Merry and Bright

I started using an old wine bottle holder, the kind that can sit on a counter, to display Christmas cards. I noticed that many of them bore the phrase "may your days be merry and bright," a lyric from one of my favorite holiday songs, "White Christmas." Normally I start listening to Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving, but this year, I somehow forgot until this week... then I had an Oh Shit! moment where I realized I only had a few days to get my money's worth, so to speak. Merry and bright. That sounds good, right? We all want our days to be merry and bright, and in the months leading up to the holidays, with all the traffic and present-buying and holiday parties and packed schedules and overeating... sometimes it feels like madness instead of merriment, like a blinding sense of "too much" instead of an illuminating "just enough."

And we usually respond in one of two ways:

  1. Grinch
  2. Norman Rockwell

If you're a Grinch, Christmas annoys you to no end. You just want to press fast forward to the new year, minus the stupid party at midnight... I mean, who stays up that late anyway? Also, champagne is expensive, yo.

If you aspire to Rockwellian standards, you want Christmas to be PERFECT. Like this:

rockwell christmas

But that's not real life.

If the picture above could tell its hidden stories, I'm guessing it would look something like this:

Dad has already had one two many whiskeys, and he fell asleep during church, so Mom is pissed (again). Not to mention she stayed up all night wrapping these presents with no help, as well as cooking Christmas dinner on a budget. It took two hours to get little Tommy to put his boots on because he wanted to wear flipflops in the snow "just to see what it felt like," and he's been screaming his head off with an ear-splitting rendition of "grandma got run over by a reindeer" the entire car ride. Debbie called her older brother, Johnny, every name in the book for spilling milk on her new party dress, which Dad bought for her to make up for missing seeing her sing in the school pageant. Johnny is super thrilled that they got a dog -- named Scout, naturally -- for Christmas (complete with a bow around his neck!) because he's wanted one FOREVERRRR and promises to take care of it always. (Mom thinks that is bullshit and fully anticipates taking care of it after one week, plus the dog obnoxiously jumps on everyone.) Also, whoever's house they're walking into is like, no family in the history of ever walks into a door all smiling at the same time. That's impossible in a seated group portrait, let alone a spur-of-the-moment entrance. WTF is about to happen here.

You... get where I'm going with this.

We want the holidays to be perfect because our real lives are far from it. It's easier to focus on making everything look good instead of acknowledging that maybe some parts don't feel good at all.

As a child, it seemed like there was so much merry build-up before Christmas: the days of patiently waiting for Santa to bear gifts, the road trips to see grandparents and cousins at pre-parties, the advent calendars and long church services. Then Christmas came, and it felt steeped in tradition and ritual. Getting dressed up to go to dinner with my family at our favorite restaurant, followed by midnight mass and carols sung on the ride home as we gazed out the windows at twinkling lights on the fronts of homes rushing by. Opening presents in pajamas around the Christmas tree and fireplace with my parents and sisters, while eating cinnamon rolls and drinking hot coffee. And so on.

All my previous Christmases were blessed, to be sure. But in addition to all the Christmas card loveliness, I remember the behind-the-scenes emotions and moments as well, ones that... well, sucked.

Like the time I put all the gifts I bought on a credit card and felt stressed as each person opened theirs, because I wanted them to feel loved and thought an expensive gift was the only way to show it. (Note: don't do this.)

Or the time I cried during midnight mass upon hearing an a cappella rendition of "Silent Night" because my heart felt irreparably broken from the implosion of a romantic relationship, and the song was too pretty to bear.

Or the time my parents went through a rough spot in their marriage and everyone walked on eggshells around each other pretending everything was okay.

Or the time my grandfather drank himself into a stupor, angrily throwing away all the paper cups of milk on the counter because he wanted everyone out of his house.

Or the time my mother and I were barely speaking after months of hurtful dialogue and sharp differences of opinion.

Or the time we drove back home late Christmas Eve in an effort to "do it all," crashed into several deer, and had to wait on the side of the road for a cop to drive us to the car dealership at 2 a.m. (Okay, that one is funny in retrospect.)

