Having Myself a Martha Little Christmas

Let It Snow quote

I’ve been putting off writing this particular post for a couple weeks. I even decided, just a few minutes before I read the above quote, that I wouldn’t write it. After all, it was going to be a post about how busy I’ve been, and writing a new post would just add to that busyness.

But then I did happen to read that line from Jubilee, and it sort of seemed to be speaking to me.

If you know me well, you know that I’m organized to the nth degree. I’m disciplined, an overachiever – okay, maybe I’m slightly OCD, which can be a problem – but the point is that I’m always busy doing something. The week of Christmas is no exception.

Somehow, it crept up on me this year. It was a couple weeks ago that I realized that the last week of school was approaching, and if I was going to do my usual make-some-goodies-for-my-coworkers thing, I’d have to get my act together, like now. And I didn’t even know what kinds of goodies I was going to make.

Christmas Tree Fruit

Christmas Tree Fruit

Years ago, I used to bake like a crazy person in the lead-up to Christmas. It got so stressful – putting the pressure on myself to make cookies for any- and everyone I might possibly see – that my husband asked me to please slow down. Even then, it took a couple years for me to actually follow through. I still make goodies (this year dark chocolate truffles, English toffee, muffins, cookies, and even Christmas tree fruit platters – cute, right?), but not nearly to the degree that I used to.

I could, of course, go to one of the many excellent chocolatiers in town and just buy treats that I know my friends will love, but that gets expensive, and here’s the thing: even though I don’t particularly love baking, I love giving what I bake.

I am the classic Martha – you know, from the story of the sisters Mary and Martha in the Bible? In case you’re not familiar, Martha is so busy serving Jesus that she doesn’t have time to listen to Him. Meanwhile, her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, and when Martha asks for Mary’s help, she gets rebuked by Jesus.

Okay, now I’m not trying to insert myself into a Bible story, but women often get categorized as Marys or Marthas, and I’m a Martha if ever there was one – except.

Except that I like being busy. There are very few times that I become Mary – sit and enjoy. My husband half-jokes, half-jabs at me that I can’t watch TV without reading a book at the same time. Multi-tasking is, of course, necessary if you’re going to work full-time, get the laundry done, fix lunches, and do all the other mom stuff.

But that doesn’t mean that I resent Mary. Right now, the Marys in my life are my two kids (who are boys, by the way, so this isn’t a perfect analogy). They’re busy, too – my elder son does karate, takes piano lessons, plays baseball, and has his school responsibilities. But right now, he has a two-week break from school, and he pretty much gets to be a kid.

While my four-year-old napped this afternoon, my eight-year-old bounced on our new trampoline. Meanwhile, I was cleaning the kitchen, preparing for guests on Christmas morning. He asked me to jump with him, and while I had plenty of good excuses not to, I decided to be Mary for a little while.

A few hours later, both kids spread out paper and markers on the floor and started making Christmas books. (Said Christmas books had pictures of Christmas trees, rattlesnakes, and worms – hey, they’re boys.) I was touched, not just because I’m a writer, but because they worked so well together, and they were totally into their project. And they wanted me to help, too. Again, I had any number of other things that I could have done, but these books, while not Caldecott candidates, are very important to them. So I let them trace my hand, and I added a choo-choo train to the snake-and-worm collage.

Because I spent time with my kids, I was left with plenty of things to do: dishes to wash, laundry to fold, and presents to wrap. I even had this post to write. But to be a Martha – a true Martha – I believe there comes a point when you have to understand why you’re so busy. Yes, I have to wash clothes so we’ll have clean things to wear. But why keep the house clean, why make goodies for my friends, why post this blog if it doesn’t in some way fulfill both me and the person or people for whom I’m doing each particular thing? And the answer is that if I’m being busy just to be busy, I’m doing it for the wrong reason.

Now that I’ve come to terms with this truth about myself, I hope I can live up to the good side of my inner Martha. And no matter which sister describes you, my readers, I hope that you all will tap the positive aspects of your personalities and fully enjoy this holiday season.

