A Slow Burn … and … The 2016 Christmas Chronicles!

It was such a slow burn.  It was so slow that it was almost imperceptible for years.  At times, I could vaguely feel the heat and on occasions I certainly sensed some scorching … but generally, I didn’t take much notice. I simply fanned all the flickers firmly out of my awareness.

It was an implicit and somewhat insidious pattern of behavior that developed so early on in my life.  My gaze was focused outward … my attention turned towards others. I was perpetually hurrying and scurrying to warm others … to make sure they were happy … endlessly endeavoring to earn their love and affection.  And I unwittingly thought that my efforts were keeping me warm too.  And, I guess they did … to some small degree … but those flames were also singeing the edges of my soul. Parts of me were slowly burning out.

strong-but-exhaussted

As a child growing up in a pretty dysfunctional home, I had erroneously assumed that if I could ensure that others were warm, cozy and happy (only ALL of  them) … they in return, would keep me warm and cozy too.  It didn’t always turn out that way. In fact, for the most part, for the better part of my recollection …  very few folks have actually noticed if/when I was left shivering. Not that anyone knew how I really felt. I always put a smile on my face regardless of how I was feeling. It might have been wiser to simply ask for help … but then again … the ‘strong’ ones don’t tend to admit when they we are cold.  No, we’re “fine”.  Arghhhhh.

Source unknown

As I discussed in another blog, part of the problem was A Tragic Misunderstanding on my part, but it’s always harder to see the picture clearly when you are inside the frame … even if you are a master’s level counsellor. Gah!! After decades of discounting, deferring and/or dismissing my own needs, I got to the point where I could no longer ignore the unfavorable build up of cold ash that was slowly stifling my spirit and snuffing out the bright light of my internal flame.  I was doggone depleted. And my usual efforts to toss another log at my internal flame flicker were simply not enough to re-ignite it anymore. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to warm anyone unless I took time to rekindle the embers of my inner spark.

Yes … as some wise soul pointed out … ‘you can burn yourself up trying to give light to others.’ And so … I decided I needed to take a break from my usual way of showing up in the world … both professionally (as a counsellor and life coach) and personally (as a wife, mother, daughter-in-law, friend etc).  I needed to take some time away from tending to others (in general), and instead, focus upon finding more ways to warm my own charred spirit. I decided to call it my ‘sabbatical’ … because a sabbatical is when you take time away from your usual responsibilities in order to focus upon something else or learn something new.  I spoke about it more specifically in another blog entitled  The Gift of Personal Renewal.  Yes. I seriously needed to unlearn my default pattern of putting myself last.

In my profession, we are schooled about the increased probability of “burnout”, “compassion fatigue” and/or “vicarious trauma”  As a result, I have always protected myself from these potential perils by ensuring I get enough sleep, eating nutritiously (well — mostly!),  exercising my body (walking, yoga) and other forms of ‘self care’ (massage and reflexology and solitude) …  but it had gotten to the point where the drains on me personally from 2015 through 2016 were reducing the benefits of these professional safeguards.  Ultimately, they were no longer adequate nor sufficient to nourish my soul.

So, for my sabbatical, I opted to amp up my own self-care considerably. And, in an effort to optimize my efforts towards personal renewal, I also decided to opt-out of doing things that had  typically become my responsibility.  That included Christmas! Yes. I decided to surrender the extra responsibilities, obligations, expectations and work load that had become an inherent part of the Season for me. If I am going to be totally transparent, I recognized that over the past 20 years Christmas had been losing its luster for me. I was feeling increasingly burdened by the duties I put upon myself to deliver a delightful Christmas experience for my family. And, even more than that … I was seriously wondering what it be like to have Christmas magically unfold before you.  Yes … I was aching to have someone else doing all the fussing and bothering in order to make it merry and bright for me.

