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.

Good Things on the 4th of July

My youngest two kids do like fireworks, but I think their favorite Fourth of July tradition is when I buy a pack of 50 glow stick bracelets and they run around in the dark backyard way past the time when I usually make them go to bed. If I were less tired, I would write up a post talking about the evolution of our 4th of July traditions. Some other time perhaps.

I’ve spent the last two days up at Westercon. I’ve got two days more. It is a convention with more than the usual quantity of organizational snafus, but none of them have truly impeded our ability to do the things we need to do nor have they reduced our enjoyment of the show. I’ve had so many conversations today which warmed my heart. It is good to be among friends. I’m tired, but happy. Tomorrow morning I get to go back.

Kiki’s Birthday

I failed at birthdays last year, which is sad because all of my kids hit significant milestones. Gleek turned 12, Patch 10, Link 16, and Kiki 18. All the birthdays hit in the midst of other things and though I wanted to give them full attention, I just didn’t have that. The one I failed worst was Kiki. When I look at all the things going on at that time, the failure is understandable. I had all the end-of-the-school-year stuff. I had meeting after meeting about Gleek to make sure that we had her anxiety under control and things set up properly for the next year. I’d just sent The Body Politic off to print. We were expecting the coins the next week. I had relatives incoming for Kiki’s graduation. There was also the trecherous emotional terrain we were marching through having our first child graduate and be college bound. I wasn’t entirely stable. I careened through that month just trying not to crash. Then two days before the birthday, my hard drive failed and I had data loss. Computer failure is always massively anxiety inducing and I was already maxed out. So, yes, completely understandable that the birthday did not go as we would have hoped, but still painful.

I remember talking with Kiki about having a low key birthday and thinking it would be okay. We were getting her a laptop for her combined birthday/graduation present. It was the largest and most hoped-for present she’d ever gotten in her life. We went on her birthday to pick it out, but it had to be configured, so she did not get to take it home and play with it on her birthday. If I’d thought that through I would have realized that computers are rarely things to walk in and take home. I’m pretty sure that Howard took her out for sushi that birthday afternoon. So it is not that we deliberately ignored her, nor that we forgot. I thought it was all good. But she was sad, because most of the day had been just a normal day. Then at bedtime Patch had a meltdown because he hadn’t given her a present and it was really important to give her a present because she was leaving and her leaving was sad. Patch’s meltdown reminded Link and Gleek that they felt the same way. So I piled the three younger kids into the car and took them to Walmart to buy presents. I guess Kiki was in the shower or something. Somehow we left the house without her knowledge.

Though I would have liked to have done the shopping trip earlier (ahead of time, instead of late) as I walked with my kids through Walmart, I realized this was exactly what they needed. I watched them as they looked at towels, mugs, etc. Looking at these things, they were actually picturing Kiki at college and thinking about her there. They each selected a thing that they thought she would use and appreciate. Then each one knew that their sister would be taking something that they had selected for her. Much love went into the selection of those gifts. Every bit as much as if they’d shopped earlier, though for obvious reasons advance shopping would have resulted in a different birthday experience for everyone. When we arrived home we had a 10:30pm “patch up the feelings” birthday party. There were smiles and hugs. Kiki was touched that we’d disrupted bedtime in order to try to make the birthday more what it should have been. It was definitely not the 18th birthday that Kiki emotionally needed.

There were about two weeks between Kiki’s birthday and her graduation. I gave her a small gift on each of those days. I called it eighteen days of celebrating Kiki. We both knew it didn’t erase the birthday that wasn’t what it ought to have been, but it let me show that the hard day was not for lack of caring. I don’t know if it really helped or if she was humoring me.

This year is different. Kiki really doesn’t need more than a low-key birthday. She went to a movie with Howard. I fixed her lunch and took her shopping. She got plants; a philodendron from me and a little bonsai tree from Gleek. Link gave her the stuffed portal cube that he had. Patch gave her books. Howard gave her an easel. It was still more cobbled together than advance-planned, but the key is that she never felt ignored nor neglected. Not once. Not only that, but I was able to tell her about my (failed) quest for a lucky bamboo plant. It was a story that demonstrated that I’ve been thinking of her and her birthday for over a month in various bits and pieces. (This is usually true. I think a lot, but actually pull things together just in time.) The love is no different between this year and last, but the emotional needs and capabilities vary greatly. Last year Kiki was looking ahead to leaving home and needed evidence that she was loved and would be missed. This year she’s just arrived home and had seen in a dozen ways how glad we all are to have her here. Different year, different emotional needs.

Kiki and I talked about last birthday and this birthday. I don’t believe any hard feelings linger. But I did have a moment of being appalled when I remembered the scrambled 10pm shopping trip. I’d actually forgotten that part until Kiki mentioned it. It is one more evidence of how insane last year was. I’m so glad to be in this year now. I’m also glad that I don’t have to figure out any more birthdays for a while. They’re hard to get right.

Christmas Present Ponders Christmases Past

It is predictable, right around December 15th, I’ll write a post about how maybe things are slowing down a little, then I’ll not blog for several days because. Nope. Not slower. It is also common for me to write a December post where I’ll think out loud about how our Christmas traditions are different than they used to be, or how I’m trying to shift things and let go of the concept that Christmas is mine to create. Then come Christmas day, I’ll likely write a post about how it all turned out fine despite the fact that I thought I was ruining everything. The refrains are all familiar, rather like the Christmas carols which fill the air. I have these variations on the same emotional tunes played out year after year.

