“This is all your fault,” I mutter to myself in a low level simmer as I’m knee deep in boxes. I am talking to my husband, although he’s not home. But I’m talking to him alright. And maybe it’s better he can’t hear me. I’m not being nice. This dream of his, to move to a smaller, more streamlined house with more sunlight and solar heat and a smaller carbon foot print, well that’s just dandy. But now, as the designated pack mule for the family, sneezing repeatedly in foot thick dust in my son’s room and sorting through old baseball trophies and college applications that never got filled out, it feels a lot more like a labor camp. Prison labor. “In one more year we’ll be down to two kids,” he tells me. But as I pack up Tupperware and hold the tiny baby shoes of my twins, worried about where, in God’s name, we will store momentos in this new jewel box of a house, I wonder why I let him talk me into this. Like most Americans, we have too much stuff. Although we’ve moved nine times in 22 years of marriage—this being our tenth—the stuff keeps accumulating. Like a steady snowfall. How do we get all of these things in our lives? I’ve started being ruthless. When birthday party goodie bags come in, I stuff them in the trash in a flash. All those pencils and candies and plastic rings. Poof. Gone. I have a personal vendetta against birthday party goodie bags anyway. But as I combed through rooms and pared things down, putting them in piles for either a tag sale or giveaway or to keep, I began to feel a lightening of the load. My anger and resentment at doing this was dissipating. Maybe this wasn’t so bad after all. A new start. A fresh beginning. What would my children DO with all this saved stuff in the end? Would their spouses care about the third grade reading certificate? Would they? In the first year of our marriage, my husband and I headed to Beijing, China to live and teach at a school there. The quarters were rudimentary. All we brought were two large back packs of possessions, with a box shipped by sea that arrived much later. We’d left behind all that china and the wedding presents, the engagement ring with the diamond, fancy clothes and shoes. Our life together was stripped of “stuff.” And we’d never felt freer or happier. There was no encumbrance. It was a great way to start a marriage – you were forced to stand and deliver, to work it out and talk it out. There were no rooms to hide in, no stuff to obscure the important issues. Nowhere to shop, really. And after we’d built a solid foundation in that first year of marriage with one another, it felt wonderful to come back to the states and construct a nest together, although we would move that nest many times. What that year overseas taught me was how really little we actually need. How unimportant the silver bowl is, the tea set from Grandma or the cashmere throw you HAD to have. The one that has sat, neatly folded, for a decade over the back of a couch. One of my friends is moving too. She is sorting through all of the heirlooms that her mother has given her over the years and she’s decided she is going to pare them down to one thing. That one thing will be representative of all of the others; all of the relatives, all of the past, all of the demitasse spoons and candle snuffs. Whether it’s a vase or a tray or something that we don’t always find a need for in our modern every day life, she will choose one thing and she has vowed to use and appreciate it. So after muttering, now I’m embracing more. Through all that dust and clutter and sorting and activity I’ve seen the light. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the edited approach we need to adapt for our own lives. And so I’m editing. And editing. And I’m lightening the load.
Yawn. The alarm goes off for the first time in months. Ive gotten so used to sleeping i these last two weeks while my kids have been off this is no fun. Between this, the menopause, the mid-life poor sleep, the snoring husband, the son home from college making a ruckus till all hours and the damned dog in my bed, I feel fatigued before I've even begun the day. There is nothing like breaking out of a routine. Every body needs that. And every BODY needs that. But that lucious unstructured time at night watching movies with the kids or long luxurious meals with no one scooting away to do homework. I miss it already. I am mourning it this morning. For two weeks I slept and ate. I didnt worry about exercise or being somewhere exaclty at a particular time-- most days anyway. It was glorious. This is what it must feel like to be Paris Hilton's monther. I hear donce that she sleeps till 11:00 am every morning. Someone had asked if she could help with a school carnival and when she found out the early time required, she had to decline. Maybe that's one of those urban legends but it still cracks me up. On the other hand I'd hate that. As much as I'd love just a few more hours of sleep, i love my routine in the end. I love being the first one up, the dark house, the early morning routine. I love pressing the button on the coffee-maker and pouring that first, milky cup. Vacations are vacations because they are a break from the routine. They come just in time to rescue us from ourselves and to remind us why they are so special. So forgive yourself this week and you ease back into the routine after new years. And break a few resolutions-- just because you can!
