Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas season under way

It goes without saying that really bad things can put the holiday stress into perspective. Find the perfect gift doesn’t seem all that important when you compare it to feeling assured that your kids will make it home from school at the end of the day.
But it’s perhaps less often observed that really good things can put the holiday stress into perspective too. Though I wouldn’t use the term “stress” to describe it, I was feeling a little overwhelmed with To Do items yesterday. I had two articles to file, three batches of candy to make, eight co-worker gifts and six teachers’ gifts (of the aforementioned homemade candy) to assemble, a Christmas Eve menu to plan, a few Christmas cards still to address and mail, and a handful of holiday-related errands left to complete.

And no matter how many times I told myself none of this really mattered, I wasn’t convinced. We wanted to give all those gifts of candy. We wanted to be sure the kids’ stockings were filled. We wanted to drop off the donation at the toy drive. And I didn’t think the oncoming holidays were any excuse for missing work deadlines, with their compelling incentive at this time of year of the paychecks that follow the deadlines.

Still, I was aware that I was starting to lose sight of the Christmas spirit. I wasn’t irritable, just frazzled. It was only two days ago that I mailed the last of the forty letters I was obliged to write on behalf of Carlisle Santa, and a bad cold earlier in the week set me back a little bit as well.

But late Wednesday night, my sister and her kids arrived at my parents’ house for a pre-Christmas visit. Holly and Tim played with their cousins all Thursday afternoon; after dinner we brought the cousins back here for still more fun.

I set to work packing candy gift boxes with the sounds of the four cousins laughing, singing, wrestling and dancing in the background, and that, more than anything else, reminded me of what the focus of Christmas should be: happy times together. Recipients always appreciate our homemade candy, but no one was actually going to notice or care whether there were four different kinds in their box or only three. Christmas Eve guests wouldn’t check under the dining room table to see how thoroughly I vacuumed. And my kids don’t even really keep track anymore to see if they have the same number of gifts in their stockings.

In short, none of the bustling around mattered all that much, but not until the house was filled with the sounds of kids playing together – long-distance cousins who don’t see enough of each other throughout the year but always fall immediately into the same joyous hilarity when they get together – was it absolutely clear to me what mattered. This: their silliness, their clamor. Never mind the housecleaning or the dessert-making or ensuring that every card is mailed in time to arrive by Christmas. The cousins were playing together and being loud and silly, and so at our house, Christmas had begun.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A weekend for gathering

Ironically, it turned out not to be such a bad weekend for holiday gatherings after all.

If the Saturday before Christmas is (despite Black Friday myths to the contrary) actually the busiest shopping day of the year, then the Saturday that falls mid-December, ten days or so before Christmas depending on the year, is surely the busiest party day of the year. And this year was no exception: we had four different invitations for the weekend just past.

But of course, like people all over the country, by Friday evening, we didn’t feel like going to a single event. With the worst possible kind of news coursing off the TV screen and through the radio wires and down the Internet transom, we didn’t want to go anywhere or see anyone.

But we went anyway, and in retrospect, I realize that it was better than not going anywhere. I was not in a mood to take solace from anyone else’s words. I did not want to join a prayer service or take part in a candlelight vigil. I didn’t want to read anyone’s reflections via Facebook post or even listen to the president’s address. I felt the same way I have after other tragedies on a national scale: there is not one thing that anyone can say that will make this one iota better, and I would rather be alone with my thoughts than submit to what will feel like empty noise.

In the end, though, it was surprisingly therapeutic to be with other people: first at a large gathering of acquaintances, then at a neighborhood party, and then at the home of a close friend with just a few other families present. All of these were holiday parties planned weeks ago, and only at one did we specifically discuss the events in Connecticut that had happened just a day or two before. No one tried to offer words of comfort or solace. We just….talked. And kept each other company. And made ourselves present with each other.

