Monday, December 23, 2013

Let it Snow

I sat at the kitchen table, alone with a cup of reheated coffee and my phone. I tapped on my Facebook app. “Well this storm was a sad,” my friend’s status said.

The kids had just eaten and traipsed off – after being reminded to manage their dirty dishes – to dig out all their snow clothes, with my final admonition regarding how much time was left before it would be polite to knock on the neighbors’ door. The Christmas CD I’d put on at breakfast was still playing.

I replied to my friend’s status, “I think it looks beautiful and our plow guy did a great job! It's still snowing here...” trying to be charitable because I’d felt a little Grinch-y when I’d replied to her message of the day before “AM SO EXCITED FOR THE SNOW.....WHO'S WITH ME???” with “Better now than during the school week, but I am not a big fan.”

Church was cancelled and I was not in a hurry to do anything in particular, so I posted a picture of my back yard, and then realized I had not answered a message from a former colleague.

Hmm-hmm-hmm, hmm-hmm-hmm, let it snow, I intermittently hummed and sang along as I thought about whether I would write back to my colleague from my phone or wait ’til I got to my computer where I’m not all thumbs and can type faster. Since the latter already hadn’t happened in many days, I decided I’d reply on the phone. I had time.

“Blah blah blah,” I wrote. “And sorry to take so long to reply... Things are good but so busy. I know everyone says that so it's almost meaningless, but…”

(I don’t want to be one of those people who uses “busy” as an excuse, status symbol, or the new “fine” when someone asks how I am, so I laid my trump card.) 

“…all three boys are playing on two teams.”

I continued, “Blah blah blah and I haven't really done any Christmas shopping yet.” 

But there I was, on a Sunday with nothing in particular I had to do. 

When their waiting time was up and my kids bundled up and took off for a couple of hours, I seized the opportunity to accomplish the bulk of my shopping online, except for the things I’d planned to buy locally. Then I wrote out a bunch of holiday cards and enjoyed doing so, rather than looking at it as a task to check off my to-do list. I also had time to sit and think about what is really important to me about the holidays. It’s far less about expectations and obligations than it is about getting together with and appreciating family, having time off from the usual routine, and reflecting about the year gone by while preparing for what’s to come.

On Monday, my youngest said he loved the snow and wished he had a snow day. I told him the storm couldn’t have happened at a better time, as far as I was concerned. We were walking down our long driveway towards the bus stop around the corner and I had a coffee in one hand and a snow shovel in the other.

“Don’t you like snow, Mommy?”

“Well, yeah, it’s nice to look at,” I admired the canopy of trees and how the sunlight sparkled through them. “And I know you had a blast yesterday and it’s fun for people who sled and ski and ride snowmobiles…but it’s dangerous and expensive.”


“We’re lucky it was a weekend, and the weekday-nine-to-five-ish people didn’t have to commute. But think about the people who did have to get to work when the roads were slippery and they couldn’t see. Or what if we had an emergency and we had to drive to the hospital? And if we got there, we had to wait to see a doctor because the doctor was having trouble driving?”


“We were very fortunate to be tucked inside our warm house when the wind was howling and the snow was whipping around, but think of people who had to be out and what about homeless people?” And I wished that the older brother who thought it was cool not to wear a coat to school could walk a mile in the shoes of those whose only Christmas wish is a coat, or shoes, even. “Or what about those whose power went out and they couldn’t cook pancakes for breakfast or make cookies and hot cocoa and they couldn’t ‘come in out of the cold’ because they had no heat?”


“And then think about how much snow has to be moved not just off the roads, but also out of our driveway! (I was again grateful for the plow guy we found just the day before the storm.)”

“Well, our driveway looks good, Mom, so what are you doing with that shovel?” My son asked as we continued our walk towards the street.

“I just have to clean up the end of it where the town plow went by and shovel in front of the mail box so we can get mail today. Can you go to the bus stop by yourself? I’ll watch from here.”

“Okay, Mom. Bye Mom."

“Bye, honey. Have a successful day!”

I waved to the bus driver as she passed and then watched my son get on the bus. A couple of neighbors went by and we chatted amicably about snow removal and plow companies vs. snow blowers or tractors and exchanged other neighborly pleasantries.

