My family with my sister and her kids doing my favorite Christmas Eve tradition. Every year we light a candle in memory of each of our loved ones who we miss dearly and wish were with us tonight. There were a LOT of candles this year! Even had to blow some out and relight a few to get everyone in there.
A few weeks ago I was teaching the adult Sunday School class at my church (also known as the class without the crayons, yummy snacks and fun songs). We were talking about some of the challenges of raising children and I mentioned some of my fears for my young family. Kids are squirrely critters and just when you think you’ve got them trained for polite society they go and do something totally socially unacceptable like pee on a plastic tree in the middle of an indoor playground. (True story. My son did that. Why? Because tree peeing.) I said that sometimes I feel like I spend so much time worrying about keeping them from doing something dumb, dangerous, offensive or just really really annoying that I forget to enjoy all the beautiful things they do right. Afterwards, an elderly couple, who had long since raised their own family, came up to me with a little advice. (Side note: I always feel like I’ve done a good job as a teacher when my “students” teach me just as much as I do them.)
“Young lady,” the gentleman started, which thrilled me because I love it when anyone calls me young these days. “My wife and I just completed a winter tactical driving course.” As his wife beamed proudly I wondered why I’ve never taken a tactical course in anything. That sounds awesome. And also, driving gloves are adorable.
He continued, “And the best piece of advice the instructor gave us was how important it is to keep your eyes focused on the road ahead of you and not on the snowbank you’re sliding towards. Where your eyes look, your head follows and where your head goes, so does your car. You don’t even have to try hard! Once you’re focused in the right direction, the right moves come naturally! Disaster averted – even at 90 miles an hour!”
His white-haired wife patted me on the arm. “It works with kids too, honey. Look where you want to go, not where you’re afraid of ending up.” And then she staged whispered, “Also, ice racing is really fun! You should try it!!” There are not words for how much I love those people.
I’ve thought a lot about their driving-cum-life advice since then. Not only does it apply to my kids but it also works for my life too. Over the past couple of months battling this depression, I’ve found that one of the hardest parts is how easily I slide into thinking it will always be this way. I look in the future and all I can see is feeling bleak and lonely and sad and scared. My family tree is a weeping willow and I’ve watched more than one loved one slide deep into the abyss of mental illness. I worry that that is my future. And while I can’t control my genes or my innate temperament, I can still chart my own course. And the elderly drag-racing couple is right – focusing on what I’m afraid of happening can turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s time I recognized that while the road may be twisty and icy and dark right now, I need to keep my eyes on the green meadows ahead. Because if I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s that nothing ever stays the same. As surely as there is dark, there is light.
So I started my Operation Give a Little this month to help me do just that: focus on the light by acting like the person I hope to be someday. Sometimes, especially when you’re depressed or beaten down, it can feel like you have nothing left to give so I focused my efforts on small things that took very little energy, just a few minutes of time and no money. Such a small investment! And it brought such huge rewards.
From insulting strangers at the store to forgiving an old wound to writing so many love letters my hand cramped up like a claw for a week, this Experiment has been surprising, funny, interesting, embarrassing and…really uplifting. My sister asked me today if it had worked. I wasn’t quite sure what to tell her. Am I still depressed? Yes, there were still some days this month I didn’t really get out of bed. Monday was one of them.
My sister gave me a copy of this cartoon (from Robot Hugs) for Christmas, along with a beautiful, soft fleece “nest” blanket she made me. Is that not the sweetest gift ever??
But am I doing better? Absolutely. Doing all these little (and I do mean little) acts of service brought me so, so much joy. And I discovered that joy isn’t the opposite of depressed, they’re simply different facets of the same person: me. I can feel both at the same time. It’s poignant and beautiful and I can feel my soul stretching. I needed this growing.
Operation Give a Little: What to give when you feel like you have nothing left to give
10. Give your physical presence and attention
This last day – today – of my Experiment (so for all of you totally sick of the sappy, schmaltzy posts lately, yoyre saved!) ended with reading a book called Hands Free Mama by Rachel Stafford. She has a blog by the same name and I’ve read some of her tender, funny posts about motherhood in the past but her book really resonated with me. It’s about putting down the electronics and other distractions and giving our loved ones the gift of both our physical presence and our complete attention.
She shares a story about watching a couple at dinner where the man read his phone the whole time while the woman stared blankly off into the distance, occasionally checking in to see if he was ready to be with her yet. He wasn’t. The sad thing about this anecdote is how not unusual it is. I personally have been on both sides of that table and neither one of them is any good. This idea becomes especially poignant when considering how fast kids grow and how much they thrive on our attention. So for today (and tomorrow because CHRISTMAS) I’m giving my family the gift of my undivided attention and presence.
Obviously we still need our tech – especially those of us who have jobs on the computer – but there is a time and place for it and that place is not the dinner table. Rachel’s book outlines some practical steps to help wean off the addiction to distraction. As a holiday gift, she’d like to give a copy to one of you! Simply leave me a comment below.
In the meantime, in the spirit of being present and taking a tech break, I’ll be taking the week off blogging. My husband and I are taking the kiddos on a trip to a National Park with some friends and I’m really excited to spend this time with them (albeit not so excited about the 12-hour car drive with four rowdy kids).
Happy Holidays to you my beautiful, kind-hearted, generous readers! I don’t have the words to tell you how grateful I’ve been this past year for your friendship, funny comments, suggestions, information and gentle corrections – you are such a gift to me! And a huge thank you to my loved ones, old friends in Minnesota, and new friends in Colorado for your live, support and patience! I’ll see you in the New Year!
(And now I’m off to wrap gifts and stuff stockings at 11:37 pm on Christmas Eve, like the champion procrastinator I am!)