Christmas Lists

I know that Thanksgiving is two days away and that today marks a month until Christmas. Still, I continue to exist in a state of denial. Maybe it’s because I enjoyed the summer so much this year, and fall–while still my favorite season–just sort of crept in without my knowing it. Now it seems as though time is passing by faster than I’d like.

Still, getting into the holiday spirit wasn’t hard for advertisers, it seems. I can picture company ad executives just chomping at the bit for November 1st, as it seems that holiday avertising trumps all things Thanksgiving-related anyway.

The other night, Paul and I were enjoying a lazy evening on the couch, watching TV. Among the numerous commercials advertising Black Friday specials (on Thursday, mind you), one commercial stuck out at me. It was an ad for a fancy espresso maker that cost something like $150. Don’t have the cash? No worries, just buy it on a payment plan, and pay only $12.50 per month for a year!…Or something like that. I started thinking about how many people are going to fall for it, thinking it’s such a great deal, and how much stuff they would likely buy in this same frame of mind.

I used to have absolutely no issue making a Christmas list. My favorite thing to do when I was young was to chuck open the latest JC Penny catalog or Toys R Us gift guide and go to town, circling my selections with a giant highlighter. I would dog-ear the pages and make lists for my parents, and then I would anxiously wait for Christmas morning to see what gifts Santa had felt fit to bring. Creeping down the stairs and taking in the vista of gifts before me was a magical feeling.

Years later, I find myself thinking about what made those Christmas mornings so special. Sure, I enjoyed tearing through the gifts under the tree. But was it really the gifts I ended up cherishing, or the memories we made as a family?

I can smell the coffee brewing; I can hear the bacon popping (my dad always made it in the microwave). If I think about it hard enough, I can even taste the slightly burned bacon (crispier was always better, anyway). I never became a coffee drinker, and I rarely eat bacon now, but every time I catch a waft those two smells, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia washes over me.

Inevitably, I would put some new toy on my wish list with complicated assembly instructions. So, my poor dad (whom I awakened with my mom before 6 AM, most likely) and I would spend hours putting together Mouse Trap and the latest Barbie Dream House.

What did I cherish most, in the end? Playing with the toy or the jokes and funny stories we must have told each other while putting it together?

This year, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I want for Christmas, and I have found over the past couple of years, the things I want most can’t be placed on a list. There is no catalog for the things I want. No gift guide to thumb through and circle; no page numbers to write down. I can’t send my list to Santa because the things I want are not tangible.

I want time. Time with my dad, trading funny stories. I want his advice on certain things in life that only he could give, and unfortunately, I will never get it. He didn’t always tell me what I wanted to hear, but he always told me what I needed to hear.

I want time with my mom where I am not thinking about the empty seat at the table.

I would love to have an argument with my dad about political topics even (he was quite conservative). And really, that’s saying a lot.

At any rate, as I watched this commercial imploring people who cannot afford a $150 coffee maker to go ahead and buy it anyway, I found myself thinking about how focused we get on the things that ultimately don’t really matter. Gifts are supposed to be fun, and things that you buy for other people you care about because you want to, not because you have to.

Sometimes, less really IS more.

I don’t know where the toys and clothes and other things I accumulated over the years ended up (well, that’s a lie – I am fairly certain my parents hoarded them away in boxes, but that’s a completely different story). But, I certainly carry the memories with me every day.

Waffle-ology

Maybe it was 2003, or it could have been 2004. Regardless, around that time, my college boyfriend introduced me to a little TV show called Ed. We would eat pizza dip that his mom fixed and watch new episodes each week. The series didn’t last long (for some reason, most of the shows that I enjoy, even now, don’t seem to make it long term), but I quickly became invested in its quirky sense of humor and idealistic approach toward love. After all, it makes total sense to go back to your hometown, open up a bowling alley/law office and pine after your high school sweetheart (conveniently still living there, obviously).