I finished shoveling and walked back up the long driveway to the house humming, Hmm-hmm in a hmmm-hmmm wonderland, grateful that the storm had come and gone when it did, and feeling quite a bit more Christmas-y than usual on a Monday morning.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

When is good enough?

“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” the words of my company’s CEO rang in my mind as I justified not baking my pies from scratch, spot washing the morning’s syrup spill from the tablecloth, and putting the pictures that are still waiting to be hung since our summer move back in the closet once again. The CEO was talking about a webcast delivery to 400,000+ people that had experienced a few technical glitches. I was thinking about Thanksgiving the following day. In both cases, the show went on and everything turned out just fine.

Fast forward a few days to the first Sunday of Advent. As we were taking communion at church, my middle son informed me that I should chew my bread 23 times for proper digestion.

“Where’d you hear that, honey?”

“It’s science, Mom.”

I laughed to myself sardonically, thinking not about Jesus’s sacrifice, but about the time I’d been told that I “ate like a mom.” I’d snarfed down my first ever, way-too-hot corndog at an amusement park, during the course of my older two sons’ merry-go-round ride while simultaneously moving the stroller (that my youngest was supposed to be sleeping in) back and forth rhythmically. I was mortified to realize that the operator of an adjacent ride was watching me, laughing as he informed me of that fact. I often find myself eating like that, in a hurry, on the go, in the car, while I work. When I eat like that, I sacrifice breathing, it seems. 

And now that the holiday season is in full swing, I really need to breathe. Like many of us do, I put so much pressure on myself to create certain experiences, prepare special meals, decorate the house just so, choose the right gifts…not to mention take the perfect photos (perhaps to prove how perfect everything is, or maybe just to look at and experience later since I was too busy at the time creating, preparing, decorating and so on to notice anything.) 

We had layoffs at my company this year. While I remained employed, many of my colleagues did not. On top of having survivor guilt, I am aware that “the bar has been raised,” as my manager stated. I didn’t ask, but I think that means my teammates and I are competing amongst each other to ensure we’re not the next ones to go. I am now doing more work, and frequently feel not only stressed out, but also panicked. No problem, I’ll get it done, I think as I prepare to tackle the fire drill du jour, while gulping yet another cup of coffee, wondering if I am close to overdosing on caffeine.

“Why can’t you remember where you parked your car?” My friend thought this was funny since I had only been inside the hockey rink for an hour, but sadly it’s a common occurrence. I had been hustling my youngest son along after having him dress and eat a snack en route – juggling the timing with basketball practice for my older two – and did not look back to make a mental note of where the car was. I don’t have room in my head for mental notes: there is already too much to think about and far too much information coming at me.

I learned at a conference recently that there are 2.5 quintillion bytes of information created daily and that 90% of all the data in the world was created in the last two years. One of my boys informed me of this Google Fact: the average user checks his phone 110 times a day. “Well, yeah,” I justified. “I have to check it because I don’t wear a watch anymore and that’s where I learn about the weather and my calculator is there…” my voice trailed off. That sounded lame even to me. The primary reason I look at my device is because that is where my email, messaging, and social media accounts are. (Incidentally, social media data is a huge portion of the 2.5 quintillion daily bytes). 

“Ah yes! That warm, wonderful feeling when you spread yourself too thin, and deliver sub par in virtually every role you play...” was a friend’s recent Facebook status. Judging by the number of comments, there were many of us who could relate.

But why? What is par? Have we all raised that bar so high that we expect the impossible from ourselves? When is good enough? 

According to Women’s Health Network, your stress response, often known as “fight or flight,” is a lifesaving mechanism powered by your adrenal glands. It can save your life in an emergency but after the threat passes, your body is supposed to return to normal function. The trouble is, our bodies interpret our grinding modern lifestyle as a never-ending emergency.

This sounds so ridiculous, but is mostly true for me, even though intellectually I know it’s not healthy to live with the stress that hurrying, overworking, overdoing, and multitasking can bring on. I often start my day worrying about getting the kids out the door, because we no longer live within walking distance to the school and I just don’t have time to make the 30-minute round trip if they miss the bus.

“Have you done your holiday shopping yet?” my colleague asked me the day after Thanksgiving break.

