One Christmas Morning

I have thought of that Hefty trash bag every day throughout the Christmas season and feel guilt and shame about the excess most enjoy, myself included. Does that stop me from going headlong into the gift buying and giving during Christmas?

Since I can’t seem to put this memory and the feelings it conjures up to rest, I’m taking a few moments to write about it. Maybe I’ll get some resolution. Maybe not.

Here’s the story. Years ago, I wanted to mix things up a bit in my Human Growth and Development online class. While there was nothing wrong with the written assignments, they got to be, well, boring after a while. So I got the bright idea of having the students write a semester long document with the overall theme of Life’s a Journey. My plan was that they’d start with prenatal life and the variables that went into making them who they were, the ingredients that influenced their journey…like inheriting musical proclivities or athletic prowess; physical attributes went into the mix, too. This blog isn’t going to be long enough to go into the multiple combinations that affect our physical appearance, but you know what I’m talking about. Are you blue-eyed in a brown-eyed world? Tall when everyone else is average (whatever that is)? 

But let’s move forward. In childhood, what was the home like? Were both parents present? Did the family attend church? Was there enough money for the basics? Did the person live in an apartment, a luxurious home, a shelter? And where was this residence—country, city, mountains, seaside? 

I wanted them to see how where they’d already been on their journey could affect where they were at that moment and all the moments in the future. Many students wrote about picking up passengers along the way, including spouses and children, and I recall being impressed by the creativity of that. Sometimes their journeys were bumpy and filled with potholes, and other times it seemed that they whizzed down smooth roads with nary a curve or missed exit.

As we neared the end of the semester, I opened the last of the documents, and things were going along swimmingly until I read the final installation by a young woman who wrote of an unforgettable Christmas. Her parents had been fighting, and there wasn’t much money for gifts, but still, she was hopeful. They had a tree after all, and her mom had cookies set out for Santa.

But the next morning is one that would be forever etched in her memory. She and her mother and little sister woke up in a women’s shelter with all their worldly possessions shoved into a black Hefty trash bag. Her mother, puffy faced and red eyed, was barely holding it together. I can’t remember the details of the story; I might have deliberately suppressed them. I just know there had been a horrible scene, one so haunting that the young woman writing about it not only recalled the trauma decades later but also one that gave her resolve to never, never, never keep company with anyone who drank. 

Like I said, I read this document decades ago, and yet it still disturbs me. I think of that heartbroken, scared little girl awakening in a shelter on Christmas morning and hope her life has done nothing but soar through the years. I remember her story and feel compassion and sadness for all the little children like her, those who have crummy parents and/or no gifts beneath the tree.

I have thought of that Hefty trash bag every day throughout the Christmas season and feel guilt and shame about the excess most enjoy, myself included. Does that stop me from going headlong into the gift buying and giving during Christmas? No. I’m just as likely as others to leap into the commercialism of the season. At the same time, this year on the first day of 2020, I’m resolving to become more aware of the needs of others, especially children, and to do something about them. 

Any ideas?

Melting Butter?

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Are you using your gifts to melt butter? That’s a question that I’ve been considering ever since I attended Time Out for Women last month.

At the conference, Sheri Dew told a story about her grandmother whose relatives bought her a nice microwave. This was a long time ago when microwaves were much more expensive than they are today, and the children and grandchildren wanted to make sure that Grandma was enjoying the newest contraption. They were quite surprised to learn that she was using it to melt butter. Period.

Using her gift for turning all sorts of stories into applications for our lives, Sheri Dew suggested that many people do just that: Use their unique talents to melt butter when they are capable of doing so much more. I know dozens of people who could prepare feasts (metaphorically speaking) but are stuck in the melting butter stage. Are you one of them?

I’m thinking of a friend of mine in Myrtle Beach who has a phenomenal musical talent. When younger and in the busy stage of raising children, she didn’t have time or opportunity to put this tremendous musical gift to use. However, she began playing the organ at church and would practice, practice, practice. Her aptitude grew, and she began playing the drums. Over the years, she has become a musical virtuoso (in my opinion).