In one scene, Ed went to the aforementioned sweetheart’s house and threw frozen waffles at her window (the other five people out there who might be reading this will surely remember the back story here). Why do I remember this in such detail? For whatever reason, this became some totally unrealistic standard of romantic gestures. Let’s be realistic – how many people do you know who have actually thrown waffles (or any other frozen object, for that matter) at their beloved’s house? First, waffles are too tasty to waste (depending on the quality of the waffle). Second, while I guess it’s slightly less stalker-ish than blasting Peter Gabriel at someone’s window, throwing anything at someone’s house (at least in my neck of woods) is sort of asking for a call to the police.

No matter – when you’re young, and your biggest problem is whether or not you’ll make enough in tips at your waitressing job to cover your cell phone bill, this sort of gesture was a high bar for future relationships. I guess it wasn’t surprising – we are inundated with this sort of unrealistic expectation regarding love and relationships every day. In the movies, on the radio, online, and of course on TV.

Here’s the truth – in a way, wanting grand, undying and passionate love is admirable and something to strive for. Everyone deserves to really, truly love and to be equally loved. However, it’s unlikely to come via waffle.

Instead, love – and really, I don’t mean to refer only to the romantic sense of love, but bear with me – is insidious. It creeps up on you. It sneaks in with small gestures and with large acts of selflessness. In order to really appreciate it, we need to be realistic.

This is why I find shows like The Bachelor so irritating. Sure, it can be entertaining, if that’s what you’re into. But I can’t really fathom that anyone could believe the show is anything OTHER than entertainment. Love isn’t sustained by pomp and flash. We might be a lot happier if we all got regular all-expenses paid vacations to tropical islands, but at some point, real life has to go on.

Here’s what happens when it does – you find out in no short order that life can be beautiful and devastating all at once, and there are two truths here.

The first is that you can only ever REALLY depend on yourself – and I don’t mean because you can’t depend on your friend or your husband or your father. I only say that because life isn’t fair, and sometimes the person you look up to and have depended on all of your life can be taken away rather suddenly. One unyielding truth about love is that you must first appreciate and love yourself, because you will have to get yourself through many difficult situations in life. You can have all the love and support in the world, but ultimately, you have to decide to (fill in the blank with the act of your choice) get up in the morning and go on living life.

That being said, love really and truly won’t let you do this alone. Love waits for you to decide that you want to pick yourself up, and it offers you a hand when you’re ready.

In the past two years, I have learned this. I have also learned that love has many facets – sometimes, it’s literally cleaning up the crap of the person you love. Don’t ask how I know this. Love doesn’t hesitate to put its hand in the dirt.

But love can also cut deep. When you have been through the wringer, very often you hurt. Sometimes, the people you love the most feel the fallout – maybe it’s more that you want someone to hurt WITH you more than it is that you actually want to HURT them. Regardless, love can be painful. Sometimes you have to put your own goals and dreams aside because, as we all know, life often doesn’t seem to cooperate with our plans. Maybe you put your dreams aside in order to care for someone you love.

It’s not guaranteed that person will be able to return the favor, but love will try.

You’re the Problem

When you have a goal, how do you measure progress?

In my personal and working life, I tend to be goal oriented. I like to have well defined, measurable goals and an idea of how to mark my progress toward those goals. I don’t need someone to hold my hand, and I prefer not to be micro-managed. I much prefer for someone to tell me what they want and when they expect it, and then let me do it. Consistency is my safe, happy place, and I tend to get flustered and somewhat crotchety with change. My dad was the same way. Every time I can recall ever needing his help with something, I got the same response, “Just tell me what you need.”

Recently, I accomplished a short term goal of running 5 miles in the Bull City Race Fest. When I picked up running again back in the summer, I thought I was pretty bad ass when I was able to run five full minutes again. At the time, I just wanted to make it through the Couch 2 5K app and call it a day. As I progressed in my fitness and stamina, I began to actually enjoy running again. As I’ve written here before, pounding the pavement with just my legs and my music became somewhat addicting. That’s not to say that every run was easy, but most were enjoyable. I found the more I got into running, the more I got the same high I get after a great ride on my horse – the high of not thinking about anything else in the world except what I am doing right at that moment. It’s really a high of nothingness – just being purely in the moment. Since I am always thinking, rushing and planning, I value these moments – this time of nothingness.

