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Archive for November, 2012

Another Shot at Ho! Ho! Ho!

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Some of us just don’t do Christmas all that well. I am one of those people. It’s not that I can’t relate to “the reason for the season.” I grew up Catholic, went to parochial school grades 1 through 12 and was an ardent believer until things started to unravel in my first marriage. It’s just that I can’t get in a joyful groove about the whole scene now.

I am relieved whenever I discover there’s someone else out there like me. So this is for those of you who may need that same kind of moral support right now.

The reasons for not being able to get with the hype are all over the map. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one recently and can’t bear the idea of living this time of year without him or her. Maybe you aren’t Christian, don’t like Christians, and wish everybody would just go back to work and shut up. Maybe you don’t believe in God in any form and feel left out when we get to this point in the year. Or maybe you’re like me. You just can’t find the spark that will make for a bright six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Usually, I’m pretty good at creating a spark. My busiest days are my happiest days because I’m doing things I want to do. But every year, after I’ve put the turkey roasting pan back in storage and finished off the pumpkin pie, I start to slide down a sad, scary slope of “why bother?”

I really don’t have a uniquely “Christmasy” answer for that question. I remain committed to faking it in the presence of my grandkids, who are both not yet in school. I can smile sweetly and mingle in good cheer at holiday functions and look pretty convincing. But that horrid question echoes in my head the whole time.

I guess I don’t really need an answer to the question so much as make a commitment to ignoring it and getting on with things anyway. Sometimes, life is not set up for what you enjoy most. This is just one of those times for me–and maybe for you.

The thing I want to do differently this year is the guilt trip about what I should be feeling. I am feeling what I’m feeling and that’s that. I don’t have to let it show or make a big deal out of this seasonal depression. I just need to get through this time of year gracefully.  “This too shall pass” (much to the chagrin of the kids and forever-kids).

Doing that might be easier if I found at least one “seasonal” thing that I am actually enjoying every day. So I’m going to see what I can do with that this year.  I can already list a few. I do love the cards and letters from friends I would otherwise have lost track of long ago.

And I love the smell of fresh evergreens, whether it’s a tree, a wreath, or snippets in a table decoration.

The look on little ones’ faces when they see Santa or all the presents under the sparkling tree is definitely a high. And, for some reason, I always choke up if I’m part of a church-full of people singing Silent Night.

Yes, there are warm, happy things about Christmas. I need to focus on those instead of the extra work I take on for myself. (Handmade gifts for all six of my siblings? Oh sure, I can do that! Hosting a holiday party for a group I’m peripherally involved in? Why of course.)

For me,this Christmas depresssion isn’t so much about the holidays that define it on the calendar as the extra work I take on for many not-so-smart reasons.

So…in addition to my resolution to be grateful for things I do enjoy about it, I will do one other thing. Relax and enjoy it and stop assuming it’s all about extra tasks that would probably be better left undone.

This may not be the answer for you, but for me, it’s another shot at the Ho! Ho! Ho! part of “the holidays.” So how about you?  Maybe you could just sit down.  With  a cup of eggnog (with brandy?) even.  There are probably some things you can do to make your own version happier–even if you are already the Grand Poobah of Holiday Cheer.

Be Thankful; Be Happy.

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

And now, for a non-political, non-denominational nod to the value of gratitude…

Thanksgiving Day is upon us–at least for those of us who live in the United States.  What Mom or Dad or Grandma used to say is true.  We do have a lot to be thankful for. Even when things aren’t going so very well at all, a lot of stuff is going right that we often don’t take the time to acknowledge.

This year I’m being thankful for the very act of being thankful.  It’s like a wonder drug.  When I take the time to look at all the good things in my life and utter a prayer of gratitude, I raise my happiness index into the ozone.  Yep.  Be thankful; be happy.

So what am I thankful for this soggy Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving?

I’m thankful for where I live–in a warm house in a place that hasn’t been ravaged by hurricanes or wildfires or horrendous snow storms.  But I’m also thankful that I live in a culture that helps when those bad things happen.  And that gets itself up, dusts itself off, and gets on with getting back on its collective feet when it does.  Generosity and grit build a pretty solid community, and I am lucky indeed to be in a country like that.