“No, I’ll probably just do it online.”

“Well, isn’t today Cyber Monday?”

“I suppose it is, but I really don’t have the time today.”

She and I then began lamenting about our workload and since she is Jewish, she’s was in the midst of Hanukkah as well as recovering from two Thanksgiving celebrations. I told her that I was thinking about adopting the CEO’s statement as my holiday mantra. “Yep, sounds like my approach,” she agreed. “I just uploaded a bunch of Thanksgiving photos and didn’t bother cropping or fixing the red eye – I just put them out there and sent the link to everyone. They looked good enough. People were just so happy to see the pictures."

“What are you getting your kids for Christmas?” a mom at the bus stop asked me on Cyber Monday afternoon. It wasn’t the first time she brought this up, and I hoped it wasn’t because she considered our family to be the proverbial “Joneses” with whom she had to keep up. I had only just thought – as I walked down our long driveway to the bus stop – that since no one can see our house from the street how few decorations I’ll need. I can take the window candles – that look so nice on the outside but drive me nuts with their tangled cords on the inside – off the agenda altogether. We are definitely not the Joneses. “I don’t know… I’ll probably be able to get all their gifts at a sporting goods store. Probably online.”

Someone sloshed his hot cocoa all over the kitchen floor that night. When I unwrapped a brand-new roll of paper towels and handed it to him, we noticed that (instead of the festive motif I thought I selected) the towels had messages printed on them including “Mess happens,” “Whatever,” “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” “Keep calm,” and No worries.” 

It’s a sign, I thought to myself. 

I’m not going to dig through unpacked boxes to find the holiday themed cupcake wrappers: cupcakes are awesome no matter what wrapper they come in. I won’t squeeze in a shoe shopping trip for the outfit I am planning to wear to the office party: I already have a workable pair. I do not have to volunteer for or donate to every cause presented to me. I don’t need to attend every holiday fair or party…and right then, I vowed that this holiday season I will not set impossible expectations for myself. I will ascribe to more “be” and less “do” (I am a human being, not a human doing) – I want to be able to enjoy the season, not just view it as a series of items to check off my to-do list.
I will not let perfect be the enemy of good.

Perfectly good is good enough.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My "godless" childhood

Last weekend we had my husband’s company Christmas party in Newport, RI, which is where I lived as a child. We decided to stay over since it would have been a long, late-night drive back. I thought it would be fun to go to my old church on Sunday morning and called my best friend to see if she wanted to meet us. We grew up in that church, that is, until I moved away, and attended a different church of the same “religion” in Massachusetts during my later teen years.

After the sermon I heard on Sunday, I would not actually consider this movement to be a religion at all, though Wikipedia defines it as a liberal religion characterized by a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" and states that members do not share a creed, but are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth.

I further disagree. There was really nothing spiritual about the service at all. I do know that the primary useful thing this church taught me as a child was that there are many ways of doing things. I remember reading and rereading “Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret,” a Judy Blume book about a girl in sixth grade who grew up without a religious affiliation. I spent my teen years wishing I was Catholic, because all my friends seemed to be; then attending a Baptist church for a while with some friends from my high school cross country team; and then into the dark void of college – occasionally brightened by my fascination with Martin Luther King, Jr., who got his Ph.D. in theology at the same school I attended – and young adulthood, until I landed in a Protestant church after finding God in a self-help fellowship with spiritual guiding principles.

The service started out with “Oh Come, Emmanuel” but that was the only reference to God or Jesus in the entire hour and a half, and I guess that was supposed to cover the topic of advent as well. No Lord’s Prayer, no “peace be with you,” and no “Glory Be.” The minister talked about “storytelling” and the fact that stories get diluted and changed as they are passed along, how foolish our ancestors were to think dreams were reality (e.g., if you see your loved ones in a dream and think they are real, you must be really simple minded, which is insulting to me, because my dreams about my parents who have passed and my memories are what keep them “alive” for me), and suggested that the Bible was just a bunch of made up stories. Even though I often wonder why the Bible was edited the way it was and believe it does not contain all the gospels, as well as the fact that it’s no doubt translated differently by different people, I didn’t think discounting the Bible the way this minister did – especially in a supposed house of worship – was even remotely appropriate. My husband later told me he almost got up and left at that point. I replied that I wouldn’t have blamed him.

