Journal

Redefining Christmas

Redefining Christmas

I’m sitting in my living room this evening feeling grateful for the little things. All day, I’ve been trying to be okay with Christmas being different now, and not really knowing what that even means or what Christmas will look like from now on. This is the first year of celebrating Christmas without my parents and without their house as the center of our family get-togethers. Last year doesn’t count because we were too busy getting ready to sell their house, which involved so much work that it still makes my head spin when I think about it. On top of all that, I was sick with a really bad cold, so my adult children spent Christmas with their dad.

This year is different.

Our circa 1840 house is really small and cannot even begin to accommodate a small family gathering that includes a toddler who spends every waking hour exploring. My daughter, who lives with little Ava in a small apartment an hour away, doesn’t have a car. So the solution we came up with is to have our family celebration at the home of my ex-husband and his girlfriend (who live close to my daughter) so we all can be together in a space that can host a holiday celebration that includes a very active toddler. 

For the most part, those in my small family circle aren’t buying gifts this year, and that’s okay. It’s not too different from any other year, and it’s not just about financial circumstances because values are also a factor. I’ve never been into the consumer aspect of Christmas and would always make most of the gifts for my children or give them art materials. Christmas wasn’t so much about the presents as it was about being together. My favorite Christmases were when I had the kids for Christmas Eve, and we’d have a dinner movie theater in the living room. I’d make our favorite holiday foods from a menu we created together, and we’d watch a few Christmas movies and (in the earlier years) track Santa’s whereabouts.

This year, I mostly want to give the gifts of food, art, and creativity materials, but I’m feeling like there’s still so much to do with only one more day until Christmas because the snow and ice we’ve had for the past two days put a damper on shopping for missing ingredients and supplies. But the down time has given me a chance to pause, reflect, and simplify my expectations for what I can accomplish in the next 24 hours. 

My mom was the one who made Christmas feel like a really festive occasion, a big deal. She loved buying presents, decorating their house and two Christmas trees (one real, one artificial). My mom was the spirit of Christmas in our family! For the most part, the store-bought gifts and larger ticket items (such as American Girl dolls) were under the tree at my parents’ house. 

But that’s not the case anymore, and my lack of consumerism really shows now because my mom isn’t around to cover for me! I feel some pressure (coming from nobody but me, of couse) to carry on my mom’s spirit of Christmases past. But without a home that can accommodate a family gathering, no space for a Christmas tree, and a very modest budget this year, it’s not realistic – and it’s also not me. A portion of my parents’ Christmas decorations are in boxes in my storage unit, but I don’t even have space to display them. 

I’m trying to be okay with this – with Christmas looking very different than it used to.

Earlier today, I spoke with my daughter to firm up holiday plans and told her I’m more interested in presence than presents but feel I should do more to make Christmas even a little more like it was when my parents were alive. She told me she was feeling guilty about not being able to buy presents for anyone except Ava. Seems we were both falling into the trap of thinking what we could do wasn’t enough.

We reminisced about Christmases when my parents were alive, and then she told me she can’t remember the presents she received at my parents’ house but remembers the feeling of everyone being together. We agreed that is what Christmas is really about. And we agreed to be gentle with ourselves and not put pressure on ourselves to do any more than we can do. 

In past years, I recall seeing lots of posts and pictures on social media of friends having big holiday celebrations complete with beautifully decorated trees and lots of presents. This year I’m on a 30-day Facebook fast and probably will avoid Instagram for a few days around Christmas, as well. It’s nice to see smiling faces and families celebrating together, but it’s still a sensitive time of year for me as I adjust to not having my parents or their house in the picture.

But let’s not allow our expectations for Christmas (or life in general) to be influenced by social media images. There is another reality.

Every day I work at the library, I’m in contact with many people who are homeless, and they keep my ideas about what Christmas “should” be like in check. They remind me of how much I have, even if it doesn’t look like much compared to the Facebook pictures and my assumptions of how other families live and celebrate. I realize that just showing up and being together is enough. It’s not the presents. It’s the presence that matters most. And we should be really grateful for everyone who can come together and celebrate with us. Thank God my daughter survived the car accident she was in over the summer and is alive and able to celebrate with us. 

