Breathe

Breathe. This is what I keep telling myself. In spite of my best efforts not to do crazy this Christmas, the crazy is catching up to me. It actually might have overcome me. I might even be buried in it.

Breathe is what I say when I find a form that was supposed to be filled out and returned last week to school. Oops.

Breathe is what I say when a holidazed woman almost runs over me with her cart in Target.

Breathe is what I say when I almost run over someone else with my cart.

Breathe is what I say when the Alien Conquest Lego set I really wanted to buy for James is sold out. I might have said something else too…something a little less Zen. Thankfully there were other Alien Conquest Lego sets. And, I’m pretty sure he isn’t picky when it comes to aliens and conquests.

Breathe is what I say when two of my three children are sprawled out on the floor of Sears, at the head of a very long line of tired, not so happy looking customers (who could maybe use a little breathing themselves), screaming at me and refusing to stand up to exit the store. Breathe and Santa is watching…

Because every single second of my day seems to be accounted for lately, Breathe is what I say when someone asks me to do something I wasn’t planning to do. I wonder how I’ll fit it in.

Breathe is what I say when I look around a table where my dad should be sitting, but isn’t. I try to catch my breath as the reality of his absence soaks in. Again. I thought that the second Christmas season without my dad wouldn’t be so bad. But it is. I really miss him. The holidays seem even emptier this year. Maybe last year it still felt like he might come walking through the door? This year, there is no question that he is gone. I wonder if he would recognize that three year-old daughter of mine, who had just turned two the month before he died. Would he love her sass? Is he laughing his ass off up in heaven? What would he say when I told him that I was singing Christmas carols with my kids and James stopped us to run upstairs to get his guitar to accompany us? What would he think when I told him that Alexander said, “I think Nature should make an award for our neighborhood because it is just so pretty. This whole town is just so pretty!” last night as we drove home (from Sears!?!) My dad loved strong, spunky girls and women. He loved to share his passion for music and guitar-playing with James. He loved Nature and he loved those who also loved and respected it. He would be loving all of this. Breathe…

A few weeks ago, in the midst of an extremely stressful work week, I yelled to my husband, “Don’t forget to breathe!” as he walked out the door. He told me that was good advice. I think it is too. At the yoga center where I practice, the instructors say that breathing is the only function of the body that is both voluntary and involuntary. I am so thankful for that because sometimes I think I go days without breathing. That must be when the involuntary breathing kicks in. For me, these are quick, shallow breaths, pumping themselves in and out just to keep me alive.

The voluntary breaths are different. These are life-giving breaths. There is a difference, you know – between doing something to stay alive and doing something that makes you feel alive. These voluntary breaths nourish me. Try one. Mouth closed, inhale through your nose. Suck in as much air as you can, and then a little bit more. Now let it out. Slowly. Again, but with your eyes closed this time. And again. Do you feel more alive? Maybe a little tingly? If even for just a moment, these voluntary breaths bring us smack, dab into the present moment. These are the breaths I keep telling myself to take. Before my mind runs off into crazy, or mouth runs off into God only knows where. These breaths keep me right here, right now in the perfection of all these seemingly imperfect moments.

Deep breath. Ahh. For you, in the crazy of your days and even in the calm, I offer this great advice: don’t forget to breathe!

‘Tis the Season to be Crazy. Not.

This Christmas will be the best Christmas I’ve had in years. Nope, I didn’t find the gift of all gifts for everyone on my shopping list. I’m not expecting anything unusual or extraordinary myself. It’s not even about Jesus or Santa Claus or cookies or candy or carols. All the usual cast and crew will be present, so no special appearances are planned. This Christmas is different because I am different. I feel different. I am operating differently this year.

I’ve been making some changes in the way I live life in the last year or so, but I didn’t realize how much I had changed until last Sunday. It was Day 8 of my husband, Dan, working in his office from dawn until way, way, way, (WAY) past dusk. I knew he would be busy, but I didn’t know how busy. I wasn’t at all prepared for him to be gone as much he was. It wasn’t that he jumped ship without discussing it with me, I just couldn’t wrap my head around his need to go missing when I was expecting him to stay put.

We hosted a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday and our first-ever Pierogi Day on Friday (a longstanding tradition in Dan’s family) and he left for work on Saturday morning and didn’t come back. Much. In the meantime, as soon as my 5 year-old son Alexander swallowed his last bite of turkey on Thanksgiving Day, he began asking if it was Christmas. He wondered where our tree was. He wondered when our decorations would go up. He offered to put them up. He noticed other people putting theirs up. He feared we were the only people on the planet without Christmas decorations up (which we know isn’t true, but he is 5 and lives in a world where everyone celebrates Christmas and refuses to believe me if I try to tell him something different).

