Saying “No” in Order to Say a Better “Yes”

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle_Denair Dispatch.

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Photo by Mira on Unsplash

What are the ingredients for the good life at this early stage of Christmas time?

I dare say an important factor is learning to say “no.”

I want to say “no” to visiting when my family and I are exhausted and the kids have been too busy.

I want to say “no” when I feel the tug of endless advertisements promising more and more deals.

I want to say “no” when I feel tempted to be less than satisfied with the things we already own, with my many boxes of Christmas decorations.

I want to say “no” after I am full even though the sweets look so, so good.

With every no, there comes a yes.

I say “yes” to meeting the needs of my immediate family, the most important people in my life and the people who look to me as a stabilizing force.

I say “yes” to staying in control of my spending, of my money management and to shopping intentionally.

I say “yes” to continuing the gratitude celebrated during Thanksgiving, and let that gratitude for what we have, prompt me to be more generous.

I say “yes” to mindfully savoring the meal before me. If there is a great variety, I can choose to eat small portions.

I want to fully engage in the Advent season. Advent calendars are a way to count down the days. Advent candles are lit each Sunday, one after another until Christmas day arrives. This means saying no to some Christmas celebrating prior to the day of Christmas. Holding back a little now makes the twelve days of Christmas (which begin on Christmas day) a richer and fuller celebration.

Purple candles signify anticipation and penance (making sacrifices as a way of preparing our hearts or making up for wrongdoing). One rose-colored candle stands in place for the third week symbolizing Christmas joy, because it is a joyful, not a somber, anticipation.

I want to use this time to pause and reflect more than before, engage in some meditative reading and think about the big questions.

To get the freedom to do that, will require some effort.

It takes planning. I have anticipated our plans for December. The days will be busy, but not busier than fall was for our family of six.

To savor the season, I will unroll Christmas cheer week by week. The Advent wreath is on the table waiting to be lit. Then come lights, then outdoor décor and indoor greenery, then crafts and indoor decor, then during the last week, the Christmas tree, as a sort of crowning joy for a holiday that means so much to us. The gradual element communicates the preparation and importance of the day to my children.

I have made our gift lists and checked them twice. I hope to craft some small gift when we need a hostess gift or simple gift exchange. I hope to make our Christmas cards.

In all this doing, I want to hold fast to the idea of being: being in the moment, being with others. I will have to say “no” to feeling like the success or failure of our festivities depends on me. Christmas existed before me and will exist after me. It is something bigger than us that we choose to take part in.

I will say “yes” to the belief that being together as a family is a priceless gift. There are fewer of us around this year than last year. I want to find a way to cherish the memory of those who have passed. I want to put the technology away more often in order to be more present to those who are here.

And so, now that I have shared our Christmas plans, I want to invite you to take a moment to reflect for yourself. What does this time of year mean for you? How do you want to experience it? What matters most? What will you say “no” to in order to deepen your “yes”?

Not everyone celebrates Christmas, but just as the long nights and chilly air cause us spend more time inside, so also the season, with or without a manger scene or Santa hat, provide us an opportunity to consider the things inside our hearts.

The Making of Traditions

A throwback a couple weeks ago to Thanksgiving but still fit the current season.

Previously Published in the Hughson Chronicle_Denair Dispatch.

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All afternoon we newlyweds danced around singing, “the bird, bird, bird, the bird is the word.” When the time came, in a 5×8 foot kitchen we carved our first turkey. There was no room to serve the food, so we washed pots and pans trying to create space for the meal. By the time we and our guests, our family-less friends in the DC area, sat down to eat, the food was cold. No one acted disappointed. We were glad to be together.

As a child, Thanksgiving boasted of a turkey and a ham, and before pumpkin spice was the ubiquitous sign of fall in Northern California, my mother was already cranking out pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake and pumpkin bars in mass quantities for our Thanksgiving celebration. Friday morning was spent lounging with coupons spread all over the table as the men planned their game of which hot item to go after. Only two of them cared, but everyone was in it to win.