There is a library patron who reminds me of my dad. He’s 88 years old, and we have developed a special bond. It makes me so happy to see his face light up when we interact.  Last week, he gave me advice about running cold water at the end of a shower, to close my pores. The only other person who ever told me that was my dad. I know little bits and pieces of this man’s story and am eager to learn more. Yesterday, he told me that a female relative (a cousin, I believe) invited him for Christmas, and he was happy she did because otherwise he would have spent Christmas alone. I had no idea! A week ago, I gave him one of my calendars along with a card referring to him as my favorite library patron, and now I’m thinking that might be one of the only gifts he will receive – which makes me so glad I gave it to him!

I’ve been thinking of him a lot today and am appreciating that I have family to be with on Christmas. Many people don’t. It can be difficult for divorced parents who alternate holidays to not celebrate with their children on the actual holiday. The years when we can spend the holidays together are special and not to be taken for granted. It doesn’t matter if you have a tree or any gifts under it. It’s the togetherness that counts. 

So please enjoy the company of your loved ones, and don’t put stress on yourself to have your holiday celebrations be anything more than what they are. Being together with whoever is able to show up is the greatest gift of the season. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake. 

May your holidays be filled with gratitude and love. And may you focus more on the love than any absences, and more on what you have than what you don’t. May you find a sweet perfection in what is.

© 2017 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Two Questions

Two Questions

For a while, I’ve felt inspired to write about the topic I’ve been immersed in all year. You could call it  mindful self-compassion.  Or self-love. Or tender loving self-care. I still haven’t settled on a term that feels just right, but I think you get the gist.

Since my mom passed away 3 1/2 years ago, I’ve noticed a loving, motherly voice growing stronger in me. It arises in my heart and reminds me to be kind and true to myself. I’ve been on an intentional journey of self-love for the past 11 months and in that time have learned to be my own best friend and to treat myself the way I would want my children to treat themselves: with kindness and compassion. Whereas I used to have a really strong Inner Critic, in recent years, that gentle, loving, nurturing voice has overshadowed it. It’s not just because my mom passed away. It’s because I’ve set an intention to feel better about myself. Because the old way wasn’t working. Something had to give.

And the great news is that IT DID! I took all the love, kindness and nurturing I’d given to others for so long and turned it on myself, and it has made such a positive difference! I’m eager to share my journey of self-compassion because I realize so many people struggle with it and know from my own experience that it doesn’t have to be that way.

That’s why I was really caught off-guard a couple weeks ago when my Inner Critic paid me a visit. 

One night, I was working on a project that took longer than anticipated and had some late night momentum going. After completing each step in the process, I asked myself if I should go to bed and continue in the morning or push through and get more done. Each time, I chose to keep going, though I knew better. By the time I finished, it was 12:30AM, and I was tired

The next thing I knew, it was 1:15, and I was still awake in bed. 1:30…2:00.

Finally, I realized a familiar tape was playing over and over in my mind. My Inner Critic had slipped in and made herself at home, or as Eckhart Tolle would put it, my pain-body was becoming active after a period of dormancy. It seemed like she had been waiting patiently in the shadows for me to leave the door open unintentionally so she could slip in and feed on my suffering. In a nutshell, here’s what she said:

You have no value and nothing worthwhile to offer.

Your life has been a series of mistakes.

You are unlikeable.

Nobody is interested in anything you have to offer.

You are invisible and forgettable. Nobody notices or remembers you.

It’s not that I totally believed these cruel messages, but I was overtired and didn’t have the energy to defend myself against them. The voice caught me by surprise in the middle of the night, and I just wanted it to stop! But I was too tired to open up my toolbox and be resourceful. Where was that kind and loving voice that didn’t allow the Inner Critic to get through the door? Asleep, apparently.

The next morning, I was still exhausted, vulnerable, and at the mercy of my unwelcome visitor. When the bill for having my son’s car towed from another part of the state came to more than three times what I expected (because I miscalculated the mileage), it was too much. The critical voice became even louder.

