to-be-ignored ways. I had kids transitioning schools, the oldest was headed for college, and there was a shift to be made in how our business was run. I wanted 2014 to be better, part of it was, most of it wasn’t. 2015 has been a rough ride as well, much of that because all the stress caught up to me and I’ve been trying to regain my balance. In all that time this wall sconce sat on the floor in my office. Sometimes it was tucked into a corner. Other times it got moved out into the middle of things because I was rearranging. It got knocked over. The glass cups went rolling on the floor and had to be recollected. I thought of getting rid of it more than once. My plans for the front room wall had changed anyway. I kept being annoyed by it, but not quite being willing to give it away.

A few weeks ago Howard saw it in my office and mentioned that it would look nice on the front entry wall where we’d recently removed a batik hanging. This was not the wall that I had nicely painted. This was the opposite wall that I’d meant to get around to painting, but never did. It sits there white, dingy, and waiting for me to decide if I really do want to knock open the front of the coat closet to turn it into a nook, or if I just want to paint and call it good. Howard was right, the sconce would fit there. Yesterday I decided I was done waiting. I didn’t have the energy to make big decisions about closets and nooks. I didn’t have time to undertake a big painting project. But I could grab a drill and drive in a few screws.

Two screws. Fifteen minutes. The sconce that has been underfoot in my life for three years is now in a place where it is lovely instead of annoying. Howard took it a step further and lit candles to go with it.

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It is beautiful, and in the light of its candles, the wall becomes beautiful too. My mind wants to make a parable of this story, to find a single meaning. Instead I found several. When things are out of place, I can’t see their true value. Sometimes something which spends a long time being a problem can turn out to be wonderful. If I am patient I will get through the hard time and back to where I can make things lovely instead of spending all my energy surviving. Howard sees things I don’t and makes my life brighter.

Or maybe I should stop trying to assign meaning and just be happy watching the candles flicker.

Celebrating in Small Ways

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When I was growing up December 13 was an important landmark during the Christmas holidays. It was the day when caroling began. Each year our family would pick a few friends or neighbors who we thought were having a particularly difficult holiday. Sometimes it was because their money was tight, sometimes they’d just experienced a death, sometimes they were facing an upcoming death, sometimes they struggled in other ways, sometimes we just wanted to express gratitude to a person. We picked two or three households then we would go and sing to them each night for twelve nights before Christmas. Each singing featured one of the verses from the song Twelve Days of Christmas only with our own words to match the small gift that we gave to them. I loved that tradition. I loved the singing. I loved the look on their faces when they realized we really were going to show up on their porch every single night. I loved the feeling that we were bringing joy to someone in a difficult season.

For various reasons this tradition did not work well in the family that I helped create when I got married. I tried it one year and discovered I do not have the gift for it that my mother has. (I wrote about it here.) It certainly isn’t something I would be willing to put into our lives now. I simply don’t have the emotional energy necessary to sustain that big production. But I would like to do something small that feels like giving. So I thought I might give a photo and a story about it for each of the next twelve days. They’ll mostly Christmas things, because that is what fills my house with beauty right now. Sometimes the stories will be small if I’m having a very full day.

I’ll begin with my advent candle. I wrote about it a little more than a week ago when I described what I hoped to do as an advent practice. Unfortunately I haven’t sustained the advent effort on a daily basis, but I still burn the candle and think careful thoughts when I find the time. Candles in December make me happy. This year’s candle is more decorated than most. I usually just paint numbers, but my sister-in-law offered this up as a Thanksgiving project. So I painted while visiting with people I love. In only twelve days the candle will burn down to a stub. Between now and then, I’ll watch it shine bright.