I am thankful for what I get to do with my time.  I love what I do.  It doesn’t always go the way I want, but it’s the right path and I can feel that to the bottom of my soul.  But I’m also thankful for the years (yes, years!) that I’ve spent wandering around in the emotional dark trying to figure it out.  That painful time was an important step in assuring that where I walk so happily now is solid ground.  I’m also thankful that I already know I will likely circle back around through that trying territory again at some point in the future.  That is okay–because the trip will come with reconfirmation of all I value and how to best use my time in this life.

I’m thankful for family and friends.    Loving and being loved is the glue of a good life.  But I’m also thankful for the times I’ve been in that space of “alone.”  Connection keeps my world warm, but sometimes, I need a splash of solitary “cold water” to help me get back on track with how I am treating the people in my life–and myself.

I am thankful for sunshine, blue skies, lovely warm weather, and the chance to hike high in the mountains of this beautiful place I’m blessed to live when the weather allows.  But I am also grateful for these truncated days of late fall when it’s dark before dinner and the rain just keeps coming.  The short days remind me that one of the greatest gifts of being human is the need to believe when things are dark and slow.  We live “not knowing” and have to learn to trust that the sun will bring the long days back, that all is well, and that we can get through the hard times if we just keep going.

Yes, I am thankful.  And that makes me happier than anything else I can think of to do.  An attitude of gratitude cuts a clear path to enjoying life–regardless of whether what’s coming down at the moment is wonderful or not-so-grand.

As you prep the turkey or sit down to the feast, wind your way to Grandmother’s house in bumper to bumper traffic or wait in line for TSA at the airport, give thanks.  And be thankful most especially for the times and things in your life that don’t seem like pluses.  They’re there for a reason, and the reason is good.  You  just have to understand it.

To those of you with an official holiday for giving thanks in the offing, Happy Thanksgiving!  To those of you who don’t have it on your calendar, give thanks anyway.  It will make you happy.  (And then you have one more thing to give thanks for.)


Being Perfect Is a Bad Idea

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Perfect is for amateurs. Happy people don’t worry about perfection–in themselves, in those they love, in what they experience, in what they acquire. I have spent way too much of my life being this kind of beginner though.  And you probably are doing more of it than you realize.

The expectation that things have to be perfect before we can just enjoy them has deep roots in the way a lot of us were raised.  It may have started as an overly critical parent, but more likely, it came from people who clearly telegraphed that they were on your side–and just trying to help you become the best person you could be.  It’s important to strive for improvement.  That’s an essential piece of living a good life.  But using feedback to do even better than what you did the last time is different than deciding you’re inadequate because what you did the first time wasn’t 100% perfect.

A lot of what we learn growing up becomes outdated or was just plain wrong to begin with.  Our ideas about being perfect are in that category.  My entire family (of nine) considered Mom the font of all knowledge when it came to facts.  We would bring the interesting rocks we found in the wild places to her for identification.  In particular, I relied on her for the names of flowers or weeds. All I needed was to remember what she’d said, and I’d be right.

Not really.  I’ve had the chance to dig into gardening on my own for decades now and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned was “Mom was not always right.”

I wish I’d learned that before she died though.  Our mutual dance of expecting ourselves–and each other–to be perfect ruined a lot of good times we could have had together.  Instead of savoring the strong women we were, we kept poking at our own and each other’s imperfections.  This particular dance didn’t even involve a lot of words about the situation.  The expectation of perfection was a given.

Being perfect is a bad trip.  It’s like flying to Hawaii and then sitting in the closet of the condo the whole time you’re there, dwelling on how dark it is.  Expecting other people to be perfect is not good for them, to be sure, but it’s even harder on your own good time.  Yes, sometimes a person uses the argument “I can never do anything right in your eyes” to mask controlling behavior of his/her own that sabotages a relationship.  But if you are expecting perfection from that person (and most likely yourself in the bargain), there’s some painful truth in the lament.

Seeking perfection ruins your enjoyment of what’s already there.  Expecting it in others sends a message that they are not good enough unless they improve.  Every time you find them less than what you think they should be, the chance to enjoy each other’s company erodes.  That’s a highway to loneliness over the long haul.

When you do it with your kids, you set them up for the same dissatisfied life.  If you insist that every detail of what they’ve done be perfect, you teach them that as adults, they must take that same “high road.”  And thus, this most negative of all behaviors gets passed on, often with few words and even less scrutiny.

