Re-Structuring

The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s has never exactly been what I’d call “relaxing.” Not only are a bunch of holidays thrown in there with all of their trappings, but also Ella and Annie’s birthdays (see again: I’m terrible with The Math).

Still, the month of December is, for us, the perfect bookend to the year – because the girls and I so love the traditions that that come with it. Cookie decorating, RACKing, Advent crafts, Santa meet-n-greets, watching movies, driving to see the lights, and the bazillion other things that make up our Christmas season aren’t chores we dread but the framework within which our month is built.
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This Santa remembers everything and is absolute magic, I tell you.

Most years, although the weeks go by at a breakneck pace, the mere presence of these traditions ensures order and stability. On Tuesday*, the decoration bins shall come out. By noon on the 8th*, the homemade wrapping paper shall be complete. Sixteen hours before the winter solstice*, we make our holiday donations.
*exaggerations. Mostly.

It’s a little like our own, special holiday “Camelot” – where the rain can never fall till after sundown and the moonlight appears by 9 p.m. – except without the grandiose costumes or singing.

Actually, we wear some crazy things in December and always have music playing, so scratch that.

I’ve liked it that way, having the checkpoints and guideposts to provide much-needed scaffolding in an otherwise chaotic month. This year, with Thanksgiving occurring so early (and, thus, nearly an extra week between it and Christmas), I’d assumed that I would be well on top of things and actually be able to let go, float away, and appreciate our traditions, rather than breathlessly going through the motions.

Instead of providing a jump-start to the fervor, though, those extra days seemed to slow everything down. Why start prepping the Advent calendar when there’s still so much time? Who needs wrapping paper if we’ll ship direct from Amazon? Do we really have to choose the birthday cake theme when there are still 10 days to go? It felt like wading, not floating, but that was okay.
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Then, as December unfolded and I barely managed to squeak in the Advent calendars and dust off the Elf on the Shelf, a dear friend suffered a terrible tragedy. While the community rallied together to support her and her children, I left wading behind and began to tread to keep my head above water. I missed deadlines for mailing packages without forking over the mortgage-payment-esque rush shipping fee. Ingredients that I’d planned to procure for holiday treat-making were forgotten. One afternoon, I literally drove right by the location for Ella’s swim practice until I heard her concerned voice from the back of the car, “Uh… Mom? Isn’t practice at the Y?”

Why, yes it is. Let me show you how to pull a U-Turn.

By then, I was no longer even treading. Instead, it felt like I was underwater, everything a rushing blur, popping my head up only long enough to take in a breath and get my bearings before dipping back beneath.

I began prioritizing the things with hard deadlines; everything else waited. New games? Saved for later. RACKs for our postal workers? Another time. Gingerbread houses? Christmas cookies? Setting out the Christmas village? Not today.

And I hated it. It wasn’t struggling to get things done that bothered me as much as the disappointment over what was falling by the wayside. It wasn’t necessary to send out holiday cards on time but I wanted to, damn it, and each day they were put off added more stress to what was already overwhelming.

By mid-month, I had to face reality: the scaffolding wasn’t there this time around and it wouldn’t be, period. Barring some kind of true Christmas miracle, there was simply no way I could “catch up” and put the guideposts back in place. Instead, I had to just be where we were, taking every day as it came rather than following a plan. What would happen would happen.

So we put things off. We waited. Our annual holiday movies stayed in their DVD cases. The Christmas village remained boxed. The cookies were baked but not iced. Rush, blur, beneath the surface.

I learned that being underwater has its advantages, though. See, when you’re working so hard just to keep from sinking, there is little time for anything beyond what’s necessary in the moment. This meant relinquishing control and asking for help (*gasp*), which were major ego-busters but turned out to be soul-savers. For the first time in 23 years, I asked Nick to take charge of finishing up shopping for our extended family. I asked for help with cleaning and said screw it about everything else. The girls decided on the design for our cards.
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They did turn out pretty cute…

Spending so much time beneath the surface made the moments when I did pop my head up to breathe all the sweeter. Since I was no longer relying on guideposts and was, instead, trying to get my bearings, I really noticed what was happening around me – and when I paused in those moments, it was ridiculously delicious. Somehow, Annie and I made reading our daily holiday books a priority; it became my nightly salvation. When the girls and I finally – less than a week before The Big Day – put up the Christmas village, everything else melted away for that hour.

And so it went – remaining just barely underwater as the holiday crush sped by, reveling in the brief moments when I’d pop my head above the surface long enough to be sure of my surroundings – until three days before Christmas, when the girls’ school break began and my dad and stepmom arrived. Every instant until December 22nd had been spent assuring that What Needed To Be Done Was Done… meaning, amazingly, that – sweet fancy Moses – nothing essential remained. No bills to pay. No presents to buy. No groceries to stockpile. Instead, on December 22nd, I realized there were two entire, empty days between then and Christmas to focus on everything we’d ignored for three weeks: movies, cookies, gingerbread houses, games…

Basically, everything that I’d wanted to be doing all along.

I cleared the surface, stopped treading, and let go of the overwrought water metaphor I’d been indulging all month. Let the traditions begin! We made tray after tray of cookies. We played enough games to buy stock in Milton Bradley. We watched all of our favorite movies and went to see new ones in the theater. When the girls didn’t complete their gingerbread houses right away, I finished them myself on New Year’s Eve – because I love me some gingerbread houses, by gosh.

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Sequence was our new favorite game this year; highly recommend.

This relaxing revelry did not occur only on December 23rd and 24th, but for the remainder of 2018 and a good ten days into January, as absurdly cold weather caused school closures and we were blanked with snow. We wore pajamas. We ignored bedtimes. Heck, even now, as February dawns, there is still a stack of games six deep on the living room ottoman.

Basically, Christmas lasted for a month and I loved every minute of it.

