December 19, 2009

"And so this is Christmas...

December 25th is almost here and depending on your religion, age, family structure, health, pocketbook, and traditions, this can mean very different things to different folks. Television and advertisers would like us to think it means the same thing to everyone--folks traveling to visit relatives, enjoying good food and opening beautifully wrapped presents; but of course that is the ideal. Grandma's cooking is yummy, Johnny gets the bike he longed for, Susie the doll, there's snow on the ground for snowmen and all the lions and lambs take a nap together.

And then there is reality, which we know is often very different. There's no need to even describe it. And, as I write this a big snowstorm is heading up the NE coast (see this morning's photo) and a clipper is coming down from the Great Lakes. Families already foregoing air travel for road travel due to budget expenses or disdain for being treated like sardines, are checking their AAA membership status, Mapquest, tire tread, and mental health and weighing the pros and cons of staying put. I walked outside just before sunrise and the snow is thick, wet, and falling hard here in the Appalachian foothills.

I love Christmas, but my expectations are realistic. I don't expect the world to transform that much during the month of December. A few decorations, a little tree, a light dusting of snow, time in the evenings to make presents, a few extra dollars for shopping, a good batch of sugar cookies, my mother's Swedish tea wreath recipe, enough to eat on Christmas day and, if I'm lucky, visits with both of my sons sometime around the holidays and I'm good to go. A loving husband, taking Bryce to a Christmas Eve service, having a healthy elderly mom to talk with on the phone, a just-turned-90 father-in-law to talk with as well--a just-graduated-from-college son gainfully employed; much to be thankful for, and none of it comes wrapped in $2.99 gift-wrap from Walmart.

If your family is facing hard times this holiday season, as many many families in America are, my heart feels for you; for I have faced one or two Christmases that were more challenging than I needed them to be. Times when life didn't feel very fair and I didn't feel very "Christmasy." When life felt as scarce as Charlie Brown's pathetic tree.

I can't give you a job, make your child well, fix your marriage, get you the car repair you need, or the home you need, or the health you need. But I can tell you that things can get better, there is always hope, and that you are stronger than you think. Time will bring change and answers and new opportunities. Hang in there. Do not give up. Focus on what is really important, the life and love in each day, the devotion you give your family; how hard you are trying.

To those of you who feel blessed already this season, maybe, if we each reach out and do what we can to those who need it, we'll impart some hope and practical help this holiday season. And not just this holiday season, but what I consider the "God's tough love months": January, February and March. A lot of people doing one or two self-less things can really add up, so if you are able and have the means, find something you can do for someone else, preferably someone else you do not know and who cannot pay you back.

I am now old enough to write the following sentence: "When I was a girl, my mother put a big orange in my Christmas stocking and I thought that was pretty wonderful; a sunny orange in the middle of winter."

We had grapefruit and homemade bread for breakfast. I don't remember what my presents were for most of the years I was the child in the home. In fact, my gift memories could be summed up as follows (in chronological order): a big plastic doll; a red tractor that I could ride when age 3.5; a Barbie swimming pool soon chewed on by our boxer, Ringy; an Etch-a-Sketch; a Texas Instruments calculator; a hand mixer; a gold locket.

I still have the locket. But, my memories center on the happy family feeling, the excitement decorations and music, and I remember that bread, the orange, and the grapefruit. The fruit was sent to us in Ohio from our grandparents in Florida, I'm sure. Our Christmases were happy ones, and very traditional for the times. (I know I've dated myself with the calculator reference.) No one went overboard, if my two working-full-time parents felt like they should do more, well, I always felt they did enough. How lucky I am to have these memories!

When my children were small, money was tight and there was a $50 limit. There were no DVD players, iPods, Visa gift cards, or ZhuZhu hamsters. Some years the $100 was hard to come by and we improvised. I don't remember any unhappiness, though, because of lack--Christmas was still fun. There were a lot of homemade presents and homemade ornaments. One of my sons would eagerly look forward to the advert. inserts appearing in the Sunday newspapers in December. He'd study them with happy intensity; and I'd study him and wish that I could give more. But if he was ever disappointed, he never let on. My boys were always happy with whatever they received, and loved, too, to give presents.

