A Perfectly Imperfect Christmas

We, the enlightened, know.  We know that chasing perfection is a recipe for stress at any time, but a guaranteed killer during the holidays.  Right around Thanksgiving we take a deep breath, stare ahead at the holiday season and vow that this year it will be different.  We will stay in the moment and appreciate the true meaning of the season.  We won’t run desperately from computer to brick and mortar and back to find the perfect presents at rock bottom prices.  We will be joyful and relaxed.

What’s the saying, though?  ‘We all drift in and out of enlightenment.’  And never more than when there are so many demands on our attention.  Delightful Christmas parties with people we truly enjoy.  Church live nativity scenes and cookie exchanges and putting up the tree.  The work holiday party, the caroling, the teacher gifts. The enlightenment drifts away and we narrow our eyes at the To Do list.  We can relax when it’s done!  Yes!  Let’s get it all done a week early this year and then just revel in the season.

And like that, the perfection addiction creeps back in.

But Life will have no such perfection, no, She will make sure our hubris is punished.

She will remind us there is no such thing as perfection.

Just look in the front yard where twinkle lights are slowly dying on the two reindeer. Keep meaning to get out there to fix them, but never quite make it.  Remain bothered by it, though.

And there’s no perfection to be had when your combined oven and microwave unit dies Dec 5. (No oven. No microwave.  Process that.)  Not when the home warranty company takes a full month and three sets of technicians to decide it should be replaced (it was Jan 8 before it was replaced).  So you decide to cook the $200 prime rib in a plug-in roaster.  And maybe test out two of the seven ribs a couple of days before, which leads you to discover the roaster takes four times as long to cook the roast.  So you do the math and you wake up at 3:00 a.m. Christmas morning to put the roast in so that it will be done at 3:00 p.m. and then you go back to sleep.

At 8:00 a.m., right before letting the kids come pounding down the stairs in search of their gifts you check the roast and find that it’s done.  More than done.  For a middle of medium rare the temperature should read 130 but it reads 180.  That done.  Seven hours early.

You beg the kids for five minutes to go meditate and calm your agitated brain before they tear into their gifts.  Must return to the state of mind where you remember the real reason for Christmas.  The birth of Christ, time together with family, a family who is very accepting and will not be angry at all about the meat.  Breathe in and out, calm the blood pressure, try not to focus on the fact that you just ruined five of the seven ribs.  Remember that you have nice rare leftovers from the tester ribs.  Remember that your identity is not defined by cooking prime rib in a roaster.  Banish the thoughts of how much money the roast cost.

Notice again that the two reindeer in the front yard are only partially lit.  Consider going out to fix them but decide to focus on the excitement of kids getting presents.

Enjoy the day, the abundance, the warmth of time together with grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles.  Realize that you have room for sampling the twelve desserts since you didn’t fill up on prime rib. Realize most of the people in attendance like well done meat (or are very good actors).

Take the day after Christmas to clean up the house and pack for Tahoe.  Ignore the bickering of kids, ignore your outrage that they aren’t perfect angels after so much money was just spent on them. Pretend your house isn’t drowning in stuff.  Old stuff, new stuff, boxes and wrapping from the new stuff, desserts, leftover prime rib, bags of rolls, an explosion of ski wear.

Worry about Tahoe – there isn’t much snow.  Can we even ski?  Are we wasting our ski budget?  Decide it is the only time the whole family can go and go anyway.

In Tahoe find enough snow, sort of.

Come down with bronchitis and spend the second night shivering on the couch, unable to get warm despite a big puffy jacket, blankets and a fire.

Push on the next day to ski with daughter right up until she falls and concusses herself.  Ride down the mountain with the ski patrol and find the medical building. Remind self that you are too tired to ski anyway.  Banish thoughts of how much you just spent on lift tickets and rentals for one and a half runs.

Decide to go home early and rearrange car to ride in back with suffering daughter.  Try not to cough on her too much, try to keep shivers to a minimum. Reassure her she won’t die if she falls asleep (thanks ski patrol guy for mentioning that, that’s not even a thing anymore, is it?).

Take a long detour off of highway to find Chick Filet for the boy.  Calm husband with reassurances we are not almost to Fresno but mere miles from route 80.

Feel the tension in the car of four worn out people, a mom who has given up on perfection  but still feels the disappointment of not feeling our family has really connected with each other this holiday. A constantly hungry son, a work preoccupied dad, an exhausted bronchitis-enduring mom, a concussed daughter.  Can we just get home already?

Where’s the Christmas magic?  It seems like just enduring one not-great thing after another.

And then the tech-savvy dad puts an interview with Kevin Hart on his phone, running it through the speakers in the car.  And we all laugh.  And then he puts on one of his favorite comedians, Gary Gulman.  And we all laugh some more.  Improbably, the magic arrives and it is in the word ‘all.’

In a family with two teenagers, an often rule-bound mom and a dad in a new time-consuming job there hasn’t been much ‘all’ lately.  Someone is always irritated with someone else, it seems.

