Friday, December 19, 2014

When the holidays aren't all they're cracked up to be

photo credit: Lauren Linehan, Flickr, cc

Please know that all of the following is written in the spirit of fun and jest but also truth.  I have found myself in similar yet not identical situations and do not mean to implicate any of my family and friends in particular.  I know that I contribute my fair share to holiday drama!

The holiday snap.  It's a thing.  It may not be officially known as such, but I'm convinced that we all, at least at some point in the season, find ourselves in its clutches.

You know what I'm talking about: that moment when you have just HAD IT.  You're done.  You're over it, so over it.  You've made the fifteenth call to yet another family member explaining that yes, you would love to see them this year, but that unfortunately their party conflicts with the other gatherings you have also been asked to join.  You went to the post office for the third day in a row because you forgot to mail another present.  You know that the holidays really are not about the gifts and the food (at least, that's what all of the Hallmark movies and church sermons tell you) but they really are, in fact, at least partly about the gifts and food because that one year that you went on strike and ate Chinese for Christmas dinner and donated the money you would have spent on presents to charity, no one was very happy.  So this season you are up to your elbows in confectioner's sugar and tissue paper.  Oh, and you accidentally ordered 20 wreaths instead of two for your daughter's front doors, so now your porch is full of non-returnable Smith & Hawken boxes.

The pressure has been building and building for days.  But it is when your dog trips you as you walk down the stairs with your arms full of packing material or your husband announces that he has committed you to his work party that begins in an hour that you lose it. "Do you have any idea what is on my plate right now?" you snap, and then proceed to launch into a five minute monologue, ranting about how no one appreciates you.  Your poor dog cowers and walks towards her bed and your husband begins massages your shoulders, stops, hesitates, and then starts again.

You eventually simmer down, until almost the same incident happens again--or maybe it doesn't happen again, at least not until the next holiday season.  After those explosions, though, you can never recover the same sense of optimistic possibility, that sense that THIS YEAR, the holidays will be different.  They will be joyful and yet serene, perfect and yet relaxed, social and yet intimate.  You discover as though for the first time--but in fact, the same realization dawns on you every year--that you ask too much of the holidays, that all of the disappointment and ordinariness of the ordinary days you want somehow to transform or redeem from November 25 to January 1.

But it does not work that way.  No amount of holiday music or family togetherness or Christmas pageant cuteness can equal the perfection we have conjured up in our minds.

This is where the writer in me tries to wrap up everything into a neat little bow, to throw out a few elegant, poetic sentences to explain away the messiness and frustration of the reality I have just described.  

Except not wrapping everything up into a neat little bow is kind of the point.

I think the "let down" moments are actually an essential part of the holidays.  Sure, some of it has to do with the commercialism of it all.  Buying stuff never ultimately satisfies us--it makes us happier often, but not complete.  Tensions run high whenever we attempt to juggle multiple people's desires and feelings, so we inevitably feel inadequate when we cannot please everyone.  But I think some of the anger and disappointment that provokes us to snap actually points to something else: the recognition that all is not perfect and perky and love-filled, which is what we make out the holidays to be.  Real life is messy, at best, and sad and screwed up, at worst, and the same only logically will be true of our holiday celebrations because imperfect people are involved.

The holidays do not erase or overpower the imperfection that characterizes our lives.  What if we let the mess and chaos into the holiday preparations rather than trying to push it out?  Would it make things easier?  Would we snap and explode less?

Ending on a half-baked thought--an untied bow, if you will--only seemed appropriate.


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Monday, December 15, 2014

On my nightstand: December edition

Here's a look at what I've been reading this month. To see more of what I've been reading or to trade book recommendations, follow me on Goodreads. I'd love to hear about any recent literary gems you've found (or books that I shouldn't waste my time reading)!

Building a Life Out of Words
This book sounded right up my alley: a regular guy tries to make a go of it being a writer.  He quits his job and sets out to make his living doing what he loves.  The book is short but choppy.  Interspersed between the chapters are other writers' stories of their challenges.  While this quick Kindle read may resonate with fellow wordsmiths, repeatedly stressing that with writing, self-confidence is 90 percent of the battle, it left me wanting something more profound.



