Pharmaceutical Grade Solitude

The Value of a Good Time Out

December was a nightmare. It always is. Thus, the complete lack of postings here. We have been musicians our whole adult lives and December is busy season for anyone who sings or plays with any kind of skill. I only took one playing gig. Hot Swede more than made up for it with his (slightly insane) choir schedule and ad hoc gigs at church. I stupidly

8203770426_e3a7382ed5_nvolunteered to do the costumes for our church’s live Nativity. (It is so easy to say yes in October.) I had to make 6 adult angel costumes, in addition to finishing the gifts I was making for my own giving. I attended the children’s “winter concerts,” (If we‘re not going to do a Christmas concert, I humbly ask the public schools to save their “winter concerts” for January. Please.) did the daily everything, and solo parented while Hot Swede was singing all evening. I have never wanted Christmas to be over so badly. The weekend before the big day, Hot Swede got home from singing out of state (!), and I crumbled into about 289 pieces. I was completely used up, empty. I had a lot of work left to do and people to be kind to and I had no idea how I was going to manage it.  I needed to restock and repack my mental toolbox. I needed serious alone time.

I use pharmaceutical grade solitude, 100%pure, to calm my nerves and smooth my feathers. This isn’t a break from the people driving me nuts. It isn’t watching a movie by myself, or even going to the bathroom without someone knocking at the door and asking for something (although that would be nice.) Therapeutic solitude is free of other human input- no books, music, talk, art, conversation, people watching. It is a time to just be with myself, reconnect with who I am, find my balance and ground.  Lucky for me, I learned the value of purposeful solitude early.

In 10th grade, the experiential education department at my school sent a handful of us on a solo trip. We hiked into the mountains where we were given our boundaries and rules:

3400140191_9b165fe386_nNo contact, even visual, with other soloists, no fires, books, writing, no yelling except in case of bears. Our leader handed each of us a tarp, length of rope, and a Ziploc with the following: 2 hard candies, 2 oz of cheese, 2 granola bars, and a tortilla.  We treated our creek filled water bottles with iodine and each of us set out to find a secluded campsite where we would spend at least the next 24 hours completely alone.

Beforehand, I was curious as to how I would react to the experience. Would it be uncomfortable? Would I like being so alone? Would I spend it talking to myself or to God? It turned out that, as I couldn’t go anywhere, I had no other purpose except to be, and that’s what I did. I listened to the air, studied all the mosses and lichens in my little camp. It was so different from anything else I’d ever experienced. I took naps in patches of sunlight, delighted in the sun-warmed rock.  I was asleep when the sun went down and rose when it did.

The experience didn’t change my life. There was no mountain top experience, just an opportunity to commune with the quiet inner voice that can be heard only when the loud outer voices, the ones that communicate with others, are not coming in or going out. I kept company with myself, listening and observing, and realized that I liked this girl and wanted to be kind to this person who is me. If that isn’t an important realization for a 16 year-old girl to come to, I don’t know what is.

Some people use solitude for prayer and meditation, and that has its own value, but there is something sweet and nutritive about listening to my own soul and body. It’s self-5712953278_9986cfe40e_ndating and therapy all in one- getting to know myself, listening, watching, not trying to change or solve problems- just understanding. It’s a chance to let mental knots loosen and unravel, a chance to stop reacting to outside demands, a chance to sort and restock the mental stores.

20 years later, my daily life is never free of other humans, and I take solitude very seriously, if infrequently.  The weekend before Christmas, with about 24 things on my to-do list, my husband, whom I had essentially not seen in two weeks, kicked me out of the house for some alone time. He is sweet and knew I needed it. He is also not an idiot; He knew his life would be better if I got some solitude.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

I ate breakfast that someone else cooked. I drove in silence. I’m a gal who likes to have music or talk on at all times, but not during therapeutic solitude. I ran one nightmare errand to the mall (barf) and got out of there as quickly as possible. Then, the best part- I went to the art institute because it’s beautiful and quiet and sat on the same bench for 1.5 hours. What piece of art took my attention for 1.5 hours? None. Art was too much of other humans. I sat looking out over a deserted snow-covered park, just breathing, just being. Stress sloughed off in big flakes and by the end, I was ready to go back to my life, picking up the gallon of milk that I knew we needed on the way home.

