Every Day is Saturday

Finding Joy in the Here and Now

The NEW New Year

Fireworks

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore; the cynicism that comes with age and an acceptance of my own lack of determination to follow through on any activity so foreign to my everyday life that I have to instigate it with a special occasion has pretty much put a stop to that nonsense.  But I remember the thrill of feeling like each new year was a clean slate, an opportunity to start over again and do it better this time.  I remember the clarity of purpose, the simplicity of the choice – to do, or not to do.  In those heady days just before and after that particular midnight I felt invincible, impregnable, immovable.  I would prevail.  I would change that part of my life for the better, whatever it was.  It was inevitable that someone as determined as I could easily alter any aspect of themselves they wanted.  No problem.

Yeah, well.

There’s only so much failure that a person can take before they say, “I’m done”.  I reached that point a few years ago.  I figured that since I wasn’t going to keep any of the resolutions I made anyway, then why make them?  They’ll only serve to make me feel guilty and worthless, and who wants to feel like that?  So I stopped.

I find, though, that I haven’t really given up on the idea.  For example, I would never belittle anyone else’s attempts to use the New Year as a catalyst for changes they want to make in their lives.  If you tell me you’ve made a resolution to read more books, or to lose weight, or to exercise more, or to spend more time with family, or whatever, I will be in your corner cheering you on – without judgment.  I still believe in the power of the idea of the fresh start.  There must be power in it because we keep trying, even in the face of constant failure.

So even though I don’t participate in the annual resolution ritual, it doesn’t mean I’m against trying to make good changes in your life.  Where would we be if we didn’t strive to improve ourselves?  I suppose my views about resolutions have changed because the way I think about change itself has changed.

For a long time, change is something I expected to happen in the blink of an eye.  Childhood fairy tales introduced me to the idea that a difficult, ordinary life could be transformed in an instant (as long as you had access to a fairy godmother or a handsome prince, which, in my little girl heart, I totally did).  I believed that there was a magic moment that would transform me from what I was into what I wanted to be.  And even though as I’ve grown up and realized that Prince Charming isn’t going to rescue me from my evil-stepmother-oppressed existence (that I never had anyway) and that I have to work hard to achieve the results I desire, I still have this underlying idea that the “change” happens in the space of a kiss.  Or that’s how I want it to happen.  The breaking of the spell became the magic of the New Year.  My commitment to a particular resolution was the moment when I woke up to a new life, a beautiful life, and I broke the chains that bound me to my past.  I was transformed, and my new self would behave in ways that reflected this new way of being.

Well, I tried that and it didn’t work, no matter how much I wanted it to or believed it would.  Every year I started out believing with all my heart that this new person I had become at the stroke of twelve would always do what I wanted her to do without any effort (or much effort anyway) on my part.  The new behavior would flow naturally, as an extension of my new self.

When you put it this way it sounds nuts, right?  It took me years to figure out that’s what I’d been doing, and the realization of the depth of my self-delusion was pretty disheartening.

There are some people who have had extreme experiences that have so shaken the foundations of their lives that they change their ways overnight.  In fiction, Ebenezer Scrooge is a fine example of what can happen to a person in a few hours of introspection (supposing you have access to several frightening but well-meaning ghosts).  In reality, we’ve all heard stories of people who have come through near death experiences which, having survived them, gave their lives new meaning and focus.  But for the rest of us plodding along through our (mostly) unremarkable lives, we haven’t had those life-changing moments of pure clarity.  We view our lives through increasingly smudged and dirty filters that keep us from seeing the truth about the changes we want to make.

For me, that truth is that that change is a verb, not a noun.  It is a series of actions, not a moment in time.

This was a very depressing thought for me at first.  I wanted my life to be different NOW, not at some distant point in the future when I had worked and worked for who knows how long.  The idea that result flowed from decision was a hard one to give up, and I still struggle with it.  Part of me is still Snow White, asleep in my glass coffin waiting for the Prince to show up and take me away from all this, waiting for the meaning of all my struggle to make sense, waiting to know, once and for all, my purpose in life.