Episcopal Nerd books
I won't individaully review all of these books in detail because I doubt most of you would find it particularly interesting.  These are very niche books.

Understanding Christian Doctrine If you would like to know more about theology, this is your book.  It is both accessible and smart and surprisingly comprehensive for its size.  What's different about it is that the author Markham takes a position.  Most textbooks attempt to present all arguments as neutral and equally viable, but Markham lays his cards on the table. 

Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers If you're thinking about becoming Episcopalian, or just want to know more, start with this short book.  It's easy to read a few questions at a time or plow through the entire book.  The book describes an attitude or a posture more than a set of beliefs as definitive of Anglican character, which I appreciate and which rings true to my experience.

The Principles of Christian Theology This book is dated.  If you want to know what Christian theologians thought in the 1950s, this is your book.  Otherwise, stick with the books mentioned above.

What We Keep
Many criticize Elizabeth Berg for essentially writing the same book over and over, but I have not read enough of her to make that judgment, and frankly, I find that to be the case for most prolific fiction writers.  I can say that her writing is beautiful and her stories satisfying and yet frustrating.  Her work always has a wistful undertone, a sense of what could have been but is not.  She never tidies everything up completely, which makes her characters and plots feel real.



Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God
This book was free on Kindle, which is why I downloaded it.  I have read Frank Schaffer before, and this book left me underwhelmed.  He delights in paradox and knows what sells.  Spoiler alert: he is not nearly as provocative as his book title would suggest.  I would argue that he is a theist, but for him to concede that would make his book sounds way less exciting.



The Gatekeepers
When I was in high school, the admissions process fascinated my mother and me.  We spent hours reading admission guides and college reports.  Now that I have actually worked in an admissions office and seen the other side of college, the mystery of the application process does not prove so compelling, but my heart still goes out to the anxious middle and high schoolers out there who wonder if they are good enough.  This book is old--circa 2000--but is refreshing in its documentary style.  It is not a tip book but rather an account of an admissions officer's and several student's perspectives over the course of one school year.  It is well done, especially when compared to some of the sloppily prepared competing titles.





I'm linking up to Modern Mrs Darcy's Quick Lit (a monthly book review linkup). To see more book reviews, head over to the site!

P.S.  Sign up for my monthly newsletter here!  I'll sent my very first email yesterday, and. I would love for you to join for the next one!

What have you read recently?



Saturday, December 13, 2014

Stocking stuffers that don't suck: 30 small treats that don't cost a fortune

Excuse the provocative title, or, as one of my favorite people would say, "Pardon my French."  But saying "stocking stuffers that don't stink" just did not have the same effect, and we all know that, when it comes to the internet, sensational titles get the job done.  I'm not sure this post needs any more preface.  Here are some ideas for stocking stuffers that (at least in my humble opinion) won't result in overstuffed, crap-filled drawers and closets.


For the grown-ups:

1.  Fancy salts.  They take up room and don't cost much, but they still feel special and fancy.  Trader Joe's sells some great ones, or you can make your own.

2.  Good quality dish towels.  I am always in need of some that stand up to drying.

3.  Scented sachets or odor removers for drawers or the car.

4.  Life-changing double hook shower rings.  This is not a gift you would give every year, but it will make the recipient so happy.

5.  Silpat nonstick baking mats

6.  Fancy coffees and teas.  The prettier the packaging, the better.  Fresh Market and Trader Joe's are great for these.

7.  Milk frother for homemade lattes.

8.  Special soaps and baths salts for washing.  We are big fans of paying a little more for a special item that we would use anyway throughout the year.  So in January and February, we get to wash with fancy soap before switching to our regular everyday budget variety.  Hand in Hand operates with a buy one, give one business model.