I explained myself and asked my husband to take a turn and do what I do every year. It felt like a bold move … but I reckoned that it wasn’t entirely unreasonable for him to shoulder the responsibilities … for just this one time … out of our 40 Christmas celebrations together.  And, if the whole truth be known … part of me needed the break, but another part of me wanted him to get a serious sense of how much time and energy it takes to make it all jolly every year. In fact, I laughed out loud when I read the following on Pintrest because it pretty accurately described my hubby’s level of involvement as, year after year, Christmas magically (i.e. easily and effortlessly) rolled out before him.

dad-has-no-idea

After my mom and dad split up when I was twelve, my mom did the very best she could on our welfare budget … but I always dreamed of enjoying those Hallmark holiday celebrations that I was convinced all the two parent kids were having.  And so, year after year, I have been wholeheartedly invested in creating the kind of Christmas for my family that I had always most wanted myself. Yes, I was determined to make my dreams for the ideal Christmas come true for them … year after year after year. 

And so, over the years, I had developed numerous heart-warming traditions for our little family. I joyfully adorned every corner of the house and decorated the tree with unparalleled zeal and stuffed all the stockings for our daughters (and eventually their partners) … each with their own special color/pattern of Christmas wrap. I carefully selected and wrapped gifts for each of the teachers with oodles of ribbons and bright, beautiful bows. I took the lead role in organizing our effort to anonymously deliver gifts to the doorstep of someone we chose for the 12 Days of Christmas. I also mailed out five or six dozen handwritten and personalized Christmas cards on our family’s behalf. I spent hours dipping hand-made chocolates (both dark and milk) in a variety of flavored fondant (peppermint, almond, coffee, maple walnut, rum & butter, peanut butter, etc) along with Olympian cremes (rolled in toasted coconut or chopped nuts) as well as  soft, chewy caramels and licorice toffee individually wrapped in red or green foil too. I boxed them and wrapped up the lids in festively colored paper and completed the presentation with a legend identifying all the flavors. And they were deelicious!!  I artistically iced, at minimum, 12 dozen homemade Gingerbread cookies (in various Christmas cutouts) for sharing in our annual cookie exchange. And, every year, I made a double batch of the shortbread recipe that became our family favorite (from the cookie exchange!).  I often bottled up home-made Baileys and, for many years, I created huge shortbread wreaths to give out as tokens of my appreciation to honor my friends.  Sheesh … I even have an old pic of those yummy gems!

shortbread-wreath

It was also very important to me to spearhead my daughter’s understanding of the true Christmas spirit as one focused upon ‘giving’ rather than just ‘receiving.’ To that end, I helped and encouraged them to fill ‘Shoe Boxes’ for the less fortunate.  And, in an effort to pay it forward from my own childhood memories, I always faithfully donated to ‘Toys for Tots.’ I always tried to get things done early in the season (October  or November) because I had to commute 80 kilometers/50 miles (often on crappy winter roads) to the nearest city.  And … I had figure out how to surreptitiously purchase all the gifts with my three little gals in tow (childcare was not an option). Somehow I pulled the wool over their eyes so the ‘believers’ didn’t catch on … year after year after year.

I also remember navigating the shopping mall chaos and standing as patiently as possible so our sweet little girls could leave their requests with Santa.  I will never forget the year that my two daughters both changed their minds (at the last minute!) about what they wanted for Christmas!!  It was during the Care Bear craze of the early 1980s and perhaps all the advertising had finally gotten to them. No one was more surprised than me when they unexpectedly asked Santa for Care Bears. What??  Unfortunately, by that point in the season, there was not a Care Bear to be found in any store anywhere on this planet!  So what was a doting momma to do??  I ended up purchasing an official Care Bear pattern and spent hours sewing up two facsimile bears … a ‘Cheer’ Bear for Tiana and a ‘Tenderheart’ Bear for Sherisse. I hoped they would look authentic and real enough to pass their inspection.

carebear-delight

Yep.  I clearly nailed it. The sheer delight on Tiana’s face tickled my heart clear down to my toes. We still have both those blessed bears in our grandchildren’s toy box. The years have not been kind to them … but for the very best of reasons.  I don’t think they get much, if any, attention anymore. I’m guessing our grandchildren think they are downright ugly … but …  I just can’t bring myself to get rid of them! And, although they were just homemade imitations of the store-bought Care Bears … there is no doubt that those ‘replicas’ certainly became real in my daughter’s hearts.  As Margery Williams stated in The Velveteen Rabbit:

