I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Gift Giving

I Need Nothing More

Red Ribbon

‘Tis The Season for Kindness

In this hectic, busy busy busy season – a time of year when I rage against the crowds, the spending, the too high expectations I set for myself, and counter the stress each year by gradually allowing myself to do less and less and buy less and less – I dashed out of the house without my wallet yesterday.

This realization hit me, hard, as the train conductor came by to check tickets. Damn! I cursed, frantically searching my bag. I explained my predicament. He recognized me, pondered what to do, walked away to check more tickets, came back, and gave me a bye. My seat partner, a complete stranger to me, offered me her subway metrocard. Who does that?! I thanked her profusely and told her I didn’t need it. We smiled. A connection made.

I walked to my office. One of my office mates noticed that I seemed disconcerted.  I explained my predicament. She and every other colleague proceeded to whip out a $20 for me. I was turning away money! At the office holiday party that afternoon, my Secret Santa gave me Adele’s new CD and B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. Now that is a thoughtful person who knows me. Music and yoga? I need nothing more.

I was pretty sure my luck would run out on the commute home. I arrived at Grand Central at 5:03 and ran to catch the 5:04. The conductor came by to collect tickets. I explained why I didn’t have my monthly pass. He muttered, “Show it to me next time.”

And there you have it. A day filled with kindness. I need nothing more.

Thank you.  Thank you everyone.

Photo Credit:  Red Ribbon by SK Pfphotography

Dear Santa

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The List

Around about now, my gift-buying panic sets in.  I didn’t buy enough stuff!  I got more fun stuff for my son…my daughter will be disappointed!  I got more expensive stuff for my daughter…my son will be disappointed!  Somehow, in the chaotic peak of the Christmas rush, being judged a good gift-giver is a referendum on my self as a mother.  I didn’t get everything on their list. 

The list.

After Thanksgiving, my kids write to Santa with their list of what they want for Christmas.  My daughter is pretty good at coming up with a quantity and a variety of realistic and shoppable girly items, acceptance into college notwithstanding.  My son has one thing on his list, year after year.  A dog.  (Actually, a dog is on my daughter’s list every year as well, but somehow we have keyed in on the dog being more of my son’s desire.  That is because she, like girls everywhere, is more accommodating and adds other items to the list.  He is single-focused, dare-we-say-it … stubborn.)  He’s resigned himself to the fact that we are not going to get a dog because our lifestyle is not compatible with having a dog.  Besides, he’s grown attached to our dog surrogates:  two beloved parakeets named Cooper and Ginger – both Christmas presents from the last 2 years.   With two birds already and no dog in sight, his realistic and shoppable list is bare bones this year. 

The list ensures that everyone gets stuff that they want and Santa doesn’t waste time and money on stuff that people don’t want.  This is an expedient way of dealing with the chore of gift-giving that I learned from my parents.  New pajamas.  Check.  Esoteric book from the top 10 list.  Check.  God forbid you should deviate from the list.  The gloves need to be black not brown.  The slippers can’t be too firm nor too slippery.  And the hand knit scarf that took weeks to design and create?  Too long.  Too thin.  A strange color.   It’s languishing unused in the back of the shelf in the closet.

Gift-giving was a very transactional process when I was growing up.  There was little room to surprise and delight.  As for Sheldon, in my son’s favorite show The Big Bang Theory, gifts (and friends) are an anxiety-producing obligation.  When Penny tells Sheldon she has a wonderful gift for him, he rushes out and buys a gift basket in every size and value so he can immediately reciprocate with exactly the right basket.  She surprises him with a napkin autographed by his hero, Leonard Nemoy.  Sheldon is so overcome with surprise and delight that, after dumping all the gift baskets on Penny, he realizes that he can’t possibly reciprocate such a meaningful gift and does the unthinkable.  He hugs her. 

The combination of a spiritually bereft upbringing with an obligatory approach to gift-giving has made me approach the holidays quite Scrooge-like.  Don’t give me another chotchke!  When will the parties be over so I can get back to my disciplined routine?  Bring on the new year’s resolutions!   It is with effort that I create a holiday with my family that is more than a realistic and shoppable list.  A holy day that is about love.