I should have known how different Thanksgiving would look for me as a married woman when I spent Thanksgiving night counting the minutes between abdominal pains, and by 4 a.m. knew I would not be shopping that Friday. Instead, my son would be born.

There are traditions as a child I recall sprinkled throughout my youth. In late childhood and adolescence, I began to see those traditions fade into the background. I ached to hold onto them and argued that, “it must continue!” I thought we were giving up on something to let them loose.

Now that I am older, I have the broader perspective that gives the thirty-something-year-old the advantage over the fourteen-year-old. Traditions must change and adapt if they are to continue. Rare, and priceless, is the family, who can hold spaghetti night every Sunday for decades, and continue even after the matriarch has passed. As one generation goes to rest and another emerges, traditions must exhibit flexibility to accommodate the newest and most demanding members of the family.

Due to an increasing number of those little members, and a decreasing desire to uproot them to visit relatives who have no need for childproofing, we began to celebrate Thanksgiving at home. It is my nature to invite everyone. It is my nature to roll up my sleeves and make the sacrifices we need in order to honor tradition. With a batch of little ones in the house, I had to say no to my nature.

We purchase a small turkey and keep the side dishes to the essentials. We move our television set to the living room and play “Miracle on 34th Street” so the kitchen will be a place of peace rather than an extension of the chaos a beautiful, busy, bunch of children produce. We eat and share the things we are grateful for from the last year. After dinner, we finish the movie and put the kids to bed.

On Friday morning, I remember the fun of riding around with my aunt and mother while we shopped all day in Redding and ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant.

With the ever-earlier release of ads and disappointing deals, my Black Friday focus shifted from commentary on commercialism and marketing to an unrivaled excitement over Small Business Saturday and Mod Shop, a handmade night market in Downtown Modesto. Whether I spend money or not, the experience of going through the crowds to see pieces of art and craft sold by their makers has become a tradition for me.

As a young family, we continue to develop our traditions. At the heart of a tradition is a belief in something timeless, allowing annual routines to take on meaning as simple as, “it’s what we always do.” Those traditions become road markers throughout the year, “I can’t believe it’s Thanksgiving already!” Their repetition facilitates children’s memory of what took place before they were much aware of the world outside their home, “we used to always play Mario Cart.”

Our practices, and therefore traditions, must be different because our needs are different. We will add or delete based on what we want to communicate about this holiday, gratitude or gluttony. In the midst of the occasional kitchen chaos or soupy cranberry sauce, do I communicate with my mood that this day is a blessing or a curse?

Tradition-making is a tall order. The good news is, like parenting and life itself, our success or failure does not come from one moment, but from a thousand moments woven together where even the “failures” contribute to the joy of the overall design. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

When Christmas Time is not Quite Here

Please forgive the delay on this post.

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle_Denair Dispatch.

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The Christmas decorations came out early this year in the store. We have become accustomed to seeing Christmas centered merchandise after Halloween, but now it seems non-commercial entities are following businesses leads by decorating town squares (as in the case of one small town we visited in Ohio, hanging Christmas wreaths while children trick-or-treated).

There are two elements at work here. One is the business side. Christmas is very good for business.

A feeling of nostalgia makes people part with money more easily, according to academics studying patterns of consumer behavior. The sooner businesses can capitalize on those feelings, the more money they will make. Each year the “holiday season” (described here as when stores sell Christmas related items) creeps back a little. When there is not enough of a backlash to affect the bottom line, they creep back a little more. Charles Shultz astutely noted the trend in, “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown,” (1974) by showing stores in holiday décor counting down the days to Christmas while Sally shops for a pair of Easter shoes.

Why does it work and why are so many not only not resisting but embracing the trend by listening to 102.3’s never-ending renditions of “Santa Baby?” This is the second element at play.

These are dark times. For many, Christmas seems to hold out a ray of hope and “goodwill towards men” that we are ache for. Christmas lights dot a dark neighborhood in a way that overshadows the luminary power of a street lamp. They are pretty. There is a lot of beauty in the traditional Christmas decorations: tinsel reminding us of sparkling metals, twinkling lights like stars, shiny ornaments, homes filled with knick-knacks taking us back to “simpler times.”

