Oh, The Holiday Breakdown

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I’m pulling from the archives this week. As we approach another round of holidays, I’m reminded of how lists play a role in the festivities. Even the least organized among us desperately resort to lists to manage survival.

  1. The mom who baked five hundred cookies in 5 hours bullet points a list of the reasons she loves her kids enough to do it, and by the end of the 5 hours, she doubts every one of those reasons.
  2. The unhappy in-laws (or out-laws as they like to be called) conspire over 10 ways to get out of Thanksgiving next year.
  3. The money-conscious come up with penny-pinching techniques;
  4. The time-management disabled brainstorm ideas for cutting activities;
  5. And kids keep count of the number of gifts they have compared to their siblings.

My own holiday list from the archives is my favorite sort of list. The kind that celebrates the epic, holiday breakdown. We’ve all been there.

The Official Guide: How to Lose Your Cool Over the Holidays

The Time Traveler’s Guide

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Twice a year we get to participate in the mystical journey of time travel, springing forward or falling backward in space, also known as Daylight Saving.

For all you grammar geeks, here’s a logophile’s take on those semi-annual time shifts:

“The official spelling is Daylight Saving Time, not Daylight SavingS Time.

Saving is used here as a verbal adjective (a participle). It modifies time and tells us more about its nature; namely, that it is characterized by the activity of saving daylight. It is a saving daylight kind of time. Because of this, it would be more accurate to refer to DST as daylight-saving time. Similar examples would be a mind-expanding book or a man-eating tiger. Saving is used in the same way as saving a ball game, rather than as a savings account.

Nevertheless, many people feel the word savings (with an ‘s’) flows more mellifluously off the tongue. Daylight Savings Time is also in common usage, and can be found in dictionaries.

Adding to the confusion is that the phrase Daylight Saving Time is inaccurate, since no daylight is actually saved. Daylight Shifting Time would be better, and Daylight Time Shifting more accurate, but neither is politically desirable.”  (source)

Apparently Counting Crows got it right; maybe we should take a cue from their playbook and refer to the fall backward phenomenon not errantly as Daylight Saving Time, but as musician-inspired Daylight Fading Time (DFT?).

For many, in spite of the ribbon-wrapped extra hour of sleep, daylight fading brings an unfortunate down side: Seasonal Affective Disorder.  As the darkness creeps in earlier and earlier through the winter months, many are plagued with depressive symptoms including lack of motivation or loss of interest, fatigue, tearful affect, irritability, and sadness.  See NAMI’s description for more.

You may already know seasonal mood changes have been linked to vitamin D deficiencies and are often treated with light exposure therapy and/or vitamins.  What you may not be aware of is some of the changes in “activities of daily living” (as we say in counselor speak) that accompany daylight-fading time.  These scheduling changes come with the natural rhythms of the winter season and couple with plummeting moods.  The combination of winter and the holidays creates the perfect storm for depression.

Let’s look at a typical scenario.  Margaret is a 55 year-old mother of three.  She glances at the calendar this morning, mug in hand, and almost spills coffee all over herself when she sees Nov. 1st.  Her initial association is accompanied by swirling thoughts and frantic internal checklists.  She’ll run to the mall later to find Macys already lit with Christmas lights and red-toned boxes, taunting her about unchecked items.  If we observe her life from November through February, we’ll find a common theme.  The chaos, cold, darkness, and disruption leave her primed for depression.

There are the obligations: parties, school events, and family gatherings.  And there are the accompanying details: what to bring, who to call, and booking travel dates.  There are the physiological changes: less exercise (due to cold weather and time commitments), a diet higher in sugars and fats, and less exposure to sunlight, along with stress carried in the body.  There are increased financial pressures and disrupted routines with extra hours at the office and schedules ubiquitously wrapped around vacation time.

During winter we may have to work doubly hard to avoid plummeting emotions.  Like swimming upstream, the winter months leave us swimming against a current of emotions furiously attempting to sweep us into depression.

Every year I find myself setting goals to counteract this.  Every year there are sneaky stressors that threaten to pull me down anyway.  I would prefer to avoid the work of planning for the winter months.  And yet, the work of planning is easier than the inevitable emotional and physical fallout when I don’t.