Post-Christmas Survival

Where in the world are we going to put that tent?

Where in the world are we going to put that tent?

At my parents’ business, we’ve just survived the busiest season of the year. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, we just have to hold on and pray we make it. As Christmas draws closer and closer, my mom starts to panic a little because there’s still so much to do and not enough time to do it. Last year, she worked so hard that got very sick when she had her first chance to slow down, and it was weeks before her body recovered.

As for me, I savor the days leading up to Christmas. There’s the anticipation of the day, of course, but I love the music, the lights, my collection of Christmas socks. It’s after Christmas that becomes a little much for me to handle.

Why would we need to eat at the dining room table, anyway?

Why would we need to eat at the dining room table, anyway?

As I look around my house, I think it looks rather like Santa’s bag of toys threw up all over the place. My elder son, who is into everything Lego, received umpteen million sets of Legos this year, and he builds them so quickly that he just wants more and more. We had to clear the dining room table to hold his new Lego train track, and as I surveyed the carnage, I thought that all I want for Christmas is a container to hold all the pieces.

You may be thinking, Sarah this is nothing. My house is ten times worse. But this is how my house looked after I cleaned up. Things will get slightly better after we put away all the Christmas decorations, but the new normal will still include a lot more stuff than before. And I worked so hard to clean our house this summer. Until Christmas, I was able to keep up. The OCD part of me loves “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Well, there’s not a place for everything anymore.

I finally said to my husband that something has to change next year, and although I would love a larger house, that’s not the solution to this particular problem. I love buying gifts for my kids and watching the joy as they open them as much as everyone else, but then we parents are left to deal with it all. We can’t get away with asking for nothing but clothes and diapers anymore. Those were the good old days, weren’t they? Now, the kids actually have expectations, and no one would want to let them down, would they? My goodness, they might feel like they’re not loved. I can’t help but think of Dudley Dursley counting his birthday presents in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

I had to lecture my seven-year-old a few too many times this past week about Christmas being Jesus’ birthday first and foremost. He was begging to open presents days in advance, and even after letting each of the boys open a book on Christmas Eve, they wanted more when we went to story time at the local bookstore later that morning. It continued after Christmas. They got everything they wanted from Santa, plus a roomful of bigger and better toys from everyone else, but they still wanted more.

I know I’m partially to blame. I love the sacred aspects of Christmas; every morning from December first through Christmas Day, my kids and I read part of the Christmas story from the Bible, and it doesn’t feel like Christmas for me until my church’s candlelight service on Christmas Eve. But a few short hours later, it’s on to the secular: my husband and I are arranging presents under the tree, and I’m the one who’s too excited to sleep because I can’t wait to see my kids’ excitement as soon as they get up.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Well, maybe other parents sleep better than I do on Christmas Eve, but I think they have just as much fun watching their kids on Christmas morning as I do. And so they go crazy. They spend thousands because it’s only once a year, right? Then they post pictures on Facebook and Twitter, and it’s like keeping up with the Joneses, kid-style. We can’t let someone else’s children have a better Christmas, can we?

At least at my house we didn’t go crazy with our spending – and thank goodness because after all the presents were opened, it wasn’t even the things that Peter asked for that he liked the most. So we have a house full of toys that may not all get played with. Peter knows we’re running out of room, and he’s offered to give away some of his old toys, but I know it will take me combing through all the kids’ stuff when they’re not looking to a make a dent. And when I do that, of course, it’s like flushing money down the toilet. (I do donate the toys, but still.)

I read a blog a few weeks ago about non-toy gifts for kids like books, trips to the movies, museum or zoo memberships. Aside from the books, these aren’t things that kids can open and use on Christmas day. But isn’t that okay? Wouldn’t it be great to get more than a few minutes’ or hours’ enjoyment from our presents? This year, I already started doing this for birthdays by not giving my kids a party but taking them to the zoo instead – why not extend this idea to Christmas, too?

