Gifts and Thanks.

The other day, my co-worker and I were talking about the beauty of thank you notes. I told her I was raised to write a thank you note every time, for every gift, and that I still do it to this day. She said she does the same, and then proceeded to blow my mind: as a kid, she wasn’t allowed to play with, touch, or otherwise engage with any toy or gift she got until a thank you note had been written.

That is some diabolical next-level shit, and I AM HERE FOR IT. Reason #462 why I wish I could procreate: I’d do the same thing.

I love thank you notes. I love writing them, even when I hate writing them. It feels… official. Formal. Like, I can say thank you a million times, but if I send it to you in writing, then I mean it and you’ve got permanent evidence of my gratitude. C and I wrote a good portion of our wedding thank-you’s while we were on our honeymoon, and it was a lovely way to relive our gratitude. Not just for the gifts, but for the people who showed up for us on such a huge and wonderful day. I had it in my head to send thank you’s to everyone, present nor not, just because it meant so much; I don’t know that I ever did it, but certainly, the gifts were acknowledged. I wouldn’t and couldn’t rest until all the notes were sent.

I keep a lot of the thank you notes I’ve received from my nieces and nephews. They’re funny, sweet, and the handwriting is a heart-tugging way of seeing them grow up. I’ve written before about the value and importance of hand-written notes from that perspective; getting a note from your nephew and having it hit you that he’s not 7 years old anymore, and he’s got a teenager’s handwriting… it just does something to you. Like seeing the change in your own writing as you age. Or that of your mother’s hand.

Thank you notes aren’t everyone’s bag, and really, as time passes, the beauty of a written note seems to be getting lost. I don’t hold it against someone if they don’t send a note, because I know it’s a thing that not everyone values, but I gotta say, I love them and will probably always send them – even if the recipient says it’s not necessary. Maybe not for them, but it absolutely is for me.

And that brings me to the topic of presents.

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten progressively more unreasonably rabid about not wanting physical gifts for Christmas (or birthdays, or anything else for that matter). Some of it stems from not wanting people to blow their money, some of it comes from not wanting to be at the mercy of someone’s idea of what a good present for me might be, and a lot of it comes from the practical side of my brain: if you’re going to spend money on me, then put it in the form of cash so I can buy groceries or some shoes that don’t have holes in the soles. Give a gift card to Lowe’s or something so I can get a new dishwasher or a light fixture.

Practical presents, instead of giving something just for the sake of giving something. Especially if it’s something I’m going to have to figure out how to discretely donate or hide or dispose of. That just seems like a waste, all the way around, AND there’s a self-inflicted emotional guilt component to it that I loathe.

Giving presents – and expecting presents – at Christmas has lost its magic for me, for some reason. And I have to think there’s more to it than just practicality, because it’s… visceral. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the money to buy what I’d want to for people. Or maybe it’s because I’m not the type to be super thoughtful about gifts, you know, like someone who manages to find something perfect and perfectly suited for the recipient, and it’s something you’d never think to get for yourself but it’s awesome? Yeah. I’m not that person. And I don’t ever want to spend money on something that a person wouldn’t want, nor would I want to inflict a gift that they’re going to have to “manage.”

And why are we giving each other presents, anyway? Why is there an expectation of gift giving? I mean, I get it. It’s fun to see wrapped presents under a tree. Fun to see little kids get excited and tear through everything. But then, at some point, it becomes perfunctory, an expectation, and the magic is gone. Of course, there’s the original religious aspect to the whole thing, which may very well perpetuate the magic for the believers, but for the rest of us…

If I’m being honest, I probably love getting presents, and it’s just the guilt of not being able to reciprocate because I’m broke, coupled with a total disdain for EXPECTATION OF THINGS (because expectations = disappointment and premeditated resentments), that has me feeling like I just want to cancel Christmas. I don’t know. It all makes me feel like a scrooge.

BAH HUMBUG.

 

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Hello, My Name is Human (and so is yours)

(with a nod to this great song by Highly Suspect)

November, 1998: It was a beautiful morning in Buena Vista Park, in the Upper Haight district of San Francisco. The sun was shining, the air clean and crisp… a perfect time and place for a father and his daughter to walk through the park, enjoying the great outside. As they ambled along the path, the young girl saw someone lying in the grass on (and under) some cardboard, appearing to be asleep. The girl, curious, asked why the person was sleeping there. The father responded, “Because they’re a loser and need to get a job. Either that or they just need more coffee. Maybe we should bring them some!” and started laughing. The girl laughed a little, too, and they continued to walk.