Finding Christmas

It is nearly a week into December and I’m trying to make space for Christmas. Some of this is physical. The front room furniture had to be shifted around to make space for the Christmas tree. This led to the discovery of hidden piles of dust and debris which we cleaned up. But more of the work is taking place in my head. I’m trying to rearrange my thoughts so that I can enjoy the approaching holiday, not just on the day itself, but also the approach to it. Creating a holiday mood in the house is a help, thus the need for a Christmas tree. I’ve also lit the candles with the holiday smells, which is unsurprisingly effective at invoking Christmas feelings.

As part of my effort to create holiday in my heart, I began a personal advent program. I have a candle with numbers on it. Each night I light the candle and let it burn down by one number. While it is burning I flip through my paper scriptures and glance through passages that I’ve marked through the years. Within a minute or two I’ll find one that speaks to me. I write it down in my journal and a few sentences about what that particular verse means to me at this time. Then I pick a specific fear that has been plaguing me, I write it down and deliberately try to let it go instead of carrying it around. Naming the fears has been interesting. It is also interesting that the scriptures are often related to the fear I choose to let go that evening. Twenty five scriptures and twenty five released fears will go a long way toward clearing my mind and heart. I hope.

I’ve already bungled it, of course. I missed my ritual for a few nights. Then when I remembered I had to decide whether to try to catch up or if I should just proceed forward by one per day. I ended up making up the missed days during church. Which left me burning down the candle with my scripture pondering already done for the day. At least the tree is up. It doesn’t have lights yet, but Link has said he’ll do them tomorrow. Then I’ll feel like I can pull out the boxes of ornaments and other decorations. On Wednesday I drive to fetch Kiki from school. In two weeks the other kids will be out for the holiday. Day by day we move forward and most of my Christmas efforts are about pausing and pondering so that the season can contain contemplation rather than just bustle.

Winding Down the Holiday

The Christmas Tree is once again banished to a bag in the basement. The other holiday paraphernalia is in boxes. Absent all the decorations, the front room feels empty. The house feels a bit empty as well. I spent eight hours of today returning Kiki and her belongings to college. We had good weather for the drive. The roads were clear and the combination of fresh snow and setting sun made for some lovely scenery on the drive back. More than once I wished I had a camera so that I could pull over and photograph the combinations of red hills, rising full moon, and bright yellow grass in a field of snow. Despite the camera in my phone, I did not pull over. It was cold out there, I was in a hurry to get home, and the resulting photographs would have displayed my lack of skill more than the beauty. Also, stopping on the side of the highway, not safe. Instead I contented myself with listening to a movie sound track and feeling triumphant when a crescendo of music carried me over the top of a rise and into the next valley.

Link went with me for the drive. He does this as often as there is room in the car and as long as the drives won’t pull him out of school. He just likes road trips. I like having company in the car, even when that company spends the entire trip with his hoodie pulled over his face so that he can sleep. We headed home to a house where I had a stack of books waiting for me. Before leaving this morning I made a quick trip to the library to pick up one reference book that I needed. It was located in the folklore section, so I came home with as many books as I could carry in my arms (14). Next time I’ll bring my bag of doom, because apparently I’m not a one-book-from-the-library type of person. The books are going to help me piece together some things I need for my novel. Though I admit that some of them just looked interesting.

We arrived home to a quiet house, everyone engaged in their own activities. I relished the silence for a while, but then gathered the kids for movie time. We’d watched Back to the Future and Back to the Future Part II on New Year’s Day. It seemed like an appropriate way to ring in 2015, which is the future that Marty visits. It was fun to see how wackily wrong some of the future scenes were. What my kid didn’t notice was how eerily correct a few things were. Watching multiple channels at once is something the kids do every day. Being distracted by wearable devices at the dinner table, also normal. Today we pulled out Back to the Future Part III. These movies really are ridiculous and the second two have caricatures rather than characters, yet I love them anyway. They are steeped in nostalgia. They remind me of when 1985 was my reality. Also, they deliver the satisfying, if corny, endings. I’m really glad we had those movies to watch upon our arrival in 2015. I’m also glad that it has been ten years since I watched them. They are a mixed of brilliant and really dumb. Once every ten years is the right distance for me to enjoy them without being overwhelmed by the dumb bits.