Perhaps that is why this year I haven’t played many carols, or really done much of anything to consciously create a Christmas mood in my house. I put up lights. I put up the tree. These things make me happy, but other than that I’ve been letting the holiday exist or not without much effort from me. Naturally this has resulted in a vague guilt that I ought to be doing more, or perhaps a vague regret that my days are spent just keeping all the necessary parts of our business, educational, and household things running. I feel like it would be nice to do Christmas things, but I’m already over extended. So I let go of the things I can’t do and tell myself that it is okay. It has been a very long year and I’m worn out.

I’m discovering that small kindnesses mean much to me this Holiday season. A Christmas card from a friend I’ve failed to write for six months, a bag of treats from a neighbor who I used to speak to far more often, and email offering to help because I sounded tired or stressed in a blog post. I treasure these things because I’m not able to give such small kindnesses lately. I can see how little effort it would cost me to do similar small kind things. I feel like I ought to stretch far enough to write thank you notes, to stop by and say hello to a friend, to make a treat. I keep choosing not to. I’ve already extended and extended far beyond what I would have thought I could sustain last year. To do more is beyond me. I appreciate greatly when someone else offers me a piece of their time or energy. Small kindnesses are not insignificant.

I’m not particularly stressed in each individual day. When people ask me how I’m doing or how my day is going, I answer “good” without pause for thought. Because things are generally good. The kids are aimed in good directions for growth. We’ve had a good business year. Our many projects are coming along. We’d always like them to be coming along more quickly, but nothing is stalled. All of the things are good. There are just a lot of things and there have been all year long. It leaves me wanting to clear out and simplify rather than add the complications of Christmas celebrations. Proper celebrations come from a place of joy, not obligation. I have moments of that, when for some minutes or hours I’m glad for the holiday season and for family. Then I’m back to making sure all of the day’s things happen.

I think it will begin to feel like Christmas when the kids are out of school. Then I’ll take them shopping or to the movies. The feel of our house shifts during the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. I’m glad for it because it is good for me to step out of the regular necessities of our schedule. I also miss our regular routine and the happy feeling of getting work done. So the holiday season will begin for me on Friday, four days before Christmas. Which is about when it came together last year. Only last year I spent most of December feeling like I’d failed for not making Christmas permeate our house earlier. Perhaps my niggling regrets represent a step toward acceptance that Christmas now is different than it used to be and it is okay.

Contemplation in the Christmas Season

We have reached that point in December where life has slowed down enough for me to contemplate all the things I would like to do as celebrations of the season, but which I’m not likely to actually accomplish. I love the idea of a daily quiet contemplation where I light a candle and spend some time just sitting with the Christmas tree. I feel peace in those moments, that peace is the point of Christmas for me, connection to a natal event long past, connection to loved ones in the present, and expressing appreciation for all of it. I dearly want to carefully contemplate and select gifts for all the people in my life. I want to write handwritten notes. I want to give out tokens of appreciation. The reality of my holiday is that I might have a contemplative moment once or twice per week during the first part of December.

Only ten days remain between now and Christmas. In order to give gifts to everyone who matters to me, I’d need to sit down and make massive lists. I’d have to live by those lists and scramble to assemble and deliver everything. That effort would completely obliterate my attempts to find peace and contemplation during the holiday season. The two desires for Christmas celebration are mutually exclusive at this point. So I am going to do what I always end up doing, I’ll muddle my way down a compromise path. I’ll give some gifts, but not others. I’ll write some notes, I’ll give some tokens. Then I’ll hope that my neighbors will not feel slighted when I don’t make plates of treats to give away. I’ll look at the few Christmas cards on my wall, remember the years when the wall was covered, and know that this is the natural result of me being too busy to send cards out any time in the past five years. I still love both sending and receiving cards, but something has to go.

Our church Christmas party was tonight. It was a lovely event, good food, good company. The program was brief, but heart warming. It was a good balance of all the things a Christmas party needs to be. Howard, Link, and Kiki left early because they wanted to get back to the game they were playing together. Gleek and Patch played running games with all the other kids. I visited with a few friends, had one really important conversation, and then stood off to the side and observed. There have been times when I was fully invested in my community of neighbors, when I had important things to talk about with all of them. Lately I drift through, touching down in the community only lightly. I feel bad about that, because I know that it is my choices that keep me adrift. I would be more connected if I did things like making plates of treats for neighbors, or went out of my way to have conversations with people I have not spoken to lately. I have not given very much to my neighborhood community in this past year, all of my energy went into family, business, and keeping promises made to backers and customers. At some point in the future, maybe next year, I’ll connect with my neighborhood again. I do what I can and what I feel inspired is most important at the time. I did not spend this year wrongly.

We have one more week of school. During that week I need to help my two youngest kids select and acquire presents for their siblings. There are other holiday essentials to be planned and brought to fruition. And of course there are piles of homework that I get to guide my youngest into completing. It is plenty to track, but tonight I have a Christmas tree in the dark and a quiet hour to feel calm. It is well.