Questions for a Calmer Christmas

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It’s Christmas time, people, and all too often I head into this season of hope with an anxious scarcity mentality. This has to be the most perfect holiday ever, I tell myself. And usually conscious thought stops there as the emotional hyperventilating commences.

But this year, I’m forcing myself to fully explore my insane thought process. It goes a little something like this: The kids are growing up. I can’t waste these prime magical Santa years! Before I know it, they’ll be out of the house. What if they never realize how much we love them? What if they have no positive childhood memories? What if I fail in this whole parenting gig and they grow up dysfunctional, unable to carry out a fulfilling and self-sufficient life? What if they have no moral or spiritual center? What if, as adults, they’re just relieved to escape me and never want to come home? Mr. M and I will be abandoned on Christmas! We’ll be abandoned in general! Clearly, if I don’t hand-make a gorgeous Advent calendar from reclaimed pallet wood RIGHT NOW, the children will be traumatized and I will die alone and unloved.

Oh, God in Heaven. I’m uncomfortable using power tools. We are all SCREWED.

 Okay. So writing it down makes me realize that it’s crazy. And yet, this crazy and often subconscious inner monologue is exactly why I commit to too much and then berate myself for not following through (or for following through with bitter cynicism instead of oodles of genuine goodwill).

This year, I’m determined to step back from the ledge.

For me, that means visualizing my ideal future and setting specific holiday goals that will move me in that direction. Oh Kate, you might be thinking. Isn’t that a little extreme for holiday planning? Can’t you just put up some decorations, make some hot cocoa, and let Bing Crosby sing you through the season?

Theoretically, yes. I’m sure that’s how reasonable people do things. But I tend to be far from reasonable, especially during this time of year. I succumb to ridiculous self-imposed expectations, excess, and over-extension that generally sour my whole Christmas season. I’m hoping to avoid all that by having a strong vision rolling into Advent.

According to my backwards logic, I need a complicated plan to ensure that my Advent and Christmas season stay simple. (Feel free to judge that all you want. Heaven knows, I certainly do!)

So I’m stepping back from Pinterest. Instead, I’m considering my holiday plans in light of the following questions:

  • When my co-celebrants someday look back on this year and/or time, what do I want them to remember? How do I want those memories to affect their/our future? What special memories do I have regarding the holidays of my past? What can I carry over and share in the present? What memories do I want to create? How do these kinds of memories connect to my larger goals and values? How do I hope my current celebrations will influence my future and my evolving relationships?
  • What realities must I acknowledge in my holiday planning? What non-holiday obligations do I already have on my plate? Are there traditions already in place that I need to uphold? What limits do I need to respect?  How many activities, traditions, or obligations can I honestly take on while maintaining my wellness?
  • With whom do I celebrate the holidays? What are their ages, temperaments, and needs? How must I account for this as I plan? (Confession: all too often, I’ve had a “fun” experience go irredeemably south because I ignored the likely possibility that my two-year-old would, in fact, act like a two-year-old.)
  • What do we gain and what do we lose by attempting any particular holiday tradition or activity? How much time and energy will it take? What are the potential benefits of taking this on? What are the potential costs? Is this worth it? How does this tradition or activity relate to my larger goals and values? Is there another way to put those goals and values in action—and if so, would this be a better option for us at this time?
  • What motivates me to even consider incorporating a particular activity or tradition into my holiday season? Will this really add joy or other value to my life? Will it really bring joy or other value to my co-celebrants? Or am I once again making decisions with an anxious scarcity mentality? Am I “shoulding” all over myself? (Father James Martin SJ suggests of that last phrase, “Say it aloud and the negative meaning becomes clearer.”)

I’m hoping this little litmus test helps to guide my family towards a more peaceful and rewarding holiday season. Here’s hoping that some small part of it may do the same for you, dear reader!

Common Sense for Christmas

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(If you’re lucky, Santa might just bring you this book.) 

It’s nearly Advent, and the Christian readers of this blog (do I have any readers?) probably know what that means… happy new (church) year!