In the bright cheer of the season, it's easy to forget the darkness that lurks.

I forget all of the above when I turn the Christmas music on. I hold onto tradition like it will save me from any hardship or negativity. Let's be honest, I want to forget a lot of that. It's uncomfortable to remember, let alone write, because it didn't align with the "merry and bright" holiday I feel like it should have been.

That's the tricky part, the word we always get stuck on: should. Instead of is. 

Christmas is merry and bright. Both at the same time, brimming over with dark and light, sadness and joy, anxiety and peace, fear and happiness. Over and over, back and forth, off and on, from bitter to sweet. The reason I like Christmas so very much is because it offers a duality -- biblically speaking, as a Christian, I celebrate the meaning of the birth of Christ, while holding the hardship and brutality of the rest of His story in the back of my mind and heart. That balance of celebration and remembrance is something we all do, or actively avoid, this time of year, regardless of the details of our stories.

This year, I'm aiming for less "doing," less avoiding the imperfections, and more "being," more embracing what is real.

I'm trying to celebrate all the sweetness of my life while remembering the bitter.

The love, the friendship, the accomplishments of goals set, the adventures taken to new places, the weddings of dear ones, the home-building, the good health.

And.

The failures, the heartbreaks, the challenges, the plans dashed, the confusion, the mistakes, the panic, the overwhelming loss.

And for people in my life,

I cherish the joy of loved ones who are expecting new babies in the coming year, who chose to declare their love publicly, who took on new careers, moved to new cities, and strove to higher heights.

I honor the sorrow and pain of those who lost parents, shook under tight finances, worried about illness, felt depressed and lonely and lost, dropped dreams, had their hearts smashed into pieces.

Together, we celebrate and remember. And we know it's hard, but we do it anyway. We don't pretend life is a Christmas card. We acknowledge life's realness: the bitter and sweet moments that can blind us with brightness and make us feel like our cups runneth over, for better or worse.

This Christmas, I invite you to breathe and slow down, to celebrate and remember. 

merry and bright

May your days be merry and bright, indeed.

The Lost Art of Noticing

smartphone 3 Last week, I stopped in my go-to coffee shop for a morning toddy before driving to work. Normally I dart inside with only my phone, since I try to use Dwolla to pay locally whenever possible, but that day, I just pulled cash out of my wallet and left my purse and phone in the car. (I know, Mom and Dad. Never leave your purse in the car. I'm sorry. I've gotten way too trusting during my time in Des Moines.)

I ordered and stepped to the side to wait for my coffee. Immediately and automatically, I reached my hand into my purse to ... grab my phone. Oh yeah. I didn't bring it inside.

So instead, I looked around as I waited. I looked at the people working behind the counter in their tan aprons, bustling to take change and make drinks and plate egg sandwiches. I looked at the customers, in sweatpants or yoga clothes or suits or high heels, sitting at the long bar or the small, circular tables. I looked at the people in line, waiting to place their orders.

And I noticed that almost everyone had their head down, looking at a screen. At their phone, while scrolling, scrolling, scrolling or frantically texting. At their computer, while typing furiously. At their iPad, scrolling again.

With the exception of the employees, almost all of the people in the coffee shop, whether they were alone or with another person or with a group -- almost all of them had their eyes turned down at a bright screen.

smartphone 2

I felt a shiver of recognition and embarrassment, too, because I do the exact same thing all the time. In fact, I wanted to do it that very morning, but I couldn't because I had left my electronic distraction in the car.

But I absolutely do it: at a stoplight, waiting for the light to change, I check social media. ("Check" it for what? I wonder.) During a lull in conversation, I look at my text messages "just real quick." At home over dinner, I catch up on my favorite blogs, side-by-side with someone I love, who is also often in front of a screen. Many nights, we watch a movie or television show -- yet another screen -- together, but not really, because we can fall into the trap of using our phones while watching something else at the same time (to look up reviews of the movie, to figure out that actress's name, to post a picture on Instagram). Sometimes I'll even be ON the phone with someone, like my mom or friend or sister, and I'm multitasking on another screen. (Because it's harmless, right? I'm still listening, right?)