Here in the Central Valley, we have no snow, so it feels the season of hygge cannot begin without some Christmas cheer. As the song goes “we need a little Christmas, right this very minute.”

Perhaps those not selling things do not mind going with the flow because the flow feels so good. What can be done to keep things in their proper place? I recommend a couple things.

First, allow the Christmas season to stand as its own event distinct from the winter season. I scoffed at street décor during November in Minnesota. My artistic friend promptly responding, “they’re winter decorations.” Why not? Minnesota has long hard winters, a few sparkling lights go along way in keeping it tolerable. So hang the lights but leave the Nativity scenes for after Thanksgiving. Welcome “Jingle Bells” and “Let it Snow” but save the “Drummer Boy” for nearer to Christmas.

The Catholic Church celebrates Advent as a time of preparation prior to Christmas with a “light in the darkness” kind of décor focused on hope and expectation. The 12 Days of Christmas are a Christmas-full force celebration that begins on Christmas and lasts until January 6 (it takes the Wise Men some time to arrive). We do not have to lock Baby Jesus and snow in a box and say, “that’s just for Christmas.” We can be a little more fluid in our approach.

My second encouragement is to practice gratitude. I suspect Thanksgiving passed through the catalog section with only a few pages because new dishes just cannot bring in the revenue like Christmas decorations and gifts. The act of gratitude counteracts what stores are trying to accomplish, to get you to desire more.

In “White Christmas,” Bing Crosby gently croons to the leading lady, “If you’re worried and you can’t sleep, just count your blessings, instead of sheep, and you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.”

The VIA Character Institute, dedicated to bringing the science of character strengths to the world, defines gratitude as an awareness of the good things that happen to us, never taking them for granted.”

Gratitude is transcendent, providing a broad sense of connection to something higher in meaning and purpose than ourselves. When life is hard, transcendence can see us through.

Gratitude might be event-specific “I am grateful for this thing” or generalized, a state resulting from awareness and appreciation of what those things valuable and meaningful to me.

There are two stages of gratitude: (1) acknowledging the goodness in your life and (2) recognizing the source of this goodness is outside yourself.

The VIA Character Institute recommends writing down three good things that you are grateful for each day and set aside at least ten minutes every day to savor a pleasant experience (mindfulness increases appreciation which leads to gratitude).

By distinguishing between winter and Christmas seasons, allowing décor for each, and practicing gratitude, I can make the most of this season and allow my culture to be formed by my beliefs and values, and not by corporate America.

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day.

There are debates surrounding relationship awareness days like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. I think any ire against Mother’s Day generally goes quiet most people acknowledge many mothers work without thanks. It seems fitting they should be celebrated. Who wants to be the cad saying, “let’s not celebrate mothers”? At the heart of the complaints, is often disgust for commercialization or personal pain associated with the thing celebrated that day.

With any holiday, we can complain of commercialization.

Anna Jarvis founded Mother’s Day, as we know it, in 1908 with a national campaign to put it on the calendar. It began as a well-intentioned celebration in a Methodist church, financed by and widely celebrated in Philadelphia retail stores. Florist shops helped promote the day as part of the petition for a national holiday. Is it any wonder, with these roots, that Jarvis would find the holiday usurped by the commercial process? She spent the latter years of her life fighting the commercialization of this day intended to honor all mothers everywhere, with or without flowers.

As a popular holiday, Mother’s Day is unique is how new a holiday it is, and how it was founded apart from religious observance or patriotism. That it is one of our most popular holidays, and one of the biggest for consumer spending, speaks to something deep inside us as a nation and a culture.

