A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

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The World of Holiday Greetings Has Changed

For the last several years, a friend and I have gotten together every December to address Christmas cards and catch up over tea. She still writes at least two dozen, while my output has dwindled to less than 10.

I used to love Christmas cards. I tended to indulge in the expensive ones printed on high quality paper, the ones with artistic designs or humorous sentiments. Sometimes I bogged down with signing them and getting them to the Post Office, but I always got them out before New Year’s.

While doing business as Ellen Shriner Communications, I began handcrafting holiday cards to send to ad agency and marketing clients. Instead of dropping off clever client gifts or food treats (a common practice in the communications world), I made a charitable donation in my clients’ honor and hoped the cards would remind clients about my creative work. I also sent the cards to close family and friends.

Every year, I wandered the aisles of the now-defunct Paper Depot and let the stamps, vellums, fine cotton card stock, and gorgeous imported papers inspire me. For a month, I holed up in my office planning, writing, printing, cutting, gluing, and assembling 50-60 cards. Many years, I made several versions because I was attracted to multiple ideas, and it was fun to experiment.

The card with red ribbon involved dried flowers from my garden. For the one on the far right, I drew ornaments in watercolor. For the one in the center, I hand cut starbursts with an Exacto knife so the gold vellum would show through.

By the end of 2010, I was winding down my business and had accepted a hospital marketing job. I could have continued making the cards for family and friends, but handcrafting cards no longer gave me as much pleasure, and the world of holiday greetings had changed.

For many people, sending Christmas cards had become just one more thing on a long To Do list. Friends and family were relieved to let go of the tradition. Often the cards I received seemed to be guilt-induced (Dang! She sent me one. Now I need to reciprocate), and I didn’t want to cause that discomfort.

For me, Christmas cards had been a way to stay connected with out-of-town family or friends I rarely saw. Often the cards summed up how the year had gone, and that ritual reflection felt worthwhile.

Now a yearly missive is less important. Calling is so cheap and immediate that the most important people in my life already know what’s going on. As a writer, I’m at the keyboard most days and can dash off a quick email to friends. Social media has made it easy to stay in touch with an extended group of people.

Maybe one day I’ll rediscover the creative fun of playing with fine papers, glue, and an Exacto knife. But this year, I’ll sign a few store-bought cards and write a handful of personal notes. Of course, nothing replaces visiting in person, especially over a cup of tea!

To all of our blog readers: the WordSisters send lots of affection and appreciation for our connection. Happy Holidays!

Santa and the Spirit of Christmas (Spoiler Alert!)

We began an elaborate hoax when our sons were toddlers. Santa lived with his elves in a toy shop at the North Pole. He drove a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer. Somehow Santa brought presents for kids all over the world all in one night. Sometimes I wondered why I was perpetuating the myth, when I would just have to explain it away later.

As little guys, our sons couldn’t distinguish make believe from so-called reality. There was God, who they couldn’t see or understand, Power Rangers who got rid of bad guys, and Barney, a singing purple dinosaur. Why not Santa? Plus, the fiction was bolstered by family, at daycare, in stores, and by songs, movies, and books. The idea of Santa would have been hard to resist, especially since their friends and neighbors were also being indoctrinated. But when it came right down to it, we likedthe idea of magic and spreading joy.

So, we were committed. When the boys mentioned toys they liked, we took note and occasionally reset expectations (Santa brings presents to so many kids. He probably can’t give 160-piece Lego sets to everyone.) We hung stockings and filled them with never-seen-before candy on Christmas Eve after the guys were asleep. Along with the wrapped gifts from us, we set out unwrapped gifts from Santa. We encouraged the boys to leave cookies and milk for Santa. My husband and I enjoyed the cookies, but left one with a bite out of it along with a thank you note from Santa. Christmas felt magical.

Eventually, our sons grew older and began to wonder if Santa was real. Then I explained that Santa was make believe, but the spirit of Christmas isn’t. At Christmas, many people are more generous, more loving, and act better than they have to. Over the years, people have done incredible things in the name of Christmas, like the Christmas Truce of World War I in 1914. As part of my explanation, I also swore my guys to secrecy. They were under strict orders not to tell their friends what they had learned—they should let other kids’ parents explain it. Our sons understood the responsibility and wanted to help keep the magic alive.