On my horse, it could be focusing on not collapsing my hip so I can achieve a perfect leg yield, or it could be working to ensure that I sit back and patiently wait for my horse to jump instead of attempting to get ahead of myself (which I often do). When I’m running, it’s all about just putting one foot in front of the other, literally. Sometimes, I think about my alignment – making sure that I don’t swing my foot out too wide and hurt my knee. Or making sure that I keep picking my feet up for a clear stride even when I’m tired. Other than that, it’s just me and the road and my music.

Riding and running goals are very measurable and allow for constant progress. In riding, you never stop learning. I’ve been riding for 11 years, and I feel like I’m just now scratching the surface of learning to ride effectively.

In jumping, you can set your goals as high as you’re willing to jump. I’ve set a low bar and consider any time I come away from my jumping lessons still on the horse a wonderful achievement. However, the same goes for dressage, my other passion in riding. I can measure my progress and how well my mare and I are doing by competing from level to level and determining if our scores are on the right track. Similarly, running allows for endless goal setting – now that I have accomplished the 5 mile race, I’ve set my sights on the Tar Heel 10 Miler next April, which seems reasonable. Who knows – maybe this time next year, I can aim for the half-marathon. Never did I think that would be possible, and now it doesn’t seem so unfathomable.

And yet, I am back to my original question, this time with a twist.

When you have a goal, how do you measure progress – when the outcome is nebulous?

What do I mean by this?

Like I said, certain activities and goals in life are solid, well defined – easy to assess progress and whether or not you ultimately achieve your goal. Either you showed you horse at First Level and achieved your goal of scoring 65% or not. Either you ran the entire 5 mile race without walking or you didn’t. This suits people like me who thrive on consistency and a definite outcome.

After my injury, there was no question that I wanted to get back to being 100%. My goal was to speak and feel as if I had never been injured. I thought for sure I could accomplish this in six months. After all, I am young, in decent physical shape, and more than that – I work hard when I want something.

When that “deadline” came and went, I set my sights on a year. The twelve month mark seemed do-able; moreover, it was a very neat, clean timeline. As if my body would re-set itself after a year like the calendar re-sets every New Year’s Day.

Clearly, I wasn’t being realistic, and I wasn’t being fair to myself. It took me a long time to realize that other, more meaningful milestones were passing me by as I kept my focus so very narrow. I thought setting the goal to return to 100% was admirable, but in reality, I was setting myself up for disappointment if I never achieved it.

And what exactly is 100%, anyway? I guess it means different things to different people. But for a time, I was like Sisyphus – rolling my boulder up the hill every day and feeling run over every time I perceived myself to be making an error.

I finally realized that my problem, really, wasn’t my injury. It wasn’t my speech. It wasn’t the wonky sensory issues on my right side. It was me. When was I going to stop and let myself be enough?

When was I going to let life be enough?

I had a very striking moment of humility (again) yesterday. Paul and I went to a tasty local bakery for breakfast. Even though there was not much of a wait to order, there were no tables available. It was a cold, blustery day – fairly fitting for the first day of November – and our prospects for enjoying our biscuits inside were looking dim. As Paul opened the door to go outside and sit, I dropped the butter on my plate (it went crashing ceremoniously to the floor) and seemingly my ability to be a mature adult.

After muttering a couple of expletives (under my breath or so I thought), I made it clear to Paul that I did not want to sit outside. This was not the vision I had in my head when I suggested breakfast out on this gray November morning. Instead, I envisioned Paul and I sipping on hot chocolate at a cozy table, eating warm biscuits and watching the leaves dance outside – this reality did NOT match what I had wanted. I felt like a temperamental five year old.

As soon as we set our plates down outside, an older lady got up and stuck her head outside. “Come on inside, it’s too cold to sit outside, and we’re just leaving.”

I literally felt my head hang in shame at this act of kindness – perhaps they were really about to leave anyway, but it didn’t matter. I got the picture.

Reality – it doesn’t always meet our expectations. Actually, it frequently doesn’t. But mostly, we’re the problem when it doesn’t, because we have the choice of how to proceed when our goals or hopes don’t align with reality.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept, it just means we shouldn’t be so narrow in our focus. I will always strive to improve in whatever I do, and I’ll also always just be human and prone to imperfection. But, I will resolve to appreciate again the doors that have been opened for me.