Recently, Bryce and I shopped at Jeffersonville Outlet for his gifts to others. It was uncanny, how he knew just what his grandmother, stepfather, and aunts might like. And how much fun the day of shopping was. Really 15 or 20 dollars can buy a nice present, if you keep your expectations realistic; but in my mind the best presents are often homemade. If you are running short this holiday season, on time, and money; or if the snow is falling at your home this morning and you cannot face driving out in it to Walmart one more time, consider the following gifts:

1) Take out a piece of paper and a pencil and write to that friend or family member, even the one you will see on Christmas day, just what their love and support have meant to you this year. What is your favorite memory of them? What experience together (vacation, holiday, crisis) speaks to your relationship and how were they there for you? Write it down. This letter will be a gift they can open forever. Put the letter into a nice card. If you don't have a card, take a Christmas card you got last year (saved them, didn't you?) cut out the picture and paste it onto a new piece of paper. Insert the letter, attach it to a small gift like a good smelling bar of soap, a small bag of cookies or fudge, a "gift certificate" to plow a driveway, clean a kitchen, give a facial, or babysit a child.

2) Take out photographs of past family Christmas celebrations. Scan them into your computer and arrange them as a collage using software you already have. Or copy and print the pictures out, and then using a glue stick or spray adhesive, affix them to a piece of paper or cardboard the size of a placemat. Once the pictures (don't use the originals, use copies of the pictures) are all affixed to the placemat-sized paper, cover both sides with clear Contact paper (available at discount and home improvement stores).

If you can't obtain the clear Contact paper, look around your house for flat plastic that can be taped or sewn: a clear shower curtain, new or in pristine washed condition sitting in your linen closet; a plastic page cover from scrapbooking work. Use it instead. Or, if you cannot do the whole big placemat thing, use photos copied to make smaller Christmas coasters (old Christmas cards can be used the same way, if you do not want to use photos.)

3) If you have leftover yarn and can crochet or knit, there is still time for that scarf, hat, or toy to be made. Never discount the power of a homemade gift. A sewn pillow, a child's drawing framed, etc.

Be creative, and be gentle with yourself and others. If expectations of material objects are high, counteract that with a dose of common sense, emphasis on what is really important, and the recognition that children will remember love and family traditions more than individual presents.

Take time to have a happy holiday. Remember to focus on what matters. Don't stress out about wanting to have things "perfect." They will not be perfect, but they can be "just right for you." May they be and may you realize the love, hope, and security that everyone needs to feel blessed by God, however you celebrate the concept and the holiday.

December 6, 2009

Ping Pong

Wow, everything old really is new again. CBS Sunday Morning had a segment on ping pong, specifically a club in NYC where ping pong is the in thing (celebrities, authors, Vanity Fair models, actors, and regular folk, see more here;contentBody). If CBS Sunday Morning actually gave a link or video to their story, I'd post it too, but too soon after broadcast, I guess...

Anyway, from about 1967-1969, many nights after dinner, my dad and I would retreat to the basement where we'd battle out adolescent energy and pre-high school angst (dating myself aren't I?) at the ping pong table.

By then, my ballet shoes had been languishing in a lambswool-lined shoebox for a few years and I hadn't yet taken up a paintbrush. We would relinquish that basement to another family in 1970, when we moved from a ranch home into an apartment as my older sisters settled into adulthood and I entered high school. But, before all that, I had my introverted dad's attention and we bopped, smacked, and lobbed that ball around a large green table many a night. I loved it, and no air hockey game at Kent State in the '70s, even with a good-looking guy friend, has stayed so fondly in my memory.

And now! Skinny women in miniskirts and stilletos, tattooed rappers, a guy with a Tshirt that says "Nude ping pong." Yikes what fun from afar.

I'd be happy with cherry syrup in a Coca Cola, a bowl of pretzels, a tabletop ping pong setup, and my wonderful husband in a flannel shirt and jeans, some good music on the stereo and the pong pong pong of that bouncing ball. There's a drivethru in Nelsonville that has a sign outside "Ping Pong Balls 4/$1." Maybe it's making a comeback.