It was no more or less than that, really: just being in each other’s company rather than alone. I still can’t explain why it felt unexpectedly okay, but it did. Sometimes it’s all we have for comfort: the presence of other people. And sometimes, despite my inclinations to be alone during the worst times, huddling in a group is the best response we have.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My holiday season indulgence: A night of middle school music

I have many friends whose idea of self-indulgence during the holiday season involves pedicures, massages, or long lunches at fine restaurants.

Mine is a lot more low-budget. My yearly December indulgence is attending the middle school holiday concert.
Last night, just as with every year, someone I run into in the audience is bound to look at the stage, look down at their program, and say in a slightly puzzled tone, “So Tim is in the chorus this year…? Or Holly is playing with the jazz band….?”

Their puzzlement is justified. Neither of my kids is in any musical group associated with the school (or any musical group not associated with the school, unless you count Holly hiphop-dancing on her bed while blasting her iPod), and they can’t imagine why I’d bother to spend a whole evening during the busiest time of year attending a school concert if neither of my kids will be on stage.
But that’s just what makes it an indulgence: I’m under no obligation whatsoever to be there. I go just because I so enjoy hearing talented kids sing and play instruments, and I get such a kick out of seeing them all so dressed up and engaged in the moment of performance. As they file onto the stage, pick up their instruments, train their gaze on the conductor, bow to the audience’s applause….it’s such a different view of the same kids whom I normally see thundering in and out of the school cafeteria or swarming the soccer field or jostling each other in line at the ice cream stand. This is the side of them that foretells a different kind of future ahead: one in which they know how to carry themselves with dignity, dress formally, follow someone else’s lead in order to create magnificent results.

So I go to the yearly holiday concert because it’s such a pleasure to witness this, but also because in some small way, I feel like it’s an important exercise in conquering the tendency to rush through the holiday season. Yes, there were many things I could have been doing with those same two hours, many items that would be crossed off my To Do list today if I’d skipped the concert. I might have made some progress with holiday baking. I might have mopped the kitchen floor. I might have packaged the gifts that need to be mailed to Colorado by this weekend. Or I might have finished writing the couple of articles that are due today.
But it’s good sometimes to renounce your To Do list, especially during the holiday season. There was no reason for me to spend two hours at the concert, but I did anyway. I heard some good music, witnessed talent both great and still developing, and made it a priority not to be bustling around in the usual holiday season way. No, it’s not a pedicure or a fancy night out: just a free evening of music in the school auditorium. But I’m really glad I was there.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Best seasonal job ever: Ghost-writer to Santa

Santa knows when you’ve been sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

