Thankful Tree

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With Thanksgiving around the corner, I’ve been reminiscing about a little tradition I tried with my children when they were younger. I’d find a leafless branch in my backyard, stick it in a small terra cotta pot filled with pebbles, and voila! We’d have a thankful tree.

I didn’t make up the idea of the thankful tree. I’d read about it and thought it would be a nice way to make the holiday a little more meaningful and encourage gratitude in my children. Before Thanksgiving, I fashioned colorful paper leaves out of construction paper, punched a small hole in each one, and tied a ribbon through the hole. Then on Thanksgiving, I encouraged family members to write something they were thankful for that year on a leaf and hang it on the tree.

The thankful tree made a cute centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table. Its starkness fit into the season when fall was giving way to winter. Its leaves gave it color and made it a conversation piece as family guests read about the things their loved ones were thankful for.

Thanksgiving can be an overwhelming holiday. There’s so much food and the endless preparation that goes with it. Family members who haven’t seen each other in a while are suddenly in close quarters. Forward-thinking types are plotting their Black Friday shopping for the next day.

The thankful tree gives people a chance to pause and take stock of their blessings and to realize how many things there are to be truly grateful for. I’d encourage families to give it a try and hopefully establish a tradition of gratitude and togetherness for their many Thanksgiving holidays in the future.

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NOel

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Yesterday a station on Sirius XM radio started playing Christmas songs. Mind you, not just the occasional festive holiday tune thrown in among other popular offerings. Nonstop, 24/7 holiday treacle. Is it cliche to scream, “TOO SOON!”?

It’s sometimes hard to wrap my mind around the fact that our society could take a  feast honoring a poor, imperiled Christ child in a manger and turn it into a shameless commercial bonanza. (Of course, the ancient Romans and Celts are rolling over in their graves at their “pagan” festivities being coopted by the Christians.)

Take something lovely and pure, and someone will try to monetize it. Romantic love? Let’s sell pricey roses, candy, and jewelry and make those items stand in for our feelings. Love your mom? Nothing says devotion like an overpriced all-you-can-eat hotel brunch, a $7 greeting card, and yes, more flowers.

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a holiday involving the ritual of gift-giving would eventually get over the top. When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes buy our tree on Christmas Eve! Nowadays, people put their artificial Christmas trees up in early November, and I still see them in the windows on Valentine’s Day.

One of my favorite Christmas specials to this day is A Charlie Brown Christmas. In it, Charlie Brown is frustrated by the hoopla and commercialization of Christmas. Finally he cries out in frustration, “Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?!” His friend Linus, of course, adorably quotes the gospel of Luke, which describes the scene of Christ’s birth.

There’s so much to love about the Christmas holidays, so many fun and beloved traditions. But let’s wait until the leaves have fallen off the trees and I’ve gotten sick of pumpkin products. Let’s enjoy a fallow time between the excess of Halloween and the folderol of Christmastime. Let’s tramp through the leaves and enjoy hot apple cider by the fire with a good book or a good friend. Let’s plan our feast for Thanksgiving without the distraction of Christmas songs and pre-holiday sales and peppermint mochas.

Luckily there are dozens of other good stations on the radio to listen to during this wonderfully uncommercial season of the year. Beatles channel, anyone?

Let Them Eat Candy!

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I’ve had a Come to Reese’s moment about Halloween. Since having kids, I’d become a bit of a Halloween Grinch. The whole holiday is exhausting for parents of young children. The costume dramas, the school parties, the candy wrappers all over the house, the kids hyped up on sugar. I couldn’t wait until November 1 each year when I could turn my mind from goblins to saints.

And I had a hard and fast rule about trick or treating. My kids were done after eighth grade. I found it obnoxious for hulking teenagers to show up at my door with their giant pillowcases, begging for treats. Many of them didn’t even dress up! Of course, I always gave them candy. I’d learned from Larry David’s experience on Curb Your Enthusiasm what happens to homeowners who refuse teenagers treats.

