Giving Thanks

It is easy to forget, in the busyness of the holiday season, that Thanksgiving is about so much more than eating until we’re stuffed, spending hours doing dishes, and then collapsing on the couch. Last night we hosted twenty of my husband’s relatives, whom I happen to really like.  We had people ranging in age from 84 years old to 6 months old, and the four older kids (ranging from 11-13 years old) put on a variation of a show that they have been putting on since they were little tiny kids, each year adding in the younger kids and making the dances and skits harder.  Since my son is the only boy in that group of kids, one year the girls decided to dress him up in girls clothes, which he didn’t mind since he was little.  Sometimes there are magic tricks and sometimes singing, like when my son sang “Down On the Corner” in a Cajan accent in his sports coat and tie, with all his front teeth missing since he was only six.  Most years the show involves dancing and jokes. This year, we had a 2 year-old and a baby watching the show, getting ideas for when they are old enough.  To me, that’s what the holidays are about: silly rituals, a pack of kids, and all generations celebrating together.

I’m concerned, however, that some of us are missing the point.  Retailers have decided to cash in earlier every year, so that Black Friday now begins on Thanksgiving.  I was at the gym this morning watching the news, and there are already stories of people getting hurt in stores, fighting over discount items.  One shopper even shot and killed another shopper over a coveted parking spot.  Our family decided long ago that we would boycott Black Friday, since the holidays should not be about shopping; they should be about family and twinkling lights and festivals and rituals and whatever religion you believe in.  What would the pilgrims think of our commercialism taking over what was supposed to be a reverent reference to them?  I admire the pilgrims for their survival skills through brutal hardships. They weren’t just survivors, though.  They were religious and strived to be good.

I recently read about a Muslim community who bought land a few years ago across from a church in Memphis Tennessee.  The Christian community was so upset, that many people threatened to leave the congregation.  The pastor, however, decided to pray about it, and realized that the best way to show their religion was to welcome the community with open arms, including letting the Muslims worship in their church the entire month of Ramadan, since their building hadn’t been finished yet.  The two communities now do clothing drives and bake sales side by side and hold each other up, as friends and partners.

As we begin this holiday season, let us remember to give thanks for all of our blessings and remember those who are without, particularly the people in war-torn countries, and those who have no homes or friends or hope.  One of the students at my daughter’s school is battling cancer right now, thousands of miles away from home, because Boston Children’s Hospital has the best care there is. He just found a new tumor on his leg.  If you believe in prayer, please pray for Pablo.  My daughter has learned so much by being friends with him.

To find your world stage, remember that the world extends so much beyond our tiny lives. And yet, we are so needed in the world.  Now that the leftovers are put away and the guests have gone home, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  The world is waiting.

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I took this shot in a local cemetery that has beautiful trees.

 

 

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Good Enough

As the holidays approach, many of us forget that we are not perfect and indefatigable.  We think we can entertain 20 for Thanksgiving and another 20 for Christmas and run the school pageant and bake sale, and make homemade gifts for every teacher, send out 300 holiday cards, buy the most wonderful, thoughtful presents for our family, attend every school concert and holiday party and still be standing by January 1st.  No wonder most people’s favorite day is January 2nd! One of the best things I ever did when my first child arrived almost 14 years ago was to ask myself how I could simplify.  She was born five days before Christmas, so we skipped all the parties and had no obligation to entertain anyone, which was lovely.  The following year, since she was starting to put things in her mouth, we stopped buying real trees and got ourselves a nice, fake tree.  Once her brother came along two years later, we kept the fake tree until he stopped putting things in his mouth.  When we were all set to finally buy a real tree again, both kids begged us to keep the fake tree, since it was part of the family, and didn’t involve cutting down a real tree. So the fake tree stayed, and every year it gets a little barer in some spots, but the kids still love it.

We also stopped sending out paper Christmas cards when my daughter was in kindergarten and became a budding environmentalist.  She reminded us how many trees it takes for all of those Christmas cards that most people look at for a few minutes and then toss.  So, we started Christmas emails with family pictures, which saved time and money, not to mention trees.  And the nicest benefit was that people wrote us back.  We also ended up with a sweet chronicle of the funny things our kids said when they were little. We also used to have caroling parties pre-kids and twice when they were little, which were great fun before kids and unmitigated chaos post-kids.  (I think we had 19 kids under the age of 8 one year with only one babysitter, who I ended up paying triple her rate!) This year we will be caroling through our church– much easier and no clean up.  We used to make homemade presents for teachers, but now we give copies of my CD’s– much easier than baking and still homemade in its own way.