This year, I was determined to be joyful.  To look at the work involved with Christmas as a labor of love, not of duty and obligation.  My husband and my children love Christmas.  We’ve worked hard to make it a special and magical time.  We maintained the myth of Santa so well that neither child figured it out until each was 12 and in 6th grade, when my daughter overheard two careless moms discussing it at the bus stop and my son burst into tears when we took him aside and revealed the truth – afraid he was getting to be so old that his peers would make fun of him.  To deal with the end of the Santa era, we spent the following Christmas on a sailboat with almost no vestige of our usual traditions.  It didn’t feel like Christmas.  Last year, I breathed a sigh of relief as the effort to maintain the myth was gone.  But then, my children complained that the appearance of the gifts under the tree was no longer a magical surprise.  They begged us to do it after they were asleep on Christmas Eve.  Even though they’ve been inducted into the secret of Santa, they (and I) want to hang onto childhood secrets just a little bit longer.

So, this year, my daughter’s last Christmas before college, we set up our tree earlier than usual.  I did not complain about schlepping down the ornaments from the attic.  Well, that’s not true.  I did catch myself yelling at my son, as he brought down all the Other decorations from the attic, “Do we really need all that stuff?!” He calmly looked at me and said, “Yeah, Mom, we do.”  He proceeded to decorate the mantle and then put back the boxes.  I breathed and remembered my intention to be joyful and tried not to anticipate the chore of undecorating.

This weekend, I decided to tackle the stores one more time, because even though I got most of the stuff on their list, I did not get enough, equating quantity of gifts with quantity of love, never a successful equation.  I found myself braving the traffic, the parking lot, the lines, the people.  I went over the lists one more time.  And then, I stopped.  What can I give them that will be a delightful surprise?  What can I give them that will show them that I have listened to them?  That I care about making them happy?  That I love them?  Instead of diligently crossing items off the lists, I opened my eyes and found a few funny and sweet things that are not on their list.  Nothing big.  Nothing expensive.  Just something that I know they will appreciate.  After all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?  Finding light in the darkness, giving love to family and friends.  Creating traditions.  Sharing celebrations.  Honoring what is magical.  Even, perhaps, awesome.

I am going to set my alarm for 3 am, my usual pee-in-the-middle-of-the-night time, and sneak downstairs.  Stealthily filling the stockings and placing the gifts under the tree.  I’ll move the fireplace screen, to look like Santa’s been there.  I’ll make sure we leave Santa some incredible bitterdark chocolate as a special 3 am treat for myself.  I’ll sit and gaze at our beautiful tree that we decorated, together, with love.  I’ll sneak back into bed for a nap before magical, awesome Christmas morning.

Merry Christmas.

I Didn’t Love It

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The Glass Menagerie

Dare I tell you, Dear Reader, that I did not love Cherry Jones’ performance as Amanda Wingfield in Tennesse Williams’ The Glass Menagerie on Broadway Saturday night?

I am not a Williams aficionado and if I ever read or saw Glass Menagerie, I only have a vague notion of it.  But Ben Brantley’s review of the production during its initial run in Cambridge caught my eye.  He used words like “magnificent,” “benchmark performance,” and “momentous.”  I had to see it.  After all, I was an English major and I fancy myself a sophisticated theater-goer.  In my post-midlife enlightenment, so much now seems resonant with meaning that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger or don’t even remember.  Maybe it was time to discover Tennessee Williams.

I became mildly obsessed with seeing this production.  First, I flirted with trying to see it in Boston.  We were visiting schools – could I squeeze it in?  I didn’t make it a priority.  It didn’t happen.  Then I heard it was coming to Broadway, with opening night on my birthday.  I fantasized about going on opening night.  I didn’t make it a priority.  It didn’t happen.

When my husband asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I told him:  “I want to go see Glass Menagerie with you.”  It is rare that I am so specific with my requests.  I took this as a positive sign of my increasing comfort with my knowledge of who I am and what I want.  This led to an on-going discussion between us about gift-giving.  He wanted to give me something more permanent, like jewelry, to mark the occasion.  I was happy with a memorable, if ephemeral, experience.  Plus, what I really wanted was  recognition of my theater self and participation from him in my world of passions.  I have joined him in his world of passions.  Now I wanted him to join me.  I almost didn’t make it a priority.  It almost didn’t happen.  Opening night came and Ben Brantley gave it another stunning review, warning us “to be prepared to have the breath knocked out of you.”  It was going to be a sell-out.  I made it a priority.  We got one of the last few remaining tickets.