I’m not nixing all presents, but it would be nice to have a Christmas when we can come home and not feel overwhelmed with piles of stuff. The most fun we’ve had this past week was going out to buy our own gifts with gift cards. My mother-in-law, who usually gets us great gifts, was focused on helping my father-in-law recover from back surgery this year. And although a gift card isn’t all that exciting to play with, my kids certainly enjoyed going to the store and picking out their own toys. They’ve also enjoyed reading and making puzzles together, not to mention listening to all the new music we downloaded and watching the movies we bought with our iTunes gift card. The whole Christmas season has been a lot of fun, of course, but I still think I feel a change in the wind.

Maybe 2015 will be our trial run. It will mean retraining my family. It will mean working harder with my kids to focus on what really matters. It will mean taking time to be with them – instead of cleaning up their stuff.

Hey, I think I could live with that.

Could You Use 20 Minutes of Stillness?

Man thinking on a train journey.

Man thinking on a train journey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I probably use this blog to harp on about my busy life a little too much. We’re all busy, right? You don’t have time to read about someone else’s busy-ness. But that’s my life, which I’ve had to accept. At least I can say that I never get bored. December seems even more crammed with obligations than November – or maybe that’s how it always feels when you’re living in the middle of it.

There are times when I am so busy that I don’t realize how much my kids are growing. Then someone points it out, and I realize that they are big. What happened? How did I miss it? I have to remind myself that I need to slow down and be with them. No, I don’t really want to line up all of our toy cars and count them, but my three-year-old does, and as long as he still wants me to sit with him, I should take advantage of it instead of throwing this opportunity away.

Still, there are many nights when I have the best intentions only to realize that it’s past their bedtimes, and we still haven’t read or done something fun together. If only I could just slow down and be present for a while, then maybe it wouldn’t feel like I’m living with they’re-growing-up-too-fast-itis.

This past week, I was forced to slow down when I had my first acupuncture session. My doctor kept up a steady dialogue while she was placing the needles, I suppose to keep me from focusing on what she was doing. She asked for advice on finding the perfect home-baked something to give to her two very different neighbors. We talked a lot about our dietary lifestyles, which have a lot to do with treating the hypothyroidism from which we both suffer. I was settling in to enjoy a nice conversation.

But with all the needles in place, she turned off the lights, gave me a bell to ring if I needed anything, and told me she would be back in 20 minutes or so.

My first reaction was to wonder what in the world I would do for 20-or-so minutes. And I had no way to track the time; I wasn’t wearing my watch because there were needles in my wrist, nor did I have my phone. All I had was me and some needles on this cushioned table in a little room. What in the world was I supposed to do?

If I had been at home instead of on that table, there’s no way I would have just lain down with no stimulation except for the darkened room around me and outside noises. I would have gotten up every couple of minutes to do something or other. My parents should have named me Martha.

Instead, when I had no choice but to be still, my body grew calm and comfortable – a gift that I very much needed in the middle of a very hectic month.

There are so many people I know who push themselves past the limit, especially this time of year. On the one hand, many of them have to because of their particular jobs, but on the other, staying so busy and so stressed eventually takes its toll. Last year, my mother’s body succumbed to a vicious virus right after Christmas because her body gave up when it finally had the chance to slow down.

Sometimes, the only way our bodies can grab our attentions is to force us to stop. The busy-ness… well, it can wait.

And I guess waiting is hard for people like me because we want to stay active. We always want to move forward, to do something. Slowing down isn’t just a luxury but almost a sin.

Except that the stillness is healing, reinvigorating. As painful as it may seem at the time (especially if you’ve never tried to do anything like meditation or even failed miserably at it), the results are positive.

That day on the table was still busy; I had no time to write. But I spent a long time thinking about my novel and what should come next. I prayed for several dear friends, finally with the time to reflect on their particular situations. And I just laid there doing nothing. Imagine that.

My challenge – which I extend to myself, as well – is to choose to be still from time to time, to choose to watch and listen. To relax at what seems an inconvenient time and recharge. To be present. I can’t slow time or my boys’ growth spurts, but I can use that time to its fullest.

Which sometimes means leaving it empty.