Thanks to Martha Stewart, however, many of us feel that we need to do more each year instead of less.  We need to host more parties, show off our culinary skills, impress the neighbors, wow the family, and make our homes and lives look like the inside of a magazine.  But why? Who are we trying to impress?  I know a lot of women who insist on decorating the family tree only with fancy ornaments so the tree looks like it belongs at Neiman Marcus.  Our tree fell over backwards one year because it was weighted down with so many homemade ornaments from over the years– beginning with my mom’s homemade ones she made when they didn’t have the money to buy them, then all the tacky ornaments from my 1970’s childhood, and now all the over-the-top decorations from our kids’ childhoods.  Our favorite cookies are the ones we get by the boxful from Trader Joe’s every year that sell out by early December.  We don’t spend a lot of time making cookies because we’d rather make Christmas presents like Spin Art cards.  (Who knew that paint from Spin Art could be found years later in the corner of walls?) Instead of attending the expensive Boston Ballet Nutcracker, we used to go to the local one with ballerinas past their prime looking kind of bored as they pirouetted, but the kids didn’t seem to notice, until my son finally confessed one year that the problem with watching dance is that nobody ever talks!

Our favorite Christmas was the one in 2013 when we were visiting Vietnam and didn’t have space in our suitcase for presents.  We had warned the kids that Santa wasn’t coming that year, and had opened presents before we left.  Since we didn’t have stockings, we bought whatever we could find at the little store down the street in Saigon, hid it all over our little apartment, and had the best treasure hunt ever.  Now treasure hunts are part of our tradition, in addition to stockings.  But one of the reasons we enjoy making gifts and having both stockings and a treasure hunts is that we have given up other things that don’t matter to us.  What if this season, you could ask yourselves what traditions you are willing to give up or change that will make the holidays easier and therefore more joyful?  What if we asked ourselves how we could focus not on creating the perfect Christmas, but just a good enough one?  What if we reminded ourselves that whatever we choose to do will be good enough, regardless of what everyone else is doing?

To find your world stage, remember the wonderful advice I learned:  “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  Focus on what traditions matter to you and dump the rest.  Focus on making things good enough but not perfect.  And remind yourself that you are good enough just as you are.  You don’t need to prove anything to anyone to make that so.

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The Other Side

Now that the election is over, we have to accept that the people have spoken, even though for the second time in history, within the last sixteen years, the winner didn’t get the popular vote.  More people wanted Hillary Clinton, but the popular vote doesn’t matter in an Electoral College system.  This isn’t the first time my candidate didn’t win.  I didn’t vote for either of the Bushes either. But this is the first time that we have a president elect whom I don’t respect, given that he is sexist, racist, xenophobic, mean-spirited and unfit to lead.  It’s hard as a parent to know what to say to our kids, since they are realizing that you don’t have to be even-tempered or even qualified to be president anymore.  You just have to have been on a reality tv show.  It’s also very hard to know what to say when our state (Massachusetts) has now legalized pot.  As my younger child said, “How can adults expect kids not to do drugs if they legalize them?” I didn’t have an answer.

In the days that have followed the election, what has bothered me most, however, is the amount of vitriol being spewed by my fellow Democrats toward anyone who voted for Trump, calling them racist and homophobic and lacking a moral compass.  On Facebook, there are lots of posts saying things like, “If you cared about blacks or Muslims you wouldn’t have voted for Trump.”  There is a naive, self-satisfied, condescending tone that a lot of liberals take that is frankly smug and out of touch with what our country actually is.  We may be educated from fancy colleges with lots of degrees, but how many us understand what it’s like to be a blue collar worker with a high school degree looking for work that pays more than $12 per hour since the factory jobs have dried up? I listen to Dave Ramsey’s podcast because I like his financial advice, but I also learn so much from people not like me– people who live in the midwest and south or in small towns, who drive pick up trucks and didn’t go to college, and are trying to raise four kids on a less than 40k per year. I’ve heard callers talk about trying to piece together menial jobs while they do night school and try to get ahead.  A lot of these people are good folks who aren’t racist or sexist.  They just want to be able to support their families and find the American Dream.

How many of us who live on each coast in well-to-do neighborhoods with great schools are friends with bus drivers from Ohio or hairdressers from Mississippi or coal miners from West Virginia or factory workers from Michigan?  How many of us know people who rely on their hunting skills to put deer meat on the table to get through the New Hampshire winters?  We may have friends of every race and cultural background and have lived or flown all over the world, but how well do we really understand the Americans who are not at all like us?  When I was in high school, I was in a church choir that toured all over the country, but mostly in places that voted for Trump.  These people were some of the nicest, most lovely people I’ve ever met.  But many of them were working class and struggling to get ahead.  I never forgot that. The reality is that class is the one thing we don’t talk about in this country.  But it’s the great divide.