As daylight fades, at the very moment I’m posting this, consider the work that will go into preventing a slope into depression.  And consider the work that will go into counteracting it if you don’t.  If it’s inevitable that you’ll face the fading sunlight, how can you prevent the darkness from becoming internal?

 

Your fellow time traveler.

 

 

11:59 PM

I burned my pizza to the stubborn consistency of a hockey puck the other night.

I was so absorbed in an essay on writing (or, rather, absorbed in emerging self-exploration through writing) that I left it in the oven for 9 1/2 minutes too long. Whatever charms may be possessed of frozen pizza are lost on the gluten free variety, and leaving a naturally parched crust in the oven 9 1/2 minutes too long is akin to 20 minutes too long for regular pizza.

I ate it anyway–reflecting on its original shape, form, and substance, now obscured by layers of charred cheese and disintegrating sauce. It was a pale reflection of whatever former glory it possessed.

As I glibly chewed, I pondered what else meets obscure ends. The minute 11:59 pm on December 31st of each year. It is, inevitably, obfuscated by the anticipation of the coming minute, pregnant with hope for renewal, transformation, change.

Nearly every beginning arises out of an ending; it struts out unabashed sometimes with little regard for how the ending preceded its existence and even less regard for how it overshadows that predecessor.

Not all endings are created equal, either. Some are stodgy and unkempt, others dressed with panache, still others modestly attired. But all endings have one thing in common–they meet the same fate. And since endings have to, well, end, in order to become the harbingers of future beginnings, we’d do well to pay a bit more attention to them.

Along with their mutual fate, all endings share an extremely important feature: relinquishment. Experiencing an ending means we are letting go of the possibility of sameness.

This is no small feat in a culture that avoids closing the door on possibility. Take evolution, for example. Culturally, we want to believe that what’s inherent in evolution is a perpetually growing greatness that layers on more and grander development while losing no essence of the former self.

We are a culture that wants to gain without losing. True gain only comes after relinquishment–sacrifice. Our beginnings have deeply painful, personal predecessors known as endings.

How many of you have wrestled with the pain and grief that accompanies endings? Your grief implies there’s a loss associated with that end. Parents grieve the transition of a child into kindergarten, or middle school, or graduation from high school. They know there are changes associated with those transitions that involve giving up their former experience of connection for a new relationship. A child going to Kindergarten may mean she is no longer at home with mom every day. A high school student graduating may be the precursor to moving away for college. Often we fight the relinquishment that accompanies endings. We deny or avoid or rage against the changes, only to be overcome by them anyway.

This week marks an important ending for me. It marks the end of my website, as is. It’s about to go through a bit of restructuring, which I will talk about next week. As I made the decision to embrace that change, I knew it meant giving up aspects of the former branding. Whether it’s nostalgia, naïveté, or resistance to giving up something that feels like a bit of my self, I wrestled to relinquish version 1.0.

Like that charred and partially disintegrated pizza, this website is only a parched translation of what I really want to say (much is lost in the space between my mind and the open page). Version 2.0 may or may not represent a closer approximation of what I would hope to share with you.

For better or worse, I’ve made the decision to move forward, and in that transition I accept the necessity of the end as a harbinger for a beginning, not the start of an ultimate and metaphysical reality but one small beginning in a world of rippling changes heralding the further emergence of self and community, forever altered by the uncomfortable finitude that preceded it.

What is your 11:59 PM? What will it take for you to end well as you transition to the new beginning?

 

Halley’s Cup

Let me tell you about this beautiful confluence of events that occurred a few weeks ago.  It was my own Halley’s Comet that burst into my morning routine with shameless complexity in a plain mug.

This rare beauty was a 2013 Kenyan single origin Ndaroini Peaberry in a Chemex pour over.  For those of you who don’t speak coffee, it takes a Ph.D. in Chemistry, hours of caffeine-enhanced demonstrations, and a propensity to tease apart details that defy all reason, to get the big picture.  I have to settle for a mediocre education that accommodates my limited brain plasticity.  It’s only my passion for coffee that motivates my persistent (and feeble) attempts to educate myself, seeing how I became a counselor strategically to avoid science….and math.