I had assumed that we needed our “usual” structure to create the scaffolding that enables us to honor our holiday traditions. Turns out, the traditions create the scaffolding, timetable be damned, however rickety and below code it may be.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is now that I know that Nick is pretty swell at selecting gifts for our siblings and that watching Home Alone on Christmas day is actually more fun than fitting it in beforehand, I will work at enlisting help and ditching the timetable a bit. LET THIS BE A LESSON TO US ALL. Maybe the structure isn’t so important as just doing what’s important.

But the holiday cards still need to be ordered earlier. Some things just need to happen on schedule, y’all.
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Ready to Know

Santa is a big deal in our house. Letters are written and given to Hermey, our Elf on the Shelf, for safe passage. Santa’s personality and lifestyle choices are hotly debated (“Where do you think he vacations? Does he brush his teeth?”). Notes for Santa are left at bedsides.

Over the years, I have done nothing to diminish Ella and Annie’s belief in Santa; on the contrary, I’ve encouraged it. Stocking gifts are wrapped just so every Christmas and placed outside the girls’ bedrooms. Hermey has brought back letters from St. Nick bearing the North Pole postal cancellation. If a gift wasn’t able to be procured, Santa has provided a written explanation. He might even get “caught” in our living room Christmas photos every year.
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See, I love Christmas. I also love magic and wonder and hope, all of which continue to bloom and surround the girls every Christmas season. For that, I am thrilled. There is so damned much in the world today that is all too sad, practical, and heavy. Despite how hard we try to protect our kids from losing loved ones, financial difficulties, work-related stress, divorce, etc., we cannot. Beyond our own homes, our 24/7 media make it all but impossible for even children to avoid at least some exposure to natural disasters, refugee crises, racial tensions, gun violence, diseases, deaths of celebrities, politics.

Allowing our girls to put aside the all-too-real world, allowing them to experience awe and joy and delighted anticipation through Santa, allowing them to believe in something magical – to just be kids for a little while longer (while simultaneously celebrating the happiness that is Christmas) – has been one of my most important and fulfilling decisions as a parent. That they have so adored Santa and all he represents to them – love, mischief, kindness, generosity – and that they have felt so loved in return has made that decision even more wonderful.

Because Santa is so special to Ella and Annie, I have gone to great lengths to protect him. Questions were answered with deliberate and measured responses that were never misleading but never laid everything on the table, either.

The girls are normal human children, however, so as they’ve grown older, doubts have understandably crept in. The details that were easily glossed over as kindergarteners (How can Santa possibly reach everyone’s house in one night? If these gifts came form the North Pole, why does it say they were made in China?) were harder to ignore in 3rd or 4th grade. With each passing year, though, even as they posited and became dubious, it became clear that they did not want Santa to be something else; they still wanted him to be real. Despite their curiosity and occasional downright skepticism, they told us – literally and figuratively – that they did not want us to answer the question they’d been throwing at us: “Are you and Daddy really Santa?”

They didn’t really want to know. So we didn’t tell them.

It was complicated too, though, because keeping up the myth of Santa in the age of live streaming and Google searching and school bus taunting is, quite frankly, exhausting. Still, we’d made it through this holiday season with the girls writing letters to Santa and placing them beside Hermey, leaving food for the reindeer on Christmas Eve, and genuinely being thrilled that “he remembered” everything they asked for on Christmas morning. They believed for another year. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought no more of it.

Which was why it caught me by such surprise when – last week, a full 11 days after Christmas – Ella interrupted our otherwise non-Christmas dinner conversation with an extremely direct, “So. Tell me the truth. Are you guys the ones who buy the gifts we ask for from Santa and put them in the living room each year?”

Her well-crafted question left little wiggle room to spin the response in such a way that it didn’t tell her what she didn’t want to know: the truth. Spinning my wheels, I gave her one of my standard Santa deflections. “Hm. How come you’re asking?”

She sat up a little straighter and enunciated clearly, as though maybe she’d practiced beforehand, “Because when I was on your computer today on Amazon, right there under Stuff You’d Bought were the exact gifts I’d asked Santa for. So I’m thinking that, yeah, you guys are the ones who buy the Santa gifts and give them to us.”

Welp.
Shit.
THANKS A LOT, AMAZON.

Apparently, despite maybe not wanting to know the truth, Ella was ready to hear it after all. There was only one (big) problem: Annie, who was sitting three feet away. At two years Ella’s junior, Annie still very much believes – and, despite her curiosity and bravado, it was quickly obvious that Annie really, really, really did not want to hear the answer to Ella’s question.
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Christmas morning breakfast-making

After volleying back and forth for a bit, Ella agreed to table the discussion for a later time. I was relieved – not only for Annie’s sake, but also because it meant I’d have the opportunity to prepare for how I’d planned, for years, to break the Santa News… via a letter I’d seen on the internet.

The gist was this: explain that we are not, in fact, Santa – but we act as Santa and fill her stocking, buy her “Santa” gifts, etc; let her know that we think believing in Santa and acting as Santa are tremendously important and are about sharing love, kindness, wonder, and hope; and that, now that she was “in” on it, we would like her to preserve the magic of Santa for those who still believe (see: Annie).

I was not at all sure how this would go over. I’ve heard stories of kids who were furious with their parents for, as they saw it, lying to them. I’ve heard of others who were so upset and heartbroken, they fell apart. Nick and I crossed our fingers that Ella would see it as we did: that believing in Santa felt so amazing and brought her such happiness, and “real life” is so pressing and heavy, we wanted to preserve this bit of childhood for as long as we could.

At bedtime, we checked to see if Ella wanted to hear a more detailed answer to her earlier question. She hesitated for a moment, but ultimately decided that yes, she did.

She was finally, truly ready.

Rather than read the letter herself, Ella asked me to do it. When my voice hitched at the part about how we hoped she would continue these traditions for her own children someday, I discovered the other reason I’ve gone to such lengths to keep Santa all these years: because I loved it so much.