[Real is something] you become. It takes a long time … Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off and your eyes don’t see as well and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand.”

care-bears-collage

Oh my … the sweet riches of making Christmas’s past as merry as possible cannot be denied. I mailed off special care packages (dutifully heeding the Canada Post deadlines for delivery) filled with small tokens of love for my father and step-mother … usually a banana loaf or some homemade cranberry fudge … some hand-crafted ornaments … and maybe some pics of our growing girls to add to their grandparent’s ‘Brag Book’ (we had no internet/social media connections back then).  I made the annual wife-saver (eventually two of them – one savory and one sweet) preceded by warm gooey cinnamon buns (fresh out of the oven) on Christmas morning. I have typically hosted Christmas Day at our house for the last quarter century … ever since my Aunt Mil passed away … and so I’ve roasted the bird and/or the ham with all of the fixings.

We always spent Christmas Eve with my in-laws because it was my mother-in-law’s birthday. I leaned in to help as much as I could on Christmas Eve too because my mom-in-law was disabled and the bulk of the work fell upon her only daughter.  And, of course, the annual Christmas tasks were not complete until the turkey carcass was simmering in the crock pot and the homemade TV dinners were assembled into pie shells with all the leftovers (the brilliant idea of my sweet sister-in-law!). And then … I typically led the charge in cleaning it up … always grateful for whatever support was offered.  As I itemize all the ‘work’ I’ve invested in the Christmas preparation and execution, I have to concede that it has not been without a strong element of martyrdom sneaking in over the last two decades. And so, when I saw the following sign on a Facebook page of a young millennial, I could clearly relate … and … realized that it wasn’t just me that often felt this way.

exhausted-from-watching-me-do-everything

Little by little, over the decades, I have stopped doing most of it. We’ve grown in numbers and it’s just so much harder to ensure everyone is warm and happy. I have continued to fill all the stockings and decorate the house, make the meals and be attentive for when I needed to put out trays of appetizers.  These days, my husband roasts a Prime Rib in the smoker and my grown daughters contribute to the meal preparations and my sons-in-law help with the clean up and my oldest grand-daughter helps me prepare the ooey-gooey cinnamon buns.  And so, of late, my biggest concern has been that I’m typically bouncing up and down during the Christmas morning gift opening (to tend to things that needed doing) that I feel like I miss out on witnessing the joy as my family unwraps the gifts I have invested my heart into getting for them.

So, in 2016, I was eagerly anticipating simply sitting back and let it all unfold effortlessly in front of me.  There was a part of me that delighted in the thought that because Christmas was ‘on him’ this year, my hubby would have the opportunity to invest countless hours and oodles of energy into making it a Hallmark kind of Christmas for me.  I suspected that I would deeply savor the experience.  Yes.  I had a lot of hopes riding on switching things up. Ha. Ha. I can hear you all wisely wincing at the ‘set up’ I created for both him and me.

That said, I do hold some very special memories of Christmas past where I was on the receiving end of the fussing and bothering. One of my all time favorite memories was during the era that we were hand-making our gifts for each other (to resist the commercialization of the Season).  Anyway, I was reduced to tears the year that our daughter Sherisse handcrafted stockings for her dad and I!!  And then … she and her sisters filled them with gifts for us … so we could join them in our annual stocking opening!  It still remains one of the kindest and most meaningful gestures I can remember.  We continue to use those stockings and my heart secretly smiles with warmest recollection of their thoughtfulness every time I see them.

Another one of my other most favorite Christmas memories of the Season being made merry and bright for me is when my husband loaded up our little girls and drove 20 miles to pick out a fresh, live tree that easily reached our 10 FOOT ceilings.  It most majestically replaced the scrawny little five foot fake one we had been using!  Honestly, I remember it being the most extraordinary tree I had ever seen!!  The scent of spruce filled our home!!  I even had to make a whole schwack of red and white bows out of some ribbon I happened to have on hand because I simply didn’t have enough ornaments for a tree of such magnitude!  It was beyond my wildest dreams!

best-christmas-tree-ever-1988

And well … I dug up an old photo so I could show you.  All I can say is that the picture does not even remotely do any kind of justice to just how much that tree warmed my heart and nourished my spirit!!! I get toasty all over again just thinking about it. ❤

At any rate, it was quite interesting to turn the baton entirely over to my husband and wait for him to commence the merry making. Staying out of it and keeping my mouth shut was more challenging than I expected. He picked out the tree on the first weekend in December (as per our usual) and got it standing up in the house on the 6th.  It smelled quite beautiful.  I was heading out of town on the 8th and 9th … and … I fantasized that I would return home to a brightly lit and beautifully decorated tree. But …  no such luck.