My effort at a succinct summary of the intertwining variables would most certainly fail so bear with me.  The confluent artistry is worth an elongated explanation.  First, let’s talk about the intersection of a variety of rare events that make this particular brew so special, beginning with the origin story.

Kenyan coffee is a mild Arabica known for bold flavor, full body, and aromatic properties grown in nutrient-dense, volcanic soil.  Production varies widely, dependent on a range of factors, and the common scarcity rouses the continued interest of ardent coffee lovers across the world.  Single origin refers to flavor profile purity based on the micro lot or distinct supplier it was generated through and that farm’s unique roasting method.  To many coffee connoisseurs, this is the gold standard of purity.  I won’t bore you with the history of single origin production, evolving definitions, and arguments over whether micro lot really is the best.

Now, to the Peaberry.   The normal production of coffee involves harvesting a coffee cherry (not an actual cherry), which is the fruit produced from a coffee bush.  Normally, the coffee cherry has two seeds that grow uniformly, nestled in the same shell.  On the rare occasion that one of the seeds falls off, the other grows into one, full bean called a Peaberry.  Some coffee lovers believe this abnormality leads to a fuller flavor profile and a more even roast.   The 2013 Kenyan Ndaroini Peaberry happens to be an exceptional crop.  This isn’t always the case.  As with grapes, coffee fruit fall victim to the whims of various ecological factors.

And for the Chemex?  It utilizes a burr grinder with medium grains sized to ensure complex flavors are evenly released into the cup, as the water, literally, pours over the paper-filtered, coarse grounds into a glass beaker, which incubates quality aromatic liquid.  All of these tedious details allow for uniform brightness, flavor coherence, and a full profile to shine through without the astringency or bitter tannins. For an impressive, educational video on the Chemex, click here.  The Chemex tells the coffee’s story purely and simply, without muddying the waters (if you’ll allow me the bad pun).

My first taste of this coffee could only be described as a journey into Halley’s cup.  There was the exceptional dark fruit flavor accented by a citrusy, smooth finish.  It evolved with the transparency of each sip, hitting the palate one note at a time, followed by the velvety texture of the grounds, best narrated by the melodic quality of the pour over with its discerning clarity.  Can you tell I kinda liked it?

I happened upon this brew with none of the fanfare and all of the dense self-absorption that would typically ensure my missing the rarity of the event.  Had the coffee not shouted its story from the rooftop of my palate, I would have overlooked this convergence.

It wasn’t until after tasting it that I researched the brew and it validated what I suspected from that first sip.  This coffee is a true gem, brimming with thousands of harmonious details.

This season, are your eyes open to the possibility of rare moments?  We’re all likely to miss them in the midst of the mundane, our own busyness, and our self-absorption.  Those moments may be lingering in the recesses of your chipped, coffee mug; the bottom of your thread-bare, strung-up stocking; or the back of your tinged, Christmas bulletin.  To follow up from last week’s post, I’m grateful for the mundane because when I look closely and curiously enough, it intermingles with the sublime the way robust grounds and transparent aromas intermingle in a plain, ceramic mug.

The Official Guide: How To Lose Your Cool Over the Holidays

“Can I refill your eggnog for you? Get you something to eat? Drive you out to the middle of nowhere and leave you for dead?” –Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 

Thanksgiving is right around the corner.  Considering it arrives late this year, our shopping days will be shortened; a cruel, Christmas joke for those who aren’t predisposed to early holiday prep.  At this juncture in the year, many of us have resigned ourselves to simply surviving the long list of holiday expectations without having it end in epic failure.

When we think of the epic holiday fail, many of our minds immediately jump to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, let me attempt a tidy summary.  It’s a movie about the stereotypical awkward family (understatement), trying to survive visits from quirky relatives (understatement), scrambling to find the perfect gift, while experiencing lighting debacles (understatement), avoiding uptight neighbors, and salvaging a squirrel-infested Christmas tree.  If this resonates with your own holiday experience, you should call me; I know a few therapists.