I loved how earnestly the girls debated which reindeer was Santa’s favorite. I loved how carefully they looked over the cookies each Christmas Eve, selecting the ones that were just right. I loved the twinkle in their eyes as they flew down the stairs on Christmas morning, eager to see if he’d actually come. Simply, I adored the deep-seated joy that Santa brought them; playing a part in cultivating that joy was one of my favorite parts of Christmas, of being a parent.

After I’d finished reading and we asked if she had any questions, the first words out of Ella’s mouth were directed at Nick: “Wait. So you drink the whiskey every year?? Is THAT why we leave whiskey for Santa?”

(Nick told her this was one of his more brilliant parenting decisions. Why we didn’t decide 13 Christmases ago that Santa needed chocolate and a Starbucks for the journey home is a solid failure on my part.)
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Cookies… milk… and whiskey

Ella had a few other queries, most of which we answered. I did, however, flat-out refuse to explain how Santa’s image appears in our photos each year or how I create Hermey’s handwriting; some things are meant to be kept secret.

To our delight and relief, after some time to process and assimilate, Ella seemed to feel exactly the way we did about Santa. Although I’m sure she was disappointed that a plump, omniscient, bearded elf does not, in fact, deliver her presents each year, she took in our explanation and made it her own.

As we were finishing the conversation, I told her that, despite this new information, I planned to continue all of our traditions every year – from putting stockings the hallway to moving Hermey to scattering reindeer food. Before I could complete my sentence, Ella chimed in with, “Well, of course! It wouldn’t be Christmas without those!”

She also informed me that she will still be leaving a letter with Hermey to deliver to Santa… because that’s just what we do, and that’s the truth.
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‘Hamilton’ style: Hermey will be back…

RACK on!

At our house, Christmas is Christmas because of the traditions. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without, among (many) other things, visits by Hermey (our house elf), eating popcorn while putting up the tree, receiving new pjs on Christmas Eve, or leaving a shot of whiskey for Santa alongside the cookies and milk (it’s cold on that ride, folks). I’ve always been someone who thrives on memories and ceremony and I was fortunate enough to have Nick agree to adopt nearly all of the Christmas customs that I celebrated growing up.

My girls have cottoned to these traditions just as strongly. If I forget something, or if I dare attempt to change even the smallest detail, Annie and Ella call me out immediately (“What happened?? These musical reindeer have always been in the dining room!”). (You know that we totally have musical reindeer.) While I’m all for honoring these established practices, sometimes it’s fun to try something new.

This year, I decided to try out two ideas: unwrapping and reading a Christmas book on every day of advent and practicing Random Acts of Christmas Kindness, or RACKs. (I’d love to claim that I thought up these schemes on my own but I totally stole them from my BFF Pinterest.) Given that I didn’t want to purchase 24 new holiday books, and given that we already have oodles of said books in the house, I opted to simply wrap two dozen of them and stack them up, ready to be opened each night.

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Yes, I forgot to take a photo until after two weeks had passed. And yes, the books were stored on the dog kennel. We fancy up in here.

It’s been quite some time since I’ve done regular read-alouds with both girls, so I wasn’t entirely sure how it would go if I asked them to gather cozily on my bed and… unwrap… used Christmas books… But, to my delight, they seemed to really enjoy it – even look forward to it. Annie, especially (our bookworm), would bound into the bedroom each night and practically shimmer as she waited to see what the title would be, although both she and Ella exclaimed happily over favorites (“I love this one!”) and new (to them) titles (“I’ve never seen this one before!”). It was a quiet and lovely way to end each day; we’ll do it again for sure next year.

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Cuddling in bed with our latest tome, with our previous volumes visible in the basket in the background…
Also, be forewarned: while you think it will be a thought-provoking, solemn holiday tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s
The Little Match Girl might actually cause your children to have nightmares and imagine how it would feel to freeze to death. Oops.

If I were forced to choose just one new tradition to continue, however, it would actually be the RACKs. In contrast to the peaceful, sleep-inducing book tradition, the RACKs were vibrant and invigorating. The premise was really simple: find some way, any way, to be kind to another person. As I wrote on my Facebook page when I invited other friends to join the cause, they could be anything, “from really simple, non-monetary kindnesses (taking out the garbage, allowing someone to wedge in front of you in heavy traffic) to slightly bigger but not terribly complicated gestures (bringing a treat to a co-worker or the bus driver, giving a gift card to your postal worker, paying for coffee for the person behind you in line) to activities that require a bit more forethought (printing RACK cards and attaching candy canes to them and “bombing” a parking lot, taping microwave popcorn to a RedBox box) to things that are of a bit more significance monetarily (“sponsoring” a family for the holidays, donating to a food bank, etc.)… Whatever floats your boat and makes you happy because you think that it will make other people happy.
Anonymously. Randomly. Kindly.”

(One of my Jewish friends pointed out that these did not have to be only for Christmas, as they could be Random Acts of Chanukah Kindness, too. So awesome.)

The first official RACK that the girls and I did was to candy cane “bomb” the parking lot at their school so that the teachers would see the canes on their way out that afternoon. We invited Annie’s Girl Scout troop and their siblings to join us (see, I told you I’d rock my monthly meeting) and the response was super.

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Girl Scouts preparing their canes…

We could hardly keep up with the kids as they raced from car to car, gleefully slipping notes under windshields and ecstatically squealing with delight at the mere thought that this might brighten their teachers’ day.

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After that, Annie and Ella and I were on a roll. We did chores around the house for one another just because. (Even though I’d normally grumble significantly at the thought of putting the girls’ clothes away to spare their lazy bums, or at the idea of doing the dishes for Nick so he could watch the hockey game in peace, somehow it felt different – good. Really good.) They made cards and brought them into school. We took RACK cards and candy canes with us and distributed them often – to the guys who helped load our Christmas tree onto the car, to people in line at Starbucks. We taped dollars around the dollar store and chuckled imagining people finding them and absconding away with their bounty.