I am fortunate to have a healthy, inexpensive tool for renewal, and family who supports it. Massages are nice. Pedicures and manicures don’t appeal to me. Shopping is short-lived. Drinking, movies, and other escapes have their place, but they don’t make coming back to reality any easier. Medicinal grade solitude is it. It is what works for this woman who is never ever alone unless someone else helps make it happen.

Christmas Eve prep was done at 3 am; I was fine. Christmas day was fine; I even enjoyed it. My in-laws got everyone ice skates and we made good memories and better bruises. The day after was lovely. New Year’s Eve, hanging out with friends while our children watched a movie and fell asleep, was the top social event of the month.  And that day apart, given to me by Hot Swede, was the second best gift of the season.

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Grinching on Christmas Lists

Are written lists of material wants ever a good idea?

3094706012_4b4505805f_zHot Swede’s family is a Christmas list family. After Thanksgiving, my mother-in-law asks for gift ideas for everyone. This is the way it has always been, and her children have always handed over wish lists, often very specific lists. I know that lots of other families do this, and I honor that. I always provide her with ideas for her son and grandkids. I spend a lot of time collecting ideas and then deciding which ones to give her- considering what she might enjoy shopping for. However, I will not; I cannot provide her with a list for myself. It rubs me the wrong way. I can’t make myself do it.

I blame my parents, (as one does.) I grew up in a family where we might casually mention something we might like to receive, but the focus was on what we were going to give, or my mom ranting that she wished we could jettison all the presents and just spend time together. I can imagine the look on my mom’s face if I had presented her with an itemized written wish. (My Little Pony stable, rollerblades, a pogo ball, pocket knife, or spy jacket: the few things I remember wanting very much.) Um, no. Tell me your #1 want and go make a list of good ideas for other people.

We didn’t hang stockings on the fireplace until Christmas Eve because it looked selfish. (Hot Swede and I have skirted this argument. Currently, the stockings are up, much to my dismay.) I don’t remember nosing around under the tree to see what was for me, but that may have been because my parents were late wrappers and things didn’t appear under the tree until right before the big day.  But my distaste of wish lists expands beyond family eccentricity. I am philosophically and practically opposed to them.

Gift giving is never about what I want to get. It is about considering others’ needs and interests, and finding something they will like and I’d like to give. When I receive gifts this way, the love, time, and thought of the giver become part of the present. They are what make it meaningful. Otherwise, it is just another scarf, hat, or set of whiskey glasses. When gift exchanging is done well, it is the thought that counts.

The gifts I appreciate most are the unexpected ones- ones where someone has thought carefully about me, found something they were excited to give, and I get to enjoy something I never even had the chance to want. This goes back to my wedding and the first time I supplied the mother of all wish lists- the gift registry, to potential gift givers.  Yes, I appreciate my matching dishes, flatware, and set of pots. I think of my paternal family every time I pull out the china we picked out and they gave for us, but that doesn’t happen often. However, the handmade ceramic bowl given by a cousin and the cutting boards made by Hot Swede’s uncle delight me. They carry the additional boon of reminding me of the giver each time I use them.

There are good reasons for wedding gift registries. They are lifesavers when buying for someone I don’t know well, or looking to assess the tastes of the recipient. For newlyweds, it is nice to start out with matching sets of dishes, even though I broke all the bowls by my 10th anniversary, and we are on our 3rd set of daily glassware. (It’s like a Jewish Greek wedding every time I do dishes.) Lists are not necessary for the kind of personal giving I do at Christmas.

Sometimes I need ideas and direction. In that case, I ask the person directly if there’s anything they need or want. Even better, I’ll ask someone who knows them better than do I. In this way, I remain free to give what I can and would like to, and they still have a chance at being pleasantly surprised with my efforts.

Wish lists take the “thought that counts” out of the process. Getting something I’ve asked for is nice. The generosity of the giver is there, but it feels as if the giver has simply done my shopping for me, cheapening and limiting the role of the giver and tying up the gift with a little ribbon of guilt for me.

Okay, so this one I'll accept.

Okay, so this one I’ll accept.

It isn’t just guilt that cheapens the experience.  The writing of a wish list immediately creates expectation in the gift recipient, and nothing kills happiness like expectation. The fewer expectations we have for others to meet our needs, the happier we are. This truth extends all the way into expecting someone else to give you that Star Wars Millennium Falcon 7965 LEGO set that you’ve wanted since you were 28.

