Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

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Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Living Beyond Boundaries Thanks To Dad

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Image: Florian K

Living beyond the boundaries of streetlights, I often drive on dark country roads where fog hides in the hillsides. Sometimes only tendrils of mist reach up from the ground. More often I’m engulfed in clouds so heavy that the road is obscured. Straining to see the turns on these narrow lanes, I’m not stressed. I smile. I’m thinking of my father.

“People call this kind of heavy fog ‘pea soup,’” my father had explained to me when I was a first grader.

Although he leaned intently over the steering wheel, he easily kept up our conversation. “But it doesn’t look like soup to me,” he asked. “What would you call it?”

Beyond our windshield it looked like a white wall as our headlights reflected off the water vapor. His voice remained cheerful. He told me about being a radar man in the Navy and described the sound of foghorns.

“What we’re going to do, Honey, is blow the car horn to let other cars know we’re coming. It’ll be our foghorn. That way we can navigate our way past the fog.”

We drove on through the dark, he and I, talking and laughing and pretending we were piloting a ship through the waves. Before each bend he gave a blast on the car horn. It was delicious to me—my daddy taking part in a giant game of pretend. And better yet, engaging in the forbidden act of making noise, waking up the night to say we’re here.

My father never let on that the ride that night was dangerous or that the prattling of a little girl was hard on his concentration.

Although his own childhood was marred by the early death of his father, his mother’s chronic illness, and the hard work that comes with poverty, he overcame those limitations. He went on to a career as a public school teacher where he helped hundreds of other children find the best in themselves.

I know he had a way of making me feel important, no matter the task. On our camping trips he assigned me the job of signaling as he backed up the trailer. At home I got to help with all sorts of repairs. Once when I wanted to help him install a hot water tank he didn’t let on that an eight-year-old would be in the way. Instead he said what he really wanted was for me to read him some poetry because that would make a difficult job more pleasant. He put me safely on a stool a few feet away where I read aloud from a junior book of verse while he wrestled with the chore. Occasionally he sat back on his heels in appreciation at the end of a poem. He talked about discovering the great poets when he got to college, even described the large brown book he’d saved from a literature class for his own children to enjoy some day. When he was done, he said he couldn’t have done it without me, the same thing he always said.

He never found that big book of poetry he’d hoped to share. But my father gave me something more precious.  Complete acceptance. And when a girl has that kind of love from her father she carries with her the self-assurance to transcend any boundaries.

My dad always shrugged off praise and begged his kids not to bother giving him gifts. So each year when Father’s Day rolled around I bought a blank card. Inside I wrote him a fond memory of my childhood and how that resonated in my sometimes challenging life.

This is my fourth Father’s Day without my dad. If I could I’d tell him, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

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Originally published on Wired

Un-Cliché Your Valentine’s Day

Heart made while hiking. (Image by Sam Weldon)

Heart made while hiking. (Image by Sam Weldon)

Valentine’s Day may be about love but it’s too often expressed with clichéd sentiments and perfunctory presents. Last year, U.S. Valentine’s Day spending was estimated to be 17.3 billion. Yes, billion. In a world that needs more tenderness and less stuff, there are alternatives. That doesn’t mean giving up on cards, chocolate, and flowers if these expressions truly touch your heart. It means we can do more with the love we feel for people, our communities, and for the natural world—any day of the year.

Art-oriented

Find hearts everywhere. You can stop by a gallery or museum, finding hearts and other representations of love. Or challenge yourself to photograph hearts you see in nature and everyday objects.

Make original hearts. Create a heart out of something unexpected. Try Legos or spoons or hammers. Then photograph it. Send it out via social media or print the image on cards. For a wealth of inspiration, check out Monday Hearts for Madalene.

Learn about symbolism of the heart. This shape has been painted on cave walls by Cro-Magnon people, showed up in ancient Minoan art, and appeared on 15th century playing cards. Assign loving symbolism to some other shape and use it as your secret language.

Kindness-oriented

Appreciate people in your community. Use children’s drawings as wrapping paper, tucking inside each one a piece of wrapped candy or other goodie, along with a note like “thanks for being so nice” or “you made my day.” Then stay on the lookout for a cheery cashier, helpful librarian, or kind friend to hand a surprise package. Find more ways kids can perform community service, toddler to teen, here. No kids? No problem. Wrap up tiny gifts and do the same thing. It cues us to see goodness everywhere.