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By far, though, our favorite experience was when we RACKed out at the post office. We ventured over one afternoon when the girls got home from school and, as expected, the line was at least 20 people deep; suffice it to say that no one was smiling. Ella and Annie each walked up to the counter, chose an employee, and simply stood there, waiting until the most recent customer had finished. Once there was a slight break in the action, they politely slipped in and handed over the cards and candy.

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I can’t claim credit for this cute card, either – I found it here.

The postal workers looked stunned at first – but they quickly caught on and thanked the girls quite earnestly. The reaction from the other customers was instantaneous. I could see the grins creep over their faces, despite the packages at their feet and the seemingly interminable wait in line. The new twinkle in their eyes was unmistakable, that hint of happiness in the most unexpected of places.

We weren’t through, though, having brought with us three small collections of stamps along with other RACK cards. One at a time, we randomly chose customers in line and gave them the goodies. Their appreciative smiles were fantastic, but it was what happened next that was really incredible. As we were finishing, one of the recipients left her place in line to come over to us. She leaned in low, took my arm, and said, “My dad used to tell me to do something kind for someone else every single day. I’ve never forgotten that; it’s one of the most important lessons I learned. That’s what you’re teaching your daughters here today. Thanks for helping me to remember my dad, and to remember what’s most important. Your girls will never forget this.”

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It took me at least two minutes to Photoshop my thumb to remove the hangnails and icky cuticles and leftover nail polish. Good thing I’m not vain or it might have been three.

Stunned, I started to pull Ella and Annie in to me to tell them how much their simple gesture had meant to this stranger when the final woman to whom they’d given the stamps called over to us to stop.

“Wait, wait! Don’t leave! Come here for a moment!”

Puzzled, we did as she asked, only to find ourselves waiting for at least five minutes (no exaggeration) while she looked through her purse. (It’s one thing to do a random act of kindness and then flee anonymously into the night. [Or afternoon.] It’s another to do said act of kindness and then hang around while people stare at you. Awkward.) At last, after telling us umpteen times how thoughtful we were, what a lovely gesture this was, she emerged with a five dollar bill.

“Here, I want you to have this.”

We briefly tried to protest, but she would have none of it.

“No, no. You keep it. You were so kind to me today – you made me feel so special. At the very least, go out and buy yourselves a couple of ice creams at McDonalds. Five dollars should do that, right? Go to McDonalds and treat yourselves. I can’t thank you enough for doing this for me.”

I finally decided that it would be extremely rude of us to turn away her act of kindness – after all, how would we have felt if we’d been rebuffed while performing any of our RACKs? – so we thanked her profusely and took off for the car.

The girls were dumbfounded. “Mom – we weren’t doing this to get paid!” they argued. “We actually made money in the post office today!” Still, they couldn’t stop grinning like hyenas all the way home – not because of their newfound riches but because, in their words, “Doing nice things for other people is the best feeling ever!”

And so it was. Every time I thought of the way the postal workers’ faces lit up, or the way the customers’ demeanor changed when they saw what Ella and Annie were up to, or how that woman spoke about her dad, or about the lady who felt so moved, she actually paid us – literally – a kindness in return, I felt like I was walking on air.

This is what Christmas is supposed to be, is it not? Doing unto others. Spreading joy. Sharing magic. The truest spirit of Christmas there is.

During the drive home, it was agreed that I would keep the five dollar bill (since, they wisely cautioned, it would probably be a bad idea to rip it in half). When I asked how they’d like to spend it, since we don’t really go to McDonalds all that often, their response was swift: “We really should spend it doing something nice for someone else, right Mom?”

We did exactly that.

Yep. We’ll definitely be doing RACKs again next Christmas. Can’t wait!*

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* fear not, we’re now on a mission to do RAKs throughout the year, so we won’t have to hold off until Christmas… but I have a feeling it will feel extra-awesome to do RACKs again when the time comes.

 

Do you believe in magic?

Every year, we visit the same Santa Claus. I don’t just mean the same place or the same general “Santa,” but actually the very same human being. We discovered him a good many years back when we went to get our Christmas tree at a local nursery and stumbled upon a Christmas Open House they were hosting.

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2009. OH, FOR CUTE.

The great part of this is that “our” Santa actually remembers the girls, which makes them feel pretty fantastic. (It doesn’t hurt that Santa hands out little goodie bags filled with candy, a coloring book, and these awesome glasses that “react” to bright lights and make it seem as though snowflakes or gingerbread men are dancing around the bulbs of your Christmas tree. Side note: wearing these glasses while driving is not advised.) The best part of this – or so I thought – is that Ella and Annie believe, to their core, that this is THE Santa Claus, so they feel like they’re in on a secret and basically the coolest, luckiest girls on the planet.

(They will tell you, point-blank, that the other Santas – the ones at the mall or on TV at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – are merely helpers, perhaps associated with The Big Guy himself, or perhaps just actors dressing the part. This doesn’t bother them or make Santa less real; they understand that one man can only be in one place at a time, duh, so there simply have to be understudies and stunt doubles.)

This belief began because “our” Santa has a real beard, unlike the Santas they’d met previously. It was cemented because they’ve seen photo evidence of Santa delivering presents to our house on Christmas Eve and (coincidentally) The Real Mr. Claus looks remarkably like the Santa at our local nursery. xmas day5I will fully accept responsibility, and declare myself guilty, for this deception because Annie and Ella’s belief in Santa – their desire for him to be real – is so strong and deep, I am willing to do almost anything to protect it; this is a ruse that I am absolutely willing to perpetuate. But as for the photo Santa resembling “our” Santa? MAMA GOT LUCKY THERE, FOLKS.
If you want to be creepy magical like me, check out this website.