Such specific written requests limit the giver. If you give me a wish list, am I obligated to get something off the list, even if I find something else I think you’d enjoy? Will you be disappointed, or worse, irritated if I don’t purchase from your list? I much prefer the surprise and joy of receiving the thoughtfulness of the giver in a gift THEY’VE picked for me, even if it isn’t what I’d pick out for myself.

Writing a wish list manufactures want. Goody! Normally, when asked if there is anything I’d like for Christmas, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. In an effort to make gift giving easier on my family, I started brainstorming gift ideas for myself and writing them down so I could refer to them up when asked. I looked around for things I didn’t have and decided that I wanted them. Do you see the problem? I created desires for trifles that I hadn’t wanted before! And then I was asking loved ones to fulfill them for me! Talk about killing satisfaction and gratitude. What an unhealthy and unhelpful practice. This is the first year I will not do it. I won’t. I’d rather get the same food scented candle from everyone than engage in manufacturing material voids for my loved ones to fill. Thumbs down.

There is only one kind of acceptable gift list: the list of gifts I want to GIVE. You may tell me about something you’d love to receive. I want to know if there’s something you really want. However, if you hand me an itemized shopping list of your material desires, I’m going to be irked and leave it where it lies until recycling day.

I love giving gifts. I start the gift giving brainstorm in September. I love the puzzle of matching people with gifts within my budget. I like the challenge and enjoy the process. I love offering up a beautifully wrapped package. I have every Christmas giving list since 1998, so I can keep track of past ideas and what books I’ve already given. I am no Scrooge. But a gift is about receiving the goodwill and love of others, and I like it best when the giver isn’t told exactly the color, model, and shape their goodwill should take.

One of my favorite things.

One of my favorite things.

If you write and give from wish lists, tell me how you use them and why you like them. I am genuinely curious. Lots of people use them without issue. And I fully accept that my hang ups with them are my own. However you manage your gift giving, I wish you all a fun and meaningful experience, whether you like detailed lists with ISBN codes, homemade gifts, or eschew it all together and make donations to charitable organizations, whatever works for you.

Trick-or-Treat!

Do it.

I want kids to trick-or-treat. I want them out in dark, tripping over capes and clown shoes, spitting on everyone as they yell “Trick or treat!” through plastic fangs. I want the young ones to come to my door and look up at me with that look of resigned confusion that says, “Lady, I don’t know what’s 8146023035_7589abbddfgoing on. The big ones, they dressed me up like some kind of pink rodent and are parading me around in the dark. Strangers keep giving me stuff I’m not allowed to eat. I suspect I’m being used as some kind of candy lure. I’m just going along with it because it makes the big ones smile and, well, what choice do I have?”

I want to drop Butterfingers in the pillowcases of properly costumed teens who manage to drop their guard enough to offer the evening’s greeting in a clear voice. I want; I really want the cool uncostumed teens to show up so I can ask them to please sing a song or dance instead. That’s the All Hallow’s Eve deal: You show up properly dressed and call out. I admire your efforts in exchange for candy. You say, “thank you” and everyone gets what they want. There are procedures if you cannot comply, and they involve singing, dancing, or a good joke.

I get the impression that fewer and fewer kids are out on Halloween night. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a warmer climate where we only had to wear a jacket as we ran around neighborhoods. In the upper Midwest, a knit cap and puffy coat destroy the aesthetic of any dainty fairy or fearsome warrior. The weather doesn’t explain all of it; people here go fishing through a hole in the ice… and they aren’t even beginning to starve.

Parents are fun slayers. Gauntlet thrown. Parents don’t want to get cold, don’t want to traipse around in the dark and don’t trust their kids or neighbors enough to send the kids out alone. I get that. I don’t let mine go out alone… I send their father with them so I can stay home and have more conversation with small people than they desire. I understand that it’s a school night. I know that kids come home with pounds of teeth rotting, appetite killing, behavior modifying, tasty crap. I get it. But…