I know I do all these things. I'm just like you, trying to avoid the bullshit of the busy trap, but also trying to do all the things, be all the things. Sometimes I get on my own case about these bad habits, but too many times, I don't even notice that I'm doing it in the moment.

So that day, being in the coffee shop, witnessing a collective group do what I do much too often -- it felt different. I felt sad and self-righteous and surprised all at once. This isn't what it really looks like, is it? Don't they know better? 

smartphone 1

***

In college, one of my favorite English professors offered a creative writing course, except it conflicted with another course that I had to take to graduate. I think it was economics or statistics or something. *Shudder* But I really, really REALLY wanted to take this class, so I outlined a proposal for an independent study version of it during a different time slot. I asked her if we could make it work, and she said yes.

We spent most of the semester working on a few essays, doing the usual writing/re-writing/editing, but my weekly homework involved bringing in my "noticings." Ms. B asked me to carry around a little notebook to capture all the things I noticed, and to be as specific as possible; looking back, this is not an uncommon habit for a writer by any means, but it served as the first time I was not only given permission to do it repeatedly but expected to report back.

I loved it. And it really helped, in terms of writing.

But somewhere along the way, I stopped this practice of noticing. I got busy. I wanted to move as quickly as possible. I paid attention to the world around me when I felt like it (i.e., occasional journaling) or when it was asked of me -- on Thanksgiving, on Christmas, on someone's birthday, on a Sunday at church -- but it stopped being a practice, an art.

Yoga, among other things, brought me back. I learned how to notice my breath, and guide others in the same way. I learned how to pay attention to my body, my mind, my spirit, and when I teach, I invite others to become more aware of their bodies, their minds, their spirits. I started to cultivate a practice of awareness, one that I fail at miserably some days, and it helped me really notice how often I'm not present and how often others are not present with me and how shitty it makes me feel in response. Trust me, when you start working at being more present in your life, you notice really quickly who is your life is the exact opposite.

You can read those lines and write it off as hippie-dippie la-la talk, but ask yourself: if you're not noticing yourself and the world around you, what is the point?

What's the point of being a human in this life if your eyes are downcast, stuck in another virtual life all the time?

What's the point of having relationships if you're too distracted to connect in the real life moment?

When did we get so focused on "capturing the moment" instead of, you know, living it?

These are not new questions. But in light of all the articles about being overly busy and how we need to stop and just put down our smartphones ... our emotional connection to technology is disturbing, and it continues. Part of this, I think, is because we're human, and one of our very broad failings is that we do things that we know are bad, ranging on the spectrum of smoking and eating poorly to lying and stealing to killing others. But being overly attached or addiction to screens, can't we fix that problem, one person at a time? I hope so.

Because when I look back on my life, hopefully many years into the future, I won't wish I had spent more time on my phone. I won't wish I had watched just a few more episodes of the Mindy Project (even though that show is the bomb). I won't wish I had Instagrammed more pictures of my pets or friends or dinners or cups of coffee (even though Instagram is fun, to be sure).

I will wish for more time with my loved ones. I will wish to see more: a bright blue sky, how the edge of a building slices into the sunshine, the wrinkles in the corners of the eyes of my parents. I will wish to hear more: the sound of my sisters laughing, the cry of babies, the pained secrets of friends, ocean waves, my favorite song on the radio, the trickle of wind throughout a forest, the hum of cars and sirens in a city. I will wish to smell more: flowers and apple pies and my grandpa's sweater and winter candles. I will wish to taste more: the lips of a lover, beef tacos, a strong margarita, mint gum, dark chocolate and red wine and cheddar cheese. These lists go on and on.

I will wish for so much at the end of my life, and very little of it will involved a screen.

Consider how it feels to look at the above photographs, of people with each other but not really. Are you paying attention to your life, to your world? Do you realized that real life is infinitely better than the siren song of our phones and computers?

(Photos -- and an excellent essay on smartphone addiction, which prompted this post -- courtesy of Babycakes Romero)