I was the person feigning sleep on that cardboard in the park, and I heard every word.

It’s interesting what people say when they think the person in question can’t hear them. Already in a place of deep shame, depression, humiliation, and a strong desire to just not be alive anymore, that overheard conversation served to verify what I’d suspected about myself for years, and it helped carve a larger space in which I could nestle and roost in those feels. I’d been attempting to survive on the streets for a month, but I’d been addicted for the 3-4 years leading up to it, and if there’s one thing an addict knows, it’s the feeling of being unworthy and less-than. Sub-human, even.

Shame.

Brené Brown is a shame and vulnerability researcher, and if you haven’t read any of her books, I highly and strongly recommend you do. Read all of them, and start at the beginning (The Gifts of Imperfection is my favorite). But if you only choose one, I’d say to pick up her latest, “Braving the Wilderness.” I say this without having finished reading it yet (I’m working on it!), but in there, she offers up four paths to true belonging; to being bravely and wonderfully ourselves. She makes it clear that we cannot experience true connection or full acceptance and belonging until we show our genuine selves to the world.

I bring this up because one of paths begins with, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” It reminds me of the father and his daughter as they walked through the park that day. The father had a choice in that moment: to be kind, to lean in, to empathize and to share some real insight with his daughter about the world, about humanity. To encourage connection. Instead, he chose the other path: derision, sarcasm, and judgement.

I genuinely believe these choices are what lie on either side of fear. If we find that we’re afraid or unsure of the unknown – like addiction, or mental illness, or homelessness – it can be easy to let that fear take us to a place of judgement. To “otherizing” that person in order to grant ourselves some semblance of feeling control over our own destiny. “That would NEVER happen to me.” Right? But from that fear and uncertainty, we have another option: to move in, as Dr. Brown recommends. To understand, to empathize, and to ask how we can help. This helps drive connection with those who are suffering, and who may simply be in desperate need of a kind and loving heart to shine bright enough to light their way to the other side of the struggle.

And I find myself thinking about all this after watching a video of a woman from Kentucky who is faced with no choice but to stop her dialysis because she can’t afford to get there and back 3x a week, and is dependent on Medicare and Medicaid for her healthcare – which is currently under near constant threat by our administration. You should watch the video, and then tell me you don’t feel something in the depths of your stomach, heart, and throat for this woman who you’ve never met, and likely never will.

I guess the question is, do you feel empathy and compassion, or do you feel disgust and derision?

In case you’re wondering, I fall firmly in the empathy & compassion camp. I don’t know how you can watch it and not see the pain in her eyes and the desperation (but also, the resignation) in her voice. There is no doubt in my mind that this country has the power and resources to take care of every single person in it, comfortably and compassionately and comprehensively, without it negatively impacting anyone else or causing a lack of resources in other ways. We just have to prioritize that, instead of buckling down in fear of losing what little we have. The powers that be have convinced us there is scarcity, and they do this because it continues to line their pockets as we all move further in the other direction of struggle.

I think it all starts with getting back to in-person connections. The internet enables us to stay connected, but there is something significantly lacking in those interactions: the humanity of each other. We all need to start holding hands more, talking in person more, listening more, letting our guard down more and getting real and vulnerable and brave more.

I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in the common connection we all share, just by being alive. There’s room for all of us.

Dynamic dynamics and some reflection in the ripples.

But before I dive into all that… I wonder if I’ll ever not think about Electra Woman and Dyna Girl when I use the word “dynamic?”  (I hope not. I miss that lunchbox. And I just fell down a rabbit hole of excellent old lunchboxes, darn it!)

When C and I first met, ours was a pretty easy integration. I had room, space, and time for him, and – when he wasn’t traveling – he had the same for me. Neither of us had much in the way of social obligations, so the majority of our free time was spent together, and it just… worked. It was lovely because it all made sense.

But he has kids, he has a family, and he had a life prior to meeting me. I have family, and a long time of being on my own which meant I was accustomed to doing things my way, or my family’s way. I’d never really given much thought to how much of a challenge it might be, could be, and probably would be, to integrate families that have pre-existing dynamics that may not match up with the other. In fact, it’d be pretty miraculous if they did easily and magically align with no chafing. With two people, it’s not so hard to make adjustments and establish new family dynamics, but when there’s all that other stuff, other people, all those prior patterns and behaviors and expectations… it can get challenging, or at least feel that way.