As an aside, my yearly review of the movie left me mortified to realize I own the same reading glasses as Clark Griswold.  A bold argument against repurposing unisex fashion from decades ago as vintage and trendy, but that’s for another post.

So in the spirit of holiday mishaps, and as an homage to the quintessential Christmas catastrophe known as the Griswolds, here’s a list of ten actionable items that will ensure you lose it over family festivities:

1–Bring up every hot button issue with the extended family.  Including, but not limited to: the debt ceiling, healthcare, and your mother-in-law’s haircut.

2–Camp out in the living room of your distant relatives, for the entirety of the holiday season, and be sure to arrive unannounced.

3–Challenge yourself to accept every party invitation and volunteer your family to help with prep AND clean-up.  Then wax eloquent on how it’s a “character building” exercise.

4–Visit all relatives in one, 16-hour period, preferably arriving in your SUV adorned with a luggage rack to cart all gifts, leftovers, and your family therapist on retainer. (Note: Your family therapist would kindly appreciate a seat in the car.)

5–Gift wrap each awkwardly-shaped stocking stuffer…wait for it…for 15 to 20 people.  (Not that I’ve done this before.)

6–String your prettiest, holiday lights over the stairs so that while you’re snoozing after last-minute shopping, your kids can use them to bungee jump down and rifle through the bags.  (Kids, this is way better in theory than execution.)

7–Scramble for Parent of the Year award (defying the deadline), by making 12 dozen, hand-decorated sugar cookies in a 2-hour period for son’s boy scout troop.

8–Get a head start on the epic New Year’s resolution to forego boundary setting, beginning with a universal, open-ended invitation to family and friends to stop by.

9–Volunteer your spouse for every holiday event you’re solicited to help with…without telling them.  (Note: In the game of life, once your spouse finds out, do not pass go, proceed directly to the sofa.)

10–Last but not least, the best way to enjoy the epic holiday fail is to forego Christmas lists and subscribe every dear friend and relative to the jelly of the month club.  After all, it is the gift that keeps on giving.

 

Happy holidays, everyone!!

 

Have other tips to add to the list?  Feel free to post in the comments.

Christmas Longing

It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive.  There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.   –George Eliot

There seems to be an automatic and existential longing in our hearts to experience the holidays as a magical time of warmth, comfort, and love–a desire for Christmas to fulfill our hopes and dreams.  The holidays have often been packaged as such, and tied with a lovely bow, beckoning us to believe (cue holiday melody) that everything will be okay and all our worries will melt away once Christmas is here.

The holidays have come to symbolize our yearning for the consummation of such transcendent wishes as world peace.  We hope upon hope that the fulfillment we’re promised during this season will carry over and magically revive us all year long.  We also hope that if enough of us embody the spirit of the holidays, that incarnation will permeate the world until every being experiences serenity.

I know I secretly desire that to be true.  I want the world to be at peace and each of us to know love, joy, and freedom.  While I long for that, my experience tells me that humanity doesn’t find peace simply by being in the holidays.  In fact, many of us emerge on the other side feeling upset, depressed, and exhausted by the entirety of the seasonal experience.  With that in mind, I’d like to introduce a little storyteller who truly personifies what we want the holidays to be about.

There’s a beautiful, little boy in my life with silky, jet-black hair and an olive complexion.  His name is Max.  If you look at his cherub cheeks—rosy and round, he’s the picture of health.  He loves to talk, relentlessly, with few words ever reaching recognizable form as they fly across his lips, rapid and ardent.  He’ll determinedly wobble around a room bringing one object from a bin to your hands and back to the bin again, for hours.  This is a hard day’s work for him.  He’s in the business of learning, and he’s doing it with all the gumption he can muster, while prattling away to the dog, the nearest couch pillow, and the air, indiscriminately.  He requires no response from his audience as he boldly and emphatically steps across the floor with a lego in hand, or a ball, or an infinitesimal piece of fuzz.  It’s essential, of course, to show you each piece of fuzz as artwork thrust across the canvass of his hand.

This little boy represents everything we want the holidays to be about.  He revels in experiencing each new part of his world, filled with wonder and awe.  You spend five minutes with him and melt into a puddle of child-like giddiness, only to recover with the inspiration to dance around the room and swing him in your arms, as his infectious laughter fills every nearby corner.

