Only Time Will Tell

Beginning a new year is comforting. It allows us to reinvent ourselves at least for a year, to examine our lives, what we’ve accomplished from the year before and what we want to do in the year ahead. For some reason at the beginning of January, I am still in the Christmas mindset.  Too many indulgences have left their mark on my waistline and on my usually active imagination. I’m sluggish and need time to recharge with a little introspection. Maybe all the hype surrounding the New Year or leaving our tree up until the Epiphany keeps me out of spirit of making a fresh start until the second week of January. I don’t belong to a gym or to Weight Watchers, but perhaps I should. I could certainly stand to lose a few pounds and to get in better shape. Who couldn’t? But that’s not why I make New Year’s resolutions, at least not now. I make resolutions as incentive for change, as goals for my life, to become the person I want to be or at least more like the person I would like to be.

Last year, my husband and I hosted a New Year’s Eve dinner for our friends, something we do most years at our house. Since I had been contemplating what I wanted to change in my life, on a whim I asked everyone to write their new year’s resolutions on pieces of paper. We didn’t sign our names to our resolutions. Then we folded them and threw them into a hat. We took turns passing the hat and trying to guess whose resolution was whose. It was a fun exercise that allowed us to learn more about each other’s aspirations and also have a little fun. Few people guessed which resolution was mine. It was a little vague, but I felt shy about being specific. What I wrote was to be more creative. What I should have written was to take my writing seriously by finishing my novel and starting my blog. I succeeded on one front—starting my blog—and almost succeeded on the other. I have two scenes left to finish my novel, which I am writing today and tomorrow.

Since I made a concerted effort to succeed last year, I am continuing my resolution of being more creative this year, but this time I am being specific. This year I will revise my novel at least once and be brave enough to ask three people to be readers for me. (Scary!) I will write two blog posts a week rather than one and learn to incorporate pictures and media effectively. Also, I committed to making something by hand for three of my friends on Facebook. I’m not sure people know I am actually creative, sort of a repressed artist, because I only had three people respond! The idea was to make something for the first five people who responded to the pay it forward 2013 post. My friend Lee Schultz responded to my post. Talk about pressure to make something really impressive for her! She is a talented artist and also a high school art teacher. Five people responded to her post almost immediately (including me) because everyone knows how creative she is!

One last resolution I am making is health related I resolve to give up eating sugar. There. I said it, in public, in writing even! I have failed miserably in the past when I’ve tried this. Sugar is like crack for me. If I have a little bit, I want whatever sweet is around: cookies, cakes, pies, or divinity. It’s sad really. I’m a cookie junkie, a cake addict. My fix is the white stuff. Look away! Over the past few months, though, I’ve made progress, so maybe this is it. Maybe this is my time to succeed. I no longer take sugar in my coffee, a huge accomplishment for me and no longer sweeten my oatmeal in the morning. Giving up sugar will take sustained effort and vigilance on my part. I don’t know if I can do it, but I will let you know how it goes. Time will tell.

This year my resolutions center on ways I can change my life for the better. My resolution last year was open-ended and allowed for me to make what I would out of it and still claim victory at the end of the year. I have another one like that this year. I want to take time to be grateful and happy each day, but it will include a measurement. I am blessed to have really good friends in my life and don’t show them often enough how important they are to me. This year I will show my appreciation for my friends far and near by doing something, as yet unspecified and very likely tailored to the friend, for someone each week of 2013. Since I am starting a week late, that is 51 gestures of friendship in 51 weeks. To document my progress I will include a post about each person and each gesture this year.

Most of my resolutions will be immediately measureable, but not all, and they will all take time to accomplish or at least to see the effects of the change. When we make resolutions, aren’t we really trying to change our habits? In my January edition of Health Magazine, the statistic that popped out at me was this: 66 days is the average amount of time it took for people to form a new habit. That’s a little over two months, a long time if measured without sugar. J If you make resolutions to lose weight or write everyday or practice yoga or meditate or give up sugar, give yourself enough time to succeed. If you started your resolution on January 1, 2013, then check in with yourself on March seventh to see if your resolution stuck. Check in with me to see how my sugar free existence is going periodically. I’m sure I will have some success and also some failures to report, but I find it more helpful to take change day by day and to forgive myself for inconsistencies in the process.

Will I succeed in changing my life this year? Will 2013 bring me success, happiness, joy, a published novel? Only time will tell, and time is what it takes to make changes. We have 526, 600 minutes to live, 365 days to fill, 52 weeks to enjoy. How will you change your life this year? Will you accomplish what you were meant to do with your life? Will you connect with friends and family you’ve neglected? Will you work toward your dreams? Will you be happy? Only time will tell.