Support the Locals

The Family Business

The Family Business

This week, I’ve had a hard time finding my inspiration. In addition to this being just a crazy-busy week, I’ve watched my grandmother decline from what seemed a somewhat stable condition in the hospital to being restrained, sedated, and placed on a ventilator. It doesn’t help that this all happened right before Christmas.

As my family tries to figure out what to do and what our future may look like, I can’t help but think that this could have been prevented. While I am grateful for today’s technology and the comforts and progress it has afforded us, I can’t help but yearn for the days (long before my time) when doctors rode their horses out to homes in the middle of the night to deliver babies. Of course those “good old days” were stressful for those involved, but at least the doctors knew their patients. They lived in community together. In contrast, my grandmother has gotten lost in the shuffle of hundreds of other patients, and one of her nurses actually refused to help her find her pen the other day because she was a nurse and above such piddling duties as actually helping a patient.

I’m not going to apologize for sounding bitter. My grandmother isn’t the only victim, here. The problem is that people are turning into names on charts that aren’t read thoroughly, numbers, statistics. And it’s not just in hospitals, either.

Yet yesterday afternoon, I was reminded that there are places where people are still known as individuals. I had to go to our pharmacy, and it is not a chain store. My parents and I have used them for years, and all the ladies who work there know me and my kids. The parking is atrocious, and they aren’t a superstore, where you can buy a TV while you’re waiting. But if you need a pharmacy, I can’t think of a better place to go. When I go there, they always hug my kids and want to know how I am – not just medically, either. I support this local company and get so much more than a product at a good price.

There is a reason why people push “buying local.” For food, it’s about the healthiest way to go, especially if you can find something like local honey, which helps people fight allergies in their particular regions. But there are other benefits, as well. In a world where it seems that everyone now wants to achieve viral video fame, it’s nice to go to a place where there are real people who know me for me. It’s something that I think has gotten lost in the digital age, kind of like my grandmother getting lost at the hospital. The good thing is that there are people fighting it, people who want to create and maintain real relationships.

I work with my parents at our family’s business, and although there are many hardships that come with running a small business, there are so many benefits. Many people don’t understand, when you’re in a niche market, that you don’t serve everyone. You serve the people whose needs fit your particular skills, and in that way you provide services and products of a higher quality than big businesses that try to please everybody and, in doing so, turn out shoddy work. And we have customers who continue to come to us because they know they’re stimulating the local economy (one family’s economy, in particular!) and that we will remember their names when they come back.

Get to know the restaurant and shop owners of places you frequent. By supporting the local businesses in your community, you will get back some of that humanity that our world is doing a good job of suppressing. And if you find yourself becoming a statistic one day, the relationships that you make at these places will become so much more important than having thousands of followers on your favorite social network.

Acts of Kindness – Random or Otherwise


Hospital (Photo credit: José Goulão)

This time of year can be painful for so many because while everyone else seems to be enjoying the seasonal festivities, someone is spending a first Christmas alone. Someone else is spending it in the hospital with a bleak outlook. A whole city is in mourning on the anniversary of a terrible elementary school massacre. But do you know what the survivors of the Sandy Hook murders want? Not media attention but kindness, random acts of kindness. If their beloved children and teachers can no longer be with them, at least they – and others – can do good in their memory.

This week, when I became one of the stressed out loved ones of a person in distress, I was reminded just how important these acts of kindness are.

I awoke Tuesday morning to discover that my grandmother had a bout with congestive heart failure in the night, and rescue had broken down her front door and transported her to the hospital. This is the woman who beat a rare brain infection over twenty years ago and basically lived with few medical problems until her first experience with congestive heart failure four years ago. My elder son and I were with her the afternoon it happened, and I felt absolutely helpless. This week, she was alone, and I feel like I should have been there. I drove right by her neighborhood earlier in the day, foregoing a visit because I knew she would be taking her afternoon nap. I will always wonder if I could have helped her if I had just stopped by.