Thus ends our holiday season. Tomorrow is Sunday, and marks the beginning of being back to a normal schedule. I think I may be ready for that.

Stories I Tell Myself at the Beginning of the Year

The sun is very bright when I look out my windows this morning. If I only look at the sunshine and the bright blue sky, I might be fooled into thinking it is warm out there. Yet the sun reflects off the snow piles and glints through the icicles that are gradually growing in size from the corners of our roof. It is cold out ther,e and I don’t want to venture forth. I feel the same way about the new year that has just begun. I don’t want to venture out into it yet. I’m pretty sure it is full of cold hard things. Though it might also have bright skies and sunshine. I’d feel better about the coming year if I was able to tell myself a happy story about what is ahead and then believe that story. Unfortunately last year has shaken my belief in my predictive powers.

2013 was a year of transition for our family. The business shifted as we took big steps with the challenge coin project and set up a permanent warehouse location. It was as if the business finally grew up and moved out of the house. That move out coincided with our first child heading off to college, which caused big shifts in our family dynamics as well. Then there was all the mental health stuff that burst open during that year. I reached the beginning of 2014 and I really wanted a year of stabilizing after the year of transition. I wanted it to be the year where everything calmed down. The desire is evident in many of my blog entries as I tried to frame the things that were happening to fit the “life settling down” narrative. There was a lot of “when this one thing is out of the way, then things can really stabilize.” There was an endless stream of “one things” to “get out of the way.”

In some ways we did stabilize during 2014, so I wasn’t manufacturing fiction to describe our lives. In other ways, the year was every bit as emotionally tumultuous as 2013. Much of the tumult was in my head. In hindsight I can see that I longed for quiet stability because I had loads of emotional baggage to process from the transitions of the prior year. Instead I landed in November and December where I had to processes that emotional baggage while acquiring shiny new emotional baggage to add to the pile. Add to that the dissonance of knowing that I have a truly wonderful life, filled with good things, and bright potential. Yet I didn’t dwell in happiness. I spent far too much time just wishing that everything would hold still long enough for me to get my bearings.

So this morning I look out the windows at a day so bright it hurts my eyes. It is the first day of 2015 and I’m reluctant to tell myself a story about what will come in the next year. I know what I would love to have happen, but I have very little power over the pieces that would do the most to make this year a good one for me. I would like 2015 to be the year when mental health issues fade from importance in our lives and stop rearranging my days on a regular basis. That depends on other people growing, learning, gaining insights, and choosing to overcome instead of hide. I only have power to choose what I do, not what anyone else does. I can’t choose what will go well in the coming months and what will go poorly. But I can prevent myself from imposing a narrative on my life and then being hurt when events don’t match up to it.

I don’t know what 2015 will bring to me. I hope for good things. I dread the hard things that are all too easy to picture. Maybe at the end of the year I’ll be able to look back and tell a story about how it went. For now, I need to work on accepting each day as it is rather than spending time sad because the day wasn’t what I’d planned for it to be. If I can do that each day, then I think most of 2015 will feel like a better place than the last few months of 2014.

The Eve of a New Year

Tonight is New Year’s Eve. Tomorrow morning will be the first day of 2015. Contemplating the new year, it feels bright, sharp, and cold. Possibly I’m just being influenced by my first bleary-eyed look outside my windows this morning. All over social media I see people moving to embrace the new year. Some of them are excited for things to come. Some are just anxious to shake off the dust of 2014 and do something else, because 2014 was miserable for them. I’ll be honest, though 2014 had some really good months for me, the last few were not my favorite. Yet I don’t feel any impulse to rush forward because I know that I’ve got more hard stuff between me and any pleasant months. Just like I’ve got several months of cold before the outdoors becomes hospitable again. Right now I want to hunker down where it is warm, not face the cold.