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My Favorite Time of Year

Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. This year, however, the holiday felt strange. Gone are the giddy, excitement filled days finding just the right present for our kids. Gone are the days of my baking six or seven different kinds of Christmas cookies because these days Bruce and I are the only ones who eat them and Lord knows we don’t need any more cookies. Gone are the days of being woken before dawn on Christmas morning by Erik and Travis, their faces only inches from mine, saying, “Mom, get up. It’s Christmas.” I miss needing coffee to wake up enough to open presents, and I treasure those memories, but our family has changed and grown up.

For years now, out of necessity, we have made our own traditions rather than going to our respective parents’ houses for the holidays. When we first married, Bruce was an active duty Marine. We seldom could go home to either parents’ houses because we lived far away and never had enough money, so we learned to replicate the most important traditions from both sides of our families and shared them with each other. Each year we prepared a Scandinavian dinner complete with lingonberries and Swedish meatballs on Christmas Eve as Bruce’s family had always done, but Santa always came to our house on Christmas Eve night after the kids were asleep, just as he did when I was growing up. Over the years one tradition remained a constant: cutting our own Christmas tree. This year, however, for the first time since Bruce left active duty, he was not with me to cut a tree. Neither was my youngest son Travis.

Erik, my oldest son, and I went to the tree farm where he cut our tree, a beautiful Frazier fir, ten feet tall. He cut and hauled it to the wagon with a little help from me. (I don’t like aging. I can’t do nearly what I once could.) A week passed before we brought it indoors. Another four or five days went by before we decorated. I’d like to say we waited because we wanted Travis to help when he got home from school, but that wasn’t it. I would like to think we just didn’t have the time, but that wasn’t it either. I just couldn’t muster the usual excitement I have had on previous Christmases. I haven’t even sent out Christmas cards this year!

Where is my enthusiasm? I used to get upset with my mother and Bruce’s mother when they wouldn’t put up a tree because it was too much trouble. I couldn’t understand how it could be “trouble” but I think I do now. When children grow up, the magic of the season becomes diluted. Heck, Bruce and I even contemplated one of those pre-lit artificial trees this year, a passing moment of weakness which I’m sure won’t happen again, not for a few years at least.

A couple of days ago Cindy, one of my college friends, updated her Facebook status that she was un-decorating her tree alone and separating the ornaments by child so she could give them to her girls while she was still breathing. I didn’t react with horror or sadness as I might have not so long ago. Instead, I thought what a good idea. She wants to take a tropical vacation next Christmas rather than decorate alone again. Although I won’t be able to fly away next year, my imagination will go with Cindy as she jets off to ports unknown. What I realized reading her post is I’m not alone in my funk about the holidays. I know at least one other person feels as I do.

Maybe the magic of Christmas is still present. Maybe I need new traditions to bring back the anticipation of the past and liberate me from the indifference I feel. Maybe I need to begin new traditions Bruce and I can share as a couple again. Maybe, like Cindy, I can separate the ornaments belonging to each of my boys and put them away for when they marry or have a home of their own. Erik and Travis are beginning new lives, separating from me and their dad… as they should. I can’t count on them to be here to decorate the tree with me or hang their own special ornaments up anymore, and I no longer want to expect them to. I want to recapture the feeling I once had about this time of year.

Maybe part of that process is embracing the change in our family. Our tree still sports every ornament our kids made and all the ones we collected from the places we’ve traveled and lived over the years, including a starfish snowman and a dried okra pod Santa. Perhaps I can finally have a “grown-up” tree like my friend Mary whose tree sparkles with glittering glass ornaments she has collected over the years. Glass might not be the way to go in our house since Bruce usually breaks breakable things, but maybe I can decorate our next tree the way I did when I was poor and single, using only white lights and bunches of baby’s breath and purple heather stuck in the branches here and there. Maybe, like Cindy, Bruce and I will wing our way to a tropical location to enjoy the sun on our skin and the trade winds in our faces rather than tromping through the cold and the snow.

Maybe all I need is a new perspective on the holidays. Our children are adults now, with girlfriends and obligations of their own. I can feel left out or I can feel grateful to have adult children who have forged lives of their own. I choose to look at these changes in our lives as a beginning of new and exciting traditions I don’t even know about yet, which will breathe new life into our old memories. Maybe for Bruce and me that means a pre-lit tree in our future or a tropical vacation, or maybe it only means joining our kids at their houses rather than ours one day. What I will never forget is the excitement I remember in my children’s voices and their faces long after they have children of their own. That is the magic of Christmas, and that is what has always made Christmas my favorite time of year.

