Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Present: Rewrapped

I always loved Christmas, but it let me down. No matter how hard I tried to bend it and shape it and wrap it up tight, I could never make the season as good in reality as how I imagined it to be. The hype and images on TV of happy couples who bought each other Lexus' tied up in gigantic red bows didn't help. 

Many of my Christmas' past were filled with anxiety and disappointment as I tried to control every nuance. During the holiday my compulsion to give, give, give and to please others in hopes of getting a desired response kicked into high gear. Each year, I'd make myself crazy with the expectation to create the perfect, fairy tale holiday. Of course, Christmas never panned out as I hoped. But then, due to an unlikely turn of events, I was given a chance to shift my perception.

One of the many surprises found
on Christmas morning, 2011.
  In 2011 I was newly divorced, and settling into a new house and a new life. At last, I thought I could create the Christmas I always wanted with a big tree in the foyer and all the trimmings. But then reality crashed in.

My son, Jack (age 9), would be at his father's on Christmas morning. For the first time in his life, I wouldn't be peering around the corner of the living room when he woke up and discovered what Santa left under the tree. I was going to be alone on Christmas Day. I became frantic with the thought. How would I make it through the holidays?

Then, I hatched a great idea. The best way to set aside one's problems was to help someone else, right? I would throw myself into helping others and forget about my own troubles. I called the local community kitchen and generously offered to help cook.
   "I'm sorry," the volunteer coordinator said. "The holidays are already covered. Try back in January."

As it turned out from Thanksgiving through New Years every church, synagogue, Girl Scout troop and Kiwanis Club in town queues up to cook turkey and dressing for the homeless. Well,  I wanted to give and by God, I'd give!

So, I hatched a second idea: I'd work with a group that was already signed up to serve at the kitchen. But there was just one problem: I wasn't a card-carrying member of any church or civic organization. Once again I applied my I-will-not-take-no-for-an-answer attitude and formulated a brilliant plan.

Some of my friends attended a nearby Episcopal church that frequently served meals at the shelter. So one Sunday morning, I put on a skirt and panty hose and attended mass with them. (I was raised Catholic, so I easily pass for Episcopal.)

After the service, while my friends were enjoying fellowship and coffee, I sneaked into the community center and scrawled my name on their volunteer sign-up sheet. No one was the wiser.

The day to volunteer rolled around and I served turkey and dressing and all the trimmings with my new Episcopal friends. While I doled out mashed potatoes, green beans and rolls to the down-on-their-luckers, I tried my best to generate compassion for each and every soul. Seeing their smiles of appreciation, I felt humbled. I realized I really did have a lot for which to be grateful.

Sure my Christmas wasn't going to be ideal, but at least I had a home. I had a family. I had plenty of food and clothes and everything I wanted. The experience left me feeling so good that after we cleaned the pots and pans and put the cafeteria back in order, I asked the cook who managed the kitchen if I could help prepare meals on a regular basis. He said sure and I walked away feeling a little better about my life.

The following Monday, I showed up to help serve the noon meal. I quickly learned my way around the industrial dishwasher and the pantry. The chef seemed to genuinely appreciate my help. Later that day, as I strolled out of the kitchen humming Kumbaya, the volunteer coordinator cornered me.

   "You're not on the list," he said.
    "Oh, well ... I just thought you needed help ... The cook said ..." I replied.
    "The cook doesn't schedule volunteers!" he said. "We have groups that sign up. It's all planned out for months. You have to be on the list, and you're not on the list!"
   "Oh, okay," I said. I could feel my face flush with humiliation. "I was only trying to help—"
   "I have your number," the coordinator said flatly. "I'll call you if I need you."

 I walked away quickly so he couldn't see me cry. I had just been fired as a volunteer at a soup kitchen! I was such a big loser that even a homeless shelter didn't want my help.

As I drove home, my embarrassment became anger when I thought of how I'd been treated by the hapless volunteer coordinator. What an idiot! What in ingrate! How dare he dismiss me like that!

At home my anger and shame turned inward as I threw myself an enormous pity party. I forgot all about the women and men lived on the streets. I sat in my nice warm house and sobbed, not for them, but for myself. I didn't think about the hardships the homeless faced everyday and how lonely they must feel. All I could think about was myself. What was wrong with me?! I was all alone. Poor, poor me! Rejected again—and by a homeless shelter no less!