I could have decorated it myself, but remember … I was on sabbatical.  And … I knew that if I did that I would have really resented my husband (for my martyring actions) because we had agreed it was his turn to make it merry around here.  So, as excruciating as it was to let it stand there dark and naked for over another week, I forced myself to dwell in the discomfort until he decided to do it.  And, I noticed … he chose not set himself on fire in order to meet our long-standing traditions and/or my expectations around timelines.  It was finally decorated 10 days before Christmas. christmas-tree-2016

He got it done while I was enjoying some sabbatical self-care  … I was getting a pedicure.  He really did a beautiful job of decorating it. And … he commented on how many marvelous memories came back to him as he dressed the tree with all the ornaments we have received from our girls and/or picked up over the years along on our travels.  Our tree really did look quite lovely!  It does not escape me though, as I write this, that the tree that most warmed my heart (with all the red and white handmade bows) was not anywhere near as ‘pretty’ as this one.  I guess it’s really true what they say … looks aren’t everything.

Our tree is in the living room, but we gather in our family room (near the fireplace) to open gifts on Christmas morning.  As you can see from the pics below, my idea of “decking the halls” is a little different than my husband’s.  I have to concede that his lack of interest in decorating the family room irked me a bit.  I really missed the lights … BUT … it was really interesting for me to observe, once again, that because he was very busy at work, he was not inclined to set himself on fire tending to things that I have always thought were essential.  In fact, for the first time in over 20 years, he also opted NOT to put up outdoor lights on the front of the house.  He did get some up in the backyard, though, and they looked gorgeous twinkling in the moonlight.

decorating

Once again … keeping my mouth shut and letting him do Christmas his way was much harder than I expected. Yes, with boxes of decorations left undisturbed in the basement, our tree was the SOLO sign of the Season in our house until December 21st … when the decorations unexpectedly doubled!!  We received a gorgeous glitter dusted poinsettia in a beautifully spirited ‘pay it forward’ exchange that one of our next-door neighbors inspired in our cul-de-sac.  Thank you for that Mandy!

poinsettia

46a-street-3

While I could have tendered this task over to my hubby, I jumped at the opportunity to savor the Christmas spirit tucked into that neighborly invitation myself.  I got directly into the car and headed downtown to pick up a little something to take over to the neighbor to our ‘right’.  Honestly, it felt so good to be doing something Christmassy.  And, as luck would have it, while I was at it, I ended up tripling the decorations in our home (and fueling my Christmas spirit!) by purchasing a Christmas wall hanging (that was 50% off!!).  The message completely captured my heart!  Fa la la la la … la la la la.

wall-hanging

Yes. It was becoming clearer and clearer to me that many of the joys I usually experienced during the Season were clearly tucked into the spaces between the holiday tasks and toilings!  And, I must share that watching my husband delegate the holiday tasks to others was also very eye opening for me!  He had no problem enlisting my three grown daughters to help with his stocking shopping. I actually felt a bit guilty because I certainly didn’t mean for their workload to go up because I had surrendered mine.  They reassured me, however, that they had quite enjoyed helping him out.

I did, however, secretly worry that their compassionate efforts to help their dad were somehow going to sabotage his appreciation for how much time and effort I actually invested in the annual merry making. I didn’t want them to make it too easy for him! I also suspected that daddy’s little girls might rescue the old boy with the cooking and kitchen duties too!  But, as it turned out … my three sons-in-law stepped right up to the plate and helped out immensely with ALL the cooking and cleaning.  I played games while they slaved away.