For whatever struggles women have in society, on a personal level, we can see our indebtedness to mothers. Even those with emotionally or physically absent mothers, or oppressively present mothers, feel the lack so much because of what it should be. If mothers did not matter so, no one would care if their mother were absent. But motherhood matters, not only biologically, but the relationship with one’s mother follows throughout the individual’s life. Healthy attachments affect later relationships. Through his mother, the child learns the world is a place where it is safe to explore. Mother acts as a home base. They are more commonly the primary caregivers. As such, they often responsible for teaching children healthy coping skills. In Mother’s relationship with Father, children witness problem solving and cooperation between two very different individuals. A mother becomes aware of the baby’s every move in utero and maintains that awareness even as the toddler seeks out mischief in the house. She is the first word learned by an infant and the last word spoken by the soldier on the battlefield.

Not everyone has this family structure. Not everyone has a mother of whom they can say they owe everything. Not every woman can be a mother. Not every woman wants to be a mother.

However, you observe the day, make it personal. Take time to reflect on the wounds and graces of motherhood’s impact in your life. Resolve to do better or to imitate, whatever the case may be. While biological motherhood can be quite limited in scope, the concept of spiritual motherhood, a motherhood that transcends biology providing us with “mother figures” in our lives, is quite remarkable. To mother is to care for, ahead of oneself, in an intuitive and judicious way.

Give praise to a mother in your life, be she your biological mother or spiritual mother or someone else’s mother. In your reflection, spend time with old photographs, videos, and memorabilia from the days of parental monitoring or personal crisis in which a mother cared for you. Consider and write down what words come to mind. What are you grateful for? What lessons were learned, what passions or hobbies acquired, what qualities admired? Thank her for them. It can be written on a post-it note or a fancy card. That you see her and recognize her in her motherhood captures the spirit of the holiday.

It is okay to have holidays to raise relationship awareness. Mothers seem to be around, wherever we go. It is quite human to need reminders. And, after all, it is our humanity we’re thanking them for.

Thanksgiving Dinner

We were so pleased with our Thanksgiving feast this year. Over time we’ve developed a few favorites and this year focused on ways to keep things simple. Beginning with the centerpiece:

IMG_8104Potted herbs, pumpkins, persimmons and pomegranates in a brass tray with four battery-operated pillar candles. The runner is a table cloth, too small for this table, purchased from TJ Maxx during the first fall of our marriage, 2009.

IMG_8106The brass tray is from my favorite local shop, Selective Antiques (formerly Selective Consignments).

IMG_8107The candles are from Costco and the herbs from Trader Joe’s.

And now…

the Menu

Cider-glazed Turkey with Herbed Butter

http://www.williams-sonoma.com/recipe/cider-brined-turkey.html

(although I’m not sure we actually followed this)

Bourbon gravy

http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/browse-all-recipes/bourbon-gravy

(now a Thanksgiving staple, labor intensive but it does clean the roasting pan!)

Traditional Cranberry Sauce

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/13459/cranberry-sauce-i/

(I only eat it once a year, so I like to stick with the simplicity of this recipe. Can you really go wrong with this many positive reviews? Made a day ahead).

Creamy Mashed Potatoes with Scallion-Chive Butter

http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/browse-all-recipes/creamy-mashed-potatoes-scallion-chive-butter

(make ahead and reheat – worked great!)

Trader Joe’s Cornbread Stuffing

(with celery and onions added, we stuffed the bird with this)

Pumpkin Pie

(Libby’s pumpkin pie recipe, although, when my mom makes it, everything turns out better than it is supposed to).

So family style or buffet…family style or buffet…or served…I can never decide. I love the beauty of the overflowing table in family style. Served seems so simple, but you have to get those plates out there. I have to make my own plus three. Buffet…well, it just lacks romance and adds dishes that you don’t even get to enjoy because they’re hiding in the kitchen.

This year, we blended. The turkey and mashed potatoes stayed in the kitchen and the cranberry sauce, gravy, stuffing and bread came to the table. The table dishes were all small bowls (and a beautiful antique wooden bread plate) so it didn’t overwhelm the table. The arrangement was perfect for us and felt very festive.

What are your favorite menu items for Thanksgiving Dinner?