Put dollars to work. Give money out to your family and friends, with a caveat. Challenge recipients to do as much good as they can with $10 (or whatever denomination you choose), then report back with the results by a certain deadline. You might set up a Facebook event page for this so their ideas are shared. (Yup, side benefits. This boosts the happiness of the givers too.)

Say Thanks. Get in touch with Great Aunt Betty to say you appreciate advice she gave you decades ago, send a note of appreciation to a teacher who made a difference, call your parents to share a sweet memory from your childhood. (Again, side benefit, gratitude boosts your own health.)

Volunteer. Walk dogs at a shelter, or assemble backpacks for homeless people and hand them out, or deliver Meals on Wheels. For more ideas, check out Volunteer Match.

Commit good deeds anonymously.  Valentine’s week is also Random Act of Kindness week. Ideas? Smile at five strangers, leave quarters at the laundromat or in the change slot of vending machines, do someone else’s chore secretly, pay the tab for the next customer,  clean up someone else’s mess.

Gift-oriented

Make a scratch-off card. It takes paint and dish soap, that’s it. Make a love list card or one that reveals a surprise or come up with your own design.

Give gift certificates from locally owned businesses and organizations like a greenhouse, restaurant or coffee shop, massage therapist, art gallery, sports shop, bookstore. Or pay for a few hours of an local worker who specializes in home repair, house cleaning, or landscaping.

Give experiences. Go to the theater, take tai chi or weaving lessons, go horseback riding, attend a concert of music new to you, take a city tour, head to a skating rink, or rent a houseboat/

Give gifts for a good cause. There are all sorts of nonprofit stores and charitable shopping sites. Try Water.org, One World Futbol, FreewatersSerrvGreater Good, Ten Thousand Villages, and ASPCA. Or get a gift from the gift shop of a non-profit in your area.

Nature-oriented

Plant something. Start seeds indoors for your garden. You might start extras to set up a seed or plant exchange.

Get out there. Picnic outside no matter what the weather, or hike somewhere new to you, or go outside after dark to look at the stars.

Build together. Make a fairy house in the woods using nearby sticks and rocks. Build a snow fort. Make a hide-out in the attic or backyard or anywhere you can enter the magic of hidden spaces.

Re-experience childhood delights. Swing on the swings, climb a tree, run a footrace, cook marshmallows over a campfire, play outdoor games.

Romance-oriented

Revive the mix-tape tradition. Put together a collection of tunes that says what you feel. In this instance, sappy is good. Even better reaction, put together a sexy playlist

Do something that scares you, together. Go bungee jumping or rock climbing or whatever gets your heart racing. Even a scary movie can be good for the love life.

Talk about first loves. Maybe just first crushes. It’s a way of tenderly exploring the inner world of your partner’s earliest years.

Make date night fascinatingly unexpected. Try an alternative identity date. Make up your own triathlon (competing in air hockey, tongue twisters, and onion ring eating). Participate in a mud run. Here are 35 ideas for never dull dates.

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Frosty front door handprints melt to reveal a surprise heart in my right palm. (Image: L. Weldon)

Thanksgiving: A Holiday To Prevent War

A Peaceful Thanksgiving cardcow.com

Kids draw bright crayoned versions pictures of the “first” Thanksgiving, although chances are they don’t depict the original celebrants eating venison and eel, or engaging in shooting demonstrations. It’s certainly not an event the Wampanoag would have recognized. The Thanksgiving holidays we celebrate today center around family and togetherness. That’s due to one woman, Sarah Josepha Hale (who incidentally was the author of the poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” later put to music).

Before Hale’s campaign to create a national holiday, Thanksgiving was held at different times in different jurisdictions on any date between October and January. Or not at all. And in the South the holiday was largely unknown.

Thanksgiving origins, Thanksgiving peace,

Sarah Josepha Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin

But Hale was editor of the most widely circulated magazine of the time, Godey’s Lady’s Book. This publication, largely aimed at women, published influential poetry, art, and fiction, and under Hale, advocated for women’s educational attainment. Beginning in 1846, Hale used this platform to push for a national day of gratitude. She hoped such a holiday would help to unify the North and South, even prevent a Civil War. Violating the magazine’s policy against politics, she wrote editorials year after year asking the nation’s leaders to declare the last Thursday in November a national holiday–Thanksgiving Day.

In an editorial published November 1857 she wrote:

Consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and, if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories set down together to the “feast of fat things” and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other; and of peace and good-will to all the world. Then the last Thursday in November will soon become the day of AMERICAN THANKSGIVING throughout the world.