But this fall I’ve seen a plethora of articles and memes on Facebook imploring people to give teens a chance to go out with their pint-sized brethren and snag a few Snickers bars. After all, trick or treating is an innocent and harmless activity. More importantly, it brings out the child in our adolescents who are trying in so many other ways to be too cool for school.

Maybe I’m becoming soft in my old age. Now that my youngest is 17, maybe I’m just nostalgic for the days when my little princesses and pirates were dumping out their hauls of candy on my family room floor, excitedly chatting about their trick or treating adventures. Let’s face it. My adult children are more likely to be downing shots than M&Ms this Halloween.

So when my 17-year-old mentioned that some of her friends were going to trick or treat, I suggested she join them.

“Who are you?” she demanded. Like my other kids, she had internalized the “no trick or treating in high school” rule. (Who says I’m not an effective parent?)

“Sure,” I encouraged her. “I’ve had a change of heart about the whole thing. It’s a fun, wholesome activity. You should go.”

I even offered to make her and her friends our traditional Halloween snacks of wienie dogs and Bagel Bites. (Who says I’m not a provider of healthy food?)

Will she take me up on my offer to let her be a kid for the day? I hope so. And I hope to see fun-loving teenagers at my door tonight. With one caveat: I draw the line on trick or treaters who don’t wear a costume. So teens, put on some devil horns or cat ears and come on over!

Indigenous Peoples Day

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Most of us know that Native Americans were driven off of their tribal lands by white colonialism and later U.S. territorial expansion from the day Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean islands, thinking he had found the East Indies. Far from celebrating Columbus’ “discovery” of America, many Americans feel it would be more appropriate either to eliminate the holiday called Columbus Day or change its focus and rename it Indigenous Peoples Day.

I would support the idea of reclaiming the dignity, traditions, and history of our native people by honoring them with a U.S. holiday. For far too long, Native Americans have been depicted as primitive and warlike people of whom white settlers were justifiably afraid. I will never forget how, as a child, I was terrified of the sinister figure Injun Joe from Mark Twain’s novel Tom Sawyer. Movie westerns portrayed Indians as savage figures eager to scalp poor defenseless pioneers. In this way, white America was able to gloss over or justify the extermination and essentially, the internment, of Native American people on small tracts of land called reservations.

More and more, American history teachers are bringing to light the larger story of American colonialism and westward expansion, a story that includes the unfortunate plight of the Native American. Understanding this history is an important step and should be acknowledged on this day set aside to honor a man whose actions towards the native people were often horrific and violent.

But we must go beyond a mere recognition of the atrocities of the past. Native Americans today suffer from high rates of poverty, alcoholism, and diabetes. Their right to operate casinos is a mixed blessing that brings with it certain unsavory elements. And the destruction of their tribal way of life has marginalized the customs and sacred traditions of disparate native peoples. Instead, Native Americans are lumped together in the public mind as the monolithic “other.”

Our government needs to do more to address the endemic social and health problems of our Native American citizens. Modern Native Americans need to be recognized for their contributions in many areas of society. And Americans need to give up their beloved Indian mascots in order to erase generations of stereotyping of Indians.

So there is much to do in our society to further the cause of Native Americans in our country. And a national holiday in their honor is a great way to start.

Celebration of Life

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Celtic-Tree-of-Life-Symbol-and-Its-MeaningAbout a dozen well wishers gathered last Sunday afternoon to celebrate the birthday of a mutual friend. To the outside world, the gathering may have seemed pleasant but ordinary. After all, people have birthdays every day of the year. But to us, our felicitations for our friend marked something even more special: new life.

One year ago, that same friend was fighting for her life after a diagnosis of advanced stage cancer. On her birthday, she was in a medical facility preparing for an intensive few months of chemotherapy and radiation in a bid to save both her life and her quality of life. I remember bringing her a battery-operated candle to brighten the sterile atmosphere of her room in that facility. And I remember the uncertainty and fear.

Over the past year, a few friends and I have tried our best to help our friend get through treatment, deal with insurance, and make sure her home, car, and bills were taken care of. With no family, she would have been truly alone in the world. All of us juggled our own family responsibilities in order to be there for her as much as possible. Sadly, one of us, herself afflicted with cancer, passed away.