9.  Keychain bottle opener, so the beer is always accessible.

10.  Ipad stand.  We love using ours in the kitchen while we read recipes.

11.  Cheeky sticky notes.

12.  USB Hub.  Great for travels.

13.  Good quality nail clippers.  Tweezerman promises that you never need to replace them!


For the kiddos:

14.  Cat's Cradle.  Revisit the classic.

15.  Glow in the dark stars.

16.  Tangles, or other sensory fidget toys

17.  Story cubes.  Learn how to build a story!

18.  Origami paper

19.  Road tape.  Make a road for trucks and cars anywhere!

20.  Modeling clay.  Melissa & Doug always makes good stuff.


For everyone:

21.  Granola bars, like 2 Degrees, which donates a meal to a hungry child with each purchase

22.  Space saving snack containers.  Perfect for lunchboxes, purses, and glove compartments.

23.  Socks, especially those with a cause, like Bombas.  You can go fun, athletic, or high quality.

24.  Sturdy bookmarks--because most of us have not entirely switched over to digital reading.

25.  Specialty spiced or roasted nuts.

26.  Earbud organizer.  No more tangled cords.

27.  Gum or mints.  You can never have too many.

28.  Lip balm.  My favorites are eos and Crazy Rumors.

29.  Nut butter packets and chocolate bars (the Peppermint Stick is out of this world!) because we need some treats to outlast the Christmas season.

30.  And the quintessential favorite, clementines!


P.S.  Sign up for my monthly newsletter here!  I'll be sending out my very first email tomorrow.  There may be some crazy dog photos and a beloved family recipe headed your way, so I would love for you to join!


Any favorite stocking stuffers to suggest?  What should I put in my family's stockings this year?




Thursday, December 11, 2014

What else is in the room?



It hit me when we were arguing about which and how many scraps our dog Gigi could eat.  Are we really doing this?  Has it come to this?  I asked myself.  We were.  It had.

Our tempers and anxiety had been escalating.  Dan and I, like nearly everyone else right now, were feeling the effects of the holiday stress: more work to finish in a shorter time, the perpetually challenging juggle of schedules and family members' feelings, incessant external urging to join the chorus of voices expressing that now truly is the most wonderful time of the year.  But I think the holiday commercialism is too convenient a scapegoat.  We have lapsed into nonsensical but extraordinarily heated arguments at other times of the year--you know, the arguments that are not actually about the words exchanged at surface level.

Dan and I were not fighting about Gigi the other day.  Other people, other worries, and other baggage had entered the room with us but we both were too preoccupied with our own agendas to recognize the fact.  Usually one of us is level-headed enough to ask, "What really is going on here?" but the times when we both become swept up in the argument, we lose touch with what ultimately is important, instead pursuing the moment.  

Several summers ago, I worked as a hospital chaplain, and the program required me to complete a unit of CPE, or Clinical Pastoral Education.  CPE drew on much of the psychological theory from the 1950s era, and I, along with the other chaplains, would frequently be asked by my supervisor about the subtext: "So what else was in the room?"  Nothing ever was what it seemed.  Never was a hello just a hello or an I'm sorry just an I'm sorry.

I don't particularly miss my time in CPE (and sometimes I do think that a hello is just a hello) but its attention to subtext and interpersonal dynamics has remained with me.  In many ways, the CPE approach simply as too articulate the uncomfortable, the elephant in the room.  At an instinctual level, we understand that when we blow up about the remote control not being replaced to its coffee table bin we are upset about something more than missing the introduction of our favorite show.  

In recent years I find myself thinking more and more about healthy relationships.  Maybe it is because the first few people in our peer group have begun to divorce, or maybe it is because I see all sorts of complicated family relationships in my work at the church.  But whatever the reason, I am realizing what I want, which are the kinds of relationships that above all, are not perfect or even necessarily free of conflict--for those are impossible to maintain for long--but those that have depth, perspective, and compassion.

About ten minutes deep into our fight, Dan and I looked at each other incredulously.  "We're really fighting about breadcrumbs right now?"  "Yup."  We laughed, and then we talked about what else was on our minds.

I hope we continue to remember that it is never only the two of us in the room--we bring our pasts, our deepest fears, our mundane stresses from the day, and our other relationships of influence into every interaction we have.  For better of for worse, we are not alone.


What's the silliest argument you've ever had?  What have you noticed about best practices when it comes to relationships and arguments?



Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Fitting it all in: How to do chores fast

I won't win any clean house awards, but over the past few years, I have learned how to maintain a decently decent home without dedicating my life to vacuuming and dusting.  We all know how to clean, it's just the finding the drive to clean that is the problem.  So this list doesn't tackle the how.  Instead, I try to focus on what I could do differently that effortlessly integrates cleaning into my everyday.  How can I make chores quick and painless.  I hope some of these tricks work in your home too!