This attitude beautifully illustrates a fundamental flaw in my personality.  For most of my life I’ve been addicted to achieving my goals and have viewed the journey as a necessary evil.  To be fair, this attitude has been useful in pushing me to reach out for the things in life I decided I wanted.  I got through three years of working full time and going to grad school because I never allowed myself to take my eyes off of the goal of getting my degree.  That’s not to say I didn’t derive any pleasure from going to school – I did.  I love learning.  I just never saw the process of learning as the point of the time I was spending.  I went to school to get my degree in order to get a better job to make more money, period.  And that is exactly what I did.  So, for me, the “change” did happen with the decision, even though the culmination of that decision came years later.  I decided on a goal, and then I achieved it, every time.  Every.  Time.  Until three years ago.

That’s when it all came crashing down, and I’ve had to find a new way to look at my life.  It has been very, very hard to see my life in terms other than “set goal; accomplish goal; set new goal.”  I’m still engaged in a wrestling match with myself over how to view what my life is now.  The “old” me still sees my lack of “success” (meaning financial security) as something to be ashamed of.  But my other self, the one that reads poetry and writes blog posts and dreams about a future devoid of business meetings and conference calls, is gaining strength.  She’s exciting, this new girl.  Well, I call her the new girl, but she’s been here all along, just waiting for the chance to break free.  She’s got a foothold now, and she will no longer be denied.

This is my change, and it isn’t happening all at once.  It’s a process, and, for the first time in my life, I’m trying to relax and let it happen.  Every time I read a poem, I change.  Every time I scribble something in my notebook, I change.  Every time I wake up thinking with happy anticipation about the day ahead, I change.  For the first time in my life I’m not fixated on a specific goal, and it’s both freeing and terrifying.  I’ve never been here before, and I don’t know where I’m going or how long it will take to get there.  All I know is that I am becoming someone new; I hope it is the person I was meant to be.

So, Happy New Year, everyone!  I’m excited to find out what this year holds for us all.  I hope that it is a year of possibility and discovery and courage.  And gradual, inexorable, joyful change.

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Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton via photopin cc

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Finding My Joy

choir & orchestra

Today is the day I normally write my blog post, but I’m having trouble coming up with something to write about.  I usually tell myself to write what’s on my mind, but what’s on my mind is depressing, and I’m pretty sure nobody wants to hear about my problems.  Hell, I don’t want to hear about my problems!  And not only am I worried about the actual problem, but I’ve also been berating myself because I can’t just snap out of it.  It’s Christmas after all; if I can’t find ways to cheer myself up at Christmas, then I’m in serious trouble, right?  I’ve watched Christmas specials on TV, listened to Christmas music, attended a Christmas party, and baked Christmas cookies.  Each of these activities has been enjoyable in its own way, but none of them have felt like more than mildly amusing diversions.  As soon as they’re over I’m back where I started, obsessing about a situation that I cannot change in the short term, and being mad that I can’t seem to stop worrying.

In the past I’ve had some success in letting things go; I know that worrying doesn’t help anything and only ruins the present.  And I am a firm believer in the idea that the present is all we really have; the past is over, the future isn’t guaranteed, so we must live NOW.  I want to be happy NOW, regardless of any situation in which I find myself.  But for the life of me I can’t figure out how.

This is not my first rodeo; I know all of the truths that are supposed to make me feel better.  Stuff like 1) this is temporary, things will get better, 2) I have so many amazing blessings in my life, way more than I have difficulties, 3) it’s really not as bad as I think it is, and 4) lots and lots of people in the world would love to have my problems, so comparatively speaking, it’s just not a big deal.  And yes, every single one of these things is true, but they are ringing hollow to me right now.

And on top of all of it, I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to get over myself and get on with the business of enjoying the holiday.  I have finally realized how much stress I’ve been putting on myself to not be stressed.  I don’t want to be a downer, so I’m worried that my worrying is leaking out of me onto my friends and family.  So now I’m mostly hiding my feelings, and since all of us come equipped with a filter that interprets peoples’ behavior in the way we want and expect them to behave, it’s an easy thing to put a smile on my face and fool everyone.  Not that I’m not interested in sympathy and support, of course I am – I’m not a martyr or a masochist.  It’s just that I’d rather not talk about what’s bothering me.  It bores me to tears.