Some years ago, I opted out of Thanksgiving with my family and went to spend it with friends in New Orleans. I missed my family the entire time. Even when we only spend a few hours together, or if someone doesn’t start cooking the turkey until 8pm, it’s YOUR family. These are the people and the customs you’re used to. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I had a GREAT time in New Orleans, but I often found myself preoccupied with my internal leaky faucet of comparisons: “This isn’t how it’s done. That isn’t the couch I’m used to, those aren’t the foods I’ve come to love and expect, these aren’t the people who have no problem leaving the room to go screw around on the computer or play ping-pong downstairs…” 

Comparison is the thief of joy, you know.

So, this year will the the 3rd of maybe the last 10-15 where I can remember not spending it with my family; he and I are driving to Atlanta to spend it with his parents and his kids. We figured since he gets the kids for the holiday, it would be great to all get together down there (and easier, and probably less confusing & stressful for everyone to not have a major holiday at our house just yet – especially since our dining table hasn’t shown up). I’m looking forward to it; his parents have a lovely house that is comfortable, and also large enough for everyone to spread out and keep entertained, which means we all keep our sanity, I think.

I’d be lying if I said it isn’t also just a little bittersweet to not be spending it with MY people.

But you know, things change. They’re… dynamic. Families change, relationships change, realities change, dynamics change, venues change; you’d think I’d be used to that by now, right? It’s happening at work, and in the not too distant past, it happened with friendships here, as well.

I won’t get into the family stuff too much, but suffice to say, there’s “stuff”… which is all the more reason why it’s a good and timely thing C & I are heading out of town. Things are changing with my family all over the place, and I can guarantee they won’t look the same a year from now, much less 5 or 10. Even if/when your family drives you up a damn wall bonkers, they’re still YOUR people. The devil you know, right? It’s what you’re used to.

The friendship thing took an unexpected turn some years back as a result of some “stuff” too, but ultimately, it changed like someone threw a huge rock in the pond and the ripples unsettled the status quo; the underwater critters have since resettled in their new spots after being displaced by the rock and the waves, but the slow and gentle lilt keeps it all moving around – just a little, I think, as is the nature of relationship. It’s really just part of life, and I get that, but have been paying a whole lot more attention to it all lately; maybe because it’s important to me to get it as right as I can these days.

At work, we had what’s being referred to as “workforce reduction” – we had to lay off some really good people a few weeks ago, all of whom brought not only huge talent to the agency, but huge hearts and personalities, as well. The place just doesn’t feel the same without them, so the dynamics there have shifted, both from the absence of some, and the remains of the others. It feels like something is missing; something is different. And even something as simple as one new person moving into our office suite, and another person moving across the office to a different desk… everything changes. It’s almost amazing, the ripple effect. If it weren’t so potentially disruptive, I mean.

I know I add to it with my own reticence and resistance to change. I am Bruce Lee’s greatest disappointment, because I am NOTHING like water when it comes to change, or to life happening. I’m messy, and I’m petulant, and it takes me a while to process through all the feelings I have about things. And in the midst of all those feelings, the part of a person where they’re able to pretend like everything is fine was apparently never installed for me, so you always know where you stand, and where I’m at. I worry sometimes that I should have more of a social nicety filter where I can make people feel better and not inflict my own mood on the situation… but then I’m reminded that I’m simply being authentic, and it ain’t such a bad thing.

More about that whole “making things okay for people” thing in another post.

Anyway. Pre-existing dynamics are a mofo, I tell you what. I mean, most of the time it’s easy to take a step back and observe if they aren’t yours to navigate; you can rise above and not participate, just learn. I’m grateful for that. But I’m also having to recognize every time my own upbringing, conditioning, and dynamics are showing up and preventing me from allowing for true connection. I’m having to own up to all the conflicting emotions that crop up as a result of bringing my stuff to the table, recognizing that my way isn’t necessarily the best way – it’s just a different way. I have to breathe, give space, and hold presence with how C interacts with his family, kids, ex-wife… knowing they have a lifetime of engagement, and that I am the “outsider.” Just as it would be if I had kids and an ex of my own (at least, one I had to talk to).

Some folks say blending or integrating families is simple, and we all just complicate it by thinking about it too much. I think there probably are situations and times where it would be simple and straightforward… but more often than not, you’re dealing with not just the people who show up, but all the stuff and things they carry with them (which, you could argue, is an integral part of who they are, at least at that particular moment). Memories, hopes and dreams that may not be coming to fruition anymore, expectations, resentments, behaviors…

Ghosts.