I had to silence the critic in my head that niggled at me relentlessly … suggesting I should get up and help. I reminded myself that I was supposed to be on sabbatical. And so, I tried to keep my thoughts and opinions to myself throughout the whole season. I did, however, pick up the donation for Toys for Tots. I didn’t want to risk it falling off my husband’s radar. I also printed out the sticky cinnamon bun recipe as well as the wife-saver recipe for him. As it turned out, though, he opted to make a full breakfast of bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs and pancakes instead.  It was absolutely scrumptious, and although it meant much more work and clean up on Christmas day, the boys did it the way they preferred.  And, guess what?  I just sat back and thoroughly enjoyed all their fussing and bothering and kept my mouth shut about how much quicker the clean up would have been with just one pan each from the wife-savers!

I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, at one point however.  I felt obliged to remind my husband that he also needed to purchase gifts for our eight grandchildren.  I’m not sure why that task caught him by surprise, but it did. Ultimately, he met up with a couple of his daughters  and they helped him choose some gifts that were really big hits with the grandkids!

Yes, he was doing Christmas his way.  Perhaps my biggest surprise was when he told me he was going to pick up some gift certificates for our son-in-law’s stockings for fancy hot shaves from Tommy Gunns.  He added, quite nonchalantly, that while he was at it, he might indulge himself in a hot shave himself.

Whattt???  The voice in my head balked loudly!How on earth was he ever going to appreciate how much effort goes into making it merry and bright if he was going to find ways to enjoy and nourish himself while he was at it??”

Yes. I know. It does not escape me just how ridiculous that sounds as I say it out loud. Bah. Humbug. I wasn’t sure whether to be cranky … or … to simply recognize that I was being seriously schooled in how I could very well have been seizing more peace and joy for myself all of these years!  Here I had been hoping he would get a deeper sense of how much elbow grease it takes to put smiles in the hearts of others … and instead … I was learning, over and over, that you are not required to set yourself on fire to warm others.  Gahhh.

All in all, though, I think he did gain a better idea of how challenging it could be … in the long run. There was a bit of a snafu with his efforts to stuff the stockings.  Because it had been so frigidly cold here, I had packed up a big bag with all my winter weather wear to keep in the car while traveling.  I’ll spare you all the details, but I discovered that my toque and mitts had been earmarked as stocking stuffers!  It was so darn tempting to not alert him of this error … to simply let the chips fall … and let my daughter find some of her mother’s old winter wear gifted to her in her stocking.  But I couldn’t keep my mouth shut on this one. I felt compelled to save him. Nonetheless, it’s a faux pas that will go down in history!

And … when it finally occurred to my hubby that maybe he should be stripping the beds and laundering the linens for our extra 13 overnight guests, it only took him a few seconds to reckon that the sheets couldn’t be that dirty since the last time our family stayed over.  Once again, I observed how he was not catching himself on fire to keep others warm. And, you know what?  Everyone slept fine … in those sheets that had not been freshly washed and dried and tucked with crisp hospital corners around the mattresses.

And so … I started to question myself: “Maybe … just maybe … I never needed to do all the fussing and bothering that I believed was such an essential part of Christmas??  Was it possible that I had been burning myself up unnecessarily?

And, in all honesty, I also have to concede that my lack of involvement was just not as nourishing as I thought it would be.  It is simply not my nature to watch from the sidelines.  And … I also recognized, just as the plaque I bought suggested, that much of the Christmas spirit is tucked into the moments between completing all the tasks.  I did offer to help my husband wrap everything … 64 gifts in all … 54 stuffers (9 for each daughter/son-in-law), 8 gifts for the grand-kids and one gift exchange item for each of us. It would have been torture to watch him fumbling with the gift wrap by himself with his fat sausage fingers.  It ended up being quite enjoyable … we cranked up the Christmas tunes and sipped on a nice Cabernet-Sauvignon while we cut and taped and chatted about Christmas’s past.