Good and compulsive English Major that I am, I decided I better read the play before seeing it so I would fully appreciate the production and the language.  I didn’t love it.  It was dated.  It was depressing.  (This from the woman who practically thrives on depressing and tragic.)  No matter, I reassured myself!  The production is magnificent and momentous with benchmark performances!  I even got a second opinion from Hilton Als in The New Yorker who praised the production.  I was finally going to see one of the greatest stage actresses of our time perform one of the greatest of roles.  Truth be told, I really wanted to see the handsome Zachary Quinto.  My husband was not psyched about seeing a depressing tragedy but he was psyched about seeing Spock.  Denying a hint of misgiving, off we went.

“Are you excited?”  He asked, eager for me to enjoy my ephemeral birthday outing.

“I am!”  I reassured him.  I was truly excited for a date in the city to dinner and the theater with my husband.

We had a not-great dinner at what was usually a reliable pre-theater restaurant.  Pre-theater is so taxing on restaurants.  It’s like a factory.  Get them in, feed them fast, get them out on time.  Oh well.  I mentally crossed that restaurant off my list.  Never again.  Too bad.  It had been a favorite of mine years ago.

We walked over to the theater, amazed at the Times Square crowds.  I am there every day, but Saturday night is a different experience entirely.  Filled with tourists being snookered by costumed mascots and street performers, we looked askance at each other.  “I guess the economy is improving,” my husband declared.

We got to the theater and took our seats.  Remember, they were some of the last seats available.  Still, when Quinto gives his opening monologue, we are seated so far to the right that we can’t even see him.  It takes a bit to acclimate to his southern accent, but no matter!  The words are poetry.  The set is spare, the lighting is beautiful.  When Cherry Jones enters, the audience applauds.  A diva has arrived.  I am anticipating the pleasure of experiencing a master of her craft at work.  Indeed, she is a master of her craft and that is the main thing I was aware of the whole evening.  Her presence was so enormous, her accent so thick, her tone so loud.  “Look at me act!”  was my general impression of her.  The reviewers credited her with interpreting Amanda Wingfield with more balance and nuance.  Really?  Balance and nuance?  It was not in abundance Saturday night.  Amanda is a narcissist who has monstrously damaged to her children.  Amanda is terrified of being old and poor.  Amanda is a struggling single mother who wants a better life for her children and is frustrated by their lack of a future that she deems worthy.  I would have liked to have seen some quieter moments where she turns her volume down and you see some love and some wisdom.  I found it in the play.  But it didn’t come across in her performance.  The main emotion from her was self-absorbed denial of reality.  Fortunately, Quinto was excellent, even though I didn’t like his southern accent.  For me, the stand-out performance of the night was given by Brian J. Smith as The Gentleman Caller.  The scene between him and Laura is one of the most touching almost-love scenes ever.

It was disconcerting to walk out of the theater and acknowledge:  I did not love it.  I wanted to love it.  I had primed myself to love it.  But I did not love the show.  I did not love the play.  I did not love the performances.  I was not beyond tears as Ben Brantley was.  What was the matter with me?  I am so eager to identify myself as esoteric, to revere the classics and to trust the critics (they are experts after all).  But I don’t really love the classics.  Tedious and boring.  Written by men mostly.  I prefer contemporary works, by women.  I recognize the characters and can identify with their situations.  I don’t have to work to remember.  It sinks more naturally into my psyche.

Maybe Ben Brantley performed Tom when he was in high school.  Maybe he has a nostalgic soft spot for the play.  Maybe he has seen it so many times that the anticipation of the poetry and the emotion moves him to tears.  Not me.  At least not Saturday.

Nothing is the matter with me. Cherry Jones gave an overwrought performance and the play is dated.  Moving, but dated.  Time to move on and acknowledge that I don’t really love the classics.  What I do love is that I am excited about this growing confidence building in my gut.