I am also dealing with the loss of a pet; one of my kitties left the house one morning and he’s been gone ever since.  I’ve looked and knocked on doors and posted notices, but no one has seen him, and it’s been over a month now.  I miss him terribly, and the grief feels like a heavy blanket wrapped all around me and over my head, smothering any possibility of joy.

And yet I still have hope.  I hope that I will be able to find my joy somewhere.   I hope that I will be able to quiet my fears and revel in the time spent with friends and family.  I hope that next year will be one of excitement and exploration, and that all my struggles will finally be justified.  I hope that I can find the passion to give all of myself to creating the life I want.

That’s going to have to be enough for now.  So please forgive me if I’m not all that jolly.  I want to be, and maybe I will be again soon.  In the meantime, just let me do what I have to do and know that even though I may not be making a joyful noise, I’m determined to hum along.

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Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

photo credit: pennstatenews via photopin cc

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Cooking Up Christmas

Christmas Cookies

At this time of year I am always seized by a powerful urge to bake.  Visions of festively decorated cookies and pound cakes and fudge and mince pies begin dancing in my head, and I start to eye the rolls of parchment paper at the grocery store with intent.  I have found, though, that the visions are far more frequent than their manifestation.  That doesn’t mean the impulse is any less strong in the years I don’t bake (or don’t bake much), just that most years I decide I can’t be bothered.  I have cultivated many excellent reasons for not busting out the rolling pin.   Here are some handy ones I use; please feel free to apply them to your own situation, as necessary:

  • My friend (insert name) makes those (choose all that apply: cookies; mince pies; cupcakes; peanut butter balls; other) so much better than I do, and I know she’s going to bring us some;
  • There’s no way my lame attempt to make a (Christmas pudding; Rum Cake; Chocolate Torte) could possibly be better than what I can buy in the store; and
  • I don’t have a (stand mixer; food processor; double boiler) so I really can’t make (that enormously complicated confection) properly.

These (completely rational!) explanations have served to assuage my self-inflicted guilt about not magically turning into Betty Crocker every December 1st for many a year.  But why do I feel guilty at all?  What is the origin of this compulsion?  I’m glad you asked, because if I’m going to keep feeling like a frustrated pastry chef for a month every year, I’d like to know why.

Without thinking too hard, I’m pretty sure a lot of it is rooted in memories of Christmases past.  I have clear recollections of my mother standing in the kitchen, a big bowl held in the crook of her arm, stirring its thick contents with a big spoon and a lot of determination.  Mom made exactly three things at Christmas:  fudge, divinity, and fruitcake.  The fudge and divinity were always warmly received by us kids, but the fruitcake was solely for my grandfather, which was fine by me.  It smelled fantastic as it was cooking, but those clear plastic containers of brightly colored “fruit” always looked suspicious.  One event that has gone down in the family lore is the year Mom made the divinity during a rain storm.  It was too humid for the candy to set, so for two days the dining room table was taken up with wax paper covered with these small white blobs that refused to dry.  Every now and then one or the other of us (mostly my Dad) would wander in and swipe up a blob with a forefinger; they still tasted good, even if they never did firm up.

I don’t know how old I was when I began experimenting with Christmas baking, but it was probably in junior high.  It started with sugar cookies.  I found a recipe somewhere and worked hard to perfect my rolling pin skills, cutting and decorating the cookies with ever improving results.  Emboldened by my success, I moved on to Yule Logs.  Well, I called it them Yule Logs, but the ones I made never did achieve the log-like appearance of the one in the picture that accompanied the recipe I cut out of a magazine.   The example they showed had a little knot that was created by cutting off an end of the rolled up cake and sticking it on the side into the icing.  In the picture, the knot had a decorative sprig of holly “growing” out of it.  Personally I felt like this was overkill, so mine looked more like a giant Swiss Roll snack cake with mocha filling.  It was at this point in my life I realized I wasn’t destined for a future in the culinary arts.  But it was fun.

I don’t have any clear memories of doing much baking between graduating from high school and when I got married (and there’s a dozen years between those events), and I don’t remember feeling the lack.  That all changed when I suddenly had a house to decorate and a husband to cook for; the annual impulse to bake appeared that first Christmas.

Before I continue I want to be clear about something – my husband in no way, shape or form has ever made me feel as if he expects me to live in the kitchen, at this or any other time of year.  He knew when he married me what he was getting.  Martha Stewart I am not.  That being said, I do enjoy cooking when I have an audience, and my husband’s unfailing appreciation for my efforts has guaranteed him a fairly consistent output of interesting variations on dinner over the years.