1.  Set a timer and only clean for as long as the time runs.  Make it a race.  Why vacuum and dust to acheive perfection, when everything will just be dirty again?  Settle for good enough.  Laura Vanderkam has argued (and I agree) that the amount of time chores take expands to fill the time we have.

2.  Brush your dog or cat every night.  This will cut down on the amount of hair shed and is a calming ritual to put your furry loved one to sleep.

3.  When you are heating something up in the microwave, clean instead of standing and waiting.  Wipe down the countertops, wipe out the sink, or wipe down your appliances and cabinets.

4.  Divide and assign chores ahead of time so that there is no arguing or procrastinating concerning who does what task.

5.  Keep track of your chore cycle by using a to-do list manager like Wunderlist, which prompts you to complete your tasks.  Determine what needs to be done daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonally. like the strategy of spacing chores out so I don't feel like I am cleaning all day.

6.  Subscribe to a service like epantry or Amazon Subscribe and Save so you never run out of cleaning products and household essentials.  I buy all of my soaps and detergents online.  The prices are competitive, the convenience can't be beat, and companies like epantry are actually do some good, too!

7.  Invest in a cordless vacuum.  I cannot stop talking about our vacuum because it's that good.  For quick vacuuming jobs, the cordless vacuum saves loads of time.  If you have stairs, this is a must.  It works great for the car also.

8.  Wash and dry your sheets and then immediately make your bed.  There is no need to fold them only to unfold them later.

9.  Fold your laundry while watching a favorite TV show.  Matching socks becomes so much more pleasant this way.

10.  Overpower bad odors by lighting and burning a candle for five minutes and then blowing it out.

11.  Spray your shower with a few squirts of all purpose cleaner every time you shower.  This will cut down on mold and grime.

12.  Whatever goes in the car must go out the same day.  Or, if this is too much, once a week go in the car with a basket and declutter.

13.  Find a home for everything. This takes more time on the front end, but it makes picking up a breeze because you won't waste time trying to figure out where something should go or worse, coming to a standstill and leaving the clutter where it is.

14.  Go paperless.  This tactic is not for everyone, but if I don't need the paper, I don't keep it. Consider investing in a scanner or even taking a picture of something on your phone so you can eliminate the paper clutter.

15.  Wipe down your counters every time you are in the kitchen.  We use a rag instead of a sponge because we find it stays cleaner and simply replace the rag every couple of days.

16.  Use the same water cup all day.  It's not getting significantly dirty in the span of hours, and there is no need to fill your dishwasher needlessly.

17.  Use premoistened wipes for quick touch ups.  I don't use many paper towels, but this is one of my favorite but less green convenience items.  Wiping off smudges from the fridge or cleaning the sink goes quickly with these in hand.

18.  Designate a shelf or closet for "overflow" so extra items (like the ten packs of Ziploc bags you bought at Costco) have a place go until you need them.  

19.  Prioritize vacuuming out your garage (if you have one) or entrance areas.  The majority of the dirt tracked in can be eliminated by attending to these spots.

20.  Declare a rule: Whoever gets out of bed last must make the bed.  Obviously this only works for people who share a bed, but the practice carries the added benefit of encouraging good waking habits.

21.  Ditch your plastic shower liners.  They gather grime and mold and are yet another thing to clean!  Allow our shower curtain to dry fully by pulling it closed and allowing all surfaces to receive airflow.

22.  Cut down on the products you use.  This may be my favorite, most helpful tip.  Many cleaning and personal care products accomplish similar goals.  Identify the minimum number of products you need and either chuck everything else or wait until the supplies run out and don't replace them.  I prefer having less filling my shelves and fewer options to weigh.  The more complicated cleanings seems, the less likely I am to do it.  This logic also makes figuring out what I need to restock much easier.

P.S.  Sign up for my monthly newsletter here!  I'll be sending out my very first email at the end of this week.  There may be some crazy dog photos and a beloved family recipe headed your way, so I would love for you to join!


Any favorite cleaning tips to share?  What's your approach towards chores--a little bit at a time or mega cleaning sessions?


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