There’s something unique about this particular, little guy.  Max is adopted.  This small, wondrous being represents the culmination of hopes and dreams to two people who deeply love him.  He is a true Christmas miracle.  He’s a gift of inestimable proportions.  Being with him reminds me of beauty, love, and grace, the essence of things that were once a shadow of hope for two, dear friends.  The fortunate parents of this little boy know just what it means to have deep longings.  And a year and a half ago they took him home, experiencing the fulfillment of their hopes.

Instead of looking to the holiday season to fulfill our yearnings for the deep and beautiful things in this world, we would do well to find those longings stirred to life in the world we already have—the world we live in, breathe in, and generously occupy every day of the year.  Coming in contact with someone like Max is a reminder of the truly beautiful in the midst of the truly mundane.

A predetermined holiday can’t give us what we’re searching for.  But connections with people, like this little man, can point us toward the source of those longings.  There are people in each of our lives who intersect with us in just the right way that they both unsettle and allure our hearts.  Unsettling may sound like a negative word, but it can be shapely and positive.  When we are unsettled, uprooted, disoriented, unnerved, and disturbed, we can come face to face with the longings that are intensely rooted in us, ones that would typically stay buried unless there was an evocative person to draw them out.  These desires won’t be satisfied by a superficial view of annual celebrations.  These desires point towards a dissatisfaction that calls out for resolution.  Will you listen to the longings this holiday season?  Where do you think you’ll find what you’re yearning for?

 

A Gift Giving Guide By Ebenezer Scrooge

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.  He became as good a friend, as good a master, as good a man, as the good old city knew, or as any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.  Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him.  –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

 

It strikes me as odd that trees turn to sticks, sloughing off their foliage just weeks before we’re thrust into the requisite, gift-giving season.  It’s as if nature is shrugging away the last vestige of its bountiful, autumn gift in protest of the holiday trappings–trappings that can feel as prickly and barren as an unadorned oak tree in winter.

What’s even more unfortunate is that this sacrosanct undressing opens my expansive set of office windows to an unencumbered view of the Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s as if the beautiful oak outside my windows, emblazoned with red and yellow in the Fall, is shedding its leaves as a callous tribute to one of the least desirable trappings of the holidays: last minute gift shopping.

There’s an economy to gift-giving, one that would make Scrooge proud.  Mind you, I’m not talking about the dollar value of the gift.  I’m referring to something much broader and more subconscious than that.  There’s the transactional analysis between the gift giver and the receiver where the tone, gesture, chosen time, and type of gift all communicate the level of value the recipient has to the giver.  We instinctively know, upon receiving a gift, what it truly cost the giver.  We instinctively know, upon receiving a gift, our relational value by virtue of the giver’s choice.

One wife who receives perfume from her husband every year knows that it’s his expression of familiarity, care, comfort, and thoughtfulness.  She knows that he is secretly communicating that he loves her scent and he is still committed, year after year.  While another wife, upon receiving the same yearly gift knows it’s her husband’s uninspired expression, an unwelcome interruption to his hurried, holiday pace.

No pressure, right?

One of the sticking points of the holidays is all the “gifts” we give in reaction to intuitively understood expectations.  We give of our time, energy, and emotional resources.  We give away those last, solid three minutes of uninterrupted space to add extra holly to the table decorations.  We give away moments of laughter with a beloved friend to sprint through the mall and grab the last, shiny gift card to (insert relative’s favorite restaurant, clothing store, or holiday event). We give away the opportunity for silence, solace, breath and immerse ourselves in chaos, noise, and crowd.

Please don’t mistake me, here.  I love moments of frantic, fast-paced, shopping and delicious, party noise.  I love to immerse myself in surround sound laughter, jokes, and stories around hot chocolate or wine during this time of year.

However, if there is an economy to gift giving, and if the definition of giving can be broadened to include time, emotional reserves, and energy, then a transactional analysis would say we have limited assets to give.  How many of us approach the holidays as if we have infinite energy and emotional resources only to come out on the other side in the red?  How many of us feel worn and aged by the season, wondering afterwards how we’ll ever be able to generate more emotional revenue?