Our new dining room table only seats 6; I think we’d need a much bigger venue if we tried to hold the holiday at our home this year.

Anyway. I find it interesting to note each year when my attachment to Thanksgiving shows up. Christmas I can take or leave; I’ve gotten REALLY sensitive about gifts, people wasting money on things other people may or may not want… I’m bitter about the expectation of present exchanges on a holiday that – for me – has no other real meaning. You know? But Thanksgiving. There’s something about it that goes pretty deep, and I guess I’d do well to figure that out so I can just enjoy the time, the food, the company, and the concept of gratitude, all in my first year married to a wonderful man (and all of the goodness that comes with that – dynamics be damned or embraced).

Thanksgiving was the closest thing to a steady tradition I’ve had in a life full of moves and transition and change, so maybe that’s all there is to it. And maybe it’s time to establish our own dynamic dynamics, our own holiday traditions. Maybe that’s how it all starts over: with us.

Gratitude and giving thanks, by way of a life’s perspective.

2016… man. I don’t think anyone I know would disagree that this has been a really hard year, for a lot of people, and a lot of reasons. I’m tempted to use much stronger language and get real specific, but I think John Oliver and his team pretty well covered it. And it’s not over yet. I had another post in the works as a continuation of that last one about trust and truth, but I realized this morning that I needed to interrupt the cycle of fear and despair about the state of our nation and humanity, and instead just take a moment to find some gratitude. Shine a positive light on things, even for just a moment, so as not to get completely lost in the morass.

This time last year, I left a job that, for many reasons, was not a good fit and was wearing me down and out. My first day at my current job was the week of Thanksgiving, and there isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not reminded of what it used to be like, and how fortunate I feel to work where I do. To have made that change, to brave the unknown for a chance at real fulfillment. There are hard days, certainly, but the level of support and encouragement and challenge I feel there is really special.

This time last year, I’d severed all ties to the pathological liar I’d dated, and had settled into something of a peaceful surrender to the very real possibility I might never find a real partner to spend life with. I was busy with school, had started a new job, and my life was full enough that it didn’t scare or sadden me that much; it seemed like a logical conclusion, based on past experience… and then, on February 9th of this year, everything changed when C. showed up for our first date. I think I knew, that night, but certainly after having four dates in three days, it became readily apparent there was something special to – and with – him. And now, to finally be living what I always thought love looked like but never really knew… my heart is full to overflowing, every day. He makes partnership easy; I never feel unheard, unseen, or unloved, never doubt my place in his life, and never feel like the “work” of being in a relationship is anything other than easy and worth it, because it means we’ll be closer because of it.

This time 18 years ago, I was sleeping in the parks and on the streets of San Francisco: strung out, full of shame, and tired. I remember one morning, waking up to the sound of a father and daughter walking through Buena Vista park where I’d been sleeping. I heard the daughter ask her dad why there were people sleeping in the park, and the father making some disparaging remark about us being losers and needing to get jobs, and that maybe they should bring us some coffee or something so we’d have the motivation to get up and work. They laughed and kept walking, leaving their lack of empathy and laughter at my expense behind for me to pile on top of my own already suffocating self-loathing.

A few days later, on Thanksgiving day that year, I knew my sister, her (now) husband, and several family friends were just across the Bay having dinner, and there was a place at the table for me if I wanted it. I was too ashamed, though, and felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. In all honesty, I don’t know that I was completely done with drugs, either, and going to their house would have meant giving everything up. “Everything” = no home, no money, no job, no self worth… but the escape from feeling that drugs provided was enough to convince me it was better, somehow.

So that day, instead of humbling myself to be with family, my junkie pride took me to the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. There was a Mexican family there, serving Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. They made the food themselves, and made enough of it to serve maybe 50 to 100 people. They didn’t speak English, but they didn’t need to; their kind faces and their actions told the story of their hearts. I remember sitting there, eating in the rain, and something about that day finally drove home the point that I could – and should – do better. That there was so much more to life, and there was a whole lot more I wanted for mine. And that it might actually be possible.

I can’t help but equate the kindness shown by that family to the light that finally started to flicker in my own heart, shining just bright enough to light the way out. And, in comparison, the denigration shown by that father and daughter serving only to drive me further into the hole I was already in. The former was in keeping with who and where I wanted to be, and it’s a torch I’ve carried with me ever since. So, every year at Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of where I’ve been, and what a gift it is to be where I am now. Especially today.

I’ve been given the gift of home, which is what I’d been looking for all along.