2991216294_c7b3bc03f9I want the tradition to continue. For one thing, it is not a holiday I want dragged out. I like it as a single evening’s activity. Sending kids out trick-or-treating is many times easier than throwing Halloween parties. I only clean the porch for trick-or-treating. I want childfree adults remember their childhoods. I want them to think about the kids in their area and buy treats for them. Yes, I wish it could be apples instead of candy corn, but I won’t throw out all the good fun of trick-or-treating just because candy isn’t a healthy choice. I want neighborhoods to open up their doors and their generosity to small wandering bands of mermaids and zombies. I want kids to wear costumes in public because it is SO FUN.  Every Batman should run through the darkness, cool night air snapping his cape behind him. I want older kids to hold the hands of the younger ones when a gory apparition runs by. I want parents to stand back at the sidewalk and let their tiny children find the courage to walk up to my door by themselves, or in a brother’s wake. I want them to talk to a grown up they don’t know in a safe way- because it builds communication skills. Don’t belittle it; these small lessons are where the growing happens. Also, I like talking to them.

We are the parents. We can put limits on how late they’re out and how much sugar they shove in their gobs. Yes, you can do it. Put on your big girl pants and a hat, make some candy rules and a hot toddy to keep you company and take those kids outside on the last dark night in October.  It’s worth it.

Homemade Halloween

Please, just be a ninja.

Every Halloween, I vow to purchase the children’s costumes. Every Halloween, I end up masquerading as a seamstress.  I can follow the simplest of patterns, ripping out only 3 or 4 mislaid seams, but it takes me forever and if you look closely, (please don’t) my finish work is rubbish. Sewing is not a cheap activity. Buying fabric and required notions for a princess dress is more expensive than forking over the dough for a store bought one.  In fact, store bought is much cheaper because it doesn’t cost me countless hours struggling with tailoring skills that I don’t possess.

When we start discussing costumes, I secretly hope for something commercial and hanging on a hanger somewhere. Generic Princess? Happily. Ninja? Oh yes, please, yes. Batman, Ironman, Merida? You bet. My eldest, maybe because she’s sophisticated, maybe because she likes to push my buttons, picks wonderful characters that are woefully uncommerical. And I, not wanting to discourage her original thinking, comply. Ugh.

Terrifying, isn't he?

Terrifying, isn’t he?

I got sucked into costume making with an easy one. I made a Theseus costume (his choice) for 4 year-old Bear out of a pillow case- hemmed slits for head and arms gathered at the shoulders, a braided belt of old curtain scraps, and a Minotaur head to hold candy. I knocked out the tunic in 20 minutes. Once I found a black plastic pumpkin bucket, the Minotaur was easy too. I fashioned a bull nose and horns out of Model Magic and glued them on. Cheap, easy, and literary: I win! The next year, I tried to convince him to be Perseus. I would only have to pull off the bull bits and glue on some plastic snakes. Everything else could stay the same. But he had grown out of his Greek phase and went as a store bought knight instead.

Up to this point, AJ is always happy to be some kind of princess, which is just fine by me. I purchase a beautiful costume for $25, and she plays dress up in it until it is too tight to squeeze over her body.

The hard one is Q. I stitched together Wendy Darling’s blue nightgown from Peter Pan.

Blue Princess, Mary Poppins, Ninja who insisted on carrying the Minotaur head for the third year in a row.

Princess, Mary Poppins, and Ninja who insisted on carrying the Minotaur head for the third year in a row.

It was atrocious, even with all the time I spent on it. I was glad Halloween is an event that happens in the dark. But, she wore it as PJs for a year, so at least the effort wasn’t wasted. Last year was the big challenge: Mary Poppins. This one was all me, from head to toe. Red rubber grapes and fake daisies from the Dollar Store went onto my wool hat to make her cap. I folded, pinched, and stitched a ladies’ jacket from Goodwill into shape while Q was wearing it.  I made a red bow tie and pinned it to a collared white shirt she blessedly already owned.  A friend taped a piece of brocade over a big satchel for her carpetbag. It was all done but the skirt, the giant time suck of a skirt. There are a few easy ways to make full skirts, but they are not La Belle Époque shape and are not structured enough to look right.  So, because I’m an idiot who has difficulty prioritizing, I scoured the internet for historical dress patterns to use as a guide. I made my own pattern using a lot of algebra and butcher paper, and sewed the blasted skirt out of a remnant of blue upholstery cloth. It looked great. No one was as surprised as I.