When we arrived at the Christmas Open House on Saturday, our sole purpose was to see Santa; we’d already gotten our tree last week, so we only planned to stay for a few minutes, chat with St. Nick, grab the goodies, and leave. The moment we approached him at his bench, his face brightened and his smile beckoned them over.

“My gosh, how the two of you have grown!”

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He invited them to sit beside him and they made a little small talk, during which Santa mentioned that “your elf has been filling me in – he says that you’ve been pretty good this year!” Ella snuck a glance my way, one that showed me she was thinking what I was: How the heck does Santa know for sure that we have an elf (on the shelf)? We do, but wouldn’t that kind of blow his cover if we didn’t?

Naturally, Jolly Old St. Nicholas asked the girls what they’d like for Christmas. Annie listed her three items (the agreed upon appropriate number) and then Ella had her turn, telling him she’d like “an electronic writing thing” (actually a Boogie Board; Santa said he’d talk to the elves about it), a bracelet maker, and an American Girl doll. He laughed at that one, asking her, “Didn’t you get one of those last year?” She laughed back and agreed that she had – to which he replied, “But you can never have too many of those, can you? You need another to keep the first one company!” – and then she shot me The Look again.

Because, yes, she had received an American Girl doll last year, but it seemed unlikely that “Santa” would have remembered such a thing 365 days, and countless visitors, later. It seemed especially unlikely because Ella had never mentioned it to Santa at all; Nick and I had given her that doll last Christmas.

Soon enough, their visit was over, hugs were had, goodie bags were doled out, and the girls were by my side again, with both of them immediately saying, “How did Santa know we got American Girl dolls last year??” To which I replied, very honestly, “I have no idea.”

They were silent for a moment, thinking, when they both looked up at the same time and said, “Then he really MUST be the real Santa!”

Still dazed from the mystical Santa visit, I noticed that the nursery was selling well-priced poinsettias and Christmas cactuses (cacti?), which we give to the girls’ teachers each year, so I sent them over to look at the plants and select the ones they wanted. Meanwhile, I approached the cashiers for a large box in which to put our purchases. As I waited, The Man With All The Toys left his post and came up to me.

“I just wanted to thank you for bringing your daughters here every year. It means a lot to me.”

Oh, my goodness. Thank YOU so much for remembering them!

“How could I not? They’re beautiful and polite, and I love seeing how they grow!”

Thank you very much. Visiting you is one of our Christmas traditions each year. I know they won’t believe forever, but for now, they do, and you make magic for them each time we’re here. Thank you for the magic.

“Well, I certainly try. We all need a little magic.”

I still have no idea how he knew that we have an elf on the shelf, or that Ella and Annie received American Girl dolls last year. It could have been dumb luck – it probably was dumb luck – but it was pretty uncanny. Whatever the reason, my girls came away from our visit floating on air, certain that Santa Claus himself had just given them a hug and told them that they’d been good this year.

And hey… you just never know.

Christmas magic, my friends, indeed. That is the very, very best part.

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Right This Very Minute

I’m not feeling quite myself this year. I don’t know exactly why – anxiety? Hints of depression? Late Thanksgiving, meaning fewer days between then and Christmas, meaning OhMyGodThereIsNoTimeWTF stress? I don’t know, but it’s been a bit rough these past few weeks.

I know I’m not alone in this. The holidays bring a mix of emotions for so many people – the glorious highs of… traditions! Food! Time with family! Decorating the tree! Yes, let’s watch Elf for the third time this month! And the soul-crushing lows of… so much to do! Time with family! What do you mean you want to ask Santa for something different? Holy crap, did I move the damn elf tonight? I AM BEING MERRY AND BRIGHT. This time of year can be difficult and stressful and exhausting under really good circumstances, but when you struggle with anxiety and depression, it can be a whole other ballgame.

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When I was growing up, we used to watch the Rockefeller Center tree lighting on TV every year. Sometimes, in the living room, cozied up on the couch with a blanket. Other times, in the kitchen, standing beside the island or propped on one of the swivel bar chairs. I don’t remember many of the performances, but I do remember the grand ending: that magical moment when POP! all of the thousand gazillion lights illuminated at once, its own little Christmas miracle.

Because we lived just an hour outside of Manhattan, we used to see the tree quite often, too. It is absolutely as grand and marvelous in person as it is on television – more so, really – with the skating rink below (which is usually so crowded, you couldn’t pay me to set foot skate on it, but whatever) and – what used to be – quaint shops lining the plaza.

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Visiting the tree in 2011.

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Approximately ten days ago, a couple of friends and family members posted on Facebook that they had already completed their Christmas shopping. I didn’t really read their posts as bragging – more just jauntily and proudly stating a fact – but it still made me kind of want to refill their salt shakers with sugar.

Was I jealous? You bet your ass I was. Because, at that time, I had not purchased one single Christmas gift. NOT ONE SINGLE GIFT. Well, that’s not entirely true, because Nick and I picked up a few things for family members in Puerto Rico when we were there this summer, but I had not yet actively begun my real Christmas shopping. Alongside that jealousy, however, was a feeling of sheer panic: holy shit, I need to get shopping NOW but I have NO IDEA what to get everyone. There was exasperation. There was shame. There were tears. It was ugly.

Christmas is, really and truly, my most favorite time of the year. I’m “allowed” to listen to Christmas music on my birthday (November 22nd), but I sneak it earlier when I’m alone because it makes me so happy. The traditions my family has are among my most looked-forward-to moments of all of the days. I love December – the smells, the food; even that madness-inducing elf (who is rarely on a shelf) makes me smile rather than grouse. But the joy just hasn’t been there, which has only made me more upset.

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I was mid-sentence talking to Annie last week when I suddenly remembered something from my to-do book that I’d forgotten about. As I recalled the item, I gasped out loud and interrupted myself, saying, “Oh shoot – I forgot about that!” Understandably, Annie asked what the problem was. I explained that there wasn’t really a problem – I’d just forgotten to do something on my list, and I’d need to do it later. I then sighed and muttered that I had a helluva lot to do, so my list would never really end – that’s just the way it is.