We laughed the whole way home, listening to one Gary Gulman recording after another, we laughed together.  All my rushing around and planning and organizing and paying for stuff is not the thing that brought us together this holiday season.  Oh how I like to believe I am the one who drives the fun and energy of our family.  And yet it was the unplanned, by chance playing of something my husband enjoys that was the magic.  So perhaps the great enlightenment of the holiday for me was realizing that there are forces beyond me that bring joy to our family, that I can just relax and do my part and sometimes that will be the important part and sometimes it won’t.

And when we pulled into the dark driveway I saw the half lit reindeer but even missing part of the lights you could make out the full shape of the reindeer, and I realized that when you have laughter together, an imperfectly lit life is enough.

Advertisements

Well Dressed Older Men

I have a soft spot for well groomed older men.  There is one I often see creaking along on my walking trail, dapper in pressed khakis and a crisp button-down, white hair neatly cut and combed.  The sight of him always makes me smile, reminding me as he does of my Dad.  As long as I’ve been alive my Dad has gotten up early, showered, shaved, and dressed himself well.  This constancy gave me a sense of safety, of security.  I didn’t like the rare times I saw Dad sick, reminding me that he is mortal, that life isn’t as predictable as his behavior suggested.

My Dad would be the first to admit that he made mistakes in life.  He was from a generation of men who showed their love by working long hours away from their loved ones.  At that time Mom was the glue holding the family together, driving to piano practice, buying the birthday presents.  When I went off to college Mom made the weekly calls and put Dad on at the end for a few words.

Then they divorced.

On his own Dad figured out how to stay connected with his children. It turned out he was startling good at picking presents, the silver bracelet I eyed in a Nantucket jewelry store, the fuzzy blue sweater that went with my eyes.  Picking a good present is a way of noticing, and Dad showed me he noticed who I was and what I liked.  And then there are the Sunday night phone calls.  For over 30 years he has tracked me (and my brother and sister) down every Sunday night.  We talk about the weather and the grandchildren’s soccer scores.  Nothing profound, but a comfort in the knowledge of each other’s days.

At the end of visiting him several years ago Dad got up at 5:00 a.m. to see me off.  His hair was messy and his pajamas flapped around his skinny ankles as he insisted on wrestling my suitcase into the car.  I even caught a whiff of morning breath.  I drove away disturbed by this image of frailty, fearful he was getting old.  Turned out he was fine, I just was unused to seeing him in an ungroomed state.

As a parent myself, struggling with the many ways we can fail our children, I am comforted by the thought that an unwavering constancy of attention and a refusal to give up on trying your best can overcome a multitude of other parenting mistakes.  I may be three thousand miles away and over fifty years old, but I have never left my Dad’s radar screen.  My Dad is the template through which every other man is judged, his effects, both intentional and unintentional, felt in every day.  Not by chance did I marry a man who is passionate and hard working and has a constant presence like my dad.  I’m trying to give him a break on the morning breath, though.

Hugging a Rattlesnake Will Not Turn it into a Teddy Bear

IMG_20150921_123144754_HDR

I love reading the work of spiritual leaders and the consistent message, from Thich Nhat Hanh to Charlie Brown, is love and kindness. So I meditate every morning. I invite God’s lovingkindness into my life. I vow to be patient and kind and right up to the point my children wake up I am bursting with love and kindness. It gets a little sticky after that. They are my teachers, and I love them so much, my precious teddy bears, that I keep trying, over and over, to learn how to pass that lovingkindness along even when I have to ask, again, to please, please, please for the love of Buddha, stop leaving Otter Pop wrappers on the family room floor.

They are just younger versions of my imperfect self and we are all trying our best and there is a lot of love and goodness in each of them so I will keep imperfectly trying to teach them how to live in this civilization, or at least this family. They are still moldable, they still respond to love and the occasional phone confiscation. I demand stuff (hygiene, please!), they demand stuff (food, food, food), but the love flows in both directions. When they are not in a death match over the TV remote I really enjoy their company so it is worth the effort to help them become good people.

I’ll tell you what is not worth the effort. Most of us have probably run into someone who sucks up all our love and kindness and gives nothing back. We think we are getting something back because this person talks a slick line of love, s/he just doesn’t walk it. You can identify these people by the confusion you feel in their presence. He says he loves you and would never hurt you but your heart and gut (and maybe bank account) says the opposite. She says she respects and admires you but you always feel anxious in her presence. There actually is no love or kindness coming back at you, not by any real definition of love and kindness.

Many of us who are on this love and kindness path think if we just show this person enough love he will stop hurting us. And sometimes this is true. Sometime the love and kindness of even one person can guide a person back to the right path. But sometimes this is not true. Sometimes we pour all our love and kindness onto a person who cannot change her hurting ways. And this is where we need to realize that hugging a rattlesnake will not turn it into a teddy bear. In those situations our work is to face the fact that this is a rattlesnake for crying out loud, and put some boundaries between ourselves and that rattlesnake. Set him free into the wild or, if the person must stay in your life, put him in a cage.  From a distance, bless him on his snakey path of life, maybe give a respectful Namaste (remembering that God has a purpose for all his creatures), and then go find something truly soft and cuddly to love. Something that returns your love. Something that won’t strike and bite and leave toxin in your body when you pull it close, but instead will give you what any good teddy bear gives, warmth and love and safety. And you’ll know you have found the real deal when you wake up one day and realize there is so much love coming from your teddy bears that you don’t even mind stepping on sticky Otter Pop wrappers.