Every Day is Saturday

Finding Joy in the Here and Now

The Ghosts of Christmases Past

Christmas Tree

If I had to explain the main message of this blog, I would say that it is about change. To be clear, it is not an advice column about how to deal with change, or an example of a person who has successfully dealt with change (hardly!). It is an ongoing narrative of a person who has been in what seems to be a constant state of change for some time.

As a consequence of my heightened awareness of this ongoing change, I’ve begun to wonder if there was ever a time in my life where there was no change, when I lived in a steady state of being, where I could count on things being a certain way. A time when I felt safe and not at the mercy of the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. It certainly seems that way when I look back, and nothing brings it home to me as the holiday season does.

Each year, as soon as Thanksgiving is over, I’m confronted by the ghosts of my Christmases past. My feelings about Christmas are complicated; they are loaded with emotion and memory, joy and grief, surprise and disappointment. I suspect most of us feel this way about it if we’re honest.

For example, I remember the exact moment the magic of Christmas ended for me. By “magic” I mean my belief that there was a person called Santa Claus who delivered presents on Christmas Eve to everyone who had been good that year. Up to the moment of discovery I totally believed in Santa and his flying reindeer. One year I remember being very concerned that he wouldn’t be able to deliver presents to us because the apartment we lived in didn’t have a fireplace. My father soothed my fears, explaining that Santa would just come through the sliding glass door that led to the balcony. I think I still insisted on sleeping on the couch in the living room, just in case he needed my help getting in (does this sound familiar, people who know me?).

It must have been the next year that the bubble burst. We were on the way to my grandmother’s house for Christmas, all of us piled in the family station wagon. I was in the “way back” (that backwards-facing seat under the hatch back), and there was a big box back there with me. I could read enough to know that it contained a bicycle. After some deduction, I realized that it was most likely the bicycle I had asked Santa for, and I didn’t understand what it was doing in the back of our car. Then it hit me. There was no Santa. It had been my parents all along.

I may have asked Dad about it; I don’t remember. I just know that from that moment on, my thoughts and feelings about Christmas were irrevocably changed. We all go through it, that moment of truth. Maybe the realization came to you as it did to me, or maybe some mean older kid told you. To my sister’s credit, I’m sure she knew (she’s four years older than me), but she kept that information to herself. And I in turn never told my little brother. We have to face it sometime, though, the truth that there is, unfortunately, no Santa Claus.

And then we spend every Christmas for the rest of our lives trying to re-create the magic and the innocent wonder of those Christmases before we knew. Or is that just me?

As I grew up in the warm embrace of my family, I became sort of manic about Christmas traditions. In our family we got to open one present on Christmas Eve – any one of our choosing. In the morning we could wake up Mom and Dad, but we had to wait upstairs until they said all was ready for us to come down.  We had a Santa hat, and whoever wore the hat handed out the presents – one at a time. Every year my mother made fruitcake (for my grandfather – none of us would touch it, even though it smelled fantastic), divinity, and fudge. We’d have Turkey and dressing and green bean casserole for dinner. My Dad had a toy train set he’d had since he was a child, and he would set up the track so that it encircled the Christmas tree. The noise of the toy train, the music playing on the stereo, the clanking of pots and pans in the kitchen, the rustle of wrapping paper, and, most of all, the laughter – those sounds blended together in what became for me the soundtrack of Christmas. Add to that the sight of the tree too small for all the presents to fit under and the smell of pine needles and roasting turkey, and all of it became the magic of Christmas. And it just wasn’t Christmas unless all of these things happened the way I thought they should, and I did everything I could to make sure they did.

It had to end of course – you can’t stay frozen in time, children grow up and things change. My sister got married when I was still in high school. There was an unthinkable tragedy in a family very close to us that still to this day adds a somber shade to my palette of Christmas colors. My parents divorced. It’s natural – life happens. But I still wanted that wonderful feeling that all was right with the world. The love of a good friend gave me back some sense of that wonder one year, but I didn’t have a really good Christmas again until after I got married and my husband and I began to establish some new traditions.

And again, I got manically protective of those traditions. I worked hard to maneuver things with my extended family so that my husband and I could have our Christmas the way I wanted it. If things didn’t work out, I got kinda grumpy (insert apology to parent/siblings).