I wish I could tell you that I had a revelation right then and there. I wish I could tell you that in that moment of pure self-pity I had a break-through, an insight, a glimpse of clarity shining through, but I did not. I spent the rest of that day feeling weak and raw and burned out. Then I made it worse.

I looked at my Christmas tree and noticed the lack of gifts beneath it. It was so bare and pathetic. I moped around the house thinking about how I wasn't going to get a single Christmas gift that year. How my parents were dead and my sisters and I didn't exchange gifts anymore because we're grown up people and we called a truce on gift giving years ago. I wallowed in feeling forgotten for quite a while.

After a while I grew bored with my self pity and I called my friend Charlotte. I was still hurt and outraged when I related to her what happened with the volunteer coordinator. I was ready to be surrounded in the snug and sticky blanket of commiseration. But Charlotte did the most remarkable thing: She laughed.

And then—remarkably—I saw how ridiculous I had been and I began to laugh too. A tiny glimmer of light crept in as I was able to laugh at myself for being fired from the soup kitchen.

"Maybe he did you a favor," Charlotte said. "Maybe that's not what you're supposed to be doing right now. Maybe you should be focusing on yourself."

Charlotte's insight reminded me of a Buddhist saying, "My enemy is my greatest teacher." Certainly the volunteer coordinator was not my foe, but I had been thinking a lot of not-so-nice thoughts about him. And yet,  maybe I had gotten it all wrong. Maybe, just maybe, he did do me a favor rather than an injustice.

When I hung up the phone, I saw there were dishes piled up in the sink. I'd been too busy doing dishes at the soup kitchen to wash my own. After I filled the dishwasher, I swept the crumbs up off the floor. Then I wiped down the stove and the countertops. I made myself a nice lunch of tomato soup and popcorn, just like my mom used to make for me.

The next day, I felt good enough to change out of my sweat pants and go shopping for Christmas gifts for my son as well as for some children I didn't know whose names I gathered from a local Angel Tree. I even bought a very small gift for my ex-husband. I wrapped the gifts and placed them under my tree.

As the days ticked down to December 25, whenever I felt anxiety's twinge, I memorized favorite Buddhist prayers or repeated a simple mantra. I called my sisters. I sent a quick text to a friend. I took long, hot bubble baths and read while I soaked in the tub. Somehow I made it to December 24. And along the way, while focusing on the tasks at hand and not on some made-up fantasy, I swallowed my pride and called my ex-husband and asked him for a very special gift.

"Would it be too weird if I slept in Jack's room on Christmas Eve?" I asked. "I don't want this to be awkward, but I really want to be there when he wakes up."

My ex gave it some thought and agreed it would be okay. Jack was thrilled that Mom was coming for a Christmas Eve slumber party. That night, after attending midnight mass, I tiptoed into Jack's room, set aside my expectations and resentments and climbed up onto the top bunk. It wasn't ideal, but it was Christmas.

That season, for the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to let go, not just of a relationship or an outcome, but what it means to let go—really let go—of a long-held ideal.

 Today, I look back on that holiday season as one of—if not the—best of my life. Christmas did not go down at all in the way I envisioned it. It was messy and icky and there was not a new car in my driveway on Christmas morning.  And yet I discovered (much like Dr. Seuss' Grinch) that Christmas didn't need to be this way or that to be celebrated. On a broader level, I found that other people didn't have to do this or that for me to be happy. Although it was not easy to accept, I also learned that after spending so much time and effort to "fix" other people, the one person who really needed to be fixed was me.

P.S.: This year (2015) my life is so different. Jack is 13 and happy and healthy.We have welcomed Jason into our lives and we have forged a little family of our own understanding. And yes, miracle of miracles, we will all celebrate Christmas morning with Jack's Dad.

Four years ago, in my wildest Christmas fantasies, I could not have imagined the real happiness I have in my life today. No, my life is not perfect. Thank God, it's not perfect! For that shiny, always-just-beyond-my-grasp ideal could not be nearly as interesting and gratifying as the messy, awkward, funny, ever-changing life I now enjoy. Looking back now, I wouldn't change a thing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Ultimate Gratitude List: 20 Crappy Things That Enrich My Life

Thanksgiving is upon us once again. This past month, I've noted a number of Facebook friends posting their gratitude lists on their FB feeds. It's inspiring to read all the many experiences, people and things for which they are grateful. I believe in the power of gratitude. In the past six years, there were times when a sense of gratitude carried me through really difficult emotional times. Recalling all the wonderful, positive aspects of my life has a calming effect when I'm anxious. Making a gratitude list changes my thought stream from the "Life sucks!" channel every time.