Now I want to be clear.  I voted for Hillary Clinton.  I was excited to have the first woman ever to lead our country, an important goal that was overshadowed by the email scandal and the Trump tape.  I was frankly shocked that the polls were so wrong and that someone so incompetent and immature and inappropriate will be leading our country.  But I don’t think Hillary was able to address the rage that many Americans feel with the status quo, something Bernie Sanders was able to.  People ultimately picked the game changer, although I’m scared to see what kind of change that will bring, particularly given the violence at the Trump rallies and after the election.  I fear for people of color and immigrants and gay people and frankly women.  But the reality still is that most people voted for Trump in spite of his behavior and beliefs, because what they needed more than anything was someone who saw our country in need of change.  They didn’t want the Establishment.  Trump voters needed to be heard once and for all.

The most galling statistic is that only half of all eligible voters even bothered to vote at all, and 8 million fewer voted this time than in 2012 and 12 million less than in 2008.  About 25% voted for Trump and 25% for Hillary. But not every person who voted for Trump was white or male or anti-immigrant.  Many cared that they hadn’t gotten ahead in the past 8 years.  The Washington Post wrote an article, for instance, called “I’m a Muslim, a woman and an immigrant. I voted for Trump.”  The woman goes on to say that she hasn’t been able to get ahead financially and that Obamacare has been a disaster for women like her who are single moms. Why isn’t that part of the national conversation instead of mud slinging?

Given that today is Veteran’s Day, I want to close by saying that my grandfather and my husband’s grandfather and millions of other soldiers fought so that we could be free.  I will forever be grateful to them for that.  As we accept the results of this election, it’s important for all of us to remember that we are a United States and we owe it to our fellow citizens to listen first so that we can understand.  To find your world stage, remember that the world needs your kindness, your fairness, and your openness so that we can finally understand the other side.

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Remember Aleppo

A few days ago I was feeling tired and overwhelmed with too much to do, as I stood in line at the grocery store.  I had been asked by the cashier if I would change lines since he had a “situation” that might take a while.  I changed lines and then noticed that the woman in the other line, standing with her preteen son, hadn’t brought enough cash for all the food she wanted to buy.  Now most of us travel with credit or debit cards, so not having enough cash on hand in not an issue.  Sometimes, however, I have swung by the store while on a walk and without my purse and realized that my $20 bill wasn’t enough, but was happy to put the lettuce back. This seemed different. There was a desperation on the woman’s face, even though she was only $7 short.  I quickly handed the money to the cashier to help finish the transaction, but what astonished me was the woman’s reaction.  She must have thanked me ten times and made sure her son thanked me too. I looked into her eyes and realized that even in our upper class town, there are poor living among us.  This might have been all the money this woman had for a while.

The next day I was feeling sorry for myself because my husband and I are applying for a HELOC and have discovered all sorts of legal errors from our past mortgage that was never discharged and recorded properly.  After four hours on the phone and doing research, we still felt like we were spinning our wheels.  It just felt awful to waste all that time trying to address a problem that I couldn’t figure out how to solve yet and that was based on other people’s errors.  And then I thought of the children of Aleppo.  I looked up the images of children stumbling through the wreckage covered in blood, searching for their parents.  And then I felt ashamed for forgetting about the people who are really struggling.

I’ve heard Americans laugh about how they only have first world problems, as though only people in third world countries suffer.  While it is true that we have clean sources of water and access to vaccines, the United States still has one of the highest percentages of children living in poverty in the world, which is shameful given how rich our country is.  And even in wealthier communities, there is still suffering.  My neighbor Anne died of breast cancer at age 40 a few weeks before her oldest child started first grade this fall.  Her younger child is probably too young to remember her.

The problem with our culture is that we have this belief that if we work hard enough and focus enough, nothing bad will happen.  We will have perfect abs in 15 minutes per day.  We will make millions while working 4 hours per week, sitting on a beach.  We will always look 25 no matter our age and we will always be happy.  This is the world that Facebook shows, but most of us know that it isn’t real.  The fact is that we have very little control over so much of our lives, in small things and large things.  I can’t control that my son broke our dishwasher playing with a friend, that kids in middle school can be mean, that some people are rude and have bad manners, that the weather in Boston changes every five seconds, and that drivers are crazy and unpredictable.  I also can’t control that I have suffered from unremitting eye pain for 5 years, and no amount of wishing or praying or trying makes it different.  But I can remember that when I am struggling, whether with the drudgery of life or the fact of living with pain, that I can remember Aleppo.  I can focus on the people who need us the most, whether the woman in the grocery store or the children searching in the rubble.

To find your world stage, remember that the reason to strive for greatness is so that you can help others to see their own.  Striving to become rich is an empty goal unless you have a larger mission like Bill Gates, using his money to reach so much of the world.  Trying to be famous so more people will like you (and LIKE you and FRIEND you) is an empty goal.  But becoming known so that you can have a greater impact is something worth striving for.  This week, when you feel down or overwhelmed or frustrated, remember Aleppo, and it will put it all in perspective.

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