This article appears in the December issue of Woman's Day Magazine:
The Best Christmas Ever
The kids were asleep, or at least faking it, as my husband and I pulled presents out of well-worn hiding places and stacked them under the Christmas tree. One after they other, out they came, wrapped in my cheap dime store paper. Some had my “Santa “ writing on little tags, others were designated with a black plain black marker.
I’m one of those Moms who buys Christmas present in July. But the problem with that is sometimes you forget how much you have. I had gone way over-board this year. There were lots of little things, nothing truly expensive. But by the time we finished unloading the stash it was an embarrassment of riches.
The next morning my kids’ eyes popped out when they spotted the tree. And as our slow, methodical way of opening them dragged on, even the younger ones lost enthusiasm for the pile. I snuck a few unopened presents away to stash for their birthday in April. So what if they were wrapped with snowman paper? I was practical and thrifty.
It wasn’t my kids who had asked for lots of stuff. This was me, trying to make it the best Christmas ever, hoping to add yet another wonderful remembrance to the family memory bank. “How did we get here?” I wondered, looking at the dozens of useless items strewn around the room.
When I thought back, my best Christmas ever had been the complete opposite of this past Christmas of excess. It had been the very first one my husband and I had spent as a married couple. Bob and I had just been married in the fall of 1988 and had moved to Beijing, China where he was teaching and I was working. Our “home” was a simple concrete dorm room with twin metal beds pushed together and no drinkable water in the bathrooms. We’d arrived in China with backpacks and had mailed a few boxes of other supplies by sea, which showed up months later. As the holidays approached, we realized we had no decorations, nothing in this communist country to make us feel like home. Both of us missed our families terribly. It would be the first Christmas each of us had spent away for them.
The week before Christmas, a box arrived from Bob’s mother packed with some practical items we’d requested like cereal, a warm vest and some tall flip flops to avoid the group bathroom’s filthy floors. Nestled between these gifts was an eight inch high, fake Christmas tree, complete with mini ornaments. Pulling the tree out of the box and unwrapping it, my heart soared. When an American couple at the school gave us an Amy Grant Christmas tape for our boom box, we had all that we needed.
I don’t remember what, if anything, I gave Bob or he gave me. It was a time in our life when we needed few possessions. We had nothing, just one another and the new foundation of marriage we were building. Our first four months in this very foreign land had been difficult in so many ways and magical in others. We had come to rely on each other, respect and love one another without the usual newlywed distractions of the brand new house, sparkling engagement ring, wedding presents, circle of friends and family in which to confide or vent.
I can still picture the room that Christmas morning in 1988 when we awoke. The song “Tennessee Christmas” will always take me back to that holiday, where we lit a candle under that miniature tree and played the Christmas tape that has now become part of our annual family ritual.
The little tree is still in our ornament box. Battered from having moved so much, it’s branches have opened and shut like a parasol for the last two decades. For the past five years, I’m not sure it has even been unpacked, so voluminous are our decorations.
In reaction to this past holiday, I have decided to make that little tree the centerpiece of our holiday this year. I will tell the story of that first Christmas to my children, explain to them that although there were no presents to unwrap, the gift to each other was the beginning of our family, the understanding that the best was yet to come as our life together stretched before us. This year there will be fewer items under the tree and more of the gifts that really count; love, music, togetherness, home-baked cookies, less rushing and more cherishing.
Of course, real life being what it is, it may not happen exactly the way I envision now in the months leading up to the holidays. But just the thought of slowing us down, of focusing on the simplicity and meaning of that little tree, rather than what lies under it may bring back some of the magic that the holidays offer to the very young and the very in love. I want to teach my children that the best gifts are the things we say and do for one another, the moments we can remember and hold in our minds long after the present has passed. These are the greatest treasures of families throughout the world, the gifts that evoke the magic of that long ago, very first tree.