I don’t know how our sons will handle the topic of Santa if they have children, but if they carry on the tradition, I’ll be a willing co-conspirator.

Thinking About Good Friday

 

Tomorrow is Good Friday, an important day in the Christian Holy Week, which culminates in Easter Sunday, but I won’t be going to the services. Although I have spiritual beliefs, I am not an active participant in a formal religion. It’s odd to feel the pull of a religion I no longer practice.

As a Catholic grade-schooler, on Good Fridays, I spent the hours between 12:00 and 3:00 p.m. in church in a vigil with Jesus while he suffered on the cross. Even if I summoned all of my imaginative powers, I could barely conceive of the pain. Was the crown of thorns like a skinned knee but a thousand times worse? Would having a spike through your hand be like the time my sister stabbed my hand with a meat fork while we were fighting about the dishes? (I don’t recall what I did to her, but I’m sure it was just as bad. Or worse.)

To better appreciate the sacrifice Jesus had made for us, I tried to imagine how miserable he was, but I had so little concept of real pain that torture was beyond my understanding. Instead, I squirmed in the oak pews, kneeling up straight, then slouching, then straightening up, trying to do better for Jesus. If he could be crucified, I could at least kneel up straight for a few hours.

At 3:00, the church bell tolled for Jesus’s death. Our teachers told us that in Jerusalem on the day Jesus was crucified, the earth quaked and the temple curtain was torn. That day, there might even have been an eclipse that darkened the earth for a while. Solemnly, I walked out of church into the sunny afternoon, relieved that the Stations of the Cross and vigil were over, but too respectful to say so.

After church, I was subdued and at loose ends at home. It didn’t seem like I should just play like I always did. Ride bikes, tag, Barbies. For a while I hung around the house. By suppertime—tuna noodle casserole, or fish sticks with tartar sauce, or maybe baked halibut steaks—life felt back to normal. The next day was Holy Saturday, a lighter day when my family would hard-boil and dye eggs. Maybe I’d try on my new Easter dress and shoes and look forward to wearing them to Mass.

More than fifty years later, Good Friday is a nearly normal day. Most businesses are open and people are shopping for their Easter meals, hoping to beat the Saturday-before-Easter crowds.

Despite my nonreligious ways, I often feel a twinge on Good Friday.  At 3:00, I might glance at the sky to see if the sun is darkened and think of Jesus.

 

Not a Grinch, But . . .

Christmas shopping used to be fun. When our sons were small, my husband and I took the afternoon off, went out to lunch, and shopped for toys, books, and art supplies. We had fun imagining how delighted the guys would be, and on a weekday, the stores weren’t crowded. By dinnertime we were done. We hid the loot before the guys got home, pleased with our covert operation. Now that our sons are adults, we still enjoy buying them gifts, but we can complete our shopping with a few online orders.

I’m not religious, but I dislike the way Christmas has become such an excessive retail event. Besides shopping, every service imaginable has jumped on the holiday bandwagon—you need to get your carpet cleaned, ponder exciting new holiday recipes, and manage your holiday stress with a spa treatment. I even heard an ad about having your furnace ducts cleaned for the holidays! Huh?

I recall that spending in the name of Christmas offended my father, too. He wanted to “Keep the Christ in Christmas.” Mom agreed with the religious sentiment, but she loved the gift-giving and special food associated with Christmas. As a girl, I wished Dad’s opinion hadn’t put a damper on our pleasure in the festivities. Like Mom, I enjoyed the party aspect of the holidays.

Now I’m more sympathetic to Dad’s views about gift giving. It isn’t about the money. I still like giving gifts to other people. But I’ve gotten increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of making a list of what I want. There’s so little I need. The process feels foolish and self-indulgent.

teapotThis year, my husband and I have made a pact to refocus our efforts. We’ll still give each other small gifts—it is fun to open something on Christmas morning. Whatever else we would have spent can be devoted to something else. For him, it may be donations to causes he cares about. For me, the focus will be emphasizing experiences more than things. I’m asking our sons to take the same approach with me. For example, since I like tea, I could have tea at a teashop with one of our sons, and maybe he’ll buy me half a pound of special tea.

I’m not prescribing this approach for anyone else—I vividly recall how Dad’s views affected me—but this simpler approach appeals to me. By refocusing our efforts, I hope to reclaim the joy of Christmas giving.