Our family is fortunate because we all live in the same vicinity, so we’ve taken turns helping. And this week, it’s taken a village. Someone has had to stay with her almost constantly. Deprived of oxygen and sleep, her usually tack-sharp mind became delusional, and she blamed us for conspiring to put her in a home and take her money. It hurt us to see her in such a state, not to mention our own bruised feelings.

I met my cousin at her house on Tuesday, figuring that I could at least help get things ready for the repair man to fix her door. Being in her empty house, seeing it untidy, finding the phone where she dropped it – it was tough. But we had work to do. I had exactly $100 in my wallet, which happened to be what the repair man required for materials and labor to fix the door. I left the money for him rather than make someone else run to the bank. After all, I didn’t think I would need it that day.

My cousin and I gathered a bag full of items Grandmama needed, and I took them to the hospital, which by the way, charges two dollars if you want to use their parking garages (which I did because it was pouring). After a quick visit, I got all the way up to the sixth floor of the parking garage before I realized I had no money. I went back in, figuring I could ask one of my aunts for a couple dollars. Then I got lost. And I was already ten minutes late to pick up my son from school.

I saw a man dressed in scrubs, and I asked him for directions to the ICU. He didn’t work there and didn’t know. “Well, I really just need an ATM,” I said. He did know where to find one of those, so I hopped in the elevator with him, shaking my head at my ridiculous situation. When he realized why I needed money, he pulled out his wallet and gave me two dollars, insisting that I not waste my money on ATM fees.

Shocked, I stood in the elevator with his money and called, “God bless you!” as he walked out. I felt like saying something cheesy, like I would pay it forward, but the doors closed, and I was on my way to the parking garage again.

The beginning of what turned into a rough week for my family was touched by this simple act of kindness. It didn’t seem like much – just two dollars. But it was something he absolutely did not have to do – but did gladly anyway. He gave me back some of the time I was already borrowing from the receptionist at my son’s school, who sat with Peter while he waited for me to show up. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and am determined to pay attention to those times when I, too, can make a small but significant difference in someone else’s day.

In the season when my family celebrates the greatest gift ever sent to Earth, so many people have allowed themselves to be consumed with wanting – and then not even being satisfied when they get whatever it is they think they want. They don’t see the people around them who would trade all the gifts in the world for one more Christmas with a deceased loved one – or a peaceful Christmas at home instead of in a hospital or nursing home.

Yet there are others who give, even when they don’t have to. They may not even realize that their small gestures mean so much. To them, I say thank you. Thank you for keeping me from being totally jaded, for reminding me that there is, indeed, still good in this world.

When the Retailers’ Black Friday Puts You in the Red

Black Friday shoppers at Walmart

Black Friday shoppers at Walmart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was a childhood joke with my mom and her sisters. After returning from a big shopping trip with their mother, they would say, “Look, Daddy! See how much money we saved!” Then my grandfather would groan and view the purchases and all the “savings.”

I can’t tell you how many times I go to one store or another, where the cashier makes a point to show me how much I saved. Yeah, but what about that other number–the amount I spent? What I save doesn’t actually put money in the bank, although many people shop like it does.

While retailers look forward to moving from the red to the black this weekend (and I understand that they depend on Christmas shoppers to turn a profit), I wonder how many of their shoppers will do just the opposite, putting themselves into debt to kick off the holiday season. There’s nothing like spending your way into financial oblivion in the space of a few days. And why? Do we really need seven cashmere sweaters? Will everyone on our Christmas list pitch a fit if they don’t get the latest i-device?

I’ll get controversial up front and say that we have commercialized way too many holidays. Can’t we enjoy one (or at tops, two) at a time? I love Christmas, but please can’t we save the decorations until at least after Halloween? (I’d prefer after Thanksgiving.) And while we’re on the topic, how many people have bought into the idea that their kids’ lives are going to be ruined if they don’t get everything on their list? Have we raised a bunch of Dudley Dursleys who count the number of presents? Many parents, instead of teaching gratitude for any gifts their children receive (since Christmas is all about presents, right?), put themselves into ridiculous debt by buying everything their children ask for. And most of them start the day after Thanksgiving.