Over the years, though, things changed again, and now it seems like every year is something different. I’ve had to give up my ideas about what makes Christmas Christmas, because it changes all the time. For so long I’ve equated Christmas with traditions, and I’ve felt cheated when I didn’t get to have the holiday my way.

This year is even more different than ever, and, finally, I think I’m over needing to have my traditions to make it a real Christmas.

I know what is for me the true meaning of Christmas, and every year I fervently pray for Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men. I believe in the promise of the love of God. I don’t have any passionate interest in acquiring more stuff. I have been reminded, yet again, of the fragility of life, and the need to embrace the ones we love at every opportunity. That is the only thing that matters; everything else is just temporary.

So, to my Ghosts of Christmases Past – thanks for the memories, but I won’t be needing you anymore. I have my eyes fixed firmly ahead of me. I will find the joy of Christmas where it has always been, in the love of my family and friends. I know now that the security I thought I had never really existed, and, for the first time in my life, I’m ok with that. More than ok; I’m happy and content with the present. I hope all of you are as well.

Merry Christmas!

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photo credit: SurFeRGiRL30 via photopin <a

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The Courage to Change the Things I Can

degree

I’m looking at my master’s degree certificate. It hangs on the wall above my desk. Right after I graduated I spent a lot of money to have it matted and framed, and it has traveled with me everywhere I’ve worked in the 10 years and six months since it was presented to me. It is a source of pride for me, a physical reminder of something I’ve accomplished in my life. I see it every day, but it’s been a while since I really looked at it and thought about those three years.

Some of you know that I was working full time when I went to grad school. I had a very responsible job at a real estate investment company, but I had hit a wall in my career path. I decided to get my master’s so that I would have better opportunities to grow and make more money.

It was a tough three years, as you can imagine (and as I’m sure some of you have experienced). After I graduated people would ask me how I did it. My answer always was that after I started I never thought for a moment that I wouldn’t finish. It was just what I was doing, and I was going to do it until it was done, and that was that. And that, indeed, was that. It was that straightforward.

To be fair I had a lot of help – my husband was a total rock star, picking up several household duties I abandoned and constantly supporting me – but in the end it was up to me to decide if I was going to go to class or do the assignment or study for the test. I didn’t think about how hard it was or how tired I was or how much I was looking forward to not having to go to class anymore – I just did it.

It’s easier to achieve those clear-cut goals. There’s nothing ambiguous about getting a degree – you either do it or you don’t. I think what does require courage is when you’re pursuing a goal that isn’t as clear cut. The Serenity Prayer says that we need “courage to change the things we can.” People going through alcohol and drug addiction recovery use this prayer as a means to recognize those parts of their lives that are out of their control, but more importantly, those parts that are within their control. We drive ourselves crazy obsessing about things that are out of our control, and we often ignore those things that we can, in fact, change. I’m not sure how much wisdom is needed to determine the difference between them – it seems pretty clear to me. Just ask yourself “Can I actually do anything to change this whatever-it-is that I want to change? How would I do that?” If you can clearly see how to make the change happen then go for it. If not, let it go. It will eat you alive if you don’t.

Sometimes we need more wisdom to see those things that we can change rather than those we can’t. It’s easy to decide that what we want to change about our lives is out of our control and nothing we do will make a difference. Of course that is true sometimes, but there are also times when I may think something is impossible that might actually be achievable given enough determination and commitment. Some people think working full time and going to school is impossible; I’m living proof that that’s not the case. This is when you need courage, to attempt what in your mind you think is impossible, whatever it may be.

I’m struggling now with wanting to make some long-term changes in my lifestyle and feeling like it’s impossible. However, I’m starting to see what my lack of physical activity could mean for me in later years, and I do not want to end up not being able to get around when I’m older. I want to be able to travel freely for as long as I have breath in my body. So that means that some things have to change. I know it is within my control, and I know what I need to do. Now I just have to do it.

