Gifts

Yes, yes, I’ve been blog-slacking. Truth is, I have about a dozen “drafts” in the box that just haven’t seen completion in the past few weeks. It’s a combination of recovering from a nasty battle with bronchitis, some very charged race stuff going on at work, and the overall insanity of the holiday start up.

So, here is a quick one from me — timely, no less, given that it’s the start of the traditions I abhor the most… GIFTS.

I’ve written about the following ad nauseum: I am a terrible gift giver. There is just something about the materialistic nature of “gift giving” that makes me crazy. I absolutely believe that Joli’s illness was one of the best things that could have happened to our family. Prior to her illness, I was a shop-a-holic. I loved giving gifts, receiving gifts, buying things for absolutely no reason at all, and loved collecting items. Once Joli got sick, I felt such an aversion to “things.” We didn’t buy much of anything when she was in treatment (mostly because all of our money was going to medical related expenses). That Christmas, we were the recipients of one of those “giving trees” that people do at work. You know, the one where you get an anonymous tag that says “2-year old girl” and bring the gift into work? We had no idea, but our visiting nurse had put Joli’s name on a number of different trees. Two days before Christmas, our tree had just a few presents underneath. On Christmas Eve, an ambulance pulled into our driveway, and a few EMTs came to our door and delivered about two dozen gift boxes for Joli!! I began sobbing at the sight of all the presents.

While we were so thankful for all the gifts we received from anonymous donors, I still felt an aversion to spending money on anything superficial. Despite our forced frugal living, I still chose to live with very little luxury during Joli’s treatment. And, truth is, we have still kept it up. I rarely shop for anything that we don’t need, and have only recently begun to allow myself a rare treat (hello, new iPhone — though, I was using a phone with no “7” button!)

What I find most difficult, though, is buying “stuff”. Birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Valentines Day, Weddings…. people rarely get gifts from me. (feel free to gasp here) Now, my siblings give me plenty of crap for it, don’t worry. They shake their heads, call me “cheap”, and are embarrassed by my non-gift-giving policy. But, I just can’t bring myself to buy things for people who already have basements, attics and bedrooms full of “stuff.” I think of all the people who have nothing — whether by choice or by circumstance — and it pains me to buy yet another toy for a kid who already has bins of toys.

My exception to the rule? Buying a thank you gift. If someone has done something so amazing that words cannot even express my gratitude, I truly enjoy surprising them with a little thank you gift. Honestly, that’s quite possibly my only exception. I find such joy in buying a thank you gift for someone!

My gift aversion has also helped me to discover more environmentally friendly ways to give. I love using Freecycle. If you haven’t gotten into Freecycle yet, I encourage you to find the one in your local town/city. Unlike Craigslist, people who join Freecycle agree that they will not charge (nor re-sell) for any items. It’s a way to keep waste out of our landfills and to be a resource for your local community. I’ve Freecycled clothes, books, baby gear, etc., and it has felt so good knowing that I’m a) not contributing to landfill waste, b) helping out someone directly in my town, and c) giving of what I already have as opposed to spending money on more junk.

So, how does this all fit in with this upcoming season of gift gluttony? Find ways to give to a friend/kid that limit the amount of waste in our landfills and in people’s homes. For kids, help teach them that time and love are much more valuable than plastic and wrapping. Here are some ideas of things to give:

1. A “day out” with you where you treat for lunch and a movie

2. A membership to a local museum

3. A book that you’ve found on Freecycle or at a book exchange

4. something homemade that uses existing materials in your house (a friend had her 6-year old son make me an awesome sea shell magnet for my birthday! it’s one of my favorite gifts so far!)

On the receiving end? See beyond a “new” gift. Help kids to redefine what it means to feel loved and to be shown love. More presents does not equal more love.

My family is far from perfect. We, too, have a basement full of toys  — many of which have not been played with since they were opened. We have toy boxes overflowing with dolls, stuffed animals, and books. We have a doll house (the combined gift for my 2 girls last year) which was played with for about a month and then retired to the cold basement. Every time I go downstairs to do laundry, I feel embarrassed by how much my children have, and am reminded of how little others have. I mentally add up all the money (spent on toys) that is sitting in that basement and can’t help but think of how many trips to the hospital that could pay for, how many nights in the parking garage, how many bottles of Pediasure, and how many co-payments that could have covered for any of our cancer families. I think of all the fundraisers we have done this past year to help ease the financial burden of some of our cancer friends, and think that there is at least that amount of money in just ONE of the toy boxes.

My kids like toys. I like a nice treat. We all deserve something that makes us feel good. And, in this spirit of the season, I encourage you to find ways to share love, time, interest, and hope in ways that transcend plastic, wrapping, and those damn twistie ties that hold the toys to the cardboard.

If we can teach our children that what’s on the inside is more valuable than what’s on the outside, we give them some of the greatest gifts: the gift of believing they are worth our time and our love.

What gifts will you give your children? Your friends? Your family this year?

On Growing Up

Who the heck is that girl? Who IS that??

photo(4)

circa 1993

First off, I can’t tell you how many imaginary vodka tonics I had to down before building up the courage to post my high school senior picture. Yeah, I thought I was the shit back then. And, oddly enough, my hair actually does still look kind of the same (sans the spiral perm, of course). Major differences? Well, gee, let’s see. I suppose we can start with the couple of tens of pounds I’ve gained since I was 17 years old. (side note freak out: I am just realizing that was 17 years ago!!) Someone, pass another bottle of Sky, please?