She also steered public sentiment by promoting Thanksgiving recipes (including roast turkey and pumpkin pie), poems, stories, and drawings of families gathered at the Thanksgiving table. She wrote hundreds of letters to governors, presidents, and secretaries of state as part of her campaign.

Seventeen years later, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that Thanksgiving Day be celebrated as a national holiday. This day, which many of this country’s original inhabitants consider a national day of mourning, is also a day established to promote peace and goodwill. Never underestimate the power of an idea, pushed by a pen and persuasive pumpkin pie recipes.

Slacker New Year’s Eve

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Years ago we started a new tradition. Slacker New Year’s Eve. No more loud, crowded events. No more babysitting nightmares. And no more driving back home in the early morning hours on icy roads. What a relief.

Instead we stay home with the kids. We put lots of goodies on the table, including snacks that are rarely seen in our fussy-about-nutrition household. We get out amusements like board games and videos, build a fire in the fireplace, and basically slouch around together. It’s fantastic. After all the holiday rush it feels downright indulgent.

A key element of Slacker New Year’s Eve is the no-bedtime promise. On this one night we’ve always told our kids they can stay up all night if they want. For years our kids have tucked us in bed not long after midnight, then done their best to stay up until dawn. A few times they’ve made it. Then they sleep in at least till noon. That tends to result in a nice quiet New Year’s Day morning for mom and dad.

Now our kids are old enough to make their own choices about Slacker New Year’s Eve. I think they’re all staying in and slacking. Me? I’m looking forward to warm jammies, chilled champagne, and hanging out with the people I love. This isn’t about renouncing anything. Slacker New Year’s Eve lets the old year slide out without a fuss and celebrates the upcoming year without effort. Ahhh.

Do You Tell The Truth About Santa?

A few decades ago I indulged in some concerns about the likelihood of Santa’s existence while playing with a neighbor kid. A reasonably science-minded kindergartener, I wondered aloud how reindeer could fly without wings. I speculated about the chimney girth problem and the issue of children who lived in fireplace-free homes. And then, as if no one else had encountered these breaches in holiday logic, I asked how Santa could fly across the whole world in one night.

I was torn, wanting my friend to take me seriously but also hoping he’d prop up my fading sense of magic. I was disappointed when he dismissed every one of my speculations.

Later that day his mother called my mother. Her son was upset. According to her I’d ruined his belief in Santa. She said I wasn’t a nice little girl at all. That we were the same age didn’t seem to matter. My mother, who held politeness up there with God and cleanliness, insisted I apologize to Mrs. Barton right there on the phone.

After that particular trauma I badgered my mother for days until she fessed up. The truth stung. My older sister was in on the falsehood. Other kids at school probably were too, but by some twist of propriety they knew better than to tell believers, even if they felt superior to Santa holdouts. Clearly a victim of my mother’s politeness gene, I felt awful when it hit me that I’d been opening packages every year thinking that Santa owed me for my good behavior when all along those gifts were lovingly bought and wrapped by my parents. And I’d never even thanked them.

Fast forward a few decades. I vowed I would not follow the collective Santa lie with my own children. Sure, the truth might lead them right into the same minefield of logic versus belief with some other kid. That isn’t a bad thing, it’s how kids learn to think for themselves (as long as their parents don’t run interference). But I had no intention of killing Santa entirely. That’s because small children inhabit a different world than the rest of us. They don’t make clear distinctions between fantasy and reality. There’s probably something to that. Ever notice how happy little kids are? So I wanted an approach that kept wonder and excitement alive.

The philosophy I decided to use with my own four kids was based on the classic 1897 newspaper column titled “Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” written by Francis Pharcellus Church. It reads, in part,

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”

I took the casual approach. I never hyped Santa, any more than I promoted the whole commercial side of Christmas. No “better be good for Santa.” No Santa at the mall (pretty easy with our mall avoidance lifestyle).

Sure, we still like Christmas carols that mention Santa. And my family cheerfully accommodates the thing I have for that early 60’s special, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, even welcoming my teary-eyed joy at the scene when hope returns to the Island of Misfit Toys. But we keep the holidays simple.

My reply to “Is Santa real?” has always been, “Everyone who loves children is Santa’s helper.” The few times I’ve gotten more questions, which happened rarely because kids like to keep that possibility alive, I explained that even grown-ups like to believe too. By the time kids reach a certain age, they know what my answer means. Either it means there’s no Santa or their Mom is a believer. Maybe I am. I’ve lived long enough to know that there’s magic everywhere. I just call it by different names: love, hope, faith, and compassion.

Oh yeah, and forgiveness. By the next day Mrs. Barton’s kid was already over it.