I don’t know about you, but for me any prospect of a fresh start is both thrilling and dangerous. It’s thrilling because this is my chance to finally live out all of my best intentions. And it’s dangerous because my “best intentions” often don’t take into account such pesky little details as, oh, reality.

I’m really hoping that this holiday season (and Year A in general) buck my usual trend.

That trend goes something like this: at first, I’m buoyed by the general excitement of a new beginning. At the beginning of a new church year, school year, or calendar year I make tons of resolutions and move forward with gusto. But all too soon, I abandon whatever it was I was theoretically so passionate about incorporating into my life. And then, as an extra-special emotional bonus, I pile on the self-shaming because I was “too lazy” to make those changes.

My spiritual life is certainly no exception to this grim pattern. Let’s take this upcoming Christmas season as a case in point. I’ve been scrolling through Pinterest, collecting images of beautiful things that the more motivated mamas are already doing. I build theoretical plans to do this art project or start that ritual… and then I guilt myself because I’m not already doing it.

I feel all this self-induced pressure to make Advent and Christmas magical and meaningful for my family. Unfortunately, all that pressure renders me too anxious to truly enjoy anything with them and I often spend the holidays as a sweating, resentful bystander… or, conversely, treating my partner and children like expendable window dressing in the display of my theoretical perfection. (“Just go away so that Mommy can create precious memories for you!” I find myself thinking. And yeah, I realize that’s not a statement that should be on any reasonable person’s radar. But there you go.)

So this year, I’m going to do a little pre-thinking. Before I get seduced into trying out a cute tradition or a truly awesome reverse advent calendar, I need to ask myself: what is it I’m actually trying to accomplish here? And what are the actual parameters of my life that I need to acknowledge while pursuing that goal? Where can I simplify? Where can I say no?

Saying no is incredibly hard for me, but also (usually) incredibly rewarding when I can manage it.

While I ponder our 2016 plans for Advent and Christmas, I’ll be consulting an invaluable resource—Beyond Happy: Women, Work, and Well-Being. The author of this book, Dr. Beth Cabrera, works in positive psychology. In Beyond Happy, she puts her expertise (plus tons of her peers’ meticulous research) to work analyzing (a) why the culture of anxiety thrives and how we can say no to it, (b) how we can uncover our individual purpose, and (c) how to access that purpose in practical ways that dramatically enhance our quality of life. In covering these points, we can also (d) make a more positive impact on the world as a whole.

Self-induced pressure, you may be a familiar and longstanding companion. But I’ve got to tell you, Cabrera’s message is much more in keeping with the spirit of Advent and Christmas!

Chapter Five of Cabrera’s book is titled “Be Hopeful.” In it, she advises readers to visualize their ideal future and set specific goals that will move them in their desired direction. After completing this important initial work, Cabrera then recommends:

  • Using if-then planning to guide action.
  • Identifying several alternative strategies for achieving goals.
  • Keeping a victory log as a record of all successes.
  • Considering the efforts expended by role models to achieve success.

As I work through the steps recommended by Cabrera, I’ll be posting the seasonal-specific questions I used to guide my planning, as well as some specifics on how they shaped or shifted my perception of our family’s needs.  I’ll add link-backs to those further musings in this post.

But in the mean time, dear reader, how do you create meaningful and memorable holidays?

Sadducees and Election Fatigue

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It’s my week to teach Sunday school, and I’m stuck with a truly snore-worthy passage: the Sadducees questioning Jesus about the legitimacy of the resurrection. Ugh. Somehow, I doubt the preschool crowd will be entranced or inspired by a hypothetical merry widow working her way through seven brothers. Nor will they be impressed by the theological feats of derring-do performed by Jesus as he evades the traps in the Sadducees’ tricky question.