I don’t get to. I’m going to be dragged into this new year minute by minute. As I reach the appointed time to pick up my regular responsibilities, I’ll settle them onto my shoulders again. Usually I feel excited about that after having a holiday rest. Today, not so much. So I keep thinking about the Winston Churchill quote: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” I can do that. I can keep putting one foot in front of the other. I can keep doing the tasks as they come to me. Then at some point I’ll be able to look up from my feet and realize that all my walking has carried me into different terrain. It isn’t exactly hope, but perhaps it counts as faith. I believe that if I keep going, eventually I’ll end up somewhere else.

I won’t be making resolutions this year. The last thing I need is a new load of expectations for myself. Instead of new goals, I’m going to focus on acceptance. I need to see things as they are and let go of what I think they ought to be. Written out like that, it looks an awful lot like a resolution, so I guess I have one after all. But only one. And I’m allowed to ignore it without guilt if that is what I need to do.

Saving Christmas

There are a bajillion Christmas books and movies out there where fill-in-the-blank protagonist saves Christmas. Usually “save Christmas” means “enable Santa Claus to deliver presents on time.” I’ve seen some wonderful iterations of this story and some terrible ones. This afternoon I was faced with yet another version and I had a moment of clarity. I figured out why How the Grinch Stole Christmas is one of my very favorite Christmas stories. It is the only one I’ve ever seen that says Christmas is strong instead of weak. It says that Christmas can’t be destroyed, that it exists separate from presents and the trappings of traditional celebrations. In fact, Christmas saves the Grinch, not the other way around. That’s a message I can really believe. It is also a reminder that I need.

I often get tangled up in my own version of saving Christmas. There is this long list of things that I feel like I must do correctly or else the holiday will be ruined. I spend so much energy doing things that are the metaphorical equivalent of saving Santa. I need to remember that there are better Christmas stories to dwell inside. Give me a Herdman-style Christmas where somehow the chaos of everyone colliding with each other turns into something beautiful after all. Or the Christmas where everyone sings whether or not there are presents.

I guess this year I really need the stories where things turn out okay whether or not the protagonist makes all the right choices. Which, when I think about it, is right in tune with the first Christmas story. That’s the one where a baby is born and he becomes the means by which all of our mistakes can be redeemed. That’s the point, we don’t save Him. He saves us. I don’t have to make Christmas or save it. I need to open up so that it can take up residence inside me.

Wrapping Presents

I wrapped some presents this morning. It is the first Christmas focused thing I’ve done since we hauled the tree out of storage two weeks ago. I suppose I could also count some of the online shopping I’ve done as I acquired the things I knew we’d want as gifts. But ordering things off of the internet doesn’t feel Christmas-y. It just feels like life. I do it exactly the same all year long. Wrapping is different. It is outside the usual round of my tasks. It is an opportunity for me to focus on the particular gift and the particular person for the few minutes it takes to fold and tape paper around the package. I do not always accept the opportunity. Sometimes I approach wrapping with a “get it done” attitude. Yet even when I’m in a hurry, I still have to do one fold at a time, one present at a time. That fact annoys me when I’m rushed. The same fact is the source of enjoyment when I am not.

I still have some wrapping to do. Our tree is uncharacteristically bare underneath. None of us have had much brain for thinking ahead to Christmas. We’ve all been mired in the day-to-day tasks of school, concerts, shipping, homework, doctor’s appointments, and other events. It doesn’t help when events keep getting cancelled, moved, or rescheduled. School will be out on Friday. That is when my kids will suddenly feel very urgent about Christmas shopping. I find it is best if I have mine managed before their urgency hits. I think I’m mostly prepared. I was relieved to discover this, since I haven’t had much focused attention available. It is nice to know that the fragments of attention I’ve been able to give have assembled themselves into a nearly complete preparation.

I hope that in the week that I have before the holiday I am able to spend more time focused on the moments I’ve been given and less time frantically arranging to make sure all the things get done.