I spent Saturday night with some of my aunts and cousins on my mom’s side of the family for our annual Secret Pal Getaway and gift exchange. I laughed so hard and for so long that my cheeks hurt the next day. I stayed up way too late and was exhausted when I woke up the next morning. Visions of coffee danced through my head as I drove home on Sunday morning. I was tired, but touched by the Christmas spirit. My sister hosted the Secret Pal gathering and her house was decorated beautifully. I wanted my own twinkle lights. I wanted to put our tree up. I wanted to see Alexander’s huge smile when I put it up.

I polled the kids earlier in the week. We voted to stick with our artificial tree from last Christmas instead of going out to cut a fresh one. I knew the box was in our basement. I imagined it was heavy. I decided I would carry the damn tree up piece by piece if I had to because I was determined to put up our tree. Anna of yesteryear would have created a story that went something like “Dan is not home to carry the tree upstairs. We’ll have to wait until next weekend to put up our tree.” With a huge dose of Woe is Me, My Husband Works Too Much and a sprinkle of What a Jerk, He is Ruining Christmas. She could be unpleasant.

By the time I had the tree upstairs, my mom arrived and my sister and niece arrived shortly thereafter. Right before my eyes, the tree was assembled and the stockings were hung by the chimney with care (I’m not kidding). Alexander carried our ornaments upstairs from the basement and soon my three kids and their sweet little cousin were decorating. We played Christmas music. It was completely spontaneous. I hadn’t planned for any of it to happen (like Anna of yesteryear might have). It could not have been more perfect.

Thinking about my ghosts of Christmas past makes me cringe. I was a 5’10” tower of stress. I wanted everything to be perfect. But because I didn’t know what perfect looked like, I drove myself crazy striving to attain the unattainable. It was a vicious cycle because no matter how hard I tried, or how much I bought, or how much I donated, or what I baked, or how pretty I made the package, it wasn’t good enough. I always fell short of my own unrealistic expectations. Nothing I did ever was or could be enough. I was never good enough.

I had visions of what our Christmas should look like. We should take a long drive out to a beautiful, snow-covered Christmas tree farm singing Over the River and through the Woods as we drove. We should take a hayride to a delectable Evergreen forest and select a fragrant fir for our home. We should enjoy hot cocoa by the fire afterward… The last time we went to the Christmas tree farm, we walked around for what seemed like hours. We were about to give up on finding our perfect tree, then spotted one at the last second. We were freezing, the kids were crying, and Dan’s arms were aching from carrying our little one. It was not picture perfect. I will give Anna of yesteryear credit because she was able to go with the flow in situations like that one. She saw the humor in how unpredictable life could be. She even had fun when things weren’t picture perfect. She adapted her visions of perfection and knew that what was perfect one time, might not be perfect the next time. I still think she might have filed away all that was imperfect somewhere in her heart or in her head. I think she used it as motivation to make everything else even more perfect.

Now I know that nothing is perfect, but those sweet, special, spontaneous moments that happen, not because I wait for someone else to create them or because I create them, but because those perfect moments occur naturally, all around me. I like that kind of perfection. Sometimes it is messy. Sometimes it means that all the ornaments end up on the lowest branches of the tree because that is as high as a kid can reach. Sometimes it means that not everyone is there as I would like them to be, and sometimes it means that people I never expected to be there, show up. Appreciating this kind of perfection requires me to let go of expectations or visions or yearnings for that other kind of perfection – the elusive kind.

I feel liberated. I still have my moments and it is only December 7th so there is a lot of time left to go crazy, but my motivation is completely different now than it has been in the past. I’m having lots of fun wandering around town admiring twinkle lights and listening to my kids laugh when Alvin and the Chipmunks sing their Christmas songs on the radio. I’m not attached to the outcome of Christmas. There is no voice in my head saying, “you should have bought this instead…she will hate that…he already has one of those…those cookies are burnt…that bow isn’t straight…those ornaments are too low…oh screw it, next year we’re going to Mexico for Christmas.” Nope, none of that. I’m doing the best I can. I know Dan is doing his best. I know my mom and my sister, while dreading another Christmas without my dad as I am, are doing their best. I’m not going crazy because I know that everything, in all its chaotic Christmas splendor is absolutely, positively perfect just as it is. My wish for you is that you know it too.