No wonder I used to daydream. And count things like panes in the magnificent stained glass windows and people’s heads in the rows in front of me, or pick at my fingernails…or later on, when I attended the church in Massachusetts, analyze the other girls’ wardrobes and wonder if I would ever be able to dress that way or if I even wanted to, coming from the “other side of the tracks” as I did.

At lunch afterward, I said to my friend, “I grew up godless. No wonder I was always searching…” I began my tirade, “With all the intellectualizing, how could there be an opportunity for spiritual growth? How do you learn that God loves you? Or that Jesus is your friend? It’s all above the neck, in your head; but spirituality is supposed to be below the neck, in your heart…and you feel the Holy Spirit in your gut. I do anyway…isn’t that what’s meant by a gut feeling? I need a bit more heartfelt testimony to feel that I have been spiritually moved,” I sputtered, my friend unable to get a word in edgewise.

My Godless Childhood: What you are is God's gift to you. What you become is your gift to God.Then, on the drive home, I had a light-bulb moment that brightened my reflection on my supposedly spiritually barren childhood. I remembered a big gaudy yellow button with a bright green frog that I’d stuck into the cloth speaker on the clock radio next to my bed. It said, “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.” I have no idea where I got it but was fascinated by that saying and it has stuck with me my whole life. I did not grow up godless!

This saying is why, in our family, we do talk about gifts and talents and try to remember to thank God for our sports skills; our academic gifts, or our creative talents like music, art, and writing in our prayers.

On Monday, I recounted my experience to a colleague whose husband is a pastor. Normally I do not talk about religion at work, but there are certain people with whom I know I can. I told her how beautiful and historic the church is, and how amazing the stained glass windows looked, and how awesome the bells sounded – you could hear them for blocks, all the way to the hotel where we stayed – but that I felt like the minister was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She replied, “Oh yes, my husband just spoke about that last Sunday. We are in Wolf Country.” (She lives in the southeast U.S.) It was a relief to be able to have a below-the-neck conversation with a like-minded person who spoke the same language.

She reassured me, “You were not godless…God brought you into this world for a purpose…and had you experience what you experienced so you could do His will in the manner that He had planned for you. So continue to seek and He will order your steps.”

God has been with me all along. God believed in me, even when I wasn’t so sure I believed in Him. I don’t have the frog button anymore but do have a tiny ornate plaque with a similar saying.

I thought about the steps and stops along my spiritual journey in the years and how my family ended up in the American Baptist Church; how my kids break out in song sometimes, “Jesus is a friend of mine;” and how excited they were to find out we will be able to go to the late Christmas eve service and light the Christ candle for the second year in a row.

“And remember, if you don’t use your gifts, you will lose them,” my colleague admonished.

At first this sounded kind of ominous, but upon reflection, it is actually the reason why I felt compelled to write this particular story, and why I continue to write and share stories even if it means I am doing so even when I might be doing other things, like sleeping or perhaps Christmas shopping, writing cards, making cookies, cleaning my house…

…but what better way to prepare for Christmas than by appreciating my God-ful life, reflecting upon Christ's first coming to Earth as a baby, and for feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit…and sharing this with others?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


I almost didn't post this pic because of the "typo" I spotted, which I then realized was -- duh -- intentional.

I can't stand grammar errors, though.

When I am writing I usually highlight or put variables like xxx in spots that I want to go back and revise. If I "torture the copy" (as my mom used to say) too much I get stuck and things don't flow.

It often takes me a few passes to write an essay (which is what I do. I do not do fiction, I do not do short stories, and I do not do poems...I actually am not a big fan of most poetry, though I do like limericks and Haiku).

If I am really in the "flow zone" (another Mom-ism) I can write an essay in one sitting. I love when that happens. It's rare, though.

Recently, I just had an essay published in anthology that I had written years ago that I had edited numerous times and with several submissions but only recently did it find its home (last spring it was accepted, this November was published, and I wrote under a pen name so I am not going to share any deets here.)

The story I wrote for Chicken Soup for the Soul came out all at once.

But no one will see it

I set up the nativity in the back yard again this year. In the past it has been out front near the fire hydrant that is on our property, and...