Are You Skipping the Hard Parts?

I’ve mentioned a few times here that I have had a shaky relationship with the holidays in the past. This year, even as we approach the one year anniversary of my Dad’s death on December 23rd, has been fundamentally different.

In the past I resisted the hullabaloo of the holidays altogether – partly out of Grinchly attitudes and partly due to being a highly sensitive person in an increasingly loud and lit-up world. It turns out, now that I am reflecting on it, that my resistance to the Christmas hullaballoo (waiting to put the tree up, delaying Christmas music, holding off on the treats) was also a remnant of the Christianity of my childhood. Now, don’t get all skittish on me, this isn’t a piece about religion, so just hang in there. I’m going somewhere that applies to all of us, I promise.

In the Episcopal church of my childhood, the season of Advent was well-attended. Advent  is made up of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas and is seen as a time of preparation, of expectation. Most folks would assume that meant getting ready for Christmas, but Advent demands something deeper, as is reflected by the hymns that were saved specifically for this time of year. Advent is a time of quiet, of inward reflection, of questioning, of facing the dark (externally and internally), and of preparing for something new. This changes the whole Christmas and holiday scenario quite a bit.

Living ConsciouslyThese weeks before Christmas can be reserved by anyone of any faith tradition as an opportunity to engage in the deep inner-work of creating new life, because that’s what this holiday season is about. Christian or not, we can all appreciate the notion that there is a time for acknowledging what is past, releasing what is broken, asking ourselves what will be required of us next, and then consider the possibility for change. We can claim the time, space, and quiet to examine the life that IS and then consciously create something new.

The rush to the sparkly parts of the season push us past the dark work of the soul that can be so difficult but so transformative. The rush to the physical preparation for the season and the intensely over-scheduled calendars leave no time for examination, for contemplation, for internal preparation. It is all about the wrapping paper. Just as we rush to the celebrations of the season (and the retailers push the start date earlier and earlier), so too do we try to rush to the trappings/accessories/feelings of a better life without doing the personal and contemplative work that actually promotes the change that is available to all of us.

The Holiday Frenzy Hides an Opportunity for GrowthSometimes the need for change requires action, don’t misunderstand me. I have several digital feeds that keep me on top of political actions I should take without the benefit of deep and lasting contemplation. But the work of the soul, the work of creating an internal and external world that we want to live in, the work of recreating ourselves and our lives? THAT requires more than a cheerful song and a sugar cookie, and in our hustle bustle world, the opportunity for that kind of work must be created by individuals who desire it.

How do we create those opportunities? We say no. We say no to being totally overbooked. We say no to filling all of the space with music and decorations. We say no to filling every minute of our day with the physical preparations for the season and reserve some time for the quiet work of self-examination and the self-inquiry that creates the space to create new life.

I’ve already put my tree up, as it is perhaps my very favorite part of the holiday season. The beauty of it makes me catch my breath. And it makes an excellent companion as I sit, in the darkness of December, and turn my thoughts to what is to come.

xo,

j

On This Thanksgiving Eve

So here we are on the eve of Thanksgiving in the U.S.

Many people are traveling. Some have already traveled and some will wake up early to travel with less crowd in the morning.

Some are cooking. Some are buying.

Some are telling old (and largely mythical) stories about Pilgrims.

Others are using the day to honor the Native Americans displaced and killed by the European advance.

Some will be working while others visit and dine.

No matter what you choose to do, when you choose to do it, or who you spend your time with, I hope that you will allow yourself a few minutes of holiday, holy day, sabbath.

I don’t really mean that in the religious sense of the word, although if that works for you and is what you need right now, by all means, get to it.

You have to choose to rest.I mean sabbath, an old idea that seems particularly helpful in this season of rush and scurry. Sabbath, the practice of choosing a time to rest, to avoid creating anything, to be.

Years ago I was having some counseling after a life-threatening miscarriage. I was in graduate school at the time and the recovery from my surgery combined with my singular focus on my studies had me all tied up in knots. I was not able to work to my usual standard, and my heart was not up to the hard-driving scholarship schedule I had been accustomed to keeping. I saw a therapist and after our time ended she referred me to a pastoral counselor.

I had a lot of spiritual questions about what I had experienced, and I had a lot of hurt and anger. I just kept pushing in spite of all of that. I kept working hard. I kept exercising hard. I kept hosting events. I kept doing all of the things. And Holly looked at me, took one hand in hers, and said: “What would it take for you to allow yourself to stop?” It was not the first nor the last time I would hear a version of that question. Sometimes we need to hear things a few times before they really sink in.

She recommended a book (understanding intuitively that this was likely the best way to reach me – give me an assignment). It was called Sabbath. I have since misplaced the book, but it planted a seed. The tree that grew there is the one that now allows me to remember to allow myself to stop.

Because there is so much going on, and we tell ourselves that it is just this time, this immediate time that we’re living in. That the busyness is a temporary thing and that as soon as _________ is over, things will get easier again. As soon as soccer season is over, as soon as I get done with this class, as soon as my injury heals, as soon as this concert is done, as soon as I finish this project, as soon as that jerk has his last day at work…. the fact that I can come up with so many of these on the fly is a good indication of how non-temporary that state really is. There will always be something that will take the place of whatever “temporary” pressure we’re waiting to get past. The only way to have that level of busy stop – that swirly hamster wheel kind of busy – is to allow ourselves to stop.