A year later, my friend is 50 pounds slimmer and cancer free. All her hair has come back gloriously, and there are only a few small scars to reveal what she has been through this past year. When she showed up to her birthday party in her new skinny jeans,  we were all delighted. She’d earned that piece of cake, let me tell you.

Life is a mystery, and cancer is one of the greatest medical enigmas of our times. Why does one woman succumb to her cancer while another recovers? Why does a wife lose her young husband and have to raise young children on her own – or vice versa? What makes one person live to a ripe old age and another die young?

Obviously, I don’t have the answers to those questions. I can only do my best to live a healthy life, to care for my family and friends, and to celebrate life no matter the circumstances. I pray that my friend and all the people I love have the chance to blow out many more birthday candles before they leave this Earth. And I hope I am on hand to help them enjoy that cake.

Summer’s Lease Up

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Labor Day is a bittersweet holiday. The day is meant to celebrate working men and women all over America and, for most, to provide a day of rest and relaxation. But it also marks the symbolic end of summer. Kids not already in school will go back tomorrow. Morning commuters will once again have to share the crowded roads with back-to-schoolers. And summer vacations are over for families.

It’s still hot outside, of course. Today on my walk, I saw people out on their front porches enjoying the relative cool of early morning. Later on, the neighborhoods will be filled with the sounds of kids playing and the smells of burgers cooking on outdoor grills. A last hurrah of summer.

Soon in my part of the world, the evening air will have a slight chill in it. Then the trees will deck themselves out in glorious colors for one last celebration before the cold winter sets in. Before we know it, we will be huddled inside by the fireplace eating leftover Halloween candy and feeling wistful about our always too brief summer.

I’m not complaining, exactly. I do love the change of seasons in the Midwest – the way nature marks the passing of time. I did miss it when I lived on the West Coast. But I will also miss the free and easy feeling of summertime: sandals on my feet, an easy summer dress, an ice cream cone, and a fun, frivolous book to read.

Farewell, summer. See you next year.

Gift Horse

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A friend and I were bemoaning the state of gift giving in modern society the other day. She complained that when she tried to purchase a baby gift in a store, she was told that it had to be ordered online. This has become a trend in recent years with the ubiquity of online shopping platforms.

Of course, there’s nothing new about gift registries. It’s great to be able to get a couple just what they need or want for their new home or their new baby. But my friend and I agree that we enjoy going to the store and actually seeing the items we might purchase for an occasion. We want to take the item with us and present it in person at the shower or wedding or birthday party.

My friend also said that she was disappointed once at her niece’s baby shower when the event came and went without her niece ever opening the gift she had brought. My friend had gone to some effort to give her niece a lovely gift and wanted to see her open it. This is also a pet peeve of mine. Particularly with showers, where the whole purpose of the party is to give the lucky couple gifts, it’s incumbent upon the receivers to open the gifts in the presence of the givers.

Even with children’s birthday parties, I think it’s important for the child to open the gifts his or her friends bring. I remember attending parties in L.A. in which the gifts were whisked off into another room and never seen again at the party. My kids were terribly disappointed not to see their friend open the gift they had picked out. I realize that there are all kinds of pitfalls in the gift-giving ritual when it comes to kids. But with a little prepping of the birthday boy or girl in advance as to how to receive gifts graciously – and a healthy dose of humor at the inevitable faux pas kids will commit anyway – the opening of gifts at a birthday party is usually a highlight of the festivities for children.

As “Manners Mentor” Maralee McKee says, “Gift givers are kind enough to search for, buy, wrap, and bring you gifts. At a party, or one-on-one, it’s gracious to open presents in front of them so they are there for the “unveiling” and so you can thank them in the moment.”

Obviously, there are occasions at which it is impractical to open gifts, such as during a wedding. A wedding is such an orchestrated event, usually with hundreds of guests, and it would be impractical to spend time opening each and every gift. at the actual event. That is what post-wedding thank you notes are for.

Gift-giving rituals evolve over time. But I think some traditions are worth holding onto, as gift giving is an important part of every culture the world over. It’s worth taking the time to consider the needs of both giver and receiver when taking part in them.