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox and say that I don’t have a problem with Santa Claus. I like having an excuse to indulge and celebrate, just like everyone else. But, at the same time, I was thrilled when my dad’s side of the family decided to move to a Christmas drawing for the adults. I guess my middle name should have been “Moderation.”

As for Black Friday fever, I’m not exactly immune to it, either. There’s something invigorating about crossing items off my list, about being out and about when, any other week, I’d be at work. When my husband and I were footloose and fancy free, we enjoyed our Black Fridays, sleeping late and venturing forth when we felt like it, buying if the prices were reasonable, and, of course, enjoying people-watching. I’ve actually tried the hard-core-up-before-the-rooster shopping a couple times, but since I’m not a big ticket item buyer, there is absolutely nothing on my list that is cheaper at four A.M. than at noon. I don’t plan to waste my sleep again.

And did you know that not everything is at its best price on Black Friday (or Cyber Monday)? Here are a couple handy websites that I’ve found that, respectively, debunk Black Friday myths and give tips to stay debt-free on Black Friday, which is why I’m writing this after all.

If you somehow don’t need sleep like a normal person and enjoy getting up at two A.M. (or not sleeping after Thanksgiving at all), good for you. I know it’s a once a year thing, and maybe you’re having fun bonding with your friends, high on the promise of a bargain and ten cups of coffee. But maybe you feel like you simply can’t afford not to take advantage of all the great deals (again, see the Black Friday myths link above). If that’s you, watch out. Falling for too many of these “great deals,” could end you with a lot of debt and buyer’s remorse.

So the following are my tips for disciplined Black Friday (or really any) shopping:

1) Go with a game plan. And I’m don’t mean mapping out a specific store (although I know people looking for doorbusters do that) but rather knowing what products you plan to buy where. Not only will you save yourself the headache of forgetting something and having to go back (which could lead to an unfortunate impulse buy or three), but it will make you create at least a rudimentary budget. Which leads to number two.

2) Go with cash. Yep. Cash. What a pain, right? That means going to the bank or an ATM. Trust me. If you leave your debit and credit cards at home and only have cash, you cannot overspend. Of course, this also means that you have to have the aforementioned budget. Say you know that you have $200 of gifts to buy, but you also want to spend a little on yourself. As long as you don’t withdraw the money you were going to use for your electric bill or next week’s groceries, plan on a little of what Dave Ramsey calls “blow” money. I’m not really advocating for you to blow it, but sure, get something fun. A cinnamon roll, a movie you’ve wanted, a blouse you’ve admired for a while. Just try to be a little bit rational and make it something you’ll be glad you spent your money on.

3) Don’t open store credit cards just to get a “deal.” This could equal going into debt. Maybe not. Maybe you’re disciplined like me. The last time I opened a store credit card, I had a pre-planned amount I knew I could spend. I asked the cashier give me the price of everything, so I could decide what to keep and stay within that budget. She told me not to worry about how much everything was because I was approved for a much higher credit limit, and I could pay it off during the month. Do I look like I’m 18 and have never had a credit card before? Lady, I know what I can spend, and it doesn’t matter when I pay it off, that’s all I can afford! Two hundred dollars more now is two hundred dollars that I’m going to need to feed my kids during the month. Avoid the temptation. No new credit cards!

4) Choose coupons (and incentives) wisely. I know it takes time and effort, and I’m not one of those crazy ladies you’ll see on TV, but there are some great holiday coupons. If you have a Kohl’s card, there’s a $10 coupon toward any purchase. The nice thing is that there isn’t a minimum spending requirement. Target, on the other hand, has a coupon for $5 off the purchase of $50 or more. Don’t load up on $50 of junk just to qualify for the coupon, but if you’re going to spend $50 anyway, by all means, use the coupon. Make sense?

So, shop if you want, get up early like the hordes of other insane people (just don’t expect to see me at an ungodly hour), but help your personal economy while you stimulate the retailers’. Oh, and if you’re going to buy a movie, get Jingle All the Way with Ah-nold and Sinbad. You’ll get a good laugh over Hollywood’s version of two crazy Christmas shoppers.