Perspective on busynessNobody will do it for you because they are all on their own hamster wheels with their own list of things that need doing, fears about the future, missions to accomplish. You have to do it for yourself. You have to insist on taking a moment, or as many as you need, to breathe, to care for yourself, to rest, and to remember that you are but one glorious part of a miraculous web of life and chance. And this moment, as important as it seems to turkey preparation or family fun, is but one glorious moment in a miraculous collection of interconnected lifetimes.

You are okay. All will be well. No matter what kitchen mistakes you make. No matter what family faux-pas occur. No matter whether or not everything goes as planned. Lumpy gravy is not an indication of your personal flaws and shortcomings. And a gorgeous table won’t make you feel loved. Tend to yourself, tend to your heart, take a moment and be well.

XO,

j

P.S. If holiday gatherings mean difficult conversations, you might want to check out my Holiday Conversation Survival Guide. You don’t have to let anybody ruin your day.

If You Can’t Do It Right…

Why bother?

Forget it.

Delay.

There’s no point.

It will be terrible.

Don’t do it at all.

Really?

Don’t do it at all?

I’ve seen this so many times – in myself, in clients, in former students…

what do you give up for perfection?I had a student many years ago in a World History class. We were studying Medieval Europe and I had asked them to draw a castle. The castle had to have a list of features labeled and explained, the point being to understand the true military function of castles and let go of romantic ideas of what castles were all about. I got a variety of products (as was always the case). The artistic students went to town. The less artistic students focused on the parts of the assignment that appealed to them (detailed descriptions, adding architectural features, 3 D effects). One of my students didn’t turn one in.

It wasn’t a huge surprise. He was not a stellar student. He frequently missed assignments and struggled on exams. I was working with him on these things, suspecting some reading issues. I was disappointed that he didn’t turn the assignment in because he’d been making progress. In my mind: “Here we go again.” I pulled him aside and asked what happened. He said he wasn’t done with it. I told him to bring it to me. He reached in his backpack, where he apparently was carrying it around all of the time. He had a piece of poster board carefully rolled and tucked into the corner. He pulled it out gingerly, careful not to catch the edges on anything.

He then unrolled the board, revealing that he had burned away the edges to make it look like parchment. And as he lay it down and carefully placed books on the edges to hold it flat, I was astonished. It was beautiful. The artwork was amazing – pen and ink and so detailed. The features were carefully rendered and labeled. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t turn it in, and then I noticed the size of the stones he was drawing. They were so small, a sort of pebble castle. And there was a big section that he hand’t completed. I can’t imagine how much time he had put into this piece of work. I wanted to frame it.

“Why didn’t you turn it in?” “I didn’t have time to finish it.”

“But Tommy, it’s amazing.” “But it isn’t finished, and it’s not all that good anyway.”

We went on to have a conversation about grades and how some grade is ALWAYS better than a zero, even if the grade reflects being turned in late. I told him I wanted to hang it up; he made clear that that was not an option he would be comfortable with.

It took everything I had in me to get that young man to let me grade his work. I don’t remember what he got, but I know it was WAY better than zero. I also know it was probably the only time he ever saw a teacher (besides an art teacher) be amazed with his work. It was probably one of the longer conversations he’d had with a teacher who wasn’t threatening to prevent him from playing football, his other great love. He talked me through the work he had done, so I got to see how much of the material he really was taking in at a deep level – and he got to demonstrate mastery. So much he and I both could have missed out on had I let him go through with his plan of simply bypassing the deadline. In his mind it was better to get the zero than to turn in something that was not perfect. It became clear to me how much strength he showed when turning in other assignments, especially given what I suspected about his reading ability. What a risk he took every time he gave me his work. He wasn’t playing to his strengths, though, and maybe that’s why he could tolerate the imperfection in those other assignments. And he knew he had to keep his C to play football.

These are the corners perfectionism puts us in. We don’t even try, or we try but give up before anyone can benefit from our efforts. We don’t invite people over because our house isn’t clean enough. We don’t host holidays because Pinterest pictures make us think we need homemade napkin rings (Homemade?! Napkin rings?!) We don’t take the solo because what if we mess it up. We don’t take the risks because we might not get it right.  We see every family gathering as a nightmare because of the amount of preparation we will do to get things just right. We believe that if we don’t do it perfectly, we might as well not do it at all.

And that right there? THAT is a thought. And it’s a b.s., life-stifling, procrastination producing,  gift-hiding, intimacy preventing, joy avoiding bummer of a thought.

Accepting what is good enoughWhat would you do if you didn’t have to do it perfectly? Who would you see more of? What would you be less nervous about? What risk would you allow? What could be good if you didn’t need it to be perfect?

Maybe it’s just me, but it’s always nice to have a little more of the good.

All we need is a new thought. How about this one: I and the things I produce are good enough, and that’s pretty great.

xo,

j