I’d already been feeling disheartened because my calendar sales have been down this year. In addition to investing quite a bit of money to produce a beautiful calendar, I paid for a Constant Contact subscription to improve communication with my mailing list subscribers – which seems to have reduced my mailing list by 75% because my heartfelt emails now end up in promotions/spam/junk folders. In addition, creating Facebook promotional ads was exasperating!

This probably sounds really boring, but it’s the stuff I wake up fretting about in the middle of the night. I felt like I’d been doing everything I should be doing, and it just wasn’t working. That disempowered attitude, combined with inadequate rest, set the table for a visit from my Inner Critic.

Contrast that to the prior weekend: I woke up Sunday morning determined to take good care of myself but didn’t get any exercise before I had to go to work. I drove to work wondering why I didn’t make time for self-care. Was I on a mission of self-sabotage? I wondered. But I was well rested and assured myself that although I can’t do anything about how I spent my time that morning, I’d do my best going forward because it feels bad when I let myself down, and I don’t want to feel bad. In other words, when the Inner Critic knocked, I met her at the door, told her I wasn’t interested in what she had to offer, and sent her away.

I didn’t invite her in and let her drain my energy and convince me of my unworthiness. Didn’t go there at all because I realized it’s counterproductive and had the energy to choose a better response. During my half-hour lunch break, I put on my sneakers and got fresh air and a vigorous walk. And it felt amazing because there were so many other things I could have done with that time, and I chose the best thing of all. 

Recalling the previous weekend’s experience was enough to remind me that I could disengage my attention from the rude visitor and ask: What is the best thing I can do right now? Then I dried my tears and somehow mustered up the energy to deliver my greeting cards, calendars, and a few framed photos to a totally awesome shop that expressed interest in them. Because I remembered how good it felt to do the best thing I could do, and I wanted to feel that way again. 

The following night, I went to bed earlier but woke up again in the middle of the night to that awful voice. This time, I was a little more rested and challenged my Inner Critic by asking: Is that really true?

Um, no. Unequivocally NO.

There was nothing left to say. With that answer, I escorted my uninvited guest to the door. Soon I was snuggled under a blanket of peace and fell asleep.

What is the best thing I can do right now? 

Is that really true?

These questions can cut through all the woe-is-me, I’m-a-loser nonsense and bring your focus back to the present moment, which is where your power lies. As I see it, the only reason to revisit the past is to learn from it (with an attitude of curiosity, not self-judgment) or to reframe it and create a new, more empowering story. 

The visit from my Inner Critic was an occasion to set aside the shoulds. Instead of pressuring myself to write a blog post, for example, I took walks and baths because those activities ultimately were more important and nourishing and helped me find my way back to my center. When I’m not adequately rested, I don’t have the strength to defend myself effectively from the Inner Critic. At such times, the best I can do is to assure myself that I will be stronger after I’ve had some good sleep. I realized, once again, the importance of getting plenty of rest because I don’t like feeling so defenseless! I want to feel good!

Once I had a couple nights of good sleep, I felt like my empowered, self-compassionate self again. I woke up and, standing at the river’s edge, photographed the sunrise. I greeted the rising sun as if it were a great teacher I was excited and grateful to meet. Each morning, we receive the gift of a new day, a fresh slate, and that is no small thing.

I stood at the riverside and promised to allow it to be its own, unique day and not superimpose any of yesterday‘s patterns on it. Allow it to unfold as it is, and with gratitude, give to this new day the best possible, rested and resourceful, version of myself.

© 2017 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Four Bags and a Canon in D

Four Bags and a Canon in D

Yesterday would have been my mom’s 80th birthday. Well, I suppose it still was. She just wasn’t around to celebrate with us – in the physical sense, anyway. Instead of going to my parents’ house (which was sold earlier this year) for a birthday celebration in the evening as we would have in a parallel universe, I lit up her miniature Victorian Christmas tree in my living room, sorted through a bag of her clothes, and shared some memories with others who loved her. And not just family. Facebook is pretty great for things like that.