He also knows what a good sport you were about early-morning soccer practices all fall and which pet you brought to the Old Home Day pet contest. If you happen to be in third grade this year, he even knows which tribe you covered for your Native American project.
I know this because within the 01741 zip code, I’m Santa’s letter-writing adviser. The other eleven months of the year, I write newspaper articles under my own name and also ghost-write for a variety of clients who have plenty to say but don’t enjoy putting pen to paper themselves. But when December comes, I get to work with my favorite “ghost-writing” client of all, St. Nicholas himself.
I hope no one will be shocked to hear that Santa utilizes a professional consultant. When he approached me for help, it didn’t seem any more unusual than any of my other clients asking for assistance with writing. If you are the CEO of a biosciences company, a former NFL quarterback who wants to reminisce about Super Bowls past, or a doctor who knows how to perform surgery but not necessarily how to explain it in terms that make people flock to your office door -- to use just a few examples from my current client list -- you hire a writer to help with your materials. And if your expertise lies in overseeing a toy-making operation and flying a sleigh, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in recruiting some professional help when it comes to writing letters.
The first time I worked for Santa, I thought it would be easy. Santa’s reason for hiring locally rather than outsourcing to far-off countries where editorial labor is far cheaper is that he values familiarity with the local demographic. And that I have. Sure, he knows everyone by name and general behavioral profile, but he doesn’t have those intricate connections that those of us within small towns enjoy. When we opened his mailbox last year and the letters flooded out, there was hardly a name I didn’t recognize. Kids all over Carlisle had written to Santa, and happily for Santa, I knew most of them even better than he did.
That turned out to be not quite the advantage I expected it to be. In fact, it nearly resulted in the premature demise of my career as Santa’s literary consultant. As Santa explained to me, some kids are already a little alarmed by the concept of his omniscience, and my suggested responses to their letters were compounding the creepiness factor exponentially. “Great job in last week’s school concert, second only to your performance in the Rainforest Play last May!” I wrote enthusiastically to one first grader who had included none of this information in her letter to Santa. “I bet you’ll have a wonderful Christmas, playing with your two little brothers and your new puppy,” I wrote to another child who had stated in his letter merely that he wanted an Xbox. “Have a happy holiday season AND a happy birthday on January 2nd,” I cheerfully penned to a little girl whose birthday I happened to know.
And then I realized this wasn’t necessarily going so well. Santa told me I was going to scare kids by knowing so much about them. He in fact accused me of turning him into more of a Santa Stalker character than a jolly old elf.
As Santa and I continued through our pile of letters from kids with familiar names and addresses, I began to see why a little knowledge may in this case be a dangerous thing. “The reindeer love landing at your house because of that big open field right next door to you,” we wrote to one child. But farther down the pile we came to a letter from that same child’s younger brother, who wrote in block letters at the bottom of the page, “DON’T FORGET WE’LL BE AT OUR SKI HOUSE IN NEW HAMPSHIRE ON CHRISTMAS.” Oh no, I muttered as I scrabbled back through the pile to find the one I’d written to his sister, who I feared would now spend the remaining two weeks before Christmas certain that Santa would leave all her presents at the wrong house.
And there were also times when Santa had to rein in my tendency to lecture the kids a little. “Was it really sensible to wear shorts to school when it was thirty degrees out last week?” I wrote to one boy. Santa sternly explained to me that that simply isn’t the kind of thing he says to kids. He’s not anyone’s mother, he reminded me. He’s Santa.
It’s a little surprising Santa hired me for another season at all. But I’m grateful he’s giving me a second chance. Now that I know what I’m doing, I’ll exercise better self-restraint. Because it’s true: Santa does know when you’ve been sleeping; and he knows when you’re awake. But if he happens to also know that you left a crumpled sandwich wrapper on the table last time you ate at Ferns and ignored the recess aide when she said to put the balls back in the bin, it’s probably more in the holiday spirit if he keeps it to himself.



Friday, December 7, 2012

Our eclectic yearly cookie swap

I inherited the guest list for the yearly cookie swap from my friend Lisa.
One November evening four years ago, she invited me to a get-together at her house. “It’s a group that meets monthly to have dinner or watch a movie or do some kind of activity,” she said. “It’s mostly mothers of kids in Nate’s class at the Montessori Preschool, but you can come too if you want.”

I did go to Lisa’s that evening. I forget what the theme that month was, but there were about twenty women in attendance; I already knew some of them and enjoyed meeting the rest. In fact, I had such a good time that I rather rashly offered to host the same group the following month for something I’d long wanted to try: a holiday cookie swap, in which each guest brings a few dozen cookies to exchange, and each participant leaves with a cookie assortment that she can serve at other gatherings or give as gifts over the upcoming weeks of festivities.

In what I hope was a coincidence unrelated to my presence at the event, the group’s monthly habit started to fall apart right around then. I was invited to a couple more events in the months that followed, but for the most part the routine seemed to peter out at that point.

Nonetheless, I’d had fun at the cookie exchange and wanted to host one again the following year. By the third year, I realized that if the original group was no longer meeting regularly, I wasn’t really tied to that specific list of people and could invite whoever I wanted, but I was actually fond of that particular group. I had lots of good friends who weren’t part of it, but I could see them at other events throughout the year.