When we indiscriminately give away our “gifts”, we run the risk of depleting our resources to the point where we can’t give the offerings that truly matter to the people who truly matter. Read that again, and slowly.  We can’t give the offerings that truly matter to the people – who truly matter.

In case this is all sounding too theoretical, and on the strong chance that you’re bored with (or panicked by) the economy metaphor, let’s talk details.  Most of us have a good idea, early on, what the holiday landscape will look like.  There are the annual parties, children’s performances, work outings, volunteer opportunities, etc. So as we take a moment to observe that landscape, it’s important to ask ourselves a few questions:

  • If I attempt to do it all, will the people I value suffer?
  • Which activities provide the most meaning to myself and the people I care about?
  • Which activities unnecessarily deplete my reserves?
  • Which activities are really just noise?
  • What is my mission for this season? In other words, what would give this season true value?

As we ask ourselves these questions, we can choose to make the people and things we value most a holiday priority.  Since gift giving communicates how much we value the other, maybe we can all broaden our definitions of giving this year, and think carefully about to whom, how, and why we choose to give.  Maybe the best gift you’ll receive this year is the holiday note from a friend scribbled in marker on that faded, blue card.  Maybe the best gift you’ll give this year is a radiant smile, a meaningful embrace, or a can of soup to someone in need.

If each of us embraced this concept of intentional giving, maybe we would look a bit more like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol; our experience of the holidays would be transformed and transformational in our own hearts and in the world around us.  And like Scrooge experienced, maybe a bit more merriment would return to our season.  Could we possibly have that twinkle in our eyes, and a lightened, bouncing step through the holidays?

Art as Relationship

When art is done well, it mirrors the many facets of human connection. It whispers of relationship, beckoning beyond what is to what could be.

Woodberry Kitchen creates great art. It creates it in a common language that points us towards the already and not yet of relationships. The atmosphere, food, and drink inspire with warmth. The flavors are comfortable and familiar, yet intensely bright. When I’m there, it’s as if they know better than I do what I’m craving. The thoughtfulness that goes into their food stirs my longings for that same level of intention with friends and family. We all want relationships that are thoughtful, warm, and inviting.

Woodberry Kitchen tells a story through the common language of food. They tell that story so well, in fact, that my friend Brody decided to showcase the restaurant in his video.

Brody is a branding humanitarian. He creates the opportunity for companies to tell their stories by helping them connect with the humanity in others.

His company’s vision is based on the co-constructed narrative of relational value. He explains it this way: “We are all relational and finite creatures… We can’t do everything ourselves. We need the services of others to make our lives complete…We want to be with those who see the light we see, who value what we value, who are inspired by what inspires us.”

This recognition of interconnectedness in his company’s pursuit of branding draws many to their doors. They get the core of what we’re attracted to. We want to interact with other people who are inspired by what inspires us. We want to do life with those who create art–art that we can connect with personally.

Our humanity requires connection. We can not escape it, no matter how hard we try. For better or worse, we are in relationship with one another.

For the duration of 2013, I want to explore that interconnectedness. I want to look at it from different angles, inspecting each side with curiosity. I would like to invite you to explore with me. We’ll consider storytellers, themes, and contexts, that share a common journey.

This is purposefully done with the holidays in mind. As we approach a season that’s meant to celebrate those connections, we often find ourselves in conflict with others. There can be a clash of values, desires, and expectations, to name a few.

If we all long for those connections, why are they particularly hard to come by during the “most wonderful time of the year”?

The holidays can be a time of inspirational experiences. A time filled with the creation of art in its purest form. A time where thoughtfulness comes to life. Those opportunities are often hindered by a variety of conflicts that seem to intensify during this season.

As we reflect together on the anticipation and trepidation that comes with the holidays, I hope we can begin a conversation that adds value beyond the temporal season. I hope we can tell each other stories of the Woodberry Kitchens and the branding humanitarians, stories of connections awakened. It is my belief that those stories will reveal the artful longings behind our humanity.

Stay tuned…