Why imaginary vodka tonics? Well, as such things have evolved, and thanks to a pretty immature and early tango with alcohol, I no longer choose to drink much anymore. Could be all the alcohol I dumped into my body in a brief amount of years — back when I definitely wasn’t mature enough to handle it — and a few too many alcohol related regrets. Drinks, now, pretty much consist of a sip from Jorge’s glass of wine a few times a month or an occasional drink at a reception.

But, I digress….

Coming up soon, I’m going to be reliving a major part of my high school experience. Think, “Glee” but with sparkly magenta dresses, Aqua Net hair styles, blue eyeshadow, and more jazz hands. Where the brown kids (the 3 of us in the entire choir) had to endure wearing “nude colored uniform nylons” which made the white girls look cute but made dark girls look like chocolate lollipops on little white sticks. Yes, fans, I was in Show Choir. And, I loved it. Like crack, if we had crack in the suburbs. I loved performing, dancing, singing, and warming up as if we were running the NYC marathon. I recall hitting the track – on my own time – so that I could build my stamina for a brief 15 minutes of singing and dancing. Uh-huh.

While there are key things I loved about high school — orchestra, show choir, some of my classes, music competitions — I don’t often look back fondly on those years. Now, as a 34 year old, mother of 3, survivor of a billion medical obstacles, and educator, I sometimes feel embarrassed for my 17 year old self. I was immature, annoying, and insecure. And, like any kid struggling with those issues, I was often mean, petty, catty, gossipy, controlling, and obnoxious. I didn’t know how to be comfortable in my own skin, and so I didn’t know how to connect with people who did. In an effort not to show anyone that I felt like I was worthless, I tried to over compensate by putting other people down and not giving room for other kids to thrive. In the kindest terms, I was ‘not nice.’

College didn’t get much better for me. On one hand, I knew I wasn’t mature enough to be on my own and ended up commuting to a local college my first year. That was definitely a good idea as it forced me to be somewhat a college student, but still enabled allowed me to live in this high school/dependent world. But, seeing all of my friends leave our hometown and have amazing stories to tell about their college experiences only made me feel more insecure. I turned to alcohol. I was desperate to find ways to connect to people. I took a lot of the anxiety out on myself and made far too many unhealthy choices. When sophomore year rolled around, I did feel ready to leave the nest (from a safe distance of only 1 hour and 15 minutes away). I felt myself growing up a little bit more, but still made lots of bad choices.

As a college administrator now, I am always so in awe of my students who really put themselves out there and who demonstrate such maturity. I look at some of them and can’t see myself in them at all. I have students who have studied abroad, who spend more time volunteering in the community than sitting in classes each week, and who know exactly what they want to do with their lives. I work with students who are in college for the sole purpose of creating a better life for their families. I meet with students who possess such a deep level of maturity, of sense-of-self, and of purpose.

Yet, it’s the student who isn’t quite sure what to do, or who is struggling, or who is socially awkward that I’m drawn to the most. I see myself in them. I see the same panic in their eyes that I had. I see the same tenseness in their bodies, the same timidness about their futures. But, this time, I hear the comments that others make about them. I hear the subtle groans that others make when these kids talk or act. And, I can’t help but accept that others had noticed my own awkwardness when I was in college.

Honestly, I can point to the exact time in my life when I finally let go of my insecurities, my awkwardness, and my self-doubt. I was 29. I had just been told that my daughter had cancer. People sometimes look at me funny when I say that “I’m thankful for Joli’s illness” but, it’s so true. It forced me to be genuine. I grew up. From that point on, I never tried to be anything other than what I could be. I gave up my obsession with being the most “perfect” person — popular, thin, brilliant, a size 6, wildly charismatic, effortlessly funny, etc. I finally accepted being just me. And, Me was the only thing I could offer my child. ME was the only thing I could offer myself. I gave up wanting to try so hard to be the best mother, sister, daughter, wife, worker, and just allowed myself to accept the kind of ME that I am. Heh, the funny thing is, that once I gave up trying to be all those things, I started on the path towards being all of those things.

Sound like complacency? I guess it is, sort of. But, I have found great peace in not wanting to “keep up with the Joneses” anymore. I have no desire to out-do anyone, to belittle anyone to lift myself up, nor to be anything but the authentic me. I stopped trying to have the best clothes, the best car, and all that goes with upward status mobility. Yes, that authentic me is way fatter than my 17-year old self. But, the authentic me is also a hell of a lot happier.

I’ve been through hell and back. And, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna get sent back-and-forth a few more times. That’s okay with me.

So, why the anxiety about going back to high school this weekend? First, I don’t think I’ve ever made peace with my 17-year old self. I think I’m still angry at her. Angry that, when I was 17, I didn’t think enough of myself to just love who I was. Angry that I relied on other people and other means to define who I was. Angry that I likely made some people feel horrible so that I could feel better about myself.

I think I need to take some cues from my high school, though. I’m going back to that school for the first time in 17 years. And, I hear it’s gone under lots of renovation and rebuilding. In a notice I received about the weekend, one of the organizers wrote, “Wait until you see the new auditorium!” Healthy dose of symbolism, anyone?

I’m a different person from the girl I was 17 years ago. Half my lifetime ago. Here’s hoping that I can come to peace with who I was, where I have traveled, and who I am today. I’m sure I’ll have to take a deep breath, sit in my car a minute, and brace myself for the insecurity that’s gonna overtake me when I walk into that gym. And, in those moments, I hope to put my arms around those 17-year old thoughts and say, “You did your best. It’s who you were. It’s who you had to be.” Then, I plan on walking into that gym, dancing my much softer/wider/jiggly body that was home to 3 absolutely beautiful babies, singing with happiness, and give thanks for all that my 17-year old self had to overcome in order for me to be who I am today.

To loosen that…