Act by Act, Word by Word

Since last Friday I have struggled to make sense of the senseless. I have tried to understand what can’t be understood. I have counted my blessings to have my own happy, healthy children who have lived to see adulthood. As a teacher I have wondered if I would have had the courage to do what those teachers in Connecticut did to shield the students in their care from harm. Along with our nation and the world I have mourned the precious lives lost in Newtown, Connecticut. I have tried to find words to express the ineffable sorrow conjured by this moment in time, a pivotal moment fraught with grief and politics, but also one I hope holds the key for change within our society.

For several days after hearing about the shooting in Newtown, I had no words to convey what I felt. Words seemed inadequate and still do. How do we comfort the parents of these children who will never see their faces again or hear their laughter? How do we comfort the families of the teachers and administrators who tried to protect those little children from this nightmare come to life? No words can convey our sorrow or our helplessness in the face of such grief. No gesture can offer enough comfort to ease their pain, but still we try because we can imagine all too well the same fate happening within our own communities to us. We still pray for them and reach out to the families of these precious children and wrap our arms around them even if it is from afar.

As I was returning home yesterday from Appleton where I finished my Christmas shopping and made a final grocery shopping run—two tasks which seemed incongruous in this moment—I turned on the radio. I looked for a Christmas carol station but couldn’t find one which had religious songs, only silly pop renditions of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and the like. I needed the comfort of calm, so I turned to NPR. I knew there would be no commercials and perhaps some classical music. Instead I realized the news was playing. Frankly, I didn’t want to hear another story about the shooting, but yesterday the first two funerals were held. The correspondent for NPR was covering those funerals. I was only half listening to the story because I was worried about an imminent snowstorm on Thursday and wondering how my youngest son would be able to make it home. Ironic, I know, that I worried in the midst of this tragedy, but parents worry no matter how old their children become. Despite my being distracted the words of the rabbi who attended Noah Pozner’s  funeral made it through my own thoughts.

I believe the rabbi’s name was Rabbi Shaul Praver, and what he said finally allowed me to make sense of what has happened. His words allowed a puzzle piece I had worried over to fall into it’s proper place and filled me with calm purpose for the first time since last Friday. I regret I must paraphrase because I was so taken in that moment that I forget the rabbi’s exact words. He said Noah and the others who died are with God in heaven. It is up to us now to bring heaven down to Earth, act by act and word by word.  Wow! Those words sang through my consciousness. Finally, here is something I can do. I can make a difference each day by treating all people with kindness and compassion. I can be the light of heaven here on Earth. We all can. Another rabbi interviewed on the news, Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht said that we can “elevate and sanctify our lives in honor of these children.” Even those of us who are far away from Newtown can make a difference in this life. We can’t change what has already happened, but we can honor the memory of those lost by how we live. Even if we only touch one person with kindness, perhaps that one moment will make the difference between life and death.

The idea that we reach out to others one kind act at a time is what I am advocating here. Why should we do this? We should reach out because each life is precious, because we are our brother’s keeper. Each life on this planet contributes to every other life even if we aren’t always aware of our affect. Just look at the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. We all affect each other’s lives in so many small and sometimes great ways, and we will never know how great an impact we have had on our fellow man, at least not while we’re here. We are and should be responsible for each other. Let’s remember what John Donne wrote in 1624 in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation17. I won’t quote the whole passage here, but the words do explain why each of us must make a difference in the lives of others. He says, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.”  Though these words were written so long ago, Donne’s message applies to today’s tragic circumstances.

Most of us will mark this tragedy in our own personal ways by hugging our children, by praying, by taking some sort of action. However we decide to accomplish the task, I believe we must make a difference in our world. Perhaps this tragedy will be the impetus for true change in our society. Perhaps we will mean it when we ask someone how they are instead of using “how are you” as a greeting. Perhaps we will be patient when we drive behind an elderly person. Perhaps we will treat the young men and women in middle and high schools not as delinquents but as people with strong opinions trying on adulthood. Perhaps we will guide them instead of ridiculing them. Perhaps we will treat each other as human beings worthy of love and forgiveness and kindness.

We must take responsibility for each other, act by act, word by word. We must bring God’s heaven down to earth and shine the light of His love into the darkness we see in the world. Get off social media for a while and interact in a physical way with your friends, family, and strangers. Become “involved in mankind.” Talk to people in the grocery store. Chat with the lady collecting money for the Salvation Army. Chat with the older gentleman in the pew next to you at church. Then really listen to what they have to say in return. Learn their stories. Embrace them with kindness. Become a part of your own communities. Make a difference.  Honor the memory of those who lost their lives long before they could make a difference here on Earth. Perhaps if we do these things, the wish for peace we all share at this time of the year will become reality.