Perfection is not possible.  Many of us can accept this truth rationally.  Some of us embrace it spiritually.  But a lot of us add, “but I’m going to doing everything I can to be perfect anyway.”  That caveat sets everything you experience up as “not good enough.”  Because you’ve decided you’ve been specially annointed to be perfect, you must always get it all right and everyone you interact must be perfect as well.

You’re telling yourself you don’t do that, right?  You may want to take a deeper look.  Most of the judgements we pass are attempts to make our own world perfect.  When you take issue with what someone said, did you do it because the comment was really that unbearable?  Or did you decide that the person “should” be treating you in a more perfect way?

None of us are going to get it all right.  And we certainly aren’t going to get it all right all the time.  Letting go of that expectation can be a massive stress reducer.  It is also one of the best ways you’ll find to get closer to those you love emotionally.

There will be differences that still need to be addressed.  That’s part of living with imperfection.  But your decision about whether to ask for a change in someone else or not needs to be based on whether the current situation is good enough, not on whether it’s “perfect.”



Take a Hike

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Yeah. Yeah. I hear you. You’re not that kind of person. A hike is so…well…physical.  Please.  Consider taking a hike.  It will change your life.

I come from a family of walkers.  We do it for the exercise, but just as often it’s to work off steam from something stressful, sort out a problem that seems—before our legs start moving—impossible, or keep a medical issue in check.  (One of my siblings has diabetes; he avoids insulin injections by walking.)

Even better than a walk is a hike.  A hike is a walk in a wild place.  One of my favorite Christmas memories is of an unconventional Christmas Day with my middle brother, hiking to a waterfall he wanted to see (in a downpour) and along a beach I love.  (And then having a fun dinner at a little French restaurant on the way home.  Perfect.)

Usually a hike is off the pavement, but even that’s negotiable.  A few weeks ago at Mount Rainier, we encountered dozens of people using walkers and even electric wheelchairs to hike.  The park has asphalt trails just above Paradise Lodge– very definitely a wild place.  So if you can’t make it without some mechanical help, don’t rule yourself out.

Hiking makes you strong—mentally, physically, and emotionally.  Go for it if you can. Not every hike will be to the Eighth Wonder of the World, but they all hold beauty and the chance to remember that we are part of something large and wonderful.  A hike is a way to connect—to nature, to the people with you, to others on the trail, to yourself, to the Divine.

You don’t have to live in southern Utah to be near a wild place.  Some city parks offer great hiking options.  (I have logged many miles in both Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and Hummel Park in Omaha.)  A wildlife refuge or a state park near you may have hiking options. You don’t have to start with the Appalachian Trail either.  Just find a path on public land and give it a try.

But be smart—go with at least one other person. Ask everyone you know about hiking if you don’t have someone to get on the trail with. I found a terrific hiking group via a public art advocacy group I belonged to.

Work on finding people to hike with if you have to.  Going with buddies is more fun.  And it’s safer.  That doesn’t mean you have to jabber the whole time you are on the trail.  Even when you are hiking with a group of twenty, you can spend part of the time in your own quiet space on the trail.  If a loved one is willing to give it a go, start there.  If not, look for organized hiking efforts that will give you a chance to meet others interested in getting out.

You can spring for boots once you know more about how and when you want to go, but wear sturdy shoes the very first time.  If you’re concerned about balance, take trekking poles or a walking stick.  (Ski poles work fine if you already have them.)  Learn about “the ten essentials.” If you hike in earnest, you want them with you.

Check with the information desk if you are in a park that has one.  See if there are online comments with current information about hikes in the area.  Talk to people on the trail.  (This often nets you a great idea for your next hike and sometimes people to go out with.)  If there are hiking guide books for your area, they’re great for not only finding the trailhead but also for giving tips on when the wildflowers will be in bloom or the fall color usually peaks.

You’ll amaze yourself at how far you can go eventually.  I hiked over 100 miles that first summer–in six to twelve mile chunks.  Most of those hikes involved at least 1000 feet of elevation gain.  Please don’t think I started this is good shape.  I wasn’t—but I was by the end of the hiking season!  I was just short of 60 that year, but some of the strongest hikers in our group are in their mid-70’s.  If you test yourself and try to do a bit more, where you end up is astounding.

Not every step of every hike is exhilarating.  It’s work.  But when you get to the destination you’re in awe both of the scenery and the fact that you got there.  It’s amazing.

Find a way. Take a hike.  It’s an exhilarating way to get outside.