Archives for December 2017
Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
When I was a child, my brother and I drew, sculpted, painted, and cultivated various amphibious creatures in tanks scattered throughout our two bedroom house shared with our parents and baby brother. We wrote stories, played endless games of Stratego, and were known to construct elaborate puppet shows, complete with sets, drapery, and lighting to entertain our parents during dinner.
We hit puberty, and our activities no longer fully aligned. He would go off with his friends, who would spend hours in the neighbor's driveway, perfecting their kick-flips and ollies, while my best friend and I played dress-up, and filmed intricate scenes based on the relationship between a girl and an eccentric gypsy, complete with commercial breaks. During winter, my friend and I were also known to don full snowsuits, pack two snickers bars each, and pretend to go ice fishing in the field behind our school. Our imaginations were at their peak.
As we aged, our collective creativity trickled off, mine nearly extinguished by the time high school was over. Adolescence had a kind of sobering quality; those years taught me that I would always be judged, and that others' opinions mattered. At least, that was my reality. My creative impulses became more secretive, isolated, and tinged with guilt. I knew I should continue writing, drawing, dancing, and playing piano—I felt guilty that I wasn't—but I also felt the magnetism of "adulthood" and "finding myself" and "real job." All these serious phases loomed over me, causing anxiety. Even though I wanted to grow up quickly and escape my teenage years, I also longed for a distraction. And, for a teen in the late 90’s, that distraction was the mall.
I discovered the elation of buying. The excitement of Anthropologie, which I felt was a store that truly spoke to me, due to its whimsical merchandising, artfully displayed clothes, and patchouli scented candles disguised as keepsake boxes. I didn't buy everything I saw. I was, and have always been, frugal and savings-oriented. However, visiting the mall on a Saturday afternoon was so much easier than facing the daily rigors of high school. I preferred to distract myself, losing myself instead of finding myself. Drifting in a sea of want, dazed by the anticipation of acquisition, and pacified by the instant gratification of a purchase.
Most people find it much easier to consume rather than create. Creativity takes time, patience, and space to be inspired. Oftentimes, creativity necessitates isolation from our busy lives. None of these things come easily, as life can overwhelm us with increased responsibility. We long to revert to our childhood, a place of playful creativity, and eschew the anxieties of the present.
Instead of accepting the challenge to create or cultivate some aspect of life, we often find escape in our phones. We scroll through our news-feeds, and live vicariously through other people's lives. We switch to Instagram, where we absorb what has been labeled "digital crack" by The Minimalists. Succumbing to the anxiety produced by life's challenges, we pacify ourselves with various outlets of instant gratification. We do this at work, while commuting or waiting in line for coffee. Instead of connecting with ourselves, our tasks, and other people, we hide behind instant gratification.
Instant gratification is just that: instant, ephemeral, fleeting. Distracting ourselves doesn't help us to be better people. It only leads us away from our true selves and our goals in life. Instead of purchasing needless items, we can take account of the material possessions we already own. Instead of heeding the notifications of our devices, we can connect with those around us. It takes some effort, but it is very possible to access the creative impulses of our childhood.
When we understand the goals of creating and adding value to our lives, we will be able to focus on what will make us better people. We can find the strength to grow with each experience and moment, and to contribute to the world around us. When we find value in our lives, not our possessions or our distractions, we can add value to the world. When we create or cultivate meaningfully, we thrive.
Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and give thanks continuously.
The holidays force us to make time to be grateful, to connect with family, and to engage in conversation around a plentiful table. We cook together, clean together, travel together in close proximity; we sleep on the floor so that the older ones can take the beds. We make room for the cat, for the dog, and we snuggle on couches with hot tea while watching TV. There is stillness and simplicity in breathing the same air as our mothers and fathers and grandparents. There is a calm that accompanies the repetition of time-tested tradition. There is a warmth that memories of the past bring to our hearts, and there is a sweetness in the expectation of happy holidays to come. Varying in type and degree across all kinds of families, our special holiday rituals give us that deliciously satisfying sense of closeness, presence, and warmth that pave the way to the New Year.
Sometimes all the truth and beauty of the holidays can be overlooked by everything leading up to it. Let's start with the first holiday of the season, Thanksgiving. In recent years—or perhaps it's been happening for ages—I've noticed that Thanksgiving has lost some of its closeness, presence, and warmth. Thanksgiving has gradually become a time for Christmas decorations and shopping. Most, if not all, major department stores offer Black Friday deals. For smaller businesses, there's something called Small Business Saturday, and then every retailer has their own version of Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday, and so many more. Shops even open on Thanksgiving Day for Black Friday specials. Coupled into the biggest shopping weekend of the year, the sanctity of this historic day has been broken.
If you peek back into history, you will discover that the date of the holiday was moved by Roosevelt to extend the Christmas shopping season by one week. How can we find meaning and importance in the beginning of the holiday season if Thanksgiving weekend is actually an economic requirement?