For my own part, I want to scream at the Sadducees: “Quit wasting time looking to discredit someone who’s just trying to help! Why are you so focused on the resurrection or lack thereof? There’s plenty to focus on in the here-and-now! Just do the best you can to love your neighbor and let all that other stuff sort itself out after you die! You should be making allies and finding solutions to the real problems of this world! Starving children. Institutionalized racism. Rape. Violence. Cruelty. Oh, and let’s not forget potentially irreversible climate change. Climb out of your self-righteous little hole and stop worrying so much about protecting your own power, already!”

Hey. Wait a minute, there.

Could I possibly be reacting to our current bitter election cycle? Could it possibly be that the long-dead Sadducees are not the powerful leaders who annoy me? Hi, my name is Kate. I’ve survived watching three presidential debates and I’ve got the emotional scars to prove it.

Hmm. Perhaps the fact that Jesus actually listened to the Sadducees and responded to their concern is proof of his divinity. He didn’t pivot. He didn’t use their question as a platform for attacking a scapegoat, vilifying an opponent, or bragging about his own greatness. He stayed on-topic. It indicates that (gasp!) he may have actually been listening.

I know plenty of people—myself sadly included—who have stopped listening to understand. We merely listen to respond or, even worse, we listen to confirm our own worst suspicions. And really, that’s not listening at all.

I want something better for my children. I want something better for myself. Maybe it’s time to grow up a little, shift my point of view, and do my own part to put the “civil” back in civil discourse.

About that Food Focus…

jam collageBlackberries: we pick them, we process them, and we enjoy the jam! 

When I first started this blog, I said that it was “the spiritual side of our larger quest to live (and eat!) more seasonally.” Yes, food is very important to our family. Frankly, I’m surprised it hasn’t come up before now. And the more I think about it, the harder it is to separate food and life from spirituality. So. Here we go.

Mr. M and I would both rank food as one of our greatest pleasures in life. In fact, according to the Dante’s Inferno Test, the terrace of Gluttony is a Top Three contender for where we’d both spend our purgation. (Do I believe in Purgatory? Not in the classic Catholic sense. Do I believe in appreciating and mulling over medieval literature? Heck, yeah!)

To explain our family’s love affair with eating, I must once again return to Wendy Mogul. In Blessing of a Skinned Knee, she encourages an attitude of “moderation, celebration, and sanctification” that will help us find the proper balance between “eating to live and living to eat” (34, 163). Mogul views food as “a sacred gift” that we eat “to keep ourselves healthy and to enhance the pleasure of life’s happy events.” She encourages families to remind themselves “who the food is from (God), what it is for (to fuel us to be of service to others), and what attitude we should have toward it (both self-discipline and full enjoyment)” (165).

So, yes. We want our children to be ethical and knowledgeable eaters. It should be no secret that a pig died so that we could have our bacon. And as they get older, we want to make it even more explicit that our omnivorous eating choices require a ton more of the Earth’s resources than being vegetarian or vegan. Which will inevitably beg the question (especially from Big Sis), “Why aren’t we vegetarian, then, if it’s better for the Earth?”

And if either of our children decide to be vegetarian or vegan, we will support that choice wholeheartedly. But we will also explain that we continue to eat meat for several reasons. First and foremost, it brings us pleasure and helps us to savor life. We value this. Secondly, eating can be a tangible, deeply enjoyable way to experience other cultures… and we want access to the full range of world cuisine. Finally, omnivorous eating allows us to comfortably provide and receive hospitality with all of our family and friends. (Example: my 86-year-old grandma is rightly proud of her meatloaf. We like eating and appreciating a meal she’s been making twice as long as I’ve been alive.)

Ugh. I hope this post doesn’t smack of self-righteousness. To be clear, I’m the mom who packed Cheetos and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for our zoo trip because, hey, Mama just wants to get on the road. And the real reason I’m writing this post at all is because my mom just dropped off a load of fruit from their backyard trees. I want to blog a list of things I plan to do with the apples, and that didn’t feel relevant without a bit of ideological prefacing!