Something kind of magical happened on my drive home from work last night. My mom LOVED Pachelbel’s Canon in D. She always made sure it was played during family weddings. We played one of her CDs with many different versions of it in her room at the hospice house the night she was dying, and it created such a peaceful, sacred atmosphere. I can’t recall ever hearing it on the radio, but when I turned on my car radio during my evening drive home, it was playing – which brought me to happy tears because it was her birthday, and I felt her presence in that music.

Music, dreams, and license plates are the biggest ways I feel my parents’ presence, as if they are popping in to say hi. Over the weekend, I turned on my car radio, and “Frosty the Snowman” was playing as I sat at a traffic light in town. I don’t tend to linger on Christmas music stations, but my mom loved everything Christmas, including Frosty (which I remember her playing on piano), and before I had a chance to change the station, I noticed the license plate on the car in front of me read: FROSTY. I kid you not. 

Even though it’s a silly children’s song, it was a compelling synchronicity. It wasn’t until a couple days later that I thought about the lyrics: 

Frosty the snowman
Had to hurry on his way
But he waved goodbye saying, 
“Don’t you cry
I’ll be back again some day.”

And then I cried tears of yes because those simple words touched a nerve. When pancreatic cancer struck, my mom did have to hurry on her way, and I know she wouldn’t want us to grieve and cry because she was such a jolly, happy soul who spread joy and kindness everywhere she went. 

Was there a message in that song and something more to it than pure coincidence, or do I think too much? Prior to considering the lyrics, I just couldn’t stop thinking about the synchronicity – kept coming back to it – because, even though I originally attributed it to coincidence, it wouldn’t let me go. It seemed like there was something more to it. Something personal. It was a nagging feeling I had. At any rate, hearing a few seconds of the song made me think of my mom, and that brought a smile to my heart. And that’s good enough. But in my heart, I think there was more to it than that.

A couple weeks ago, I finally took four huge bags of my mom’s clothing out of my storage unit, and they have been taking up space in my studio (a.k.a. the enclosed porch) ever since. I’ve had to navigate around them countless times a day. Last night, I finally dragged one of the bags into the living room to prepare the clothes for donation.

They still carried the scent of my mom’s fresh, clean laundering. As I looked at and smelled each article of clothing I took out of the bag (while the Pachelbel Canon played in the background), I really felt her presence. I examined each article of clothing carefully and considered whether I would want to keep it. Virtually every item was from her favorite store, Talbots, and she had really nice clothes, but nothing I’d wear (aside from one Christmas sweater and two jackets I set aside). So I took my time buttoning every button, checking every pocket, and feeling my mom’s energy in each blazer and blouse I held in my hands. Some of the clothes brought to mind certain photographs or memories, which I paused to remember: her working in her garden, celebrating Christmas, going to work, dressing up for parties and social events, vacationing with my dad. I wanted to make sure every piece of her clothing was in good shape before delivering it to the next stop on its journey. Because my mom’s clothing meant a lot to her.

This afternoon, I delivered the clothes to a bustling consignment/thrift shop that donates all proceeds to the local hospital where my mom used to volunteer, playing guitar and singing for the patients she visited on her rounds. She’d always wanted to be a nurse and started nursing school when my children were very young but enjoyed the career she was in and wanted to spend more time with her grandchildren, so she didn’t finish the program. After she retired from her career with the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, she took up guitar, and it quickly became her passion. Her volunteer work at the hospital was a fusion of her lifelong desire to work in a health care setting and her lifelong passion for music. Donating her clothes to a place where they would benefit the hospital felt right and filled me with the joy of giving. 

My rented storage unit is filled with my parents’ belongings that I didn’t want to dispose of in a mad dash when we sold the house earlier this year. It allows me to take the time to go through their things mindfully and let them go in a way that feels right, one bag or box at a time. This is the week to give my mom’s wardrobe a proper sendoff. And that is how I spent her 80th birthday. By the end of the week, all her clothes will be gone and hopefully will make a lot of people happy – just like she did. 

© 2017 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

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