So if the baking blues don’t come from some kind of perceived matrimonial obligation, what is it?  Is there some sort of collective unconscious or cultural imperative that has driven me to spontaneously wonder about the freshness of that box of brown sugar on the top shelf of the cabinet?

After much contemplation, I’ve decided that I don’t really know where the compulsion comes from, but something has become clear to me as I’ve been thinking about it, and it is this:  I’m really not all that interested in the end result of my baking.  I don’t have a huge craving for sugar cookies or cupcakes or any of it.

What I yearn for is the sensory experience that surrounds the art of baking.

There’s an excitement about putting on an apron and gathering up the ingredients particular to holiday baking – vanilla extract and sugar and cinnamon and ginger.  Those smells invoke the deepest of holiday remembrances, memories from earliest childhood of the warmth and love of family.  When we visited my grandmother at Christmas she would keep a small saucepan of cloves simmering in water on the stove, and the whole house would fill with their sweet, pungent scent.  The smell of the Christmas trees on display outside my local grocery store overwhelmed me the other day, taking me back to the days of searching with my parents and siblings for the perfect tree in the forest of choices available.  I remember being in the kitchen of my family home, rolling out cookies or beating eggs into stiff peaks, peeking into the den to see what the others were watching on television, or dancing around to whatever music my father had going on the stereo.  The sounds and smells of Christmas carried magic through the house, covering those memories in a bright, golden haze.

So I suppose, subconsciously, I have equated the magic of Christmas with the smell of fresh baked goods.  That must be it, then – it isn’t Christmas until I’m standing in the kitchen covered in flour, peeking through the window of the oven as whatever delicious treat I’ve concocted rises up from its pan to give off the aroma of Love.

I guess I’ll be getting the rolling pin out after all!

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Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

photo credit: eamylove via photopin cc

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A Small, Quiet Christmas

Holly & Ivy

Today on Facebook a friend posted a link to a video of the Monkees singing an old Spanish Christmas carol called “Riu Chiu”.  I don’t understand a word of the song, but the melody and the harmonies are hauntingly beautiful.  For me, it is a perfect reflection of this time of year – as the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, a quietness descends, muffling the sharp sounds of summer.  Instead of sandals slapping on hot pavement, boots rustle though piles of fallen leaves.  Overcast skies have shrunk the wild blue yonder to a cloud-ceilinged room.  Fireplaces are lit and curtains are drawn over windows, further encapsulating us into the smaller universe of winter.

I love this time of year.  Thanks to the very wet summer we’ve had here in the southern United States, the trees turned their leaves into a blazing show of yellows and oranges and reds before being stripped by the strong winds of cold fronts now pushing their way across the country.  And with the coming of winter there’s the anticipation of Christmas.

I know what I said in my last post may have been understood as a declaration of apathy towards Christmas, but that’s truly not the case.  I love Christmas; or rather, I love what Christmas has come to mean to me as I’ve gotten older.  How I’ve come to view the “most wonderful time of the year” has changed significantly over time, as I’m sure it has for most people.

For a long time after I knew there was no Santa Claus (spoilers!), Christmas was about trying to recapture a little of the childish excitement I felt on the run up to the Big Day.  I would think about those feelings and try to manufacture them, with varying success.  In High School I sang in the choir and the Christmas performances were special, but I remember that I always felt a little let down when Christmas morning finally arrived.  Eventually I realized that my expectations were too high, being, as they were, founded on a childhood memory of wonder untempered by time and experience.

And then an unthinkable tragedy would for years dampen any joy I felt at Christmastime.  The evening I arrived home from college for Christmas break my sophomore year, my whole family was waiting for me around the kitchen table.  My parents told me that three boys I knew, two of them brothers, had died in a freak accident the day before.  They had been sitting in a running car whose exhaust system was faulty, and they all died of carbon monoxide poisoning.  It was horrible, and senseless.  That Christmas was totally overshadowed by incredible loss – we had known the brothers well, as our families were very close.  That year, and for the next few years, we just went through the motions at Christmas, unable to connect with the joy of the season in the face of so much grief.  To this day I think about that family at this time of year and pray for their continued peace.