Annie brightened. “Mom? Let’s say that all of the things you have to do weigh something.”

Okay.

“Let’s say that they weigh ten pounds. You’re carrying ten pounds.”

Okay, I can do that.

“Well now, guess what? You only have to carry five pounds!”

Ummm… And why is that?

“Because I’m going to take the other five pounds from you to help you out so you don’t have as much to do. Does that feel better?”

Sweet love, it feels incredible. That might be one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me.

———————————————

Our advent calendars started a three days ago. This year, we’re doing RACKS – random acts of Christmas kindness – and I absolutely love that. I love that it makes me think of something beyond myself for a day, that I’m looking out into the world. I’m finding it really pretty amazing.

I’m also finding it hard to concentrate on what I want to be doing – RACKs, watching Christmas movies with the girls, reading Christmas books, just sitting back and enjoying the season – because of all the things I need to be doing. Most of the presents have been purchased by now (thank God for Amazon; setting foot into actual stores is making me break out in hives this year), but the ones that require some thought and attention – the homemade ones, the ones using photos and love and goodness, the ones that mean the most to me – are the ones that also require the most time and energy. I love doing it – I really do – but it is also exhausting and stressful.

Ditto for other Christmas traditions. That advent calendar? One of the best parts of the season, bar none, but it takes weeks of planning (and purchasing and researching and prepping) to pull it off successfully. I adore reading Christmas books with the girls and saw this cute idea online for wrapping 24 books and reading one each day. But then I found that I actually had to wrap the damn books, and now we need to find time to read them, which sometimes – even only three days in – feels more like a punishment than a reward.

How is it possible that the things I love the most are also the things that make me the most crazy?

Scratch that. I could say the same thing about basically every member of my family. Point taken.

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The girls asked that we set aside time tonight to listen to the latest installment in our Percy Jackson saga. I agreed, especially given that it was early enough to listen to Percy and read tonight’s Christmas book. It would be a good night, damn it all!

We’d just begun listening to our new chapter shortly after 8 p.m. when the phone rang; I had no idea who would be calling (we don’t get too many calls at that hour aside from telemarketers) and was quite surprised to see my mom’s number on the caller ID. This was a particularly strange time to call; what on earth could she want? Did I forget to do something? Had something bad happened?

Hi, Mom!

“Honey? I don’t know if you’re aware, but the Rockefeller Center tree lighting is taking place tonight…”

Oh – no, I didn’t know…

“…  and Mariah Carey is singing ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’**.”

** Ella’s favorite Christmas song, ever

Oh, okay…

“I mean right now. She’s singing right now, so if you want to turn it on…”

Great! I will! It’s on NBC, right?

“Yes, NBC…”

Thanks, Mom – turning it on now!

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I paused the CD, fumbled with the remote and found our NBC affiliate (ironically, one of only two channels that I’ve actually memorized because virtually everything I watch is DVR’d), and we listened to Mariah. As the broadcast went to commercial, it informed us of who the upcoming singers and performers would be, including some names Ella and Annie recognized immediately – Idina Menzel (“That’s ELSA!!”), Pentatonix, Sara Bareilles (“She sings ‘Brave’!”), Lady Gaga, the Rockettes.

“Mom! Can we please watch the rest?? I don’t care if we skip Percy – we need to see this!”

And I realized, this wasn’t part of the plan… but yes indeed, we do need to see this. This is exactly what we need – a little Christmas, right this very minute. We scrambled upstairs and climbed into my bed to watch the TV in there and the girls were absolutely entranced, listening to every artist – even the ones with whom they were completely unfamiliar – with rapt attention.

Pentatonix had just begun to sing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” when the phone rang again (“Who the $*#& is it now??”) and I heard my dad’s voice on the other end.

“Just wanted to be sure that you’re watching the Rockefeller Center…”

Yes! We are! We’re watching right now – thank you!

“Okay, good. Talk to you later.”

And with that, he hung up, having said all he needed to say.

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During the commercial breaks, the girls and I found the time to read tonight’s book (Light of Christmas, about a boy who’s chosen to light his village’s Christmas tree – how d’you like THEM apples??). We snuggled closer after I expressed my surprise that the NBC Today Show hosts actually mentioned the protests that were occurring because of the failure to indict the (white) NYPD police officer who killed (black) Eric Garner after he put him in an (illegal) chokehold.

“But that’s not fair, Mama! How can that happen? Why are some people still afraid of black people? Why are black people still treated differently?”

Ah, my dears, the questions for the ages… I am so, so glad that you are asking, and we must continue this discussion… but for tonight I hope you’ll forgive me if we agree that it is not okay, agree that we must keep talking and make change, and then agree to take a deep breath and try to enjoy this tree lighting. 

“Okay, Mom. Let’s do that.”

And so we did, turning off the lights in the bedroom moments before the Rockefeller tree burst into dazzling color, twinkling everywhere – magic, right before our eyes.

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I don’t know if it was fate, God, Santa Claus, or just good luck that guided my parents tonight, but the fact that both of them called to tell me about the tree lighting was really something spectacular. I cannot remember the last time that happened.

Whatever the reason, I’m damned glad they did, because tonight – for the first time in a long while – I feel like myself again. I’ve still got miles to go before I sleep (and, at 10:30 p.m., that’s saying something), but, because of those stolen magic moments with Annie and Ella, I somehow feel like it will all be okay.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to accomplish a few things before my alarm goes off to remind me to put the elf in a new place. I’m thinking maybe atop the new little Christmas tree that my mom sent the girls for Thanksgiving – you know, full circle and all that.

IMG_9062
My view tonight – Ella on my left, Annie on my right, and Pentatonix on the TV. It was delightful.