And then, a day or two later, I literally jumped at the invitation to travel into the city and help my busy daughters wrap their children’s stocking gifts.  I also toted them all home so our grandkids wouldn’t catch sight of any of them in transit to our house. It’s getting harder and harder to uphold the spirit secret of ‘Santa’ as they grow older.  In fact, my bright little 5 year old granddaughter reluctantly but earnestly admitted to her mother “I don’t trust you fully” as she skeptically questioned the whole notion of Santa. It was just no longer adding up for her.  It was an interesting year for my eldest grandson too. Even though, at eleven, he had already given up ‘believing’ … he became suspicious this year when he and sisters each received an iPad equivalent from ‘Santa’.  He reckoned that Santa might indeed have to exist after all.  As he shared with his mom, “I know you and Dad would NEVER get these for us!” Ha ha.

And so, in 2016, a believer becomes a doubter  … and … a doubter flirts with becoming a believer.  Yep.  These are all the priceless moments that catch your heart and make your spirits soar!  And … during my sabbatical, all of my perspectives were being challenged too. It was becoming so clear that the joys that are tucked ‘in-between’ all the toiling and tasking are part of what makes it all merry and bright. And I was learning that it was possible to do so … without catching yourself on fire.

I learned so very, very much during my sabbatical! “In the final analysis” (as I fondly recall my father often saying) … I learned that I was absolutely right: If I didn’t  fuss and bother to do it all, it wouldn’t get done ……… at least not the way I thought it should.  Truth. But … I also learned that perhaps it wasn’t all necessary in the first place.

Yes.  “In the grand scheme of things” (another dad~ism) …  I came to recognize that the multiple and myriad ways I had martyred myself over the years … with the intention of making it merry for others … was pretty much misguided and somewhat unnecessary.  Who knew you could have a completely marvelous time unwrapping gifts in an entirely undecorated room?  Ha Ha. And, although no one baked the annual shortbread cookies … we ended up enjoying all kinds of baking that had been gifted to my eldest daughter. She brought them home for us to share. And, it turned out that my youngest daughter ended up making the ‘Melt-In-Your-Mouth Eggnog’ cookies I had tasted at our staff Christmas luncheon.  These cookies might even de-throne the traditional shortbread as the best cookies for Christmas consumption.  Deeelicious!!!.

Recipe Source: Pintrest … slightly adapted from allrecipes.com and inspired by Parent Pretty

And, what became most evident to me during my sabbatical was that the things that make the season truly merry and bright showed up … our children and their children. Yep. Everything that was essential and important was present.  And, no one had to set themselves on fire to feel the warmth and peace of the holiday.   Oh … and by the way … the clean up is a snap when you most of your decorations are still in the boxes downstairs.

And so, another year has passed by so quickly … and … I am happily back in the ‘make it merry’ saddle again for Christmas 2017.  And, I am realizing that I need to put up lights in the family room because I LIKE LIGHTS.  Not because of some notion that they will brighten Christmas for my family.  I am recognizing that I need to do the things that nourish the spirit of the Season for me … and … drop all the rest.  And … I am, once again, thoroughly enjoying the ambiance created by the lights in the family room this year.

Yes.  My ‘sabbatical’ taught me a whole lot and was deeply transformational for me in terms of the way I am approaching Christmas this year.  I had hoped some of the lessons learned during my sabbatical would be for my husband … and … I think there were some of those too.  But, I see that the greatest ‘ahas’ were for me.  And,  for the first time in many, many years … the preparations don’t feel like a weighty, daunting task. I am greeting them with renewed enthusiasm and zeal.  I am realizing that there is absolutely nothing that MUST be done in any particular way.  And most importantly … I really like the way it feels to fully embrace the notion that I am not required to set fire to myself to have a very delightful Christmas.

And … I am reminded, as 2018 waits eagerly around the corner, that I can show up in a way that keeps me from shivering.  I can ask for help … I can let some things go … I can give myself and my own needs some priority. And not just at Christmas … but the whole year through.

May all our hearts be warmed during the 2017 merry making  – without any singeing of our souls  …  ❤ Karen ❤

 

 

 

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Gift of Personal Renewal … | Miracles! Your Center for Well-Being Inc.
  2. Angela
    Dec 14, 2017 @ 17:25:55

    Beautiful Karen just beautiful! Eye opening for me and so many truths I haven’t figured out on my own. Thank you afain for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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