After my parents divorced the year I graduated from college, Christmas again took on a different aspect.  Suddenly the possibility that my whole family would be together again was gone forever, and that idea took a lot of getting used to.  Actually it pissed me off, and thus began the next few years of trying to avoid the thing altogether.  I didn’t handle it well, and I know I hurt my mother in particular with my need to not be around during the holidays.  For some time Christmas was a reminder of grief and loss to me, and I found any way I could to engage in as little of it as possible.  I may have been there physically, but emotionally I was far away.  And I would physically remove myself as soon as I could, which was incredibly selfish and something I regret now.

There were a few odd pockets of joy in those otherwise depressed years.  One crystal memory happened my senior year in college.  I came back to my off-campus apartment as early as I could after Christmas, as much to get out of the house as to spend some time with my boyfriend before the semester started.  My roommate knew when I was coming back, but her plans took her home just as I was arriving, so we were going to miss each other, which I was sad about.  When I pulled into the driveway it was dark outside, and there was an odd glow of light coming from the living room.  I walked in to find that my roommate had bought and decorated a Christmas tree and had left it lit up for me.  In the kitchen was a plate of freshly baked cookies, and there was a bottle of Champagne in the fridge.  My roommate knew how hard Christmas had been for me, and this was her gift – a small, quiet Christmas, just for me.  Later as I sat on the couch with my boyfriend and we looked at the tree and listened to music and drank Champagne and ate cookies and talked, I felt a sense of peace and some of the joy I had been missing.  There were still many joyless Christmases to come, but the gift of that moment stayed with me and helped me through a lot of sad days.  I can never express to her how profoundly important that little tree was, and still is, to me.

In time the pain of the loss of my friends and the fracturing of my own family faded and I began to rebuild my connection to the Christmas season.  Working on a production of “A Christmas Carol” certainly helped; it’s hard to stay down when Tiny Tim asks that “God bless us, everyone” on a nightly basis for two weeks.  And it was during the Christmas season one year that I began to realize that the attraction I felt for a certain actor was something deeper; we kept running into each other at holiday parties and more than once became so lost in conversation that everyone else left before we tore ourselves away.  This is the man who would eventually become my husband, and who would finally restore my love of Christmas, as we together have built new traditions.

In the original version of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (the one released in 1965), Charlie Brown bemoans the rampant commercialization of Christmas.  He is bothered by his inability to get into the spirit of the season until Linus recites the story of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Bethlehem.  In an amazing twist of irony, the later version of the show removed this scene; I wonder if the studio people who made that decision realized what they had done.  At any rate I was glad to see the original version restored, for sentimental reasons if nothing else, but it struck me hard that this show, written almost fifty years ago, was concerned that we the people were forgetting the true meaning of Christmas in the flurry of all the modern trappings.  So what we’re experiencing now isn’t new at all; I’m sure every generation feels as if the spiritual roots of the holiday (the Holy Day) are losing ground to the wholly secular pursuit of enforced merriment and corporate profit.  I can identify with Charlie – I just don’t get it.

That’s why I am so enamored by the tradition of the Advent season.  I didn’t grow up in a church that recognized the liturgical calendar, so Advent is a new thing for me since we’ve started hanging out with the Lutherans.  I understand it to be a period of reflection, and self-examination, and longing.  It is the quiet time that comes before the burst of celebration for the coming of the Christ.  The music of this season is “O Come O Come, Emmanuel”, not “Joy to the World”; that comes later.  It is preparation, and the celebration of the small things that bring us joy.  It is at its core an alternative to the frenzy of our modern Christmas, and I find that I am drawn to it more and more.

Christmas is no longer an emotional fireworks display for me.  Instead, it is a deeply meaningful celebration of life, and love, and family, and friends.  It is the memory of the joy of Christmases past, the comfort of Christmas present, and the anticipation of Christmases yet to come.  It is the excitement in a child’s eyes, and the warmth of a loved one’s touch.  It is the comfort of traditions that evolve as we grow and change.  The trimmings are fun – the music, the movies, the gifts given and received, the endless parade of goodies – but these things are temporary.  They provide entertainment, not Joy.  It took me a long time to fully appreciate the difference.

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Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton via photopin cc

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