 

“No Man Is an Island”

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

                                John Donne

Sure Cure for a Shopping Hangover

I have a shopping hangover, and I’m not proud of it. Black Friday and Cyber Monday caused it, making me feel like I had to be part of the rush to get the best deals. Would they be gone if I had waited? Probably, but does that really matter? What has me troubled is this hangover doesn’t affect my body so much as my spirit. Judging from the news coverage of the number of shoppers Thanksgiving weekend, I’m sure I am not the only one who felt this way. Watching the Black Friday coverage on the news was enough to make me sick to my stomach. Has the Christmas season really become this commercialized today?  I know there has always been a focus on the commercial aspects of gift buying, and I realize with the economy still in the tank, retailers wanted and needed to have a great kickoff to the holidays. I understand that, but what has shopping at all hours, and for hours, done to the average person’s psyche? Does anyone else feel used up and repulsed by the buying frenzy?

Something strange but wonderful has happened to me in the past few months. I’ve become accustomed to a slower pace of life and to NOT shopping. Since my husband just landed a new job, I was looking forward to being able to spend a little bit of money this year for presents, but I wasn’t anticipating the all out assault on the senses retailers have unleashed on the public. What I also didn’t expect was how easy it is to get caught up in thinking I need what they are hawking, especially when the deal only lasts for two hours at the crack of dawn. So I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with myself. I did some soul searching and realized I don’t need all these items I thought I wanted. Because, when you get down to it, they are just things. Will those “things” actually improve my life or will having one more thing actually complicate my life?

When we didn’t have any money a couple of months ago, I missed being able to go to the stores to buy what I needed. Now that I can buy what I need, I realize just how little I actually want. This past weekend I realized just how caught up I was in the deals which seemed too good to pass up at first glance. That first seductive glance is the problem for us as consumers, but the point of the constant bombardment by advertisers. They appeal to our hunter gatherer instincts of fear of scarcity. We don’t want to be without, so they keep tempting us over and over with each commercial and with each email alert, upping the ante each time. As a result, we don’t often take the time to determine whether what we are seeing is what we need or simply what we want, an impulse we might regret later on.

At the end of the day on Cyber Monday, I felt exhausted. I had been trying to find exactly what my family had asked for and also find an item or two for myself since the sales were so good. (I’m actually a little embarrassed to admit that last part.) When I went to bed that night, I realized I had wasted most of a day I will never get back doing nothing more than plotting how to spend money! I had little to show for the amount of time I spent looking and comparing. In fact, I’m not even finished with my shopping. What I have started to do today is delete most of the emails I receive from retailers, and I’m throwing out many of the catalogues I love looking at because they satisfy the urge to shop without my having to spend any money. I’m removing temptation.

Something else I am doing is supporting Small Business Saturday. This past Saturday I shopped at two retailers here in my town, and you know what? I enjoyed myself. Not only did I find some great deals, but I also renewed ties with people in my community, both merchants and patrons of the stores I went to. Those small businesses are trying to make a living without spending millions on advertising. What they do instead is to spend time…on their customers. They take the time to talk to you and understand what you are looking for, and if they don’t have it, they will suggest something equally wonderful or will try to find it for you, even if it isn’t in their stores! I went home satisfied and pleased with my purchases and knew I had made connections with the people I encountered.

Despite seeing and hearing commercials for Christmas shopping for weeks now, I know the Christmas season doesn’t last long. In fact, I can’t believe it is almost December first already. The season’s parties kick off in a week at my friend Barb’s annual cookie exchange. I have several other parties to attend, but I intend to continue my slower pace of life, to savor the moments of the season, a sure cure for the shopping hangover.

For me, the moments I treasure focus on the true meaning of Christmas, not the commercialization of the holiday. The season truly begins this weekend at my church for the first Sunday in Advent. On that day we will begin a ritual shared by millions of Christians for hundreds of years, the ritual of preparing ourselves and waiting for the Son of God to be born. Every Sunday until Christmas each part of the story of Christ’s birth, each hymn, each prayer will impart anticipation rather than anxiety, peace rather than impatience. Each service will fill me up with the love of God and leave me content.

We are in control of what we allow the Christmas season to be about. This year especially I am aware that I can wait for some of the things I thought I wanted. I will instead prepare my heart for the season. I am choosing how to spend my days this holiday savoring the moments and counting my blessings, reflecting with gratitude on what I already have not what I might acquire. I hope you’ll take time to slow down and spend your time at a pace that brings you peace with friends and family who love you. In this season of Advent, I hope you ponder what Christmas is all about, a sure cure for the shopping hangover.