Q went to her school carnival so proud of her costume. She told everyone how it had been made down to the last detail.  She had seen the whole process: the finding, figuring, and the complaining. I began to suspect that my priorities had been in the right place all along.

This year confirmed it. Q and her friend, Ann, began making Q’s costume during summer break: Queen Susan of Narnia. Ann, who has more confidence in her stitching, fashioned a skirt out of a piece of blue silk and they began decorating a blue t-shirt for the bodice. Does it look particularly like a royal frock? No, it’s better, so much better. It looks like two creative girls had an idea and made it happen with the skills and materials at hand. Did I offer to purchase a different dress or re-make this one to “look better?” Heck no. I would not belittle their accomplishment. I bought her gold buttons to sew down the front, bits of ribbon for trim, and a crown.

I suspect that nothing we do for our kids that is out of the range of feeding, clothing, and driving them around goes unnoticed. Okay, that may be a little too much Pollyanna, but when we meet them where their interests are and help them accomplish something, our efforts make an impact. I am so glad I stumbled through making that Mary Poppins costume; it helped Q think she could make this year’s costume (with the help of a can do friend.) I am so proud of it. This year, at the school carnival, I will tell everyone how it was made.

Happy V.D.!


1572164872_90f389e715_z
           I dislike Valentine’s Day. I won’t say “hate” because my mom taught me that “hate” is a very strong word reserved for murderous dictators and steamed zucchini. It is a common rant during the first half of February. Considering the numbers of bitter people who complain about the day, I am a little flummoxed as to why it continues to be such a commercial success. I’m going to blame idealistic young women and the men who want to get them in bed.

I like love as much as anybody. I like romance. I like adoration. I like Hot Swede smiling in the candlelight. I like chocolate (dark, at least 70% cacao.) I am not jaded when it comes to love. But since my youth, I’ve found V.D. tiresome. (The double entendre tickles my personal fancy. Indulge me in the spirit of the holiday.)

For one thing, there is all the expectation, the joy killing expectation. A big part of romance is spontaneity.  Doing something lovely for someone because you are motivated by your affection for them, not because it is Feb. 14 and, well, if you don’t come up with something wonderful, she will be disappointed and sulky and your life will be unpleasant for awhile. That isn’t romance. That is a pain avoidance mechanism.

Then there are the traditional gifts. For women, collections of cheap chocolate in expensive boxes are de rigueur. What is the point of giving a woman who is barely hanging on to her 6-week old weight loss resolutions a pound of chocolates? It is not nice. The worst part about the actual confections are the mystery fillings. The cheaper the chocolate, the more mysterious the filling, oozy viscous creams are common, and while the white is suggestive, the pink is off putting. Is that penicillin? My other favorite filling is toothpaste. Delish.

The worst possible V.D. gift is the teddy bear. This one makes me cringe. As far back as middle school, I remember girls getting teddy bears from boys and thinking, “If a boy ever gives me a teddy bear for Valentine’s Day, it’s going to be hard to act pleased with it.” Lucky for me, I never had to face that scenario. (Not bitter, I promise.) A couple things are wrong with a teddy bear, but the first one is that it is a gift for A CHILD, and a young one at that. Grown women with jobs and children, advanced degrees and mortgages, women who have yearly visits to the gynecologist and wax their own moustaches, these are not women with any use for a teddy bear.

The other problem is what you do with it on Feb 15.  You can’t chuck it out or give it to the puppy because it was given in the name of love. So what, it sits on a bookshelf next to Brothers Karamazov? You can’t put it in the glass cabinet, next to your collection of hand-turned bowls. It will most likely just sit on your dresser and gather dust.

For men, (hmm, what do men get.) If they’ve manage to successfully run the obstacle course for a successful V.D., they likely get something non-commercial (I hope) and right in line with what they like.  If they picked the wrong restaurant, or didn’t remember that their partner hates red roses, good luck guys. Maybe there’s something good on Hulu.

So what are reasonable adults to do on Feb. 14? If you have éros, well, enjoy that without the burden of Valentine’s drama. If you have agápe or philia, plan a date for some time in the next couple weeks. Have a nice dinner; write a letter, give a hug. Celebrate with trappings that honor the loves in your life, not the seasonal section at Target. Me, I like a bar of dark chocolate, peach colored roses, and nothing is as sexy as a scoured kitchen sink.