Thanksgiving has lost its way in the American calendar. It has been stomped over and downtrodden by lines of intense, confrontational shoppers waiting to get their early-bird wristbands and buy the latest gadget or clothing item. Impatient and intolerant, we lash out at others if our expectations aren't met.
Perhaps this Season of Thankfulness is only a cover-up for our economic dependence on compulsive materialism. We want to be “thankful,” but here we are, circling laps through the self-indulgent lands of capitalism, running an inner marathon. We are too busy cultivating our outward thankfulness to realize what we are actually doing. In snapping selfies during the holiday season, our narcissism spills over in edited images of ourselves: 'Here's me being thankful!' or, 'Here's me with the 24lb turkey I cooked!' and again, 'Here's me with my family!' And of course, we must include all the appropriate ornamental hashtags: #soblessed #thankful #passthegravy #thankfulday #countyourblessings #turkeycoma.
When families get together to share in their lives, wonderful results can occur. Generations collide and meaning is made. New truths are told and memories are wrapped up in hugs, laughter, and pensive moments before the dawn of a new year. Magical moments come alive, and we suspend our disbelief without asking How? or Why? And, when that magic returns to us, we smile at the echo of our parents' voices from many decades ago: If you are quiet, and listen closely, you just might hear the bells on Santa's sleigh.
Wonderful results can only occur if we intentionally shed at least some of the superficiality of the holidays. We really should be tapping into the true meaning of the season. In order to authentically feel the simplicity, warmth, and presence of the holiday, we should ask ourselves: Why are we celebrating? What about this day (or moment) brings us joy? How can we grow, even just a little bit, from an interaction with a cousin/aunt/brother? Why are we going through such great lengths to produce a perfectly seasoned, succulent turkey? Moreover, how can we extend our harvest of thankfulness year-round, and to others in this world?
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and give thanks continuously... Because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Purging sentimental items when dealing with burden, grief, and hope.
My mom died in 2015. She was young. It also wasn’t sudden though, so we had time to prepare in case the unthinkable happened. And it did.
When we returned to her home that she shared with her still-new husband of less than two years, he wanted me to (almost) immediately do what I wasn’t ready to do. He sent me in to their bedroom to clear out her closet, her nightstand, and items from her bathroom.
It was horrible and was maybe only 3-4 days after she died. I was NOT ready for something like that. It felt like he couldn’t wait to get rid of her. Intellectually I knew that wasn’t the case, but emotions are something we have less control over.
I was surrounded by family and friends and was mostly able to accomplish the task in a single afternoon. The only items he expressly wanted to keep were her wedding bands and a watch that he bought for her when they were on a cruise. Some items I gave to family and friends. Several I kept for myself. The rest was donated.
Since that time, I have managed to accumulate more items. Boxes of photos she’d had in the attic; her yearbooks, papers, birthday and holiday cards she had saved, many from me. LOADS of Christmas decorations and ornaments that I hadn't seen in years.
I did not push myself to part with many of these items. Most of her Christmas stuff stayed in containers last season, but this season, in my new apartment, I am going through them. Now with the distance of time I have noticed that items that I was desperate to hold onto before, are now viewed simply as items. There was, however, one item that has caused me some trouble.
A bag. A simple duffle bag. I also have other luggage items that I use routinely, yet this one I kept moving from place to place.
You see, on a Monday morning about a year before she died, I became ill. I drove myself to the ER and ended up having emergency surgery that afternoon. I called mom and she said she would try her best to get up to me to help; I was in upstate New York while she was in North Carolina. At that point she was no longer working as it was putting too much stress on her lungs. She also didn’t yet have portable oxygen tanks that could be taken on an airplane. Despite that, she flew up, and was in my hospital room the next morning. She stayed with me for that week, helping me do things around the house that I couldn’t, like cook and clean. But more than that; she was there to comfort me.
On one day in particular, towards the end of that week, we went on a little excursion to Corning, NY. I loved this little town and wanted to show it to her. We ate lunch, walked, took breaks when we needed to, and went into one shop where she bought the aforementioned bag.
I think that I had somehow managed to equate that bag with how much she loved me because of everything she had to do to be up there with me that week. Even though I rarely used that bag, I couldn’t part with it.
Well, this week I parted with it. I had decided that now was the time. The bag was being wasted in my very small closet. Instead of having it sit there, I would instead donate it to a shelter in hopes that someone who needed it much more than I did would make use of it. It was also exactly what she would have done. In fact, over the past decade, that is exactly what she did with items she no longer needed. I believe that her husband even donated her wedding dress for that very same reason.
And you know what? When I got home and saw the empty spot where that bag had been sitting, waiting to be donated… that bare bit of floor and wall was a source of relief. The memory of that bag and that day have not faded. The significance of that week with her has not faded. The memory of her has not faded. What I gained was a little more peace of mind, and that again is exactly what she would have wanted.
You do not have to purge items like these overnight. It may even take two years, or more, or less. It is emotionally taxing but with each item you are able to process and discard, you do gain a little something in its place.
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