And it feels so good

Last week, the most tremendous thing happened. It all started when I began reading a fantastic blog, Momastery. Its writer, Glennon, is hilarious, well-written, poignant, intelligent, self-effacing – basically all of the good stuff you want in a writer (or at least all of the good stuff I want in a blog writer). Momastery has gazillions of followers, both on the blog and the Facebook page, and for the past several years, the extended Momastery community (Together Rising) has done this amazing thing called Holiday Hands.

The premise is so simple, you might almost overlook it: people who need help, ask for it; people who have the ability to help, provide help to those who need it. The practice itself is also simple – people in need, whether it be a financial or emotional, submit their requests, which are then relayed (on a specific date that is announced well in advance) on the Together Rising site. Those who are able to provide help then scroll through the requests, decide where/how they can help, and then comment on the request indicating how much they can do (“We can fulfill your entire request!” or “We can provide $20 toward your medical bills!”). Finally, some emails are exchanged to confirm that everything is good, and voila – wishes granted.

(BTW – it is voila [or, if you’re really being technical, voilà, because it’s French], with the O before the I. It isn’t viola – that’s a string instrument. And it definitely isn’t wala or anything similar; that’s just… no. But I digress.)

I was out during the morning that the Holiday Hands requests went “live,” so I didn’t get to the listings until nearly an hour after they’d first opened up to the public, but I figured there would be so many to fulfill, I’d still have plenty of time. Little did I know how incredibly generous the Momastery community is; in just that hour, nearly all of the wishes had already been granted! As I scrolled through the requests and saw the comments saying, “I’ve got this!” or “We will fill this one!”, I actually began to get annoyed. Is there NO ONE I can help?? How has every one of these been taken? I WANT TO DO SOMETHING, DAMN IT!

And then I got a hold of myself and realized that the lack of people in need was a really good thing, so I breathed a little and began to search more calmly until I found a wish that had yet to be completely granted – a mom having a very difficult holiday season was asking for a few gift cards to her 11 year-old daughter’s favorite stores, so she could present her with a gift card “wreath” for Christmas. WE CAN DO THAT! I very eagerly commented and emailed the mom saying, Yes, we’d love to help! and then (im)patiently waited to hear back from her confirming that she’d received my message.

As the afternoon wore on and I hadn’t heard back yet, I began to wonder whether or not I had, in fact, been too late and her wish had already been granted. Having read so many of the heart wrenching requests, I knew that I didn’t want to stop there – I really, really wanted to help one of these women and their families – so I sat back at the computer to take one last look through all of the requests. Perhaps I’d missed something.

When I saw it, immediately, I knew: Harry Potter Anything! That was the heading. I began to read – about a family who has experienced a very difficult year, full of upheaval and loss, and about a boy who found salvation through Harry Potter. His mom said that all she wanted was for her son to receive something – anything – Harry Potter-related for Christmas, and politely asked if anyone had any Harry Potter stuff to pass on. I saw that several other people had already responded – the request was marked as “Taken” – but, after all that Harry has meant to Ella, to our entire family, I knew that I couldn’t let this one go, so I posted a quick comment saying we’d love to help, too.

And thus began an absolutely amazing email exchange between the mom, Heather, and me, where we shared a bit more about what Harry has meant to our families, shared Halloween photos, and shared stories. I’ve never met her or her kids, but I feel a deep connection to Heather; Harry can do that to you.

Eventually, I heard back from the first mom I’d emailed – the request had not yet been fulfilled, so the gift cards will be much-appreciated! That night during dinner, I told the Annie and Ella the whole story – about the Holiday Hands site, about these families, about how I’d signed us up to help. At first, they were speechless; then, they cried; then, they laughed and smiled ear to ear as I read them post after post from people whose wishes had been fulfilled, about how grateful they were, about how this community was changing their lives.

“So, mom? We’re helping make their Christmases better?”

Yep, you got it.

“That’s AWESOME! I LOVE helping! It feels SO GOOD!!”

And, indeed, it does – it feels incredibly, to-the-bone good to help, to spread love, to reach out. We spent another hour poring over the portion of Holiday Hands site (“Love LetHers“) where people have requested support in non-monetary ways — sending cards to family members in the armed forces, writing notes to sick children — and, with each one we read, they would exclaim, “I want to do that!” Eventually, we realized that we wanted to help every single person who had asked for a card or letter, and that, realistically, we couldn’t do that… but the girls are absolutely committed to sending cards to Australia, to England, and to a soldier overseas.

Actually, they’re more than committed… they’re thrilled. Because it feels SO GOOD.

There are no two ways about it: my children are privileged. They live very comfortable lives and, I hope, they will never have a Christmas when they have to go without. While I am so, so grateful for this, I also find that it can be difficult to help them to appreciate what they have, to understand that so many people’s lives are not like theirs. As Nick says, they certainly don’t need to feel guilty about that, but having some perspective, recognizing how fortunate they are, and being genuinely appreciative of it – not taking it for granted – is one of the things I strive for the most as a parent.

This year, Holiday Hands helped me do that. In that moment, when Ella and Annie understood that others were in need but that we would help, it was like an entire world opened up to them. There was such joy in our kitchen that night, the kind of joy that only comes from reaching beyond yourself and out to others. I can’t wait to see the kind of joy that we find when we actually fulfill these wishes.

I know that the families who requested help on Holiday Hands feel grateful – but I can promise you that I feel grateful, too, in so very many ways.

halloween costumes2
This photo was taken after trick-or-treating and relates in absolutely no way to the content of this post, unless you count that Ella dressed as Bellatrix from Harry Potter. Or unless you count how fortunate they were to receive so much candy, but that’s a stretch.
They are two of the things for which I’m the most grateful, though. So we’ll go with that.