So once again, last night, it was a cookie exchange primarily for my inherited guest list, though over the years I’ve expanded it a little bit, mostly to include new acquaintances in town, because it’s such a good opportunity for them to meet other mothers of grade school aged children.
Now it’s a yearly ritual on a weeknight in early December. We go through bottles of seltzer or wine (a couple of guests always rib me about how small my wine glasses are, and every year I promise to try to upgrade my collection by the next December); we eat cheese and crackers and dips and vegetables and my friend Emily’s addictive cream cheese chutney spread; I indulge in my love of making decadent desserts – eggnog cheesecake and chocolate mousse pie, this year – and  everyone arrives with cookies, which we array on the dining room table.

My husband Rick always jokes that we need to ramp it up, make it more competitive. He claims not to like the fact that we simply take the number of cookies allotted to each guest; he thinks it should be more like the NFL draft, with rankings and deal-making and competitive bidding. But we haven’t reached that point yet. It’s just fun to see what everyone brought. Last night there were red velvet cookies, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, maple pecan cookies, toffee, biscotti, peppermint bark. The variety goes on and on, but no one takes it too seriously. It’s really just a chance to get together, and leaving with a bundle of cookies is a bonus (with the added benefit that no one’s spouse or children are ever sorry to see them head out the door when cookie exchange night arrives).

Last night, I realized that inheriting a guest list rather than making one up yourself can actually be an advantage. Though we are all local, there are some guests whom I go a whole year without seeing in between cookie exchanges, which is much longer than I go without seeing closer friends. Besides, there’s something about this list that reminds me of the cookie exchange itself. With their children’s preschool days long behind them, even Lisa’s original group of guests doesn’t all see each other that much anymore. We’re a somewhat random collection of people clustered together for this one evening like varied cookies on a plate. And just like the cookies we’re all left with every year, it’s a wonderful assortment, perfect for the holiday season.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Taller than Mom (or pretending to be, anyway)

Holly has become fascinated as of late with trying to imagine what it might be like to be taller than me.

Whenever she finds me standing next to a chair, she scrambles up to stand on the chair so that she can tower over me. If we’re outside, she angles to get me near a stone wall or bench upon which she can stand to look down on me. Her favorite opportunity is when we’re both in her bedroom, from which she can not only stand on her bed to gain a couple of feet on me but can also see both of us in the large mirror over her bureau while she does it.

I’m enjoying her fascination even though I’m not really sure of its source. I think it began earlier this fall when Tim, now fourteen years old, reached a height that unmistakably topped my five-foot stature. At first he and I were eye to eye, but it seemed within days he was discernibly an inch taller than me, and then two inches. Initially hard to believe, it’s now a fact of our domestic life that he can see the top of my head – and that I routinely ask him to reach for serving plates and glasses stored higher than I can reach.

Holly, just ten years old and small for her age, is still a very long way from reaching my height, and yet the fact that Tim has done so seems to have opened up a door in her imagination. It’s as if she realizes for the first time that this is probably going to happen to her someday. She’s correct in seeing that the odds are in her favor – at exactly five feet, I am one of the shortest adults I know. It’s very unlikely that she – or, in fact, anyone else we know – will be shorter than I am when full-grown. Pretty much everyone can look forward to the prospect of peering down on me at some point in the future.

I’m not sure why she gets such a kick out of climbing to higher elevations simply for the experience of standing next to me and looking down, but it amuses me nonetheless. It seems like such a simple pleasure, and yet there must be more to it, in her imagination. She has never been interested in dressing up or trying on high heels or applying lipstick; this may be her first inkling that occupying an adult body is a novelty yet to be experienced.

And I’m glad if the thought pleases her. Of course, by the time she really does surpass me in height, it will no longer seem like the thrill it does now. By then, there will be more important markers to the growing-up process, milestones that may please her or may dismay her but either way will surely seem more significant than achieving a height greater than her mother’s.

But in a way, it’s like pulling back the curtain and watching her mind at work. As she “practices” being taller than me by standing on chairs or park benches, she’s starting to think about what it will mean to grow up: to be a full-grown woman, an adult, maybe even a mother herself someday. Clearly she’s having fun with the idea, and because of that, so am I.