My musical friend not only plays in a lot of gigs, but she’s also teaching her young grandson how to play percussion instruments. He’s got the gift too! When I see videos of this little child playing, I can’t help but notice all of the equipment around him. When I first met his grandmother, she didn’t have any of that, but with persistence, dedication, and the strong desire to make things happen, she purchased all the necessary pieces. She never gave up her dream or let her gifts lay fallow.

My friend the musician is doing a lot more than melting butter. What about you? Are there some things you want to do but can’t or won’t? Is it because you can’t see the possibilities, or is there some other reason? It’s a shame to let a marvelous creation, whether a microwave or a person, stop at melting butter.

A Pinecone, a Feather, and a Button

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I’ve been thinking about gifts a lot lately, mainly because of some of the books I’ve been reading. We’ve all been told that a gift doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to be meaningful and that it should reflect something important to the recipient, not the giver. Just thinking about this last phrase makes me feel a little uncomfortable. One Christmas, I gave my daughter Elizabeth a cool denim jacket with brown cording around the pockets. Taught to be gracious and grateful, she said, “Thanks Mama” before refolding it and placing it between the sheets of green tissue paper.

“You don’t like it?” I asked.”It’s so unique.”

“Yes, it is.” After a moment, “And it’s so you.”

“What does that mean?” knowing full well what it meant.

But I digress. Let’s just say that the following week, she took it back to TJ Maxx, one of our favorite shopping establishments, and exchanged it for something more Elizabeth and less Jayne.

In three of the books I’ve read lately, the characters gave meaningful gifts that showed care and thoughtfulness, and none of them cost a dime:

  • In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Liesel regularly picks  up small gifts on her trips to and from school and brings them back to Max, a Jew hiding in the basement. A feather, a pinecone, and a button are a few of her offerings. Since he can’t see even a smidgen of daylight, Max is especially appreciative of Liesel’s thoughtful gifts.
  • In The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant, Cornelius leaves little presents for Judy Rhine, and later in his life, he leaves nature’s gifts for Oliver Small’s two young sons. Both Judy Rhine and the Smalls family reciprocate Cornelius’s generosity by nursing and caring for him.
  • While listening to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road on some recent travels, I realized that the father was constantly giving gifts to his young son. A cold can of Coca Cola, a can of peaches, some mushrooms, and “the fire” are but a few of these gifts, and in this situation the love that this man feels for the boy is so obvious that it’s just about heartbreaking. How can love be heartbreaking? Read the book and you’ll see what I mean.

Reading about these instances of gift giving in literature inspired me to be more mindful of the gifts all around me and to be giving, especially with things without a price tag. At our writing group the other night, one of the members brought me some delicate pale pink flowers from her yard. As I sat in the back seat of my daughter’s van the other afternoon, instead of getting impatient at the slowness of the traffic, I looked out of the window and enjoyed the scene to my right, the marsh (see above picture). Then I looked at Colton, the 4-year-old who wanted me to read a book about numbers and farm animals to him. I glanced at the front of the van and could see the tops of my daughters’ heads and catch snippets of their conversation, another gift.

Now that I’m more conscious of the power of gifts, I’m making more of an effort to give them. Sometimes it might be something I purchase that looks like the person and not like me. Sometimes it might be something from nature, and other times it could be a service, something I can do to help another person. My husband is really good at this and is always (yes, always) doing something for someone else. Back to me and what I can and will do, I can give more of my time and energy.

Today, not next week or some vague future date, I’m going to improve my gift giving. Yesterday I picked up some unique shells from the beach and have already given one away. Later in the day, I bought a birthday gift for a friend. Tomorrow, I’m going to make a call that will set the ball in motion for some volunteer work.

What about you? What gifts have you received that are particularly meaningful? And perhaps more importantly, what have you given?