If the shoe (doesn’t) fit…

For Christmas, Nick (and the girls, but really it was Nick because he spent all of the time fighting crowds and searching the web and putting things in his “shopping basket” and pressing “order” and having the boxes delivered to our house) gave me two pairs of Merrells, something I’d been coveting for a long while but hadn’t wanted to pony up and purchase for myself. I loved my old Merrells, which were easily slip-on-able and paired perfectly with an array of outfits, from substitute teacher (a tidy top – perhaps a well-fitted sweater – and khakis or slacks; yes, I said slacks) to piano instructor (a clean shirt that’s not a t-shirt and pants that aren’t jeans) to school volunteer (a mostly clean shirt and probably jeans) to errand-runner/dog walker/ chore-doer (anything that doesn’t smell from five inches away). So much did I love them, in fact, they were worn through — and so new Merrells appeared on my Christmas wish list.

The first pair I opened were similar to clogs, except more stylish, so that when covered by the hem of my pants, they resemble attractive boots. Very good. The second pair was different than any Merrell style I’d seen before – a low-cut boot – but they also seemed good. I immediately removed the inner padding from the left shoe (in this case, wadded up brown paper and a cardboard insert that matched the mold of the toe of the boot), slid it on, and remarked that they were fab. Hooray for husbands who a) remember what I asked for for Christmas and b) chose wisely. Happy me.

merrells
These be the ones

On Christmas, I bummed around in my indoor/outdoor slippers (I call them this because they have a really thick, rubber sole with a wicked tread, enabling them to easily make a trip to the mailbox… or, say, into the third grade classroom to help out with Math Facts. What? These? Yep, my slippers. Forgot I even had ’em on! Super comfy, though), so it wasn’t until the 26th that I officially christened my Merrells. I wore the clogs in the morning to run errands and then decided that the boots might be a better choice for the afternoon, as my feet were getting chilly.

I popped those babies right on and began to walk around, but was slightly discouraged to discover that the right shoe (the one I had not tried previously) felt a little tight. This is not an uncommon occurrence; I broke my left leg thirty years ago, so my left foot has been smaller than my right since then. Also – not to be graphic, but this is important to the story – it seems that I’m developing a bunion on my right big toe. Aside from being unsightly, this bump is mostly frustrating because it can make certain shoes uncomfortable — like, apparently, my new boots.

As I went about my business, putting away the previous day’s bounty, packing for our trip to visit my mom and stepdad, and getting the house ready for our dog sitter, the discomfort in my right foot gave way to outright pain. Still, I pressed on, thinking that perhaps if I wore the shoes for an extended period of time, I’d stretch the right one out and it would fit better. Also – and I realize that this makes no sense – I kind of got pissed. Like, seriously, this stupid bunion is effing up my new shoes?? This bunion is ruining my awesome Christmas gift? I WILL SHOW IT WHO’S BOSS.  

I’ve never claimed to be the world’s most rational person.

The hours wore on, and the pain in my right foot became more and more pronounced, and I became more and more upset. By this time – many hours later – I was practically limping, and was sure that, when I removed the shoe, the aching would be so severe, I’d be hobbling around for the rest of the night, and maybe the following day as well. Nick asked how I liked the shoes, and I said that I liked them fine, but that the right one was just a wee bit tight – it must be my stupid bunion. He felt terrible for giving me shoes that didn’t fit properly and asked if I was planning to bring them with us on our trip. When I told him that I’d love to, but I didn’t think it was possible because I didn’t want to lose half of my toes due to lack of circulation, he suggested that we put a tennis ball in the right toe to stretch it out while we were gone. This seemed like a good idea, but I wasn’t about to start now — I was still showing my bunion who was boss.

I’ve never been a very good boss, however, so I’d also begun to panic a bit (who, me?). Hadn’t the podiatrist said that I was fine so long as my foot wasn’t in pain, but if the bump started hurting consistently, I’d need surgery? This must be it – I’d reached the end; there was no hope. Could he get me in as soon as we got back from our trip? When would the surgery be scheduled? How long would it take to recover? BUT I DON’T WANT TO DIE.

Again, rationality is not my strong suit.

Just as I was about to vacuum, Nick noticed me Tiny Timming my way around the living room and told me that enough was enough: take off the damn shoe right now, and he’d stuff a tennis ball inside. He even offered to do the vacuuming while I located and put on my indoor/outdoor slippers (sold!). I gingerly took off my right shoe, breathing an enormous sigh of relief as soon as my foot was released, and handed it to Nick, who turned around to go find one of the dogs’ tennis balls (an un-chewed one, I assume, although at that point I didn’t really care). Before he’d even left the room, however, Nick turned back to me with a quizzical look on his face.

“Uhhh, Em?”

Yes?

“You said that this shoe was the only one that was tight?”

Yes.

“Just in the toe area?”

(exasperated sigh) YES. Because of the bunion. The bunion that will need immediate surgery as soon as we return. How many days do you think you can take off of work?

“Ummm… Just wondering, but do you think that this might have anything to do with it?”

And from the shoe Nick withdrew the cardboard insert that matched the mold of the toe of the boot… the insert that I had already removed from the left shoe, but which I had completely forgotten was even in the right one.

Huh. Look at that.

“Maybe it will fit better now?”

Could be. I can certainly try it on.
(shifts vacuum from one hand to the other as I slip on the boot)
Well, hot damn!

“It fits?”

Yes! Yes it does!

“Does it feel okay?”

It feels great! 

“There’s no pressure or anything?”

Nope! There’s plenty of room! WHO KNEW THESE WERE SO COMFORTABLE??

“Thank God. I was really worried that I’d given you a gift that didn’t fit.”

And I was really worried about writing a living will.

“What?”

THESE ARE AWESOME BOOTS. I am so wearing them on our trip.

“So… I’ll skip the tennis ball thing…”

Yes, please.

“Glad we got that solved.”

 

And I’m really glad I married a man who is not only an excellent gift-giver, but also a genius. Or, at least, a little bit more rational than I.
But, man, let me tell you – I vacuum like a champ.