I don’t know why making these changes is so hard. I conquered graduate school, I quit smoking – surely I can do this, too. The thing is, I’ve tried – and failed – many times. I know have to keep trying until it sticks, until I stop thinking about how hard it is or how tired I am or how glad I’ll be when I’m done, because I’ll never be done. I won’t get a certificate to frame on my wall to commemorate my accomplishment. Knowing that there is no end in sight intimidates (and irritates) me. And scares me, for some reason I don’t understand. So I’m looking for the courage to change what I know I can change, the patience to enjoy the journey, and the wisdom to let go of the need for a clear ending. Wish me luck.

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Photo by Amanda Taylor Brooks (c) 2014

 

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Change is Good?

2009_0821Israel0097

Change is good, right? That’s what people say. “If you’re not changing you’re not growing.” “Don’t be afraid to relinquish who you were for who you might become.” All that stuff.

Well, I’m here to tell you I’m sick of it. My life has been nothing but constant change for years now, and there’s no sign of a change-free period any time soon. I have done my best to embrace all the changes, to be happy about them because I’ve always been told that it’s all for the best. Maybe one day it will be. Maybe one day I’ll look back on all this and laugh at my consternation and confusion and worry. But “one day” seems an awfully long way away and is no comfort to me right now whatsoever.

Something happened this past week that brought the state of my life into sharp focus.  A little over a week ago I was asked by some friends to stage manage a dance show. This is the first stage management gig I’ve done in years and years, and the first dance show I’ve ever done. I was nervous. I came into the process very late; I only got to see one rehearsal before we were in technical rehearsals (that’s where we go to the theatre and set up the lights and sound). The schedule was extremely compact and there were frayed nerves and people stressing out about getting it all done.

But get it done we did, and the end result was beautiful – and I remembered how to be a stage manager. It all came back to me effortlessly, like breathing. I knew what to do and when to do it. I knew the language, and the rhythm. I knew what was expected of me, and I gave it. I knew what was expected of the others around me. I had a place. I was home.

The difference between how I felt doing the show and how I feel about the rest of my life is night and day. I went to bed last night dreading having to face what was waiting for me this morning. Not because I dislike the work – not at all. I enjoy the work and my co-workers. It’s the uncertainty of it all that gets me down. We’re forging into brand new territory with our clients, and we (my co-workers and I) are trying to find a way through when there are no paths. We’re still figuring out how to work with each other, too, which makes me feel even less like I’m standing on solid ground.

I’m tired of it. I am so tired of not knowing from day to day what’s going to happen. I wish I could be that person who lives for change, for the unexpected, for the daily challenge of figuring out what’s going on and conquering it all. I’m not that person. I’m not a lot of things I thought I was, and the process of finding that out has been spectacularly painful.

This is what I have discovered:

  • I’m not extraordinarily self-confident. This was the biggest shock; I’ve always believed that I have a core of confidence that can’t be shaken.  Well, it’s been shaken. Badly. I am in the uncomfortable position of feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing at all, and it’s frightening.
  • I’m not impervious to slander. I used to think that other peoples’ bad opinion of me just rolled off me like water off a duck’s back, but I have recently been profoundly hurt by the betrayal of someone I thought I could trust.
  • I’m not a perfect judge of character. I tend to put on my rose-colored glasses when dealing with people, which leaves me open to the kind of betrayal I recently experienced.
  • I’m not as worldly or sophisticated as I once believed. I used to think I was good at navigating the complexities of modern life. Now I’m pretty sure I was just fooling myself.

So what does that leave me with? Have I been mistaken about who I am my whole adult life? Maybe. There are a few things I still believe are true:

  • I care about what I do.
  • I need solitude as much as I need the company of others.
  • There is an artist inside me struggling mightily to get out.
  • God loves me.
  • There are people in the world who love me.
  • There are people in the world that I love.

That’s all I can be sure of anymore.

There are no easy answers. There are no platitudes that can make this period in my life any less difficult than it is. Those catchy phrases are written by people who have lived through tough times and survived. I admit to looking for wisdom and encouragement there myself; there’s nothing wrong with doing that. Maybe I’ll write one, too, when all this is over. But for now, as much as I’d like to just go back to bed, I won’t – but don’t ask me to be happy about it.

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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 by Amanda Taylor Brooks

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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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