And speaking of ideology… too often, I only focus on where I’m falling short of my values and where I can improve. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one. So… give yourself a few props. What’s one thing you do on a semi-regular basis that shows a strong alignment between your values and behaviors?

Summer by Design

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Posters for our family rules/values

Summer: it’s a long stretch of unstructured family time that I look upon with exuberant idealism. And then I promptly fritter most of it away. And let’s be clear! I’m all for the frittering, so long as it’s relaxing and fun. But falling down the Facebook rabbit-hole doesn’t count. More often than not, escaping to my I-Phone inspires shame rather than pleasure. (Note: this is, sadly, a year-round problem.)

This summer, I wanted things to go differently. But how to break my lackluster patterns of behavior? I’ve been thinking a lot about that guilt-inspiring yet wholly true Pinterest quote: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

And then I read this inspiring blog post about designing a summer. And then I toyed with it a bit and implemented a few things for my family. And then I thought, “But I can’t post about this on my blog. Summer design is just about my most deeply held values, parenting choices, and life plans. That has nothing to do with religion.”

Sigh. (Hey, foot. Hold still so I can shoot you.)

And after I got over that particular misconception, I wondered if a post like this had any value at the tail-end of July. And I concluded that yes, yes it does. After all, I’ve got some experience to back up my story here… and one more month of summer to enjoy.

So here’s what I did! It’s pretty basic. First, I articulated our family values on three little posters. Then, the kids and I had a family meeting to elaborate on each value. We talked about what each one meant and brainstormed ways to live that value. I wrote down and illustrated our ideas (I’m no artist, but the drawings help our preliterate wee ones connect text and meaning). Then, we hung the posters at kid level in a high-traffic area.

Now, this last step is the most important and, unfortunately, the one I’ve had the least success following consistently. It involves coming back to our posted values and, as a family, incorporating them intentionally into our plans for the week. I was better about this in June, and it’s no coincidence that this was a fabulous month for us.

Worth noting: some of June’s success definitely comes from the fact that I spent a long time trying to distill our family’s values before sharing them with the kids. I wanted three statements that would be easy for all of us to remember and understand. At the same time, I wanted the statements to be flexible enough to stick around for a long time; the interpretation of each should be able to grow more sophisticated as the kids mature.

Here are the values governing our summer (and hopefully beyond) :

  • Take Care… of ourselves, our world, and each other.
  • Be Kind.
  • Savor Life. Play! Learn! Explore! Relax!

Great idea, right? And like I said, June was awesome. But in July, I got a little lazier about weekly family meetings. I didn’t intentionally revisit our values, either alone or with the kids. I also felt more harassed by the abundance of obligations I’d loaded into the calendar.

So, lesson learned for August: set clear boundaries and quit over-crowding our schedule. Also, stick faithfully to the weekly Monday family meeting. At that meeting, review our values. And yes, frame our chores and obligations in terms of our values. But even more importantly, invite each of us to choose an activity from the “Savor Life” poster. Prioritize those choices in the week’s plan. (Without a plan, I tend to be allergic to fun. It’s sad, but true.)

What are you currently doing to live your values? How could you kick it up a notch? And what are you plans for making the most of the rest of your summer?

 

Good Samaritan for Grown-Ups

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This week, I’m inspired and challenged by author John Metta.

A friend’s online post recently turned me on to writer John Metta–specifically, an article he wrote entitled “I, Racist.” It was a thought-provoking gem of an essay that makes me ache to be back in an AP Language and Composition classroom. (Don’t be surprised if I rewrite this post at some point to include a lesson plan and Socratic seminar questions. I just might not be able to resist.)

While a quick perusal of Metta’s website yields a treasure trove of well-written thoughts I plan to peruse in depth, this particular text ties directly back to the Good Samaritan parable as well as the sermon my pastor gave this week. Certainly, it’s provoking some more challenging self-reflection on my part.

I strongly encourage you to read the whole text. If nothing else, I’d be interested in hearing the thoughts provoked by a brief excerpt of Metta’s work, below. 