But if I really want to dig deep and find perspective, I have to look beyond the pleasant, happy gifts I've received in my life to some not so obvious ones. So, for the record, here's a different kind of gratitude list that's more honest and inclusive:

I am grateful for ....

1. Losing my job six years ago. If I continued working 40+ hours a week, I would have  also continued ignoring things about my life and my choices that really needed attention.

2. Becoming sad, angry and disillusioned enough to go through a (second) divorce. Had I stayed married, I would not have taken care of myself and sought this spiritual path.

3. All the jobs I've applied for — and didn't land. If I had been hired for those positions, I would not have written all the stories I have written, nor met the people I've met while writing those stories, etc.

4. The really awful editorial job I did land for where I was overworked and underpaid. That job sustained me for a while and helped show me that I am much happier as a freelance writer.

5. Income Tax Return filing, because it means I have an income to report.

6. The holidays and other times when I felt very, very alone. Without those times I would not appreciate all the wonderful people I have in my life today.

7.The times when I had colds and infections and felt like crap. Without those illnesses, I would not fully appreciate the majority of the times when I am well.

8. The sorrow I've felt when friends have died too soon. The loss of friends creates a void in my life, but it also serves to immortalize them in my heart.

9.  The many rejection notices I've received for my writing submissions. Yes, each one is a disappointment, but they also server to reset my professional compass. As a writer, I've never been sure in which direction to go, so eliminating options is one way to find a truer course.

10. The times I've felt slighted, left out, or looked over. I am a more compassionate, more inclusive person today because of these experiences.

11. People who annoy the living crap out of me and cause me to feel angry, frustrated or disgusted because of their narrow-minded opinions, self-centered acts or just plain stupidity. Chances are I do/say the similar things and by reacting to these jerks I get a chance to see myself clearer. (Ugh!)

12. Young, carefree, beautiful people who never seem to worry and cause me to feel old and neurotic. Seeing youth reminds me that I was that way once, and I can choose to have that youthful optimism again, if I lighten up. (It also makes me appreciate the wisdom I've gathered along the way. I really would not want to be 20 or 25 or even 30 again!)

13. The aches and pains I sometimes feel in my knees and elbows. Yes, I'm aging but these discomforts remind me that I'm still alive and active and trying to remain that way.

14. Menopause ... Um, well at least my own mood swings help me relate to my teenage son (see #15).

15. A son who is going through puberty. Yes, he acts like a jerk at times, but I appreciate that this is part of the process of his growth and maturity and I am forever grateful to have him in my life and have the privilege of watching him grow up. (Hormonal outbursts are also a wonderful opportunity for me to practice compassion and patience.)

16. The lines on my face and the extra padding on my thighs. Signs of age mean that I am alive. The alternate is not so comforting. And now that I'm older, I can let go of vanity and self-comparison and live more authentically.

17. Dirty dishes in the sink, dust on the bookshelves, and loads of laundry to fold. Housework means I have a home that's lived in and enjoyed, that I have food to prepare and people to prepare it for, and clothes to wear.

18. Sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration and every negative thought. My emotions help me see where I need to improve when responding to the realities of life.

19. Corrupt, disillusioned, selfish, cruel and ignorant people (aka assholes). They provide me with opportunities to practice compassion, forgiveness, patience and peaceful resolution.

20. Traffic. Being stuck behind a line of cars makes me slow down and consider all the nameless people driving on the road around me who I don't know but who are also on their journeys. It provides me with an opportunity to practice equanimity — we all want and deserve happiness.

This is not an exhaustive list but you get the idea. In fact, the very act of making this list provided me with a sense of peace. And after all, that is what this journey is all about? Finding peace in/with an imperfect world. I guess the best way to do that is to find "the good". If we can do that, then loss and heartache lose their sting, and suffering is no longer without meaning.

Yes, I am grateful, so very grateful, for all I've been given.