I did not love the dinner nor the show, but I did love the evening, a memorable and not-so-ephemeral birthday gift.

Photo Credit:  Michael J. Lutch

“What Do You Want?”

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Love Under the Christmas Tree

“What do you want for Christmas?” my husband asks.  And asks.  Gently but persistently.  All month long he has been asking.  I have not answered.  Except to say:  “Nothing.  I don’t want anything.”  But that is not a satisfying answer.  It is not a fair answer to someone who truly wants me to be happy and to contribute to my happiness.  Being in a relationship means learning to receive gifts of love, however they may come, openly and appreciatively.

My first instinct is to wonder what SHOULD I want?  What is the right answer to this question?  What does he want to give me that will satisfy his desire to give me something, his obligation to give me something suitable for Christmas, without putting him out too much?  (God forbid I should actually ask for something complicated.)  I could pick out something and he could manage the transaction and have it waiting for me under the tree.  Certainly, there are many beautiful things that would fall into this category.  So many beautiful things that I am paralyzed with indecision.  For my choice represents me.  What if I make a mistake and choose badly, choosing something that is not who I am, not who I want to be, not who he wants me to be?  What if that necklace is too conservative for the more free-flowing person I wish I were and maybe will become…someday?  What if that red leather tote is not the right size or is too heavy and he spends all that money and I never use it?  Why is stuff so expensive anyway?  Besides, I tend to buy what I need and then not want to spend the money on the extra luxury enhancements.  After being downsized and laid off, I have a new appreciation for being able to pay the mortgage.  Keeping the house and sending the kids to college are my financial priorities.  Skip the jewels and the luxury items.  Just as the first bite is the most delicious, so it is with stuff.  It’s shiny and beautiful at first and then…it’s just more stuff.  It’s not what makes me happy.

Every year I feel the pressure to create a fulfillable wish list while fulfilling everyone else’s wish list by deadline.  It’s exhausting and I am not very cheerful about the process.  One season my husband had an aha! moment and announced that he had figured out why I didn’t like Christmas.  (Aside from the fact that it is a burdensome amount of work especially if you are keeping up with Santa.)  It was because I didn’t have anyone to play with and share toys with on Christmas Day as a child.  Wow, that was a profound observation from someone I don’t always give credit to for noticing.  But who knows me better (at least when I let him)?  As an only child, I received many gifts.  Many gifts appropriate for a girl of my age at the time.  And after I opened my last gift one year, I remember having an overwhelming feeling of “Is that it?”  Christmas was over.  No more presents.  No one to play with.  Back to being alone.  Indeed, why would anyone enjoy that?

So, what do I really want for Christmas?  (And will I have the courage to ask for it?)

I want to be loved for me.  I don’t want to be alone.  I want to look into the eyes of my husband and feel love and the joy of having a partner.  I want my children to be happy, healthy, safe and secure – in an increasingly frightening world.  I don’t want my anxieties and neuroses to ruin Christmas for them.  I want to feel there is purpose in my life, our lives, and to feel there is meaning in this world.

It is a strange holiday for me.  I was not brought up to be Christian.  I am not Christian.  Yet I was brought up with Christmas.  How can I create a holiday with my family that is a holy day?  Christmas is beautiful.  The music elicits goosebumps; the lights and the candles offer hope that the dark days will grow bright and long again; the cooking and eating of special food brings us together; and then there are the gifts under that magical tree, decorated with ornaments that we chose for our family life together.  We want to give gifts that show our loved ones that we know them and delight in them and want to make them happy.  Christmas is a time to pause from the relentless pace of our everyday lives and reflect on what is meaningful and to connect with the people we love.

It is not just stuff under the tree.  There is love under the tree, to be given and received.

Here is what I want for Christmas this year:

  • A family photo shoot
  • Ballroom dancing lessons with my husband
  • A sacred place in my house to practice yoga
  • New pajamas (My favorite set has seen too many menopausal night sweats and is threadbare from being washed too many times.)
  • Tickets to just about anything – dance, theater, music.  I love all performing arts and don’t get to see enough of it.
  • Free flowing jewelry, because someday, someday, I will be a less careful and a more free flowing woman.
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