Speaking on the Good Samaritan and institutionalized racism, Metta writes, “What if the person wasn’t beaten and bloody? What if it wasn’t so obvious? What if they were just systematically challenged in a thousand small ways that actually made it easier for you to succeed in life? Would you be so quick to help then?”

On Samaritans and Serpents

Know this about Big Sis: she has an amazing heart, strong emotional intuition, and boundless energy and imagination when it comes to solving problems. It should probably come as no surprise that, during our discussion of the Good Samaritan parable, this wise little five-year-old ended up schooling me.

I was prepped to provide all the profundity. I had an Arch Book covering the story! And we were going to brainstorm lists–one about all the ways that we already love our neighbors, another about what else we could be doing to extend and demonstrate that love.

An excellent opportunity to lobby for better treatment of Little Brother, I thought. And I can also make an anti-bullying plug before kindergarten starts. 

And yeah, I got up on that soapbox. Big Sis listened dutifully and even contributed appropriately to my pre-written script. Gold star! Lesson over!

But then she said, “Mom, I want to help the people who don’t have money. Those people we see who are asking for money.  I want to give it to them.”

Say what?

I wish I could tell you that I instantly had a brilliant and generous response. Not so, but at least I didn’t lend voice to my ugly inner thought process. It went something like this:

  1. An initial knee-jerk selfishness mixed with a healthy dollop of scarcity-mentality panic. I’m not sharing my money with panhandlers. They don’t deserve it! And I don’t even have enough for myself, despite the fact that I’m gainfully employed! 
  2. Surprised shame… I can’t believe I just dismissed the needs of an entire portion of the human population. I’m a jerk.
  3. … Quickly followed by justification. But I’m a jerk with a mortgage to pay. 
  4. Then some pain. Remember when Family Member X was living on the streets, hurting and hurtful, spending what he could get on drugs? I felt powerless to help him. I feel powerless now.
  5. And finally confusion. Why couldn’t we just congratulate ourselves on donating canned food and bringing casseroles to sick loved ones? How am I supposed to navigate this surprisingly challenging discussion about loving our neighbor? 

And then I did what all parents do: I handled it the best I could, full knowing I was probably missing opportunities or sending mixed messages.

We decided that I’ll start carrying extra snacks in my purse. We will offer them to anyone who asks for money. We are also going to set aside money throughout the year. Right after Thanksgiving or during Advent, we will have a family meeting about how to spend the money helping others. Big Sis will definitely have a voice.

It’s more than we’re doing now. It’s a good baby step to take. But it’s also a far cry from the radical love and hospitality that Big Sis was originally advocating. She wanted to take homeless people shopping and buy them whatever they said they needed. She wanted to give them her jar of scavenged pennies and birthday money. She wanted to buy them a house “because everyone should have a home, Mommy. It’s not fair.”

And I hated myself a little bit for telling her “Be less generous.” And it reminded me of all the times that I, in my capacity as teacher, inadvertently told my high school students “Think smaller.”

Which brings me to the serpent. Honestly, I’ve always hated the story of Eve biting the apple. The rampant lady-hating! The vilification of learning! And God as angry dad, just a-dolin’ out the punishments!  I’m a feminist, a teacher, and a hippie Lutheran… it pretty much pushes all my buttons.

But after my interaction with Big Sis, I considered the story in a new light. What do Adam and Eve actually learn after eating the apple? They learn shame. They learn fear. They experience pain and separation from God.

This isn’t exactly the brand of “wisdom” I’d hoped to impart as a teacher or as a parent. But how many times have I been a Serpent in the Garden, saying (and perhaps even believing) that “I’m just opening your eyes to reality” when, in fact, I’m pushing cynicism, conformity, or self-doubt? I do it to others. I do it to myself.

I am glad I ended the conversation by telling my daughter I was proud of her. I told her that she can make big things happen, that I’m glad she cares so much, and that she should always believe in herself and her capacity to do good.

Thanks, Big Sis, for teaching me yet another lesson about love.